Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

Summertime


In L.A., you can always see the stars.

(2020) Musical (Good Deed) Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Major, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Gordon Ip, Gihee Hong, Anna Osuna, Caedmon Branch, Mila Cuda, Paolina Acuña-Gonazlez, Gabriela de Luna, Sun Park, Walter Finnie Jr., Jason Alvarez, Doug Klinger, Joel Dupont, Sophia Thomas. Directed by Carlos López Estrada

 

I grew up in Los Angeles. I spent my formative years there, from age six until I graduated college at age 21. I still feel deep connective roots to L.A. and so movies that are love letters to the City of Angels often tap a soft spot in my heart. Just sayin’.

Carlos López Estrada’s (Blindspotting) new film is just that. Set on a warm, summer day in La La Land, it careens from the beach communities to the inner city to the suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which was once described when I was living there as a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. That’s a bit of a mean-spirited description, but it isn’t entirely inaccurate.

There’s not much plot here; in that sense, this is more of a collection of shorts than a cohesive whole but essentially, we are taken on a tour of the neighborhoods of L.A. by a group of young poets, each with their own issues. The characters sometimes are on their own, other times they run into each other (sometimes literally) and only at the end do we have any sort of cohesive group moment. The individual poets wrote their own poetry and created their own characters, often using their own names. For example, Tyris Winter plays a young gay black man who has been rejected by his family and is essentially crashing on the couches of his friends. Outraged by the gentrification of a beloved diner that no longer serves hamburgers but instead offers avocado toast for fifteen bucks, he goes on a rant against the high price of things before stalking out in search of a moderately priced burger, which turns out to be more of a difficult quest than he (or we) expect. He is one of the bright spots in the film and tends to be the connecting tissue for the whole movie.

Then there is Marquesha Babers who just about steals the show near the end of the film as a plus-sized girl who has been hurt because of her size. Toting a book by a therapist that urges its readers to “rap away their demons,” she confronts an ex-crush who rejected her because of her weight and lets him have it in an emotional bring-down-the-house rap that anyone who has been rejected by a potential romantic partner because of their size or their looks will certainly relate to.

Adding comedy relief is the rapping duo of Anewbyss (Banks) and Rah (Antoine) who go from street corner rappers struggling to get people to buy their mixtape to jaded hitmaking superstars during the course of a single day, lamenting in a crowded burger joint that they miss the simplicity of their former lives. That comes directly after a rant by a fast food worker (Yip) who, fed up with a counter full of Karens and a minimum wage job that expects him to provide elite level service, decides to give away burgers to all comers.

The other highlight for me is an argument between mother (de Luna) and daughter (Acuña-Gonzalez) about the shade of the daughter’s lipstick, which leads to a discussion about how men perceive women which leads to a wonderful dance of waitresses in bright red dresses accosting a car full of wolf-whistlers with an assertive dance that is beautiful in its empowerment.

Not everything works; the opening song which involves a skateboarding guitar player singing a folky love song to L.A. falls a bit flat, sounding pretentious and at times the artists do sink into self-righteous diatribes. Some of the performances are stiff, or unnecessarily over-the-top, even some of the good ones occasionally lose focus.

All of the poets are from one marginalized group or another, whether it be people of color, LGBTQ, plus-size people, or women. Some will roll their eyes and smirk “Hollywood liberalism” at that, but it’s hard to forget that these are groups that have largely been ignored and get to express their joy and their love for a city that is often misunderstood.

Honestly, I’m not particularly into rap or slam poetry, and there’s a lot of both here but I found myself drawn in to the feeling of community and neighborhood. This is not the idealized L.A. of other movies, but a more realistic one where diversity has led to some cultural overlapping and a bit more acceptance among those who have grown up among other cultures, other points of view. Those who grew up in a single culture may dismiss this as woke Hollywood socialist crap, but they miss the point. This is about all of us being in the same leaky boat and while the boat might be a little beat up and dingy, there is much to love about it. This is a movie that may not be on your radar that you should definitely check out.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling and innovative, a movie that grows on you as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the sequences are overly mannered and pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Estrada got the idea for the movie while watching a poetry slam event in L.A.; most of the cast were recruited from similar area events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Heights
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Green Sea

Bodied


Bodied

Going mano a mano.

(2017) Dramedy (NEON/YouTube Premium) Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Jonathan “Dumboundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlamagne Tha God, Dizaster, Debra Wilson, Anthony Michael Hall, Lisa Maley, Eddie Perino, Eric Allen Smith, Candice Renee, Daniel Rashid, Vivian Lamolli, Yves Bright, Corey Charron, Sloane Avery. Directed by Joseph Kahn

 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I will try to refrain as much as possible from using hip hop slang which only makes me sound like a middle aged movie critic who has absolutely no understanding of the culture or the language. You’re welcome.

