Certain Women

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Master filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” based on stories by Maile Meloy, shares the quiet fortunes and misfortunes of three protagonists and the friends, family, and strangers in orbit around them. Set in Montana, the film moves at the director’s deliberately measured pace, a technique that suits Reichardt’s alliance with the western, the genre that perhaps best describes her body of work. As taciturn, secretive, and enigmatic as her best films, “Certain Women” withholds explanations and confessions, instead trusting the viewer to draw conclusions and fill in blanks.

In a “New York Times Magazine” profile, Alice Gregory argues the case for Reichardt as a maker of westerns, writing that her “shots are rife with the genre’s archetypal motifs — horses, trains, buttes — and the quiet stories she tells, of lonesome, seminomadic searchers struggling to maintain dignity in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, fill the screen as forcefully as any film that John Wayne was ever in.” Visions of John Ford ripping pages of dialogue out of his shooting script could as easily be transposed to Reichardt, who also understands the value of communicating in pictures instead of words.

During the movie’s opening sections, in which attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) demonstrates the patience of a farmer with desperate, needy, and unstable client Fuller (Jared Harris), Reichardt uncorks a sly comic sensibility suffused with Coen-like observations. Laura’s exasperation – Fuller idiotically refuses to accept her counsel until it has been corroborated by a male lawyer – is no match for her compassion, even if Dern’s vast range of nonverbal expressions suggests that she wonders how in the world she ended up right in the middle of Fuller’s mess, which comes complete with an armed standoff.

In another story, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) visit Albert (Rene Auberjonois), hoping to convince the failing, elderly man to part with a substantial pile of sandstone blocks that Gina would like to use in the construction of her new home. Gina’s bitter relationship with her teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier) is exacerbated by Ryan, who annoys Gina by defending Guthrie. According to the director, Williams, one of Reichardt’s regular collaborators, “was so up for not caring if her character was likable,” but Gina’s iron determination to build an idealized place of domestic togetherness reveals a more sympathetic dimension.

While the veterans Dern and Williams bring expected nuance to their characters, it is breakout performer Lily Gladstone who resides at the heart of the film’s most fully realized storyline. Gladstone plays a lonely ranch hand named Jamie (listed only as “The Rancher” in the credits) who wanders into a night class on school law facilitated by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Jamie establishes a tentative friendship with Beth, and Reichardt and Gladstone perfectly communicate Jamie’s vulnerability and longing. While the stories are only loosely connected, Reichardt thematically links these individuals through their determination and stoicism, qualities echoed by Christopher Blauvelt’s lovely 16mm photography of the Big Sky landscapes, wide open spaces, and long stretches of highway that separate the small towns and the women who live in them.

Moonlight

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Admirers of Barry Jenkins’ excellent 2008 feature “Medicine for Melancholy” waited years for the filmmaker’s next project. “Moonlight,” one of 2016’s finest films, was worth that lengthy silence. In between the two movies, Jenkins made a handful of shorts and directed an episode of a TV series, but one viewing of “Moonlight” will convince anyone who loves the cinema that the prodigiously talented artist should keep telling long-form stories. Inspired by Tarell Alvin McRaney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins shares the story of a young man growing through adolescence to adulthood, lighting the journey with a dazzling command of moviemaking skill and a genuinely moving sense of humanity.

Presented in triptych and featuring different performers for each stage of protagonist Chiron’s maturation, “Moonlight” unfolds chronologically, beginning with Alex Hibbert’s bullied, nearly mute grade-schooler, dubbed Little for both his physical size and his practiced invisibility. Little’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), addicted to crack, cannot provide any comfort and stability to her son, so he often finds himself in the care of drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). “Moonlight” is saturated with stunning performances, but Ali is impossible to forget. In what could be the most perfect, most beautiful scene this year, Juan teaches Little to swim, gently buoying and cradling the child in the waters of the Atlantic.

That patient, powerful baptism connects a symbolic son to a symbolic father in ways that ripple through the complexities of their relationship: Juan is Paula’s dealer. Ali’s presence is missed in the subsequent sections of the film, but Jenkins’ turn to the emerging sexuality of teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is no less ambitious than the accomplishments of the first act. In an essential essay, Adam Shatz writes that “Moonlight” “is a film about the varieties of love that emerge in conditions of urban violence, not the varieties of violence that, as Baldwin suggested, have conditioned, and even prevented, the expression of black love.” It is the intersection of love and violence – in proximity through Chiron’s relentlessly homophobic classmates – that is the fulcrum of “Moonlight.”

In the film’s final section, Chiron is reborn as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a chiseled, muscular loner whose post-incarceration vocation selling drugs echoes Little’s childhood connection to Juan. Linked more overtly to Chiron’s memories of his first significant sexual experience with his friend Kevin (played as a grown-up by Andre Holland), the film’s concluding chapter is a miniature masterpiece of interpersonal vulnerability, revelation, and self-disclosure. Jenkins resists neat answers with a deliberate ambiguity that leaves plenty of room for something like hope, or as Jenkins has suggested, something like healing.

Reviewers often praise cinematographers whose craft stands out in the execution of a great film, but the names of color graders rarely make it to print. Jenkins worked closely with director of photography James Laxton and digital intermediate colorist Alex Bickel on the look of “Moonlight,” and the bold choices expressed in their collaboration demand recognition. An “Indiewire” article by Chris O’Falt details the strategies for expressing the “beautiful nightmare” of the film’s Miami setting. In keeping with the triple-casting/triple-division elements of the story, each segment emulates a different film stock (Fuji, Agfa, and a modified Kodak), and the technique pays off with an absolutely stunning palette that embraces the dreamlike subjectivity of Laxton’s prowling, mobile camera.

“Moonlight” is as much an auditory feast as a visual one. From the emphatic opening choice of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star” to the perfect placement of Barbara Lewis’ aching “Hello Stranger,” the music of “Moonlight” comes to life as another of the movie’s indispensable characters. In addition to the most soaring cinematic application of Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma” since Pedro Almodovar absolutely owned it in “Talk to Her,” “Moonlight” has a diamond in composer Nicholas Britell. Britell’s cues are an ideal complement to the story Jenkins tells so intimately, so urgently, so bracingly, and so hauntingly.

Arrival

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Arrival.”

Following Oscar-nominated breakthrough “Incendies,” filmmaker Denis Villeneuve put together a hat trick of beautifully shot features stylish enough to straddle the line between auteurist individuality/prestige and studio-massaged commercial aspirations. “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Sicario” are now joined by “Arrival,” a cerebral, or ersatz cerebral – depending on your tolerance for beautiful people expressing deep thoughts – science fiction drama in the thematic vein of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Aligned in several ways with recent sci-fi genre exercises embracing self-seriousness over action and adventure, “Arrival” lands somewhere between the mawkishness of “Interstellar” and the mourning mother headspace of “Gravity.”

Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist called to service by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber when a dozen massive UFOs descend from the sky to seemingly random locations across the globe. The geographical distribution of the so-called “shells” sets the stage for a tense standoff between political rivals, as power players including China and Russia monitor the sites to see who might blink first. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks interacts with the aliens, desperately struggling to decipher their communication before the military opts to use force.

Villeneuve directs the scenes of human-alien interaction with an exquisite, elegant simplicity that invites us to share Banks’ sense of awe at drawing face to face with intelligent life from another solar system. Separated by a large glass partition that suggests the window of a fog-enshrouded aquarium, the humans are greeted by two Lovecraftian heptapods who spray an inky substance from their extremities as a means of orthography. Dr. Banks and Donnelly decide to call the alien duo Abbott and Costello, even though Kang and Kodos may have been more accurate if on-the-nose monikers, physically speaking.

