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First time feature writer/director Bart Layton’s true story of four Kentucky college kids who decide to steal rare books from the archives of Transylvania University is a gem.  At root, it’s a heist picture, but this is no Oceans 4.  Layton hilariously juxtaposes the theft in the minds of the boys with the much less smooth, cool and seamless aborted and actual boosts.  Layton also captures the ennui and disassociation of the kids, which has them yearning not so much for the money but for an authentic experience, a stamp.  He does not sugarcoat their selfishness, or make “woe to the disaffected suburban affluent” excuses.  Instead, he makes what seems rather incredible understandable, if perplexing.

Layton’s approach is phlegmatic and innovative without being showy.  His vision of the inertia and isolation of the boys melds perfectly with their amenability to the caper.  He films their surroundings darkly, sparsely and uninviting.  While everyone else seems to be communing just fine, they are off-kilter, uncomfortable.

I can’t believe Layton doesn’t have a promising future in Hollywood.  I only hope he isn’t immediately jammed into The Avengers: Super Mega-Explosion.  My only nit is the failure to properly account for the motivations of two of the four conspirators, most egregiously, with the last addition to the group.  The short-shrift given the characters was noticeable and a little distracting.

The film owes a debt to Richard Linklater’s Bernie in its use of interviews of the actual participants, but rather than high comic recollections from the would-be thieves and gentle reproaches from their family and friends, he captures the criminals as reflective, remorseful and even grasping to explain how they got to their deed.  As for the families, they are disheartened and confused, not enamored of their band of merry kids now that time has passed.

Layton saves his best interview for last, that of the librarian who is most directly and viscerally affected by the robbery.  You can interpret her state of mind in many ways, but she has been affected by the experience, and in what is the film’s best message, her pain seems permanently etched on the faces of the quartet.

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Twenty minutes in, my brother whispered to me, “I don’t know if this is going to be a good movie, but it’s a beautifully curated movie.”  He was dead on.  Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just re-create the look of 1969 Hollywood, he does it in a manner that somehow straddles classic homage and the hazy recollection of a local.  The town seems both wondrous and pedestrian.  Never were neon lights for Taco Bell or the Musso and Frank Grill so compelling.

Tarantino places two movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in the midst of this mesmerizing visual portrait, the former playing a fading “almost made it” leading man reduced to working for cameos during “pilot season” and the latter his loyal stuntman/gofer.  And wouldn’t you know it, DiCaprio lives next to none other than Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate, and hey, who was that scraggly hippie who skulked by the other day?

The film could have been cutesy or overly reverential, and when the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Mama Cass make appearances, I’ll admit, I was apprehensive.  But their scenes are both fun and important.  They assist in Tarantino’s portrait of Tinseltown as a much larger Mayberry, where everyone knows each other just to say howdy, but a lot of those everyones are someone.

Enmeshed in the slow-building run-up to the tragedy seared in our national consciousness (I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I devoured Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”, and somehow, those white cut-outs of the bodies on Cielo Drive were more horrifying than any actual murder photo) are the stories of DiCaprio, who has lost his swagger and is negotiating his way down; Pitt, a man with a notorious reputation necessarily affixed to the fading star; and Tate (Margot Robbie), the ingénue representing the audience, agog at the magic around her and so excited about her future she can barely contain herself.  There is not a minute of their stories that isn’t engaging, and Tarantino leisurely walks them though the company town.

This is also Tarantino’s funniest film.  His dialogue has always been crackling, but he has moved on from bravura speeches and cool pop culture references, instead writing much more measured and subtle, with real heartfelt exchanges (his last film, The Hateful Eight, was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer).  And while excess is Tarantino’s hallmark, and often his downfall, you may not believe me, but this picture is an exercise in restraint.

I would like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything or preview one of the more enjoyable movies I have seen in years.   Go now.

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I love these movies.  Almost as much as Denzel Washington’s Equalizer movies.  More so than the John Wick flicks.  The structure appeals to me.  Somebody does something awful to the family or friends of our hero, and he goes injudiciously, satisfyingly nuts.  Better, there is no nuance.  The bad people are awful.  Unequivocally grotesque.  In the latest Equalizer II, a group of entitled rich boys, in a swank apartment, just drugged, date raped, and filmed an intern.  Lucky for me, the Lyft driver they called to pick her up was. . .

Awesome, right?

In John Wick, the bad guys didn’t even kill Keanu’s family member.  They killed his puppy!  But not just any puppy.  It was a puppy delivered to him by his wife, who had just died of cancer.

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Death toll for one puppy?  Seventy-seven.

Unlike Wick, Liam Neeson isn’t a numbers junkie.  But he’s still pretty lethal, as we found out in Taken, when Serbs or Croats or whoever it is from Eastern Europe you can still use as bad guys without the Anti-Defamation League up your ass took his daughter to sell her to sex traffickers.  So, Neeson, a former Special Forces, CIA, Green Beret, SEAL type (I dunno), uses his “very particular set of skills” to get her back.

In this flick, Neeson is a dude who plows the roads of snow.  That’s it.  That’s his “particular set of skills.”

No matter.  His son is offed by the Denver syndicate within, oh, six minutes.  Neeson has it sussed out in about 13 minutes, and then, he works his way up the chain, killing dudes, until he gets to the top (his wife, Laura Dern, leaves him somewhere early, which gets her out of the way for more killing).

