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Talking Movies: The search for the next summer classic


Masterminds
Based on a true story, heist-comedy Masterminds stars Zach Galifianakis (pictured) and Kristen Wiig.
By Scott Samuelson & Warren Sprouse

It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that summer movies have shaped the American cinematic identity more than any other part of the movie calendar. Sure, no one thinks that any serious movies get released during the summer months, and that quality studios go into a sort of reverse-hibernation, in which they sleep through the summer and yield the stadium seating and snack-bar specials to loud action films, assorted irrelevant sequels, nonsensical super-hero flicks and Pixar.

But historically, some of the most iconic American films have been released during the summer months, from Forrest Gump (1994) to Jaws (1975—maybe the greatest summer movie ever) to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and of course Star Wars (1977). This summer’s offerings, while no doubt mixed, may well continue this cinematic tradition.

Pather Panchali (The Apu Trilogy)

Directed by Satyajit Ray — Screening at FilmScene on July 10 and 12

Surely one of summer’s most promising re-releases will be the Janus Films’ restoration of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. These three films—Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar—are a series that probably only India could give us. They are massive, crowded and panoramic, but yet still intensely intimate, humane and poetic. Once American audiences overcome the inevitable associations with Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, they can behold a cinematic experience that is indeed a complete world.

 

The trilogy tells the story of a down-market Brahmin boy who leaves his home in a rural village in Bengal to pursue his future and his education in Benares and Calcutta. Pather Panchali, or “Song of the Little Road,” is not only the first film in the trilogy, but was Ray’s first film as a director, as it likewise was for his cinematographer and most of the actors, especially the children. (It was also the soundtrack debut of famed sitarist Ravi Shankar.) The original New York Times review of its American release described it as “loose in structure” and “listless in tempo.” Nonetheless, the sense of innocence, freedom and sincerity that comes from such ambitious amateurism shines through in nearly every scene.

Part family drama, part coming of age story, part nature film (the shots of monsoons in the Bengali jungle are alone worth the price of admission), Pather Panchali shows us both family hardship and disagreements forged by poverty, and also the sense of wonder and curiosity of young children just becoming aware of the world.

Made over the course of nine years in the 1950s, Ray’s trilogy also tells the story of India itself, as it emerged as an independent nation after its founding in 1948. The three films cover the vast differences between urban and rural life, the range of religious belief, the huge disparities between social classes and their living conditions, as well more esoteric differences that recur throughout the trilogy, most essentially the questions about destiny and whether it is desirable to struggle against it.

The fact that the prints of these films exist at all is sort of miraculous, as the original negatives of all three were all but destroyed in a film laboratory fire in 1993. Janus Films, Criterion and the Academy Film Archive have painstakingly reproduced and re-released a trilogy of movies which should not be missed this summer.

Inside Out

Directed by Pete Docter — Opens nationwide on June 18

Kids’ brains seem to work differently from those of normal humans. Moving to San Francisco from the Midwest might seem pretty appealing to many of us, especially if you do it in the winter. But for young Riley, the protagonist of the upcoming release Inside Out, from the Disney/Pixar automated childcare complex, her inner emotions are unable to cope very effectively with the disruptions that this big change brings.

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Inside Out is told from the point of view of the emotions themselves, acting as a sort of command center inside Riley’s head. The film’s action centers around whether her dominant emotion, Joy, as voiced by Amy Poehler, can remain in control when opposed by the more negative feelings—Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black, naturally).

The film is written and directed by the Oscar-winning Pete Docter, renowned for past animated blockbusters, Up and Monsters, Inc. Pre-release hype suggests many positives—a girl-centered narrative in which the female lead is not a princess and one that emphasizes the emotional complexity of young girls using their own inner-thoughts. Previews also suggest a lot of jokes using many of the same tired gender stereotypes about family roles—Mom wants to fathom the emotions of her daughter while trying to hold the family together; meanwhile Dad just wants to watch hockey. We’ll see if Inside Out is a revolution in animated filmmaking, or just serviceable summer entertainment while we wait for Frozen 2.

The Look of Silence

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer — Screening at FilmScene this summer

If you saw it, you won’t have forgotten Joshua Oppenheimer’s one-of-a-kind documentary The Act of Killing (2012), in which aging members of the Indonesian civilian militia—responsible for the slaughter of a million citizens after the 1965 Suharto coup—reenact their crimes in the style of their favorite movies.

Oppenheimer’s new documentary The Look of Silence, a slightly more conventional portrayal of the Indonesian genocide, is the follow-up to The Act of Killing. The heart of the movie portrays an optometrist, whose brother was brutally murdered to boost the militia’s body count, traveling through the exquisite landscape and interviewing the murderers—and sometimes fitting them for glasses.

 

The great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the cliché-ridden mind of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann; Oppenheimer’s movies, which resonate with both flatness and horror (and also beauty), demonstrate like no others that phrase’s aptness.

Masterminds

Directed by Jared Hess — Opens nationwide on August 19

It’s hard to say if it’s going to rise to the status of blockbuster, and it doesn’t open until the dog days of mid-August, but Masterminds, the new film by Jared Hess  (maker of the cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, the near-brilliant Nacho Libre and the splendidly bizarre Gentlemen Broncos), has the potential to become the next summer classic, boasting the high-powered comedy lineup of Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis.

 

Masterminds is based on the true story of the Loomis Fargo Bank Robbery of 1997, in which a bumbling employee of the bank (played by Galifianakis) teamed up with his girlfriend (played by Wiig) to steal 17.3 million dollars. Heist movie, quirky comedy, weirdo slapstick, the sizzling on-screen romance of Zach Galifianakis and Kristin Wiig … it will probably disappoint in the end, but it has the makings of something epic.

Spartacus and Cassandra

Directed by Ioanis Nuguet — A Screening and director discussion took place on June 7 as part of Vino Vérité, a Little Village-sponsored event.

Summer blockbusters are supposed to be escapist, right? But all our remakes, reboots and extravaganzas usually just encase us more solidly in the fantasies that sustain a very privileged way of life. They’re gated communities of the mind. If you really want to break through the wall, go see Spartacus and Cassandra, a documentary about two Roma kids in Paris.

 

The preteen Spartacus and Cassandra—brilliant names!—are taken in by Camille, an idealistic, clear-eyed, 21-year-old trapeze artist who’s built a makeshift circus outside Paris. The Roma kids’ father is a pot-bellied, abusive drunk who doesn’t quite want to give them up and yet can’t quite commit to their care. Their mother, like a mythical character, alternates between constant laughter and constant weeping. The movie, which follows the struggles for custody and the children’s tenuous future, evokes not just the agonies of poverty but the almost boundless troubles and glories of the children’s hearts and minds. “Adversity and luck don’t scare me,” Spartacus says. “I want to live in a house that’s white and gray like a cloud,” Cassandra says.

This lovingly-shot, almost-hopeful documentary takes us into the lonely, cloudy, wandering worlds of two kids who basically have to figure everything out on their own. It’s the kind of escapism where you escape from fantasy into life itself.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 178


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