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Ghostbusters; The Infiltrator; Life, Animated; Our Little Sister; Nuts!

GHOSTBUSTERS

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newHere’s the bottom line: I laughed watching Ghostbusters…a lot. It’s as funny a movie as we’ve come to expect from director and co-writer (with his The Heat writer Katie Dippold) Paul Feig and his constant partner in comedy, Melissa McCarthy. I’m bending my brain to figure out what else really matters. You are either laughing because most of the jokes are landing, or you’re not (of course, you actually have to see the film for either of those things to take place, but that’s another issue). What’s even more impressive is that the funniest jokes have nothing to do with referencing the 1984 original. I’d even go so far as to say that most of said references land with a dull splat, and I’m most definitely including the cameos by most of the original film’s cast.

This version of Ghostbusters is actually strong enough to stand on its own, but films like Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have made it necessary to lean heavily on callbacks to up the familiarity quotient for moviegoers. I like that Feig and Dippold have at least done more of a sprinkling of references (liberally, I’ll admit) rather than create modern versions of entire sequences from the original film. Beyond the cameos (Murray’s is the only one worth half a damn), you might recognize a couple of the ghosts, but rather than simply drop them in, they find ways to expand these newer takes on the apparitions. I particularly love the way the familiar logo comes to life and becomes a primary nemesis for the new, all-female team.

If there’s one overall aspect to the ’84 Ghostbusters that Feig repeats to a tee, it’s that he sketches and fleshes out his characters in such a way that we genuinely care about them and their collective fate. It’s not like we’re actually afraid someone is going to die, but we want to see the team taken seriously and be given credit for saving New York City (assuming they do). There’s a strange subplot involving the mayor of New York (Andy Garcia) and his minions (including an assistant, played by Cecily Strong, and two government agents—Matt Walsh and Michael Kenneth Williams) wanting to keep the city from panicking by denying ghosts have been responsible for a rash of mayhem and general scariness, and while they are grateful to the Ghostbusters for their work, they are forced to paint them as quacks. That seems unnecessary and, in this age of everyone filming everything, kind of impossible to pull off.

The set up for Ghostbusters is fun as well. Former paranormal expert Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is on the verge of making tenure at her prestigious university when she is approached about a book she wrote years earlier with former friend and colleague Abby Yates (McCarthy). Wanting to keep her crackpot past behind her, she agrees to investigate a supposedly haunted mansion if Yates agrees to stop reprinting the book, but it turns out they encounter a major ghost phenomenon, and Erin rediscovers her love for this branch of science. To round out the team, Yates is already working with a nuclear engineer, Jillian Holtzmann (SNL’s Kate McKinnon), who becomes the group’s expert in capturing and disposing of ghosts. They are joined by subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, also on SNL), whose expertise is the city’s history and layout, both above and below ground.

So much of what makes Ghostbusters work is that it acknowledges the fact that each of these lead characters grew up being something of an outcast because of their love of the strange and unconventional. Erin saw a ghost when she was younger, and people made fun of her throughout her childhood because she admitted it. So for her, this team is about getting credit. Abby and Jillian work in a field that is rarely taken seriously, so for them, the teasing never really stopped. Patty is the most confident of the bunch, but by working for the city, she’s used to being overlooked or seen as part of the furniture. This supernatural outbreak is their chance to shine and be taken seriously, and in the process form a friendship that is bound by seeking the truth.

Of course, the film also soars when it gets as silly as possible. I’m guessing that 95 percent (a conservative estimate) of the people that like this film will place Kate McKinnon on the top of their list of the reasons why. Her nutty-professor random utterances, complete disregard for the safety of anyone (including herself) while using nuclear-fueled weapons, and no-filter approach to life in general are unlike anything in any previous Ghostbusters movie or most movies made in recent memory. She’s lightning out of the bottle, fed into a proton pack, and shot into the audience for maximum shocks and giggles. And I’ll give McCarthy credit for recognizing the talent around her and not attempting to play to the back rows as she often does. She’s a generous comic actor who let’s the funny people around her shine for the betterment of the film.

I should also mention that Chris Hemsworth does a fine job as the brain-dead receptionist who barely knows how to answer a phone or take a message. He’s objectified and drooled over by Erin especially, and if this bothers the men in the audience, too damn bad. Hemsworth’s improvised moments of beefcake dumb are exceptional and long overdue.

All of Feig’s most recent films have been female-driven, comedic takes on traditionally male-oriented genres. With Bridesmaids, he gave us his version of the man-child movies of his good friend Judd Apatow; in The Heat, he tackled the buddy-cop film; and Spy placed McCarthy in the middle of a James Bond-like espionage thriller, with great action sequences. Although Ghostbusters is clearly a reboot at its core, it’s fairly clear to me that it’s Feig’s funny horror film, complete with dazzling and often quite scary ghosts There are actual frightening moments here, including an opening scene at the previously mentioned mansion, with Zach Woods of “Silicon Valley” getting the crap scared out of him, literally.

The film has its down spots as well, especially in the weirdly laugh-free section of the film between when the team thinks they’ve defeated a bad guy (Neil Casey) who has been planting devices around the city to enhance paranormal activity, and the moment they realize they haven’t. I know many people have complained about Ghostbusters “villain problem,” but I think they’re missing the point that Casey isn’t meant to be the real bad guy; he’s just a stepping stone to who his ghost eventually inhabits during the film’s explosive and vibrant final battle. That version of this villain works just fine.

And that’s my take. If you already know you have no plans to see this film, I’m not sure why you’ve read this far. I’m not here to defend Ghostbusters; I’m simply here to lay out the pros and cons like I do with every movie. I’ll leave the bigger-picture issues surrounding this film to others. And while I could certainly write a couple thousand words on why this film isn’t as bad as you’ve presumed it would be for the better part of a year, I’ll simply leave you by saying that Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is a really good movie that I could easily and happily sit through again and again, much like I have with the filmmaker’s other works.

THE INFILTRATOR

We’ve seen movies about drug dealers, and the men and women who bust up drug empires; we’ve seen films about people who go undercover and ones about law enforcement types who are lured to the dark by money and power. Pulling a little bit from all of these scenarios is the true-life story of Robert Mazur (on whose book this movie is based), The Infiltrator is the tale of the U.S. Customs agent (played to perfection by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad,” Trumbo, All the Way) who becomes a major money launderer for the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, all while trying to keep his real family life from falling apart under the unimaginable pressure of working undercover.

Working from a nicely layered and arranged screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman, director Brad Furman (Runner Runner, The Lincoln Lawyer) moves through Mazur’s life as a devoted husband and father living in Tampa, as well as his false identity as businessman Bob Musella, a person whose company is uniquely qualified to move large amounts of cash through its machinations and into hidden accounts around the world. It’s not that Musella simply sets up the scheme; he actually moves money for Escobar with the help of his agency to establish that he’s the real deal.

The inherent drama of The Infiltrator isn’t the usual weapons and threat of death (although there’s a bit of that, if something ever goes wrong). Instead, the film finds the urgency in watching Musella move up the ranks and gain the trust of various Escobar underlings, including key lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With the help of his regular partner Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo, as good as he’s been since Carlito’s Way), Mazur/Musella practically makes the bad guys come to him, rather than appearing too eager for their business.

But the screenplay’s greatest gift is making it clear that Mazur and his team (including his superior officer, played by Amy Ryan) are smart enough to know that each new person Musella has to convince to use him to launder money needs to be approached using a different technique. Some need to be shown the conservative businessman, some need to see him as something of a gangster, while others require a more personal touch. In the case of the all-important Alcaino, Mazur enlists the help of fellow Customs agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) to play his girlfriend in order to become friendly with Alcaino’s wife, Gloria (Elena Anaya of The Skin I Live In). The two couples form a true friendship, and it’s clear there’s a sense of regret when Mazur realizes that the bond must be broken as the big bust gets closer.

There are a great many moments in The Infiltrator that will feel annoyingly familiar to anyone who has watched a solid police procedural series or film, but the talented cast and Furman’s assured directing make Mazur’s mid-1980s story seem fresh and unique more often than not. Case in point, there’s a sequence in which Mazur is taking his real wife, Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), out for their anniversary. Since he lives and works in the Tampa area (which in retrospect, seems really unwise), an associate from his undercover world spots him and says hello, forcing Mazur to switch into Musella mode and pretend his wife is his secretary and that they’re out celebrating her birthday. When the “Happy Anniversary” cake shows up, Musella assaults the waiter, blaming him for the “mistake.” Evelyn clearly understands what’s going on, but is beyond appalled by her husband’s behavior. It’s as tense and remarkable a scene as any in the film, and it’s a testament to Cranston’s abilities to switch gears with no notice to protect everyone involved, including himself.

