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2014

Nick Kroll is a pretty big deal in New York City until his Google-glassish innovation goes busto and he loses all his money and all the money of his so-called friends, so he seeks solace by retreating to the icky suburbs and his childhood home in New Rochelle, NY, currently inhabited by his harried sister (Rose Byrne), her swarthy, down-to-earth home builder husband (Bobby Cannavale) and their charmless 3 year old boy.  There, Nick becomes intertwined in their lives, much like Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins, who went home to Nyack, NY after a trauma.  Kroll discovers Cannavale is having an affair, much like Hader’s sister Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins.  Coincidentally, in The Skeleton Twins, Wiig was cheating on her husband Luke Wilson, who was also a blue collar guy, just like Cannavale.

Crazily, Kroll reveals the fact of the affair to Byrne, again, like Hader to Wilson in The Skeleton Twins.  And that results in a heartfelt discussion about how Kroll ran out when their mother was dying of cancer, and the discussion is reminiscent of the recriminations and regrets of Hader and Wiig about their father, also dead by suicide.   In The Skeleton Twins.

For a few easy laughs, the town is populated by faintly ridiculous folk from high school who Kroll can look down upon.  Much like Hader in The Skeleton Twins.  And there are places that inexplicably have Christmas lights up even though it is not Christmas.  Just like the town in The Skeleton Twins.

And Kroll grows, growth which is signaled by the fact he chooses the welfare of his sister’s son over his new job.

Just like James Caan in Elf.

Torture that at its best is mildly diverting.

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I was in school in Philadelphia from 1982 to 1984, during the mayoralty of Wilson Goode, who had taken over from the dictatorial former police commissioner and mayor Frank “I’m gonna’ be so tough as mayor, I gonna’ make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” Rizzo (Rizzo had once bragged that his police department could invade a country, and having seen them in action, I believed it). At that time, the Philadelphia police department was in an intractable standoff with a weirdo cult – MOVE – a back-to-nature, but armed-with-guns, community-based but plague-on-the-surrounding-community organization that melded hippie-life, black militancy and making their neighbors (largely, middle class blacks) miserable. The cops and MOVE had tangled once before, in 1978, leading to a siege where a police officer was killed and numerous cops and fire fighters wounded. Nine MOVE leaders and other disciples received life sentences as a result, but the remainder of the organization’s adherents moved to another neighborhood in West Philadelphia, where the entire scenario played out again years later. I clearly remember the local news reporting on police-MOVE clashes when I was in Philly, but until I saw this documentary, I had actually convinced myself I was in the City of Brotherly Love for the final confrontation.  I was wrong. By then, I had transferred schools and sat in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the only assault was olfactory, a combination of a dog food plant and turkey slaughter.

Mayor Goode decided he’d had enough of MOVE plaguing yet another neighborhood (MOVE’s parenting was questionable, they had built a row house on Osage Avenue into a fortress, they menaced the neighbors and in particular, blasted obscenity from loudspeakers with regularity at all hours).  The cops came in to serve warrants on several MOVE members, they resisted, gunfire ensued (MOVE shot, and the police responded, if not in kind, as they unloaded 100,000 rounds into the house), another siege ensued, only this time, after a long period of time where they doused the MOVE house with water hoses, the police dropped an incendiary device on their house. And they let it burn. And it did, eventually engulfing the neighborhood, destroying 65 houses and killing 11 of 13 MOVE members, including 5 children.

This documentary is comprised solely of archival footage from the news, the public hearings that took place after the events (two of my former law partners were involved, one as the then-D.A. and the other as a member of the commission), and depositions taken in connection with litigation.  It is riveting, almost dreamlike, and you can’t even imagine that what you are seeing could possibly occur. But it did (and actually, again in the 1990s with the Waco stand-off), and the rendition is gripping, With the exception of some discordant editorializing at the end of the documentary in the aftermath section, it is also fair. On Netflix streaming.

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Not an apologia, nor a self serving justification, but rather, an opportunity to listen to the methodology, nuance and capacities of one of the more influential policymakers of our generation. Documentarian Errol Morris is astute enough to let Donald Rumsfeld roll with little interruption, but with occasional prodding, to attempt to reach his core. Unlike with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, who eventually reached an acknowledgment that seemed near confessional with regard to his failures in Vietnam, Rumsfeld is not of the same mindset. He is not prideful in his cheery resistance to apology: he’s quite capable of admitting error, but he refuses to accept the premise that in the commission of error, there necessarily lies moral failure or self-serving and political calculation.

Morris is a little cheap on occasion, and with someone who is as careful with his words as Rumsfeld, it is problematic. For example, Morris goes “gotcha!” when he juxtaposes Rumsfeld’s denial that the Bush administration cast Iraq as a major player with al Qaeda in the direct planning of the 9-11 attacks with his statement in a press conference that al Qaeda and Iraq certainly had a relationship. Mostly, however, Morris feels flummoxed by Rumsfeld, which is actually a good thing. Morris approaches him as a dramatist and a provocateur, asking “why obsessed with Iraq?” and “why not just assassinate Saddam?”  He receives answers, albeit answers you can tell he feels are not obfuscatory so much as unsatisfactory.

No neat wrap-up, no target hit, no successful gotchas, just a rumination on Rumsfeld’s mind, peculiar process and recollection. There’s a great exchange where Morris advances that Shakespeare wrote about large personality filled power struggles, Rumsfeld replies that in fact those struggles are really just people with different perspectives, Morris exclaims “Did Shakespeare get it wrong?” and Rumsfeld thinks about it, shrugs, and suggests maybe Shakespeare got it right . . . for his time. In that same vein, Morris pushes for lessons between Vietnam (the end of which Rumsfeld oversaw serving President Ford) and Iraq, and Rumsfeld parries that one hopes to heed lessons in history, but the primary lesson is “some things work out and some don’t.”

Morris wants questions like, “How do you know when you are going too far?” answered to his satisfaction and Rumsfeld is literally the last person on this earth equipped or inclined to provide him a satisfactory answer.  Are you saying, “Stuff just happens?”, Morris asks at one point, in exasperation.  Rumsfeld looks back at him with the look of someone who has just been asked “Are you saying you breathe air?”  Morris conceded his agenda, and perhaps the thwarting of same, in an interview: “You’re left with a strange anxiety about [Rumsfeld].  I suppose if I was Mike Wallace or David Frost or whoever, I’d back [him] into a corner. But I love those moments, because I don’t even know where I am anymore. I don’t know whether he’s in any way self-aware, whether he is lying, whether he’s just in some strange alternate universe, the Rumsfeld universe. . . . There’s a ‘j’accuse’ there, but it’s my ‘j’accuse’.”

The consensus from the dummy contingent of film critics is that Rumsfeld was given the rope with which to hang himself, or his artful dodging is in and of itself proof of the indictment as to his treachery, but what Morris has actually accomplished is a demonstration of the incongruity between the needs of artists,  or those who see the world through a Shakespearean lens, and policymakers, who take it one memo at a time.

On Netflix streaming.

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This story of one woman’s journey – a 1000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail – is unfortunately marred by unconvincing dialogue, inconsistent pacing, and an actress not quite up to the task. Reese Witherspoon’s best actress Oscar came after her portrayal of June Carter Cash, a performance that took advantage of her quick wit, common sense instincts, and sunny disposition. She was also able to sing, no mean feat.  As the distraught daughter of a mother who died young (Laura Dern), Witherspoon cannot sing her way to our hearts, and de-glamorization and nudity do not sell the fact that she is supposed to have lapsed into a downward spiral of promiscuity and heroin addiction after Dern’s death. There is still too much of Ellle Woods and Tracy Flick in Reese Witherspoon. She doesn’t even curse authentically, much less play a waitress who has sex with two customers in the alley behind her restaurant just because it feels good. The role required an actress with more gut and greater reserves. Meg Ryan, another plucky can-do lead, tried to toughen up later in her career in In the Cut with similar results.

Even with another actress, this film still has real problems. Everyone becomes depressed upon the death of a loved one, but there is no basis to suggest why Witherspoon’s character became so self-destructive. Rather than elicit our sympathy, Witherspoon at times threatens to evoke our scorn. Her choices are presented to us in flashback, in the bedrooms of strange men, with her long suffering friend, in the heroin dens of Minneapolis, or in conversations with her mother, scenes that are supposed to give us insight into how she ended up here. They don’t. Rather, they are too disjointed to tell us much of anything, and we are left wondering “how the hell did she end up there?”

Finally, the film is too new-agey and pat for its own good. Witherspoon reminisces along the trail while inscribing the words of poets at its various check-in stations. She is followed by a mystical fox. She meets people who say wildly unrealistic things (her discussion with a little boy in particular) that are supposed to reflect her singularity and the momentous nature of her trek (she is even dubbed queen of the trail by other hikers). She finishes and tells us in an ego-centrism that lacks any self awareness that it all worked out in the end. Heck, she informs us in voiceover – she even has two lovely kids.

To the good, it is beautifully shot and the beginning of the film, when Witherspoon is starting on the trail wholly unprepared and over-fortified, had promise. I thought she might even get an appendage stuck in between some rocks.

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I loathe political correctness in all its forms, but particularly as it applies to art.  Be it the soul-sucking idiocy of demanding cultural authenticity in casting, blanket condemnations of some “ism” by the cultural debt counters, or the wails of some grievance group as one of their own is skewered for comedic purposes (Robert Downey Jr.’s “retard” riff in Tropic Thunder comes to mind), the effect is the same – to straightjacket creative endeavor so it presents like a PSA. The only good that comes of the p.c. influence is groveling apology (see Cameron Crowe bootlicking because he cast Emma Stone as a quarter-Asian, quarter Hawaiian: “I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice”),  self-serving explanations (see Matt Damon having to backpedal after having been caught on camera rejecting affirmative action and – gasp! – using the word “merit”: “My comments were part of a much broader conversation about diversity in Hollywood and the fundamental nature of ‘Project Greenlight’ which did not make the show. I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood. That is an ongoing conversation that we all should be having”), or inane public proclamations (see Viola Davis, who just last night without a hint of irony or self-awareness equated her struggle to that of Harriet Tubman – Harriet frickin’ Tubman – while accepting an Emmy for a crap TV drama).

With that said, Welcome to Me is an offensive film, and the heart of its offense is in how it deals with mental illness.   Kristen Wiig plays a sad shut-in, obsessed with Oprah, who wins the California lottery. She suffers from borderline personality and is off her medication, yet that doesn’t stop a local production company run by Wes Bentley and James Marsden from taking her millions so she can develop her own show. That show is a stage for Wiig to exhibit all the debilitating aspects of her un-medicated disease in a manner that at best is quirky and at worst is truly disturbing.

Okay, so far, so good. If done well, I don’t have a huge problem with making a dark comedy about a mentally disturbed person being taken advantage of.  I’ve gone down weirder, filmic roads. So, to be clear, my objection is not to the premise nor do I advocate for the babying of any protected class in art.

But when you take this on, you can’t have your cake (using the disability as comedic tool) and then ask the audience to regurgitate it in shame after the eating.

Essentially, that’s what writer Elliot Lawrence does here.  It’s not that the picture is poorly acted or directed or that there aren’t even a few funny scenes. It’s that it is an exploitative film about a sick person being exploited and it wants to both use the illness for yucks while pretending to be brave in showing the true face of that illness. You need a really deft hand for that kind of trick, and Lawrence and sophomore feature director Shira Piven do not have it.

To make matters worse, the movie condescends with a throw-away lame anti-television theme, and in the end, Wiig is transformed into a “winner” with the help of a mere few pills.  Available on Netflix streaming, but there are so many better choices.

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This is a disquieting look into how a single failure, even one that is in no way fatal, can fray the bond of an entire family.  Tomas, Ebba and their two young children are on a ski vacation having lunch at a resort top restaurant when a controlled avalanche gets a little out of control and for a moment, threatens to engulf them.  How they react and the aftermath reveals a great deal about commitment, gender expectations, the frailty of masculinity, the dangers of self denial and the ability of people ostensibly in love to casually gut each other.  I know that seems a mouthful, but it’s all there in this literate, intelligent picture.  The film was rightly bandied as a potential Best Foreign Film nominee, but it did not make the cut.  Perhaps because it was too thought-provoking and never really let you comfortably take a strong position.  This is one of those movies that you could talk about for hours with your wife or girlfriend or other couples, but in many ways, I’m glad I saw it alone and avoided a discussion that probably would have gotten me into hot water.  The only knock is a bit of a discordant ending.

Currently on Netflix streaming.

The film has aspirations to Wes Anderson, but you’ll learn quickly, having Bill Murray in your cast isn’t enough. Murray plays an old Brooklyn codger, a man who drinks, smokes, and consorts with a pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute (Naomi Watts, sporting an accent so thick and implausible it would make Gary Oldman recoil and say, “no, no . . . too much”).  He also gambles at the track, is in deep with a bookie, and spits in the eye of anyone who might show him kindness. Yet, he’s cool because he listens to a Walkman that plays kitschy 70s pop or Dylan. So rest assured, this guy has a heart of gold. Naturally, when he gets new neighbors (newly divorced and fed up nurse Melissa McCarthy and her impossibly wise yet innocent son Jaeden Lieberher), he opens up a crack, takes the kid under his wing, and to the track, and to the bar, and in the vicinity of the prostitute.  Predictable hijinks ensue, but when the son gets the assignment at his Catholic school to find a saint here on earth, well . . . guess who?

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of first time writer-director Ted Melfi that he can get you to well up a little on occasion, but that doesn’t change the fact you want to punch him in his face for manipulating you so brazenly.  This is paint by numbers, hip treacle that might make even Zach Braff a little queasy.