Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver

American Murder: The Family Next Door


The smiling faces of the brutally murdered.

(2020) True Crime Documentary (NetflixShanann Watts, Chris Watts, Sandi Rzucek, Frank Rzucek, Celeste Watts, Bella Watts, Mark Jamieson, Ronnie Watts, Cindy Watts, Frankie Rzucek, Nickole Atkinson, Nichol Kessinger, Michael Rourke, Luke Epple, Jim Benemann, Marcelo Kopcow, Tom Mustin, Theresa Marchetta, Karen Leigh. Directed by Jenny Popplewell

 

The Watts family of Frederick, Colorado seemed to be as normal as they come. Chris Watts worked for an oil company; his wife Shanann – 15 weeks pregnant – worked for a marketing company. She had arrived home from a business trip early at nearly 2am on August 13, 2018, dropped off by her friend and colleague Nickole Atkinson. Later that day, when Shanann missed an OB-GYN appointment and after Nickole texted her friend without getting a response, Atkinson called Chris to let her know she was worried about Shanann.

At the Watts residence, it turned out that Shanann and both of their daughters – four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste – were all missing. The police were called. Chris addressed the media and pleaded for the safe return of his family, but as the investigation continued, the picture of a perfect family began to unravel and it turns out that the couple was having intimacy issues, despite the fact that Shanann was pregnant.

Eventually, the truth came out and it would send shock waves throughout the community that the family lived in, but also through the families of both Chris and Shanann. Those who have any sort of interest in true crime can guess where the investigation led.

British filmmaker Popplewell takes a unique spin on the events of a case that was fairly well-known at the tail end of 2018 (he would be convicted in November of that year, a mere four months after the crimes were committed which is lightning fast by judicial standards). Rather than using tried-and-true true crime tropes like dramatic recreations, talking-head interviews with the family and friends of those involved as well as the investigators, and expert testimony, she tells the story entirely through social media posts by the victim, text messages from the victim to her husband and to Atkinson, and police surveillance footage of both the polygraph, the confession as well as body-cam footage of the initial response to the victim’s home.

I give Popplewell full marks on this unique spin on the true crime documentary. You won’t see another film quite like it, and you get a bit of a sense of who the victim was as well as her husband. This serves to give the story an immediacy that sometimes lacks from other true crime documentaries, but it also lacks the emotional impact. We see things from a distance; for the most part, the family was depicted as happy and normal but when the computer was turned off, reality was a different story. For those who routinely watch true crime shows like Dateline: NBC and 48 Hours, this will feel familiar; it will also feel like you know what happened even before the police get their confession, even if you aren’t familiar with the details of the case as Da Queen was not, yet she accurately predicted who the killer would be, basically from the moment that they were reported missing.

Fredrick is the kind of suburban neighborhood that is movie-perfect; manicured lawns and beautiful homes, kids playing in the streets, everybody knows everybody else. Spielberg couldn’t have painted a more comforting picture, but yet a brutal crime took place here nevertheless which should give the viewer pause. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique presentation of a true crime documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really very surprising for even casual followers of true crime.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime was also depicted in a 20/20 episode as well as on episodes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. The murder was also the subject of Lifetime movie Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer which the family of Shanann Watts was not consulted about and spoke out against
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any number of shows on the Discovery ID channel.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Herb Alpert Is…

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

The Racer


The grim determination of an athlete contemplating his final race.

(2020) Sports Drama (GravitasLouis Talpe, Matteo Simoni, Tara Lee, Iain Glen, Karel Roden, Timo Wagner, Diogo Cid, Ward Kerremans, Paul Robert, Anthony Mairs, Ozan Saygi, Sebaastian Collet, Charles Sobry, Clarissa Vermaark, Molly McCann, Lalor Roddy, Reamonn O’Byrne, Breffni Holahan, Denis Joussein, Marco Lorenzini, Colin Slattery, Sarah Carroll. Directed by Kieron J. Walsh

 

Even those who aren’t cycling fans are aware that the Tour de France is the most famous race in the sport, the pinnacle of achievement. However, those who aren’t cycling fans may well know of the scandal that struck the sport in 1998 when whole teams and some of the biggest stars of the sport were discovered to be doping with performance-enhancing drugs.

The 1998 race was further unusual that the prologue stages took place in Ireland rather than in France (the World Cup was being held in France at the time and the organizers of the Race wanted to eliminate any overlap). Team Austrange is a leading contender to win the event, as is their lead cyclist, Lupo “Tartare” Marino (Simoni). The ice-cold coach “Viking” (Roden) has at his disposal a team that includes the veteran domestique – support rider meant to set the pace and allow the lead cyclist to utilize his draft in order to minimize effort, before making a sprint for the finish – Dominique Chabol (Talpe). Chabol, however, is getting on in years – he’s 39 – and even though he has given years of his life to the team, Viking is eager to put a younger rider into the position.

However, when that rider is disqualified for failing a blood test, the team reinstates Chabol who is beginning to question his loyalty. He is close to the trainer, ex-rider Sonny McElhone (Glen) and is developing a romantic relationship with the Irish team doctor (Lee), while seeing to the needs of the high-strung Tartare and trying to avoid letting the authorities that nearly the entire team is doping. His rivalry with Stefanio Drago (Wagner) which erupted in bad blood the previous year is also rearing its ugly head.

This is essentially a competently made sports drama, and when it sticks to that, the film works very well indeed. Unfortunately, it tries to take on too many plot elements and, in the end, feels as much of a soap opera as a sports drama. The race sequences are exciting and Talpe does a great job of portraying an athlete nearing the end of his career. He looks natural on a bike, and one has to assume he’s done his share of riding.

I’m not sure how much interest the film will generate in the United States; cycling isn’t a very big deal here, particularly since Lance Armstrong essentially tarnished the sport for most casual followers. However, European readers and North American readers into cycling will probably get into this big time. There really isn’t anything overtly wrong with the film other than the extraneous elements of the romance with the Irish doctor, and some predictable plot points – a health issue with a key character, a young teammate who objects to the team doping culture, and so on  There is also nothing particularly outstanding about the movie, other than the cycling sequences and they are key to whether you are going to enjoy the movie or not. If sports dramas are your thing, you might get into this even if you’re not necessarily a cycling fan. If you aren’t into sports dramas, there’s probably nothing here that will capture your interest. Choose accordingly.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-paced and well-photographed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Non-cycling fans may get a little bit lost.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which the peloton crashes was not staged or rehearsed; it’s an actual accident, and Timo Wagner, the actor who played Drago, spent the night in the hospital.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Call to Spy

We Are Many


Proof that politicians can ignore even the loudest voices of the people.

(2014) Documentary (Area 23aRichard Branson, Hans Blix, Susan Sarandon, John Le Carré, Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, Ken Loach, Danny Glover, Tom Hayden, Brian Eno, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Jesse Jackson, Robert Greenwald, Jeremy Corbyn, Gen. Lawrence Wilkerson, Tariq Ali, Philippe Sands, John Rees, Lord Charles, Victoria Branson, Rafaella Bonini. Directed by Amir Amirani

 

“The power of the people” rests in the will of the people to act in concert. When people unite, they can accomplish great things. That is, at least, the story we’ve been told, but what if I told you that somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide gathered on the same day around the world to protest a war – and the war happened anyway?

After 9-11, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan because reliable intelligence had the leadership of Al-Qaeda holed up in the caves of that country. The military might of the United States and its allies quickly overwhelmed the Taliban government of Afghanistan. After the collective trauma, grief and rage of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, it didn’t feel like enough. The Bush Administration turned its eyes to Iraq, the country that the president’s father had invaded nearly twenty years before. Aided and abetted by the Tony Blair government in the UK, the word went out that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would launch at the West.

We know now that those weapons of mass destruction never existed, r if they did, they didn’t exist anymore. Blair, Bush and their governments knowingly and willfully lied to their citizens in order to popularize a war that they couldn’t legally justify. Most of the people of both countries bought the lies hook, line and sinker, myself included. Not everybody did, though.

