All You Need Is Love (and Money, and Basic Human Rights)

The documentary All You Need Is Love does a nice job of showing how, when it comes to children’s lives, the ordinary is inescapable, even in extraordinary circumstances.

The Mae Sot district in Thailand is home to thousands of stateless Burmese whose situation stymies them in finding work, housing, and education. The film, narrated sonorously but undramatically by Sigourney Weaver, focuses on the Good Morning School (which would have been a superior title), founded by a Burmese woman who fervently values her own education.

Despite living in huts without running water or electricity, and facing the danger of kidnapping by sex-trafficking thugs, these toddlers, tweens, and adolescents nevertheless play together pretty much as their privileged American counterparts do. Though we follow a few students and their parents, the film is mostly a piecework of situations and commentary; there’s no real story, aside from the school receiving help from Muse, a network of California private schools, to fund a new building so the teachers and students can move out of their ramshackle, make-do structure.

All You Need Is Love could have benefited from picking up its pace — it may have worked better as a shorter broadcast-news feature — but it’s a valuable peek into a situation that most people are unaware of and a guide to a worthy cause. In fact, it shows that in addition to love, you may need money and a few basic human rights.


Salsa Rom-Com Cuban Fury Splits the Difference

There’s something vaguely embarrassing about the hip-swiveling salsa craze that infatuated gringos in the ’90s after suburban moms deemed the lambada too outré.

To Bruce (Nick Frost), it’s doubly shameful: Not only was he once a peacocking teenage dance prodigy, he quit after bullies forced him to eat his own sequins. Twenty-five years later, he’s resigned to mediocrity when his new boss, Julia (a charming-as-ever Rashida Jones), a salsa nut, makes his heart go heel-toe-spin.

Time to wax his chest, slick on fake tanner, and convince his dour former coach (Ian McShane) to resume their lessons. Frost can play lovable losers in his sleep, but to succeed, Cuban Fury has to make him dance. A fat man falling down gets a cheap laugh; a fat man with magic feet makes us cheer.

Director James Griffiths splits the difference between ridicule and respect, and the resulting comedy is as trite and cloying as a rum and coke. Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) perks things up as Bruce’s snide coworker who vies for Julia’s attentions, even undermining the premise of the film by asking, “You thought that the parsnip would win the butterfly by doing a bit of tiny shoe shuffle?” Actually, yes.

Cuban Fury does think a Nice Guy™ deserves to win the girl of his choice with a little sweat. Which means as progressive as it might feel for fat guys, losers, and salsa stalwarts, it’s rotten for women: Julia — who shows only chummy interest in both men — must still date one of them at the end.

Hey, let’s make this next dance a Sadie Hawkins.


Radical History: American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

How do you recognize a radical?

A smiling 98-year-old woman with the world’s most sensible haircut, shuffling along a sunny, decrepit Detroit street, hardly seems like one of America’s great radicals, but she is — a dialectal humanist, Chinese-American black power activist, and sometime Marxist with a thick FBI file.

Lucky for us, Grace Lee Boggs never stops talking. Grace Lee’s documentary is a glorious feat of editing — in content, visually, and of sound. Lee began her work with the superficial idea of interviewing the many other Asian women also named “Grace Lee,” but in Boggs she found a formidable force and an agent of one of the most dramatic political movements of our time.

Boggs and her African-American husband, James Boggs, were not just activists but also intellectual heavy hitters. “We realized a rebellion is an outburst of anger but it is not revolution,” Boggs says. “Revolution is evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.”

She is acutely aware of her place in this history, but her thinking remains sharp and deeply connected to the moment. This film is one of our best documents of the civil rights era, but it is also a portrait of someone with a singular perspective, a big mind, and a joyous aptitude for conversation.

Lee’s movie is the most fun you’ll ever have in a history lesson.


Veronica Mars Gets Kickstarted Into Adulthood

According to lore, Liberace used to greet the tourists who’d come by bus to gawk at his bejeweled home with the line, “I hope you like it. After all, you paid for it!” Not everyone has to like Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars, the feature-length incarnation of his much-loved television series, which ran from 2004 to 2007. But the fans who helped finance the movie, via a ferociously successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign, have every reason to like it: It’s been crafted affectionately for them, bringing back nearly every original cast member — chief among them Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni — and, instead of lifting the characters out of amber and trying to jolt their stories back to life, treating them like actual human beings who have gone on living while we weren’t looking. For people who loved the show, as I did, it’s like fan fiction without the delusional megalomania. We don’t have to keep writing these characters’ stories for ourselves; Thomas has done it for us — and, trust me, he’s better at it.

When we last saw Bell’s Veronica Mars, she was still a teenage detective in the small, moneyed Southern California town of Neptune. Now she’s a bona fide adult just out of law school and eager to start a new career in New York. Ten years out of high school, she has no intention of going back for the planned reunion, even though it would give her a chance to visit her father, Keith Mars (Colantoni). Keith, a onetime Neptune sheriff, raised Veronica largely by himself: Her mother, a troubled woman with a drinking problem, skipped out on the family after Keith was run off the job for being principled. At that point, Veronica, who used to be part of the town’s in crowd, was demoted to loser status, but that demotion also led her to develop surprisingly sophisticated investigative skills — on the series, she put those to use in solving the murder of her best friend, making her father proud.

