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21 *** Francis Ha – an interesting character study that is almost more of a collage than a plotted story. Greta Gerwig is a millennial Annie Hll — a quirky, charming, sweet spirit who maintains a positive attitude while adrift in an unfocused life. She is an aspiring dancer, 27 years old, out of college but not entirely out of adolescence. She lives in New York but does not have an apartment. The movie is broken up into her various addresses as she drifts across her life making impulsive, short-term choices. Her strongest relationship is to her best friend, Sophie, who is in many ways her kindred spirit but who moves ahead into adulthood (of a sort) leaving Frances behind and adrift. The movie has crisp, realistic dialog, and is photographed in beautiful black and white. The movie is edited to great effect so that no scene lasts a second longer than it has to to make a point about yet another color of Francis’ life. The scenes are like impressionistic dabs in a painting, rather than scenes with beginnings, middles and end. Plot is not the point here so much as this portrait of a woman without drive or a plan, and the resilience of her spirit as she makes impulsive, short-term choices. The movie studiously avoids making a point, stressing a theme, or taking a point of view. It doesn’t judge Francis or any of her friends. But because she and her generation are interesting subjects, the movie never wears out its welcome. Somehow Francis manages to adapt and fit in, even as her name does in the metaphoric ending scene in which we get insight into the film’s title.
22 *** Fruitvale Station – this even-handed dramatization of the needless death of Oscar Grant III focuses on his last day of life, letting us get to know who we was, and the circumstances that led up to his slaying at the hands of a transit cop in the Fruitvale Bart Station. It admirably doesn’t overstate the role race played in the shooting, and instead shows how situations escalate and get out of hand with tragic consequences. The movie doesn’t make a hero of Grant, and depicts both his generous and good side, along with his shortcomings. How accurately it portrays his life and the sequence of events can’t be known – but the movie leaves one with a great sense of the tragedy of situations that unnecessarily escalate to violence. This movie is bound to be a litmus test for one’s feelings about race, class and authority. To its credit – it allows you to draw your own conclusion and feelings about what is shown.
23 *** Side Effects – The prolific and versatile Steven Soderbergh discards his unconventional experimentalism, and returns to straight-forward, sharply focused style in this effective, Hitchcock-like suspense film. This is a film best viewed with as little information about its tricky plot revealed before hand, so suffice is it to say it involves the world of everyday mental illnesses (such as depression, anxiety, etc) and the medications commonly prescribed to treat them. Rooney Mara is hardly recognizable from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Jude Law does some of his best work here. The film is crisply filmed and edited (it was shot on the Red Camera system), and looks first rate. A nicely-paced diversion though in total it doesn’t add up to anything heavily substantial. Might play as a good double feature with Soderberg’s last foray into things medical, “Contagion”.
24 *** Philomena – While I feared this might be an overly sentimental story of mother and child separation – this turns out to be quite a bit more than that — a two handed portrait contrasting different views of a story — the personal side from the journalistic side. The differences between faith and dreams, and cynicism and society. Like most British films, class plays a big role in defining the characters. On one side, Philomena, delightfully played by Judi Dench, an older woman seeking to reestablish any connection between herself and her illegitimate son from who she was separated early in life by the nuns at the convent she was banished to for her sin — and a journalist, recently separated from his career, who reluctantly agrees to free-lance a ‘human interest story’ and becomes drawn into somewhat mysterious trail that emerges. Steve Coogan is the surprise here, in a departure from his usual comic persona, bringing interesting gravity and priggishness to the role. Philomena is miles away from his usual turf – he, interested in Russian History, she interested in romance novels and speculative fancy. The story is based on actual incidents and a book written by the real-life journalist. An interesting slice of history, practices of the Catholic church, and society.
25 *** Saving Mr. Banks – a charming and amusing behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of making a beloved Disney Classic. Emma Thompson pulls off the difficult stunt of making the unbending, stubborn, pain-in-the-ass author of Mary Poppins into an endearing crank, and Tom Hanks brings his considerable down-to-earth charm to playing the iconic Walt Disney � albeit in a sanitized version that suggests he was as sweet, wise, sincere and charming as a studio mogul as he appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney. I didn’t buy any of the sanitized geniality of this soft-ball clash between author and entertainment engineer, nor her relationship with the film’s writers and song writers � but it did make for good fun. The fish out-of-water in Hollywood, and the lovable chauffeur played by Paul Giamanti, all worked quite well as the film devices they clearly are. I was much less taken by the film’s ‘secretive’ dark side of the author, the personal story of her life that led her to write and protect Mary Poppins. The movie spends way too much time continually cutting back to flashbacks of a loving father who was nonetheless an alcoholic. It provides little real detail, is extremely repetitive in pummeling us with information that really reveals no secret we don’t already see coming, and nothing about it really, directly explains how that childhood shaped her attitude in life and her relationship to a book she then chose to write. Even if the book was in fact inspired from her difficult, real life, it doesn’t explain why she is loathe to have the material altered or made cheerier in Hollywood fashion. The film is nonetheless quite entertaining in its gentile treatment of artistic differences (though no one ever calls or even thinks of this woman as a bitch, and they mostly handle her with great sympathy and professionalism), but its fanciful to think that creative differences are so genially resolved. The heartfelt persuasive power of Disney to nonetheless bring his vision of the movie to the screen, further burnishes Disney’s legend as someone who made films, not for the money, but to bring magic and meaning to children’s lives. Gee � could this film have been produced by the Walt Disney company?
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