Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Beginning of Life (2016)

The Beginning of Life is a Brazilian documentary that explores child development and argues for stronger community, for systems and institutions that support not just the child but the parents as well. Through brilliant cinematography, interviews with parents, educators and scientists who feel passionately about giving children the best possible world, and of course, close ups of babies and toddlers being adorable, The Beginning of Life emphasizes just how important it is to reflect on our children, our shared future.

It was difficult to hear anything over the sound of my ovaries exploding, but luckily a lot of the film was subtitled. Director and writer Estela Renner presents two acts. The first act coud be called “This is How They Grow.” Here, parents, teachers, and neuroscientists discuss how our young ‘uns absorb everything they encounter, and how critical play is during those earliest years. There is a strong focus on the environment, on how parents and teachers can nurture children’s curiosity and self-esteem. Viewers are told that toys are not as important as letting kids turn ordinary things into toys, which supermodel Giselle confirms by revealing that she has not bought Skylander for her child, and instead has him make Skylander cards. By the way, Giselle lives down the street from me, and by down the street I mean she occasionally spends time in Boston, therefore we are neighbors. I wonder if she wants me to be in her mom group, I could be the dumpy awkward one.

Anyway, Renner also concludes that the traditional family (one man! one woman! together, they form Voltron!) is not the only effective way to raise children to be good people. Gay couples, single parents, and adoptive parents do just as well, so long as love is there as the main ingredient.

Viewers are shown that tantrums, saying “no,” is part and parcel of growing up and recognizing a separate identity from the parent/s, and that this actually signals confidence on the part of the child. Children who say “no” are asserting independence, and I imagine being a pain in the butt is a happy bonus for them.

And then for the second act, Renner pulls off the kid gloves (GET IT?!?! BECAUSE THIS IS A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT CHILDREN, YOU SEE) and exposes the negative effects of poverty on children, which in my adopted state of Massachusetts means 15% of children, or over 200,000 kids in 2014 (source). Apparently, children coming from families in poverty hear 300,000,000 less words by age 4. Just kidding, it’s only 30,000,000 less. THIRTY MILLION LESS WORDS BY AGE FOUR. (Note: while the film says age 4, the original article about the word gap says age 3. PDF can be downloaded here.) And then we shift to the Fruitful Talent Centre in Kenya, where the kids don’t have parents, beds, or enough food! And then the kicker: a young girl in India, probably 10, who takes care of her two younger siblings, is asked, “What is your biggest dream?” and she responds with a smile, “I don’t have any dreams.”

Excuse me, invisible ninjas are cutting onions around me.

So the point is that the beginning of life is a series of key moments where we begin to emerge as strong, independent, ethical beings based on what’s been given to us. If we’re allowed to play freely by ourselves and with other children, and are engaged by and cared for by different adults, we learn to care for ourselves and others, to solve problems, to examine the world and maybe work on making it better. And if instead we are deprived, of words, of our rights to food, shelter, and health care, we get stuck in the same place – thus the generational cycle of poverty that keeps 1 billion children in strained circumstances and chronic stress (source).

The Beginning of Life does have a glaring flaw: the ending theme. The film concludes with the practically-obligatory “It takes a village” quote – because it absolutely does – and, possibly in case viewers were too busy sobbing inconsolably at the humanity of it all, we also get the “It Takes a Village to Raise Children” song, which is excruciatingly cheesy and clashes with the gentleness of the entire documentary.

That unfortunate soundtrack choice aside, The Beginning of Life hits all the right notes. Its emphatic message in the filmmaker’s steady hand is a celebration of humanity and all we can still become.

TL;DR: Terrific documentary—come for the babies, stay for the social message! 

This post brought to you by Japanese curry!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Movie Review: X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men Apocalypse is hollow and disappointing. Its pace, editing, and dialogue sacrifice character development and emotional connection for bombast and CGI. In the battle for humanity against an ancient adversary, beloved characters are stripped of personality. As a devoted fan of the comics during the 90’s – I also consumed the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s classics – I will be shouting a lot in this review.

Plot summary: The X-Men face the first mutant, En Sabah Nur, whose philosophy is “Let the strong survive and the weak perish” – and he considers all humans (and most mutants) weak. Destruction ensues.

First, I AM SO SORRY, OSCAR ISAAC. The man is a treasure who deserves better than playing Apocalypse. You can see him straining against the awful makeup and prosthetics, and bellowing the mutant supervillain’s laughably grandiose lines with conviction. Unfortunately, Apocalypse is a barely-sketched antagonist in the movie. In the comics, he’s defined by his survival-of-the-fittest action plan, which he implements all day, every day until something stops him. In the movie, he switches between paternal cooing at his Four Horsemen – and even hand-crafts individual costumes for them, how sweet – and howling about how powerful he is. No. NO! WE NEED MORE TIME WITH APOCALYPSE, WE NEED TO SEE THAT HE IS PANTS-WETTINGLY THE FITTEST, INSTEAD OF A GRANDPA WHO ALTERNATES BETWEEN AWKWARD AFFECTION AND MASS DESTRUCTION.

Next: OLIVIA MUNN, THANK YOU FOR REPRESENTING, BUT YOUR CHARACTER WAS SUPERFLUOUS. Psylocke is a fracking NINJA, how did they mess that up?! A single line about why she joins Apocalypse, like maybe, “Mutants shouldn’t have to hide in the darkness,” or “I’m too pretty to work in this basement, thanks for the power-boost and promotion, dad!” or even “I’m messed up because I’m Captain Britain’s sister in a Japanese assassin’s body so why not, let’s kill people!” would have contributed to her character. Give us something. Anything. At least Storm (Alexandra Shipp) owes Apocalypse for saving her from mutilation, and Angel (Ben Hardy) gets his wings upgraded from nancy-ass feathers to steel with neurotoxin tips. Hells yes I would sign up if that happened to me!

