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2013

This is a charming documentary about the first fan club president of The Beatles – Freda Kelly – who started out in a typing pool, sneaking off work to see the band at The Cavern Club, and worked her way in to become the assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein.  Kelly provides nothing really new about “the lads” (Paul was always nice, John could be a handful), but her remembrances are touching and frankly, impressive.  She took her job as correspondent for the band very seriously, and while in their employ, authored thousands of responses to fan mail, even going so far as to fire an employee for sending non-Beatle hair to a fan who had requested a strand.  She even used her home address as the fan club address for a time, until her father complained that he couldn’t find his utility bills in the sacks of mail that arrived every day.

Kelly worked faithfully for the group until its demise, and then just moved on with her life.  As the documentarian finds her now, she is a working secretary.  The surviving Beatles and the estates of John and George must have given the filmmakers rights to the music, because Beatles tunes litter the film, and Ringo even gives a video goodbye to Freda during the credits.  I will say, however, there’s a bit of a bad taste at the end.  Freda is presented as a true gem, someone who tended to the band’s needs, kept their confidences, never once traded in on their fame for her own aggrandizement, and even became a companion to many of their parents.  I don’t expect the Beatles to shower attention on all of the “little people” who helped their rise, but Freda seems a cut above, and so . . . what the fu**, Paul!

Mankind is threatened by global warming, and in an effort to turn the tide, introduces a cooling agent into the atmosphere. A deep freeze results and the only survivors live on a train run on perpetual motion that circles the earth, said train having been developed by a prescient bazillionaire (Ed Harris). The poor, led by Chris Evans (Captain America), eat mushy protein bars in the last car, while the rich are pampered with sushi, drugs, saunas and opulence in the front. Evans leads a revolt and the proletariat move from car to car to get control.

This is high concept, ambitious dystopia, but it is also unsubtle, mostly ridiculous, high concept dystopia, inadequately explained (a perpetual motion train?) and saddled with an unwieldy end (Harris shows up, like the wizard behind the curtain, to explain all). I’m all for ambition, but this is several trestles too far.

The film also contains a simplistic Have v. Have Nots political theme, which probably accounts for its appearance on so many top ten lists. For an example of the film tickling the right funny bone, one need go no further than The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle and his juvenile conclusion: “It’s a film that, in its own peculiar way, forces viewers to question their values and ask themselves how much they’re willing to sacrifice for a functioning society, and how much is too much.” If it takes the likes of Snowpiercer to force LaSalle to question his own values, I’m surprised he didn’t join a monastery after The Hunger Games.

The picture is also unwisely reliant on Evans, who lacks the gravitas of a dark, brooding action hero and the chops to handle the big, tortured soliloquy at the end. We’re supposed to be dazzled, but like most products of graphic novels, it’s a slick, empty endeavor with a few interesting parts. Tilda Swinton is also very funny as a bucktoothed toady for Harris.

A grueling, gloppy, false film. A poet father (Sam Shepard) goes missing (and then dies) and the family is summoned to bury him. They proceed to vomit all over each other as the matriarch (Meryl Streep) goads and undermines the lot of them.

It is based in Oklahoma, which elicits exaggerated heartland/Southern accents and theatrical, hokey back-and-forth (Julia Roberts’ “get tough” bit with her mother, Streep, is laughably unconvincing). There are confrontations and serial reveals of family secrets, followed by more wailing and teeth-gnashing, and that’s about the whole of it.

The film is adapted from a stage play, which encourages overacting. Streep and Roberts are particularly culpable, the former not so much in technique but in volume and size. She positively leers at her stupid family, and horns near come out of her head. Naturally, the Academy nominated them both for Oscars, but nobody in their right mind would spend another minute with these women after the mildest of their taunts or insults.  But there this family of dolts sits, taking it just like the audience.

There’s not a genuine moment in this monstrosity.

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The writer of the Mary Poppins books, P.L. Travers, was apparently such a pain in the ass that, according to her grandchildren, she “died loving no one and with no one loving her.” As played by Emma Thompson, Travers more than fits this bill as she is whisked to Hollywood against her better instincts to be wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in an effort to adapt her stories to the screen. Travers’ prickliness and exactitude with Disney and his team (Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzmann and B.J. Novak, all very good here) is the best part of the film. Unfortunately, director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps interrupting the best part with flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, and in particular, her relationship with her whimsical, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).

I understand the juxtaposition. The audience is supposed to learn what has embittered this awful woman. But you really don’t care (she’s such a witch that motivation is irrelevant), and you also begin to resent the interruption of the more interesting creation of a film.

Worse, the technique is cloying, leading to a sugary-sweet ending that has Disney melting the ice encasing Travers’ heart. In reality, Disney and Travers ended their relationship in acrimonious fashion, with Disney fed up with her stubborn nature, and Travers so offended she refused any further association between the company and her books. The disharmony is alluded to in the film, but it is near-blotted out by Travers’ copious tears as she undergoes a sort of catharsis at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Those were actually tears of fury.  From Travers herself:  “As chalk is to cheese, so is the film to the book. Tears ran down my cheeks because it was all so distorted. I was so shocked I felt that I would never write—let alone smile—again!”

