Small spoiler: A man talks about his fear of sharks; later he goes wading in the ocean. Depending on the movie, one of at least three things can happen: (a) He is attacked by a shark; (b) he imagines he is attacked by a shark; or (c) no shark, real or imagined, appears. Type (a) is a clever sort of movie; type (b) is psychological; and type (c)–well, type (c) could be kind of a random walk. (All can be good movies.) Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is type (c).

Jamie (Michael Cera) is a young American at a party in Chile. He sees a compatriot (Gaby Hoffmann) dancing freely; out of his natural disposition (perhaps a bit addled by cocaine), he feels compelled to warn her that she is making a fool of herself. She takes no offense, introducing herself as Crystal Fairy, and Jamie, now definitely drugged, invites her to join him on an auto trip he is taking the next day.

The trip, by Jamie and three Chilean brothers, is a search for San Pedro cactus, which can be cooked to yield a brew of a legendary hallucinogen. By the time Crystal Fairy meets up with them, Jamie has forgotten his invitation and is all for leaving her behind; the brothers demur.

Onward travel the five, with Jamie Type-Aing out over the prospective mescaline and the others relaxing and enjoying the journey. As the film’s poster suggests, they find the succulent they seek.

I have another small spoiler to contrast this film with what other filmmakers might imagine. The night of the party, Jamie and the brothers run into a pair of prostitutes on the street, and Jamie invites them to his apartment for a snack. In another story, the prostitutes would rob the foursome or otherwise complicate their lives; here, they stay for a brief time and then leave, with the only consequence that Jamie oversleeps the next morning. This is a film about enjoying the journey. I did.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Sebastián Silva
Language: English and quite a bit of subtitled Spanish
Running time: 98 minutes
DVD release date: November 19, 2013


Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief is Alex Gibney’s extremely professional exposé of the religion, cult, or philosophy (choose your term) everyone loves to gossip about. Gibney tells about the life and works of L. Ron Hubbard, who adapted many ideas developed in his own science fiction writing to found Scientology. Gibney also delves into the cosmology of the group, which involves a hierarchy of spiritual levels, and there are the thetans (sort of like disembodied souls), and some other characters and terms I’ve already forgotten.

To those outside the church, the steps taken to hold onto members–socially, psychologically, legally, and financially–are one of the most troubling aspects of the group; one woman claims to have signed a billion-year contract with the church. Much of the film is devoted to celebrities and higher-ups in the church who decided to leave, and the harrassment they encountered.

The whole film is well-organized and crisply presented, with no dull stretches. For those who’ve paid attention to news items about Scientology, there’s not much new; but it’s all nicely summed up.

Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Alex Gibney, based on a book by Lawrence Wright
Running time: 119 minutes
DVD release date: October 6, 2015


The Double is an atmospheric tale of a sad sack, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), who programs analog computers (or does something like that) in a dreary office and pines after co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Actually he kind of stalks her, and it doesn’t help that he’s painfully introverted and sort of sweaty with angst.

Then a new employee arrives: James Simon (Eisenberg again), outgoing and overconfident. Only Simon James seems to recognize that James Simon is his doppelgänger. The workplace veteran helps the new guy fit in at the job, and the new guy coaches his shy twin on how to score points with Hannah. But of course things must ultimately go badly for Simon James, since he is a hopeless mope.

It’s both oppressive and comic (Wallace Shawn as the boss helps with the latter), a parable with a bit of malice.

The Double (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Richard Ayoade
Written by Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine, based on a story by Dostoevsky
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: August 26, 2014

* * *

The Woman in the Fifth is another film that relies on atmosphere, but it loses me in the fog.

Tom (Ethan Hawke) is a one-hit novelist who shows up in Paris to see if he can reconnect with his ex-wife, or at least their young daughter. That’s no-go; she has a restraining order that keeps him at a distance. Disconsolate, he dozes on the Metro until he wakes up to find himself robbed of his possessions. Okay, plot; I’ll grant you this one cliché, but you had better keep to the straight and narrow from here on. He ends up at a seedy pension, working at a sketchy job to pay his rent. Visiting a bookstore, he happens into a literary group that in turn leads him to the mysterious Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), who lives alone in a fifth-floor flat. Back at the pension, he also hits it off with the bartender Ania (Joanna Kulig), a young Polish émigré who is ready to serve as muse to the next creative man who comes along.

So far we’ve had a heavy slathering of mood–a man unmoored from his life, trapped in a soul-sapping city, with a couple of love interests. But then the plot takes a left turn, followed by another turn into the fourth dimension, and I cannot go along. Perhaps the novel on which the film is based explains things, but I really don’t care. Sorry.

A Feline’s Journey

The Rabbi’s Cat is a gorgeous animated film set in Algiers, 80 or so years ago. The titular cat (voiced by François Morel), never given a name, lives with a rabbi, his daughter, and his parrot. One day by some mysterious means (it may have been something he ate) the cat gains the ability to speak, and he is soon asking the rabbi to accept his conversion to Judaism and to conduct a bar mitzvah for him. There are theological discussions on a number of topics (not just cat conversions); Muslims and Christians are brought into the picture. Lots of other stuff happens, involving a lion tamer/outdoorsman, a refugee from Russia, and a motor trip to Ethiopia. All is lively, witty, and comic–a brief sequence may be the funniest depiction of a pogrom ever put on film. An ongoing thread emphasizes the similarities between different religions and the common sense of harmonious relations–a bit heavy-handed at times but always welcome. Thread, indeed: Watching the film is like joyfully unrolling a big ball of multicolored yarn.

The Rabbi’s Cat (reviews)
Directed by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux
Written by Sandrina Jardel and Joann Sfar, based on a comic book series by Sfar
Language: French
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: May 7, 2013

First, Always

Goodbye First Love shows a teenage girl’s first thralldom to romance, and then visits her years later when the echoes of that bondage assert themselves. Camille (Lola Créton), fifteen, would rather die than lose her connection to Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a few years older. He is happy for her company, and the first third of the film chronicles their bliss together, first in Paris and then at a country estate. The idyll must come to an end, however; Sullivan wants to travel with a group of his buddies, leaving love behind. For a while he writes to her diligently, and she traces his route through the Andes on a wall map. As the trip extends to several months, love fades.

We pick up with Camille again several years later. She is a promising architect’s apprentice to a much older man, Lorenz (Magne-Håvard Brekke); soon they are a couple. But when Sullivan reappears, old embers glow.

This is a gorgeous film that moves at its own pace. It’s not made to tick off a series of plot points (as I have just done); it’s meant to convey moods and feelings, and it does that quite well.

(It’s also an opportunity for me to reread the brief but incisive review by a favorite film critic who passed away a couple of years ago.)

Goodbye First Love (reviews)
Directed and written by Mia Hansen-Løve
Language: French, with bits of German and Danish
Running time: 110 minutes
DVD release date: September 25, 2012

Save the Baby!

Hours is a low-key but entertaining thriller, released shortly after the death of its star, Paul Walker. Nolan (Walker) has rushed his wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) to a New Orleans hospital, where she dies giving birth to the couple’s daughter. Now Nolan must watch over the incubator keeping his baby alive while Hurricane Katrina bears down on the city. He stays behind as the hospital is evacuated–the incubator can’t be moved, and the baby will need 40 hours or so in the incubator before she can breathe on her own–and when the electricity goes out, he has to make sure the incubator doesn’t lose backup power. He also has to find some way to signal rescuers that he is stranded in the hospital.

Nolan deals with a handful of crises, most of them small, but much of his time is spent waiting, trying to stay awake (the backup power issue requires constant attention), and reminiscing about the all-too-brief good times with Abigail. Walker shines throughout as an ordinary guy trying to cope with disaster–a lower-stakes version of Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

Hours (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Eric Heisserer
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: March 4, 2014

This Is Not The End

There’s more than one way to do a post-Rapture comedy. You can load up the film with semi-special effects and draw humor from people running around in panic as the world quickly comes to an end (This Is the End). Or you can show people adapting to the new world: The Tribulation becomes the Big Nuisance. This is where screenwriter Chris Matheson and director Paul Middleditch take the lightly-budgeted Rapture-Palooza, for my money a smarter and funnier movie.

Lindsey (Anna Kendrick) and her boyfriend Ben (John Francis Daley) are at a bowling alley when half the people disappear, leaving their clothes behind. In this telling, the raptured are not necessarily better people (gangsters are among those taken up into the heavens); they are just the regular churchgoers. The Tribulation brings biting, tough-talking locusts; obscenity-spewing crows; bloody rain; and fireballs from the sky. Oh, and wraiths–the undead, some of whom are on the Anti-Christ’s payroll, but many of whom just want some pot to smoke. All in all, you get used to it.

About that Anti-Christ: He’s named Earl, but he prefers to be called Beast, and he’s all about good times (at least for himself). This is the funniest I’ve ever seen Craig Robinson–suave and outrageously coarse at the same time, evil but relaxed about it, or even a little shy. Beast is looking for a delectable young woman to make babies with (his first wife turned out to be a nag and his son doesn’t impress him), and one day his eyes light on lovely, virginal Lindsey. She’s just what he wants; and Beast is a difficult character to say no to.

As you might expect from the co-writer of the Bill and Ted movies, there are no holds barred on where the story can go; but wherever it goes, it goes funny.

Rapture-Palooza (reviews)
Directed by Paul Middleditch
Written by Chris Matheson
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: August 20, 2013