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2 stars

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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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The first half is a blast. Following the model of Across the Universe, director Dexter Fletcher incorporates Elton John’s music into boffo biographical song and dance numbers (the movie takes the current model and reverses it; it is ready made for Broadway), and Taron Egerton is winning as our shy, brilliant, budding rock star. The depiction of his rise is light, whimsical and fun.

But the second half of the movie, much like the middle third of John’s life, is a bummer. The choreographed song and dance numbers give way to trippy, psychedelics that are not only a drag, but repetitive and tiring.  John drinks, drugs, orgies, wears more and more ridiculous outfits and goes lower and lower, much like your eyelids.

It ends precocious, as John confronts his annoyingly minor demons (overbearing mother, distant father, not-as-advertised first lover)  in a rehab group therapy.

Not quite where a film-goer wants to end up, even if it worked out for John.

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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.

 

 

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.

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Another sweeping war epic from my past, along with Waterloo and Zulu, this one introduced me to the “stiff upper lip” Brit.  Unlike those films, this picture just doesn’t hold up at all.  Directed by Guy Hamilton (who had a much better time of it with four Bond films), the film is overly reliant on air battles that perhaps seemed impressive at the time, but now, are flat, difficult to comprehend (you rarely know which character is in which plane) and without drama.   Worse, what happens on the ground is remarkably staid and uninvolving.

It is, however, loaded with the cream of British actors (Michael Caine, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox and Robert Shaw, to name a few), and of particular note, it features a strikingly handsome Ian McShane, who aged into the craggy, rough Al Swearengen of Deadwood.  You can see what Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristal saw in him.

 

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Chris Weitz’s (About a Boy) largely faithful recreation of the capture of Adolph Eichmann is sober, competent and a little dull.  Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is the focus of a several member Israeli infiltration team sent to grab Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) from Argentina and covertly spirit him away to Israel for trial.  All well and good, even if the film drags until they actually get to South America.  When on the ground, the film picks up, but there really isn’t much to the operation.  They jump Eichmann at night as he gets off his bus and keep him in a safe house, where his removal is delayed for several days, thus allowing Isaac (whose sister, niece and nephew were killed in the Holocaust, which we see in flashback) to engage the monster in an effort to get his signed consent to extradition.  The best part of the picture is Kingsley, who conveys Eichmann’s urbane precision and amorality in equal parts.  But there isn’t much to the exchange.   Isaac seems too much the professional to be flustered by the engagement, and Weitz is too cautious in the opportunity.

Perhaps sensing the film’s lethargy, Weitz adds a fictional Argo-like race to the airport, but it lacks any real punch.

A perfectly inoffensive picture.  Wait until it’s free and you have little in the way of alternative entertainment options

In post-WWII Poland, a pianist and an ingénue he has selected for the national cultural ensemble fall in love.  He escapes through Berlin on a concert tour, but she is hesitant, and they are separated.  They see each other every few years, and eventually, they are reunited in Paris, free.  But they cannot make a go of it, she retreats back to Poland, and in what is supposed to be a grand gesture of everlasting devotion, he admits his sin against the state, returns to his native country and does 15 years hard labor, which, coupled with torture, destroys his fingers.

I suppose this was supposed to connect as a moody, timeless, passionate yet doomed romance.  But the two leads, who alternately smolder and pout, are so childish and impetuous, it’s hard to gin up much sympathy.  Indeed, when she makes it to Paris, they bicker like children, she constantly kvetching about his prior lover and Western ambition, he inexplicably distant (in fact, he often looks as if he knows he made a very big mistake in working so hard to be with her but can’t bring himself to admit it).

Neither character acts in a manner showing any deference to their good fortune.  These aren’t lovers separated by culture or prior marriages or obligation, but rather, an iron curtain where, to be on the wrong side of it, you lose your freedom and you can get your delicate pianist fingers mangled by 15 years of forced labor and torture.  And they surmount that curtain!  So, when they chuck it for seemingly pedestrian reasons, and he insists on his grotesque punishment, you don’t care.  Well, maybe you will.  The movie is very well regarded.  But I didn’t.

On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot and blessedly short at under an hour-and-a-half.

Nominated for Best Director, Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography and available on Amazon.