The Infiltrator has a few great moments like that, separated by a great deal of interesting material that never quite takes off or engages us fully. The film keeps us at a distance somewhat, and as strange as it may sound, I wanted to be pulled into this world and fully embrace the long con. Ironically, Cranston and Kruger make a far more interesting and warm couple than Mazur and his wife, and while the screenplay flirts with the idea of this faux couple coming together romantically, thankfully we are spared that unnecessary indignity.

The film’s soundtrack is also worth mentioning, a mix of classic rock and dance music (mostly of the Latino variety), but the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” might be a little too on the nose for grown folks.

While The Infiltrator uses the undercover sub-genre of cop movies as its template, it finds ways to expand beyond that framework and give us aspects to a story like this we may never have considered. Mazur was smart enough to see that the takedown of a large number of Escobar’s people could also deal a major blow to the banks knowingly taking drug money. He aimed for bigger targets than those before him, and it paid off. More importantly, in a sea of summer spectacle, The Infiltrator feels like it’s aimed squarely at adults, and sometimes, that hits the spot even if the film is a bit derivative. Come for the often-harrowing story; stay for the performances that frequently rise above the material.

LIFE, ANIMATED

There were moments watching the latest from Oscar-winning documentary short winner (for Music by Prudence, 2010) Roger Ross Williams where we almost can’t believe what we’re witnessing. Life, Animated is the tale of Owen Suskind, a young man who drifted into virtual silence as a child when his autism took hold, and his life was never the same. After his frustrated family tried every means to attempt to communicate with young Owen, they almost accidentally discovered that he was finding important connection and communication tools through his frequent viewings of Disney animated films.

Owen’s journey is one built on pure emotion, as well as a basic understanding of how movies work. Strangely enough, Owen always seemed to identify with the heroes’ sidekicks, and when he would make up stories using his favorite characters and himself in new adventures, he would cast himself in the sidekick role time after time, as if he didn’t believe anyone would take him seriously enough to be the protagonist. Owen’s father is The Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who wrote a best-selling book about his son’s continuing journey. Director Williams is able to capture key moments in Owen’s early adult life, including getting his first girlfriend, moving into his own apartment, running a movie club for other autistic young men and women, and even giving a speech on the unique means of breaking through to those with autism.

Life, Animated doesn’t just give audiences a glimpse into Owen’s mind, but it attempts to paint a larger picture of how these films were used to give him a structure and set of social cues to make sense of the world around him. With guidance from his parents, Owen has become a highly functioning member of the autistic community who is even able to help others, but his journey was a long and slow one. The filmmakers use their own animation to place Owen in the world of Disney’s other characters to give clear examples of how he pictures himself among them.

I will admit, I was fascinated that most of Owen’s favorite films are from the more modern era of the studio’s animated works, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King. He relates to the outsider characters the most, including some of the bad guys. Jafar from Aladdin is a particular favorite, and the film explores the reason this might be the case. Life, Animated is a constant source of discovery and fascination, and by the end, the juxtaposition of classic Disney cartoons and scenes from Owen’s life make complete sense. In a very real way, Owen is the reluctant hero of his own animated movie, populated by sidekicks and featuring a hero whose greatest enemy is his own mind. Through the animated world, Owen repeatedly defeats this nemesis and brings us along for the journey. This is a truly special and moving experience, especially for film fans. The movie opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

After the 7:20pm show today, director Roger Ross Williams will take part in a post-screening Q&A, hosted by documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself). For details, go to the Music Box Theatre website

OUR LITTLE SISTER

Sitting down to see the latest by acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows, After Life, Like Father, Like Son) was something of a rare treat, since I had no clue what the film was actually about. Our Little Sister continues the themes the filmmaker has addressed lately regarding abandoned children, but with a more genteel approach as three close-knit sisters invite their much younger stepsister to live with them after their mutual father passes away, leaving the youngest without many viable options for being raised.

