Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Movies about psychiatry tend to follow the same blueprint.  In their own way, they're as predictable as westerns or splatter films. There are usually scenes where the doctor sits at home, pondering the case over dinner. The patient moves like a specter through the doctor's mind, haunting him a bit, baffling him. Ultimately, the patient triumphs over his or her problems, and the doctor learns something about him or herself along the way.  Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, follows the usual route, but the pulse of this film is so weak that it barely sticks in the memory. Of course, I blame myself for expecting too much. Since the film is set in the 1940s, I'd imagined something like The Snake Pit crossed with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, or at the very least, a period piece about the cruel treatment of mental patients after WW2. Of course, I understand that preconceiving a film in this manner does the work a disservice. A peeve of mine when reading other reviews is when someone writes, "Gee, I thought this film was going to be like another film, and it wasn't, so I'm let down..." Such reviewing is not thoughtful.  So I apologize, mostly to director Arnaud Desplechin, who made a quality film, unusual in its tone and pacing, but featuring some fine performances.

I apologize to the cast, who were all very fine, particularly Benicio Del Toro as Jimmy Picard, the Jimmy P of the title, a Native American who returns from the war suffering from blinding headaches and blackouts. He's taken to a clinic where doctors feel he may be suffering from serious mental problems but are hesitant to treat him because they aren't familiar with his culture. Georges Devereux, an out of work anthropologist from Brooklyn (Mathieu Amalric), is brought in to study Jimmy.  Devereux, who is fascinated by Indian cultures, fills notebooks with Jimmy's every grunt. They spend a major portion of the film just chatting. Georges has Jimmy do some finger-painting, and from Jimmy's drawings he decides Jimmy is not crazy at all. Georges and Jimmy develop a friendship of sorts, a cautious one.  By the end of the film, the dour Del Toro is smiling, and telling Georges, "I think you're very weird."  In a film where very little happens, this friendly moment is like an atomic charge. Oh, I should apologize to Amalric, too. He's very good as Georges Devereux, caustic, wry, occasionally funny. I liked both characters, and I liked both actors playing the characters.

Del Toro is riveting as Jimmy. Shuffling around like an old bear, speaking in a halting voice, he tells stories of his losses and sorrows, mystified at how they happened, and equally mystified as to why they have such a concrete hold on his mind. Over the course of the film we begin to understand the depths of his sadness. Georges has problems, too, with his career, and with his love life. The hospital doesn't seem to have the usual spaces reserved for such therapy sessions as Georges and Jimmy are involved in, so their meetings are often in small rooms, closets,  or outdoors. They walk and talk. Jimmy doesn't like being in a place where everyone is so sick, and we do get the prerequisite scenes of other patients acting out, hurting themselves, and screaming. They climb the walls and stick knives in their hands. There are suicides. Jimmy takes it all in. He's inscrutable.  As repulsive as the place may be, Jimmy wants to get better. He sticks with Georges and the "talking cure." He's an admirable character.

Fortunately, there are no turgid scenes where Del Toro breaks down and cries hysterically at some long hidden memory, and Georges never grinds him down by saying, "it's not your fault," and they don't hug, and it doesn't turn out that Jimmy accidentally killed anybody in a barn, and he doesn't have submerged memories of the war.  I was thankful that his problems  were not anything we may have seen in Good Will Hunting or an episode of late period M.A.S.H. He was simply a sensitive man who experienced some sad things in his life, things you or I might have experienced.

