Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

The Archer (2017)


(2017) Action (MarVista) Bailey Noble, Jeanine Mason, Michael Grant Terry, Bill Sage, Dendrie Taylor, Kyanna Simone, Alexis Rosinski, Timothy Granaderos, Kurt Fuller, Grace Victoria Cox, Anastasia Markova, JoAnna Rhambo, Kalista Dwyer, Kathi Anderson, India’yolanda Collins. Directed by Valerie Weiss

As the war on drugs (and the accompanying war on crime) has created more and more convicts, prison systems throughout the country have been overwhelmed. Most states have turned to corporate prisons rather than building new ones. Keeping those prisons filled has become a priority – by any means necessary.

Lauren Pierce (Noble) is a champion archer with Olympic aspirations. Being raised by a single mom (Taylor), she pals around with Nina (Markova) who is her best friend. Lauren doesn’t approve of her douchebag boyfriend (Granaderos) who is abusive but Nina, like a lot of young girls, makes excuses for the transgressions of her boo. Lauren has ulterior motives; she’s attracted towards Nina as well. However, when she’s finally getting somewhere with Nina, big bad boyfriend shows up at the door and begins roughing up Nina when he doesn’t get what he wants. Lauren tries to intervene and the idiot boyfriend tries the same tactics on her. That wasn’t a particularly good idea; Lauren beats the living snot out of him.

However, beating the living snot out of someone can get you arrested and Lauren is sentenced to a youth camp for an indefinite amount of time. There she’s taken under the wing of the warden, Bob Patrice (Sage) who is a bow-hunter himself and is eager to take Lauren’s training to the next level. However, Lauren soon discovers that the good warden isn’t quite so good after all and that the male guards are all out to get themselves a little bit of young tail, particularly Bob’s son Michael (Terry) who with his bowl haircut you just know is going to be a pervert.

Lauren is befriended by Rebecca (Mason), a kind of Goth girl who has a history of trying to escape but has essentially given up. After Michael tries to attack Rebecca and Lauren once again comes to the rescue, the two women realize they have a real shot of making it out of prison – especially since Lauren has discovered her indefinite stay has just been extended. She and Rebecca find their way to the Warden’s residence where they make a discovery that will blow the whole sordid corrupt situation with the camp completely out of the water – if they can avoid the bullets of the deputies and the arrows of the warden, that is.

If this sounds like a women’s prison movie from the 70s, that’s because it essentially is. Oh, there’s a veneer of social injustice ripped from the headlines (more on that later) but trust me, this is all B-movie exploitation. Why else would you have two beautiful young women, on the run from nutcases and in a situation where time is of the essence, decide to take a long steamy shower – together? I do like Weiss’ instincts when it comes to empowering Lauren but showing Lauren’s hormones taking a superior position to her intellect doesn’t help the cause. Then again, I wonder if I would say the same thing if a male hero stopped to have a sex scene during a pursuit. I would like to hope I would.

Noble does a good job In an action role and I could see her getting more of those sorts of roles in the future. The cast is largely unknown and they at least nobody disgraces themselves; for the most part the performances here are satisfactory or better. They could have used some dialogue that didn’t make them sound like they were being paid by Roger Corman.

I will say that every single male in this picture is either corrupt, perverted, evil or all three. There isn’t a single male role that has a redeeming quality. Given the heavy lesbian overtones of the film (most of the women in the movie are either lesbians or victims) some conservative sorts might connect the dots which again doesn’t do the message that the movie is trying to send any favors. Not all men are evil and not all women are victims. One can be a good person without finding the same sex attractive or having testicles.

There is some beautiful cinematography here and that’s to be commended, but the movie falls apart when you examine the plot too closely. For example, there is an African-American character who appears to have some importance early on in the film but just disappears completely as Lauren makes friends with Rebecca. For another, as the girls are fleeing, they have the opportunity to take a truck and make it to civilization much faster; instead they choose to go on foot. We know they both are able to drive and they’re both intelligent; the only reason they go on foot is so that the pursuit can be more personal. It’s a situation where the plot ditches logic to serve an agenda which in this case is to finish with a face-to-face confrontation. There are a lot of ways that could have occurred without sacrificing common sense.

At times this felt like a Lifetime Movie and not in a good way. While there have been some pretty good Lifetime Movies, for the most part they’ve been cheap parbroilers that appeal to the visceral (much like SyFy original movies in that sense). The issue that the film is dealing with is a real one and an important one, but by coating it in a B-movie exploitation batter and deep frying the lot the message gets lost in all the grease. I suspect that Weiss has more to offer than this kind of stuff. I’m not above enjoying a good exploitation film from time to time – not every movie has to stimulate the cortex but it’s hard to take seriously a movie that wants to be a message movie at the same time taking up the flag for exploitation. You have to choose a side.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful vistas of the mountains of Southern California. Kind of a women’s prison movie with an indie lesbian bent.
REASONS TO STAY: Also a bit of a Lifetime Movie to be honest. Way too many plot holes to overlook.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of scenes of sexuality as well as some disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was inspired by actual events in Pennsylvania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caged Heat
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke

The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

The Girl on the Train (2016)


Emily Blunt realizes she's on the express train to Hell.

Emily Blunt realizes she’s on the express train to Hell.

(2016) Thriller (DreamWorks/Universal) Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Lana Young, Gregory Motley, Mac Tavares, John Norris, Peter Mayer-Klepchick, Darren Goldstein, Nathan Shapiro, Cleta E. Ellington, Tamiel Paynes, Fernando Medina, Rachel Christopher. Directed by Tate Taylor

 

Perception is a tricky thing. Memory is unreliable; we may think we see something but did we really? Was it something that our minds embellished, either because of altered perception or our own prejudices? Was it something important? Ask ten people about something they saw fleetingly from a moving vehicle and you’ll get ten different answers as to what they saw.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the Long Island Railroad train from the Island into the City twice a day. She’s been through a lot lately; a divorce following the revelation that her husband Tom (Theroux) had been cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Ferguson) – and had worse still married Anna and had a beautiful baby daughter with her, after efforts for Rachel to get pregnant had turned out fruitless. She already had a problem with alcohol when they were married; now that problem has become full-blown alcoholism.

From the train she sees a house not far from the one she used to live in and where Tom still lives with her new wife. In the house live a beautiful blonde and her husband, the perfect couple to Rachel’s mind, who have everything she ever wanted but cannot have. It comforts her somehow that this perfect union exists. Then one morning she sees the wife in the arms of another man and this sends her into a tailspin. She gets blackout drunk and ends up in a field not far from her old house and the one that the not-quite-perfect couple live in.

Then comes the news that the woman is missing; her name is Megan Hipwell (Bennett) and husband Scott (Evans) is frantic. As Rachel was spotted in the area, she is questioned by Detective Riley (Janney) about the situation. Rachel tells the Detective what she knows but Rachel isn’t exactly the most reliable witness.

Consumed by the case, Rachel sets out to find out who the mysterious man was and to find out what happened to Megan. Slowly, as she stumbles drunkenly from one clue to another, she begins to get closer to the truth about what happened to Megan – and discovers to her shock that the answer is closer to her than she could ever know.

This is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins and is quite frankly a hot mess. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has a history of deftly weaving multiple tales of different women together into cohesive films but that doesn’t happen here. The focus is largely on Rachel but Megan and Anna are both heavily in the mix and we do get their points of view as well.

Blunt has gotten some strong praise for her performance as Rachel, even critics calling for Oscar attention but I don’t see it. Frankly, this is one of her weaker performances that I can remember. She is unconvincing when asked to do scenes of drunkenness; quite frankly I’ve spent a lot of time among the inebriated and this is more of a caricature than anything else. Blunt tends to be more successful here when we get glimpses of her underlying torment. Rachel is definitely not a happy woman and when Blunt gets to let glimpses of that out, the performance works.

