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4 stars

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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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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.

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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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Comprised solely of contemporaneous archival footage updated via high resolution digital scans, there is no commentary or exposition for this documentary of the moon landing mission. It is contemplative and, at times, spellbinding, but can also be somewhat sterile. Still, rather than the standard commentators whinging on about the greater significance, I’ll take it. HBO is currently running a two part documentary on Muhammad Ali that is similar in approach – all archival footage and no commentary – and it too is very good. I hope this is a trend.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) story of a driven couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) struggling to have a child of their own is alternately heartbreaking and frustrating.  We see the two put through the wringer of in-vitro fertilization and surrogate scams, poked and prodded in clinics while investigated as to suitability for placement, and all of it voluntary,  a critical focus of the film, because rather than a “poor us” weeper, we see them as in many ways masochistic.

The couple is often unsympathetic, as their singular desire creates a fair amount of collateral damage.   They also suffer bouts of self-loathing as the fabric of their relationship is torn (a scene where Giamatti broaches whether he even wants a baby is piercing).  But when it gets bad for the two, Jenkins gives us a glimpse of who they were – and perhaps still can be – before their primal quest.

Eventually, the intercession of a sweet and guileless niece (Kayli Carter, who has the same commanding presence as Shailene Woodley in The Descendants and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) helps to remind them of the wages of their desperation.

Sometimes a tad talky and quaint, but for the most part, very strong.  On Netflix.

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Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed.  But their circumstances suffer from too little explication.  Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.

McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world.  Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending.  Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie.  Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise.  There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.

There is also a thematic bright spot.  The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.

On Amazon.