The flick is occasionally satisfying, but as directed by Hans Petter Moland, it has some delusions of being arty.  The retribution-fest is interrupted by falderol about a local Indian syndicate who got crossed by our bad guy, with sadness expressed at the rape of the land by ski resort.

Boring!  More bodies, please.

So, this is meh.  A few decent lines, an okay villain, but not enough corpses and a little too much chatter.

Available at Redbox and soon to cable.

 

 

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A charming, old-fashioned documentary about the obituary writers who work for The New York Times, the picture is a tight and compelling look at a particular craft, revealed in interviews with the craftsmen.

I love obituaries from the Times, and there is a certain sadness in watching picture documenting an art form whose biological clock is ticking.  Their work is substantial, and it is a treat to see them tell us about what they do and how they go about it.  But it is bittersweet, because the dusk approaches.

I only had one criticism.  While the obit writers freely regale us with their worst errors, the tricks of the trade, and the challenges of an often-time sensitive endeavor, director Vanessa Gould never inquires too deeply.  For example, we hear about the conflict of deaths (Farrah Fawcett passing the same day as Michael Jackson) but nary a word as to how these writers deal with figures with controversial pasts (I would love to have had the obit writer discuss the decisions he made with Jackson’s piece).  Also missing is whether famous folks who die have pressure exerted on their behalf by their handlers and/or family.

Still, a fascinating documentary.  Available on DVD (I still get one a month from Netflix).

 

 

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The first half of this Tarantinoesque Key Largo is pretty good.  Four strangers (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Dakota Johnson) show up at a past-its-prime, resort hotel in the Nevada/California mountains, the kind of place where Sammy, Judy and Frank might have swung back in the day.  They all have a story, which we learn in flashbacks, some of which are more compelling than others.  Their destinies collide explosively.

I was worried the film would be too kitschy and cool, too mannered, but it manages to keep a lid on it for long enough to be engaging.  Other problems keep it from being unequivocally good.  For one, Dakota Johnson barely even registers.  She’s undeniably attractive but as a shotgun-toting Alabaman on the run from her better looking Charles Manson (Chris Hemsworth), she’s as convincing as Melania Trump.   Worse, Hemsworth tries to chew scenery, but the best he can do is ape Val Kilmer in The Doors (I guess all Svengalis from the late 60s had that lizard lope).  To cement his powers of persuasion, we get a flashback to Hemsworth preaching to his hippie flock, and let’s just say, he’s more Jim Nabors than Jones or Morrison.

Erivo is very good, but she’s a singer as a character and in real life.  Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) feels compelled to have her perpetually employing the pipes, an unnecessary distraction.

On HBO.  Fine if you got nothing else going on.

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A solid, slow potboiler of a crime caper, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are cops suspended for excessive force (caught on IPhone) who, beleaguered by low pay and lack of support, decide to pull a heist of a heist. Their decision runs them smack into Tory Kittles, just out of prison and enlisted to be a wheelman, in over his head as a contractor for brutal thieves.

The film is expertly paced, if languorous, and engrossing.  Director-writer S. Craig Zahler can draw out the eating of an egg salad sandwich, the preparation for a bank job, and the tailing of a getaway vehicle with an exactitude and care that sucks you in to all three events.

The picture is also literate, sometimes too much so as the characters have a lot of time to jabber on stake out. There are some machismo clunkers as the officers weigh the morality of the endeavor, the unfairness of their lot and the contours of loyalty. But there’s mostly good in the script, particularly between Kittles and the boyhood friend (Michael Jai White) who hooked him into the heist as they reminisce and try and work themselves out of what becomes a hellish jam.  Zahler has a nice touch handling the easy banter of his characters.

The film has been slagged for its portrayal of allegedly racist characters and themes, which to your average movie reviewer means that the Gibson and Vaughn characters do not parrot ACLU pamphlets in discussion of their milieu or the tenor of the times.  I sense Zahler is in for the David Mamet treatment.

The criticism is a joke but what are you gonna’ do?  These folks are the types who lauded The Wire but likely understood none of it and are the progeny of Pauline “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken” Kael.

A bit of a critic’s darling, I can see what impressed: the raw feel of the characters, a mother (Andie MacDowell)  and two adult sons (Chris O’Dowd and James Adomium), and the film’s unstinting portrayal of loss (their husband and father, to a long term illness).  We see the family at different intervals before, during and after the disease, and there are moments of real tenderness and pain that affect each of them.  In particular, MacDowell, an acting teacher, has a wonderfully realized moment where she cruelly unleashes on a student during a read, and Adomium references larger issues of death in a stand-up routine that starts uncomfortable and then rights itself.

What’s bad?  O’Dowd.  He’s way too overt as the weak son, the charmer who resents his mother for any number of reasons, but perhaps mostly, because she is strong.  O’Dowd plays it much too Oedipally, and he oozes rather than acts.  It’s distracting.

The segmentation of the story into pieces is also problematic, a double-edged sword.  A few scenes seem like well-presented one-acts.  But more often, the characters are doing things that are not supported by what we have seen before.  We are left to fill in the gaps.  One such rather unforgivable one is the absence of the relationship of the characters with the deceased.

Finally, if you take all the high-stress, histrionic and embarrassing scenes of a family’s life for a few years, and make a movie of them, they will not come off as relatable, but rather, alien and masochistic.