Once in awhile a movie will come along whose subject holds no interest for me and I’ll give it a pass when the opportunity comes along to view it. After all, realistically speaking there are only so many movies that anyone can see in a week, even a reviewer. All of us are forced to pick and choose somewhat, making room for movies we figure are either important or hold some interest for us. I’m not a big fan of rap – it just doesn’t speak to me personally – and a movie about battle rap, as this one is, held no interest for me. However, a colleague recommended this film so enthusiastically that when the publicist approached with a screener link I gave in and said okay, not really expecting much.

Mea culpa. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This movie is as entertaining as anything you’ll see during this busy season for movies. Worthy plays the somewhat unfortunately named Adam Merkin, a grad student at Berkeley who is doing his English Literature master[s thesis on the use of the “N” word in battle rap. He takes his uptight feminist Vegan girlfriend Maya (Uphold) to a rap battle, explaining to her (and to us) what’s going on and the various terms which is an ingenious way of using the terminology so that everyone can understand it – and they do use a lot of it.

Adam interviews Behn Grymm (Long), a master battle rapper who finds Adam’s genuine enthusiasm amusing and for giggles sets up the nerdy ginger up for a parking lot post-battle battle with a wannabe named Billy Pistolz (Charron). After a weak start, Adam suddenly finds the confidence to absolutely destroy his foe which he finds invigorating and eventually cell phone footage of his win is discovered by a promoter who signs up the youngster in a try-out battle against an L.A. Korean rapper named Prospek (Park) and Adam wins that too, gaining the respect of his opponent and other battle rappers like Che Corleone (Perez) and Devine Write (Shandai). It’s a feeling he is not used to never having gotten much respect in his life.

As he continues to rap, his repertoire includes increasingly homophobic, misogynist and racist slurs – all perfectly acceptable within battle rap but at Berkeley the student body and administration have a collective coronary and soon he finds himself persona non grata even with his own father (Hall) who teaches there. Nonetheless YouTube fame and respect are a heady mixture and Adam begins to change radically – or is this the person he has always been but has kept submerged?

The writing here is phenomenal. Eminem, who is a producer here, isn’t spared; during one meta moment (and there are several) a group of battle rappers discuss the Detroit star and his movie and let’s just say they’re none too charitable. Liberal white guilt is skewered here as charges of “cultural appropriation” are thrown about like fish at Pike’s Place Market. Berkeley liberals are shown to be none too tolerant here and there’s some truth in that, sad to say.

Then again, rap culture seems to get a pass. Within a rap battle, anything goes – you can say what you want about a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight, appearance, anything at all – and you get a pass particularly if you’re black. Behn Grymm explains to Adam that certain aspects of black culture are off-limits for him because he’s white. There will be those who will call that a double standard and they’re not wrong, although the reasons for it are not unjustified either. It’s pretty thoughtful stuff for a comedy in which when battle rappers make “gun hands” at their opponents, animated smoke comes out of their fingers and faux gunshots are heard on the soundtrack. However, the filmmakers are also unafraid to test our own preconceptions about battle rappers; most of them have jobs, none of them are broke (except college student Adam) and one of them turns out to be a middle class computer game programmer with a nice house and a beautiful family.

Worthy, best known for his work on American Vandal on Netflix, gives a star performance here. He is perfectly cast, a skinny and nonthreatening  redhead who shows some teeth later in the movie once he’s been pushed to the limit and essentially abandoned by those closest to him. It’s a powerful performance but Worthy shows a light touch when he needs to.

I have to admit some of the digs at women, Asians, plus size people, Hispanics, and yes, white people did make me a little bit uncomfortable. I guess that’s my own liberal guilt at work. Still, I found this movie to be smart, insightful and extremely funny in places. I still am not a rap fan but I am living proof you don’t have to be to really enjoy this movie – although it helps enormously – but certainly those who love the music will likely want to see this forthwith.

The movie is the first to be picked up by the YouTube Premium channel for theatrical release which is handled by the indie company that also distributed the Oscar-winning I, Tonya for a brief theatrical run. It will also be available on YouTube Premium at the end of the month. Whether you see it online or in a theater, by all means see it. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. Worthy is perfectly cast. Those unfamiliar with battle rap won’t get hopelessly lost.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the less savory aspects of battle rap are cast in a more flattering light than they should be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, some drug use, sexual content, brief nudity and a heaping helping of racial slurs, homophobic slurs and misogynistic slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Alex Larson is a veteran battle rapper, going by the name of Kid Twist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride


People are people; what’s on the outside is just gift wrapping.