She isn’t helped much by the other cast members. Their performances are mainly unmemorable, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. They are given preposterous dialogue to say and characters who have little or no development to work with. It’s like the filmmakers decided to do something Hitchcock-esque (which this is) but instead of writing actual characters they used stereotypes from other films to fill in the blanks. While Rachel’s alcoholism is a nifty idea, it’s used more as a gimmick than as a real interesting plot point.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m told it’s very well-written by people whose judgment I trust on such matters. I can’t believe though that the story is identical; it’s too pat, too been there-done that. The twists are telegraphed and let’s face it, if you can’t tell who the criminal is in the first twenty minutes you’ve been asleep.

Bailey as Megan shows some promise (she’s also in the much better Magnificent Seven remake) doing her best Margot Robbie impression and ironically enough Robbie was originally considered for the role. Ramirez incomprehensibly has a Spanish accent for a character who’s supposed to be Arabic and Janney is unbelievable as a tough Detective Sergeant. I mean, think about it; these are all competent actors who are known for their consistently strong performances. Why are they all doing subpar work here all at the same time? One can only blame the filmmakers. The only actor who really makes an impression is Lisa Kudrow in a brief but important role who gets to utter the immortal line “Rachel! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” which may or may not be a conscious reference to Friends.

I’ve read some decent reviews for this thing and can’t for the life of me which movie those critics saw. Most of the reviews have been, like this one, on the negative side. The houses don’t look lived in, the lives don’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie in which Barbie and Ken dolls are used as surrogates. Blunt shows flashes of her normal brilliance but that is tempered with her portrayal of drunkenness as more of a lampoon than anything remotely approaching realism and that is symbolic of the movie’s issues as a whole; at the end of the day, this feels empty and without a connection to anything like real life. Why spend money on a movie that feels divorced from reality when you can watch a presidential debate for free?

REASONS TO GO: The alcoholism makes for an interesting plot point.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot twists and the whodunit are incredibly predictable. The acting is surprisingly blah.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexual content, profanity and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Taylor has made that hasn’t had Octavia Spencer in it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vertigo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Handmaiden

Bully


Bully

Being a victim of bullying is a lonely occupation, as Alex Libby knows.

(2012) Documentary (Weinstein) Kirk Smalley, David Long, Tina Long, Alex Libby, Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Bob Johnson, Phillip Libby, Maya Libby, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace, Kim Lockwood, Londa Johnson, Teryn Long, Troy Long. Directed by Lee Hirsch

 

There is no doubt that bullying is an epidemic problem around the United States; it has replaced parental abuse as the most common source of violence most kids will experience.

This documentary looks into the effects of bullying on five different families. Alex Libby is a sweet natured 12-year-old kid who enters East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa with a mixture of fear and resignation. He has difficulty making friends and is tormented with verbal and physical abuse from bullies who take delight in disparaging his looks, calling him rude names.

Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old in Tuttle, Oklahoma who was a star athlete and whose parents were active in their local church. When Kelby comes out as a lesbian, she is ostracized, tormented and run over with a mini-van. Her parents find that their conservative Christian friends will no longer speak to them. Her dad offers to move to a larger city to escape the abuse but Kelby, showing great resolve, refuses. She has a support system of a loving family and loyal friends to back her up.

Ja’Meya Jackson has some of that as well but it’s difficult to get a lot of support in the juvenile lock-up facility in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The 14-year-old had been bullied so thoroughly and was so angry and afraid that she took her mother’s handgun on board the school bus in a misguided effort to get the bullies to stop.

David and Tina Long are loving parents. Their sons Teryn and Troy are pretty well adjusted but there is a great deal of sadness in their household. Their eldest son, Tyler Long committed suicide at the age of 17 years old, found by his father hanging in his closet after years of unrelenting bullying in their Murray County, Georgia community and little to no help from school officials after numerous complaints. The Longs are determined to make Tyler’s action count for something.

