“Infinitely Polar Bear” Shines through the Madness

Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear (Maya Forbes, 2014)

[A quick and full disclosure: Maya Forbes and I not only share a college alma mater, but also graduated in the same year from that institution. That said, I never knew her, though we have at least one friend in common. Until this movie was released, I hadn’t heard her name mentioned since my student days. Now on to my review.]

In Infinitely Polar Bear, first-time director Maya Forbes tells the moving autobiographical tale of her own childhood. Born to a white father and a black mother in 1968, Forbes – at least according to this film – was not particularly perplexed by any issues of biracial identity. Rather, the big challenge for her, her younger sister and her mother was dealing with poverty and her father’s mental illness. Dad was diagnosed with manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) in 1967, but his symptoms didn’t become severely problematic until 1978 (again, according to the film). That’s where our story begins.

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) plays Cameron Stuart (in real life a member of the Boston Brahmin Forbes family), whose family money is tied up in a trust managed by his great-grandmother, who decides, on her own, and often haphazardly, when and how (and how much) and to whom to give funds. Before the start of the main story, we see, in footage made to look like old home movies, his meeting with Maggie, played by Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy). They marry, have two daughters, and then his breakdowns become more severe. As the movie gets truly underway, Cameron (Cam) has taken the girls out of school for an afternoon and is running around in a bathing suit by a lake in the middle of the winter. He is institutionalized, and then, with the help of medicine and treatment, slowly starts the slow journey back to some semblance of normalcy (and fatherhood), if that is even possible. His kids and wife still love him, but they can’t really live with him.

Except that without any income from Cam, Maggie has trouble staying afloat. They don’t live in the right neighborhood for the good public school, and both parents fret about the future prospects for their kids if they aren’t properly educated. Maggie – smart and capable – applies to business school, and is accepted to Columbia on scholarship. The only problem is that Columbia is in New York, and the only housing she can afford is a one-room sublet. So, since Cam seems to have improved (somewhat), the parents strike a reluctant deal. Cam will move back into the family apartment to supervise the girls, and Maggie will head to New York to earn the MBA that will give her and her family a shot at a better life (in real life, Peggy Woodford Forbes did exactly what she does in the film, and, according to her official bio, became “the first African American woman to establish a registered investment advisory firm in growth equity management in the United States”), with plans to come back to Boston on the weekends. The stage is set for a very interesting family drama, or comedy (much of it is funny), or both.

At first, the film feels scattered, much like Cam’s brain. With bits and pieces of scenes strewn like random memories, the narrative lacks coherence. But then, slowly, the story gathers momentum, and then Forbes’s earlier aesthetic choices make more sense. Although she puts the two girls front and center, this is most definitely Cam’s story, and we need to follow his own journey as he struggles to figure out how to adapt to a world of occasional incoherence. The seeming mess of the opening leads to the more structured middle, which leads, in turn, to the perfect ending. As we watch Cam and Maggie struggle to raise a family, and watch Maggie fight to achieve her laudable goals, and watch Cam do his best to not go off the rails, and all the while watch the girls grow up with a father who is as much a child as them, and a mother who is so frequently absent, we become increasingly involved in their lives, and wish them success.

Going back to the issue of race, it’s actually surprising and quite refreshing that it is treated so incidentally here. Given the time period – the Supreme Court’s “Loving vs. Virginia” decision outlawing bans on interracial marriage had come in 1967 – it’s amazing that there are only two mentions of race (that I caught) in the entire film. One happens when the older daughter (the director’s surrogate) wonders why she doesn’t look black, and the other occurs when Maggie, frustrated that her plans may not work, bemoans to Cam how the world views poor whites much differently than poor blacks. And that’s it. If for nothing else (and there is so much more), the movie is remarkable in how simply and without drama it shows a black woman and a white man raising a family in America in the 1970s.

The four lead actors help to propel the film forward, even through the occasional moments when the script falters and becomes a little too expositional. Ruffalo is terrific in the showy part, but it’s Saldana who is the emotional heart of the film in the vital, but less flashy, role of Maggie. The girls, however, shoulder much of the film’s narrative weight, and they are more than up to the challenge. Newcomer Imogene Wolodarsky – who just happens to be the director’s daughter (her father is also the film’s producer) – plays Amelia, the eldest, and novice though she may be, she shines. Ashley Aufderheide – another relative beginner – plays Faith (who, in real life, grew up to be China Forbes, the lead singer of Pink Martini), the younger daughter, and she is similarly wonderful. In fact, both girls, together, give two of the finest child performances I have seen in a long time, natural and without seeming artifice.

The film is far from perfect. There are those awkward bits where too much is said by characters for the sole purpose of explaining the backstory. And then there’s the unfortunate title, which may not help the movie garner the audience it deserves, since it seems to suggest a very different kind of children’s story. But otherwise, there is so much to admire and respect and enjoy about Infinitely Polar Bear that its occasional flaws recede into the background, leaving, in foreground, a sweet and powerful tale of love and perseverance and resilience. I look forward to Ms. Forbes’ next film.

Midday on Jurassic Summer: Blockbusters and Indies of Summer 2015

[Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Rodricks Summer 2015 Poster

We’re back and ready to review the films of the summer blockbuster season – those in theaters, those that have come and might be gone soon, and those about to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and what to avoid. From big studio offerings like Jurassic World (currently the #1 film of the year) and Inside Out – both in an ongoing box-office battle over the past three weeks – to more independent fare like Love & Mercy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Infinitely Polar Bear, or the new documentary about the late Amy Winehouse (entitled simply Amy), plus many more, we’re here to offer our take on what the summer has to offer.

Join us on Friday, July 10, at 1pm, on WYPR 88.1 FM, for the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss the hits and the misses of the current season. Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live. If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts on summer films in the comment section of this blog.

Enjoy the show!

Triumphs and Failures in Historical Cinefiction: “Love & Mercy” vs. “A Little Chaos”

“Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?” (“What is the cinema?”), asked the great French film theorist André Bazin. The simple act of posing the question is enough to force us to consider the idea that film – like all art forms – needs a raison d’être. There must be properties unique to the moving image that make us – when confronted by its better examples – exclaim in wonder and recognition that this particular story (or idea) could only have been expressed in this way in this medium. And so in today’s post, I review two recent films (both period pieces): one that shows the power of cinema; the other, nothing more than a fanciful waste of time and effort.

Love and Mercy

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014)

Much of the credit for the artistic merits of Love & Mercy, the new biopic about Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, goes to screenwriters Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) and Michael A. Lerner (August. Eighth). Together, they have fashioned a story that ping-pongs back and forth between Wilson’s early heyday as the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys’ success – and his subsequent mental unraveling – and the dark period of the 1980s when he languished under the autocratic care of his guru-like psychologist, Eugene Landy. The result is a masterful portrait of a troubled genius, the tolls of fame, and the virtues of perseverance and love.

The film (which takes its title from a 1988 song by its subject) is as much a portrait of the creative process as it is of Brian Wilson. We learn plenty about the Beach Boys and about Wilson’s private life, but some of the great joys of the movie are the scenes in the music studio. In particular, we see how both “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” were recorded – or, at least, how the screenwriters and director imagine they were made – and the sequences reveal how much of an innovator Brian Wilson was, in spite of his growing problems with mental illness. We need to understand the genius in order to mourn his loss (and hope for his recovery).

Much credit should also go to director Bill Pohlad and his cast. This is only Pohlad’s second feature film as director: his first, Old Explorers, was 25 years ago. Since then, Pohlad has worked primarily as a producer, including on The Tree of Life; he shared in that film’s Best Picture nomination. Here, he has assembled a first-rate group of actors, and made the vital decision to cast two different actors as Wilson, both of them up to the task: Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), as the younger, 1960s Wilson, and John Cusack (The Paperboy) as the older, 1980s Wilson. Given that Dano is in his early thirties, it’s legitimate to wonder why he couldn’t have also played the older Wilson, with added makeup. But therein lies part of the brilliance of the film. Casting two such different actors to play the same character at different stages of his life – the one before a major physical and mental cataclysm, the one after – helps to underline that character’s significant transformation, and the obstacles in his way as he tries to recover. Cusack has further stated, in a recent interview, how even though he and Dano studied Wilson’s life with a similar intensity, neither consulted with the other to make the two performances match in any way. They end up both delivering fully committed portrayals of the same man at vastly different times in his life, and it works perfectly.

The rest of the cast is quite strong, as well. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who helps Wilson in his struggles to free himself from Landy, is a marvel of warmth and restraint. Paul Giamatti (Sideways), as Landy, has the difficult task of playing the villain, but he succeeds in making him three-dimensional, if not sympathetic (which the film doesn’t intend him to be). If their final duel is as scary and cathartic as it ultimately is, it’s due to the power of these two actors in these roles. It’s too bad that not all of the other actors – in particular, the rest of the Beach Boys – are as strong, but at least – with Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti – we have a formidable foursome.

What surprised me most as I watched the film – and made me fall in love with it – was how unconventional it was in its approach to the material. Because we are dealing with a man – Wilson – who suffers from both severe hearing loss in one ear and auditory hallucinations – the soundtrack quite often reveals completely unexpected noises, or sometimes drops out entirely. In fact, the opening of the film almost feels like there’s a problem with the projector (be patient), because we start on Dano at the piano, in distress, then cut to black, then land on Cusack, and then slowly begin to discern other sounds as the credits begin. Though the movie settles down, for a while, to tell enough of a story for us to gather salient facts about Wilson in both the 1960s and 1980s, it returns, time and again, to these experimental techniques, reminding us that art – like Wilson – when made with purpose, can seem as it if knows no boundaries. This is a movie with a definite raison d’être, and method to its madness.

Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, 2014)

Unfortunately, the new film from actor Alan Rickman (Snape in the Harry Potter films) – whose only other directing credit was in 1997, with The Winter Guest – does not have much of a raison d’être. Neither based on a true story nor based on an idea of merit, the film is a total wash. As expected when a talented actor directs other talented actors, the performances are, individually, mostly a pleasure to watch, though they don’t all belong in the same movie. With a cast that includes Kate Winslet (The Reader), Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd), Stanley Tucci (Margin Call) and Rickman, himself, it’s hard to make a total stinker, yet in this case there is nevertheless very little to recommend.

And yet we start with promise. We are in the Paris of 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman) is preparing to move his court from the Louvre to the as-yet-unfinished Palace of Versailles. His favored landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (Schoenaerts) – a magnificent designer of gardens (Versailles will be his masterpiece) – is struggling with the magnitude of the new project, and is looking to hire additional artists who can help him with some of the details. Along comes Madame Sabine de Barra (Winslet), a widow who has made a name for herself as a garden designer, with plans for an outdoor ballroom that might just help Le Nôtre make Versailles extraordinary. There are immediate sparks between Le Nôtre and Madame de Barra – which manifest themselves initially in argument – but soon the two forge a bond that threatens to become less (or more!) than professional.

That’s not a terrible premise, which even holds out the possibility of some feminist take on the past. Unfortunately, since the story of Madame de Barra is entirely fictional, and since her big moment as a designer, later in the film, would not have been possible without the patronage (and romantic inclinations) of her supervisor, one has to wonder about the motivations of the filmmakers. Why tell this story? Why invent a tale of passion (and loss – don’t forget that Madame de Barra is a widow and that we will, indeed, discover her backstory) that only serves to diminish Le Nôtre’s magnificent achievement at Versailles. Were there no actual women whose story one could borrow and tweak to revisit the past? One of the great joys of Belle – that Austenian fable about a biracial young woman raised in late 18th-century England – was knowing that there was an actual person on whom the story was based. It could – maybe, perhaps- have happened as we saw it on screen. Another joy was seeing how the story addressed issues of race, class and gender, weaving them into the time period in a seamless and believable way.

Sadly, there’s neither the hint of the real nor the hint of the relevant, except in one delightful scene. When Madame de Barra is invited to court, she spends a precious few moments in the company of the wives and mistresses (and former mistresses) of the nobles. Suddenly, we discover what the film might have been, as we see and hear these women as they speak of their loves and losses. They are not quite as superficial as we have been led to believe. Surely one of them – all based on real historical figures – had a story worth telling, no? Instead, we are left with what remains: gorgeously shot fanciful nonsense.

Join “The Overnight” Party for Frivolous (NSFW) Fun

Overnight

The Overnight (Patrick Brice, 2015)

I saw this film back in March, at the annual SXSW Festival, and loved it. After two documentaries on Day 1 that left me cold, I finally hit the screening jackpot with this raunchy sex comedy from the director of Creep (which I had missed at the previous year’s festival). Starring Taylor Schilling (“Orange is the New Black“), Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation“), Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) and Judith Godrèche (Potiche), The Overnight is a delightfully off-beat and unpredictable film about a dinner party to which newly minted Los Angelenos Schilling and Scott are invited by oddly compelling Schwartzman and GodrècheFeaturing alcohol, drugs, some boobs, full-frontal prosthetic penises and paintings of male anuses, the movie is definitely for adults only. But boy is it fun! If it loses energy towards the end, that doesn’t mean we haven’t laughed outrageously on our way there. What makes the film work is the delightfully charming chemistry between all four leads and the disarmingly laid-back vibe to the whole affair. Do not expect to learn profound truths about the human condition, but do expect to be entertained. It opens this weekend at the Charles. Leave the kids at home.

T1 + T2 = T5: “Terminator Genisys” Is Best Film in Franchise Since “Judgment Day”

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015)

The Gubernator is back, and the good news is that he’s as watchable as ever. With his stock-in-trade mix of muscular swagger and tongue-in-cheek delivery, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been a powerful (if often silly) screen presence, and his return to the Terminator series after a 12-year hiatus is a welcome one. Granted, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – his last outing – was a fairly dismal affair, but since the makers of Terminator Genisys have chosen to ignore all but the first two films, we can, as well. So sit back, relax, suspend your disbelief and be transported back to the magical era of man-versus-machine doomsday scenarios of 1984 (The Terminator) and 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

The film opens with a hazy memory of a lost, green world, before Skynet – the sinister artificial intelligence at the heart of the series – launches its nuclear bombs. Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard), as Kyle Reese, is our narrator, and he takes us briskly from the machine-powered apocalypse through to the rise of the human resistance led, as always, by John Connor, here played by Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). In the year 2029, we follow Connor’s battalions as they miraculously defeat Skynet, only to discover that the computer has sent a “terminator” (a cyborg covered in living tissue) back in time to kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother. So far, so familiar. We know this tale (and if you don’t, then, quite frankly, why are you watching this movie?). Reese, of course, is tasked with going back to 1984 to chase the terminator, where he can save Sarah, sleep with her to father John, and then die.

Except that that is not how it plays out. Instead, though the 1984 to which the terminator and Reese travel looks, initially, like a perfect recreation of the first film, things quickly change. Just as the cyborg – a young Schwarzenegger look-a-like – is about to assault a group of delinquents, we hear a familiar Austrian-accented voice from behind him, and the real deal – Schwarzenegger, himself – appears, straight out of the second film, since he’s clearly fighting for humanity. True, he looks significantly older than the last time we saw him, but the film will, eventually, explain this.

So, too, is Reese’s arrival back in time tweaked. Just as he is grabbing clothes (time travel is a naked affair) from a homeless man, a cop shows up, only, that’s right, it’s not a cop. It’s the T-1000 from the second film, liquid metal reforming every time he’s shot. Just as things look dire for our hero, Sarah Connor – played by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones“) – shows up, and this time she gets to utter Reese’s line from the first film: “Come with me if you want to live.” Soon, Sarah, Reese and the good terminator – or “Pops,” as Sarah calls him – are on the run together, hunting the T-1000 (as it hunts them) as they plan a new jump in time (forward, for once). It turns out that all of the various plot threads of the first two movies have become so confused through conflicting time loops that a brand new future past has been created for Skynet’s online birth, in the year 2017. One has to admire how the clever screenwriters get to indulge our collective nostalgia for the original movies while simultaneously bringing the movie back up to our current era …

Once we’re back to the present, the movie turns into a solid sci-fi action thriller, though some of the fun of the earlier scenes is lost. The actors are all more than competent, including, much to my surprise, Jai Courtney, who heretofore has shown little talent beyond a sneer. Emilia Clarke makes a terrific Sarah, tough and wary, and Jason Clarke (no relation) brings his usual combination of danger and charm. But really, this is Arnold’s movie. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with his age (yes, cyborgs do age), as with his new role as Sarah’s protector, and he really is the best part of the show.

The problem with The Terminator series – as with most sequels – has always been that, no matter how much emotional energy we invest in the story outcomes, by the time the next film rolls around, those outcomes have been discarded in favor of new crises, which never end until the franchise dies. The ending of Terminator Genisys provides just such a perfect resolution, followed (of course) by a mid-credit reveal of a new plot point that sets up yet another sequel. Sigh. No matter. It’s no masterpiece. But it is good entertainment.

“Magic Mike XXL” Offers XXS Pleasures

Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)

The women loved it. That is, the largely female audience at the preview screening of Magic Mike XXL that I attended were a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ every time the men on screen took their clothes off. Which was often. To which I reply: if that’s what you want, watch porn. It’s more honest, and you don’t have to sit through the pretense of a story. To be fair, I’m sure that there were folks – and not just me and my two fellow (female) film critics sitting next to me – who did not fall under the spell of beefcake, but they were, of course, not so vocal. Judging by the decibel level of the screams, however, this film might just have a shot at a good opening weekend … among certain demographics.

The problem is that this is an absolutely dreadful movie. The first film, Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), was actually quite fine: a story about a group of working-class guys who just happen to dance in strip clubs to earn the money they need to support their dreams and aspirations. The conflict revolved around whether or not they would get sucked permanently into the dancing lifestyle – putting their ambitions on hold – because the money (and sex) was so good. The dance numbers were well choreographed, and the stars – including Channing Tatum (22 Jump Street) as Mike and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar) as Dallas, the strip club owner – gave solid performances. It was a gritty well-made drama that offered the additional pleasure of erotic titillation and voyeuristic spectacle.

Magic Mike XXL has a different director – though Soderbergh returns as cinematographer and editor, and the screenwriter, Reid Carolin, is the same – and whether or not that is why the sequel lacks all ambition to be anything other than a striptease (and a bad one at that), who knows? Whatever the intentions of those involved, the movie feels like these folks got together and improvised as they went along, forgetting that in order for us to care about the characters, there needs to be a story. There’s a nominal plot – most of the guys from the first film have decided that they want to compete, one last time, in an annual stripping contest, and drag the no-longer-dancing Tatum back from retirement – but nothing at stake. If they win, great; if they lose, so what? Would that the contest were simply a MacGuffin to get us into some decent dance scenes. At least we would then have that. Instead, the journey is an excuse to show us legions of sex-starved women – mainly older and overweight – who swoon at the chance to be fondled, groped and humped by muscular men. A character played by Matt Bomer (“White Collar“) makes the claim that our stripper friends are “healers,” and that these desperate women benefit from the attention, but somehow the whole enterprise feels half-baked, gross, and deeply misogynistic. Then again, let’s not forget about the screaming women at the preview . . .

Matthew McConaughey is gone (he seems to be getting more discerning as he gets older), so we don’t even get to see him liven up the affair with his cocky insouciance. We do, however, get some new blood: Jada Pinkett Smith (“Gotham“) as Rome, the Dallas surrogate (what is it with strip-club owners and city names in this universe?) in a pointless sub-plot; Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as one of those older women yearning to be set free; and Amber Heard (The Rum Diary) as Mike’s jailbait love interest (well, she looks really young, though in real life she’s closer to Tatum’s age than I thought). None of them matter one iota. Just look at the poster, above. That’s what the movie’s selling, and if that appeals to you, then it’s all yours.