Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

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68 Kill


Now here’s a woman who knows how to get what she wants.

(2017) Action (IFC Midnight) Matthew Gray Gubler, AnnaLynne McCord, Alisha Boe, Sheila Vand, Sam Eidson, Michael Beasley, James Moses Black, David Maldonado, Ajay Mehta, Hallie Grace Bradley, Lucy Faust, Peter Jaymes, Eric Podnar, Carlos Antonio, Walker Babington, Kelly Connolly. Directed by Trent Haaga

This year there’s been a spate of heist action films that have been unusually entertaining. One that’s flown under the radar is this gem that made some waves at South by Southwest and also the Florida Film Festival.

This one is a little bit more graphic than most. Chip (Gubler) is a decent guy who has a problem; he just can’t say no to a pretty girl. His girlfriend Liza (McCord) knows all about it and uses it to her advantage. She’s not a very nice girl in a lot of ways but what she is for whatever its worth is practical. Chip wants to bring in as much cash as he can to support Liza who has lavish lifestyle tastes on a trailer park budget. In fact, they do live in a trailer park and when the couple is short on funds when the rent is due – which occurs pretty often – she makes up for it with blow jobs and other sexual favors.

Liza is pretty much done with this sort of life. She’s learned that the landlord (Jaymes) is keeping a stash of cash in his home safe – to the tune of $68,000. Such a haul, she reasons, would be enough to give her and Chip a brand new life in a much better place than the craphole they live in. It’s an easy, smash and grab job – nobody has to get hurt. However, just in case – a couple of guns might come in handy if they need to defend themselves. Nothing to worry about, honey; I’m sure we won’t need to use them. I’m positive of it, in fact. You can guess how that’s going to go.

Two dead people and a hostage named Violet (Boe) later, a sickened Chip and adrenalized Liza show up at her brother Dwayne’s (Eidson) house to sell him Violet; as it turns out, Dwayne likes to torture and mutilate women for sexual pleasure and Violet is plenty pretty. This is way more than Chip signed on for and he decides to cut his losses and get out with Violet. However, Liza doesn’t take well to breaking up with her boyfriend as you can imagine and as weird as things have been, they are about to get weirder.

Haaga, who has some experience in the Troma factory of low budget genre movies, has a phenomenal sense of pacing; this movie starts off with a shot of a fly caught in honey (a heavy-handed but apt metaphor) and then never lets the foot off the gas. The movie careens – sometimes drunkenly but always sure of its destination – from one set piece to the next. We just hang on for dear life and if we’re smart, enjoy the ride.

AnnaLynne McCord is an absolute revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen any actress play a psychotic bitch quite as ably as McCord in ages. This ranks up there with What’s the Matter with Baby Jane territory in my opinion; she’s that good. One moment she can be tender and loving towards Chip and the next she’s a shrieking banshee with a pump action rifle aimed for your skull. Love hurts, fool.

Gubler who plays the seminal science nerd in Criminal Minds gets to stretch his wings a bit here in a role that is very unlike the one he’s known for. Chip is sweet but spineless and not book smart or street smart. As a result he makes some unwise choices and he is way too naive when it comes to women, particularly in that part of the world which seems to be populated by some mean ones.

I like that the movie just keeps getting better and better as it goes along. It’s not a movie that overstays its welcome in the least nor does it start out so slow that by the time it gets going the viewer has already checked out. Rather by the time the climax is in full gear I was fully invested in the story and characters. That doesn’t happen all the time for both of those elements, so kudos to Haaga.

Now, most of the women in this movie (with the exception of Violet) are stone cold crazy, over-the-top bitches, hookers, double crossers, two timers or some combination thereof. ‘Course, most of the men in the movie (with the exception of Chip) aren’t much better but there seem to be more redeemable men in the film than women. Some might find this anti-woman, although I don’t think it is personally. If anything, it’s anti-low life scumbag and that’s a cause that reaches across both sides of the aisle.

There is plenty of humor here to lighten up the gore and violence; it’s a little on the dry side so those who don’t cotton to that kind of funny might be well-served to stay away. The characters here are also the most misbegotten collection of fever dream psychos ever assembled in an indie film. It’s like David Lynch in charge of Deliverance in a trailer park setting and if that log line intrigues you, this is the kind of film you’ve been waiting for all year. This isn’t for everyone but if you like to have fun at the movies, don’t mind a little gore, get revved up by frenetic action sequences and don’t mind some oddball characters in the mix, your ship has come in.

REASONS TO GO: The film gets better as it goes along. The humor is bone dry in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little misogynistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, just as much violence, some gore and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the audience award in the Midnighters category at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Win It All

Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

Alien: Covenant


Speaking of illegal aliens….

(2017) Sci-Fi Horror (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King (voice), Goran D. Kleut, Andrew Crawford, Javier Botet, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Back in 1979, movie posters and trailers proclaimed that “In space no-one can hear you scream” and a classic of science fiction was born, one that changed the entire genre. Alien still reverberates as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.

In this sequel to Prometheus a colony ship called the Covenant suffers a fire that sweeps through the colonist sleep chambers killing the captain (Franco). Taking over is Orem (Crudup), a religious sort who is a bit on the indecisive side. Despite the objections of the Captain’s widow and second officer Daniels (Waterston), the new captain decides to take the crippled Covenant to a planet from which a distress signal is coming – one that incongruously takes the form of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Orem takes a team including their android Walter (Fassbender) who is of a similar model to David from Prometheus and Tennessee (McBride), Lope (Bichir) and Karine (Ejogo). They find a beautiful paradise with a disturbing apparent lack of animal and insect life but there are strange alien spores that once they get into a human system hatch nasty little alien neomorphs – a colony of which soon makes their presence known. The neomorphs seem to be not unlike velociraptors only angrier.

Taking refuge in an abandoned city, they discover to their surprise David, the last survivor of the Prometheus incident and David has plans – plans that aren’t going to be so good for the surviving members of the reconnaissance mission.

The big knock against the movie has been that the plot is too close to the first movie but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If you’re going to take your plot from a movie, you could do a lot worse. There are some other things that I have issues with but more on that later.

Fassbender has the dual role of the innocent Walter and the devious David and he plays both quite well. Through the magic of CGI the two Fassbenders interact and even kiss – a homoerotic moment that nobody had ever even conceived before although it may well have been simply irresistible to an actor’s ego to seduce himself.

McBride, not one of my favorite actors to date, delivers his best performance ever and shows some real screen charisma that I hadn’t seen in him before but now that I think about it, I think he always had but just hadn’t found the right cinematic vehicle for it. I hope this leads to some new sorts of roles for McBride in the near future.

Scott, now pushing 80, still can direct an action sequence like few others in cinematic history. There’s a battle between Daniels and a xenomorph on a loader ship that really ranks up there among the best in the franchise history and certainly one of the best this year. Waterston is not really known as an action actress but she definitely channels Sigourney Weaver in that sequence and others throughout the film.

Some of the CGI looked unfinished as if the effects houses ran out of time before the deadline and the producers just plugged in what they had. That was a little distressing particularly since Scott has shown comfort with CGI going back to Gladiator and used it well in Prometheus and The Martian as well.

My main issue here is the script. It’s a bit convoluted and at times long-winded. There are also way too many characters here, most of which exist to get picked off by the alien. That gives the movie a bit of a slasher mentality despite the trappings of a fairly intellectual science fiction epic. They may as well have named all of the characters save Fassbender and Waterston “Lieutenant Deadmeat” although I will say not all of them meet a grisly end at the hand of the creature.

Scott has hinted that there will be another prequel (and possibly two) that will tie directly to the first film. At one time that would be exciting news but frankly the franchise feels a little tired here. It could be that the director has wisely figured out that the xenomorph has essentially run its course (his original idea was to steer the series off in a different direction but the studio wouldn’t allow it) but it also could be that Scott needs to pass the torch to someone who could revitalize the series much like James Cameron did with Aliens. I certainly wouldn’t object.

REASONS TO GO: The loader fight sequence is spectacular and the action sequences are well-done overall. Fassbender delivers a fine dual performance and McBride is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is convoluted and overpopulated with unnecessary characters. Some of the CGI wasn’t up to the standards of the other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and gore, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Alien film to be released after the death of H.R. Giger who designed the original alien xenomorph.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien3
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan Lucky

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception