Tag Archives: 4.0 Star Movies

King of Devil’s Island (2010)

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‘Scum’ in early 20th-Century Norway. You look into the faces of the boys in ‘King of Devils’ Island’‘s brutal borstal and you see a lack of warmth and hope that approaches a living death. Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of this grim correctional program and hard disciplinarian, fancies himself gentler than some. That may be so, but still, none of his actions make you think he cares in the least for his charges. His self-proclaimed righteousness and stern kindness is the method he uses to get himself to sleep at night.

Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is the new kid. He is a burly young tough who immediately tries to buck the system, and who is especially considered a risk to the collective because he is not a thief or a vandal, like most of the boys, but a murderer. He arrives with a split lip from a scrap with the police and a bad attitude, and the staff is determined to break him.

After some deliberation, Erling befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen,) who has been at the center since he was eleven and is determined to be released for good behavior. But how can one maintain poise and dignity when the system is beating free will and individuality out of you? Problems spring up in the form of Bråthen (Kirstoffer Joner) an aide with a predilection for young boys.

Erling and Olav know  Bråthen is molesting Ivar (Magnus Langlete,) thought to be a bit simple by the students and the staff, in the laundry room. But they can’t prove it. When life as the borstal becomes unbearable, and their extended days of hard labor and abuse interminable, Erling decides to fight back. Things can only get so bad before there’s a breaking point, and Erilng rallies the boys and raises a whole lotta hell in a outburst of enraged rebellion that no one will soon forget.

The King of Devil’s Island is a bit standard in layout for prison-slash-social injustice movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. All the actors give outstanding performances, incuding Stellan Skarsgard, who chills you as a man who is thoroughly convinced of his own moral superiority. He’ll fix the boys’ bad attitude yet, he insists, but you can’t fix where you destroy.

He also covers up Bråthen’s pedophilic behavior, misuses school funds, and accepts payoffs. On the surface he can seem like a stern father figure, even reasonable, but underneath his guise of a concerned righteous man lies a man who doesn’t give a damn about any of the kids under his care. To him they’re already hoods who have ruined their lives and others’, why should he give a shit?

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The tension escalates and the characters are decently developed to the point where you are actually invested in what happens next, an important facet of any film. The film’s color palate is all bleak blues and greys and dusty off-whites,reinforcing the grim, and more importantly cold, feeling of the visuals and sets. We are in the midst of a savage Norwegian winter, after all, and the boy’s ongoing pain and discomfort is put nakedly on display.

Racism and rampant unfairness is portrayed here, in a very similar way to Alan Clarke’s British Borstal film Scum (one member of staff insists that a young teen can’t wash the ‘Gypsy smell’ from his flesh,) and we really get the oppressive atmosphere here, the sense of being pushed to the edge by terrible  living conditions and sadistic authority figures. You can taste the rancid fish carcasses the boys shove into their mouths out of pure desperate hunger, feel the cruel Norwegian winter on your blue-grey skin. As much as you’d want to, anyway.

The film tells a timeless story (although it’s been told many times before,) and it tells it with powerful performances and visual verve. The lead’s jaw is set in a firm line of pain and hatred within the first few minutes, what have they made him by the ending? What kind of rehabilitation is this, where you beat and deprive someone to the point of starvation? It’s like squashing a flower and denying it sunshine while insisting it will grow.

Don’t let the subtitles frighten you off and deny you the chance to view a thoroughly well-acted,w ell-written, and well-shot foreign film. I hope Stellan Skarsgard’s name will attract more people to this interesting little project, and I hope it will jump start some deserving young actors’ careers. It’s not a pretty story (though how many Borstal films are a sunny affair?) but it’s worthy of the film lover’s time

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The Changeling (1980)

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Old houses are evil. But if I owned a mansion as nice as the one George C. Scott has in this movie, I’d take a chance on the vengeful child spirit. Scott plays John Russell, an unflappable musical composer coping with the unexpected death of his daughter (Michelle Martin) and wife (Jean Marsh.) Russell moves into a gorgeous old house intent on doing some work on his music and attempting to move on from his loss, but before you can say “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” strange and eerie things start happening in the mansion. Largely unperturbed, and aided by lady friend and love interest Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere,) John decides to investigate.

