Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
There are two things to know about Shaun the Sheep Movie: It’s from Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for the Wallace and Gromit films, and it has no dialogue. These two items are enough to tell you whether you want to see it or not, really. I wanted to see it. Although Aardman’s output isn’t reliable (I didn’t think much of Chicken Run), its writing is usually clever enough to take a chance on. I wondered if it would still deliver the wit in the absence of any dialogue.
It’s not as clever as its Wallace and Gromit brethren, not even judging strictly by visuals, but it’s cute enough, and the pacing, which can be everything in a movie with no narration or dialogue, is pleasant. The film is delivered mostly from Shaun’s point of view, making it a real challenge to feel anything for any of the characters, and this is its greatest shortcoming. I was amused and entertained, but I didn’t feel invested in the outcome.
You could do a lot worse, but my guess is that whatever your options on any given day, you could also do a lot better.
Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Tracy has just begun her frosh year at Barnard, and college isn’t turning out quite the way it was promised. She’s rejected from the literary society, her roommate is unfriendly, her professors aren’t happy with her contributions in class, and if the fun campus life that was illustrated in the viewbook still exists, she can’t seem to find it. But her mother is about to remarry, and her future step-sister, the thirty-something Brooke, has an apartment, a life, and several jobs in New York City, so Tracy gives her a call one evening after finishing dinner by herself. So needy is she for caring companionship that when Brooke asks if she’s eaten yet, Tracy says she hasn’t, and meets Brooke for dinner and drinks.
Brooke is free-spirited and adventurous: she jumps on stage and sings with the band in one of the bars she visits with Tracy; she lives in a huge apartment that’s zoned for commercial use; she has a boyfriend who’s helping her open her own restaurant. Tracy sees in Brooke a life lived outside the lines, someone who inspires her to stretch herself as a person and as a writer.
When things go a little crazy, Tracy comes along for the ride, bringing a frosh Columbia student and his girlfriend along, too. The foursome meets an ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend at the mansion they share.
Greta Gerwig as Brooke is flighty and charismatic, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s smart or just really good at acting smart, and Tracy as her wide-eyed future stepsister is involved but not really involved, a kind of Nick Caraway to Brooke’s Jay Gatsby. It’s an interesting relationship, and the character’s conversations are fascinating, but not for how well they connect Brooke with Tracy. Instead, each character’s lines seem to be inspired by the other’s, without actually being responses, as if each is only vaguely aware that there is a topic of conversation, not really listening to the other except for jumping-in points where they can share their next thoughts.
Add a few more characters to the dynamic, and you have a truly bizarre situation with non-sequiturs galore. Conversations sound like two or three different plays are being performed at the same time in the same space, and at times the blocking and set resemble those belonging to a stage play, each actor playing to an imaginary audience. I was reminded of several of David Mamet’s films, all adaptations of his plays, and wondered if the script wasn’t first conceived of as a play.
It’s more strange than funny, but it’s funny enough to keep one engaged.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno. Written and directed by Alex Garland.
Caleb is a programmer working for the most-used search engine in the world. He wins a contest whose prize is a week spent with the company’s founder at his private mansion, a compound so top-secret that the helicopter flying him there must land in a field from which the house cannot even be seen. “This is the closest I’m allowed to get,” says the pilot. “Just follow the river until you see it.”
On his arrival, Caleb is informed that he’s there to participate in a test of the company’s latest artificial intelligence. As the human component in the tests, his goal is to determine whether the human-shaped container for the AI, whose name is Ava, can interact with a conscious being in such a way that the human cannot tell he is conversing with a computer. But Caleb voices one of the problems with this kind of testing: a chess computer might be able to beat any opponent, apparently thinking better than a human, but does a chess computer know that it’s playing a game? Does it even know what chess is? How do you interrogate a computer so that you can be convinced the computer knows what it is? And once a computer is intelligent and self-aware enough to pass that test, how do you know you can trust any of its responses? And once it starts to ask you questions, how do you know you’re not the one being tested?
As science fiction, Ex Machina is interesting and thought-provoking, if not quite as provocative as better films in the genre. As thriller, it’s a lot more successful. Not as good a science fiction as Oblivion, for example, but as good a thriller as In Time. Oscar Isaac as the billionaire founder and Domnhall Gleason as Caleb are an excellent combination, and the set design is wonderfully cold and glassy. Everyone’s talking about Alicia Vikander nowadays, and now I can see why. She’s sort of the Mara Rooney of 2015.
A better film than its advertising hinted at, and a nice surprise worthy of its critical response.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep (2012)
Chen-tung Ko, Man-shu Chien, Shu-yao Kuo. Directed by Chi-jan Hou. Mandarin with English subtitles.
A young man looking in the mirror one morning sees that a sticky note has been attached to his forehead. The message, written by his girlfriend, says “I’m off to the cram school.” His first response is to do nothing, for days on end, his apartment falling more and more into slovenliness, but when he finds himself with nowhere to live, he sets out for the area of Taiwan where the cram schools are, hoping to find his misplaced love. Instead, he meets the proprietor of a copy shop, whose clients include the cram school he believes his girlfriend is attending. The shop owner offers him a job and a place to live; the job offers multiple opportunities to visit the school and interact with its students, examination proctors, and instructors.
