Voyeur (2017)


Gay Talese, dapper man about town.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Gay Talese, Gerald Foos, Nan Talese, Susan Morrison, Morgan Entrikan, Jackson Scholz, Anita Foos.  Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury

 

We are a society that loves to watch. We are obsessed with chronicling every aspect of our lives and looking in on the chronicles of others. We are a nation of voyeurs, titillated by both the sexual and the ordinary, able to leave our own lives while we glimpse at others, pursing our lips and waggling our fingers as if our own lives are above reproach.

Gay Talese is one of the last of his kind. A New York journalist back when that meant something, he has written some of the most compelling works of non-fiction of the last 60 years. His piece “Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire is one of the defining celebrity portraits ever written and it has influenced the genre ever since its publication. He’s written about crime families in Honor Thy Father and about the sexual mores of the 70s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as an observer but admittedly as a participant. Talese has always had a certain swagger and a particular style. His trademark is immaculately tailored suits, often accompanied by Fedora and scarf. Emerging from his Manhattan brownstone, he cuts an urbane figure from a bygone era when such things mattered.

Kane and Koury are given access to the basement of the brownstone which was once used as a wine cellar but now is Talese’s archive and office, a kind of man-cave that is a tribute to a career which, truth be told, merits that kind of celebration. Quite frankly while Talese has garnered his share of controversy over the years, he has also done some incredible work.

Now 85, Talese is looking for one last book and one last story to cap off his career. He thought he had it in a story he had started working on 30 years earlier. Gerald Foos was the owner of a Colorado motel which he had outfitted with an observation platform which ran the length of the property. Through strategically placed ventilation louvers he could observe guests without being seen or heard.

Now this sounds creepy enough but given where society is at this moment in time this seems like a fairly timely documentary. Foos, something of a teddy bear of a man, cheerfully admits to his sexual arousal but insists that this was a research project and not a precursor to Pornhub. There’s an air of disingenuousness about Foos but Talese seems to take him at face value.

However, Foos is reluctant to have his name revealed so that puts a kibosh on any involvement by Talese. However, 30 years later Foos has a change of heart and Talese gets back on the case. Foos gives Talese his journal complete with charts facts and figures about his “research.” Some of the stories Foos has to tell are pretty fascinating. Others are grim – like the murder he claimed he witnessed. Talese knows he’s found the story he’s been looking for.

His editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, is less enthused. She confesses that she thinks that Foos is a sociopathic pervert but agrees the story is a fascinating one. Talese submits it and the fact checkers get to work. Talese also signs a book deal to expand the article in the New Yorker into a full-length non-fiction book that’s sure to be a best seller.

However, the fact checkers turn out some disquieting discrepancies. After the book is published, a Washington Post reporter comes up with a devastating fact that threatens the book’s future and Talese’s reputation as a journalist. Much of what happened is of public record but I am being vague about it in case you didn’t follow the story when it happened because the way it unfolds here truly is blindsiding in a good way.

I think this is one of those documentary projects that began as one thing and then turned into another. This was supposed to be I think a piece on a regal lion making his last charge into the hunt and then morphed into a catfishing piece. I do think it took the filmmakers by surprise; while they give a fairly in-depth portrait of Talese (and Foos) early on, as the situation changes we don’t get a whole lot of commentary from the parties involved.

Talese comes off as a fastidious egocentric man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t really tolerate much exception to his rules. I suppose he can afford to be choosy. Still, he seems to lead a fairly lonely life….makes me wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price to be Gay Talese. But that’s a question that only he can answer.

The directors made use of a miniature model of the motel in an innovative fashion rather than staging recreations of the incidents that Foos related to Talese. There are also virtually no talking head interviews; everything is essentially Talese and Foos with Foos’ enabling second wife lurking furtively on the edges of the film.

Foos remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. He comes off as quite reasonable and even eager to be liked but there’s a creepiness at his core that is off-putting. I don’t think he sees anything wrong in what he was doing; it’s like there’s a big gap where his conscience should have been. The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t editorialize much; they present the story and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.

At the same time though the movie feels like it’s missing context. I think a little bit of outside, objective opinions might have helped the film in the long run – that’s right, I’m advocating for more talking heads – can you believe it? But talking heads have their purpose and sometimes a little bit of that can actually help the viewer feel more informed. I still felt a bit like the viewer is flailing in the dark here.

The documentary has a fascinating quality – as I said there’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us. However, I felt curiously unsatisfied by the movie as if by the end that I hadn’t seen all of it. There is much more to the story I think than is on the screen here and it could be simply that the nature of the watchers is that they shy away from the spotlight when it is they that are being watched.

REASONS TO GO: Talese is one of the last great personalities in journalism. The movie is full of interesting twists (particularly if you know little about it to begin with).
REASONS TO STAY: There is a surprising lack of depth to the documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, occasional profanity and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foos contacted Talese in 1980 after reading his tome on the sexual mores of the 1970s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
A Ghost Story

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Dean


Life is a day at the beach for Demetri Martin.

(2016) Dramedy (CBS) Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Ginger Gonzaga, Luka Jones, Briga Heelan, Levi MacDougall, Rory Scovel, Drew Tarver, Barry Rothbert, Meryl Hathaway, Nicholas Delany, Kate Berlant, Asif Ali, Florence Marcisak, Pierce Minor, Michael Oberholtzer, Victoria Vitkowski-Bennett, Reid Scott, Jamila Webb, Jessica Ruane. Directed by Demetri Martin

You never know when your life is going to change irrevocably – or how. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a romance that will turn out to last a lifetime. When it comes right down to it, life is a roller coaster ride we take while blindfolded.

Dean (Martin) is a cartoonist (and by the way, Demetri Martin drew the New Yorker-style cartoons seen throughout the movie) who lives in New York City. He has just broken up with his fiancée (Vitkowski-Bennett) and he is having trouble finishing his second book of toons. One of the reasons for that is he is still grieving for his mother (Marcisak) who recently passed away unexpectedly.

His life is in a bit of a stall. His relationship with his father Robert (Kline) is tenuous to say the least; neither man approves of how the other is grieving. When Robert drops the bombshell that he plans to sell the family home that Dean grew up in, Dean refuses to even discuss the matter and when Robert insists that he start clearing out his room, Dean flees to Los Angeles, ostensibly to listen to a job offer (that he never really took seriously to begin with) but more to hang out with his buddy Eric (Scovel) who takes him to a party where he meets Nicky (Jacobs), an Angelino whom he falls head over heels for – literally. His first act when he makes eye contact with her is to do a face plant on the floor.

Nonetheless their relationship starts to take off. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Robert is developing feelings for his real estate agent Carol (Steenburgen) that he’s not ready to act on, or at least thinks he isn’t. They do go out but the date ends disastrously. Both men are at a crossroads and need to get on with their lives, but do they have the will to move on?

If the movie sounds like something Woody Allen might have done back in the 70s, you’re probably right. Martin’s sensibility as a writer seems to fall in line with that of the Great Neurotic. However, this isn’t straight rip-off by any means; while Martin is almost certainly influenced by Allen, he isn’t slavish about it. Dean is certainly somewhat neurotic (his cartoons since his mother passed all have to do with the Grim Reaper) but not of the “ohmygawd he needs therapy” variety, which was where Allen mined much of his best material.

Martin is definitely a multi-threat performer; not only is he a terrific stand-up but he shows that he has the ability to be a lead in a theatrical narrative. Yes, the Beatles haircut is distracting but no more than some of the crazy hair-dos of comic actors we’ve seen of late. Martin’s delivery is a little sad sack (which fits the circumstances) but he has a kind of puppy dog cuteness that will certainly win him some fans. As a director he’s still learning his craft, but this is an effort that is impressive for a first full-length feature.

While Martin has a promising future, there are some cast members who are terrific now. Casting Kline and Steenburgen – so wonderful together in My Life as a House – was inspired and the two still have tons of chemistry. Some critics have found the storyline involving the two of them more interesting than the one between Martin and Jacobs and I can’t say as I disagree. I wouldn’t mind seeing more movies with Kline and Steenburgen in them. I would also like to see Jacobs’ role a little more fleshed out. Like Martin, she also has a bunch of screen presence and could be an onscreen force someday.

While the film wasn’t as consistently funny as I might have liked, it had enough humor in it to tickle the funny bone yet didn’t sink into parody or low comedy. The humor is, like Martin’s stand-up act, intelligent and a bit off-kilter. While this isn’t a movie that is going to make big waves on the Hollywood ocean, it should get enough notice to further the careers of everyone involved, or at least I hope so. It certainly is worth indie film lovers taking the time to check out.

REASONS TO GO: Martin has a whole lot of potential. A stellar supporting cast helps power the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film comes off in places as a knockoff of Woody Allen.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs and Heelan also star together in the Netflix series Love.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleepwalk With Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Journey

True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter