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Kes (1969)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Dai Bradley), a fifteen-year-old with a history of theft, wakes up at six o’clock every morning and delivers newspapers before heading to school. Once there, however, he does not exhibit much interest. Within a few months, he knows he will have to get a job though his interests lack range and focus. Most of his energy is directed toward surviving bullies, often kids who are older than him, and adults on a power trip. His life at home is not any better. His mother, Mrs. Casper (Lynne Perrie), and his brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), are on each other’s throats constantly. When he ends up at a neighboring farm one afternoon and notices birds hovering about, something about them, perhaps their freedom, captures his interest. He hopes to have a kestrel that he can train.

It is convenient to label “Kes,” based on the book “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines, as another film about a young person who learns the importance of taking responsibility after having and relating to an animal, but the picture is far deeper than a familiar template. Propelled by naturalistic performances, the story gathers power, first slowly and then suddenly, through the events of every day, from the mundane to the memorable and life-changing. At its best, it is feverish poetry, so relatable to those aware of the seed from which one’s passion in life has sprouted.

Billy looking for a book about falconry that details how to take care of the animal and train it, reminded me of the time when I was about seven years of age and stumbled upon a green Biology textbook in a dilapidated house with mountains of sand inside. The way the camera lingers on Billy being so transfixed on that book is a sure signal that he is not a hopeless case, despite his tiresome environment and people who treat him as if he were of little value.

Not one picture or word is shown on the book he deeply covets so I turned to my own memory, to try to imagine how it must be like for him. Maybe he struggles to make sense of certain words as I did when I read alien language in my precious book like “osmosis,” “ependyma,” and “neuroglia.” Maybe he is mesmerized by the pictures of falcons or how a trainer should hold one’s arm when summoning the bird as I did when I stared at an image of a worm’s internal anatomy. I felt him thinking, absorbing, and trying to make sense of things that may not quite match up.

Billy has a lot of anger simmering below the surface. The picture places captures human behavior with accuracy and efficiency. This is a young man so used to taking without earning. He takes the bird from its nest. He takes the book from the store. He takes money that does not belong to him. He is not surrounded by people who strive to lead by example. Many of the adults are also in the habit of taking: taking jabs in the form punishment as well as taking a private shame and letting others have it in order to experience an evanescent feeling of superiority. Notice how a hilarious football game led by the mercurial gym teacher (Brian Glover) is turned into a portrait of maddening cruelty in the locker room.

The next two memorable scenes contrast each other. Several kids are sent to Mr. Gryce’s office, the headmaster played by Bob Bowes, for being caught smoking. A tiny boy, not part of the group that has been caught, is sent by his teacher with a message for the headmaster. Mr. Gryce mistakes the boy’s purpose in being there so he, too, gets a lecture and the stick, ordered to shut his mouth every time he starts to explain. Though this boy gets only one scene, I related to him completely. I have been in a similar situation when I was a kid and it is the kind of thing I will carry with me, the anger within for being punished despite not doing anything wrong, for the rest of my life. In Mr. Farthing’s class, on the other hand, emphasis is placed on being allowed to speak, which is so important, so much more meaningful than simply telling students what to do or by censuring them. This leads to a most moving scene involving Billy and his newfound passion.

Once in a while a movie comes along, grabs you, and does not let go. “Kes,” directed by Ken Loach, is a perfect example for it demands not just to be seen but to be experienced and thought about afterwards. Many will see this and consider it old-fashioned, from the discipline imposed by authority figures to what the bird symbolizes, which may hold some weight given the right set of arguments, but what it offers transcends what is right and what is wrong by focusing on what is and its consequences.


A Place at the Table

Place at the Table, A (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

I was told by my parents that there was a time when we barely had food to put on the table. I would be given one small fish to eat with rice and my mother and father would share a dish of watery rice so they could feel full faster. Hearing that piece of the past for the first time, I recall being very surprised because I have not one memory of my family ever not having enough food to eat; there was always food on the table or in the refrigerator, enough for us to have a choice of eating between healthy and unhealthy food.

It is easy to forget that it is not like that in every household. “A Place at the Table,” directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, reminds us of the fifty million Americans (and rising) who experience food insecurity, a state in which obtaining food is an every day challenge, and how so many people who are hungry affects us as a nation. In addition, it takes a look at what the future might hold for us since children of today are physically unfit, mentally drained, and psychologically scarred due to what is and what is not available for them eat. I strongly believe in the saying that a nation is only as good as the way it treats its elderly and youth.

The documentary’s scope is quite large and all sorts of information are presented quickly though these are clear enough for a layman to get the gist. It uses animation, charts, and graphs to highlight trends. This is especially effective in discussing the subject of subsidized food. Food that have been subsidized are bought cheaply and so stores sell them at a lower price. It explains why junk food like chips are significantly less expensive—and therefore more appealing to households on a very tight budget—than healthier, low-calorie fruits and vegetables.

The difficulty of a household being eligible for food assistance is also touched upon. Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two children, is barely able to scrape by. Without a full-time job, she is qualified for food stamps and her kids get enough to eat. However, after she gets a job, the help from the government is no longer available. Because money is so tight, her kids go back to eating non-nutritious food, one of whom is exhibiting effects of long-term nutritional deprivation. Barbie’s children are not more than five years of age.

Images of several families having a shortage of food are touching and maddening, but a child describing directly to camera how she feels because she is so hungry in class is something else entirely. Rosie, a fifth-grader, tells us that even though she wants to learn and focus on what is being taught that day, she just cannot will herself to do it. Rosie looks at her teacher and her mind sees a banana; she looks at her classmates and her mind sees apples or oranges. One person being interviewed makes a great point that since so many young people are starving, and few get relief, potential is wasted. We will never know if that starving child would have been a great scientist or a military strategist if only he or she would have had something as basic as a reliable food source.

The film might have been stronger if it had more information about adults with food insecurity. While it is able to capture the mental stresses of having to provide for their young ones, it does not show enough longer-term, health-related repercussions. I can remember only one man that is admitted to the hospital for having a swollen leg—which is related to his weight. Furthermore, during the first twenty minutes, the soundtrack by The Civil Wars is often misplaced. When certain images are presented, the singing distracts from information we are supposed to process. It is challenging enough to draw inferences without having to actively separate the music from the facts.

“A Place at the Table” strives to make a difference. It puts the spotlight on a marginalized population of America by dispelling the perception that starving people have to look like skeletons. On the contrary, they can be your overweight neighbor. Lastly, I was surprised to have learned that in some places, people are required to drive over fifty miles to get to a store that sells fruit and vegetables. Would you drive forty miles to buy healthy food? Thirty? Twenty? What if you don’t even have enough money for gas?


Yume to kyôki no ôkoku

Yume to kyôki no ôkoku (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Director Mami Sunada spends about a year filming inside the renowned Studio Ghibli, responsible for giving movie lovers around the globe masterpieces such as “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “From Up on Poppy Hill.” This is where the legendary Hayao Miyazaki creates his memorable works, along with the help of many animators, and the documentary also turns its attention on the process of making his final film, “The Wind Rises.”

“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a documentary told through a poet’s perspective. It is quite an experience to sit through because it likes to take its time drawing us into the images. For instance, when Miyazaki is working on storyboards, we see what is being drawn or colored and yet we cannot help but squint just a little as to absorb the more minute details of the artwork. I was amused by this because I had seen “The Wind Rises” prior to watching this film and yet I was still inspired to look at the raw images, hopefully recognizing the scene that the images belong to. It helps that the camera lingers for a few seconds in order to give us that chance.

It offers surprising details about Miyazaki: how he works, his perspective on life, and how others view him. For example, he admits that even though he works on the storyboards himself, he does not really know what kind of film he’ll end up with. This sentiment is particularly relevant to “Spirited Away,” understandable because that film offers so many rich, bizarre, amusing, curious images and turn of events.

Particularly memorable is when the man decides to speak to the artists that there is a difference between how the Japanese bow in modern times versus the era of the Second World War. Nowadays, people bow and then return to standing up straight. Back then, people bowed but they kept their backs at an acute angle relative to the ground. Straightening it completely would have communicated rudeness. Since “The Wind Rises” takes place during World War II, the customs during that time must be reflected in the animation. He then mentions that drawing characters glancing sideways while turning around is an egregious mistake. He offers a wonderful explanation as to why.

At one point in the documentary, Miyazaki claims that “what drives animation is the will of the characters.” I thought this insight defines the studio’s work. It continues to release high quality films because it is character-driven first. We get to understand them as much as—if not better than—live actors performing a role. The magic is in the screenplay and everything else, like the quality and style of animation, seemingly happens to fall into place. On a rare occasion that they do not, we forgive easily because it is likely that there is something about the story that gets to our core.

Throughout the course of the two-hour film, it becomes clear that the studio and the people in it are like family—including a stray cat that likes to lounge about but smart enough never to bother Miyazaki while he is working. We see the camaraderie between Miyazaki and his colleagues. Miyazaki is honest about the work and how much effort is put into it. The latter is also given a chance to tell the truth. A handful of people claim—some joke—that the man is tough and has high expectations. Some people happen to fail living up to them. And yet despite these truths, the place still comes across as an awesome place to work, play, and create.



Zombeavers (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm), and Jenn (Lexi Atkins), sorority sisters, decide to have a weekend getaway at a cabin in the country. Right next to the cabin is a lake where beavers have made a dam. The girls are unaware that the beavers that swim there have been exposed to a biohazard material quite recently and this toxic compound has made the beavers rabid-looking. Soon, the girls encounter these deranged-looking beavers—which prove very difficult to kill. The hospital is about thirty miles away.

“Zombeavers,” directed by Jordan Rubin, is ridiculous, cheesy, gory, nonsensical at times, occasionally very funny—and proud of these traits. We get exactly what we expect from the horror-comedy sub-genre with a playful title. At the same time, however, I wished it had been more willing to surprise, whether it be how certain characters are treated or when it comes to the biology or physiology of these so-called zombeavers. Also, the third act could use a bit of work.

I made an incorrect assumption with respect to who the final girl was going to be. Mary, Zoe, and Jenn are not exactly the stereotypical “good” girls so it makes guessing a bit more challenging. Do we go for the girl who had been cheated on by her boyfriend, the girl who insists that they have a “no boys weekend” so they can bond, or the punk-rock girl who has something dirty or inappropriate to say every two minutes? I liked these characters. I was surprised that the screenplay by Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin, and Jon Kaplan does not simply treat them as bodies to be slaughtered.

The zombeavers look more like giant rats than actual beavers. I was okay with this. I was never scared by how they looked like but just about each time they made an appearance, I could not help but be amused. They are obviously animatronic objects of some sort but this is preferred over CGI. I enjoyed that there is a texture to these zombeavers rather than simply looking glossy or fake. It is difficult to pull off CGI in horror films and the filmmakers here seem to be aware of such a limitation. In a way, it is good that the budget is limited. Otherwise, a less effective movie might have resulted.

The first few attacks are executed nicely. A standout involves the girls and their boyfriends (Hutch Dano, Jake Weary, Peter Gilroy) being attacked by the rabid beavers on a raft. Beavers are not only great swimmers but they are quite good at chewing wood. It is very “Jaws”-like in that we get a real feeling that there is little to no chance at escaping. The way they manage to escape is so wrong yet genius.

As with many horror-comedies, one has to be in the mood for this kind of picture. The dialogue is sophomoric, the special effects are cheap-looking, and the premise is outrageous. But why see it? Because everyone involved is willing to go all the way. Because some of it works, the ones that do not become an afterthought.


Beyond the Reach

Beyond the Reach (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While out hunting in the Mojave Desert, Madec (Michael Douglas), a corporate shark in the process of closing down a multimillion-dollar deal, shoots a man accidentally. Ben (Jeremy Irvine), Madec’s hunting guide, insists that they return the corpse to town as soon as possible. However, his client has another idea: Shoot the dead man—this time with Ben’s rifle—to make the death look like a murder. After all, one cannot shoot a man twice accidentally. Although offered a great life in exchange for his silence, Ben opts to do the right thing—which gets him in very big trouble with the man who has everything except a conscience.

Minimalist down to its marrow, director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s “Beyond the Reach” may be unbelievable at times but it is without a doubt entertaining, suspenseful, and thrilling. It could have been boring—after all, it is about a person waiting for another to die under the desert sun—but it knows exactly when and how to change gears in order to make us care about what is about to happen. The film is not for everyone because it requires a bit of patience and a whole lot of appreciation for the little things.

The protagonist is smart, resourceful, and charismatic. But so is the villain—and with a dash of crazy. This makes them equal and it is quite compelling to watch them move the chess pieces across the desert-dry yellow board. Furthermore, the two characters are interesting because they have opposite personalities. More interesting is how the screenplay allow them to dance from the moment the fatal bullet hits the unsuspecting man from a distance.

Irvine plays Ben as quiet, mysterious, maybe a bit sad for having been left behind—first by his family and then recently by his girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence). And yet there is an indomitable fighter inside him—Irvine’s signature and the reason why, in my opinion, he is one of the best young performers currently working today. On the other hand, Douglas plays Madec as supremely confident, with a powerful presence despite his age, and someone who oozes privilege. Madec is the kind of antagonist who plays classical music and drinks cocktail while watching someone suffer under the scorching sun through his binoculars. It is interesting to see the two duking it out in one of the harshest places on the planet.

I enjoyed how the camera is unafraid to show the repercussions of being out in the sun for too long. It begins with a simple sunburn and as the picture goes on, blisters begin to appear, the soles of one’s feet start to tear off, sweat and grime makes Ben more animalistic—internally and externally—desperate for food, water, and safety. The protagonist knows when to take advantage of a situation but is constantly prevented from getting the upper-hand. This pattern is very necessary to support the material’s understated message: The rich tends to always be a step ahead of those who have less simply because they have means.

Based on the novel “Deathwatch” by Robb White and screenplay by Stephen Susco, “Beyond the Reach” could have been a home run if it were not for its final five minutes. The last shot, I think, should have left the viewer wondering instead of giving out the answer once the screen fades to black. The story is a morality play after all. Nevertheless, I admired the picture for its willingness to experiment.


The We and the I

We and the I, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is the last day of high school in the Bronx and the students are ready for the summer. After the long-awaited ringing of the bell, teens from different cliques board the public bus and director Michel Gondry observes with his camera. If it were not for the more whimsical scenes inserted between casual conversations, one could not be blamed for mistaking the picture for a documentary because its flow and texture are so organic.

Casting inexperienced actors who are actually teenagers benefits the picture immensely. I enjoyed that it was a challenge for me to figure out whether most of the dialogue is ad libbed. By the end, I remained unsure. Not only do the words and the phrasings sound incredibly authentic, the performers are able to deliver the right attitude that comes with what they are saying and feeling. Spending time with them made me feel like I was back in high school.

Observing the characters closely, one gets the impression that so many things are going on inside their heads but many of them only know how to communicate a certain way. Take Michael (Michael Brodie) and his goofy friends as an example. They create so much commotion on the back of the bus. They are mean to each other, to their peers who happen to be taking the same bus, and even toward complete strangers. Later, as their numbers dwindle down and the energy is lower, we have a more accurate way of gauging the remaining teens’ maturity levels.

Or maybe we do not. After all, we have only known them for about two hours. There is a key exchange between Michael and Alex (Alex Raul Barrios), the latter not at all impressed with the idea that Michael has only decided to speak to him on the very last day of school. To us, Michael’s sensitive side is almost endearing but to Alex it is simply a charade—and will not have any of it. That alternative perspective is injected with such precision, it is a reminder to us that although we do not spend that much time with each teenager, we get a sense that they have real thoughts and lives outside of that bus.

The picture lacks the necessary focus in order for it to become a fully enveloping experience. There are moments when it gets distracted by flashbacks, flash-forwards, fantasy, and possibilities. While the aforementioned techniques add to the humor somewhat, it comes off trying too hard at times, a contrivance. In a film like this, misplaced quirks are magnified because its aim is to deliver a certain level of realism.

Written by Michel Gondry, Jeffrey Grimshaw, and Paul Proch, “The We and the I” has its limitations but it is nonetheless a beautiful movie. It annoyed me sometimes that just when a character starts to get really interesting, he or she gets off the bus. At the same time, life is like that sometimes. You meet people on your journey and you start to believe that you are in it together until you are not. Everyone has his own destination.


Cockneys vs Zombies

Cockneys vs Zombies (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Brothers Andy (Harry Treadaway) and Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) decide to rob a bank in order to prevent their grandfather (Alan Ford) from losing his retirement home. The big day happens to coincide with two construction workers unearthing a tomb. Inside houses hundreds of skulls. One of the skeletons moves and a takes a bite out of the men. Soon, the East End of London is teeming with the infected and Andy, Terry, and their mates must fight for their lives.

“Cockneys vs Zombies,” directed by Matthias Hoene, is not the second coming of “Shaun of the Dead” despite the two having about a half a dozen similarities. What the former lacks is an infectious verve, a feeling that it might be fun or exciting to wake up one day and discover that the dead can come back to life. The amusing lines are in the script but not the sense of adventure in order for it to stand above the rest.

At times the picture is very funny. I enjoyed that the characters have seen zombie movies and so they know precisely what to do when encountering the undead. But there are also jokes outside of the self-awareness. A standout scene involves the robbers walking into the bank dressed up as construction workers. However, the irony in the situation does not last for long. One of the characters is too trigger-happy but far from interesting. I could not wait for him to get bitten.

Part of the problem is we are never given a chance to believe that the characters are in danger. First, there is far too many of them for too long. The camera moves around consistently and so the tension fails to build. The zombies are slower and weaker than usual. I suppose that aspect is redeemed a little bit by a race between a zombie and an older person on a walker. Still, that is one wink out of the many painfully standard chases.

Someone should have told the screenwriters, James Moran and Lucas Roche, that it is a no-no to give characters in a survival picture unlimited supply of guns. Since everyone has a weapon, it comes down to pointing and shooting. It looks like just about everybody is a great shot. Aside from certain frames shot in slow motion, the filmmakers fail to command the material when bullets fly. In fact, the whole thing turns into a bore.

The film had a chance to make a statement and I was at a loss on why it did not. There is a recurring theme about the working class getting the short end of the stick, from the construction workers who stumble upon the underground graveyard to the brothers who mean well but often get into trouble. It is very disappointing that the writers actually made the decision to vacuum out the flavor from a horror-comedy with something to say about the working class and what it means for them to fight and survive.


Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (2014)
★ / ★★★★

If I were to jot down the positive qualities that “Inherent Vice” had, the page would be close to blank. With a running time of two and a half hours, it feels significantly, tortuously longer because the screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson fail to engage the viewers in such a way that it makes a drug-fueled underworld look like a bloody automobile accident one could not help but watch.

Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a licensed private investigator who decides to ask questions after his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. The last time they spoke to one another, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) confessed that she has been made aware of a scheme that involves two people wanting to send the man she is currently seeing—a major league real estate figure—to a mental hospital. Sportello becomes a suspect when he is found by the cops, led by Lieutenant Detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), regaining consciousness next to a corpse in the middle of the desert.

Not for one second is the protagonist a convincing investigator. Superficially, we observe him floating from one connection after another, often addicted to drugs themselves, but he does not ask enough probing questions—questions that incite reaction or any surprising insight about the mystery at hand. Oftentimes the characters engage in whispers and mumblings—the camera real close to their faces—so low-key that the scenes become bland, boring, soporific, so dragged on that the running time becomes unjustified.

The material neglects to give us a good reason why we should care about the detective or the missing girl. Their relationship is not anything special. One can argue that they do not even have a relationship to begin with—at least one that is deep or lasting. Sportello comes across as lazy, dirty, deadly dull when interacting with others. Other than the one scene that sets up the story, we learn not one interesting thing about Shasta. I would like to personally ask the director why he thinks this story is worth telling.

This is a film teeming with caricatures, not real people. This would not have been a problem if the material consistently made an active attempt to criticize a particular time, place, group people, or way of thinking. But the picture is not a criticism of anything—not through comedy, satire, or condemnation. It is a straight-faced drama with no marrow to it. Thus, what results is a one-dimensional dross with actors in it who utter lines but they themselves look like they have no idea what the movie is attempting to accomplish.

People will defend this movie for its brazen insularity. They are entitled to do that. Not me. I could not go up to someone, genuinely tell them that it is worth seeing, and feel good about it. A movie can be inaccessible emotionally or intellectually, maybe both, yet still offer a great experience through, for example, visual artistry or how the work tends to stick to the viewer’s brain long afterwards.

I understood “Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, on the basis of what it tries to accomplish, but I wished that the writer-director understood the importance of translating a book to the screen. Some might say one has to read the book first and then watch the movie so the work can be understood. Wrong. It is most critical that the material be digestible through a cinematic experience. Otherwise, why spend millions of dollars to make something that gives nothing yet steal everybody’s time?


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