Ken Burns’ eerie documentary about the crime of the century (at least, according to former NYC Mayor Ed Koch) – the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park – is an uneven effort, but the story is so compelling and the good parts so strong, the work as a whole is commendable.

On the night of the rape, the subjects were part of a larger crowd of kids who were trolling Central Park, “wilding” (harassing and attacking bikers and joggers, beating a homeless man, throwing rocks, etc . . .) The five boys, ranging in ages 14 to 16, were picked up and interrogated for a long period of time and at interverals, very forcefully. As adults, they are credible in explaining that eventually, they implicated each other as well as themselves by providing written statements and videotaped confessions. They just wanted to go home and accepted the proffer from the police that if they gave statements, they would do just that. None of the statements matched up and the only DNA evidence found matched none of boys. But the power of a confession is unparalleled in the criminal law and all five were convicted, in two trials by two juries.

Their journey through arrest, trial, incarceration and exoneration is harrowing. With at least 3 of the 5 boys interviewed as adults (one would not go on camera), you can see the damage done to them in their eyes. Burns captures many powerfully moving moments.

Burns, however, makes an introductory error, revealing at the beginning of the documentary that the boys are innocent via the taped confession of the true assailant. The effect of this choice is to make the actions of the police and the prosecution seem more than egregious, but sinister. There is no question that the authorities may have fixed the facts to the confessions (the confessions were haphazard even in the aftermath of coaching by zealous cops), but the structure of the documentary suggests malice on the part of the authorities. It does not help that no one from the police or prosecution would sit for interviews, especially given the conclusion of an internal review of the case by the D.A.:

Comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies. … The accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime—who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used in the course of the assault, and when in the sequence of events the attack took place. … In many other respects the defendants’ statements were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence. And some of what they said was simply contrary to established fact.

But perhaps this is a choice rather than lack of access. Mike Sheehan, one of the investigating detectives, told New York Magazine, “All this stuff about coercion really pisses me off,” Sheehan says. “Do you honestly think that we — detectives with more than twenty years in, family men with pensions — would risk all of that so we could put words in the mouth of a 15-year-old kid? Absolutely not.” More Sheehan: “I used to lie awake at night thinking about cases we had over the years: I hope to God we have the right guy,” he says. “That’s your biggest fear: You never want to put an innocent person in jail. Mother of God! I didn’t worry much on this one. Because they’re telling us where they were. They are telling us — the sequence may be off, but they’re essentially telling us the same stuff. They remember a guy they beat and took his food, they remember hitting this guy running around the reservoir. They went through all of these things, each kid. And they also tell you about the jogger. And they place people, so you have a mental picture of where they were around this woman’s body. And their parents are with them, not only in the interviews but in the videotape, for the record. That’s enough for me. I’m satisfied.”

We don’t get Sheehan. Instead, we get what becomes the second major problem for the documentary – the people Burns actually interviewed. With the exception of a social scientist and family members, the commentators who did sit down for Burns are desperate to contextualize the case. So, we have it fixed into the standard racial tropes of the time, and we are provided nuggets along the lines of “if this was a black girl . . .” and “we are all at fault, we are all bad” and “they would have been lynched like Emmitt Till.” These sentiments may be true and/or heartfelt, but they are pedestrian and they have the effect of cheapening the raw, chilling story being presented. Worse, the interviewer never questions the interviewees, a tactic that makes their observations come off as studied pronouncement.

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John Milius came up in Hollywood during what Harrison Ford calls “the second California gold rush”, with Spielberg, Coppola, Schrader, and Lucas. Destined and almost enthusiastic about going to Vietnam, Milius’ asthma kept him out of the war and he ended up at USC, then one of only three film schools in the country. He is a big bear of a man, a gun toting, messianic type making mythical, primal films. He wrote Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the Indianapolis speech in Jaws (which was 10 pages, but edited down to 5 by Robert Shaw so he could remember the material), and Apocalypse Now, and he parlayed his writing into directing (Dillinger, The Wind and The Lion, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn).

This documentary is loaded with fond remembrances of late 60s and 70s Hollywood, Milius’ crazy persona, and his distinctive approach to filmmaking. It also includes a forthright discussion about Milius’ banishment as a right-wing pariah after Red Dawn. Despite these strengths, the film is almost wholly uncritical, never once mentioning, for example, that Red Dawn is awful for reasons having nothing to do with its politics. The picture is also pat and sentimental, weighing the eccentricities of its subject against his ethics and determining the latter is to blame for any professional damage. Still, after Milius is near-bankrupted by his accountant, it is heartbreaking to learn that he tried to become a staff writer for Deadwood, and uplifting to know that Rome got him back in the game.