“Arrival” misses a few minor beats. Both Weber and the other major U.S. government representative, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, fail to register as fully dimensional people. The almost perfunctory cutaways to expository newscasts were done better and more efficiently in the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” another film that tests the idea of how humankind struggles to receive a game-changing gift. Some of Banks’ broad and tepid voiceover erases a few IQ points. “Arrival” is not the first time Villeneuve has been accused of the well-worn style-over-substance critique, but I appreciated the meticulous compositions and desaturated palette provided by cinematographer Bradford Young, even if his otherworldly visuals rank a notch lower than those provided by Roger Deakins on “Prisoners.”

Undoubtedly, some viewers will feel cheated by the revelation that the scenes of Banks taking care of her dying daughter are not flashbacks, but are instead flashforwards. We are well-conditioned to accept the former technique as a regular feature in narrative motion picture storytelling. By contrast, the flashforward is deployed much less frequently, and often for the kind of surprise we receive near the conclusion of “Arrival,” in the sense that our presumptions have been wrong and/or we have been deliberately misled. The “trick,” however, might just be the masterstroke of “Arrival,” revealing to the watcher the heptapods’ nonlinear experience of time in parallel to the process by which Banks attains that same knowledge.

City of Gold

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold,” which unfolds like a gustatory companion to Thom Andersen’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” chef Andrew Zimmern summarizes the appeal of Pulitzer Prize-winning subject Jonathan Gold’s approach to food writing by saying, “…the great human ill is contempt prior to investigation.” That statement, which alludes to the way in which Gabbert weaves together her portrait of another celebrated, middle-aged white man by focusing as much on Los Angeles as geography/idea as she does on actual restaurant criticism, could also refer to those unconvinced by the sound of the director’s warm and sunny applause.

Inkoo Kang, who wrote that one of the movie’s shortcomings was a “probably inadvertent white savior narrative,” and Godfrey Cheshire, who detects the odor of “febrile self-consciousness,” raise worthwhile arguments regarding the privilege and elitism that could and probably should be addressed in a story where the democratization of culinary culture rubs shoulders with other established bastions of high art (especially when masquerading in the street at food trucks and strip mall storefronts). But Gold loves punk rock and hip hop as much as classical cello, and most  – myself included – aren’t going to be inclined to hate on him even if the movie fails to adequately unpack class, economic, and racial segregation.

The majority of critics and viewers are more likely to marvel at Gold’s appetite for fresh tastes, sounds, sights, and conversations, recognizing that one of the things Gabbert does very well is communicate the universal desire for Epicurus’ ataraxia – that lucid state of happiness and tranquility grounded in an appreciation of the here and now. In one of the movie’s best explanations of Gold’s charm as a writer, Reuters editor Sue Horton pinpoints Gold’s affinity for the second person, a technique that invites identification even if we’ve never dined on deer penis, hagfish, or as Gold himself has remarked, the “dodgier bits of the animal.”

Visits to past and recent favorite eateries allow Gabbert to fetishize dozens and dozens of images of what the less-charitable might refer to as “food porn.” From Chengdu Taste to Guerilla Tacos to Jitlada to Kogi to Meals by Genet, the parade of dishes will continue to inspire long lines for residents of L.A. and pangs of longing and jealousy for those who do not live there. Prowling neighborhoods in search of good eats demands driving music, and Gold’s affinity for an Eddie Hazel guitar solo, the early 17th century lute song “Flow, My Tears,” and Dre and Snoop trading verses on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” is as contagious as his enthusiasm for a new taqueria.

In 2013, Gold spoke at the UCLA School of Art and Architecture’s commencement, and Gabbert includes some of his remarks near the end of the documentary. Gold identifies himself as “an emissary from the world of failure,” mounting what is in essence a compelling argument on behalf of a liberal arts education as he articulates how we are shaped by the sum of our experiences – even if, especially if, we don’t end up doing what we originally planned. “City of Gold” might favor fantasy over reality, but it’s difficult not to be taken in by the observations that we are united by food and that cooking is what makes us human.

O.J.: Made in America

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Two decades have passed since the surreal and shocking events that transformed Orenthal James Simpson from USC legend, Heisman Trophy recipient, Buffalo Bills star, professional football Hall of Fame inductee, sports broadcaster, and actor into a divisive reminder of America’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with its legacy of racism. And while the seemingly bottomless coverage of the so-called “Trial of the Century” may have exhausted widespread interest in the years following Simpson’s acquittal, Ezra Edelman’s epic reexamination of the case, and the larger issues surrounding it, is a raw and meaningful reflection that regularly transcends the lurid, true crime components of Simpson’s twisted path.

Following a Sundance Film Festival premiere, Edelman’s sprawling, five-part, 467-minute documentary – part of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series – played theatrically in a limited engagement before television and on-demand availability. Edelman’s ambitions are immediately apparent in the more than 70 newly recorded interviews with instrumental figures whose own lives came to be at least partially defined by proximity to Simpson. Additionally, Edelman draws on a massive collection of archival images covering both Simpson’s rise to national recognition and the filmmaker’s parallel concern: the history of discrimination, profiling, and oppression of Black people by the Los Angeles Police Department.

As a result of the episodic nature of the primarily chronological presentation of the narrative, viewers will no doubt find some segments more compelling than others. For example, the meticulous and detailed background mined in the early chapters works infinitely better than the late coverage of Simpson’s bewildering downward spiral into a burning labyrinth of sleaze-soaked cash grabs in Florida and Nevada. The Las Vegas sports memorabilia robbery case, in which Simpson was sentenced to a term of 33 years in prison, tilts the saga into tabloid territory. One can sense Edelman’s reservations whenever dealer Tom Riccio opens his mouth.

Perhaps the most perceptive criticism of “O.J.: Made in America” was written by A. O. Scott, who observed that “the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.” In his review, Scott goes on to recognize that, in contrast to the examination of Simpson as a complex symbol, the fate of Nicole Brown “is treated as an individual tragedy, and there seems to be no political vocabulary available to the filmmakers to understand what happened to her. The deep links between misogyny and American sports culture remain unexamined.”

Considering the evidence of battery and abuse suffered by Nicole Brown at the hands of her husband, it’s a fair question to wonder why Edelman elected not to explore domestic violence with the same kind of thoughtfulness or thoroughness expended on the entrenched racist ideologies woven into the fabric of lawmaking and law enforcement. Edelman emphatically speaks to Simpson’s deliberate assimilationism prior to the murders of Brown and Goldman, and then connects the dots to the reclamation of the defendant by communities of color over the course of the trial. Those two themes are presented with substance and clarity.

Simpson will be eligible for parole in October of 2017.

Demon

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Finally winding its way through a limited theatrical release following a 2015 Toronto International Film Festival debut, Marcin Wrona’s “Demon” blends folklore, supernatural mystery, and wedding disaster comedy. Adapted by Wrona and Pawel Maslona from Piotr Rowicki’s 2008 play “Adherence,” the film starts with plenty of promise, intrigue, and atmosphere, but fails to maintain those qualities through the concluding frame. As possessed protagonist Piotr, a young man traveling from England to the site of his nuptials in Poland, Itay Tiran locates multiple opportunities to go big. So does the rest of the cast, threading the needle that Wrona uses to stitch together humor and horror.

Piotr and his bride Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) are to receive a rustic, fixer-upper farmhouse belonging to Zaneta’s father Zgmunt (Andrzej Grabowski) as their marriage gift. Unfortunately, on the eve of the ceremony scheduled to take place at Zaneta and Piotr’s home-to-be, the hapless groom accidentally disturbs some human remains, unleashing the ghost of a long-missing young woman. Wrona wrings enough panic and dread from Piotr’s ill-timed discovery to stage plenty of perfectly cringe-worthy and awkward moments at the reception. As the audience learns more about the dybbuk, Piotr’s deteriorating condition is met with a wildly uneven onslaught of behind-the-scenes reactions as Zgmunt labors to keep the vodka flowing and the revelers in the dark about Piotr’s plight.

For a significant stretch, Wrona favors the slapstick, as Piotr is attended by a reluctant priest and a treatment-happy doc who appears to have left his medical ethics in his other suit. Disappointingly, during the escalating chaos, Zaneta is bullied and bossed by her parents far longer than necessary, a component of the narrative that will frustrate viewers hoping and expecting to see a stronger sense of action and advocacy from a character that should have been as central to the story as Piotr. A windy professor provides the flabbergasted in-laws with the demonic possession theory, but Wrona never seems certain about how much Zgmunt’s knowledge of the buried bones should be addressed.

With its allusions to the Holocaust, “Demon” invites more sober discussions regarding the meaning of the restless, disturbed soul belonging to a World War II-era Jew who disappeared just before her own wedding. In some sense, Wrona suggests that Poland continues to be haunted by the tragedies of the past, especially via Zgmunt’s insistence on stoking the party and hiding Piotr from the assembled well-wishers. While Piotr’s fate hangs in the balance, a moody morning-after sequence offers a largely ambiguous resolution. Viewers will be divided regarding the effectiveness of Wrona’s choices, and some will certainly protest that in one very specific instance “Demon” borrows too closely from “The Shining.” It is certainly possible, however, that Wrona wanted us to feel as disoriented, hungover, and unsatisfied as the pathetic guests stumbling into the light of day.

The great tragedy to accompany “Demon” was the suicide of Wrona less than a week after the movie’s first public screening. At the age of 42 and with a growing list of film and television credits, Wrona ended his life and cut short a promising career.

13th

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Featuring a deep bench of authorities, scholars, politicians, ex-convicts, and dissenters, Ava DuVernay’s outstanding documentary “13th” arrives on the eve of a national election. Put together in near secrecy and opening the New York Film Festival, “13th” uses as its starting point the titular reference to the United States Constitution’s amendment that abolished slavery – “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That minor addition, many of DuVernay’s interview subjects maintain, has been used to systematically oppress, criminalize, and incarcerate black Americans at a grotesquely disproportionate rate in the years since 1865.

DuVernay reminds us that America has about five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Sobering statistics tallying the explosive growth in America’s prison population are represented onscreen in black-and-white motion graphics, and every time “criminal” is said in an interview, DuVernay and co-writer/editor Spencer Averick cut to an intertitle of the word to remind viewers of its loaded synonymity with African American “perpetrators.” The same parallels are traced to Richard Nixon’s use of “law and order” (another phrase resonating during this presidential election), and the later “war on drugs.” In one chilling audio clip, Reagan/Bush adviser Lee Atwater offers an ugly clinic on the socially acceptable use of coded language.

DuVernay makes the case that both the Democratic Party and the GOP have advanced candidates, policies, and legislation that perpetuate racist ideas. Hilary Clinton’s “super-predator” comment, along with discussion and context for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 signed by Bill Clinton, sit alongside a then-and-now montage of Donald Trump’s “good old days” invective targeted at rally protestors. The latter, toggling back and forth between Trump supporters harassing and haranguing people of color and images of white-on-black violence during the Civil Rights movement, speaks volumes.

A later section of the film focuses on the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a deeply conservative organization of corporate interests and legislators that propose policy for state sessions. ALEC works a lengthy set of initiatives that includes Stand Your Ground laws, mandated voter identification requirements, and perhaps most germane to DuVernay’s story, the privatization of prisons and the means to keep those prisons filled (via Three Strikes, Truth in Sentencing, and Tough on Crime models). An eye-opening description of increased home monitoring and digital surveillance of convicts paints a portrait of a terrifying future.

Like the equally stirring and interview-packed “The House I Live In,” Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 film addressing the prison-industrial complex, “13th” covers an astonishing amount of philosophical and historical territory without losing its grip or its focus. And while DuVernay’s underlying advocacy is embodied by speakers like Angela Davis, surprising commentary from unlikely participants such as Newt Gingrich attests to the director’s diligence, curiosity, and professionalism. “13th” makes a nice companion to National Book Award finalist “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi. Both works illuminate the sophistication of America’s capitalist reliance on discrimination-based systems that foster the proliferation of covert and overt oppression, and both are essential tools to help us understand the difference between All Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ron Howard’s awkwardly titled “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” covers familiar turf for longtime fans of the band, but the film’s handsomely presented content may appeal to younger generations just discovering the music of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. While the world might not exactly need yet another document in the expanding library of movies about the Fab Four, Howard approaches the theme suggested in the title with the exuberance of a devoted admirer. A more accurate description of the narrative would also include some mention of the incendiary immediacy that accompanied the U.S. wave of Beatlemania.

While Howard accesses sharp transfers of archival film coverage, along with fresh McCartney and Starr interviews, vintage Harrison and Lennon chats, newsreel footage, and some great audio, “The Touring Years” charts a safe course via several talking head encomia from the likes of Elvis Costello, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, and Whoopi Goldberg. The best interview subject of the batch turns out to be Goldberg, who speaks from the heart about her unforgettable concert memory. While Weaver and Goldberg are two very well known audience members, it might have been nice to hear from a few non-famous fans lucky enough to have seen a show.

Frequent Lennon and Beatle-focused author Larry Kane, the only broadcast journalist who made it to every single stop on the 1964 and 1965 American tours, is given a significant amount of time to share his own reflections. While Kane has already appeared in several Beatles docs, his proximity to the circus and his unusual role within Beatles history could sustain its own feature-length study. The same could be applied to one of the movie’s fleeting themes: the band’s refusal to play to segregated audiences. Along with comments made by Goldberg, historian Kitty Oliver addresses the appeal of the Beatles to nonwhite listeners.

Aside from the personally exhausting demands of concert performance and travel schedules, Howard covers four oft-cited factors that precipitated the suspension of touring: the outcry over the original Robert Whitaker-shot cover of “Yesterday and Today,” in which the Beatles wore butcher smocks and posed with baby doll parts and cuts of raw meat; the band’s accidental “snub” of Imelda Marcos; Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” flap; and the recognition that even with the addition of more powerful amplifiers, screaming crowds drowned out the music.

The presumptive focus on live performance receives Howard’s due diligence, but the movie occasionally ventures into broader discussions of the band’s musical maturation and evolution in the recording studio. Accompanied by interstitial album release timeline motion graphics that animate the iconic album covers, the well-traveled sonic journey from naïve mop tops to weary veterans is linked to the mental and physical toll of time spent on the road. And even though this particular Beatles story wraps up when they took a bow following “In My Life” at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, Howard can’t resist ending his film with footage of the Apple Corps rooftop set that would mark the final public performance of the Beatles.

Kicks

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An intuitive and energetic coming of age drama that trades the Val Melaina neighborhood of Vittorio De Sica’s Rome in “Bicycle Thieves” for current day Richmond in the Bay Area, Justin Tipping’s “Kicks” marks one of the year’s most memorable features. Tipping’s directorial debut, “Kicks” hovers over the shoulder of teenager Brandon (Jahking Guillory) through an incident that quickly escalates to a series of choices that lead to mortal consequences. Operating at times like “Boyz n the Hood” realized by Larry Clark, “Kicks” also shares several points of thematic kinship with geographical sibling “Fruitvale Station.”

Like the trio of Doughboy, Ricky and Tre in John Singleton’s classic, Brandon is joined by close friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) as he navigates his day-to-day. Hoping that some fresh red and black Air Jordan 1s will lead to instant success, confidence, and appeal to potential romantic partners, Brandon tracks down a pair only to have the shoes taken from him in a humiliating beat-down just a few hours later. What follows is Brandon’s evolving odyssey to reclaim his sneakers, and Tipping laces the sense of compounding doom with interstitial screenshots of key song titles that complement the narrative as prophetic chapter stops.

With scant exception, Tipping deliberately omits older generations of institutional representatives and authority figures, a bold decision that infuses Brandon’s world with an almost surreal touch of dark fatalism. Calling to mind the same kind of wiser-than-their-years quasi-adulthood of the “Peanuts” gang, the absence of mothers, teachers, and police officers thrusts the young inhabitants of “Kicks” into an accelerated maturation process necessitated by their compressed life expectancy.