Veronica wants nothing to do with Neptune now. She’s living with the sweet-natured but (still) clearly not-right-for-her Stosh “Piz” Piznowski (Chris Lowell), who has been in love with her since the two were teenagers. And she’s seemingly forgotten her volatile and complex on-again, off-again ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring). The key word is “seemingly”: When Veronica learns that Logan is a suspect in the death of his rock-star girlfriend (she’s been electrocuted in the bathtub), she senses something isn’t right and books a plane ticket home.

The elaborate plotting isn’t the film’s strongest feature. I suspect that anyone unfamiliar with the show might get tangled up in the threads that Thomas and his co-writer, Diane Ruggiero, spin out. But as with all great TV shows, on Veronica Mars, the really interesting things were all happening in the margins, and here, Thomas, Ruggiero, and the cast make the most of every available corner. Logan is now in the military, a pretty wild choice for a spoiled rich kid. But, thank God, Thomas understands the distinction between what’s believable and what’s realistic. In movie terms, Logan’s choice is wholly believable, especially when we see him in uniform. He meets Veronica at the airport in his dress whites, and though she can’t resist making an Officer and a Gentleman wisecrack (who could?), he’s so tall and solemn and quietly lovestruck that we can see her going weak at the knees. She blurts out what we’re thinking: “You should only ever wear that, like, ever.”

On the show, Logan was the sort of character who was hateful at the beginning and irresistibly beguiling by the end. Dohring still has that boyish, vaguely bratty look, though now it’s laced with gravity. But it’s the reunion between Colantoni and Bell that proves the movie’s most gratifying element. The Keith–Veronica dynamic was one of the great father-daughter relationships of modern storytelling, a sturdy meshwork of mutual protectiveness, respect, and affection. Bell and Colantoni easily pick up where they left off in 2007. Bell has always been a sly, sparkling presence, though she hasn’t had the movie career she deserves, at least until recently. (She’s the voice of Anna in the Disney hit Frozen.)

Seven years after the demise of the show, Bell is more grown-up and definitely curvier — she’s like a real person, only better looking — and her timing is more playful and precise than ever. Colantoni, who may be best remembered by movie audiences as Thermian leader Mathesar in the superb sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, is an extraordinarily subtle actor, which may be why he made such a good TV dad for Veronica. His bald pate gave his eyebrows lots of room to roam, and they needed it, considering the trouble she kept getting herself into. But he was always as amused by his daughter as he was frustrated by her sometimes misguided independence, and he was never overbearing or sentimental in his love for her. The nuances of their relationship carry over into this new iteration of Veronica Mars. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s a great excuse for binge-watching. And if you loved the show, the movie is a welcome homecoming. It has the feeling of a story that has been, against all odds, loved into existence. Probably because that’s exactly what it is.


Chlorine: A Tiresome Dramatic Comedy Made With Cliches

Chlorine begins, perhaps a bit pompously, with a quote from William S. Burroughs — though the only affinity the film shares with the author of Naked Lunch is a haphazard approach to structure.

While the effect was probably not deliberate, Jay Alaimo’s tiresome dramatic comedy often seems as if it were assembled using the cut-up technique favored by Burroughs and his beat contemporaries, in which clichés are thrown together and arbitrarily rearranged.

The premise alone suggests the extent of the screenplay’s unoriginality: Roger Lent (Vincent D’Onofrio), an ineffectual banker long resigned to middle-class complacency, finds himself embroiled in an investment scam orchestrated by an unscrupulous colleague, who in fact conspires to fleece the community.

Well, the ubiquity of greed may be a timeless theme, but hasn’t the novelty of the Ponzi scheme been exhausted? Alaimo seems to have an unusually high tolerance for shopworn ideas, and Chlorine boasts no shortage of them: Roger’s frumpy teenage daughter endures her first period in the style of an after-school special; his wife aspires to fit in with high society and makes a desperate show of embellishing her status; and his fashionably angst-ridden son, channeling Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine, reads Sun Tzu as he cultivates a budding anarchism. They exhibit not a glimmer of imagination or original thought among them.


Four Doesn’t Quite Add Up

With its glum, suburban Fourth of July setting, Four aches be a tragedy about identity crisis in America (young homosexuals terrified to come out, black girls teased for seeming too white). But the film, adapted by director Joshua Sanchez from Christopher Shinn’s 2002 play, never achieves its intended weightiness. It’s merely about two lustful yet gentle adult predators who know what they want, and their younger, more reticent prey, who don’t. Straying husband Joe (The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce), who’s secretly gay, tries in vain to loosen up fiercely closeted teenager June (Emory Cohen), whom he met on the Internet. That Joe’s wife in an invalid, and his frequent straying leaves her in the care of his adolescent daughter, Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), gives him no shame. Joe wants to imbue June with the same confidence, but June’s fear proves impenetrable. Meanwhile, across town, the equally indecisive Abigayle alternately flirts with and mocks a happy-go-lucky half-white, half-Latino lothario (E.J. Bonilla). Sanchez knows how to stir up sexual tension—the jittery camera burrows with simultaneous relish and trepidation into the sweaty faces of the film’s two seducers, and he manages a fairly erotic cross-cutting sex sequence. There’s a wrenching moment or two (particularly Joe’s soliloquy about how the AIDS epidemic inadvertently united gay men). But Four ultimately fails to link its two stories with any trenchancy, mainly because June and Abigayle register as angry, taciturn blanks; they’re never remotely as interesting as their pursuers. The more Four strives for thematic resonance, the smaller it becomes.