(2017) Documentary (XLRator/Seventh  Art) Gloria Stein, Butch Rosichan, Dan Friedman, Steven Shulman, Susan Schaffel, Natalie Chasen, Larry Sands, Dawn Heber, RB Perlman, Ricki Perlman, Arlene Shaffer. Directed by Robyn Symon

 

Everyone has their own journey in life to take. Sometimes it seems to follow a set path but some journeys take us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. All we can really do is enjoy the ride; and it is a helluva ride.

She started out life as Butch Rosichan. A short, stocky man who made a living as an auto wrecker in Broward County (South Florida), he was a bulldog of a man who would get in your face at any perceived slight. He was not above getting into fistfights if he was provoked Homophobic and crude, he was something of a ladies’ man who had two sons from a failed marriage but that was nothing like his second marriage.

His divorce from that marriage turned into a bitter, knock-down drag-out thing. His ex and her pit bull of a lawyer hounded Butch into losing everything and then put him in jail for non-payment of alimony. When he finished serving his 120 days in the hoosegow, he found his business was finished and shortly thereafter another warrant for non-payment of alimony was issued. Not wanting to return to jail, he went into hiding instead – as a woman. Thus Gloria Stein was born.

As it turned out, she liked being a woman and decided that it wasn’t just a disguise. In 2003 she underwent surgery to change his gender. As Gloria, she met a man, Dan Friedman who as it turned out had been born a woman; Dan helped Gloria mellow out and smoothed out some of her rougher edges. She began reaching out to family members that she had alienated as Butch and began reconciling with them, although her two sons as of the filming of this documentary had yet to accept her or even return her calls. This is clearly very painful for her.

Butch became Gloria at the fairly advanced age of 67 (she’s pushing 80 now) and became the subject of a documentary by then-PBS documentary director Symon. The project, which was initially intended just to cover her transition from male to female became a decade-long endeavor.

Gloria is an engaging sort, an interesting subject matter who still refuses to take crap from anyone, although she’s less in-your-face about it these days. She’s an outspoken advocate for transgenders who does speaking engagements throughout the country. Along the way she has been a sex worker – a professional dominatrix – and oh yes, continues to have an interest in classic cars.

There are a lot of empty spaces in the film however and in many ways Gloria isn’t very forthcoming. When asked why she decided to undergo the sex change, she blurts out ‘I don’t know” and that feels a bit disingenuous. I suspect she knows but either can’t or won’t articulate it. Some of the more negative aspects of her life are glossed over somewhat; why she was unable to pay her alimony is never discussed although it is hinted at.

Apparently as Butch she was also involved in a stolen car ring but we don’t hear a lot about that other than a couple of moments discussing how she and her first wife used to take a cab to a restaurant then steal cars from the valet lot. Beyond that, we learn nothing about how she got involved with stealing cars and why. We’re also told that as Butch she was a homophobe but we get nothing else; I for one would love to have heard her feelings on her homophobia now that she has become a transgender. Considering that the documentary is only 76 minutes long, it seems incomprehensible that Symon had ten years to film and could only come up with 76 minutes of footage for her final product.

Symon utilizes home movie footage, re-enactments of certain events but primarily interviews with friends and family of Gloria, all of whom knew her as Butch. I’m wondering if the film couldn’t have used at least a couple of people who only knew Gloria and not Butch. The movie overall has a wry sense of humor about it that I liked very much.

It’s a fascinating documentary but maddeningly incomplete. I suppose it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting less, but it’s still not a good feeling to leave a documentary wanting to know more about the subject and knowing that there was plenty of room to give us more. This feels more like a work in progress than a completed film, but at least it’s a quality work in progress.

REASONS TO GO: Stein is an engaging subject. The movie has a wry tone that is delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could use much more fleshing out. Gloria needed to be a lot more forthcoming about her past.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Symon during her time at PBS won two Emmys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Woman on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blood Stripe

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

Get Hard


The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Ariana Neal, Erick Chavarria, T.I., Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Jon Eyez, Nito Larioza, Dan Bakkerdahl, Greg Germann, Ron Funches, Joshua Joseph Gillum, Chris Marroy, Katia Gomez, Elliott Grey, Raeden Greer, Melanie Hebert. Directed by Etan Cohen

For most of us, the thought of going to prison and doing hard time is not even something that’s on our radar. After all, we keep our indiscretions minor; speeding a little down the freeway, or entering an intersection just as the light turns red; maybe we fudge our taxes a little bit. Most of us aren’t ever going to be in a situation that might lead us to the hoosegow.