Instead of traditional elders, Tipping layers two of the film’s most important supporting characters with markers of patriarchal responsibility. In one of the movie’s most welcome surprises, predatory antagonist Flaco (Kofi Siriboe) challenges stereotype as a single father to a young son. Tipping insists that we see Flaco’s love for his child (even if that love manifests in a cascade of painful “lessons” that imply the perpetuation of violence), just as we are made to examine the parallel path of Brandon’s uncle Marlon (a riveting Mahershala Ali), who in one chilling scene comforts Brandon’s mute grandmother while discussing “business” with his nephew.

Unfortunately, the level of perspicacity that Tipping shares with the various circles of young men does not extend to the women in “Kicks.” While the males are constantly communicating and interacting with one another, females are primarily objectified for purposes of sexual gratification. In the sole extended sequence in which multiple women speak and interact, the object of Brandon’s desire – whose tender age is alluded to by an older minder – engages him with an easy hook-up. Tipping’s intent might have been to focus attention on the insidious ways that dire codes of masculinity govern a universe with a very precise concept of what it means to be a man, but in some ways, that very message might have been even more effectively conveyed had “Kicks” carved out some room for feminine voices and agency.

Life, Animated

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on Ron Suskind’s 2014 book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” the documentary feature “Life, Animated” tells the story of Suskind’s son Owen, who at the age of three withdrew into a nonverbal world that devastated his family. Diagnosed with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Owen speaks only what his parents describe as “gibberish” until a viewing of “The Little Mermaid” reveals that Owen is capable of cognitively sophisticated communication through the dialogue of the Disney films that he repeatedly watches. Inspired by the breakthrough, the Suskinds forge ahead, even though a skeptical specialist advocates caution.

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams closely follows the Suskind quartet, which also includes mother Cornelia and older brother Walt. Supplementing the interviews with footage of scenes chronicling the now grown-up Owen’s move toward greater independence from his parents (including a transition to an apartment of his own), Oscar-winner Williams develops the kind of working relationship with his subject that – even though the artificial presence of the camera never entirely disappears – suggests easygoing, comfortable intimacy. Home video clips of Walt and Owen as youngsters also add to the portrait.

While Owen’s remarkable progress via Disney is the movie’s hook, Owen’s tentative exploration of adulthood, employment, and romance is as engaging as any of the scenes that so bluntly stand in for complementary or parallel emotional beats (like Peter Pan not growing up or the separation of mother and offspring in “Bambi”). A plot involving Owen and his girlfriend Emily is adroitly handled by Williams, who in one memorable exchange at a mini-golf course challenges the wholesome image of Disney’s G-rated depiction of love and sex. A helpful Walt hints that people who kiss one another sometimes use more than their lips. They also use their… “Feelings,” is Owen’s reply.

One of the film’s central thematic concerns parallels the book’s report of Owen’s identification with Disney sidekicks, and Williams enlists the talents of Mathieu Betard, Olivier Lescot, and Philippe Sonrier to supplement the live action material with animated sequences illustrating a fantasy space where Owen interacts with the characters that have long inhabited a special sphere in his life as companions and friends. Back at the Disney viewing and discussion group that Owen organizes, a visit from Jonathan Freeman and Gilbert Gottfried provides another highlight but also raises the question of the notoriously brand-protective Disney’s relationship to “Life, Animated.”

While it is difficult not be caught up in the genuinely moving narrative of Owen’s personal journey, Williams fails to include even the slightest hint of critical counterpoint to the assumption that Disney films represent an unassailable moral position as a kind of righteous elixir. And though the purpose of “Life, Animated” is surely not to open up a critical discourse on the dark side of the corporation’s nearly monolithic historical position of power in key segments of our popular culture, some viewers will yearn for a more nuanced consideration. Fortunately, one’s attitude concerning Disney does not interfere with the movie’s rich understanding of meeting life’s challenges and obstacles with grace, humor, patience, and love.