AFI DOCS (Days 3 & 4)

So many films, so little time. Running back and forth from DC to Silver Spring, it was impossible to see all the films that were available. Anyone who can, should go next year. I’ll let you know when, and we can see them all then compare notes! Here are my short takes on the films I saw the last two days. Trailers are below.

AFI DOCS 2015 (Days 1 & 2)

Another year, another great set of documentaries! Last year it seemed the festival had more of a theme. This time around, I saw a lot of different kinds of stories. Some were political. Several felt like advocacy pieces. There were many about music and quite a few from Middle Eastern countries. As usual, there were too many to fit in and I missed quite a few that I really wanted to see. I am hoping to get a few screeners from filmmakers that I met at the festival to rectify that situation. This post is of my first two days of viewing.

Jurassic World

I came really late to the Jurassic party, finally catching the original in re-release in 2013 — 20 years after its theatrical debut. So it’s kind of a big deal that I sat through a screening of the fourth installment, pre-release, despite recovering from shingles (note to all: if you have a chance to get the shingles vaccine, do it!). Anyway, Jurassic World is frighteningly entertaining, though like the original, not for the very young or faint of heart. If you’re into dinosaurs and a fan of Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Parks and Rec), then JW is a fun ride. However if you’re a purist or over-analyzing type, you should probably skip it. The crowd I saw it with seemed quite divided between indifference, disappointment, and elation.

The Salt of the Earth

I’ve been a fan of Sebastião Salgado’s work for decades, probably beginning with his photographs of the gold miners of Brazil’s Serra Pelada in the mid-80s. Beyond being beautiful images, they are powerful statements about humanity and as such are incredible social documentary. The Salt of the Earth looks at his entire career and the ways that his work has influenced his life, as well as its impact on international audiences who view starving refugees in Africa or Bosnians fleeing to Croatia through his lens. He is truly one of the greatest living photojournalists and this documentary directed by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Pina, Buena Vista Social Club) along with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado takes you on his incredible life journey. It is beautiful, adventure-filled, and both heartbreaking and uplifting.

San Andreas

It’s really not my fault that I cracked up a few times while the ground was shaking and buildings were collapsing out the wazoo. San Andreas is totally cheesy – and knows it. And that sort of makes it okay. It doesn’t have the same guilty-pleasure appeal as Furious 7 (that other recently-released action-adventure movie with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), but it is what it claims to be: a formulaic disaster movie that showcases the Rock’s ‘sensitive’ side.

Far from the Madding Crowd

What a simply horrid problem Bathsheba Everdene (Katniss’s great-great grandmother?) has to contend with! She’s young and pretty and has inherited a big old house in the British countryside with its own working farm and the money to run it, and she has three, count them, THREE men who want to marry her. The downside to her situation is that she lives in Victorian England and women are not supposed to be independent or headstrong. In this latest adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba with a decidedly 21st century vibe. And that works because really at its core Far from the Madding Crowd is a timeless tale of recognizing the love that is right in front of you, no matter what anyone thinks.

Tomorrowland

Oh George, you’re killin’ me! I really wanted to love this movie, or at least like it a lot. Instead, I liked it a little. It’s certainly a fine choice for a family flick this long holiday weekend; It has a commendable message, and a decent shot of girl power. But the two-hour journey borders on bland and boring, despite the appearance of flying saucers, jet packs, magical pins, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, and glimpses of a Disney-utopia-esque place known as “Tomorrowland” that exists somewhere in time and space.

Clouds of Sils Maria

The first I heard of Clouds of Sils Maria was the news that Kristen Stewart won the French version of the Oscar (the Cesar) for her supporting role in it, the first American ever! I just saw the film and I am scratching my head. Not that she is bad, but it just isn’t a standout role, even for her. And lest you assume she speaks French, which would be a feat worthy of a prize, the film is mostly in English with leading lady Juliette Binoche slipping into her native tongue on just a few subtitled occasions. The film is the story of the evolution of a relationship between a famous actress Maria (Binoche) and her young assistant Valentine (Stewart) as they rehearse for a revival of the play that started Maria’s career. It is an arty movie, somewhat Bergman-esque. There is a LOT of subtext and the line between the play and their real life becomes blurry at times. There are also beautiful moments and poignant scenes. And while everything is not spelled out, it is a thought-provoking look at the way our perspectives change with time.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What a ride! From the beginning to the end, there is hardly a static scene in this film. It begins as Max (Tom Hardy) is contemplating the vast scorched earth that the world has become in its not so distant dystopian future. But before you can say “Where’s Mel?” the crazy car caravan arrives filled with even crazier warriors. They snatch him up and take him back to their stronghold called the Citadel to become a “blood bag” that keeps their troops at fighting strength. But when the evil leader Immortan Joe’s wives are stolen and his war boys take chase, one of them who just happens to be receiving his refresher blood directly from Max, decides to join the fight and takes his supply along for the ride, cleverly attaching him to the front of his vehicle. It probably isn’t the safest place to be in a road war. Especially when the person you’re up against is the super bad-ass fem-warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron.)

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 is a perfectly entertaining movie. From a plot perspective, it doesn’t measure up to its 2012 surprise-hit predecessor Pitch Perfect, but what it lacks in story, it makes up for in gleeful fun. Here’s the gist: the Bellas of Barden University are riding high as three-time national a capella champions. But an embarrassing faux pas and wardrobe malfunction during a performance at the Kennedy Center (for the POTUS no less) results in the school suspending the all-girl singing group, now comprised mostly of seniors who really need to be thinking about life after college anyway. The gals strike a deal with the school – and the a capella governing body – that if they can pull off an upset victory at an International competition that no American group has ever won, then the Bellas will be reinstated, and all will be forgiven. Ready, set, cue the music! What follows is pure fun, with informal sing-offs, bonding exercises, surprise cameos, and the return of Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins in all their satirical glory as professional commentators for the singing competitions. They are hysterically inappropriate.