Certainly James King (Ferrell) didn’t think so. A wealthy fund manager on his way to marrying the boss’s daughter (Brie), he has essential the ultimate 1% life – a Harvard education, a high-profile position – a partnership in fact, something of a wedding gift from soon-to-be dad Martin (Nelson) – at a major financial corporation, a beautiful home and high end possessions, and expensive cars. He even has John Mayer (himself) playing his engagement party. He has it all, right?

Not for long. He’s arrested at his engagement party for embezzling funds, something he vehemently denies doing. However, the evidence is damning as the paper trail leads directly to James. A populist judge (Grey) instead of sentencing James to a country club minimum security facility instead sends him to San Quentin for ten years. James is given 30 days to get his affairs in order.

James knows that he has absolutely no chance to survive in prison. He needs to be prepared for what he’s going to encounter there, learn to defend himself. There aren’t many who can adequately get him ready for the big house, but maybe there is someone…why, the guy who washes his car at work, Darnell (Hart) – why, he’s a black man. Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance Darnell has been incarcerated.

In fact, Darnell has not – he’s a family man with a small business trying to make things better for his family by putting a down payment for a house in a better neighborhood with better schools for his daughter Makayla (Neal). He needs the money, so he agrees to get James ready, much to the bemusement of his wife Rita (Dickerson) who is fully aware that Darnell has a better chance of dunking on Dwight Howard than he does of being a true thug.

But Darnell has a plan and that’s to turn James’ home into a simulation of prison life, which suits James’ domestic staff just fine. James is confident that the investigators that Martin has put on the case will soon exonerate him but as the days tick closer to the day James has to report to San Quentin, Darnell begins to realize that not only is James as innocent as he says he is but that nothing that Darnell can do will EVER help James survive in prison – nothing can. The only chance James has to survive is to prove his innocence, but that seems next to impossible.

Hart and Ferrell are two of the biggest comic actors in Hollywood, with Hart dominating over the past few years and Ferrell making some of the most iconic comedy classics of the past decade. Their styles are completely different; Ferrell is a lot more over-the-top and often plays clueless boobs (as he does here) while Hart is more of a street-smart hustler sort who writes checks with his mouth that he can’t cash with his body or his skills. You wouldn’t think that the two would mesh all that well but there is in fact some chemistry between them – a lot more than I expected in fact. Cohen, the writer of Tropic Thunder making his debut as a director, wisely does a kind of back and forth type of presentation allowing both comics to shine individually and together as well. Considering that most people paying to see this are looking to see two of the best comedians working today together, I think it’s a wise course of action.

Also wise was getting Key and Peele writers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel to do the script, but somewhat surprisingly the two didn’t come through as well. Much of the plot is ultimately predictable and cliche, which considering the edgy material they’ve done for the popular Comedy Central show, is an unexpected bummer.

The movie means to examine through the lens of comedy racial discord and attitudes, homophobia and stereotypes. There are quite a few critics who have accused the movie of being racist and homophobic, but honestly, only the most politically correct nimrods are going to find it that way. There’s a vast difference between laughing at racial stereotypes and holding them up to ridicule and being racist. Part of the comedy comes from James’ abysmal ignorance of African-Americans and their culture; as a sheltered 1% sort he’s only hung around other 1% sorts which have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored his perceptions. In white society, people often say “But I have black friends” when called out for racial insensitivity and that’s exactly how James undoubtedly would react.

There’s probably more of a case for homophobia when James is told to learn how to perform oral sex on other men as a means of survival but is unable to do it. However, there is a gay character who befriends Darnell who comes off as pretty normal and reasonable rather than a stereotype which I found refreshing. There was precious little mincing by the gay characters in the movie.

After having heard almost nothing but negative reviews for the movie I was pleasantly surprised to find it a lot funnier than I expected with an unexpected strong comedic timing throughout. The jokes flow nicely and the plot, while predictable, at least keeps moving along. The material is fairly crude – although if the movie were bigger at the box office “keistering” might become a thing – but I’ve seen cruder.

This is one of those movies that should be the poster child for not letting critics make up your mind for you. I found it to be positively entertaining and while it doesn’t break new ground, it does at least what it’s meant to do – keep the audience laughing and showcasing two superior talents in Hart and Ferrell who hopefully will team up again after this. Maybe in a movie where their roles are reversed, where Hart is the privileged snob and Ferrell is the street-wise hustler. That’s something I’d pay to see.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Hart and Ferrell. Some outrageously funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-sensitive and too politically correct sorts may find this racist/homophobic. Plot is fairly predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity, some violence, plenty of foul language and sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will Ferrell is 11 inches taller than Kevin Hart which led to some fairly interesting camera angles in order to make the differential less severe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let’s Go to Jail
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Furious 7

Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

Goon


Rock 'em sock 'em robots.

Rock ’em sock ’em robots.

(2011) Sports Comedy (Magnet) Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill, Eugene Levy, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Nicholas Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Cherry, Ricky Mabe, George Tchortov, Karl Graboshas, Larry Woo, Stephen Sim, Ellen David, David Paetkau, Dave Wheeler, Sarah Scheffer. Directed by Michael Dowse

To those who know me, it’s no secret that ice hockey is my favorite sport. The grace, the speed, the skill appeals to me. Perhaps it is my half-Canadian heritage that instills the love of this great sport into my genetic make-up. Hockey, after all, is part of the Canadian DNA.

The flip side of the sport is the fighting. Goons, the vernacular for enforcers who are there to act as nuclear deterrents essentially, are the brawn of the sport. They rarely get the ink of the goal scorers but are as respected if not more so in the locker room of those teams they toil for and let’s face it, many fans love them more than the skill players.

Doug Klatt (Scott) is a bouncer in a New England bar whose father (Levy), a doctor, is disappointed in his son’s career direction and is not shy about expressing that disappointment. Doug’s best friend, Pat (Baruchel) is a hockey nut. While Doug and Pat are at a minor league game, Doug gives a beat down to a player who ventures into the stands. This catches the notice of an opposing coach who gives Doug a try-out even though Doug can’t skate.

Doug learns to skate and becomes an enforcer. After a few weeks he becomes a star goon in the league and is eventually promoted to Halifax to protect Xavier LaFlamme (Grondin), once a highly coveted prospect in the NHL whose game has deteriorated due to drug use, ego and attitude. Well, there’s that but also LaFlamme has also lost his nerve after being badly injured in a hit by Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Schreiber). Now the phenom avoids contact at nearly any cost. That generally doesn’t lead to a long career in the NHL.

Doug is a sweet guy at heart who has never really felt like he belonged to anything in his life, but now has found a purpose. He’s even attracted a girl, Eva (Pill) who is a self-described slut willing to give up her promiscuity for Doug. Things are going well for Doug  despite his father’s continued disapproval but you know that a confrontation with Rhea – who happens to be Doug’s idol – is inevitable.

Baruchel co-wrote this with Evan Goldberg, both of whom also co-wrote Superbad. This script really isn’t up to that level, being a bit more of a niche project, but it fills that niche admirably. Much of this is due to the performances of Schreiber and Scott. Schreiber plays an enforcer reaching the end of his career with a certain amount of cynicism, knowing that he has been exploited. Schreiber gives the character not only the toughness that such a character would naturally own but also with the intelligence and thoughtfulness that is a Schreiber trademark.

Scott’s character isn’t terribly bright and is socially awkward. He’s kind of an anti-Stiffler, not very confident with women and not terribly sharp. He tends to punch first and ask questions later. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t basically a nice guy. Although there’s an enormous amount of gay slurs in the movie (reflecting a homophobic sensibility in sports in general not just hockey) Doug stands up for his gay brother Ira (Paetkau) as much as any good brother would.

This is the best hockey movie since Miracle and maybe since Slap Shot which it is more akin to and could be said to be the spiritual godfather to the film, although it is actually based on the memoirs of real-life minor hockey league goon Doug Smith. I do have issues with movies that glorify the violence in hockey – maybe I’m in the minority (and I don’t think I am) but I don’t love hockey for the fights but for the speed and grace of the game, the skills of the players and that the game hasn’t been overwhelmed by egos in the same way other major sports have.

Still, I was entertained by the movie and even though I will admit a bias towards the sport, I believe the movie will be entertaining even for those who aren’t particular fans of the game. I’m not sure it will make a lot of new fans of the sport but you never know. Game on.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best hockey movies in recent years. Scott and Schreiber deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goon-like players are becoming an endangered breed in modern hockey.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, plenty of hockey violence, some fairly strong sexual content and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former NHL players Mike Ricci and Georges Laraque make cameo appearances in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: In Power Play Mode the viewer can access features and commentary enhancing what’s onscreen when the Power Play icon is onscreen. There’s also an HDNet featurette, a bloopers reel and a sit-down interview with Scott and Baruchel. There’s also some video hockey cards featuring characters from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an unknown production budget; very likely made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Back to the Future