Method of Murder


In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin

 

How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.

For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.

In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.

She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative.
FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Farewell

Double Life (Nijû seikatsu)


It always feels like somebody’s watching.

(2016) Drama (Star Sands) Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Franky, Aoba Kawai, Yukiko Shinihara, Shohel Uno, Yukino Kishii, Naomi Nishida, Setsuko Karasuma, Ryuju Kobayashi. Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi

 

There is a certain thrill to observing other people unseen. There is an implied intimacy, seeing people as they truly are when they are sure nobody else is watching. That is how they reveal what makes us human – or at least so goes the theory as voiced by noted French photographer and writer Sophie Calle.

Tama Shiraishi (Kadowaki) is a grad student working on her master’s thesis. She lives with her boyfriend videogame designer Takuya (Suda) in a modest apartment in suburban Tokyo. They do have morning sex from time to time but they are distant from one another, showing little affection for each other. It can be chalked up to the business of their lives; Takuya is up against some looming deadlines for his upcoming game, Tama is consumed with her thesis on the meaning of being human which isn’t going very well.

Her professor, Shinohara (Franky) is a feared presence around the philosophy department of the university but he is soft-spoken and surprisingly helpful to Tama. When she proves to be too shy to distribute a questionnaire to 100 people, Shinohara – seeing the Calle book on his desk – is inspired to suggest that Tama observe a single person without their knowledge and use her observations as the basis of her thesis.

Tama chooses Ishizaka (Hasegawa), a neighbor who seems to be perfectly happy. A successful book publisher, he lives with his gorgeous wife and adorable daughter across the street from Tama – she can watch them playing together from her balcony. However, as she tails her subject, she discovers to her surprise that he is having a torrid affair which includes some rather public lovemaking.

The more she tails her subject the more emotionally involved that she gets. As she later describes it, she feels an empty part in herself beginning to get filled up. Her late nights and exhaustion lead Takuya to suspect that it is she having an affair and when Ishizaka’s wife discovers his infidelity, the fallout will not only affect his family but Tama and her boyfriend as well.

This is a film that takes a while to get rolling but once it does the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the interest of the audience. There is a certain cultural element to this – Japanese eroticism is somewhat different than Western eroticism – that makes even ordinary, normal activities seem sexual. The fact that the exterior shots take place in an overcast wintry gloom tends to heighten the feeling of repression as the characters bundle up against the cold.

Kadowaki does a stellar job here playing a character who has difficulty relating to people and prefers not to be the center of attention. Her oversize glasses and frumpy dress make the actress look somewhat plain although she is far from that in reality. However, it suits the character well here as few people give her a second glance including the people she is tailing.

The movie feels a bit long and while it is based on a novel by Mariko Kolke there is an almost soap opera vibe at times. There is a subplot about Professor Shinohara coping with his mother’s final days in the hospital with a new girlfriend (Kawai) which is a complicated situation in itself that tends to convolute the film and pull attention from the main story.

Kishi utilizes handheld camera work during most of the stalking sequences and it does wear on the viewer after awhile since the bulk of the movie is spent watching Tama stalk her academic prey. It is only when the two finally confront each other and Tama admits to some of her own inner demons that the movie gets a real emotional spice to it.

Hamlet’s famous line “To be or not to be” is utilized in several different ways, including in a Japanese play that Tama attends. The point of her thesis is what it means to be human and the idea is that Tama hasn’t really figured that out yet and with the movie opening with a suicide attempt – even though it is dark and chaotic you should be able to figure out who is trying to do themselves in – the “not to be” gets its share of attention as well.

Like many of the films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, there seems to be an infusion of new blood and exciting young directors coming out of Asia right now and Kishi is one of them. While the elements of soap opera and extraneous plot devices do hold the movie back, there is at least enough substance here to make this a worthwhile film to seek out to perhaps give some insight into your own humanity – and how well it would stand up to the scrutiny of constant observation.

