Crazy Love

For those seeking a non-chemical alternative to psychedelic drugs, there are the films of Bill Plympton. Cheatin’ is a fine example.

In this wordless animated film, Ella is a lovely young woman who meets Jake, a hunky mechanic, and the two crash into love. They devote themselves to one another, until one of them is led to believe that the other is cheating on the relationship, which leads to revenge cheating, which leads to all sorts of chaos involving a fantastic reality-shifting machine. Said machine is hardly out of place in this movie. Early on there is a hilarious extended set piece in a bumper car ride which leaves the laws of physics in a crumpled heap. We also get a couple of cameos by one of Plympton’s beloved manic dogs.

But along with this looniness there’s a lot of heart. These lovestruck lunkheads deserve better than what the universe is dishing out for them. They suffer real heartbreak, and the viewer can’t help but root for the two to find their way back together. In the nuttiest way possible, of course.

Cheatin’ (reviews)
Directed and written by Bill Plympton
Running time: 78 minutes

* * *

Stretch is the story of a limo driver (Patrick Wilson) who owes big money to his bookie. He hopes to earn the money quickly by driving a hypereccentric billionaire (Chris Pine in thick facial foliage) around L.A. The film is deeply in love with its own cynicism. If you don’t slap your knees delightedly at the sight of three call girls in blackface, this movie may not be for you. I bailed after 40 minutes.

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This Could Be a Movie

A couple of recent documentaries could be remade, shot for shot, with actors, and the results would be 90% of the way toward satisfying narrative films.

Debra Granik is certainly familiar with narrative film, having directed and co-written Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone. One of the actors in the latter film was Ronnie Hall, on whom Granik has trained her documentary lens in the film Stray Dog (Hall’s nickname). Hall is a “type”: biker, white beard, Vietnam vet tattoo on his arm, owner/caretaker of multiple dogs; he manages a trailer park in Branson, Missouri. He is proud to be a veteran but troubled by what the war taught him about himself; he’s also an empathetic counselor to other vets. Three-quarters of the film acquaints us with Hall and shows his everyday life; the last quarter follows his wife Anita as she visits her two sons in Mexico and tries to bring them to Missouri and (hopefully) a better life. All very touching.

Western captures a key period in the history of two towns separated by the Rio Grande. For years, Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, lived peacefully with virtually no boundary between them; people and livestock passed freely between the U.S. and Mexico. But then drug wars picked up along the border, and it was only a matter of time before cartel violence reached this particular river crossing.

The film focuses on two characters: Martín Wall, a cattle trader, and Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass. Wall is trying to raise a young daughter and stay in business while border crossings are restricted–he is in the U.S. but his supply is in Mexico. Foster, a natural politician with a white mustache and a cowboy hat, struggles to keep the mood peaceful and the outlook positive when things get dicey.

Both documentaries feature drama but neither leans into it. Rather, they serve as portraits of people and places. They benefit from good timing and interesting personalities, and they make full use of those benefits.

Stray Dog (reviews)
Directed and written by Debra Granik
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: September 26, 2017

Western (reviews)
Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Running time: 93 minutes

A Farewell to Fairy Tales

I have never been a teenage girl, but I Believe in Unicorns feels like an authentic visit to the mind of a very specific one. Davina (Natalie Dyer) is a Berkeley-area sixteen-year-old, with friends at school and a disabled mother at home. One day her eyes fall on Sterling (Peter Vack), a dreamy older boy–he smokes, has his own wheels. Soon Sterling is serenading her on his guitar, singing about unicorns because he knows Davina loves unicorns. And soon enough the two of them are on the road, road-tripping in his rustbucket. And life is a dream of young love, until it isn’t, and Davina is achingly reclaimed by reality.

The film is from Davina’s point of view, and it’s remarkable how the deeper Davina falls under the spell of romance, the more the world outside the young lovers simply drops out of existence.

The story is punctuated from time to time by fantasy sequences in stop-motion animation, usually involving a unicorn. The herky-jerky crudeness of the animation seems to reinforce the immaturity of the mind imagining it. If you are looking for a well-made film with a relentless point-of-view, this will do.

I Believe in Unicorns (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Leah Meyerhoff
Running time: 78 minutes
DVD release date: January 19, 2016

Miscalculation

Remember the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008? So much wrongdoing, so little punishment. A small Manhattan bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was the only institution to face criminal prosecution; the bigger boys were untouchable. Abacus must have looked like an easy target, but the little bank unexpectedly put up a stout defense. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, tells the story. Documentarian Steve James puts us in meetings where the family owning the bank works out its legal strategy.

To be sure, a loan officer at the bank had broken bad, among other things demanding kickbacks from borrowers. When the bank found out, they fired the loan officer and provided evidence of his wrongdoing to the authorities. The DA used the files handed over to accuse the entire bank of criminality.

The film paints a picture of an immigrant family standing up for itself, and a prosecutor stumbling badly in going after them. For better or worse, it’s a gripping vignette of 21st-century American justice.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Steve James
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: September 12, 2017; recently televised as an episode of PBS’s Frontline, streamable for free here

My Dinner Totoro

I don’t rank Okja among Bong Joon-Ho’s best, but it’s still worth a look.

For ten years, Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather have raised Okja, a friendly mutant pig now hippo-sized, in the Korean mountains. The Mirando Corporation, which gave them the pig when Mija was four, wants their pig back, to drape with a best-pig ribbon at a show in New York. And then to slaughter for food, they fail to mention. An animal-rights organization wants to grab Okja and return her, live and unharmed, to Mija. After first using Okja to document animal cruelty, they fail to mention.

There are speeches by corporate spokespeople and escapes and recaptures and tender moments between girl and pig, and cruelty–oh yes, there are a few really nasty moments. The pig effects–CGI and puppetry–are first-rate. Okja is as adorable as any shmoo, though lacking the shmoo’s jolly readiness to offer itself as food.

The human factor is hit and miss. Hardest to take is Jake Gyllenhaal as a former naturalist/entertainer thrashing against late-stage corporate soul assimilation; he’s a little too bizarre. I want to say the same of Tilda Swinton’s self-absorbed corporate boss–who can believe such a character?–until I remember real-world Herbalife CEO William Johnson from the recent documentary Betting on Zero; I believe Johnson out-eccentrics Swinton. The animal activists are a lot more charming, including characters played by Paul Dano and Steven Yeun.

Good yarn, uneven satire.

Okja (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Written by Bong Joon-Ho and Jon Ronson
Languages: Korean and English
Running time: 121 minutes
Streaming on Netflix since June 28, 2017

Lithuanian Idyll

The Summer of Sangailė offers an hour and a half of respite from the troubles of the day–ninety minutes of luxuriating in the dreams of youth. A well-to-do family of three from Vilnius is summering in their funky villa near the sea. The daughter, seventeen-year-old Sangailė (Julija Steponaityte), meets some of the local youth, and soon she is spending her time with Austė (Aistė Diržiūtė), an aspiring fashion designer. Soon they are lovers. Sangailė also wants to become a stunt pilot–the film opens at an air show–but she suffers from a fear of heights. Her struggle with this fear and her relationship with Austė make up the film.

There are shadows–one of the characters methodically cuts herself–but overall this is light and pretty entertainment. And the love affair between the two young women features some of the most erotic cinema I’ve seen in some time.

The Summer of Sangailė (reviews)
Directed and written by Alantė Kavaitė
Language: Lithuanian
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: February 23, 2016

Pix Trix

Movies like Go for Sisters succeed based on strong characterization, but sometimes a film with thin characters can entertain. Time Lapse does so by taking a sci-fi chestnut and building a whirligig plot around it.

Three twentysomething friends, Callie, Finn, and Jasper (Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary, and George Finn, respectively) share an apartment. Through a chain of events, they gain access to a camera which spits out photographs of the future. Specifically, the camera, which is fixed in place and is trained on their living room, produces a Polaroid at 8pm every day, showing what it will see 24 hours later. The threesome recognize this as quite a profitable gadget. There are plot twists. Jealousy, betrayal, and bloodshed ensue.

Early on, it’s hinted that anyone who tries to frustrate the camera’s prediction will meet with a ghastly end. Anyone showing up in a Polaroid had better make sure they are doing what the picture says they are doing at the appointed time, or else. The trio get rich by knowing the future, but the prophetic pictures make free will unaffordable. Or so it seems. And when everything has played out, I’m happy to report that the filmmakers nail the ending.

Time Lapse (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Bradley King
Written by Bradley King and BP Cooper
Running time: 104 minutes
DVD release date: June 16, 2015