Monday, August 8, 2016

Something For The Boys

At what age does a boy become a man? Should we start with the toddler who finds a loaded gun in his home and innocently kills a sibling or adult relative? Or should we wait until a nice Jewish boy turns 13 and, for all intents and purposes, becomes a man on the occasion of his bar mitzvah? Should we be alarmed by the boy who likes to torture small animals or wait until he becomes a mass murderer before asking where his parents were as he developed such sadistic tendencies?

Part of the problem is that adults are easily distracted by work, family responsibilities, shopping, and acts of self-indulgence. Whether they accidentally leave their son in an overheated car while shopping at a mall or fail to notice a change in his behavior, some adults are too busy dealing with their own problems to notice signs that a boy might need closer observation.

Some kids are notoriously skillful at hiding problems from their parents. Robert Paul Smith's greatest success as a writer was his 1957 book entitled Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing (in which he reminisced about growing up in the 1920s and compared his laid-back adolescence to the heavily scheduled lives of suburban kids in the 1950s). In 1958, Smith published a followup volume entitled How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself.

When left to fend for themselves, kids can be surprisingly resourceful. From Mark Twain's tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to the youngster who is perfectly content to lie on the grass and while away the time staring at the passing clouds, the brain is rarely idle. While adults may not view the world with the same intensity that a child observes things, younger eyes and ears often focus on surprising details. Consider how Stephen Sondheim explained the phenomenon in this scene from 1976's Pacific Overtures.

Two new works screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival depict boys growing into men as they are forced to confront challenging situations. One is a full-length animated feature whose hero develops an amazing superpower. The other deals with a domestic family situation in which two young boys become close friends, only to see that friendship unwittingly destroyed by the supposedly "adult" decisions influenced by the financial needs of their parents.

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Shot primarily in the Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, and Williamsburg neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Little Men explores the impact of friendship, income inequality, and gentrification on family relationships. Brian Jardine (Greg Kinnear) and his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), had been living in an apartment in Manhattan with their 13-year-old son, Jake (Theo Taplitz) when Brian’s father died, leaving his home in Brooklyn to be shared between Brian and his sister, Audrey (Talia Balsam). Because Brian earns little income as an aspiring actor (Kathy is a busy psychotherapist), leaving Manhattan and moving into his father’s former home will help the family’s finances.

Following the funeral, as the family is visited by friends and relatives, Jake meets Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose single mother Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), runs the clothing store downstairs. A dressmaker from Chile, Leonor was a close friend of Greg’s father for many years; so close that the old man never raised her rent. When Audrey pressures her brother to raise Leonor’s rent so that she can get her fair share of their inheritance, Kathy asks Leonor to sign a new (and much more expensive) lease, which Tony’s mother obviously cannot afford.

Poster art for Little Men

Like Jake, Sachs’s husband, Boris Torres (who always knew that he wanted to be an artist) was accepted into the prestigious LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. Like Tony, he was raised by an immigrant mother, and moved from Ecuador to New York at the age of 10. As the filmmaker notes:
“They lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a block that was 90% Italian. The idea that artistic talent can be the basis for change was very compelling to me. As was the idea of a single, immigrant mother raising a son in New York City, and the challenges she faces. To some extent, we’re all defined by our relationship to love and our relationship to money. As a storyteller, I’m interested in how people respond to those two things. In this situation, you have these kids who still have a certain innocence of the world, and their friendship comes into conflict with the hard realities of adulthood and living in the world.”
Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri) and Jake Jardine
(Theo Taplitz) become close friends in Little Men

Were it not for the fact that Leonor was a close friend of the family (and that Brian would prefer to honor his father’s wishes), this might seem like a simple business deal. But with the neighborhood experiencing gentrification at an alarming rate, there’s an unexpected challenge facing the family. Jake and Tony (who both hope to attend the same arts high school) have become best friends and taken to spending time in each other’s homes playing video games and staying over for dinner. When a feud erupts between the two families (and Leonor insists that all communication be directed to her attorney), the growing tension starts to poison the previously supportive atmosphere in which the two boys flourished.

Theo Taplitz as Jake in a scene from Little Men

Two films by famed Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu which inspired Little Men were 1932's I Was Born But... (which was shown at the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival) and 1959's Good Morning. As director Ira Sachs notes:
“They’re both films about children who, for various reasons, go on strike against their parents. That gave us the kernel of an idea: two boys who get into conflict with their parents and decide not to speak with them anymore. Thirteen is that kind of age where you’re not exactly a kid, but you’re not exactly a grownup. It’s that in-between age where you’re still trying to figure out who you are and what your interests are. Jake is a very quiet, artistic kid who’s not very sure of himself. Then he meets Tony, who’s full of life and optimism and says whatever he thinks. I think Jake is very drawn to that. Over the course of their friendship, some of Tony rubs off on him. Jake starts to open up and becomes more confident in who he is.”
Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri) interacts with an acting
coach (Mauricio Bustamante) in a scene from Little Men

The poignancy of Little Men is inescapable. However, watching Sachs's film also hit me with a few personal surprises.
  • Because my mother often used the silent treatment as a weapon against my father (one bout lasted nearly eight years), I was fascinated to watch the two 13-year-olds effectively use the same tactic against their parents.
  • Long before helicopter parents, child molesters, kidnappers, and gun nuts made it nearly impossible for children to go to a park by themselves, adolescents roamed their neighborhoods with little fear for their safety. Some of the scenes in Sachs's film capture that sense of a carefree lifestyle where curiosity is rewarded and the freedom to explore the city is a given.
  • There is a scene in which Jake is seen riding his bike near The Narrows (a section of Bay Ridge near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge). As soon that segment came onscreen I recognized the area from the many times I had ridden my bicycle there as a kid (back in those days you could take a ferry from the 69th Street Pier to St. George, Staten Island, cross over to another terminal, and take the Staten Island Ferry to Battery Park in lower Manhattan).
Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and Tony Calvelli
(Michael Barbieri) become best friends in Little Men

While Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle have some strong moments as Jake's parents, the heaviest lifting comes from Paulina Garcia as Leonor and Alfred Molina as Hernán. Maurice Bustamante has a nice cameo as an aggressive acting coach who challenges Tony, but it is really the two young actors (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) who carry the movie. Sachs's tender direction is often exquisite in its naturalism. Here's the trailer:

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In their new film, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (the team who created A Cat in Paris) focus their talents on telling an action adventure set against a highly-stylized vision of New York City. From the crass chaos of Times Square to the Art Deco exterior of the Chrysler Building, from the sterility of a hospital ward and the majesty of the RMS Queen Mary 2 sailing across the harbor to the darkened waterfront hideout of a gangster and his cronies, the film's artwork is as spectacular (and often as funny) as its story.

There can be little doubt that the characters in Phantom Boy have been influenced by the format of many superhero-themed comic books. They are:
The Unlikely Hero: Leo is an 11-year-old boy with a mysterious, life-threatening disease. Although he likes to read to his kid sister while at home, when he enters the hospital for more tests something very strange happens. He develops a new superpower -- the ability to leave his body, become invisible, float through walls, and fly around Manhattan. Having always dreamed of becoming a policeman, at the moment when his life is threatened by a bizarre medical condition, he is suddenly able to act as a surrogate detective in a matter of utmost urgency. There's just one problem: when Leo's superpower starts to fade, he has a limited amount of time to get back into his body, rest, and recharge. Like Tinker Bell, his superpower can quickly wane to a point where its loss could prove fatal.
Leo's superpower allows him to leave his body and fly
through New York's skyline in a scene from Phantom Boy
The Archvillain: Though he may be a fancy dresser, The Man With The Broken Face looks more like a dyspeptic Mondrian painting that has begun to rot. With the kind of megalomania and grandiose thinking one associates with Donald Trump, he aims to hold all of New York City hostage by using a malware virus to take down its electric grid. Whenever he offers to tell people the story of how his face became so grotesque, the person he is talking to gets interrupted or shows absolutely no interest in his backstory. With his headquarters located in an abandoned ship docked on the waterfront, he can remain out of sight from the police (who keep looking for him on land).
The Man With The Broken Face is an archvillain determined
to conquer New York with a malware virus in Phantom Boy
The Bumbling Law Officer: Alex is a likable but clumsy policeman who was trying to nab The Man With The Broken Face when he broke his leg and ended up recuperating in the same hospital where Leo is receiving chemotherapy. Unlike most cops (who thrive on donuts), Alex's diet tends toward pizza and potato chips. Because he constantly makes such a mess of his job, the city's police chief has refused to pursue any of Alex’s hunches and clues until the frustrated cop has fully recovered from his injury.
Leo strikes up a friendship with an injured policeman
named Alex in a scene from Phantom Boy
The Annoying Girl: Although she may only be an amateur with a cell phone, Mary is determined to get a scoop. Following in the footsteps of Lois Lane and Nancy Drew, she has a talent for getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. Luckily, Leo is sometimes available to help her out of a tight spot.
Mary meets Alex while shopping for groceries
The Pesky Pet: Rufus is The Man With The Broken Face's yappy little dog whose fierce determination to get his way is a constant source of comic relief.
Rufus is the annoying mutt who belongs to the archvillain
known as The Man With The Broken Face in Phantom Boy

This new animated feature follows 2009's Summer Wars in its use of cybercrime as a key plot point. I was thoroughly enchanted by Phantom Boy which, in addition to its stunning artwork and bold rendition of Manhattan's skyline, boasts a solid musical score by Serge Besset. Although aimed at a young audience, this film will have equal appeal for architecture fans. Its charm is simply irresistible. Here's the trailer:

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