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Column Fri Sep 11 2015

The Visit, Wolf Totem, Meet the Patels & Dreamcatcher

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

The Visit

I have fond memories growing up as a child of spending a week out of many summers staying at my grandparents' home in Pennsylvania with my brother, while my parents went on a vacation on their own. I don't think I thought twice about the idea that getting away from the kids was a vacation for my folks. I just know I loved hanging out with the elders, learning about their lives, thumbing through scrap books and photo albums, becoming a part of their routine for a short time. They only lived three hours away, so it wasn't like this was the only time we saw them in a given year, but it was the only time we stayed that long.

During the setup for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's low-budget production The Visit, I was reminded of these times, even though the kids in this film have never met their grandparents before, since their mother (Kathryn Hahn) left home when she was still a teenager, never to return. Although mom won't tell the kids the specifics of her estrangement from her parents, she agrees to ship the kids off to the family farm, while she and her new boyfriend head out on a cruise, only able to communicate with her kids via Skype for a week. And the kids — older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and younger, rapping brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) — seem into it. In fact, Becca is so into it that she decides to document the trip and turn the footage into a film about her family, which means we're dealing with a film in which all of the characters are aware they are being filmed, although calling this found footage wouldn't exactly be accurate.

There's a fair amount regarding The Visit that I shouldn't really talk about, since Shyamalan has a few surprises up his sleeves, including a third-act twist that I saw coming fairly early on (not a brag, just a strong suspicion that turned out to be correct), but not unlike his twists in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village, it's the type that is so right in your face that you almost can't see it because it's too big.

Almost as soon as the kids arrive, strange things start happening with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), particularly at night, but when the kids mention these bizarre happenings in the morning, they both have fairly reasonable explanations for them. The trailer for The Visit implies that there is some supernatural or other worldly element to the proceedings, and for the time being, why don't you go ahead and assume that's true. A very odd story that grandma tells in the third person should give you all you need to understand about what's going on in this quaint little house.

If there's one place that Shyamalan has always excelled as a filmmaker, it's as a crafter of suspense, and there are some truly jump-worthy moments here. Let's face it, old people acting strange is both redundant and creepy as hell. Dunagan, in particular, is a real exercise in fluidly moving back and forth between sweet, adoring granny and raving lunatic using just an adjustment in her hairstyle and a look in her crazy eyes.

Not all of The Visit is as good, as you might suspect. The fact that Becca is constantly calling attention to her directing techniques as she's filming gets old after about five minutes. Her constant on screen narration in no way resembles an actual documentary — and yes, I'm assuming she's seen a few since she's making one. So even if she survives to finish her film, it's going to be the worst doc in history. In ways I don't want to detail, Shyamalan has fun with the documentary format and first-person perspective; he's aware of the found-footage tropes and while he doesn't mock them nearly as much as I wish he had, he does have a bit of fun with them before all is wrapped up.

Too many of the film's scares and mysteries are too easy to predict or see coming — that's assuming you care enough to pay attention. I liked The Visit's free-floating looseness and indie feel (a specialty for producer Jason Blum), but its attempts to dive a little deeper into the emotional background of mom and the grandparents are clumsy and ridiculous. As a horror offering, it's not bad; and even if you do guess the twist, it won't ruin the fun of the scarier side to the movie. Shyamalan also seems to have trouble writing for children, having them come across as way too mature for their own good, even when Tyler is white rapping like an idiot. If the film were being played for dark laughs, it might have actually been just evil enough to be great. As it is, The Visit isn't terrible, but you find it tedious nevertheless.

Wolf Totem

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud has a long history of combining stories of human beings with stories of nature, in such offerings as Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and his classic, The Bear. Often his works are about humanity's place in nature through the ages, and sometimes, he just finds great stories within nature. Annaud occasionally has the problem of allowing his human stories to get in the way of exceptional nature films, and such is the case with his new film Wolf Totem, based on one of the most famous novels in Chinese history by Jiang Rong. Adapted by Annaud and a team of writers, the film version concerns herdsman in Inner Mongolia, attempting to strike a balance with a pack of hungry wolves.

Set in 1967, the film opens with two Cultural Revolution-era Beijing students, sent to live among the herdsmen to both teach them modern ways and learn from them, so they man in turn teach others about living off the land. A large part of their training involves knowing how to deal and predict the movements of the wolves, who tend to keep to themselves unless there are issues with food. One student, Chen (Shaofeng Feng), is idealistic and wants to capture a wolf cub to study its behavior — he says to know his enemy. But he is told repeatedly by Bilig, the chief he's living with (Basen Zhabu), that this is strictly forbidden and will only bring trouble to their people. Another student, Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) is somewhat more level headed, and also attempts to keep his friend from doing exactly what we know he's going to do anyway.

When the wolves' food supply is stolen by a greedy province boss (Yin Zhusheng), of course the wolves move to where there is food — namely the sheep being herded by the Mongolians and pretty much anything that stands between them and a potential food source. Wolf Totem has a great deal to say about lazy and disrespectful government workers as well as other wasteful Mongolians who come from far and wide to the last remaining bit of green land in the area, after failing to take care of their homelands. But anytime the film diverges into talk of politics or, even worse, a wedged-in love story between Chen and the chief's daughter-in-law (Ankhnyam Ragchaa), it's real easy to lose interest in the proceedings.

When the film narrows its scope to man versus wolf, and the eventual taking of a wolf cub by Chen, it stays interesting, vibrant and tense. Wolf Totem is aided by some stunning 3-D cinematography by Jean-Marie Dreujou (The Dance of Reality) and a soaring score by the late James Horner (but not his last). In most cities, this movie is opening in IMAX theaters (although it was not shot in the format), which is well suited to hold the vastness of the images director Annaud captures. As a complete film, Wolf Totem has a lot of fat on it, but when it narrows its focus to its basic struggle, it succeeds more often than not. The film opens today in Chicago at the Navy Pier IMAX theater.

Meet the Patels

If you've ever wanted to see what a romantic-comedy-documentary looks like, allow me to introduce you to Meet the Patels, a genuinely laugh-out-loud look at the modern dating scene and the role that family (particularly our parents) plays in our lives. The concept and set up, at first, seem simple. First-generation Indian-American actor and sometime stand-up comedian Ravi Patel has been secretly dating a white woman for two years, and things have progressed to the point where he feels the need to fish (commit) or cut bait (break up). When he considers the reaction of his parents (and most Indian parents, according to the film), he bows out none too gracefully.

This heartbreaking moment occurs just before he, sister Geeta Patel (the two are co-directors) and their parents go on their annual trip to India at the height of wedding season to attend a series of arranged marriages and visit relatives, often at the same time. Ravi's entire family is relentless in their questioning him about his love life, and to make matters worse, his poor suffering mother is a professional matchmaker, so she considers the fact that her two 30-something children are unwed a personal failure. Eventually the badgering wears him down, and he agrees to allow his parents to being the process of setting him up on dates around North America, in the hopes of finding him a suitable wife.

If Meet the Patels were only a cutesy examination of the Indian-American version of arranged marriages — which takes into account not just personality compatibility but also family background, skin tone, professional background, etc. — it might have made a nice short. But the film wisely dives into several areas of the Indian experience from both the elder Patels' perspective and the first-generation offspring. Ravi explains that Patel is not simply a last name, but an entire caste of people from specific regions of India, and that, ideally, he would be paired with another (unrelated) Patel woman. There are even Patel conventions that are basically huge speed-dating opportunities.

The filmmakers also break down the various means by which their parents explore options for their son to go on dates with, including collecting "biodata" from prospective candidates and exploring directories of Patels across the country. Ravi embarks on a nationwide tour of dating over several months (all paid for by his parents, by the way), with no real results. It doesn't help that, in the midst of this serious pursuit, Ravi begins speaking infrequently with his ex-girlfriend, providing just enough distraction, making other women suffer by comparison.

Meet the Patels isn't exactly a straight-forward doc. It feels multi-media. Since a great deal of conversations documented in the movie (especially between Ravi and Geeta, usually in a post-date recap) were recorded only as audio, simple yet very funny animation is used to re-create both those conversations and the events being discussed. Some of the footage is more confessional, self-recorded by Ravi when he's alone with his thoughts. The directors also have interviews with couples — Indian and mixed-race — about the hoops they had to jump through to make their marriage happen.

What elevates the film more than anything are slow and steady realizations by Ravi that who he's really getting to know through this process are his parents, who open up and talk about their brief courtship, marriage, and happy life together. The love in this family is infectious, even in tense moments where the parents question Ravi's respect for the process or certain secrets are revealed, and Ravi's parents have to decide what is more important — their son's happiness or their commitment to the culture. The conversations pull no punches, even between Ravi and Geeta, who lived together through the filmmaking, which covers the better part of a year.

One of the funniest recurring elements is how quickly Geeta deflects any attempts at turning the conversation (or camera) onto her. When we discover that she went through a similar dating experience in which hundreds of dates were arranged — none resulting in a second date — Ravi simply says, "Well, we should talk about you," which doesn't happen. At every turn, Meet the Patels manages to surprise and avoid turning saccharine. Ravi has the proper blend of witty skepticism, sarcasm, and winning confidence to make it clear that he's actually quite good at dating, but he's better at being a son.

As the filmmakers continue with their professional lives, I hope every few years they find a way to update audiences as to their personal lives, since this film was actually shot in the late 2000s and has been on the festival circuit for more than a year. When you get this deep into someone's lives, you want updates, to see if our new "friends" are doing alright. Like all great documentaries that seem to focus on a particular culture, what makes Meet the Patels so meaningful is that it could actually be about any culture or parents who stick their noses deep into their kids' love lives. I'm guessing more than a few of you can identify. It's a sweet, very funny and ultimately quite relevant work that you should seek out. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

On opening day, Friday, Sept. 11, the filmmakers' parents (and subjects of the documentary) Vasant Patel and Champa Patel will take part in Q&As following the 7:20pm and 9:45pm screenings.

Dreamcatcher

Naturally, it takes an outsider (in this case, British director Kim Longinotto, who made Divorce Iranian Style) to show us our own backyard. In the case of the documentary Dreamcatcher, the yard in question are the dimly lit streets of Chicago, where Brenda Myers-Powell drives in her mini-van looking for prostitutes to talk to, assist, and in some cases, save from a lifestyle (one that usually involves drug addiction as well) that will likely kill them.

Myers-Powell's Dreamcatcher Foundation was born out of place of knowing, since she too was once a sex worker and is well aware the life is often preceded by sexual abuse from a young age and even being help captive by abusers. The charismatic speaker also brings her message of survival to high school girls, and to every girl she speaks with, she offers her phone number and a message to call her anytime when they are ready to get out of whatever soul-crushing situation they might be in.

We observe Myers-Powell as both a group speaker and as a one-on-one volunteer counselor seeming equally at home in front of convention attendees as she is patrolling some of Chicago's most dangerous areas. There isn't a shred of judgement in her caring, and she has access to resources that offer genuine solutions to women who feel that selling themselves is the best their life could ever get. Dreamcatcher does make us wonder just how much danger Myers-Powell is actually in during her patrols or as a result of talking prostitutes out of the lifestyle (and away from vengeful pimps).

I wish director Longinotto had given us a bit more insight into Myers-Powell's path out of the darkness or how she pieced together the resources that make up her organization, but it's difficult to find fault in the results. It's remarkable to observe her use a healthy, encouraging combination of identifying with these young women and not pressuring them, and putting the decision in their hands to come to her when they're ready. This absence of manipulation makes the option she's laying out seem almost irresistible.

The no-frills Dreamcatcher lets a small series of human dramas unfold at their own pace, allowing us to quietly celebrate small victories in the lives of a handful of young women who Myers-Powell gets close to during the course of filming. Using both unconventional methods and quite conventional active listening skills, this woman is the essence of empathy that is so lacking in so many other social service programs. She's fighting a battle that she alone can never win, but no one should ever tell her that because the small part that she's playing is changing many lives for the better, and Dreamcatcher captures her uphill struggle beautifully. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

On Saturday, Sept. 12 and Thursday, Sept. 17, the film's subject Brenda Myers-Powell will be present for audience discussion, joined on Sept. 17 by producer Lisa Stevens and Chicago advocacy leaders.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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