Love, romance, and a whole lot of problems bubble up in The Intervention

B+ Comedy-drama, but mostly drama

Written and directed by Clea DuVall

All romantic relationships have problems, and those problems provide fodder for this very funny relationship drama (or maybe it’s a very serious comedy). But according to Annie (Melanie Lynskey), only one couple is supposed to have problems here, and everyone else is supposed to be on the same page about the only conceivable solution: divorce.

Annie knows with absolute certainty that her married friends, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza), need to go their separate ways. And when we first meet the unhappy couple, we understand her certainty. They treat each other with behavior so passive aggressive that it’s just one step away from aggressive aggressive. So Annie organized this big weekend shindig so that she and other friends of Ruby and Peter can help them see the light.

But Annie’s pretty messed up herself. Engaged to Matt (Jason Ritter), she keeps postponing their wedding. What’s more, she has a very serious drinking problem. (Actually, everyone drinks pretty heavily here, but Annie’s problem is considerably worse than the others.)

Also in attendance is Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall, who also wrote and directed) and her girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne). Sarah worries that Jessie is a little too interested in younger women.

And speaking of younger women, Jack (a friend of Peter’s played by Ben Schwartz) arrives with a new and barely legal girlfriend oozing sexuality in everyone’s direction (Alia Shawkat). Her name is Lola; no screenwriter gives a character that name without a good reason.

As everyone tries to solve Ruby and Peter’s relationship problems, their own complications bubble to the top. And people are soon getting angry with their partners and hitting on other members of the gang.

Almost the entire film is set in an extremely large and expensive mansion and estate in the south. Ruby and Jessie apparently came from a very wealthy family. For what it’s worth, everyone here is white, and everyone except Sarah has dark hair. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional.

Don’t expect a laugh fest, but don’t expect a tragedy, either. Most of the characters are likeable, and all ring true. The Intervention isn’t trying teach a lesson; or if it is, the lesson is to be tolerant of your lover’s faults.

Not sage advice, but worth knowing.

Before the White House: My review of Southside with You

C Romantic meander

Written and directed by Richard Tanne

The movie starts like a commercial. The camera moves smoothly over an impossibly clean residential street filled with smiling people. Upbeat, happy music plays over the opening credits. The message is clear: This is going to be a feel-good movie about two people falling in love.

Southside with You plays out as yet another variation on Before Sunrise. Two attractive people who barely know each other walk through a city, talking, doing fun and meaningful things, and getting to know each other, while the audience wonders whether they’re going to fall in love.

But there’s no romantic suspense. Everyone in the audience knows that this couple will eventually marry and create a family. Then they’ll become the first family.

The couple, of course, are Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson.

It’s the summer of 1989, and Barak (Parker Sawyers) is a law student at Harvard, back in his chosen home of Chicago doing a summer internship at a corporate law firm. Michelle is a low-level attorney at the same law firm. She is, in fact, Barak’s immediate superior. It’s her job to evaluate his work. He thinks otherwise.

According to what he said before the movie started, he’s to pick her up and take her to a community meeting that she might find interesting. But he has other plans. They go to a museum. They have lunch in the park. They go see the new movie that everyone is talking about–Do the Right Thing. And yes, they go to that meeting, where we get a glimpse of the great orator and pragmatic politician that Barak will become.

For Michelle, this isn’t a smooth ride to true love. He lied to her about the time of the meeting. He’s a bit too smooth. He smokes. He used to smoke marijuana (she pronounces the full, four-syllable word with distain). Tika Sumpter plays Michelle a bit stuck up. Proud of her no-nonsense work ethic, she feels superior to this laid-back dude from Hawaii.

And in a literal sense, she is superior. She’s his boss. For her to get romantically involved with him would be a significant conflict of interest.

And yet she can’t help feeling attracted to him.

We know that that attraction will lead to the White House. But as a movie, Southside with You feels just a little bit too sweet for its own good. My vote for this film is pretty much on the fence.

Lo and Behold! Werner Herzog brings us the Internet

Documentary

Directed by Werner Herzog

Even those of us who grew up, married, and had kids before dial-up modems were common now take the Internet for granted. We socialize, work, play, read, find restaurants, and enjoy movies and music through this decentralized network.

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in providing an overview of the technical and sociological entity that has pretty much taken over civilization. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, Lo and Behold starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future.

