Some films and some art exhibits present an idea more impressive in the abstract than in the actual experience, and that describes my reaction to Tom Sachs' A Space Program. Sachs, as the Control Flight Director, his engineers and collaborators decide to land two women on Mars--through animation, models and simulated activity--all for a patient theater audience. 

The film stems from Sachs' 2012 New York project Space Program 2.0: MARS, which may have offered a more entertaining immersion. As it exists on film, it meanders through a selection of eclectic music, a video game, familiar mission control audio interjected throughout the film, and an occasionally interesting commentary on the makeup and value of necessary materials: steel, Tyvek, plywood, etc.

As though the mission itself veered off course, "A Space Program" digresses in the last half hour of its 72 minutes. The astronauts curse each other, an IBM commercial's narration accompanies simplistic animation and television footage as the voiceover commentary introduces a meta-layer evaluating human communication challenges. I must warn audiences that some of the footage is disturbing as a human heart and brain are cut in half with a power saw in close-ups before further digression to the benefits of the tea ceremony.

The editing does keep the pace brisk, and occasional playfulness offers some amusing perspective on our familiar NASA ventures--the drama, the radioed messages, and the alternating somber and ecstatic moments. But writers Sachs and Van Neistat never dig deep enough to honor the experience nor do they distance themselves in ways that artistically recontextualize it. I'll pass on this trip to Mars.  

A Space Program screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, July 1 through Sunday, July 3 at 8:00 p.m. each evening. 

 

The cliché is that a family is a circle of people who love you, but for these three--man, woman, and child--a family comprises what it takes to emigrate from Sri Lanka to Paris. Dheepan, a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior finds Yalini, whom he takes as his wife for now. 

He exhorts her to find an orphaned child to make their "family" look believable to authorities, and she picks the beautiful, intelligent Illayaal. The three are settled outside of Paris.

Immigrants do not get the chance to live the good life, often living in areas pocked with poverty, its own kind of war. Dheepan becomes a caretaker of an apartment complex, and he soon realizes that there is a drug war going on, another war he wants nothing to do with. Plus, more immigrants from Sri Lanka, including his former enemies, present horrible challenges to him as does his war-traumatized mind.

Meanwhile, Yalini has become a carer for an old man, whose apartment is filled with parolees and druggies. And then there is school for Illayaal, where she is shoved around like garbage.

The only joy these immigrants feel is when they break bread with others of their ilk and plight.

Director Jacques Audiard, who directed Rust and Bone, helped write the screenplay for Dheepan.  He focuses on the life of this fake family--right up until the epilogue. Those last sunny minutes are wide open for interpretation--a dream, a future, a lark?

Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who was also a Tamil Tiger, performs so believably in his premiere as an actor. Kalieaswari Srinivasan carries forth the role of the non-maternal mother. And Claudine Vinasithamby makes the young woman sympathetic. 

Dheepan, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, proves that war for some immigrants is not ever over.

 

 

As the familiar saying warns, "The best laid plans often go awry." This could be the tag line for the film Maggie's Plan in which Maggie pursues an idea. Wanting a baby, aware that her biological clock is ticking, not in love with anyone, she decides her best option is artificial insemination with the help of a cooperative male friend. 

Since this is a romantic comedy, twists and turns will drive the plot. Maggie will first become friends with and then married to Columbia University ficto-critical anthropologist professor John. He leaves his wife Georgette and their two children for Maggie while he continues to toil over his unfinished novel. The story jumps ahead three years in Maggie's, John's, and Georgette's lives to find them and friends Tony and Felicia dealing with what they call messy, illogical love.

Set in New York with a brief detour to a conference in Montreal, Maggie's Plan strongly resembles Woody Allen's films in tone and style; that is, there are no laugh out loud moments though amusing coincidences and conversations keep these Manhattan-bound characters mildly entertaining. The story by Karen Rinaldi, adapted by director Rebecca Miller, flows nicely most of the time but feels cobbled together in the third act, as so often happens with a good idea that runs into a brick wall once the characters have to live with the choices they've made. In other words, fresh friendship with shared interests entices and then daily demands change the rapport.

Therefore, a film like this one focused on a limited number of characters in intimate relationships succeeds to the extent that the story unfolds with some entertaining insight and, especially, with actors enjoyable to watch as they grapple with their thorny relationships. As Maggie, the immensely likable Greta Gerwig anchors events with an appealing, relaxed performance. As the narcissistic professor John, Ethan Hawke delivers his solid everyman self. Julianne Moore is a quirky Georgette, believable because it's Manhattan. Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader as Felicia and Tony offer good supporting performances, and Wallace Shawn is always a treat even in his brief cameo here.

Watching Maggie's Plan is a lot like hanging out with enjoyable friends for an hour and 40 minutes. It doesn't overly impress or take your breath away but it does provide a pleasurable interlude. At a Landmark Theatre.

 

Anyone who's had a frustrating encounter with bureaucracy--and I bet that's everyone--will identify in some way with Sonia in the film A Monster with a Thousand Heads. Her husband has reached the terminal stage of his cancer, but his doctor, at the insurance company's insistence, denies the treatment desperately needed to make his last days comfortable. 

Sonia decides to take action; in fact, to do whatever it takes to secure proper health care. Set in Mexico City, with her teenage son Dario with her, Sonia first tracks down the apathetic doctors, then the insurance company CEO and more--plot details I won't divulge. The organization of the story is striking, with flashbacks from a trial and multiple points of view, visually suggested with reflections and mirrors in several scenes. As the saying goes, everyone has his or her reasons, and this film is not heavy handed though it clearly shows that a life is at stake. 

As such, Laura Santullo's screenplay from her own novel critiques the callous decision-making of all who accept such a heartless arrangement. These include the doctors, the insurance company CEO and his staff, the partners in the company who profit, and the legal system that enables this mercenary, inhumane situation. As Santullo explains in press notes, "By telling the story from multiple viewpoints, we were aiming to add layers of complexity to the central conflict. We felt that if we approached it solely through the eyes of the protagonist, the film would merely be stating an opinion and we would be closing the door on the possibility of an ethical conflict." 

The inclusion of Sonia's son Dario adds to this multilayered complexity as does the camerawork which occasionally shows scenes from the distorted perspective of one character or puts us, the viewers, on the outside looking in voyeuristically. This is essential to keeping a sense of ironic humor about this serious subject as well as a strong visual style. The soundtrack contributes further to this with the inclusion of off-screen voices and questions from a future trial with contradictions in subjective perspective. 

The acting by Jana Raluy as Sonia is the gemstone of the film. All the supporting actors contribute to the believability of the situation, but she, more than all the rest, admirably carries the emotional weight. Director Rodrigo Plá's A Monster with a Thousand Heads is a strong indictment of bureaucratic indifference. In Spanish with English subtitles. At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre

 

Director Sharon Shattuck's documentary From This Day Forward offers an intimate, thoughtful reflection on her father's transgender identity. The catalyst for Shattuck's very personal exploration is the anticipation of her marriage. She remembers years ago her father as Michael, now Trisha, driving her to middle school saying he/Michael hoped Sharon would let him wear a dress to her wedding. 

Commenting in voiceover narration, Sharon says she realizes there's a lot of their past still unresolved and, admirably, sets out to explore her family: her mother Marcia who stayed with Trisha, her younger sister Laura, and her father. Chronologically, through home movies and contemporary interviews, the gender profile emerges of Michael at first cross dressing and subsequently shifting to identity as Trisha. They all are honest and insightful about their confusion, pain, resentment, and acceptance. It's a remarkable exploration of one transgender identity, with Trisha a fine spokesperson. 

Trained as a landscape architect, she paints to express her emotions, loading her striking paintings with strong metaphorical content that she explains. She also describes the two lives she led, the psychological bind she felt and suicidal inclinations. She acknowledges, as she says, "the hell I put them through," and Sharon notes that kids of LGBT parents can also feel as much in the closet as adults since they wanted to blend in as they searched for their own identities. Most complex in this whole story is Marcia, with Michael/Trisha for 35 years. Divorce was contemplated but she couldn't see herself without Trisha. It's a very moving scene.       

Everyone is not accepting. Several neighbors and friends plus one employer comment that once Shattucks moved to a small town in Michigan when Sharon was in fourth grade, everyone knew. Some people were disgusted, they lost friends, and Trisha had a lot of decisions to make, which she explains in the many casual conversations that define this warm, engaging film. The topic couldn't be more relevant: the documentary describes Trisha's and her family's experiences but it opens the door to further productive discussions.

From This Day Forward screens in Webster University's Film Series at Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, June 17 through Sunday, June 19, at 8:00 p.m. each evening. 

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