Monday, June 29, 2015

Stray Dog

"I was put in a leadership position when I was far way too young to be in a leadership position. I made decisions that haunt my ass and always will," says Ron Hall of the time he served in Vietnam in Debra Granik's Stray Dog. Hall may be right, but it's easy to imagine why his commanding officers made him a leader. A tattooed mountain of a man who exudes empathy, honesty, and strength, he has shoulders broad enough for nearly everyone he comes across to lean on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Batkid Begins

On November 15, 2013, the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned parts of San Francisco into Gotham City so five-year-old leukemia survivor Miles Scott could live out his fantasy of being Batman. Since Miles was too young to save the city on his own, acrobat and former stuntman Eric Johnson volunteered to play Batman, leading his mini-me to each of the foundation’s three staged scenarios, then gently guiding the boy through his part of the action. Dana Nachman’s documentary anatomizes the extensive planning and social-media heat lightning that turned the day into a global phenomenon, after a Facebook plea for volunteers to play grateful Gothamites went viral.

It’s a promising premise for a movie: no wonder Julia Roberts is developing a feature version of the story. We’re hard-wired to root for the title character, a round-cheeked little farm boy who had battled leukemia for years by the time he entered first grade, as we learn in an opening sequence that tells his story in comic-book form, in what turns out to be a rare flash of visual creativity. The live-action Miles we see in footage taken before, during and after the event also has scene-stealing moments, especially after he dons his costume and channels his hero, walking “like he weighs 200 pounds,” as one of his parents puts it. But as the story of his big day unfolds, any hope of meaningful reflection or insight is doused by a steady drip of often redundant and banal observations, mostly about the unprecedented size or cooperative spirit of the crowd that showed up to cheer him on.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Even fans of Nina Simone will likely learn some new things about her in What Happened, Miss Simone?, and those who had never heard her name will have a hard time forgetting it after seeing this slow-burning documentary.

As honest as its subject, the film captures the ferocious talent and charisma that was the subject of Simone’s husband and manager Andy Stroud’s documentary, Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews. But, unlike Stroud’s film, this one also explores the dark side of Simone’s story. The bipolar disease with which she was diagnosed late in life no doubt accounts for some of the violence and paranoia that caused her to become a bitter and angry recluse, but director Liz Garbus also surfaces the role played by racism. Trained from early childhood as a classical pianist when black people were unheard of in that field, Simone grew up a social outcast, out of place among both blacks and whites. Then the career for which she had sacrificed so much rejected her and she was forced to sing and play popular music, a form she considered inferior.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

100 Words On ... The Wanted 18

The Wanted 18 is part of the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It screens on June 13 in New York City.

Scored to a lovely, plaintive soundtrack by BenoĆ®t Charest (The Triplets of Belleville), The Wanted 18 tells a true story with the deadpan surrealism of a classic fable. The cows of the title were first bought by a Palestinian collective looking to establish independence from Israel during the first intifada in part by producing and distributing their own milk, then hunted by Israeli troops for “undermining Israeli security.” The film combines animation, live-action reenactments, archival footage and simple but elegant visual metaphors, like a paper airplane folded by a pair of hands in one shot and thrown to the talking head in another to symbolize the clandestine flow of information. Its point of view shifts between a mordantly funny voiceover by co-director and illustrator Amer Shomali, beautifully shot interviews with many key players, and the cows themselves, whose increasingly hopeless situation (“We’ve been betrayed--by both Israelis and Palestinians!” says one) becomes a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinians. Written for The L Magazine

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wild Horses

Robert Duvall's Wild Horses consists mainly of a series of conversations, some stiff and unconvincing, that never quite coalesce into a plausible story, but it shows periodic signs of life. Those exchanges become magnetic whenever Adriana Barraza is on screen, especially in a climactic scene that she and Duvall build toward a wrenching emotional crescendo. And while the nonprofessional actors intended to add authentic local color sometimes freeze the action in its tracks with wooden line readings, Duvall distills the flavor of rural West Texas in scenes like the gentle taming of an unbroken horse, a midday bonding between brothers at a dark, no-frills bar, and a backyard barbecue at which a band plays "Cielito Lindo" while a bearded cook works a grill made of a halved oilcan.