For the first half hour or so, Lo and Behold feels like a puff piece. Everything about the Internet seems wonderful. In the most upbeat moment, a medical researcher describes how the behavior of certain molecules–needed to be understood for medical purposes–were cracked by thousands of gamers.

But then we come to a chapter called “The Dark Side.” We meet a family that lost a daughter in a traffic accident. Photos of the beheaded girl went viral, and people of the worst sort emailed them to her parents with insulting messages. When the mother calls the Internet “the Anti-Christ,” you may not agree, but you’ll certainly understand her feelings.

Herzog rightfully spares us the gory pictures in that sequence, but in other scenes I wished he used more pictorial aids. Visually, Lo and Behold relies heavily on people talking. Many of the concepts they discuss would have been easier to understand with simple animation.

And sometimes I wished he would dig deeper into the research. One sequence involves people living away from the Internet–and not always by choice. These folks explain to Herzog’s camera that they’re sensitive to the electro-magnetic waves emitted from all of our technology. Their suffering is clearly real, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was psychosomatic. An interview with a doctor or two would have helped.

Of course Herzog covers security concerns, centering on hacking the big fish–government and corporations. He covers the very real threat of cyber warfare (which strikes me as less scary than the real thing). He points out that the weak point in any system will almost certainly be a human, not a piece of technology. In one amazing sequence, a hacker explains how a few phone calls got him some very important corporate code.

Oddly, he barely scrapes into issues of personal privacy. He doesn’t seem worried that corporations and governments know a frightening amount of information about us. One person he never interviews, or even mentions, is Edward Snowden.

Yet he examines some technologies that are only vaguely involved with the Internet, but are still fascinating. These include robots, Elon Musk‘s plans for Martian colonies, and driverless cars (which really need their own feature-length documentary).

There’s very little in Lo and Behold that I didn’t already know. But then, I’ve been writing about the Internet since it first became a thing. People who merely use it may find the movie much more informative.

Coming of age in a sad, sad world in James Schamus’ touching Indignation

A Coming of age drama

Written and directed by James Schamus

From the novel by Philip Roth

Most coming of age movies leave you feeling optimistic. No matter what horrible things happen to the protagonist, you know that everything will come out alright.

Not this time.

In James Schamus’ directorial debut, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil.

Marcus, the son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, is the first member of his family to go to college. Aside from learning and finding a good career, he has another very good reason for embracing higher education. Indignation is set in 1951, and a college deferment will keep him out of the draft and thus out of Korea.

His stellular grades have gotten him a scholarship for the last college you would expect to find a boy of his background–an very Christian college in Ohio. He’s not the only Jew on the campus–there’s even a Jewish fraternity–but even with Jewish dorm mates he still feels like an outsider. Every student is required to attend regular chapel services.

Marcus is an exceptional student, but he doesn’t play well with others. He studies, he works in the library, and he considers himself too busy to have a social life. He refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, and he doesn’t get along with his Jewish roommates.

In one amazing, powerful, and very funny scene, Marcus and the deeply religious dean go at it, arguing about compromising, socializing, and faith. Marcus isn’t just a Jew; he’s an atheist; Bertrand Russell is his hero. The dean is horrified.

Despite his hermit-like tendencies, he manages to get the notice–and then the affection–of the very beautiful, blonde, and experienced Olivia. At first glance, she’s the cliché of the gorgeous shiksa that every Jewish man of that generation wanted. But she turns into someone far more interesting. She’s a troubled soul with a history of drinking. And when he avoids her, she understands what’s going on in his head before he does.

Two paragraphs back, I describes a scene as “very funny.” For a tragedy, Indignation provides a surprising amount of laughs. This doesn’t break the films overall sadness; it deepens it.

James Schamus is one of the most interesting unsung people in the American cinema today. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of James Schamus–even if you don’t know it. He wrote and produced most of Lee’s films. He ran Focus Films and turned it into one of the best arthouse distributors in the country (and then he was fired). Now he’s finally helming his own films.

Judging from his first try, this 57-year-old first timer has a promising career ahead of him.

The Phantom Boy doesn’t quite come together

C+ Animated family-oriented fantasy crime thriller

Written by Alain Gagnol

Directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick. He’s in the hospital, will be for months, and he may not survive. But he has a superpower. His spirit can leave his body, fly through walls, and see and hear everything around him.

Meanwhile, an evil villain demands a billion dollars or else he will destroy New York City’s power and data networks. Need I mention that he has two bumbling assistants?

Then there’s the often brilliant and athletic, but occasionally clumsy police detective. He’s got a sidekick of sorts–a pretty newspaper reporter who’s obviously in love with him.

All of these parts don’t quite come together in this moderately entertaining movie. Yes, it has thrills and laughs, but neither the suspense nor the humor ratchet up enough to make The Phantom Boy really worth seeing.

The detective breaks a leg early on, and is confined to the same hospital as Leo. Once the cop recognizes Leo’s powers, they become a team to protect the journalist (AKA, the damsel in distress) and save the city. Leo can follow the reporter, flying all over the place, sticking his head through walls, all without being seen. When he talks, the sound doesn’t come out of his disembodied spirit, but from his physical body back in the detective’s room in the hospital. Then the detective can give the reporter instructions via cellphone.

Another thing we learn early about Leo’s powers: If he stays out of his body long enough, his disembodied hands and then feet begin to fade away. If he stays out too long, he will never be able to return to his body. Nothing like a painfully obvious plot point.

Leo’s mortality is the movie’s biggest problem. When the hero is a dying kid, there are only two possible endings. Either Leo dies, which is way too sad for such a light piece of entertainment. Or he recovers, which is predictable and mawkish.

Despite the New York setting, The Phantom Boy is a French film, and in the subtitled version that I reviewed, everyone speaks French. That’s kind of funny at first, but I got used to it. Theaters will be screening both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Newspapers and signage are all in English.

As old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation goes, The Phantom Boy isn’t particularly original, clever, or beautiful. It can’t hold a candle to another recent, feature-length French cartoon, April and the Extraordinary World.

There is one curious bit of design. The main villain has what is repeatedly described as a horribly disfigured face. A running gag keeps him from explaining the disaster that ruined his face. But judging from how he looks in the movie, he was apparently attacked by Pablo Picasso.

Pregnant nuns, and no; it’s not a comedy. My review of The Innocents

B+ Religious drama

Written by Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Religion at its worst–stern, rule-based, shameful, and dictatorial–comes up against basic human values in this drama about a nunnery experiencing a rash of new-born babies.

Yes, that description suggests a Monty Python-like farce, not a serious drama. In the case of The Innocents, it brings layers of tragedy as well as much-needed redemption.

The setting is rural Poland, December, 1945. The horrors of Nazi occupation had been replaced by the horrors of Communist occupation the previous spring. When Russian soldiers overran the area, they broke into the convent and raped the nuns. Now many of them are pregnant.

People often stigmatize rape victims in today’s most liberal societies; imagine what it would have been like 70 years ago for Polish nuns. They’re desperately afraid of letting anyone outside of the convent know about the situation. Even within the convent the subject is tricky. Bringing to a Polish or Russian doctor would be unthinkable.

The extremely strict mother superior doesn’t help. She keeps her charges on a very short leash, and wants to smother certain topics of conversation. As the film progresses, we discover just how horrifying–and how horrified–she is.

Luckily, there’s a French Red Cross hospital nearby. It’s there only to take care of wounded French soldiers. A rebellious nun sneaks out of the convent, finds the hospital, and begs help from a young woman doctor named Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). Hiding her altruistic act from her superiors, Mathilde visits the convent as often as possible, while hiding what she’s doing and maintaining her duties. (Were there really French soldiers and French doctors in 1945 Russian-occupied Poland ? Seems unlikely to me. But this is a French film, so it needed a French heroine.)

Brought up in a French Communist household, Mathilde doesn’t believe in God (whether she still believes in Communism isn’t clear). But basic kindness is in her nature, and she clearly represents a secular humanism that’s light years away from the mother superior’s strict rules.

The Innocents doesn’t suggest that religion is inherently evil. Most of the nuns are decent, loving human beings who try to find inspiration from their condition despite the mother superior.

Mathilde enjoys a romance (more of a fling, really) with one of the French Red Cross doctors, and she eventually brings him to the nunnery to help. He’s a Jew who got out of France just in time; his parents died in the Holocaust. When he arrives at the nunnery, I thought the mother superior would object to the presence of a man. But she seemed far more upset about the presence of a Jew.

The Innocents is beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier, giving us a sense of extreme austerity–not only the willful austerity of the nuns, but also of the peasants who have been put through war and occupation.

Mild spoiler below

The film’s happy ending felt forced to me. A revelation (not the magical kind) and a good idea solve everything. Then an epilogue, set three months later, makes it clear just how happy everyone is now.

That ending is a significant flaw, but not enough of one to keep me from recommending The Innocents.

Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

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