I won’t go into who haunts the house or why, because it would cheat you out of the experience of seeing the movie and finding out for yourself, but I will say The Changeling is an eerie (a bit too dated to be truly frightening) horror classic with a great deal of mystery. The best part was when John Russell finds a secret passage behind a wooden shelf in his closet that leads to a hidden room. That meant a great deal to me, because when I was a youngster I used to spend vast expanses of time searching for hidden panels and doors in my a hundred-year-old but strangely unexceptional home (I might have also been looking for a wormhole to Narnia, but let’s not focus on my childhood obsessions.)

The characters were a bit underdeveloped (John being weirdly nonreactive to the supernatural mayhem around him while Claire plays the role of the typical classic heroine, shrieking and fretting constantly until you want to tell her if she can’t deal with a little ghostly hi jinks, she needn’t get involved at all.) John’s motivations actually make a lot of sense; as a recently bereaved husband and father a suggestion of life after death should be a relief to him. He’s already experienced so much grief, more than he lets on, why should the spooky antics of a spirit not at rest break him? However, although George C. Scott does an amazing job balancing stoicism and unfathomable grief, his character left me a little cold. And I had no use for Van Devere’s shrieking woman in peril, who falls in little flat from the perspective of someone who has seen so many bad-ass women portrayed in movies, or at least women with something to do in the script except wail and tremble in abject terror.

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That said, I really do like The Changeling. It’s a classical ghost story with a lot of atmosphere; no gore or lurid shocks to be seen. If you like movies like The Others with Nicole Kidman (one of my favorites, and superior in many ways to the much-hyped The Sixth Sense,) you’ll like this.  I love that The Others in all likelihood borrowed the character idea of a elderly caretaker named Mr. Tuttle, a homage that none but the most perceptive horror fans will probably  catch. Although I feel sorry in a way for the wronged spirit, just a boy at the time of his death, I thought he acted a little harshly in punishing the senator (Melvyn Douglas,) indirectly related to his murder but still the only remaining opportunity to get revenge on a living person.

I really felt for Melvyn Douglas’ character, who discovers something no one should have to learn about their much-loved father. While Douglas is the ‘changeling’ of the title, he’s not as much a perpetrator as a fellow unfortunate who was nevertheless lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and achieve success, while the spirit languished and limbo and allowed his hate to grow.

  The Changeling isn’t really a horror movie of a keep-you-up-all-night variety, it’s low-key and dated and in  all actuality not terribly scary. On the other hand, if you like murder mysteries that will keep you guessing and that incorporate a creepy supernatural element, this movie is for you. It takes a somewhat old soul or fan of older horror to appreciate this; it isn’t for those that crave instant gratification or get impatient easily. It’s a mood piece, graced by the formidable presence of George C. Scott. But it will survive when the majority of modern fright flicks are forgotten in junkyards somewhere.

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The Wild Child (1970)

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During a short period in my late teen years, I had a offbeat interest in feral children and the behavior of kids forced to sink or swim in scenarios of extreme neglect. A strange obsession for a much loved, protected, and comfortably middle class white kid, but I’ve always been fascinated by abnormal psychology; how the mind works, or doesn’t work, depending on the situation. So I had had Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” for several years, bought during the peak of my feral child phase, when I impulsively picked it up and popped it into my DVD player.

I don’t know much about Truffaut, having only seen The 400 Blows years ago, and I always get him mixed up with Au Revoir Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart director Louis Malle. I was bored for the first few minutes of The Wild Child, but I quickly got into it’s modest but psychologically intriguing narrative. The Wild Child is not a sentimental film (certainly less so than The Miracle Worker, which it mirrors in many respects.) In some ways it has a clinical feel, but at the same time is empathetic to the characters and their motivations.

In the 18th Century, dedicated scientist Jean Itard (writer/director Francois Truffaut) takes on his hardest challenge yet: a dirty, wild, malnourished boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found in the woods of rural France. The boy, eventually named Victor, is taken to the School for the Deaf and Dumb where he is eyed and prodded by curious onlookers, actually becoming a spectacle for visiting Parisians.  Finally, when the people at the school tire of their dancing monkey and contemplate dropping the boy off at a institution for the incurably retarded, Itard takes charge and brings Victor to his home on the outskirts of Paris.

There Itard and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) set out to train the child to be a proper human being. But Itard becomes increasingly obsessed with indoctrinating Victor into civilization, taking his failures incredibly hard and busying himself with instructing his young charge with rewards, punishment, and earnest attempts to give  the kid a normal life. However determined Itard is, he still fails at the most rudimentary aspect of the boy’s education- treating him like a human child and not a science experiment. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to teach Victor language, and considers surrendering him to a potentially dreadful institution.

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  The Wild Child is based on the true story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron,’ and from what I understand it is fairly faithful to the facts. What the scientists, the townspeople, even Itard fail to realize is that Victor’s behavior isn’t that of a incurable crazy or an imbecile. The way Victor acts, emotes, and relates to people is quite normal for someone of his unusual upbringing. He doesn’t like wearing clothes; he never had to wear them in the wild. He doesn’t understand stairs. He abhors the idea of eating with a fork. Are these the traits of a moron? Of course not, he’s never had to do things differently. In truth, Victor’s ability to survive in the wild and hunt and gather from a very young age requires much more ingenuity than being a proper 18th Century Dandy, but the ‘normal’ upstanding citizens don’t see it that way. They just think he’s defective and stupid.

The boy who played Victor was an adolescent gypsy boy and nonprofessional actor; in truth, he often doesn’t appear to be acting. The child on which this movie is based is speculated to have been Autistic, it would explain why his parents rejected him  at a young age and tried to kill him (as evidenced by the scar on his throat) before driving him into the woods. Whether or not Victor has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or has just been deprived of a normal childhood and developmental milestones, Jean-Pierre Cargol displays one of the most natural, unshowy portrayals of severe Autistic-like behavior I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Victor watching this movie; it’s the obsessed, chilly Itard that comes off as weirdly alien. However, Itard’s sometimes harsh methods of behavioral modification is preferable to the alternative of being shackled up in a mental ward. It is Guerin who approaches Victor’s challenges with  the unconditional love of a mother. She is a catalyst to the unfeeling, judgmental Frenchmen who treat Victor like an animal and an outcast.

There aren’t a lot of close-ups or expressions of sentiment in The Wild Child, but it’s a great film for people with any interest in psychology whatsoever. Despite the lack of earth-shaking events, there’s a lot going on under the surface, in contrast to loud, big-budget movies that are ultimately hollow.  The main conflict involves Itard struggling to discover if Victor has a innate understanding of empathy and fairness, or if he only reacts as such because he’s been conditioned to. Whether what he finds out ultimately satisfies him is anyone’s guess. The Wild Child is a slow-moving film but those interested in sociology and the inner workings of the human mind should find a treasure trove of intriguing thoughts and ideas.

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Beasts of No Nation (2015)

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Poor Agu (Abraham Attah.) A young African boy caught up in a war on his own soil that American youngsters can neither understand nor comprehend, he is forced to commit unconscionable acts in order to survive. Fighting as a child soldier against a faceless enemy he has no real understanding of, Agu has little time to mourn the senseless slaughter of his family as he must prove himself to the charming and predatory Commandant (Idris Elba.) As he learns to be a fighter and a murderer, Agu must face the death of everything human in him, and his realization that being reunited with his remaining relatives is becoming increasingly distant and unlikely with each passing second.

Beasts of No Nation is based on a novel by the same title, which I bought on Amazon about a year prior but just couldn’t get into. People talk about ‘first world problems’ so much that it becomes kind of a cliche, but there is still a grain of truth to it. Growing up in America can be hard, unbelievably hard- drugs, mental illness, family strife, gang warfare, bullies, and poverty are just a few of the hurdles many American kids face every day, but there’s a marked difference between us and a kid like Agu. We know with some degree of clarity that we aren’t going to be invaded or have our homes destroyed in all-out war.  We don’t have to worry we will come home and find a crater where are house was, and piles of ash where the people we called ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ once stood.

The film adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s slim novel takes us into a world where safety is excruciatingly uncertain and the only thing between a relatively comfortable childhood and the wreckage of innocence is a group of soldiers keeping up a barrier between ‘home’ and ‘out there.’ This is done with somber immediacy, and held up to scrutiny by Attah’s haunting performance as a boy for whom tragedy becomes a long-standing part of himself. Attah’s astonishing dramatic turn makes his transformation from ordinary goofball preteen to psychologically broken casualty of war completely believable.

The violence in this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of stylized varnish or frills, the difference between this and a Quentin Tarantino movie is daunting, though both are worthy cinematic excursions in their own way. Pedophilia, carnage, wartime rape, and the mass killing of innocents are on naked display, and we see how thin a line there is between a normal person and a person who commits horrific acts is.

Sometimes, all it takes is a push for a everyday citizen, even a child, to act in self-interest and slaughter another human being. We are all just slightly advanced animals. Anyone who thinks we’re morally superior to wild creatures is either a fool or simply mistaken. Agu is not a monster, he does what he needs to to survive and we wonder how many of the men- boys, really- in Commandant’s troupe (many of which are participating in rape, child killing and other wartime atrocities) were just scared little kids unable to hold a gun at the beginning of this long, bloody war.

The script of this movie is incisive and well-written in that like Agu, we are never quite sure what is going on or who is fighting who. This deliberate vagueness gives the film a kind of disorienting feeling that was a good choice on the part of the filmmaker. The only connection to the white journalists and outsiders to this war is the people with cameras who snap pictures of Agu as he walks down a dirt road with an assault weapon. Agu returns their gaze with an appropriately uncomprehending look.

We see the brainwashing process- the pleading man Agu is forced to kill with a machete is obviously responsible for slaughtering his family, because why not? Agu is given drugs and groomed with smarmy words and bullshit political speeches. He is beaten senseless and molested by the Commendant. His only friend, the silent Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) feels for him but is in exactly the same position he is. We also see how the wealthy profit from a boy’s war, though exactly when and how we are unsure- like Agu, we are cast into an unfathomable situation with very little background information.

Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing movie, but it succeeds in making a conflict we hear about secondhand in the papers feel a little bit closer. Appropriately confusing, erratic, and sometimes downright unwatchable (in a good way,) the film will make you think and, cliched as it is, appreciate what we have in this country compared to what those in war-torn regions only dream of. Safety is relative (especially with the number of shootings in this country spiking) but Agu lives in a reality that, God willing, none of us will have to experience first hand.

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Child’s Pose (2013)

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Ah, to be rich, dysfunctional, and morally bankrupt. In Child’s Pose, Cornelia (Luminita Keneres), a wealthy Romanian divorcee,  yearns to exercise control over her adult son Bardu (Bogdan Dumitrache)’s life. Ironically, it is when tragedy strikes and Bardu kills a young boy with his automobile while speeding and tailgating another car that Cornelia gets the ultimate opportunity to mommy him back into her grasp.

The child, a fourteen year old, is from a low  income neighborhood, and his enraged uncle threatens violence against Cornelia and her son, exclaiming, “They don’t care about us.” Who is he referring to? The poor, of course, those not fortunate enough to employ maids to clean their posh apartments and wear nice clothing and jewelry. And the sad thing is, he’s mostly right.

The fussy Bardu cares more about the needle he is injected with proceeding the accident than the loss of the boy’s life, while for Cornelia, it’s never been about the child. She just wants to keep her apathetic rich kid son out of a slam me in the ass prison and reassert her role as #1 woman in his life. Passing bribes around like hot potatoes should do the trick, right?

It’s not until Corneila, Bardu, and Bardu’s young wife Carmen (Ilinca Goia) really encounter the boy’s grief stricken family face to face that they really understand the damage that has been wrought, leading to a fleeting moment of redemption. Because it was really about the kid all along, not the money, not the rich family’s dignity, not Bardu going to  prison. Bardu was negligent and that negligence cost another family their oldest child.

This moment; when Cornelia faces the victim’s grieving parents, is heartbreaking without being overwrought. as the encounter causes both Cornelia and the parents of the dead kid to break down in tears and defeat. Along with the social commentary plot (the gap between the rich and poor in Romania, and everywhere,) we see  just how much the horrid yet tragic Cornelia needs validation from her son, who responds with hatred and practiced apathy.

 Child’s Pose is a film for patient audiences, audiences who are content to see a story unfurl, not burst forth with a crackle and a pop. There is no violence, no insane plot twists, no special effects. Instead we get a look at a diseased mother son relationship with a few clues as to how it came to be that way. The actors knock it out of the ballpark, Luminita Gheorghiu gives a mesmerizing lead performance as a woman desperate for love from her child for whom life is a series of draining barters and exchanges.

He speaks with her eyes, her face remaining an impassive mask until the film’s final minutes. The beauty in this film is although the leads are horrible people, the ending gives them a glimmer of redemption. The performances also lend humanity to people for whom money is love, and love cash to be bartered.

The washed out colors provide a grim visual scheme, as the camera lingers on the character’s faces, waiting for a reaction, maybe an outburst, in their dull, listless faces. Who is the child of the film’s title? The dead boy? The baby Bardu shirks having with his frustrated wife? Or maybe Bardu himself is the child, unwilling or unable to face up to his actions. Maybe too much exorbitant wealth and not enough real life experience makes children of us all.

Nothing shocking or tawdry here, just good dialogue driven drama about the price of thinking that since you have money and social status, nothing can touch you. For 3/4 of the movie, the victim is hardly mentioned, his name merely whispered and followed by talk of dollars and debts. Remember when Jesus said ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to Heaven?’ I don’t pay much credence to these things, but the same is true here. But the corrupt, tangled family unit might be closer to heaven by the end of this movie than they were 112 minutes ago.

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A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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So, I just watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for the first time yesterday. For better or worse, it is magnificently unique; you’re unlikely to see anything else like it in your entire life. What really struck me wasn’t the story, though it was good, but the visuals and sets, which were outstanding. The backdrops to this bizarre tale are somewhere between Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and 70’s decor from hell.

Alex Delarge (Malcolm McDowell,) the antihero of “A Clockwork Orange,” likes to hurt people. It’s that simple, he rapes, assaults, and kills not for personal or fiscal gain, but simply because he can. What better way for a Ludwig Van Beethoven loving youth with an insatiable appetite for ultraviolence to spend his nights and weekends?

Delarge lives in a dystopian Britain filled with rot, decay, and futuristic gangs that like to rape women and beat the shit out of people. Alex is a proud member of such a gang: the self proclaimed leader of his ‘droogs’ (Alex and his friends speak in a slangy imaginary language which incorporates English and Russian,) he is simply content raising hell and causing trouble.

When Alex’s life of crime finally catches up with him, he is sent to prison (transitioning the film’s psychedelic backdrop, temporarily at least, to a more standard Borstal setting) and eventually winds up participating in a traumatic aversion therapy to cure him of his criminal impulses, winding up as timid as a puppy, an emotional eunuch repulsed by the very thought of violence.

“A Clockwork Orange” is a very long movie, 137 min., but it doesn’t seem to contain a bit of filler. It just has a really long story to tell. Malcolm McDowell (hard to believe he’s in his seventies now!) is chilling and creepily charismatic as a unrepentant sadist. His parents (Philip Stone and Sheila Raynor) don’t beat him or deprive him of his rights, but they really could care less whether he goes to school or what sadistic new pastime he picks up.

Is Mom and Dad’s bored apathy what has turned Alex into a monster? Children pick up quickly on whether they’re cared about or not, whether their teachers and parents legitimately give a shit about them or how they choose to wheedle away their days. But is the ultimate self absorption of parents and authority figures enough to make a psychopath? Alex, ever the charming beast, would be unlikely to care about these matters.

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Furthermore, Alex lives in a spectacularly self absorbed society that mirrors our own. This is taken to darkly comedic heights when the ‘cat lady’ (Miriam Karlin) tussles with Alex with a obscene phallic statue that’s apparently ‘an important piece of art.’ Alas, the poor wretched woman is crushed by it. What is it  Tyler Durden in Fight Club said? ‘The things you own end up owning you.’ And sometimes you’re bludgeoned to death by your own porcelain penis. An absurd demise you’d be unlikely to see in any other movie, ever.

Ironically, the prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley,) for all his off putting talk of fire and brimstone, is the only one in this world besides the sharklike, predatory Alex himself with any sense whatsoever. It is Quigley’s character who supplies the film’s message; you can’t coerce or manipulate anyone into being good. “Goodness comes from within.” They have beaten and brainwashed Alex into submission; what have they accomplished? You act in a kind and morally generous way because you want to, because you think it’s the right thing to do.

This lesson could be applied to organized religion; even if you tantalize a bad apple with tales of heavens’ spoils and frighten them with stories about a fiery hell, they will eventually show their rotten core. And naturally, Alex gets the last laugh, even while both political parties use him as a puppet for their own personal gain.

“A Clockwork Orange” is a culturally significant work, but it’s not for the extremely sensitive or those with weak stomachs. Furthermore, it’s definitely not for kids or impressionable teens. A triumph of visuals and sound mixing, it can be a little bit disturbing at times and deeply puzzling at others, but it’s become a cultural icon for a reason. Malcolm McDowell’s maniacally inspired performance seals the deal that though “A Clockwork Orange” is not a perfect movie, it’s a pretty damn good one.

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People Places Things (2015)

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Will Henry (Jemaine Clement) is a socially awkward graphic novelist and a native New Zealander living in New York whose world caves in the day of his twin daughters (Audria and Gia Gadsby)’s fifth birthday parties, when he heads upstairs during the festivities and catches his longtime girlfriend Charlie (Stephanie Allyne) banging her pudgy, affable lover Gary (Michael Chernus)

One year to the day, and Will is still feeling majorly bluesey in the wake of his big break-up. Reluctantly allowed to see his girls on weekends, Will is teaching graphic art at a local college but really doesn’t have his heart in it, preferring instead to immaturely lecture his students on why life, and people in general, totally sucks. Kat (Jessica Williams,) a blunt but good-natured student introduces the lonely Will to her attractive divorcee mother Diane (Regina Hall,) and after a rocky start sparks begin to fly.

However, Will still has feelings for his moody, fickle, and completely exasperating ex, who’s having doubts about her marriage to the girlfriend-stealing Gary, and Will must choose to get over his bitterness and self-doubt and find out how to best serve the interests of not only him, but also his daughters, and ultimately move on.

“People Places Things” is one of those little movies that has completely flown under the radar, and unless, of course, you have a soft spot for the Kiwi funnyman Jemaine Clement, you’re likely to go your whole life without hearing about it. This is a shame, because “People Places Things” is good and true in a way that few American films aspire to be. Will is a very believable character, sometimes delightful, sometimes infuriating, I found myself dubbing him a ‘loser’ over his immaturity and unprofessionalism and at the same time admiring his undeniable love for his kids and his creative spark.

This movie should be called ‘When Nerdy College Professors With Too Much Knowledge and Not Enough People Skills Fall in Love.’ The humor in “People Places Things” is not as much of the ‘laugh-til-you-cry’ variety and more wry, subtle, and oddly relatable, there are no huge happenings in this film and we don’t hold that against it in the least. There is a refreshing lack grand comic misunderstandings in the arguments between Will and his love interest, Diane, they are all messy disagreements that not only very often happen in the real world, they do, every day.

When Will and Diane first have dinner together, Diane callously dismisses graphic novels as an art form. This understandably miffs Will, it is important in a developing relationship for someone to care about the things we’re passionate about, or at least try to understand why we like them. They part on less-than-friendly terms, and the viewer patiently waits for their lives  to converge again, because, hey, maybe these two could have something here. After all, the majority of movie lovers start out on relatively shaky grounds.

The actors do an outstanding job with the material they’re given, and that includes the two child actresses, whose performances are smooth and unforced. They share a genuine comfortableness with Clement, a naturalism that makes us believe they are kin. Jemaine Clement plays a man for whom social skills do not come naturally without the over-the-top ‘geek’ theatrics of popular television programs like The Big Bang Theory and Chuck. He played a similarly awkward protagonist in Eagle Vs. Shark, but his Will is infinitely more relatable and more sympathetic than Eagle…‘s creepy, maladjusted Jarrod.

People Places Things is one of the relatively ‘small’ films that get ignored yearly in favor of bigger, more robust productions. For a bit of wry real-life observational humor, don’t let this charming little comedy pass you by.’

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Nightingale (2014)

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“Nightingale” is essentially a one-man show; you should know going in that David Owelowo is virtually the only actor in the film so you can avoid disappointment at not seeing a story play out in a more standard fashion. I payed no notice to Owelowo before seeing this movie, despite seeing him in some previous films, but I’ll make sure to keep a close eye on him now.

In this film he plays a homosexual, delusional ex-military man named Peter Snowden. Peter Snowden has been a bit of a mama’s boy most of his life; he is desperately at odds with her while still wanting her to see him for who he is and accepting him in earnest. Unfortunately,  his Conservative Mama only sees what she wants to see; his flamboyance, his limp-wristed sensibilities, and her Christian friends aren’t doing either of them any favors.

However, when Peter is first introduced to us, his mother is no longer in the picture, having been murdered by him in a fit of rage only hours before. Peter, psychotic and dangerous, essentially offers us a long monologue in the form of his video blog, telephone calls, and his back-and-forth conversations with himself (and sometimes with his murdered mother) as he prepares for a very special dinner party. His mother’s lifeless corpse is splayed out on the floor of her room, but that doesn’t put a damper on his plans or his overall positivity.

The ‘guest’ for the dinner date is Edward, an old army friend (a very close friend, if you get my drift *wink*) and the object of Peter’s unadulterated obsession. Perhaps Edward is long dead, we think, more likely, he doesn’t want to see the crazed Peter. We soon learn that Edward is married to a woman Peter despises, Gloria, and has a couple of kids and what no doubt is a clean-cut, traditional suburban life.