Some felt that the war was an unjust one; that the real motivation for the war was to enrich the profits of the oil companies. “No blood for oil,” was the popular chant. Protests were organized in Europe and then, although social media was in its infancy, the Internet was used to plan and co-ordinate massive rallies across the globe. While the movement began in Europe, it quickly spread to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But as we all know, all the outpouring of dissent went for naught. A month later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. and many of its allies remain there to this day, 17 years later. Thousands of coalition soldiers never came home. The number of Iraqi dead may be as much as more 1,500,000. There is a little bit of a post-mortem, but other than one semi-tenuous link to much more successful protests later (more on that below), we really don’t get a sense of what the march actually accomplished, and its lasting legacy, if any.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is detailed information on how the massive march was coordinated. You get the feeling it was just kind of a grass roots seat-of-the-pants operation that just sprouted up independent of one another in various cities, countries – and Antarctica (that’s right). We get more information about the political goings-on leading up to that time – most of which is easily available elsewhere – and not nearly enough inside information on how difficult it was to coordinate the marches, the logistical issues they ran into, that sort of thing. We do get a lot of celebrity talking heads, talking about their involvement with the march. The only one I found truly compelling was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson who expresses regret now about the events that brought the United States into Iraq.

The movie was actually filmed in 2013, ten years after the protest, so there is a bit of perspective here. The film has been given a virtual theatrical release, six years after its original theatrical release in 2014. For whatever reason, it never got a North American release back then, so now that we’re dealing with massive protests around the country, a pandemic and the most contentious Presidential election since the Civil War, I guess they figured the time was right.

You also have to take into account that at the end of the day, the war happened anyway, but the filmmakers don’t really address that in any detail. They do point out a tentative connection between the protest and the Arab Spring that took place seven years later, and they may not be wrong; certainly the organizers of those protests used the march as inspiration, but how much is subject to interpretation.

It is important that we remember the march because it was an important moment in which the world came together with one voice for possibly the first time – and were ignored by their leaders. It is a sobering thought that if peaceful protests that massive in nature may no longer influence the powers that be. One wonders how far the people will have to go to get their point across now.

REASONS TO SEE: Very timely given the current climate of protest around the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Explains why the protests were made but doesn’t really get into how this massive event was organized.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and depictions of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The protest still remains the largest worldwide gathering of people; it took place on February 15, 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Draupadi Unleashed

The Artist’s Wife


Bruce Dern at work on another masterpiece.

(2019) Drama (StrandLena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stefanie Powers, Tonya Pinkins, Catherine Curtin, Lukas Hassel, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Elise Santora, Clare Louise Frost, Meadow Tien Nguy, Josh Mowery, Robert Myers, Gabriel Millman, Laura Chaneski, Peter Albrink, Alexandre Bagot, Gerardo Rodriguez, Dan Truman, Lyssa Mandel. Directed by Tom Dolby

 

Our country is aging, and as we do, we become more concerned with the problems of age – dementia being one of them. Most of us have known someone affected by it, either directly, or suffering because of a loved one affected by it. Hollywood finds this a particularly fertile ground for dramas, particularly of the Oscar-bait sort.

Richard Smythson (Dern) is one of the country’s pre-eminent artists, a man whose paintings routinely fetch six figures and whose name on the faculty alone can grant legitimacy to a college or university, but as lions go, he is feeling the chill of an oncoming winter. He is forgetful, and inspiration has fled, even as he prepares to what might very well be his final gallery show.

His second wife Claire (Olin) tries to keep things together, dealing with all the irritating issues of life which frees Richard to concentrate on his painting; as he says during an interview, “I create the art – Claire takes care of everything else.” The thing is, he means it as a compliment although most modern women probably would raise an eyebrow at that.

Claire is fully aware that her husband’s memory and talent are slipping away. She decides that she should reunite him with his daughter Angela (Rylance) and his grandson Diego (Cabot-Conyers) whom neither of them has met. In fact, Claire was ignorant of Angela’s sexual preference not to mention that her partner had recently left her for someone else.

And Angela is not just estranged from her dad, she’s really estranged from her dad. She wants nothing to do with him, no matter how long he may have left. Her life isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t need further drama that her often-cantankerous father sometimes creates. She reluctantly gets to know the persistent Claire a little better, and eventually agrees to come to their modernist house in the middle of nowhere for Christmas. But Richard being who he is, it becomes the most awkward Christmas celebration ever.

But as Richard is slowly disappearing, Claire – who was an artist herself before giving it up to be with Richard – is beginning to rediscover herself and in that rediscovery, just might find a way through the encroaching night which is falling on Richard and their life together.

The entire movie takes place in winter and cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker nicely utilizes snowy, white landscapes to great effect, reminding us that Richard is in the winter of his life. Dern, who has made a cottage industry of playing irascible old men of late, is never better, playing Richard with equal parts egotism, rage and eye-twinkling charm. Dolby doesn’t shy away from allowing Dern and Olin express the couple’s sexuality on the screen, something which Hollywood has a tendency to shy away from (except as a punch line).

But despite having Oscar nominee Dern front and center, this is not about Richard – the movie is called The Artist’s Wife, after all, not The Artist – but about Claire and Olin, a Swedish actress who has been almost criminally underrated for the most part, generates a performance that has to be one of the best of her career.

There is a consistency problem here; some of the situations feel very unlike how you’d expect the characters to react, which is puzzling because Dolby – one of the co-writers of the film – doesn’t turn away from his character’s foibles and issues. They are all fully human, but when Angela relents and brings her son and their calming babysitter Danny (Jogia) to visit, it feels forced, as if the script required a confrontation and this was the most expedient way to create one. The ending of the movie isn’t exactly what I expected, and in some ways felt like a cop-out, but it does remind us that love sometimes is about doing the hardest thing, and occasionally, the most unlikely.

There are moments that are maudlin, but Dolby largely avoids those sorts of opportunities; his own father passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s in 2013 and certainly that experience likely played a role in the script-writing here. Those who have loved ones going through the process of memory and personality change may find this a painful watch, but those looking for some strong acting performances and a drama that doesn’t necessarily take the easiest road to the finish might well look into this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Dern is reliably captivating and Olin gives one of the best performances of her career. A portrait of love that transcends standard boundaries.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Olin initially went to university to study medicine and briefly worked as a nurse before moving into acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wife
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are Many

LX 2048


Driving with the top down in a hazmat suit – how very 2020!

(2020) Science Fiction (QuiverJames D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Juliet Aubrey, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Linc Hand, Ronin Zaki Moshe, Majus Motiejus Prokopas. Directed by Guy Moshe

 

You can tell the state of a society by how it perceives the way the world will end. Our society, chronically depressed and stressed, turns out apocalyptic movies that have no explosions, no meteors, no heroic astronauts…just a world where everyone plays on a virtual Realm waiting for things to come to a close.

Adam Bird (D’Arcy) sees the end coming sooner. He works for a virtual reality hardware firm that supplies the hardware necessary to enter The Realm, the virtual reality utopia that everyone is plugged into. He can see the company’s future and it is grim – the hardware will soon be rendered obsolete by an implanted chip that will do the same thing faster, more efficiently, and less expensively. Adam is a voice crying in the wilderness – quite literally. He’s the only one to actually go into the office. Most people work from home and attend meetings via The Realm (sound familiar?)

But that isn’t even the worst news in Adam’s day. His doctor (McKee) has informed him that his heart is failing, and soon. But no worries – he has three kids and because he and his wife Reena (Brewster) bothered to procreate (most people don’t) he is eligible for Premium 3 insurance, which in the event of the death of either him or his spouse provides for a clone replacement, with all their memories intact. The two spouses even get to tweak their genetically enhanced replacement mates with characteristics that are more in tune with what they want – more attentive, sexier, less annoying and so on.

It’s a pretty bleak world – one of the reasons nobody goes out to work is because sunlight has become toxic, likely due to the erosion of the ozone. The population copes by taking state-mandated tranquilizers – LithiumX – which numbs them to the fact that life has become an absolute cluster muck. And Adam being something of a rebel, refuses to take his medication. So when Reena catches him having a go at a virtual sex doll, she blows a gasket and tosses him out on his tush. But with the company in danger of failing, Adam knows he has to figure out a way to keep it afloat long enough for the insurance to cash in and support his estranged wife and children.

There’s an awful lot of concepts thrown into the mix here, and one has to give the filmmakers credit for trying to tackle them all. There’s an intelligence to the movie that is more often than not missing from science fiction movies, and that’s refreshing. That doesn’t mean the movie is always successful in what it’s trying to do.

