Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

The Nice Guys


An outtake from The Shining?

An outtake from The Shining?

(2016) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Jack Kilmer, Lance Valentine Butler, Ty Simpkins, Cayla Brady, Tammi Arender, Rebecca Dalton Rusk, Terence Rosemore, John L. Morris, Michelle Rivera, Nathaniel “Nate” Scott. Directed by Shane Black

 

1977 in Los Angeles was an interesting place. It was the golden age of porn; bell bottoms and flower shirts were the fashion, and guys with too-long locks and elaborate facial hair were on the prowl for chicks with teased hair. Smog choked everything and in the post-Watergate atmosphere, it felt a lot like innocence had been irrevocably lost. This is where and when I grew up.

Shane Black gets it note-perfect, and while I admit I had very little to do with the porn industry as a teenager (other than as a prospective consumer) this feels like the L.A. I grew up in. This is the kind of town where a sports car might crash from a hilltop road into your background, disgorging a beautiful naked porn star (Telio) whose final words are “How do you like my car?”

This is also the kind of place inhabited by Jackson Healy (Crowe), a Bronx-bred tough guy who is the kind of guy you call when you want someone hurt, but not killed. He’s also a bit of a knight in not-so-shining and dented all to hell armor, hired by a young woman named Amanda (Qualley) to discourage a guy who’s been stalking her.

That guy happens to be Holland March (Gosling) whom Healy appropriately sends to the hospital with a spiral fracture of his arm. But as it turns out, he’s been hired to find Amanda – he’s a private detective, albeit one who drinks far too much and isn’t nearly as bright as he thinks he is. After their encounter, Healy is visited by a pair of mobsters (Knapp, David) who are trying to intimidate him about the whereabouts of Amanda. March gets away from the two of them, leaving one of them with permanent blue dye all over his face.

Realizing that he’s stepped into something that doesn’t smell so good, he enlists the guy he sent to the hospital – March – to find out what’s going on and locate Amanda, who’s disappeared off the face of the Earth. At first none too pleased to be teamed up with him, March begins to grudgingly respect his new partner. The two are helped by March’s precocious daughter Holly (Rice) who is a better detective than either of them.

It turns out the case is related to the porn industry, the California Department of Justice whose head honcho (Basinger) turns out to be Amanda’s mother. On the trail is the chief bad guy John Boy (Bomer) who is thus named because he has a similar mole as Richard Thomas of The Waltons. And with avant garde pornographers, vicious hit men, and Vegas mobsters to contend with, these two ne’er-do-wells will have their work cut out for them if they plan to live to see 1978.

Black has always been a terrific writer, going back to his Lethal Weapon days and to an extent, he’s mocking the genre he helped create (the buddy cop movie) with this film, which would come out ten years after this film was set. As I mentioned earlier, he gets the period stuff right on with the fashions, the smog, the soundtrack and even the vibe. This is most definitely the City of Angels I remember.

He also casts his film nicely. Both Gosling and Crowe take to their parts like they were born to them, and the chemistry between the two is what carries the movie and holds it together. Crowe, who carries himself as a big guy, does the tough-with-a-heart-of-gold as well as anybody and while Gosling is often the comic relief, he never stoops to making his character a laughing stock, although March easily could be considering all the poor choices he makes.

Rice should also be given some credit. The movies are filled with precocious kids who are smarter than the adults in the movie, and often these types of characters are annoying as the fluctuating price of gas. However, Rice makes the character credible enough and vulnerable enough to avoid that pitfall, although again I do wish the adults here didn’t have to be quite so dumb.

The action sequences are decently staged as are the comedy bits, although I think most of the best comedy moments can be found in the trailer which is a bummer. At times, it feels like it is one irritable police captain away from a TV cop show from that era – Starsky and Hutch much?  There is also a little bit of a reach in the plot department in terms of the conspiracy going on in high places, although the movie is well-written overall in terms of plot construction. However, it feels a little bit like a noir film with a funk soundtrack, if you get my drift. Some of it just doesn’t work.

Overall though this is far more entertaining than a lot of stuff out there. It’s smart, it has some decent performances and it captures a place and time better than most. Some might find the immersion in the porn culture a bit distasteful but Black doesn’t stick it in your face overly much. Well, maybe not to me. While I have friends who dug this a lot more than I did, I can say they’re not wrong in giving this film the kind of love they’ve given it and as far as I’m concerned, Shane Black is the kind of director who always seems to make movies that are worthwhile viewing. Boom shaka laka laka, baby.

REASONS TO GO: Smart dialogue and plot construction. Crowe and Gosling have genuine chemistry.
REASONS TO STAY: Originally started life as a television pilot and has that kind of TV quality to it. A little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence abounds as well as sexuality and nudity with plenty of foul language and a smattering of drug use – all 70s-centric things.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the elevator scene, the same background Muzak plays as in the similarly-set scene in The Blues Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inherent Vice
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Warcraft

Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

documented

Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

The Walk


The ultimate vertigo.

The ultimate vertigo.

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.

Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.

No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.

This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.

Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.

Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).

Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.

Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.

Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.

Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: India’s Daughter