You couldn’t have in less than an actor of an exceptionally high caliber running this show, and Owelowo delivers on this promise and more. He’s commanding but not showy, if that makes sense. Intense and often darkly funny (but maybe that’s just me) Owelowo keeps your eyes glued to the screen for the whole 1 hour 20 minutes of him just talking. Delusional, murderous, and spectacularly self-absorbed, Peter is not a likable character, but you do sympathize with him at some points- maybe genuine empathy, maybe abject pity, it’s hard to tell.

He callously murders his mother with little remorse, holds no regard for the feelings of those close to her, and disparagingly remarks on the developmentally disabled employees he works with as ‘retards’ (I laughed when he used this word, mostly because he resembles me at my worst, making cruel sport of people who can no more be cunning or stick up for themselves than a person in a wheelchair can get up and walk.) He seems more concerned with what fabulous gear he’s going to wear for his big date than the fate of his much-despised mother.

Even though we understand somewhat the dark nooks and crannies Peter’s  mind by the closing credits, there’s a lot about him we don’t know. Were Edward and Peter lovers, and Edward, by extension, a closeted homosexual living a lie, or is Peter just a crazed stalker? What, exactly, is Peter’s illness? (I have seen he has been deemed a victim of PTSD online, but it seems his issues are rooted much deeper in his past, and frankly, he could just as easily be an unmedicated Bipolar patient or Paranoid Schizophrenic.)

Peter is complicated. He’s camp and tormented and fantastically manipulative and he makes a mean Salmon Steak with  Walnut Sauce. he’s kind of a black Norman Bates for the iPhone generation, but Norman didn’t have this much style. Along the way, we get vague feedback on how this mother-son relationship went so desperately  wrong (from the monumental, like her rejection of his sexual identity, to the infinitesimal, like how she’d rather spend her money on frivolous things than buy him a subscription to HBO.)

There’s certain symbolism to savor in the film’s intelligent script, from Adam and Eve, Peter’s new tropical fish pets (he buys them because they’re a favorite of Edward’s, and in fact, ‘Eve’ is just Adam’s reflection staring back at him) to the masculine military haircut and demeanor Peter adopts towards the end of the movie as he contemplates suicide (trying perhaps, in his own twisted way, to please Mother one last time.)

By the end of “Nightingale,” we cannot condone Peter’s actions, but we understand his point of view a little better, and ultimately, we feel a little more complete for having known him.

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Inside Out (2015)

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In a weird way, the premise of “Inside Out” is kind of unnerving. Beings inside your mind that click on the control panel to trigger your emotions? Whatever happened to good old free will? It’s kind of a psychological dystopia for tweens (though in a universe where my emotions were living creatures who controlled most aspects of myself, they’d probably be doing a better job than I’m doing now- how’s that for unnerving?)

Take away the disturbing social and psychological implications of this deconstruction of free will (!), and you’ve got a typically delightful, touching Pixar film. The basic plot centers around Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias,) an eleven-year-old daughter of supportive, hockey-crazy parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) who is going through some tough life changes.

Her dad is having ever-present but obliquely mentioned financial problems, and her parents move her from her much-loved home in Minnesota to a small, shabby San Francisco pad. Luckily (?), the celebrity-voiced personifications of Riley’s feelings are there to help. Joy (Amy Poehler) runs the show, and under her watchful eye everything is mostly fun and pleasant, though  when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) interferes Riley’s mood transitions, predictably, from sunny to gloomy.

Anger (Lewis Black) fumes and rages while flames literally leap from his crimson head while Fear (Bill Hader) timidly and neurotically weighs the possible risk in any given situation. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is kind of the queen bee of the group, adding a dose of much-needed snark.

Riley’s feelings are kind of a dysfunctional little family held together by the same circumstances (i.e. they inhabit the same brain,) but Joy fails to recognize that melancholy can a valuable, even healthy part of the spectrum that makes up the self until she and Sadness are inadvertently cast into the outskirts of the mind and Riley suffers a kind of an emotional shut-down.

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Tender and funny, “Inside Out” didn’t hit me in the feels as much as “Up,” an earlier effort and a personal favorite of mine, but it is an enjoyably creative adventure through an eleven-year-old girl’s mind. If the visuals of the dreamscape that Riley’s emotions inhabit was half as fun to create as they were to watch, then they must not have felt much like work at all as much as a veritable artist’s playground.

Aesthetically, Pixar studios has done it again. “Inside Out” looks gorgeous, both within Riley’s mind and out on the streets, school, and hockey rink she inhabits. “Inside Out”‘s success both visually and in terms of storytelling and pathos prove that filmmaker Pete Docter’s mastery of the craft in “Up” was not a fluke. There’s a lot of psychological jokes that most kids (and maybe certain adults) won’t get but there’s a distinct lack of the thinly veiled sexual humor that Dreamworks flaunts like a Harvard degree.

“Inside Out” has a pensive, melancholic quality that captures the insecurity and fragile uncertainty of adolescence which might go right over little kids’ heads, but they’ll be sure to enjoy the bright visuals and buoyant humor. Parents are likely to empathize with Riley’s parents’ financial and familial struggles without their woes overwhelming the picture.

A few parts of the film seem to drag along a little longer than they should, such as the abstraction sequence, but overall “Inside Out”is an outstanding film the young at heart or those who remember being young, when setbacks felt like crushing failures that seemed like they couldn’t be assuaged or mended with time, and life was made up by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This juxtaposition of jubilation and misery, through a child’s innocent eyes, is what makes “Inside Out” a truly singular experience.

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Philomena (2013)

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I know I’m probably a little late getting onto the bandwagon, but Judi Dench is an amazing actress! Her eyes are like twin oceans that reflect her character’s feelings, whether stormy or sunny, to an absolute tee. And although some people might find Stephen Frears’ biopic drama Philomena trite or predictable, I thoroughly enjoyed and it’s touching tribute to motherhood. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) is a simple woman- kind, a little eccentric, and privy to the simple joys that life provides. What she lacks in worldliness she makes up for in good cheer and her big heart.

But something in Philomena’s past haunts her well into her twilight years. As a girl, Philomena had a little boy named Anthony who was taken from her and given to an American couple by the nuns that kept her as an indentured servant to work off her sins as an unwed mother. Not exactly living out the example of Christ, these nuns have refused to tell her over a span of dozens of years what became of Anthony, and despite being the mother of another grown child, a daughter, Philomena’s heart aches to discover Anthony’s whereabouts and to involve him in her life.

That’s where Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan,) a disgraced journalist, comes in. Against his own better judgement, the cynical Martin is recruited by Philomena’s daughter Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) to locate Anthony and reunite him with his aged mother. Thus, begins a funny, sad, and bittersweet journey to Ireland, Philomena’s birthplace, the U.S., and finally, home again (hopefully with son in tow.) On the way Philomena challenges Martin’s atheism and grim viewpoint on life in general, and Martin is gradually buoyed by Philomena’s infectious attitude.

If you enjoy well-acted, gently quirky and sweetly predictable British dramedies that showcase the best humanity has to offer and heart-tugging plots, this movie is for you. I know what I like, and I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of movies, which seem soft and cozy enough to lull you to a peasant catharsis but real enough (compared to their U.S. counterparts) to take seriously. They’re the movie equivalent of comfort food, with laughs and tears along the way.

“Philomena” is sad, but not in the nihilistic soul-crushing way a Von Trier movie is sad. It is funny, but not in the way a crude teen comedy is funny. It has just enough reality to make you think and just enough fantasy (like the prerequisite and entirely fabricated scene where Coogan gives his speech about decency and basic human rights to the geriatric, cold-hearted nun (Barbara Jefford) that sent Philomena’s son away in the first place and not an eye is dry in the house) to be warm and familiar, like a well-worn blanket.

Yet, despite the familiar territory and the paper-thin supporting characters (Including Game of Thrones‘ Michelle Fairley as Martin’s implausibly soulless editor, and Martin’s wife (Simone Lahbib), who appears at the beginning to complain about his emotional unavailability and scarcely seen or heard from again), the movie works, and contains a handful of genuinely touching moments that will move you to tears.

If “Philomena”‘s intent was to move me, it has duly succeeded. If it’s intent was, also, to make me curious about the real Martin Sixsmith’s book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,’ it has succeeded in this regard too. “Philomena” won’t rock anyone’s world with particularly innovative filmmaking and storytelling, but can’t us softies have our comfort food to watch as well as to eat and drink? For a taste of bittersweet, heartwarming, and maybe a little formulaic British cinema, look no further.

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