The story is based on a true case written about by Devereux. I imagine Devereux's book is very enjoyable. I also imagined this story, heavy on dialogue and subtle acting, might have worked well as a stage play. As a film, it plays like a piece of classical music. There are moments of beauty, moments of quiet, and occasional rises in tempo, all of which should be appreciated, even if you prefer catchier tunes. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Stephen Frear's Philomena is like most films where a mother searches for a long lost child, full of hope and heartache, and ultimately a bittersweet climax that will leave you moist-eyed. After having a son at age 15, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) lives in an Irish Catholic asylum operated by Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to punish "sinful" girls, many being unwed mothers driven away by their shamed families.  Dench, who has often played perky, intelligent characters who harbor secrets, plays Philomena in her older years as a good-natured Irish mum with the heaviest of hearts; her son was adopted by an American couple without her consent and she's not seen him in since. On her son's 50th birthday, she falls into a terrible depression. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote and produced the film) learns of her story and, cut adrift from his own career as one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's aides, decides that a "human interest story," although beneath his usual line of work, might be what it takes to correct his shaky career path.

Sixsmith, whose eventual book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee serves as the basis for the film, is the sort of cynical reporter who despises the "foot in the door" techniques used by muckrakers, but knows how to use them and is actually good at digging up the dirt. The role is like lightening in a bottle for Coogan, who manages to retain some of his old arrogant film persona, but is gently respectful of Philomena and grows to enjoy her company as they travel to America together to seek out her son. Even when Sixsmith does get rankled by her working class habits, such as her insistence on describing the plots tacky romance novels, he shows great patience and plays along. The few times he loses patience with Philomena usually come back to haunt him; in movies like this, the good-hearted types are always right, you know. But Coogan also makes Sixsmith, for all of his grumbling, quite a likable chap.

What Philomena and Sixsmith learn in their search for her son opens up conversations about the Catholic church, religion, politics, publishing, and what other cultures feel about Americans. Philomena, for instance, fears her son may have grown up to be obese, for she saw a documentary about how "huge" Americans have become. She also fears that her little boy may have grown up to be homeless, and torments herself by imagining the worst. It turns out her fears are not entirely unfounded, but in a story so filled with sharp turns, it would be ungentlemanly to spoil any of them here.

Some of the arguments about religion are a bit on the sophomoric side - Sixsmith's inability to understand how a loving deity would make sex so pleasurable if it was considered a sin sounds like the stance taken by a precocious high school sophomore, not an Oxford educated man who once worked with the Prime Minister of England. Yet, these little volleys about religion help portray Philomena's character. It's her forgiveness of the nuns who sold her son  that will leave you in awe,  as well as her constant refusal to blame the church for any of her troubles. It's as if her love of God trumps any shortcomings on the part of the narrow-minded nuns and priests of her past. To watch the outspoken Sixsmith nearly humbled in the shadow of her faith is one of the cornerstones upon which Philomena is built. 

Frears has directed so many fine films. A boxed set of his work might include: Prick Up Your Ears (1987)  Dangerous Liaisons (1988) The Grifters (1990) The Van (1996), High Fidelity (2000), and The Queen (2006).  He's comfortable directing costume dramas or modern comedies, crime films or romances. Philomena, which will be remembered as one of his greatest efforts, is an example of a seasoned director using everything in his arsenal to tell a story that is both straightforward and deceptively rich. There are no tricks here, no blinding stylistic choices, just good, traditional storytelling with human characters. It's true that stories of separated mothers and sons are easy tear-jerkers, even if they aren't well-made. But wouldn't it be nice if they were always as perfectly pitched as Philomena?

Saturday, February 22, 2014


While watching   Cheap Thrills, I started thinking about the evolution of the American dreamWe used to dream about working hard and making money. Then we dreamed about simply winning the money, or stealing it. Now, we dream about meeting a rich guy who will give us money if we do crazy shit for him. Maybe this latest version started with Demi Moore agreeing to sleep with Robert Redford for a million bucks back in the days of Indecent Proposal. Anyway, as I watched a couple of characters eat dogs and engage in all manner of  stupefying stunts, I started thinking that either this new dream means we're at least willing to do something for our money, or it means we've run out of ideas and see humiliation as no worse than working. 

Craig (Pat Healy) starts the film by pursuing the old-fashioned dream, working hard to support his wife and child. But in quick succession, as these things usually happen, he receives an eviction notice and loses his job. While drinking away his sorrows in his local bar, Craig runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old skateboarding buddy he hasn't seen in years.  Vince is familiar with the other version of the American dream. He's a small time crook of some kind, and has already done some prison time. 

