Tag Archives: new release

‘Captain Fantastic’ and the fantasy of a perfect world

Captain Fantastic is about the fantasy of being able to create a perfect world for your children, and the crushing realization that such control is ultimately impossible. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) pursues this ideal in a particularly extreme way – by removing his family from society altogether and creating his own little utopia in the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

We meet the family in the midst of a hunt. They’re all covered in camouflaging mud. The eldest, Bo (George MacKay), slaughters an animal, and Ben tells him that he is a man now. Primitive though the ritual may be, this family is not. Far from it. They are survivalist philosopher kings – highly educated and extremely self-sufficient.

Ranging in age from single digits to late teens, the six children, Nai (Charlie Shotwell), Zaja (Shree Crooks), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton, who resembles young River Phoenix), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Kielyr (Samantha Isler) and Bo have been molded in Ben’s very specific image. And, for the most part, they worship their father and their lifestyle – Noam Chomsky day and all.

The casting director should win an award for finding these truly excellent young performers, who shine alongside the always wonderful Mortensen.

But the cracks are starting to show in this little family unit, and not just because normal hormones and attitudes are emerging.

“I’m not a Trotskyist any more. I’m a Maoist!” Bo says in an angsty teenage huff at one point.

No, there is something more serious festering. Their mother, Leslie (Trin Miller), has been away for three months, hospitalized with severe depression. The kids miss her dearly, and her absence is becoming an issue. But we never get the chance to really meet her. Ben finds out early in the film that she’s killed herself.

He tells the kids this fact very frankly. Ben never lies to his children. He trusts that they can handle the truth, whether it’s the circumstances of their mother’s death and mental illness or the littlest one asking what rape is.

The death forces the family out of their little paradise and into the real world to attend her funeral in Arizona – even though Leslie’s grieving father Jack (Frank Langella) has threatened to arrest Ben if he shows up. But, c’mon. It’s their mother. Of course they’re going to go.

“Grandpa can’t oppress us!” the youngest exclaims.

So, they pack up their rickety green school bus and venture down from their ivory tower to go south, into the depths of the America that Ben hates. The younger ones have been so sheltered that they’ve never heard of Coke or Nike, or seen an obese person. Things get especially tense when they meet Ben’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and her family and disrupt their suburban normalcy.

While the kids seem happy, all outsiders are pretty much in agreement that Ben is unfit to parent. Unlike Harrison Ford’s unsympathetic Mosquito Coast protagonist, however, Ben clearly loves his family deeply and genuinely thinks that his way is the best way. This struggle between the individual parent and society’s expectations is one without an easy resolution. Both are right and wrong.

The film veers into cloying sentimentality a little too often, and, some might tire of Ben’s philosophies. But, that also just means that there’s room for his character to grow too.

Captain Fantastic is the second feature from writer-director Matt Ross (his first was the affair drama “28 Rooms), who is currently best known for his acting. In addition to over two decades in the movies, Ross plays the tech titan Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley. I imagine a film of the caliber of Captain Fantastic is bound to change that – this is no flash in the pan success. It’s a single, beautifully realized vision with edge and a true heart.

Animal lovers will delight in ‘The Secret Life of Pets’

Any pet owner who’s imbued their furry or feathered friends with deep thoughts and mysterious intentions will relate to the imagination behind The Secret Life of Pets.

It may not have the emotional resonance of a Pixar movie, but with its playful premise, endearing performances and outstanding score by Alexandre Desplat, Pets is fun, family (and animal)-friendly fare.

People’s favorite non-speaking companions are brought to life here by Illumination Entertainment (the studio behind Despicable Me) and given voice by an all-star cast that includes Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Albert Brooks.

Plot-wise, Pets follows the path Pixar set with talking toys 20 years ago in Toy Story: Two would-be rivals fighting for the love of their owner are forced to unite for a common cause.

Little terrier Max (C.K.) is the top dog in the life of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and a leader among the other house pets in their New York City apartment building, including neighbor Pomeranian Gidget (Slate), and the fat cat next door, Chloe (Lake Bell). But his exalted position is threatened when Katie brings home a giant, fluffy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Like Woody and Buzz, Max and Duke are instantly at odds.

The rival pups are trying to sabotage each other when they become separated from their dog walker and captured by animal control. This sends them on an adventure into the animal underworld: literally the underground headquarters of a bitter bunny named Snowball (Hart) and his team of Flushed Pets. Abandoned by their former owners, their motto is “liberated forever, domesticated never.”

Max and Duke try to fit in, but Snowball soon observes, “You’ve got the scent of domestication all over you,” and sends his army of rogue animals after them. At one point, the little rabbit steals a bus.

Meanwhile, the other pets from Max and Duke’s apartment building notice the two are missing and set out to find them. Gidget, who has a not-so-secret crush on Max, leads a menagerie that includes Chloe the cat, Mel the pug, Buddy the dachshund and a guinea pig named Norman.

They enlist the help of Tiberius the hawk (Brooks) and Pops (Dana Carvey), the wheelchair-bound basset hound who knows every animal in New York.

Desplat’s jazzy, energetic score amplifies the urgency and excitement as the chase continues through the city, and clever animation highlights the quirkiness of animal behavior. Though the characters in Pets are entirely anthropomorphized — they speak English and can operate electronics — they retain some recognizable animalism. When Pops wants to shut down one of his famous parties, for example, he turns on the vacuum cleaner. Dogs in hot pursuit of their friends are suddenly distracted by butterflies. And Buddy’s movements are especially amusing, as he navigates his elongated dachshund body around corners and down stairs.

It’s fun to imagine what pets get into when no one is home, and Pets does a great job of taking that idea to an extreme. And you thought Fluffy and Fido just spent the day napping.

Returning from hiatus, Desaparecidos gets the timing just right

It has been 13 years since their first — and, until now, only — album, Read Music / Speak Spanish, but today’s iteration of emo/punk band Desaparecidos will sound very familiar to fans of that initial release. But according to guitarist Denver Dalley, the new album, Payola, released earlier this year, was never meant to be a recreation of Read Music / Speak Spanish.

“We were trying to do it justice, but it was just a special thing at a special time,” Dalley said.

Timing is everything for Desaparecidos, it seems. Their formation in 2001, led by frontman Conor Oberst, helped put the Omaha, Nebraska, music scene on the map. The late-2002 release of Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, by Oberst’s other band, Bright Eyes, made the spotlight even brighter.

But that rising acclaim and increasingly difficult-to-align personal schedules put the band on hiatus at the end of 2002. Dalley said it was a complication the group saw coming. “We knew it was going to be that way the moment Conor joined.”

The next several years were fruitful ones for the five band members. Oberst continued making music with Bright Eyes (which ultimately disbanded in 2011), and began to embark on critically well-received solo work.

The other members of Desaparecidos pursued their own projects; among Dalley’s was the electronic-influenced solo project Statistics.

And then in 2010, the timing was right again. The quintet reunited on July 31, 2010, for Omaha’s Concert for Equality, an event Oberst organized in opposition to measures that prohibited hiring or renting property to undocumented immigrants in Fremont, Nebraska.

“We were all blown away when we reunited,” Dalley said. “We were really shocked at how natural it was, at how we still kind of had that connection.” 

It was the first step toward a full-fledged reunion. In early 2012, Desaparecidos put up a new website and then released two songs, “MariKKKopa” and “Backsell,” in August of that year. Schedules were still a battle, but Payola finally hit stores in June.

Payola maintains the loud post-hardcore thrash of Read Music / Speak Spanish — and might even be louder and angrier than its predecessor. As with the best of punk music, songs by Desaparecidos are highly topical. The band’s name is taken from a term that literally means “disappeared ones” in Spanish and Portuguese, and was originally used in reference to political dissidents who mysteriously disappeared under the reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The first Desaparecidos album railed against materialism in American culture. Payola addresses issues like the Occupy movement, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s abuses against Arizona immigrants and white collar crime. “We kind of thought and hoped that by now that first album would be totally irrelevant and obsolete, but it’s just as relevant if not more so now,” said Dalley. 

He said the band’s songs often arise out of conversations the members have when it’s late and time to pack up from their rehearsals at Conor Oberst’s house to avoid disturbing the neighbors, a casual method with its roots in the group’s nearly lifelong friendship, unharmed by years of hiatus. 

Dalley said Desaparecidos’ fans come in a variety of stripes. Many simply follow whatever Oberst does. Others are devoted to the band’s punk approach and don’t care much for the indie folk sounds of Bright Eyes.

More recently, he’s been surprised to encounter young fans discovering the band for the first time. “I think we were all expecting the fans to be kind of our age or older and then we will hear people that are upset our concert’s not an all ages show,” he said. “We think, ‘Wow, you were about 8 when that first record came out.’”

Dalley said he and the band are “just as curious as everyone else” about whether Desaparecidos will continue on with further albums. The band doesn’t have any appearances scheduled past this Thanksgiving. “We’re all having a blast doing it and want to continue doing it, but it’s hard to tell what’s going to come up and what the future holds,” he said.

But the band is eager to return to Milwaukee. Dalley said they played at an old venue called The Globe (now the site of Hotel Foster) back in 2001, opening for Cursive, and remembers feeling a kinship between this city and their home base in Omaha. It’s a commonality that makes him excited to return.

ON STAGE

Desaparecidos will perform at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m. Sept. 14. Joyce Manor opens. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 day of show. To order, call 414-286-3663 or visit pabsttheater.org.

Disney takes viewers on a return trip to Oz

Returning to the mystical land of “The Wizard of Oz” took more than 70 years and several hundred millions dollars.

Disney released its highly anticipated prequel to the 1939 movie classic on March 8. Directed by Sam Raimi, “Oz the Great and Powerful” explores the origins of the wizard (James Franco) and the witches (Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz) in a three-dimensional Oz.

The $200 million production, not counting another $100 million in estimated marketing costs, is a huge gamble for everyone involved, considering “The Wizard of Oz” is among the most enduring and beloved films of all time. Even Raimi, director of the first three “Spider-Man” movies, described the project as “daunting.”

The risk is compounded by a general box-office slump and a poor showing for last weekend’s $200 million big-screen take on another popular tale, “Jack the Giant Slayer,” based on “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

“The plus side is that there’s such incredible awareness of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that it’s going to translate into a mammoth opening weekend for ‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’” said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com. “The danger is that many people’s natural tendency will be to compare this to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and there’s no film that will ever live up to that.”

According to a survey done by the site, nearly all those buying tickets for the new “Oz” film have seen the original, and the film is far and away the most popular of the week, comprising almost 80 percent of tickets sold.

Franco has loved the world created by L. Frank Baum since he first saw the 1939 movie on TV as a kid. It inspired him to read all of Baum’s books, which led him to other fantasy fare such as “Alice in Wonderland” and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. But the notion of revisiting the Land of Oz with an A-list director wasn’t enough to lure Franco to the leading role.

“I already had a lot of faith in the movie because Sam was attached, but as an Oz fan, I wanted to be sure that the approach was sound,” the actor said. “They very smartly did not just do a boy version of Dorothy and have the same trip through Oz.”

For one, Franco notes the wizard is a con man and his trip through Oz is very different than Dorothy’s was. “He’ll be getting into awkward situations, basically kind of bouncing off of Oz in ways that Dorothy didn’t,” the actor said.

While the new “Oz” has plenty of familiar elements – the yellow brick road, Emerald City, witches, munchkins – “the ways they’re interacting with the protagonist (are) completely different,” Franco said.

As the film opens in sepia-toned 1905 Kansas, Franco’s Oscar Diggs is a carnival magician who dreams of fame and fortune at any cost. When a twister whisks him to a fantastical land bearing his stage name – Oz – whose inhabitants believe him to be a wizard sent to save them, he can’t believe his luck. Power and riches are practically his for the taking.

But first, he faces three witches, none of whom are exactly as they seem. Oz befriends a few locals, including a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and a china doll (Joey King), and eventually makes the plight of the people of Oz his own.

Like Franco, Raimi grew up loving the original “Oz” film.

“I remember it being the scariest movie I’d ever seen in my life and also the most touching movie, the saddest, sweetest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was that spirit of sweetness, of characters becoming complete by the end of the story – that was the most powerful thing I took away from the 1939 classic and the thing we tried collectively to put in our picture.”

Some critics have questioned the casting of Franco as the wizard. The AP’s Christy Lemire wrote that he’s “too boyish for the role … neither charismatic nor self-loathing enough.”

Yet Raimi believes Franco was the perfect actor to portray the wizard: “He was born to play the part.”

Franco and Raimi are personal friends, and the director said he’s seen the actor’s growth as a performer and an individual since they first worked together on 2002’s “Spider-Man.”

“I knew James was a moody dreamer, and that’s who Oz is,” Raimi said. “He dreams of being this great man, even if he doesn’t know what greatness is.”

The director knew Franco could embody both the selfishness – which Raimi had seen in the actor when he was younger – and the heart of the wizard.

“Because James had, in his life, been all of these things, I knew that if he could grab a hold of them and recognize them and hold up a mirror to himself – however actors do that – he could channel everything he was through this character and really bring him to life like no one else,” Raimi said.

Franco said playing the role “was really like I was stepping into the imaginative world of my childhood.”

And coming into Oz through the wily wizard, whose origins were never fully explored in the Baum books, is an inspired way to revisit the world, he said.

“It’s a great way to return to Oz through a character that you sort of know but not really,” the actor said. “Because of that, it’s a great entry that feels familiar and new.”