Kirk and Laura Smalley feel the same way. They have just buried their son Ty who at age 11 killed himself after non-stop bullying. Kirk, outwardly a simple man in a rural community, Perkins Oklahoma, is determined to help other kids who went through the pain his son did and put a stop to bullying. He founds an organization, Stand for the Silent, dedicated to providing a voice for children who are being bullied.

All of these stories (and many others like them) are heartbreaking and inspire feelings of compassion. Watching Alex stoically endure the abuse certainly makes the heart ache for him, not to mention bring forth feelings of admiration for a young man who has an enormous reserve of strength (he also has a great smile that lights up a room). His mother is torn apart by feelings of inadequacy, thinking that she is failing as a mother because she’s not protecting her son.

The truth is that the failure isn’t hers. School districts have long treated bullying as a natural product of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” seems to be the most common response, delivered with a shrug and a pair of “what can you do?” outstretched arms.

There are no easy answers and the film provides none. However there doesn’t seem to be much of a message here beyond “bullying is bad” which is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s no attempt at trying to understand what causes kids to bully. I would be willing to bet that there is something going on in their homes that creates such fear that causes the need to take it out on other kids, because bullying is and always has been an outgrowth of fear. Whether it is fear of something different or fear of being bullied themselves, most bullies are reacting to something. Of course, there is always the occasional sociopath who gets their jollies from inflicting pain but by and large bullying is learned behavior. It doesn’t occur without a cause.

I would have also appreciated more diversity in the stories here. Not that Ja’Meya (whose mother shows great compassion and tenacity) and Kelby (who I also admired for her courage in refusing to run from the bullying) didn’t deserve to have their stories told. However, judging from the film bullying is a small town problem, mostly confined to the Bible Belt and more rural communities.

Bullying is in fact a universal epidemic. It exists nearly everywhere that there are kids, from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast to urban schools in big cities to enlightened communities in California. Hirsch should know that; he was a victim of bullying in his youth in Long Island (as I was in mine in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). You don’t get that sense here and I think it does a disservice to its own message because of it.

However despite these flaws the message here is still a powerful one, so much so that I’m willing to ignore some of the film’s missed opportunities in order to call attention to it. This is a movie that should be seen by every student in America, and by most of their parents. This should be a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Bullying can be stopped; it takes the unity of students, parents, teachers and administrators in order to do it. Standing up together makes us stronger; it also protects us from bullies who tend to prey on the weak and the defenseless.

Seeing this makes me regret that in my own school days I didn’t stand up for those who were isolated and alone. I wish in my own school days I had befriended those who needed it. It also bears repeating that bullying isn’t always done just with fists or physicality; it’s also done with words. Joking about sexual orientation, physical appearance or socially awkward behavior might be good for a few cheap laughs but you never know how devastating those words can be in someone’s life. Whether in your workplace, your church, your neighborhood or your school, there are usually people who don’t fit in and who whether consciously or unconsciously get excluded. Adult or child, taking the time to reach out to those who don’t fit in seems to me to be the right thing to do and if this movie gets across that message, then it is as important a film as any you’ll ever see.

REASONS TO GO: Excellently captures the effects of bulling on kids and their families. Heartbreaking at times but a message that needs to be seen by kids and their parents everywhere.

REASONS TO STAY: No interviews with bullies or their families to get any sort of insight as to why kids bully. Fails to get across that this is a universal problem that is prevalent in all social stratums and all over the country.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language, depictions of kid-on-kid violence and some fairly adult conversations about teen suicide.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for bad language which was appealed by the distributor, arguing that would exclude the audience the movie was intended for. When that appeal was denied the rating was surrendered and initially the plan was to release the movie unrated. However after a large outcry the MPAA relented and the filmmakers edited some instances of bad language (although a crucial scene in which a child is bullied on a school bus was left intact) and the film finally received a “PG-13” rating.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The movie can be considered to be critically acclaimed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laramie Inside Out

ELLEN DEGENERES LOVERS: The movie has been championed by the talk show host and was at least partially inspired by an appearance on her show by the mom of Carl Walker Hoover, a young man who endured anti-gay bullying until he was driven to commit suicide at the age of 11 in 2009.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lady

The Lincoln Lawyer


The Lincoln Lawyer

Life is pretty darn good when you're as good-looking as these two are.

(2011) Mystery (Lionsgate) Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Josh Lucas, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Michael Pena, Laurence Mason, Trace Adkins, Margarita Levieva. Directed by Brad Furman

Justice is often depicted as being blind. The reason for that is that things are not always what they appear to be, and people RARELY are who they appear to be. Justice needs to be blind in order to sort through all the deceptions.

Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a defense lawyer who generally represents the guilty; sleazebags and criminals alike. Rather than working out of an office, he operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car, chauffeured by Earl (Mason), a former client paying off his legal bill. It seems that Mick had been driving himself but after a DUI had gotten his license suspended, a driver was needed.

Mick has lots of friends in low places including Eddie Vogel (Adkins), the leader of a bike gang, and bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (Leguizamo), who often throws a case Mick’s way. He’s got one for him now – a big one that might pay a whole lot of bills. Louis Roulet (Phillippe) has been accused of beating the crap out of a prostitute.

Roulet has deep pockets; a wealthy real estate tycoon mom (Fisher) and a high-powered lawyer (Gunton) who hires Mick for the job after an initial interview. Mick puts his investigator Frank Levin (Macy) on the case.

At first it looks like Mick’s ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Tomei), who works in the prosecutor’s office, is going to be assigned the case but when Mick turns up as lawyer, she has to recuse herself and a new prosecutor, Ted Minton (Lucas), is brought aboard.

The deeper Mick digs into the case, the more it appears to have bearing on an earlier case of his, in which he had urged a young man, Jesus Martinez (Pena), to accept a plea bargain to keep him out of the death penalty. And the more he looks, the more he discovers that he may have sent an innocent man into jail.

In the meantime, his current case is turning ugly and now it appears Mick himself is being set up for a murder charge of his own. It will take all of Mick’s cunning and street smarts to get him out of hot water on this one.

I was pleasantly surprised with this movie. McConaughey has been on a bit of a rut lately, with romantic comedies that really didn’t push him much. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a movie in which McConaughey has really shown what he can do – We Are Marshall to be exact. However, this one harkens back to an earlier McConaughey movie, A Time to Kill. In that one, McConaughey played a clever lawyer as well.

There’s no doubt McConaughey oozes charm and while he is more well-known these days for going shirtless (and displaying his admittedly impressive six-pack) than he is for his thespian abilities, that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of a good performance and he delivers one here. Those folks who are fans are going to be in seventh heaven, even though his shirt remains on for the most part.

He also has a pretty impressive cast backing him up. Macy doesn’t have a lot of screen time but makes good use of what he does have. Phillippe is a very solid actor who sinks his teeth into a role that requires him to be unsympathetic, the poor rich kid. Tomei, an actress who always impresses me, does a solid job here. It isn’t one of her career-defining moments but she gets the job done and is as gorgeous as ever doing it. Even country star Trace Adkins delivers in a role which is totally unlike his nice-guy persona developed on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

This is based on a novel by Michael Connelly, and has all the makings of a franchise in terms of quality; unfortunately, the box office has been lukewarm for it although it appears that the movie will recoup its production budget. While at times it reminded me of an episode of “Law and Order,” it is at least competently done in terms of a legal drama, and while breaking no new ground is at least entertaining and diverting. I didn’t have real high hopes for it based on the trailer, but I thought this was a better-than-average film and of most of the stuff that’s out there in the spring, might well be the best quality movie in theaters at present.

REASONS TO GO: Really good cast and McConaughey is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: Not especially groundbreaking; typical legal drama that at times reminds one of “Law & Order” and not in a good way.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, a little bit of sex and a smidgeon of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Frank Levin’s first name in the book was Raul.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “theater!” You can see it at home just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Greenberg

Smash His Camera


Smash His Camera

Ron Galella's Mona Lisa.

(Magnolia) Ron Galella, Betty Galella, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando, Dick Cavett, Robert Redford, Liz Smith, Neil Leifer. Directed by Leon Gast

It’s no secret that our society is celebrity obsessed. We eagerly devour every kernel of information about them; who are they seeing, where are they eating, what are they wearing. We are in a feeding frenzy for images of those whose lives we want to lead.

Stirring that frenzy are the paparazzi, photographers who make a living stalking the rich and famous, taking candid snapshots, and often using unethical or even illegal means. One of the first of these and most notorious is Ron Galella. He works mostly out of the New York area – he was a fixture at Studio 54 back in the day. His tactics were considered outrageous in the 70s and 80s when he was at his height, although he still continues to take pictures today.

Galella is a shameless self-promoter, and one gets the distinct impression that he considers himself as much a celebrity as some of his subjects. He was most famous for his stalking of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; their relationship bordered on the psychotic obsessive on both sides, he in getting pictures of her, she with stopping him by any means necessary which often had something to do with lawsuits. She finally won a restraining order from the photographer, requiring him to stand no closer than 150 feet, which he was known to violate from time to time. His most famous photograph remains one of her, crossing a street on a windy day, an enigmatic smile on her face and her hair ruffled by the breeze. It’s an extraordinary shot, one that Galella justifiably considers his Mona Lisa, and is one of the most enduring images we have of the former First Lady.

Inevitably when discussing the paparazzi the conversation must turn to the conflict between the First Amendment rights of the photographer versus the right to privacy of their subjects. Of course, you know I’m going to weigh in on that score. When you venture out into a public place, you cannot have the expectation of privacy. That goes for the non-celebrity as well as the celebrity. If you go out to grab a bite to eat and someone snaps your picture, it doesn’t matter if you’re not looking your best and you don’t want to be photographed. People have the right to take pictures in public places.

It is only when the paparazzi take pictures of celebrities in their homes or yards that I have issues; after all, a person presumes they have privacy in their own home. It isn’t public property, it is private property and the expectation of privacy is in force there. Galella once took pictures through a hedge into the front entranceway of Katherine Hepburn (I think); the star was notoriously reclusive, so Galella felt it was acceptable to go to extreme lengths to get his shot. To me that was over the line; it was rarely done in Galella’s day but it is much more commonplace today, particularly with the advent of telephoto lenses that can take reasonably clear shots from hundreds of yards away.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox for now and back to doing what you’re here to read about – the documentary. Gast does a pretty balanced job of providing discussion from both sides of the fence. Some support Galella, particularly people like gossip columnist Liz Smith who in some ways has a vested interest – after all, her livelihood depended on much the same need for celebrity information. However, Galella has plenty of critics, such as Neil Leifert who deplores the tactics used by Galella and those who have followed in his footsteps, as well as Thomas Hove, a critic who feels his photography is without merit and will lose its relevance at roughly the same rate that his subjects do.

That is borne out somewhat when a young woman tours an installation of Galella’s photos and clearly hasn’t a clue who many of the subjects are. The question becomes are those photos still art or does their status as art depend on our knowledge of the subject? That really is the crux of the matter and Gast does a good job of bringing it up in the right way.

Gast, for those who don’t know him, is a superb documentarian, with the highly-acclaimed When We Were Kings to his credit. This isn’t quite up to the standards of that classic, but still is a highly thought-provoking look not only at the quagmire that comes from supporting the First Amendment (one talking head refers to Galella as its price tag) but at the over-the-top character who I suspect wanted to be as much a part of the show as his subjects were and are.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating insight into the ongoing debate between the First Amendment and the right to privacy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Galella suffers from an excess of self-promotion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of foul language and some nudity, albeit in an artistic setting. Nothing here that most teenagers haven’t dealt with before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After having his jaw shattered by a single punch by Brando, Galella took to wearing a football helmet whenever he was photographing the mercurial star.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A photo gallery especially selected by Galella.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3644 on an unreported production budget. As a theatrical release, this didn’t make any money; however the movie has already aired on HBO and may well have recouped its production costs via that route.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Catfish

Soul Men


Soul Men

The show must go on, even in THOSE suits.