Colin (David Koechner), the mysterious rich man who always materializes in this sort of film, invites them to his table for some drinks, and soon has them agreeing to various challenges: ie. slap a waitress on the ass, punch the bouncer in the face, etc. Colin, who is entertaining his slinky, slightly dippy girlfriend (Sara Paxton) on her birthday, throws money around recklessly. It turns out he has a case full of cash put aside just for this night. Since both Craig and Vince are broke, they are willing to do whatever Colin asks. Money is money, right?  It doesn't take long for these challenges to get out of hand. Craig, determined to come away from this night with enough money to prevent his eviction, shows how low he's willing to go. To Vince's surprise, Craig is a little better at groveling for money than anyone in the old neighborhood might've anticipated. 

The film is being marketed as a horror-comedy, but I think it's much more than that. There are a couple of laughs in it, sure, and plenty of plot twists, but there's something deeper going on than just a Saw rehash where characters  mutilate themselves. Part of it is Pat Healy's performance. I've enjoyed his work since the first time I saw him as a nerdy bigot in Ghost World, and watched him with jaw-dropping wonder more recently in Compliance.  In Cheap Thrills, he puts aside his usual smarmy mannerisms and plays such a broken, pathetic character that I genuinely felt sorry for him. The wild card is Koechner as the millionaire. His throw away lines are funny, he's unpredictable and dangerous, and I like the fact that we never really know much about him. Why should we?

The film is also a beauty to look at, thanks to the cinematography team of Sebastian Wintero and Andrew Wheeler. The movie feels like it's suffering a hangover, with harsh light stretched across one's field of vision. The smart script by Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo reminded me of  the novels of Thomas Berger (that is, if Berger's mind had been rotted by a lifetime of watching low budget horrors). Director E.L. Katz, making his first feature, shows a sure-handed feel for suspense, and fortunately, a good sense for letting characters show a human side, even when the goal is to put some blood on the walls. 

I still can't decide if Cheap Thrills is a good movie, or just good for a cheap horror movie. Movies that rely on twists and sudden shocks can be entertaining, but are easily forgettable. This one, I think, may not be so easily forgotten. And it won't be the gross stuff that stays with you, it'll be Healy, scratching his way to the finish line, his face beaten beyond recognition. He's disgusted with himself, but behaving the only way a man can when the American dream is over and there are no choices left.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Scott Coffey's Adult World is the kind of movie where a precocious young woman leaves home, fails to sell her poetry, gets a job in a porno shop, befriends a drag queen, meets her literary idol, loses her virginity, gets humiliated, and learns a few valuable lessons along the way. It's not as bad as you may have gleaned from other reviews (or this one), but it's not great, either.

Thanks to the manic earnestness of Emma Roberts as Amy the aspiring poet, and John Cusack's crabby turn as washed up poet Rat Billings, Adult World almost has a chance. If the film had been solely about these two, it might have been a pleasant enough diversion. Instead, Coffey and screenwriter  Andrew Cochran throw in a handful of other plots and characters that don't add up to anything. The porn shop, for instance, is run by a sweet old couple (Cloris Leachman and John Cullum, two good performers given nothing to do). That could have been a story in itself, but it just feels like an idea left over from a screenwriting class. The drag queen seems borrowed from another movie, too. And why does he/she talk like Elmer Fudd?

I don't know if 22-year-old virginal poets like Amy really exist. Or if they ever did. I don't know if a bitter writer like Rat Billings would take her on as a protege. Somehow, I doubt it. I think the filmmakers sort of doubted it, too. That's why they couldn't leave the two of them alone and threw in the kitchen sink. In fairness, there are a few funny lines in Adult World, and I liked Cusack's performance. Was it just yesterday when Cusack might've been playing the idealistic young poet? Now he's easing into  middle age, and seems comfortable playing a son of a bitch.

Novelist Dean Koontz has probably sold as many books as Stephen King, but he's yet to create anything to capture the public's fancy in the way of Carrie, or The Shining. His books, which are often good reads, particularly during the summer months when you have some time off or a long train trip ahead, have occasionally been adapted for television but have never caught the attention of big name directors or studios. I'm not sure why that is, but Odd Thomas, a film directed by Stephen Sommers and based on a Koontz novel, seems to pull out all stops in an effort to create some kind of King vibe, borrowing elements from the aforementioned novels, as well as The Dead Zone and a few others.  This isn't to say Koontz was plundering King's style, but rather, he's traveling down some of the same paths. I have no problem with this, for creative borrowing is often the key to a writer's success. Besides, King is a well-known borrower of ideas, too.

The title character (Anton Yelchin) speaks to dead people, and helps a local police chief (Willem Dafoe) solve crimes by using his paranormal powers. Odd Thomas fears that an unstoppable menace is coming to their little town because he sees ugly, transparent spirits hovering around, harbingers of doom and "operatic violence." I liked these boogers, they were the best thing in the film. But we also get a lot of routine stuff: giant cockroaches; Satan worshipers; weirdos who keep scrapbooks with articles about serial killers;  big scary dogs; and a masked maniac who enters a shopping mall armed with an automatic weapon.  There's an interesting character named Fungus Bob, the standard loner who lives in a shed beyond the tracks (you know the type). He gets bumped off early, but Odd Thomas is still in touch with him because, well, he speaks to the dead. 

If the film isn't brimming with uniqueness, it's told briskly and is actually rather moving at times. I liked how one of the dead characters tries to be funny, using his severed arm as a prop. Odd Thomas explains that even the dead have a pathetic need to be liked. Odd Thomas and his girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin) are also sort of endearing, even if most of their dialog is the chirpy kind found in cheap, made for TV programming. In fact, much of Odd Thomas feels like a pilot for a potential series. I can imagine Odd Thomas on TBS, or USA, battling various super sharks and walking dead types. Why not? There are worse ways to spend an evening.

If you need proof that even the wealthiest of actors will do anything for money, you couldn't ask for a  better example than The Bag Man. Somehow, director David Grovic lured Robert De Niro and John Cusack into starring in his debut film, a dreary hodge-podge of Twin Peaks, Pulp Fiction, and enough hoary film noir cliches to make Alan Ladd not only spin in his grave, but possibly throw up. 

De Niro plays a pseudo intellectual crime boss named Dregma who sends hitman Cusack on a mission to find a bag containing secrets, and then hole up in a cheesy motel until further notice. The hitch is that Cusack isn't supposed to look in the bag, for the whole thing is a sort of ruse to test Cusack's loyalty and his ability to follow orders. At the hotel, Cusack encounters all sorts of weirdos, including a 6-foot hooker, mean pimps and dwarfs, a seedy hotel manager played by a completely out of ideas Crispin Glover, and a team of sadistic cops who have some curious ideas of how to get information. Most of the film takes place in complete darkness, save for the colorful neon lights of the hotel, and the occasional flash of someone's headlights. I grew so tired of squinting to make out what was happening that I gradually stopped caring. 

It's the sort of film where De Niro breaks a woman's nose and then gives her the number of a good plastic surgeon. If that strikes you as witty, go for it. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Some stories immediately grab you. The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of them. It's about a couple dealing with the illness and eventual death of their child, a darling little girl named Maybelle (after Maybelle Carter, the country singer). The story of parents losing a child is a staple of the cinema going back many years.  Somehow, the characters in this Dutch film make it seem like we're seeing bereaved parents for the first time.

The couple is Didier and Elise. He's a bluegrass singer. She's a tattoo artist. At first glance they could have come out of a trashy American movie about pick-up trucks and meth labs, but they're in Brussels. He loves all things American, especially the Appalachians, where his favorite music was born.  She gazes at him fondly as he rhapsodizes about music. She falls in love with him. She joins his band. They literally make beautiful music together. They're a great couple: he's bearlike with a sly humor; she's a sexy minx. They marry.

We see the subtle differences between them. He's practical. Underneath his clownish exterior, he's gruff, not one for daydreams. Elise, beneath her tattoos and rebellious persona, wants simple things and simple pleasures. When birds crash into their front window and die, she places decals of giant crows on the glass, hoping to ward off other birds. Didier tries to explain that this is only a short term fix, and that birds are too stupid to understand that glass is not something they can fly through. They argue over whether the bird decals will be useful or not. It's a funny scene, but bittersweet; a bird had died earlier in front of Maybelle, bringing her to tears.  The sight of her running away, clutching the dead bird in her hands, is one of the film's many haunting images.

Felix Van Groeningen's film moves around in time. We see much of the sadness early, so we know what will happen to this couple. We know early on that little Maybelle isn't long for the world. Watching Didier and Elise try to make the best of it is what breaks our hearts. They're good parents. They're good people. You hope the death of their daughter doesn't tear them apart, but you sense it will.

The movie knows more about couples than most movies do. It knows that even the strongest bonds can be torn. When Didier and Elise start to fray, you're disappointed, but you'll nod, yes, this was expected. When Elise starts throwing accusing barbs at Didier, you want to call her a bitch, but you understand where her pain comes from. When Didier loses his temper at a concert and begins railing at American politicians and the religious right for delaying stem cell research, you want him to stop, but you know where his pain comes from, too.

It's so refreshing to watch a film that doesn't feel like it was plucked from a Sears catalog of plots. The characters in The Broken Circle Breakdown look like people you might see downtown, or in the darkness of your local pub.  Didier is a middle-aged man, but his passion for all things American and his love of music makes him seem like a teenager. Johan Heldenbergh plays Didier at a low boil. He's amiable, and has a disarming grin, but we learn of his bad side, his drinking and his stubbornness. As Elise, Veerle Baetens makes an incredible leap from fiery vixen to distraught mom. If they were Americans, they'd be worthy of Academy Award nominations.  Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle is like an angel fallen to Earth to momentarily grace us with her presence. Even the members of Didier's band,  onscreen only fleetingly, seem like fully developed characters. How did they do it?

A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, is the first documentary by Esther Robinson. It combines 16 MM footage shot by her uncle, Danny Williams, a filmmaker who drifted through the Andy Warhol circle for a time in the 1960s, and interviews with people who knew him in those days, including Warhol's manager Paul Morrissey, former Factory gadfly turned poet Gerard Malanga, and musician John Cale of the Velvet Underground.  The topic of discussion is Williams' mysterious disappearance. After leaving the Warhol clique, he returned to his family home in Rockport, MA. One night he drove  out to a local beach and was never seen again.  Did he go for a late night swim and drown? Was it, as some in the film surmise, a late night rendezvous gone horribly wrong? Did he simply lose his footing on the rocks, fall into the ocean, and struggle futilely as he was carried out to sea? 

Williams was a shy, Harvard educated 26-year-old with some talent as a filmmaker. The clips shown here are stunning, slow motion experiments with various Factory members as his subjects, including Warhol. Williams was allegedly Warhol's lover for a while. One would think the combination of his talent and the fact that Warhol took him on as a boyfriend would've meant an upward career trajectory, but as one of the Factory members recalls, Williams arrived looking like a neat preppy, and left the place a full-blown drug user with broken glasses. Warhol's circle, made up of insecure, jealous types, ate the guy up and spit him out. 

Returning home wasn't fun, either. As depicted in the film, Williams' mother is a hard nut. She doesn't hide her disdain for having an effeminate son, holding up various photos of him and labeling each as soft or submissive-looking. She stops short of blaming Williams for allowing himself to be dominated. "Domination is evil," she says. Then, like clockwork, one of her relatives describes her as dominating. Williams' brother is interviewed, too. He seems unsteady, full of secrets and hallucinations. I can't pinpoint the exact problem within Williams' family, but they aren't a lovable bunch. 

If Williams' family seems odd, the Warhol group is downright off-putting. There's a snide attitude about them. They either can't remember anything, or they act as if Williams should've known better than to invade their little group. Some of them do admit they they weren't always nice to him, and some admit that he was a very talented young man. Did Warhol treat him badly? Sure, but Andy treated everyone badly, so it seems. 

Warhol comes off horribly in the movie, and by the end I started thinking of him as a Charles Manson type of guru, surrounding himself with half-wits and gullible hippies, feeding them a bunch of nonsense about art and stardom. The only person who comes off well is Cale, who has no reason to protect the people he describes as "insecure." Unlike the others interviewed, he doesn't act like he was too high to see what was happening. He describes Warhol as a manipulator and a crook. Naturally, the Warhol apologists come to his rescue, saying that he grew up poor and loved money, but Cale is too smart to swallow those bromides. He's also astute when he suggests the various scenarios people ascribe to Williams' death is actually the way they themselves would like to die. For instance, if a person thinks Williams simply walked out to sea and drowned, that's their own romanticized death-wish. 

Me? I imagined Danny Williams simply parked his car, and disappeared, changing his name and starting over somewhere else, just to get away from his family and everyone else who had mistreated him. Cale's right. That's what I'd do, too.

Robinson gives A Walk Into the Sea a slow, macabre beat, as if we're onlookers at a late night car accident. I wish there'd been a bit more about Williams' childhood. What sort of kid was he? That's just a quibble, though. I particularly enjoyed the clips from Williams' films. It's not an exaggeration to say he had more style and vision than the Factory's other "filmmakers." Meanwhile, filmmaker Albert Maysles is particularly moving as he reminisces about the time he hired Williams as an editor, marveling at the skills of the young man. Williams was only 22 when he was hired by Maysles, but obviously left an impression. 

This film was released in 2007,  won some minor awards, including a Silver Plaque Special Jury Prize at the Chicago film festival, and then went down the rabbit hole where all festival docs seem to go. It was shown recently in Rockport as part of a local artist series. I'm glad I had a chance to see it. It's well-done. Robinson, who went on to produce other documentaries, made A Walk Into The Sea to give her uncle a voice after all these years. She did that, and also shined a light on Warhol and his group. They come off badly, you know. I couldn't stand 'em.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Dallas Buyers Club is about a man who is told he will be dead in 30 days, and how he lives much longer than that out of orneriness, a willingness to gamble, and a determination to do things his way. "I'm gonna die with my boots on," he says after signing himself out of a hospital. He's a rough guy, a rodeo rider, and a bit of an ass. When being pursued by an angry mob he owes money to, he willingly lets a cop beat him up and haul him away in a squad car  rather than deal with his debts. Then, through bloody teeth, he mocks the cop.

Matthew McConaughey plays this angry, dying character, based on the real-life Ron Woodroof who learned in 1985 that he had AIDS.  This is the performance of a lifetime, with  McConaughey drawing from the usual charismatic southerners he's played in the past but adding shades of desperation and meanness that make the character compelling.

McConaughey underwent a horrific transformation for the role, losing around 50 pounds to look like an emaciated AIDS sufferer. Particularly in the early scenes, McConaughey looks like death dragged through an alley, propped up only by cocaine and adrenaline.  Yet, even as he coughs and seems on the verge of falling, no one around him notices that he's sick. In fact, nearly everyone in his circle seems too drunk or stupid to notice anything. Perhaps they thought Woodroof's hard-partying lifestyle had worn him down - the day after he's diagnosed with HIV he's back in his trailer, partying with a couple of bimbos. It was an empty, reckless life. AIDS gave Woodroof purpose.

A lesser movie would show Woodroof learning to love everyone, and putting aside his old prejudices, but Dallas Buyers Club is smarter than that. Woodroof remains as much of a homophobic shitkicker  as he'd previously been, but he has a mission: to learn about AIDS, and expose the flaws in the AMA. He goes into business selling AIDS drugs, and uses whatever strength he has left to fight the pharmaceutical companies, the AMA, FDA, CIA and the IRS. He travels the world trying to find the most recent AIDS drugs, even disguising himself as a priest to smuggle drugs back into the United States. At one point in the film Woodroof says he was once an electrician, and that he enjoyed opening things up and learning how they worked. I imagine it's that same curiosity that helped him develop his encyclopedic knowledge of the pandemic and of medicines. Woodroof served as a consultant on the screenplay, contributing several hours of taped interviews before his death. I get the impression he was like one of those good ol' boys you run into in country music circles, not especially educated, but wily, with a magnificent bullshit detector.

Jared Leto is exceptional as Rayon, a transvestite who goes into business with Woodroof. They're an odd couple, one of the great screen pairings of the year. One of the reasons Jean-Marc Vallee's film  works so well is because Woodroof never entirely lets his guard down around Rayon. Rayon and Woodruf eventually become close, and even share an embrace, but you wouldn't want Woodroof to soften up too much, because it's his stubbornness that helps him survive.

At times Dallas Buyers Club reminded me of The Wrestler.  In both films, an actor underwent a physical transformation to play characters battling health problems. Both characters were irresponsible, and self-destructive. Neither seemed to have any loved ones or close friendships. In The Wrestler, Randy the Ram befriended a kindly stripper. In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof befriends a kindly female doctor. Both Randy and Woodroof are locked out of their homes at one point. Randy took a lot of grief from people when he took a job at a supermarket; Woodroof is constantly in trouble with authorities, and finds that his friends turn away from him once he's diagnosed. The directors of each film also use a similar sound cue, a kind of high pitched buzzing, that indicates things are about to turn bad for the main characters.

Finally, Randy simply wants to get back in the ring and wrestle, because that's what he knows best. At the end of Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof gets back in the bullring. Both films end with a tableau, their main characters frozen in time.

Obviously, the two movies are very different in tone and style. Randy, for instance, seemed beaten by his problems, while Woodroof turns his AIDS battle into a barroom brawl. Still, I kept seeing parallels. Is one film better than the other? No. Both are excellent. We don't know what happened to Randy the Ram, although it looked like he died, diving from the top rope into oblivion. We do know that Ron Woodroof died of AIDS. We also know from this movie that he turned out to be a hell of a man.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


One of the results of the Korean war was that an estimated 200,000 Korean children were orphaned.  One such boy was Jung, who lived on the street before being taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman. It was his great fortune to be adopted by a friendly Belgium family. As he recalls in the lovely documentary Approved for Adoption,  he suddenly had more toys than he'd ever imagined, and soon forgot how to speak his native language. True, he  tires of being called "the little Asian," and when the family adopts a little Korean girl a few years later, he grows jealous. "I'm the Asian in this family," he yells. Still, all seems well until Jung's teen years, when he grows frustrated by his lack of an identity.

Jung developed an interest in drawing, which gave him a way to escape and hide from his problems. He created a "graphic novel" called  Skin Color: Honey which inspired this documentary. The film, co-directed by Jung and Laurent Boileau, is presented in beautiful animated sequences, but also uses some home movies, including a stirring clip of his being adopted and brought home, and also new footage of Jung, now in his 40s, returning to Korea for the first time.

The boy Jung is a rascal. He nearly puts out a younger sibling's eye with a childish prank, and even though he's a good boy, he develops a penchant for stealing and cheating. The punishments he faces are brutal, but there's always the sense that the Belgium family adores him. When he's picked up at the orphanage, his new sisters want to name him "Igor," and treat him like a new pet; they immediately argue over whose room he will sleep in.  He develops a harmless crush on his oldest stepsister, but can't seem to stay on the good side of his stepmother. She spanks him constantly.  When he becomes too fast for her to catch, she invests in a sort of bullwhip to spank him at long range. This sounds horrible, but it's actually one of the funnier scenes in the film.

Jung's teen years are marked by his discovery of the Japanese culture. He can't find anything in his Korean background that can compare with Astro Boy, or Samurai films. He imagines himself a karate legend, and ignores his brothers who tell him vehemently that he's not Japanese. He meets a nice Korean girl who likes his drawings. Through her, he meets a real Korean family. He's moved by their sweetness, but he's still conflicted. A squabble at home results in his leaving. Eventually, Jung gets sick from eating too much hot sauce, and it's his stepmother who comes to his rescue.

Watching Approved for Adoption, I was reminded of incidents from my own childhood, which did not involve adoption, but wasn't without conflicts. I remember cousins who were Puerto Rican but told schoolmates they were Italian, and I think all kids might wonder what it would be like to have different parents. Little Jung imagines his real mother as a Korean beauty, and for some reason imagines his biological father was Irish and played the bag pipes. The beauty of the movie is that even I, who had a safe and happy American childhood, experienced the same reveries and fantasies of this orphaned Korean boy. But I also felt for his adopted parents, who deeply cared for him, and I liked how his step-siblings included him in their adventures.  The movie has a poetic and stirring denouement, when Jung finally acknowledges that this Belgium family was his real family. There's a particularly moving moment between him and his step-mother, when he learns she has very special place in her heart for him.

The film, although elegant and comic, has a thread of melancholy through it, as if there is a hole in Jung's heart that can never be mended. He mentions that he knew many adopted Koreans who  came to bad ends. Indeed the little girl adopted by his own family was dead by 25.  He recounts these stats with a deadpan expression, and suggests his hot sauce disaster was his own attempt to end it all. He's survived so far, through his intelligence, his toughness, his love for art, and perhaps, the need to tell his story.

Approved for Adoption was made in 2012, and has worked its way slowly around the world. It came to my area for a single showing. There were only two of us in the audience. By the end, we were both weeping.

I had a feeling Run & Jump would be a charmer from its opening scene, where a little girl was decorating a room for a party. She'd clipped the faces out of some family photos and was pasting them onto her dolls, and then setting the dolls up in a family tableau. The girl was wearing a hood with ears, and promptly told the party guests that she was a squirrel. She would go on to appear in various animal suits throughout the movie: a penguin, a bear of some kind, even a pig. The party, however, is not a particularly happy occasion: it's to welcome home her dad, who is recovering from a stroke and doesn't seem to be his old self. This is typical of Run & Jump, where humor and sadness seem to go hand in hand. 

Conor was only 38 when he had his stroke, and his quick recovery has made him a bit of a case study, compounded by an American doctor who moves in with the family to film Conor's adjustment. The doctor is a shy sort,  but he develops a friendship with Conor's wife, and even befriends Conor's kids. None of this  goes over well with Conor's parents, who are highly suspicious of the American doctor. The culture clash is evident when Conor's father grills the doctor on his mission. "How much do you get paid for this sort of thing?" he asks, not hiding his derision.  Meanwhile, Conor isn't interested in much besides watching animal shows on television. He likes the animals because they don't demand much from him. 

Edward MacLiam is moving as Conor, pensive one moment, outraged the next. I like that he invents a "spand," a wooden spoon shaped like a hand which he hopes to use to pet animals. Maxine Peake is excellent as Venitia, Connor's fiery wife. She's a fun-loving, sexy woman who is faced with the unexpected task of holding the family together as her husband recedes into someone barely recognizable. As Doctor Ted Fielding, Will Forte shows that the serious side he displayed in Nebraska wasn't a fluke. His character here is thinly written, but Forte adds gravitas and warmth. 

Run & Jump is the first feature from writer/director Steph Green. The film's excellent first half is somewhat under-served by a meandering final act and a slightly unsatisfying ending, but there's plenty of gorgeous footage of County Kerry, Ireland, Forte and Peake are great together, and there's a little girl dressed as a penguin.  Sometimes that's all I need from a movie.