As the final Horseman, Magneto makes a decision that serves as the emotional center of the story: having lost his new family to humans, he lends his strength to destroying “everything they have built” for “a new world.” Except Apocalypse never shares his vision of this world. Viewers have to extrapolate that 1) it has no nukes (a point in big A’s favor, admittedly -- then again, the strongest mutants are essentially nukes), 2) it will have no internet, since Magneto’s ripping up everything metal, including undersea CABLES, and 3) pyramids will be the new housing rage. The horsemen’s blind obedience to a demigod bent on a bleak, internet-free planet is obviously in service to the action scenes, which are meh. Deadpool did action better, and all he had were guns and swords.

What about the X-Men, you ask. GREAT QUESTION. WHAT ABOUT THOSE LOSERS. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is reduced to a giggling idiot by Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) isn’t much better when confronted by a perpetually grumpy Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is a pair of flaring nostrils, and Jean Grey (Sansa Stark) struggles with her American accent. Only Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a double threat as the team’s escape route and comic relief. Oh, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is back for another special effects scene that tries so very hard to top the last one.

And then they cap off the movie with an exchange between Xavier and Magneto that repeats the final lines of the very first X-Men movie from back in 2000. ...Y’know how the anti-Ghostbusters reboot crowd is all “But muh childhood” and “It didn’t need to be remade”? Well, now I know how they feel because those lines didn’t need to be spoken again, and certainly not by two men who are not Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. I am extremely bitter about this empathy. YOU DID THIS, X-MEN APOCALYPSE, YOU MADE ME UNDERSTAND THE VIEWPOINT OF MAN-BABIES. Although in my defense, I saw the first movie and this version and then made my judgment, whereas them folks are trying to tear down a film they haven’t seen yet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, IT WASN’T ALL BAD. As a rabid fan of Jean Grey, I’m very pleased at her clutch performance. And the soundtrack by John Ottman hits all the right notes: by turns ominous and hopeful, with full orchestral arrangements and even a compilation of Beethoven’s Allegretto.

And…that’s it for the good points. My eternal love for Jean Grey remains and the soundtrack rocks.

But, but: the trailer is AWESOME, and brought us the gift of Trump: Apocalypse.

TL;DR: Worst X-Men movie of the bunch. 

This post brought to you by a 10-minute internet failure that caused everyone to lose their minds!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Movie Review: The Conjuring 2 (2016)

The Conjuring 2 is an excellent film that grounds its horror in human bonds. Like its predecessor, its emotional weight is carried by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga's portrayal of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators. Strong supporting actors, stunning cinematography, and judicious use of CGI are also outstanding features.

The movie is based on the Enfield Poltergeist, where a family experiences frightening events: moving furniture, sinister voices, etc. As with the original Conjuring, the buildup to the actual haunting is well-paced; viewers have time to get to know single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), who is the channel for the disturbances. There are three other kids in the house, which is dilapidated and badly in need of care and attention--much like its residents. The dark presence is initially felt in small doses: a sleepwalking Janet, a fire truck pushed back at youngest son Billy.

When the ghost finally makes its presence known, it's unambiguous: every single member of the family watches a heavy dresser hurtle across the room to slam Janet's bedroom door shut. When the police arrive to investigate, a chair slides across the floor. In the midst of the media firestorm, the Warrens arrive, sent by the church to confirm if it's real or a hoax. But not before a nun-demon -- a demonun? -- scares the bejeesus out of Lorraine and prompts her to beg Ed to be extra careful.

Let's talk about girlfriend for a second, because she/it is responsible for 90% of the film's actual scares. This is a testament to the editing and camera work, not just the Marilyn Manson makeup. Demonun appears three times: during a flashback (see pic above), in the Warren's home, and then at the finale. True, in the Warren home scene, the hideous seventies wallpaper was much more terrifying than the specter. But then the demonun traps Lorraine in the home office, which is adorned with a painting of -- what else? -- demonun! as well as the suicide scene from the first Conjuring. The camera tracks back and forth between the two horrific paintings and Lorraine's increasing panic. You can feel the dread mounting in the theater, punctuated by cries of "No, girl!" and "Run!" and just plain "NOOOOOOO!!!!"

The final act had me curled up in a ball in my seat, because Ed's death has been foreshadowed, and there was a damn good chance it could happen, and I cared. I cared because Patrick Wilson sold his character as a studly self-sacrificing manly man -- helped immeasurably by a fantastic Elvis impersonation in one of the film's most tender scenes -- and Vera Farmiga absolutely nailed it as his adoring wife and partner in all things. She's the brains, he's the brawn, so he charges into danger while she thinks up the solution, and through it all they just love each other so much that you don't want anything bad to happen to either of them. *sniffle*

Anyway, the point is, be sure to ask any demons you encounter what their name is, and write it down! Lorraine is not just another pretty face!

Apart from the Warrens, the Hodgson family is also sympathetic, petrified at first and then eventually overcoming their fear and acting on their determination to stand together in support of poor Janet. Peggy, mum to the core, is with Janet throughout her ordeal, even sleeping with her alone in the house to keep everyone else safe.

In the end, the bonds within the film -- bonds between family, and between strangers who face danger together -- elevate The Conjuring 2 beyond typical scary flicks. That, and demonun.

TL;DR: A terrifying treat for the horror aficionado.

This post brought to you by lunchtime!