D’Arcy actually does a pretty bang-up job as Adam, and the movie totally rests on his shoulders so that’s a good thing. Often, he is having conversations with people who are online; we aren’t invited to The Realm so mostly what we see is Adam shouting in an empty conference room. It is a bit disconcerting, but I suspect that given the situation we’ve all been in the past several months we all feel a little bit like that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The problem here is that Adam is not really a pleasant guy. There’s a reason everyone’s on Lithium; it’s just too much for the psyche to handle, and Adam with everything going on – his marriage failing, his health failing, his business failing, the world failing – is losing it and not just a little bit. He’s desperately trying to have a conversation with Reena trying to express his fears but she isn’t having it, and so his attempts to reach out degenerate into shouting matches and vicious put-downs. “I can’t believe I ever loved you,” he cries out during one such exchange.

The movie tries to take a sharp left turn late in the movie but this is ill-advised. There really is enough going on to keep the discussion group going for ages without throwing in a final twist. The last 20 minutes virtually (no pun intended) undoes all the goodwill that the first eighty minutes generated. That’s a shame because despite being a low-budget affair, the production design is pretty aces – it looks like it has a budget probably 10 to 20 times what it actually had, and the ideas that it’s grappling with are very relevant right now, with climate change, online addiction, drug addiction, the deterioration of relationships in an increasingly plugged-in world and the ethics of medical technology exceeding our maturity to handle them.

I almost forgot to mention Delroy Lindo who has a small but crucial role as a reclusive scientist, and all I can say is that even his less visible roles are intriguing. Delroy Lindo is undeniably a cool mofo, and we are reminded of that every time he pops up onscreen.

In any case, this is a movie with lofty aspirations that occasionally achieves them, but ultimately shoots itself in the foot when it tries to insert a twist that wasn’t really needed. Fans of thoughtful science fiction will find much to chew on here. Those who prefer their movies a little bit less crammed with ideas might find it indigestible.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of great ideas – almost too many.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characters are all so contemptible it’s hard to root for any of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D’Arcy is best known for his work in the MCU playing the human Jarvis in the Agent Carter miniseries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gattaca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Artist’s Wife

The Glorias


Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug make plans.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Mo Brings Plenty, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Kimberly Guerrero, Myles Evans, David Shaé, Victor Slezak, Enid Graham, Allie McCulloch, Tom Nowicki, Annika Pampel, Monica Sanchez, Gloria Steinem. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

Like many who have attempted to bring change to our culture, Gloria Steinem is a deeply polarizing figure. To some, she’s a heroine of the feminist movement, standing up to men and speaking truth to power regarding the patriarchy. To others, she was a conniving hypocrite who got attention because of her looks and had no compunction about using them to her advantage. Nobody can disagree that she made a definite impact on late 20th century culture which continues to reverberate now.

]Filmmaker Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) has never shied away from using unconventional means of storytelling, regularly diving into scenes of fantasy to describe what’s going on in the head of a character. Here, she utilizes four different actresses to play Steinem at various points in her life – Armstrong as a young girl, Wilson as an adolescent, Vikander as a young woman, and Moore as a middle-aged feminist leader. Actually, you might say there are five actresses playing her; Steinem herself shows up re-creating her stirring speech at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

The film hits most of the highlights of Steinem’s 80 plus years of life, from her relationship with her travelling salesman father (Hutton) who instilled in her a love of travel (being on the road is a theme utilized throughout the film), her mother’s gradual descent into depression and mental illness; her attempts to break through the boy’s club of New York City journalism (and succeeding by going undercover as a Playboy bunny), her early years as one of the most visible faces of the feminist movement, the founding of Ms. Magazine, and her relationships with various activists and political figures of the era, including Bella Abzug (Midler), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Monae), the outrageous and over-the-top Flo Kennedy (a memorable Lorraine Toussaint), UFW activist Dolores Huerta (Sanchez) and Wilma Mankiller (Guerrero), the first woman to be voted prime elder of the Cherokee tribe.

The film is extraordinarily well-acted, with kudos going particularly to Vikander, who reminds us once again that she is one of the best young actresses working today. There are some emotionally charged scenes – one in which Steinem says goodbye to a dying Mankiller, or the inspiring National Women’s Congress of 1977 which moved to get the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort that ultimately didn’t succeed after conservatives banded together to denounce the ERA as a weapon for the left to destroy the family unit. Sound familiar?

The movie jumps around from time period to time period, and while it isn’t too difficult to follow, the framing device of Steinem riding a Greyhound bus – often with other versions of Steinem on the same bus, sometimes interacting together – is inventive but overused, ultimately distracting the viewer from the flow of Steinem’s story.

I suppose it’s fitting for her biopic to be unconventional, because in life Gloria Steinem has been anything but conventional. It is also fitting that the movie comes out as the nation mourns the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg whose legal career made brought women’s equality closer to realization and whose passing may threaten the gains made in that regard.

The fantasy sequences may or may not be your cup of tea – I thought that Taymor should have been more judicious in their use, but you may disagree. In some ways, they are illuminating but in others they feel kind of more about the director than about the movie she’s making. I won’t attempt to place a stamp of yea or nay on those feelings; I leave that up to you, gentle reader because in the final tally it is really your call. I can only say that I found them to be overused; my wife, Da Queen, disagrees. So do other critics. That’s the kind of thing I love about movies like this – there is no right answer. Love it or hate it, you absolutely won’t forget it.

The film is curently playing in limited release around the country. It will be availble to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Wednesday, September 30th.

REASONS TO SEE: Vikander gives a whale of a performance. The NWC segment is inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: The fantasy sequences are overused and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore, Hutton and Vikander have all won Oscars; Midler was nominated for one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
LX 2048

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles


Let them eat cake.

(2020) Documentary (IFCYoram Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong, Sam Bompas, Ghaya Oliveira, Deborah Krohn, Dominique Ansel, Limar Tomer, Sruly Lazarus, Sami Tamimi. Directed by Laura Gabbert

 

It is somewhat apocryphal that Marie Antoinette, when informed that the people of Paris could not afford to buy bread, retorted “then let them eat cake.” It turns out she never actually said that, but it seemed to encapsulate the attitude the French nobility had at the time for the multitude of Parisians and French citizens elsewhere in France who were literally starving while they ate fabulous banquets in a palace noted for its ostentatious decadence.

When the Metropolitan Museum of New York brought artifacts from the French palace for an exhibition called “Visitors to Versailles” in 2018, they decided to publicize the exhibition, as they often do, with a preview dinner. They contacted world-renowned pastry chef and cookbook author Yoram Ottolenghi to create a menu of delicacies that would be fit for the table of the Sun King.

In true “go big or go home” fashion, he recruited some of the world’s most distinguished pâtissiers to create an experience not seen in all likelihood since Versailles saw its last royal resident; French-American Dominique Ansel, inventor of the Cronut, who determined to reinterpret pastries that might have been served at the French court;  Janice Wong from Singapore, known for her “edible art,” who decided to make an edible recreation of the gardens at Versailles; the British team of Bompas and Parr, known for the decadent gelatin deserts that move almost of their own accord; Tunisian chocolatier Ghaya Oliveira of New York’s exclusive Restaurant Daniel, and Ukrainian cake maker Dinara Kasko, who uses her training as an architect to print 3D molds that create cakes that are architectural wonders.

The deserts these masters make are truly spectacular and are likely to make even the most jaded foodie go ooh and ahh with wonder. Oddly enough, Ottolenghi serves as a curator and creates nothing of his own for the event, although curiously we see him sampling potential deserts for his London eatery at one time. As food porn goes, this is pretty exquisite stuff. I wish that Gabbert spent more time showing us how these deserts were crafted; as for Bompas and Parr (we never hear from poor Parr nor is he identified except in passing) we see their deserts but don’t have a clue how they are made. I get that this wasn’t meant to be a cooking show, but some background would have been nice.

But there is an odd undercurrent here. Gabbert spends a good deal of the surprisingly short run time of 75 minutes talking about the history of Versailles and what it meant in terms of class divisions, but there doesn’t seem to be much irony in these world class pastry makers creating exquisite treats for a clientele of wealthy New York museum patrons in an era where the income equality issue is quite possibly the worst it has ever been in American history, and in a year where the pandemic has caused an economic downturn that is just inches away from being a second Depression. You end up tasting the irony rather than the deserts, which in all honesty set the mouth to watering, but as is the case with most upscale events, leave us on the outside looking in.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the creations here are amazing. A wonderful treat for foodies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the tone-deaf side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ottolenghi was raised in Jerusalem and is Jewish; Tamimi, his business partner, is Palestinian.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Night
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Glorias

The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles