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2018

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From Lauren Greenfield, the writer/director of The Queen of Versailles, this documentary tries to be both an anthropological study and photo-journalistic essay of wealth. We are introduced to rich people in LA who get cosmetic surgery for their dogs, rappers in Atlanta who litter strip clubs with currency, porn stars who hope to emulate Kim Kardashian, escorts and limo company execs who sell the veneer of being rich for an evening or an assignation, and a whole host of ostentatious sellers and buyers.

The stories aren’t necessarily new. Excess is a strong component of who we are and coupled with the desire to judge, the sneering at folks who are the most brazen and gosh while we engage in miniaturized versions of their sins is damn near a national past time.

The director’s own revelation of being a small part of it, a gawky teen at a tony LA high school dropped off a block from school so her peers wouldn’t see the car her father drove (and he’s a doctor!), suggests we should trust her as a narrator.  But Greenfield can’t hold a line. She eventually muddles the message, at one point, confusing excess with being a workaholic, a cheap and errant way to shoehorn her own story into the feature.  It’s a bad fit, and her interrogation of her ambitious mother and bright son in the service of the subject is off-putting.

Still, the film eventually crashes when it morphs from a broad review of wealth culture to wild individual stories followed by a “where are they now?” coda that feels every bit as exploitative as the society the director is attempting to depict.

The documentary is also peppered by lofty, laughable socio-political commentary from Chris Hedges, a dummy extraordinaire whose platitudes are in stark contrast to the film’s more understated tenor. The picture is best in presentation, not catechism.

Hedges, however, does scratch an itch: “It’s kind of like the end of Rome . . . Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the time of their death.”

We shall see!  On Amazon.

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Very, very long (6 hours in total for the two films), but not altogether terrible and without giving anything away, at least they put some bodies on the block, thus limiting later franchise movies solely to origin stories.  Quippy, and visually much more satisfying than a lot of these movies.  Also, Thor in a fat suit is pretty funny, and melding The Hulk and Bruce Banner (now, he can wear the right size pants all the time)?  Inspired.

Still, when all is said and done, the whole things turns on Superman reverse circling the earth to go back in time.  They just couldn’t use him because he’s not a Marvel character.  Also, the concept for the second film is the same as HBO’s The Leftovers.

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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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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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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.

A bit of a critic’s darling, I can see what impressed: the raw feel of the characters, and the film’s unstinting portrayal of loss to a mother (Andie MacDowell) and her two adult sons (Chris O’Dowd and James Adomium) after their husband and father succumbs 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.

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.

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A retrospective of Miami Beach partially through the lens of photographers Andrew Sweet and Gary Monroe. This documentary is an interesting and economical time capsule of post war life there, as it became the haven for elderly Jews, eventually giving way to the Mariel influx, the drug wars and accompanying crime, with gentrification delivering the coup de grace. Joyous, poignant and a little depressing. A little uneven but definitely worthwhile.

On Netflix.

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Many museums offer documentary films covering the subject matter of the locale and event they memorialize.  The last one I saw was at the Holocaust Museum in a small alcove theater where you could get a respite from the vast tragedy to watch a short, continuously run film (the one I saw was about a particular figure and her trek from liberation to Israel).  At Antietam, a similar re-enactment film runs, explaining the day of battle, narrated by, I am almost certain, James Earl Jones.

At the outset, They Shall Not Be Forgotten, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the British experience in World War I, has the same feel.  It is simple black-and-white footage overlaid with the voices of those who fought the war recounting their experiences.  There are, however, critical and moving differences.

First, about one fourth of the way in, the black-and-white film comes to life in color, as Jackson has painstakingly restored over 100 hours of footage from the Imperial War Museum.  Jackson even employed lip-readers to approximate what was said by the men in the footage, giving the sense of a sound recording.  The effect is as if ghosts were revealed in the restoration.

Second, the memories are culled from 600 hours of interviews of 200 Great War veterans, who remain anonymous and speak of the every day experience rather than their role in the titanic struggle.  There are no names, and no battle or locale is identified.  You follow no particular individual, though you can discern the British voice in all its forms.  As such, you feel the collective experience without the shackles of a linear, fact-driven recitation.

Jackson’s film is also a generational memorial.  These men haven’t been educated in the ways of individualism and introspection and as you hear from them, you can glean a reluctance to speak, a “what is all the fuss?” mien.  This countenance rarely cracks, even as the horrors of the war pile up in their reminiscing.

As with Apollo 11, there is no historian or pundit or wag telling you what it all means.  These are the unvarnished recollections of men who would have been forgotten more quickly were it not for Jackson’s contribution.   A must watch and a cultural treasure.

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The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.

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What to make of this film?  It starts off medium cool, with Vince Vaughn playing a rigid, introverted ex-addict and drug dealer trying to stay on the straight-and-arrow.  His temper is volcanic yet weirdly controlled – when he wants to kill his cheating wife (Jennifer Carpenter), he distances himself from her, maintaining an almost chivalric honoring of her being, and then dismantles her car with his bare hands.  He then comes into the house and they have a believably fruitful and mature discussion about where their relationship is headed.

When circumstances force him back into dealing, things go south, and he has to do a stretch in prison, leaving the pregnant Carpenter and their unborn daughter behind.  And then shit gets nuts, as the film shifts from sober prison fare to gonzo 70s grindhouse slaughter-fest.  Vaughn is transferred from a medium security facility, where he meets his mentor and  counselor in what threatens to be a film about his therapeutic journey from there on out, to a maximum security haunted house run by Don Johnson, a cheroot chewing warden straight out of the most lurid of comic books.

The dissonance is jarring, but it doesn’t turn you off.  You stay on the ride, happily, as it gets crazier and crazier.

Vaughn is really quite good, but people forget that before he took on the comic galoot character, he was trotted out as a believable villain (Psycho, Domestic Disturbance).  He has done mainly straight drama of late, from the execrably written Season 2 of True Detective to the stock sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge to the recent Dragged Across Concrete (written and directed by the writer-director of this picture,  S. Craig Zahler).  Here, he’s in total command and damn chilling.

Zahler knows what he’s doing behind the camera, but one wonders – to what end? I hope he rises above his pulpy material before he gets lost in it.

Currently on Amazon.