The copy boy befriends some interesting people, including a recovering alcoholic Christian minister whose hobby is selling noodles from a booth late at night, a cute young woman driven only by her love of money, and a proctor who likes to draw sheep in the margins of the tests he photocopies for her. She, too, is recovering from a lost love, counting the days to the deadline she’s set herself for getting over his absence, but she’s not the only one. It seems everyone in this film, perhaps everyone in the city or even everyone in the world, is dealing in some way with some kind of separation, some actively seeking resolution, some passively waiting for conclusions they can only imagine. The noodle-seller, the money-hungry girl, the garlic rice vendor, even the people who’ve left their belongings in the rental lockers that are soon to be torn down: each has a story, and if there are happy endings around here, they’ve yet to be realized.
When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep is mostly lighthearted fare, a romantic comedy with deeply bittersweet undercurrents. It tells its story simply, with very creative visuals including stop-motion photography to quickly show the passage of days and crudely animated sequences to illustrate some of the narrative. I laughed aloud a few times at clever editing and surprising details, and although the film’s conclusion doesn’t quite pass the would-this-happen-in-real-life test, the visuals it produces are worth the small dent in believability.
Is there such a thing as “forever and ever,” and should we be concerned about that if we cannot be sure of its existence? Or should we accept what we’re given today, when the only things we can be sure of are within sight of this moment? Here’s a film that, while not delving too deeply into the philosophy, delivers its take through the eyes and hearts of one small group of young people. It’s a fun exploration with a visually pretty climactic moment.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and Paul Giamatti.
Directed by F. Gary Gray.
With a running time of two hours and twenty-four minutes, Straight Outta Compton still feels a little short, although I’m imagining that only long-time fans of N.W.A. will think so. Younger fans who aren’t as familiar with the story of the gangsta rappers will probably think it’s just about the right length, if not slightly too long in the attention it gives the post-N.W.A. life of founding member Eazy-E (whose widow is one of the film’s producers). The film covers a lot of ground, from the days leading up to the group’s formation through its early success, its arrest in Detroit for performing “F*** tha Police,” its untimely breakup, and the later successes of Ice Cube as a solo artist and Dr. Dre as a groundbreaking producer.
Yet many of the stories dramatized here are already well known. What’s missing is some resonant presentation of these guys as friends. What were the relationships really like, and who were these guys as people? When Eazy meets Ice Cube in a nightclub, the moment is at first tense, but as the artists give each other enormous hugs, there’s a relief in both their eyes, a kind of righting of wrongs that rings true even though there’s not enough in the film for that to be the payoff. Eazy suggests that the guys get back together, and Cube says, “If Dre wit’ it, then I’m wit’ it,” and you realize that you understand the sentiment, but you’re only really accepting it on faith or based on some other knowledge you came to the theater already possessing, not because of anything the film has already shown you. This is the film’s greatest omission, the relationships away from the group, although if you’re a fan, you’ll also be taken aback by how little a role in this story is played by M.C. Ren, thought by many to be the best rapper in the group. If you didn’t know anything about Ren going into the film, you still didn’t know anything when you left the theater.
I’ll tell you what, though: the stories this film does tell are terrific, and the performances are strong. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is more than passable portraying his real-life father Ice Cube, and if there’s a character the script does try to delve into, it’s Dr. Dre, played by Corey Hawkins. Here are five young men making an effort to create something, motivated partly by wanting to get out of the cycle of violence they see around them every day, and partly by the need to express the rage that’s inspired by that violence. When these young men are warned against performing that song by the Detroit police, there’s never a second’s doubt that they’ve only got one option, and as the tension builds, leading up to that moment, you can’t help taking their side, even if you remember having mixed feelings about it when you first read about that story in your college newspaper. It’s the film’s best scene.
Okay, I have one other, much smaller criticism of the way this film is put together, and it’s the conspicuous absence of a full-length performance of the song whose title gives this movie its name. We see and hear snippets of it, mostly Eazy-E’s part, but come on. Viewers who are seeing some of this stuff for the first time should be shown what the big deal is with this song, and those of us who already know it should have the opportunity to relive it in some semblance of context. Leaving out this obvious detail is a huge disservice to the effectiveness of this film.
I don’t have teenagers of my own, but if I did, I would make them watch Straight Outta Compton.
The People I’ve Slept With (2009)
Karin Anna Cheung, Wilson Cruz, Archie Kao, Lynn Chen, James Shigeta, Randall Park. Directed by Quentin Lee.
Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) is a single woman in her late twenties, an unapologetic lover of sex who says, “a slut is just a woman with a man’s morals.” She rejects the traditional get-married-have-kids-be-successful model of happiness her older sister Juliet (Lynn Chen) has embraced, happy with her retail job in the daytime and casual hookups at night.
When she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s confronted with a few situations in need of being worked out, not the least of which is figuring out who the father is. With the encouragement and assistance of her best friend Gabriel (Wilson Cruz), Angela works through her issues, aided also by the collection of photos she’s amassed of all her romantic partners (cutely labeled with nicknames, measurements of length and girth, and occupations).
Cheung, in case you’ve forgotten, was the female lead in Better Luck Tomorrow, a mile-marker of sorts in Asian American film. She was outstanding in that film, and is quite good in this one, especially in scenes where she delivers lines by herself. There are a few scenes that feel under-rehearsed, as if the actors are still getting to know each other and their characters’ relationships. The timing feels off in these few scenes, and the actors’ deliveries present as if they’re waiting for their turns, rather than listening to what’s being said to them before they speak. They give the film a kind of rushed feeling, despite otherwise strong performances all around.
It’s a fun movie with well-conceived characters, touching on several issues young adults of any American ethnicity confront in some way, with a few plot situations you’ve probably never seen.