Dreadful. The script is so bad that after yet another disaffected, psychotic right winger (Secret Service chief James Woods) tells liberal prez, cool kat Jamie Foxx that the pen is not mightier than the sword, Prez Foxx jabs a pen in his neck (a total rip-off of a Bob Dole move), and then, just to make sure we got it, actually says, “I choose the pen.” Foxx plays the role like he has a plane to catch, and Channing Tatum, as the Secret Service presidential detail wannabe who saves the day, appears to be stifling laughter on more than one occasion. The CGI is atrocious (attack helicopters maneuver around the offices of downtown DC like Mini Coopers in The Italian Job and grenade explosions that do not knock over lecterns and desks in the rooms where they occur produce fireballs visible 10 blocks away). Finally, the double-double at the end is as implausibly stupid in construction as in resolution – both villains are the only two powerful men in Washington who still use pagers. Busted!

My wife and daughter had been badgering me to see this Disney pic for some time, and I finally got a chance over the holiday weekend. I suspect it was as much of a pleasant surprise to Disney as to me. With a relatively modest budget of $150 million (Disney’s much less successful Tangled sported a budget of $250 million) and a voice cast sporting the lesser known Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Josh Gadd, the film was the highest grossing of 2013 and has gone on to make $1.2 billion worldwide. It’s clear why. The story, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, is solid; you get two princesses for the price of one; and the songs (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the former of whom was a co-creator of The Book of Mormon) are captivating, in particular, the Oscar winning “Let it Go”, which has a Wicked-esque quality and has become this ubiquitous:

The film is also economical (hello, parents of the two leads, this is a Disney film, so your presence will not be required for long) and visually stunning, blending CGI and hand-drawn animation to create a Fjordic, Nordic wonderland.  Gadd’s clueless but loyal snowman is a tribute not only to Frosty but to my favorite Disney sidekick ever:

My only nit is that the villain is sprung on the audience, when it would have been better to have him seduced into the role.

Seemingly improvised throughout, the sequel is alternately lazy and uproarious, but by the end, more the former. The Channel 4 news gang (Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Paul Rudd) have reunited, moving from San Diego to New York City, to take the helm of the graveyard shift on the first 24 hour cable news channel. Soon, Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy is back on top, discarding his friends, cementing his fall (he is even stricken blind), only to return triumphant.

In the first film, Ferrell’s bosses (Fred Willard and SNL alum Chris Parnell) held their own as comedians, contributing to the fun. Ferrell’s new boss is the sassy, Pam Grieresque Meagan Good, who is placed in the film for a painful scene where Ferrell visits her family and tries to “act street.” She’s not funny, but she’s not alone.  Harrison Ford, Drake, Kanye West, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen and others appear, most for a reprise of the first film’s news team rumble, but the melee is woefully disappointing. Gone are the unexpected trident and grenade, the scores from Star Trek and West Side Story, replaced by celebrities who just wanted in. Sure, Ford turning into a werewolf is pretty cool, and who doesn’t laugh at an unexpected minotaur, but these guys aren’t very funny.  And Liam Neeson and Marion Cottilard? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Will Smith?  He wasn’t even funny in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Even Vince Vaughn’s return as Wes Mantooth is a little dull. Speaking of dull, Kristen Wiig as Steve Carell’s love interest is Sominex.

Director Adam McKay also tries to deliver a lesson about the degradation of the news. He usually appends his simplistic political tracts to the end of his goofy movies, so you could walk out of The Other Guys or The Campaign while the credits rolled and he lamented Wall Street greed or the Citizens United decision.

Other bits fare better, including Ferrell’s interactions with his young son and his bottle feeding of a baby shark; Carell’s panic at the loss of his legs on a green screen; and especially, the news team’s smoking of crack on the air.

And this scene got cut?

What?

 

Alexander Payne’s black-and-white portrait of a geriatric mid-westerner (Bruce Dern) intent on getting from Montana to Nebraska to collect a sham $1 million sweepstakes prize is patient, lyrical and loving.  The film evokes David Lynch’s The Straight Story in its pathos, but it also contains a wry sense of humor, largely provided by Dern’s suffering younger son (SNL alum Will Forte) and his brutal, loudmouth but ultimately protective wife (June Squibb)  Lesser films would have played up the wackiness of the extended family, who now believe Dern is flush and are making their claims, or they would have provided Dern the platform to release his Korean war demons or his crushed dreams to his son on their journey.  There is none of that easy bull here.  Instead, Payne presents an authentic portrait of a stoic rural family (Dern seems to have 7 brothers, all of whom watch the NFL with nary a quiver) steeled by time and want, with the very true message that most people don’t really know much about their parents, and that their pasts grow more foreign to us every day.  This film is a lesson in restraint, and Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, Election, Citizen Ruth) has cemented his place as a writer/director with a unique, American voice.