Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle opens with a roiling, angry sea spits a battered man onto the shore. Exploring this place of refuge, the man discovers that it is an island inhabited only by birds, crabs, sea lions, and the occasional turtle. After filling his basic needs for water, food and shelter, the man constructs a bamboo raft to sail away to the safety. However the gods (in the form of an immense sea turtle) have a different plan. His escape crafts are repeatedly destroyed and the man remains a castaway. Presented without dialogue, this French-Belgian film was animated by Japan’s Ghibli Studios, and the audience soon learns that the world of this particular Robinson Crusoe isn’t quite like our own. The magical realism is emphasized by the the style of animation often adopting omniscient, omnipotent point-of-view shots from high above and far-far away. Nominated for an Oscar, this dreamlike, very original fable is quite different from others in this category.
In I Am Not Your Negro, Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck has created a timely and powerful film using novelist James Baldwin’s own words. In addition to archival clips that reveal Baldwin’s intelligence, perceptiveness and wit, actor Samuel L. Jackson reads from the writer’s unpublished book about his relationship with Civil Rights leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Doubly “branded” because he was gay and Black, Baldwin left the United States when he turned 24, and eventually settled in the French Riviera. Houseguests included actors Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Yves Montand, and musicians Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Ray Charles. Visiting the United States in support of the Civil Rights Movement, Time magazine put Baldwin on its cover with the comment: “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realties of the racial ferment in North and South.” Peck isn’t content to package Baldwin in a time capsule. Modern day scenes from Ferguson. Missouri and the Black Lives Matter movement emphasize what Baldwin said in a 1979 speech at U.C. Berkeley, that the ongoing quest for racial equality is “the latest slave rebellion.”
Imagine Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), as a self-absorbed, plastic-block, megalomaniac prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and you immediately understand the brilliant concept underlying Chris McKay’s clever and very funny film entitled The Lego Batman Movie. We first met this particular incarnation of the Caped Crusader as one of the “cast of thousands” in The Lego Movie (2014). This time a Lego Robin (voiced by Michael Cera) is by his side as the pair race from the Lego Wayne Manor in a Lego Batmobile to do battle against a tear-streaked, whiny, “nobody loves me” Lego Joker (voiced by Zach Galafanakis). In the first film, the snap-together (and apart) figures knew they were toys. This time, everyone acts like they are flesh and blood instead of ABS plastic, and this minor shift makes some scenes even funnier. NOTE: Be sure to pay attention to the “home movie” the Lego butler, Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), uses to show how his boss used to enjoy life and was more fun to work with.
Before the blogosphere, the “buzz” in 1991 was about how men were shown kissing each other in the documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. That film took audiences behind the scenes of the singer’s cross country tour, and introduced us to the seven male dancers who performed with her onstage. Strike a Pose candidly revisits these men 25 years later. We discover that Madonna recruited her dancers with specific styles in mind. For example, the Voguing scene with its stylized moves derived from poses struck by high fashion models, and hip-hop with improvisations first done on street corners. They traveled as a family—vowing to stay friends forever. But we learn that one dancer sued Madonna for invasion of privacy and others sued for a share of the huge profits from the original documentary. I was surprised to hear the only heterosexual dancer in the group admit that before he went on the tour, “If someone was gay, I would punch them out.” One interesting footnote—Madonna was not interviewed for Strike a Pose, and it makes us wonder how she would react after a quarter century.
In Stephen Gaghan's Gold, a team of prospectors announces they discovered a “mountain of gold” in the Indonesian jungle. Needing money to finance excavation, they statr selling “penny” stocks, but when carefully leaked information gets out, these stocks soar above $200 a share. Based on a true story, the company in question has been relocated from Calgary, Alberta Canada to Reno, NV in the good old US of A. This was done not only to provide the rationale for McConaughy’s distinctive Texas drawl, but also to categorize this film as a satire of American greed. Based on the previews, audiences could expect a rough-and-tumble backwoods tale set in a steamy jungle, but instead, the film quickly becomes an expose’ on the shenanigans of a con man. Too bad the screenplay and direction never make the “truth” rise above a lackluster presentation.
Teens need to break away from their parents to establish their own identity, and this is exactly what happens to 15-year-old Jamie (Jucas Jade Zumann) in 20th Century Women. Jamie’s mother (Annette Bening) wants him to emerge from adolescence as a self-actualized young man shaped by the philosophy espoused in Marlo Thomas’ bestselling self-help book and musical recording Free to Be You and Me. Because Jamie and his mother “don’t talk anymore,” she recruits the help of William the handyman (Billy Crudup) and Abbie, the punk-rocker (Greta Gerwig) who rent rooms in the same Santa Barbara fixer-upper. In a time-warp trip to the 70’s, the punk-rocker opens Jamie’s mind by presenting him with the books Our Bodies Ourselves and Sisterhood Is Powerful. After perusing these books awhile, Jamie decides “Maybe I’m a feminist,” which, of course, is what his mother wanted all along.
The Southie accents are laid on thick in Patriot's Day—the recreation of the horrific bombing during the running of the Boston Marathon. Like he did in Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg again has Mark Wahlberg play the “everyman” character—this time a composite of several “real-life” cops who were working that fateful morning. Berg follows the classic disaster film formula, allowing us to meet the individuals who will be literally and figuratively “blown apart” by events we know are coming soon. We even visit the two terrorist brothers who build and plant the bomb. The choice in presenting the pair in the same “here’s the facts ma’m” style as everyone else is sure to ruffle some people’s feathers. The movie is divided into four parts—the before, during, immediately after the bombing, and the hunt for the “perps.”
With Astronauts gracing the covers of LIFE and Look and other weekly magazines, the American space program was big news in the 60’s. These men were presented as the epitome of American maleness, and the only females we saw who were part of the space program were the women who quilted the multiple layers of fabric for each custom-fitted space suit! 50 years later, Theodore Melfi’s perfectly named film Hidden Figures brings the unsung heroes of the space program out from the shadows—and we finally discover that several of the mathematical geniuses who made the program a success were female African Americans! In this retelling of the quintessential American fable, those dashing spacemen are little more than passengers aboard the heaving, clunking, fuel-spewing hunk of hardware that broke gravity’s inexorable hold of we frail human beings. It’s nice to have a film where the audience cheers for the underlying decency and determined humanity epitomized by the three women combating the solidly built wall of racism, sexism and chauvinism that were signatures for that time and place.
In the mid-80‘s, James Earl Jones personified Troy, the angry, powerful father-figure in the Broadway version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Now, after numerous stage performances in the same role, Denzel Washington directs and plays Troy as an angry, powerful, yet affable father. Troy’s anger comes from the bitterness of being a former “star” in baseball’s Negro League yet being to old to play in the “Big Leagues” after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier.” He toils as a garbage man to pay the bills on the house with a cement-paved backyard where he mixes charm and violence to intimidate his long-suffering wife of 20 years, his 2 boys from different mothers, and his brain-injured, war-vet, brother. Denzel directs Oscar-worthy performances from the entire ensemble.
The emotional minefield of an adoptee searching out his birth-mother is brilliantly portrayed in Garth Davis’ new film, Lion. Presented in two parts, the first section focuses on an India-born 5-year-old who boards the wrong train, and gets off 900 miles from home in a Kolkata slum where kids are snatched off the streets to be sold as slaves and sex workers. The boy ends up in an orphanage and actively participates in selecting his new Tasmanian parents. Flash forward to the second part where an Aussie-accented hospitality-management student uses Google Maps and other modern technologies to track down his birthplace—and his lost mother while his American girlfriend helps to keep his “new” parents in the dark. Astoundingly acted, directed, written and photographed, this is one of the year’s best!