Our Little Sister is about family dissension in small doses. While the three sisters—Chika (Kabo), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), and eldest sister Sachi (Haruka Ayase), a hospital nurse who raised her younger sisters after their mother abandoned them years earlier—live together in their grandmother’s old house and seem to get along on most major issues, as we get to know them and see them interact, we begin to see the cracks in the relationship. They criticize each others’ taste in men, in the way they live their lives, and in how irresponsible they can be. But when they find out their long-gone father has died, they travel to his funeral, where they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), a sweet and bright teenager whose existence seems to bring out the best in the older sisters.

And while Suzu’s presence can’t erase all of the hardships and drama in the family’s small universe of friends and extended family members, she gives them hope for a better future. Our Little Sister is a work of small measures; there are no true villains in the piece, simply characters who made selfish and poor decisions in the past and are forced to stare them in the eyes years later. The performances are so charming that you wish you would become a part of the family, but they’re still believable enough for you to see where problems will crop up over time. Far from sentimental, the movie still manages to have its heart in the right place, even when something mildly traumatic occurs, such as the older girls’ mother showing up, armed with veiled threats about selling the house they live in.

As Americans, we’re so used to family dramas with overblown, soap operatic and unrealistic situations that I spent a good half the film waiting for melodrama to kick in, and it never does. Our Little Sister believes in the power of communication, openness and staying in the room during a harsh conversation. Ayase as the eldest sister also gives the finest performance as a woman who passes a small amount of judgment on her sisters’ personal lives, while secretly dating a married man, knowing full well it’s going nowhere.

Perhaps because the film simply runs its course rather than allowing its story to unfold as overly crafted plot, Our Little Sister maintains a dignified front—a staple of Koreeda’s films. I can’t imagine anyone coming out of this film who isn’t a bit jealous of these sisters and their unstoppable bond. Each sister exits the film a little wiser and more aware of who she is, and we feel that young Suzu is being raised by good people. The work is a satisfying and emotionally enriching experience, which is too rare a treat in the movies these days. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

NUTS!

Have goat glands ever been this sexy? Actually, they were back in the early part of the 20th century when a country doctor began treating impotence and male sterility by surgically implanting slivers of goat testicles. Scientifically, it didn’t make sense, but his patients claimed to suddenly be able to perform and get their wives pregnant as a result of the procedure, and Dr. John Romulus Brinkley became rich and famous as a result. Demand for the surgery was so great, the good doctor had to start raising the goats himself. His homespun wisdom and devoted patient base made him so popular in his native Milford, Kansas, that he was nearly elected governor of the state.

Then why have you likely never heard of this man, and why isn’t his procedure discussed in medical textbooks around the world? The documentary Nuts! traces Dr. Brinkley’s career, which includes becoming the host of his own radio network (at the time, it was the most powerful in the world), the inventor of junk mail (he sent out unsolicited catalogs of all his medical products), and his path to living in the lap of luxury, until a well-documented court case changed everything. Director Penny Lane (Our Nixon) has dug up every photograph and available audio recording, which doesn’t amount to much, so the film uses a great deal of simply-rendered animation to fill in some of the blanks. Perhaps the most clever aspect of the film is that it uses Brinkley’s own memoir as the primary narrative device for about half the film, until we begin to sense that the doctor is something of an unreliable source. At that point, newspaper articles and court transcripts get us a little closer to the truth.

Nuts! reveals a man who is so convinced that he’s helping his patients with completely unproven methods and medicines that he starts to believe his own fiction, which includes a great deal of his self-penned biography. More to the point, his followers were so devoted to him that they didn’t seem to care about nuisance like medical science, proof, research or the truth. These folks were so in love with the mythology around Brinkley, they simply chose to ignore any facts that strayed from it. And frankly, the con artist version of Dr. Brinkley is far more interesting than the simpering man on the witness stand having his life picked apart by pesky lawyers.

Nuts! is both a hilarious account of a bygone era that we’ve likely convinced ourselves could never be repeated and a cautionary tale reminding us that con artists come in many shapes and sizes. Somewhere in Brinkley’s head, he thought he was helping people. Or at least he’d been telling himself that for so long, he’d convinced himself it was true. The documentary is as much about the types of people who perpetrate such schemes as it is about those who fall for them. It’s fascinating and intriguing no matter how you slice it. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

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