(MGM) Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Hayes, Sharon Leal, Isaac Hayes, Jennifer Coolidge, John Legend, Affion Crockett, Adam Herschman, Fatso Fasano, Jackie Long. Directed by Malcolm Lee

Bernie Mac was one of those rare talents who was not only a great comedian but was widely praised for being one of the genuinely nice guys in the business. He’s the sort who would take his sister’s kids in and raise them as his own while she battled drug addiction. The world lost a great one when he passed away.

Marcus Hooks (Legend) was one of the great ones in soul music. Starting out with the Memphis R&B sensations Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, he moved on to solo super-stardom. His former backing singers, the Real Deal, went on to obscurity, with Floyd Henderson (Mac) moving on to success in the business world, while Louis Hinds (Jackson) went on to a life of crime. They haven’t seen each other in the twenty years since the band broke up amid great acrimony, having generated one charting single in the post-Marcus Hooks era.

Now Hooks has died and the music industry is falling all over itself to pay tribute to the man who generated so much cash. A tribute show has been set for the Apollo Theater, and the Real Deal has been invited. Floyd, who’s been forced into retirement by his son-in-law, wants to do the show not so much for the money but as a means of showing he’s not ready to be put out to pasture. Louis is much less inclined to do the show; he’s done his jail time and is working in obscurity at an auto repair shop; he’s finally talked into it but it’s clear that the issue that tore the band apart – a woman, as it turns out – is still on Louis’ mind.

Since Louis has a fear of flying (although he would never admit to it), the two must travel from the West Coast to the East in Floyd’s vintage Caddy. Along the way they’ll meet Cleo (Leal), the daughter of the woman who split them apart and a real talent in her own right and Phillip (Herschman), a hero-worshipping intern at the record company who yearns to manage the legendary pair, who bicker like an old married couple. Floyd wants the two to do some shows on the road by way of rehearsal for the big tribute, which could be their ticket back into the big time but given the incendiary nature of the two, it remains to be seen if they can get over being their own worst enemies and make it to the show on time.

The movie’s central crux is the relationship between Floyd and Louis, and fortunately, the chemistry is there. Mac and Jackson (who were friends before the movie) banter back and forth comfortably and you can sense the bond that’s there. The two also do a credible job of singing and dancing in the movie; they don’t have to be great, since they’re depicting two performers past their prime, but they have to be at least good and the two are that.

Those who love the Stax/Volt music of the mid-60s through the late-70s are going to love the soundtrack here. The filmmakers wisely don’t spoof the sound but rather pay tribute to it, and in a graceful move, employ many of the original Stax/Volt backing musicians of the era on the soundtrack. That lends an authenticity to the music that you just couldn’t duplicate or even approximate.

I do wish that the movie had been a bit less formula. Some of the comedy doesn’t work nearly as well as you’d expect with a giant like Bernie Mac in the equation and the plot is contrived with twists that are telegraphed a mile down the highway, even in a vintage Cadillac. I suppose that there is a certain comfort factor to that; while the movie felt a little familiar, I would have liked a little more edge to it but that’s just me.

This would be the last movie not only for Bernie Mac but for soul legend Isaac Hayes, who has an extended cameo as himself, as well – the two men died within a day of each other in August 2008. It’s hard to say if this is a fitting tribute to two giants of the entertainment industry but it will have to do.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Mac and Jackson is first rate. Musical numbers are credible old school Stax/Volt soul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The laughs can get a bit forced in places and talent of this caliber deserved a better script.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough for most children and there is a bit of nudity; it should be fine for mature teenagers however.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s narrator is Randy Jackson of “American Idol” fame.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some nice tribute features to Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, and a nice featurettes on the friendship between Mac and Jackson that existed before the movie did.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Best Friend’s Girl