Friday, October 9, 2015


Opening this weekend:

PanA friend of mine disapproves of origin stories for iconic characters almost on principal—he thinks it cheapens the symbolic power of such figures to give them too specific a background. So Pan, a prequel to Peter Pan that focuses on his early friendship with the young Hook, is the sort of thing that would seriously get on this guy's nerves. But I enjoyed this cheeky, imaginative spectacle much more than I thought I would. It's certainly a huge improvement over 1991's Hook, probably my least favorite Steven Spielberg movie.

Peter (Levi Miller) is here a foundling at a home for orphans in London run by swinishly corrupt nuns. He's spirited off by an airborne pirate ship during the Blitz—neat trick, since J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan was first produced in 1904—and taken to Neverland, where he is forced to work mining pixie-dust for the despotic Blackbeard the Pirate (Hugh Jackman) along with throngs of other boys of every sort and from every time-period. Peter bonds with a slightly older fellow prisoner, Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and they escape into the forests. Blackbeard, noting Peter's nascent ability to fly, fears he's the fulfillment of a prophecy about the pirate's downfall, and pursues.

Other familiar characters from the saga, including Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), Smee (the excellent Adeel Akhtar) and even Tinkerbell are woven into the story, and the whole thing comes to a head in a battle between Hook's and Blackbeard's ships, excitingly staged by director Joe Wright. Hedlund is no more than serviceable as Hook, but the knockout among the cast is Jackman, in possibly the most febrile performance he's given onscreen. His Blackbeard, who has a disturbing intensity in the way he relates to his young slaves, is repellent yet fascinating and not without pathos.

There are scenes, as when the boys or the pirates sing snatches of songs from different time periods, when Pan has an almost Bollywood feel, and I began to wish it had just taken the leap and been an all-out jukebox musical. It seems safe to say, anyway, that this is the first version of Peter Pan that quotes Nirvana and The Ramones.

He Named Me MalalaThe most moving scenes in this documentary portrait of Malala Yousafzai are those which show her simply being a kid—ragging on her brothers, or mooning over online pictures of cricket stars or Roger Federer. When you consider that Yousafzai, now 18, was writing a blog for the BBC when she was eleven about her life under the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, that she was shot in the head and nearly killed in 2012 by the Taliban for her educational activism on behalf of girls, and that she became the youngest person ever awarded a Nobel Prize in 2014, there’s something heartbreaking, humbling and uplifting about seeing her act like a sweet giggly teenager.

Deftly directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth, He Named Me Malala mixes this sort of footage with interviews and elegant animation sequences to tell Malala’s story, and she’s just about irresistibly likable. But as the title implies, the movie is also a portrait of her father, Ziauddin, a schoolmaster. He gave her the name after the heroine of an Afghan folktale, a young woman who rallied the Afghans fighting the Brits and was shot for her trouble. From a certain angle, in light of what happened to his daughter, the title could almost be seen as a reproach.

In interviews Ziauddin is quiet and unassuming, with a noticeable stammer, but when we see footage of his speeches back in Pakistan in favor of a leftist, secular government and a nonviolent Islam, he’s a fiery, passionate, confident orator. What the movie gradually makes clear is how much Malala takes after her father in this way, as opposed to her reserved, homesick mother (the family now lives in England). In one of the animated flashbacks, we learn that Malala’s Mom left school while still a girl, exchanging her schoolbooks for candy.

Malala, by contrast, describes crawling through the halls and classrooms of the school her father ran while still in infancy. “School was my home,” she says bluntly, and what comes across in her is a willingness to defend that home like a patriot.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:

The Final GirlsHere’s an odd gem: a mixture of Friday the 13th with Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. The teenage heroine, Max (Taissa Farmiga), reluctantly agrees to attend a screening of Camp Bloodbath, an ‘80s slasher movie in which her late mother (Malin Akerman) appeared before Max was born. A fire breaks out at the screening, and Max and her friends flee the theater straight through the screen, and straight into the movie.

They find themselves stranded in the summer camp with Camp Bloodbath’s characters, the usual lunkheads and sexpots that make up the body count of such films, including the sweet-faced “quiet girl with the clipboard” played by Max’s Mom. They’re all stalked by the masked, Jason-esque Billy Murphy, the victim of a prank gone bad in the camp’s past. But the 21st-century girls are having none of it—they try to rally the ‘80s characters to fight back against Billy.

This sort of whimsy either works for you or it doesn’t, and The Final Girls, directed Todd Strauss-Schulson from a script by M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, worked for me. The feminist ideas underlying the film, while laudable, aren’t anything all that new; Halloween: H20: Twenty Years Later explored them back in 1998. But The Final Girls shows a lot of wit in the collisions of the characters with movie conventions like flashbacks and titles, and the cast, which also includes Adam DeVine, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev and the always-funny Thomas Middleditch, sell the conceit with spirit and energy.

What really makes the movie work, however, is the touching story of the heroine reconnecting with a phantom version of her mother. Akerman has specialized for a while in playing cuties with more substance and integrity than they initially show. She’s enormously endearing here, and she and Farmiga have a lovely rapport. In the climactic scenes, their bonding somehow turns “Bette Davis Eyes,” on the soundtrack, into an anthem of female empowerment.

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