REASONS TO GO: There is the allure of voyeurism. The wintry tone of the cinematography enhances the feeling of the film. The theme of being or not being is utilized here better than in most films.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overstays its welcome and is a little bit too close to a soap opera. The stalking scenes contain a little too much handheld camera work for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Kishi and the first lead role in a feature for Kadowaki.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seduction
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: With Prisoners

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru


Primal screaming.

Primal screaming.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Tony Robbins, Joe Berlinger, Dawn Watson, Bonnie-Pearl “Sage” Robbins, John Turbett, Sarah Fosmol, Diane Adcock, Jerrisa Escota, Vicki St. George, Tad Schinke, Julianne Hough, Maria Manounos. Directed by Joe Berlinger

 

Tony Robbins is a giant, both in a literal and a figurative sense. He is built like a professional wrestler, sure, but it is in the field of self-help that he stands out even more than he does in a crowd. He has for all intents and purposes become a brand name.

Every year he conducts a six day and night immersion experience entitled Date with Destiny near his South Florida home. More than 2,000 guests attended the 2014 version and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – himself an attendee at an earlier DwD – brought his cameras along.

First off, let’s clear up a misconception that the title may be in part responsible for. This isn’t about Tony Robbins so much as it is about his methods. We see him at work, and it comes off essentially as a concert film and the similarities between a Tony Robbins seminar and a rock concert are a little unsettling. The star comes onstage to a swell of loud energetic music, his fans jump and scream and applaud and he raises his arms in triumph. All that is needed is two thousand flicked BICs to fully realize the comparison.

We get to see the people who come to this seminar/celebration,  and the stories that they tell range from first world problems (a woman who has difficulties in choosing the right man) to deeper issues (a young 19-year-old girl whose father is a drug addict) to the truly horrifying story of the star “intervention” (as Robbins refers to them as) – Dawn Watson, a beautiful young Brazilian woman who grew up in a religious cult in which sex was available to anyone in the cult upon demand; starting at age six (!) Watson was called upon to provide sexual favors for anyone who wanted them without having the right of refusal because, according to the cult leaders, sex was how we show our devotion to God. It had messed her up but good, unsurprisingly.

In some ways these interventions resemble an old fashioned camp meeting with the sick being healed with the laying on of hands. It isn’t quite that simple, fortunately – Robbins asks some penetrating questions and requires those he intervenes with to be brutally honest with themselves and certainly that kind of psychiatric practice is one I can relate to. Any kind of life change begins with complete honesty and accountability.

Still, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical and maybe that’s because Berlinger really doesn’t ask any tough questions or, really, any questions at all. This is in effect a 115 commercial for Robbins, which tells me that Berlinger isn’t the right guy to make this movie; he’s not only had a drink of the Kool-Aid but he has been guzzling it ever since. A little bit more objectivity would have been welcome.

There is a fascination in watching Robbins go about his work and there’s no doubt that he is sincere about wanting to help others find their full potential and overcome sometimes crippling issues that keep them from enjoying the most out of life. I don’t necessarily think he’s a charlatan, despite my misgivings; he seems to have a fairly grounded education in psychological study and he does have a pretty good gift at understanding people and their needs. He has the charisma to inspire trust and he can have a total stranger answering the most personal and intimate of questions without batting an eyelash. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Robbins is the Andre the Giant of self-help.

The environment has a lot to do with whether or not this stuff works or not. The people who are there are there because they want to be – and paid over $5K for the privilege (NOTE: That was in 2014. If you wanted to go to the 2016 version, you’d have to pay almost $8K to go – if you could get tickets since it’s been sold out for quite awhile). People come from all over the world to attend and I found it amazing that there is a whole team of translators working in a booth nearby and broadcasting translations into headsets that non-English speakers wear. We do get a good look behind the scenes and see the army of technicians, team leaders and other workers make sure the event runs smoothly. From that aspect, it’s fascinating how much detail goes into each and every session and we get a sense of how Tony chooses those interventions he wishes to conduct.

What we don’t get is insight into who Tony Robbins. We hear, on more than one occasion, how growing up with an abusive mother and living with the pain of that condition led him to an obsession with helping people overcome their pain but what we don’t really get is a roadmap that takes us from Point A to Point B. Robbins appears to be an intensely private person and that’s okay, but we really don’t get much more than what we see at the sessions. His wife Sage comes on late in the movie to assert that what we see with him is really what we get – that he’s like that pretty much all the time, but it still doesn’t let us in much. That does make this a difficult documentary to like.

I would be curious to do a follow-up with some of the interventions that we see. We do get a graphic that tells us that the gal who broke up with her boyfriend on the phone because Tony advised her to got back together with him, and the gal with the drug abusing father reconnected with him, among other interventions.

This isn’t very critical of Robbins and maybe it doesn’t have to be. Certainly those who can’t afford the big time fees to go to one of these things might at least partially benefit from this condensed version keeping in mind that at one of these there are team exercises as well as well as these main hall encounters with Robbins – the sessions last 8-12 hours each day and involve a great deal of work on the part of the participant. Nonetheless this may appeal to people who are looking for answers and searching for a direction on where to find them, or who just want to see Robbins in action. All others, be warned that this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary.

REASONS TO GO: You get the sense of Robbins’ commitment to those seeking his help.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels contrived and manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of profanity, some sexual references and some very adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at the fifth annual American Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Decoding Deepak
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cafe Society

The Lobster


Sharing a moment.

Sharing a moment.

(2015) Romance (A24) Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Roland Ferrandi, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Emma O’Shea, Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Michael Smiley, Patrick Malone, Sandra Mason, Anthony Moriarty, Judi King Murphy, Laoise Murphy, Nancy Onu, Rosanna Hoult. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Florida Film Festival 2016

Love is certainly not what it used to be. Our choices, with the advent of the Internet and its dating services, have grown but in some ways, our understanding of love has narrowed. Once upon a time, we were limited to people we knew and saw every day in the places that we lived. These days, we can choose from all over the world but rather than make our love lives easier in many ways it just makes finding the right one harder.

David (Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife (Hoult). Seeing as this is a dystopian version of the Ireland of the quite-near future that means he must surrender himself to the authorities where he will be taken to the Hotel, along with other single men and women of a certain age. There, as he is informed by the hotel director (Colman) that he, like all the others who have come in that day, must find themselves a new mate within 45 days or surrender their humanity – literally. Guests, as they are called, can extend their stays by going into the woods and hitting loners – those who were unable to find a mate and managed to escape the conversion process – with tranquilizer darts with each tranquilized loner adding a day to their stay. After 45 days, those who are still single will be turned into an animal of their choosing. David chooses a lobster because of its long life span, its virility throughout its entire life and as an additional bonus feature that it literally has blue blood. I don’t think David thought that entirely true – lobsters do get eaten.

David makes a couple of new friends – one with a limp (Whishaw) and one with a lisp (Reilly) – other than David, none of the other characters in the film are given names, only affectations. The limping fellow finds himself a girl prone to bloody noses (Barden) which he is not but he fakes it in order to get the all-important move from the singles tables to the couples tables. Couples are also given a month to get to know each other, then they are put aboard a yacht for two weeks. If all goes well, they are given marriage certificates and sent back into the world. If not, they are given a child to help distract them from their problems. If that fails, they are returned to the singles area to start again.

David is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog – his brother, who failed the process and became man’s best friend. Knowing what happened to his brother imbues him with a kind of desperation, and he begins to cast about desperately for anyone who might possibly be a match, even a heartless woman (Papoulia) who clearly is not suitable for anybody.

Things unfortunately don’t work out for David and with the help of a friendly maid (Labed) he escapes into the woods and meets up with the Loner Leader (Seydoux) who says any relationships are forbidden in the woods and that each Loner must dig their own grave first. There David meets a short-sighted woman (Weisz) – what we in the States call near-sighted – and the two find that there is something between them after all. But now love is forbidden and the couple must find a way to escape everything and everyone and begin a life of their own without the Loner Leader finding out.

This was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival and pretty much the verdict I heard was people either ended up loving or hating this movie, depending on how immersed they became in this somewhat bizarre world, and how willing they were to just let themselves get swept up in it. I have to admit that I can see why people hated it but I ended up loving it just the same. This is a smartly written satire on the importance we place on relationships, with emphasis on grey tones in the cinematography that make the world seem a chilly place which nicely compliments the cold emotional tone.

Nearly all the dialogue is read in clipped, stilted tones like a high school English class reading a play aloud. That got a little tiresome as the movie went on. Most of the rest of the cast were made to keep their emotions strictly at bay, with the exception of Weisz who shows her emotions subtly but recognizably. It’s a very understated performance that reminds us of how gifted an actress this Oscar-winner is.

Animal lovers be warned, there are a couple of scenes that are hard to watch – I almost walked out on the film during one intense scene involving the Heartless Woman but I chose to stick with it which was a good thing. Most of the movie’s emotional resonance comes in the second half.

The movie is divided into two distinct sections – the first at the hotel, the second in the Loner’s woods. The hotel sequence is in many ways the most surreal, the sequence in the woods are the most rewarding. For a movie that takes such great pains to come off as emotion-free, the final scenes in which David is forced to make a decision will trigger a variety of strong emotions in the viewer. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that hit more powerfully because the rest of the movie is so cold from an emotional standpoint.

This isn’t for everybody. Some people are going to find it too quirky, too cold, too smart, too different. That’s all right. Again, there isn’t a lot of middle ground with this movie; people tend to love it or hate it. As for whether or not you should see it, you will likely fall into one camp or the other and there’s no way of knowing which until you see it. My advice is to take a chance and decide for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: A smartly written film. Utilizes barren, cold landscapes to reflect barren, cold emotions. Different than anything you’re familiar with – you’ll either like it or hate it.
REASONS TO STAY: May be excessively quirky for the taste of some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a small amount of violence but mostly there are sexual concepts including some dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The song that David and the short-sighted woman synchronize on their CD players and dance to in the woods is “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue. David also sings the same song towards the end of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Nice Guys

Burnt


A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brûhl, Emma Thompson, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Henry Goodman, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Sarah Greene, Bo Bene, Elisa Lasowski, Julian Firth, Martin Trenaman, Esther Adams. Directed by John Wells

The pursuit of excellence often becomes an obsession with perfection. It can often be a journey that becomes a nightmare of excess, fueled by drugs, sex and ego and lead one down to oblivion. Coming back from that can be nearly impossible.

But that’s the task before Adam Jones (Cooper). Once a two-star Michelin chef in Paris, this American enfant terrible of the French culinary world was a bad boy living the fast life, driven to get that final third Michelin star but so lost in both his own ambition, a relationship with his mentor’s daughter (Vikander) and an escalating drug habit that a spectacular meltdown lost him everything.

Two years of sobriety later, having worked shucking a million oysters in New Orleans, he’s ready to resume his tilt and decides that opening up a restaurant at a prestigious London hotel would be the ticket. It so happens that Tony (Brûhl), the son of an old friend and perhaps the best maître’d in Europe has such a restaurant that could use an infusion of the buzz that comes from having a celebrity chef. Tony is reluctant, given Adam’s volatile temperament but eventually gives in.

Adam sets to putting together a “dream team” for this restaurant, bringing in a Michel (Sy), a sous chef he wronged in Paris but who has since forgiven him and Helene (Miller) who is a raw talent that Adam thinks can become great. She comes with a precocious daughter Lily (Benbow-Hart) who is as tough as any food critic when it comes to her meals.

Adam turns out to be a martinet in the kitchen, screaming in the faces of his staff and so obsessed with perfection that he forces Helene to apologize to a fish because of a minor mistake in cooking it. Eventually though he manages to get his act together and soon his kitchen is humming along like a well-oiled machine. However, there are complications; he owes a large debt to drug dealers that he won’t let Tony pay for him and they are getting increasingly insistent on getting their money. He also is falling in love with Helene, who is developing strong feelings for him as well.

But things come to a head when the Michelin inspectors come and Adam faces an unexpected turn of events, sending him spiraling back down a road that he has sworn he wouldn’t take again. Can even the great Adam Jones fix a meal gone this bad?

Cooper, who at one point in his life aspired to being a chef himself, makes an excellent Adam Jones. Cooper is one of Hollywood’s most likable actors but he has to play a very unlikable character in the uber-driven Adam. His kitchen tantrums and occasionally manipulative tactics can sometimes leave a sour taste in one’s mouth but Adam isn’t a bad person per se, and we do get to see the humanity of the man peeking through at unexpected moments.

The rest of the cast is solid as you’d expect of a cast with this kind of international caliber. Miller, who worked with Cooper on American Sniper, retains the chemistry the two enjoyed on that film here. Thompson, who has a small role as Adam’s therapist, shines as she always does and Rhys also has a meaty role as a rival chef. I particularly liked Sy, however; the big French actor has never turned in a subpar performance that I can recall and even though he seems to be on a supporting role treadmill at the moment, I foresee some big things in his future.

The problem I have with Burnt is that the predictability of the story. Other than one major twist, there’s pretty much a Screenwriting 101 feel to the plot. There’s even the precocious kid that exists for no other reason than because precocious kids always show up in movies like this. Not that Benbow-Hart isn’t anything but good in her role, it’s just that the character is extraneous. Does Helene really need to be a single mom? No, she just needs to be single. Her motherhood adds nothing to the emotional resonance of the film.

There’s plenty of food porn and I will say that if you’re hungry going in chances are you’re going to have a craving for some good food and it isn’t a stretch to say that you’ll probably leave the theater (or your couch if you are reading this after it makes it to home video) hungry and not for fast food either; for a sit down meal in a place that has tablecloths and waiters and most importantly, delicious food. We can all use a good meal from time to time. As a movie, I would place this more as casual dining more than fine dining, but it does strike a chord nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper and Miller have real chemistry. Plenty of food porn. Nicely paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable story. Too-cute kid syndrome. Too many unnecessary subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper patterned his in-kitchen demeanor on that of Gordon Ramsey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingdom of Shadows

99 Homes


These days a man's home is the bank's castle.

These days a man’s home is the bank’s castle.

(2015) Drama (Broad Green) Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Tim Guinee, Nicole Barré, Yvonne Landry, Noah Lomax, J.D. Eyermore, Cullen Moss, Jordyn McDempsey, Ann Mahoney, Judd Lormand, Deneen Tyler, Donna Duplantier, Wayne Pére, Cynthia Santiago, Juan Gaspard, Nadiyah Skyy Taylor. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

It wasn’t that long ago that the economy tanked in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Homes were being foreclosed upon at rates unheard of since the Great Depression. Families were displaced, the rich got richer and in essence nothing has changed since then other than the banks are being more circumspect somewhat, but none of the regulations that had kept this from happening before have been reinstated.

Taking place in 2010, the events in 99 Homes are said to have actually happened although I’m unclear whether they took place in the Orlando locale the film is set in. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a construction worker who discovers that the builders of the development he’s working for have run out of money and that the past two weeks he’s been working are going to go unpaid.

His childhood home, which he lives in with his mother (Dern) and grew up in is underwater and he’s several payments behind. The bank isn’t terribly interested in anything but foreclosure and his trip to court has left him reeling; the judge, overwhelmed with the number of foreclosure cases, simply rubberstamps the bank’s request and sends Dennis packing. Dennis is told he has 30 days to appeal.

A few days later realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up at Dennis’ door and without so much as a fare-thee-well tosses him, his son Connor (Lomax) and his mom into the street along with all their stuff. He is forced to move them into a skeevy hotel which is mostly filled with other evictees, some of them who’ve been there two years or more. He needs to find work now more than ever but there simply isn’t any to be had, the construction business hit hard by the fact that banks aren’t making business loans so there is nothing being built.

When he discovers that some of his tools are missing, he goes back to Carver to demand their return. Carver, impressed with his moxie, puts him to work doing a particularly disagreeable job on a foreclosed home whose previous owners let their displeasure be known in a rather spectacular way. Carver, admiring Nash’s work ethic, hires him on to do odd construction jobs and then to snatch air conditioning units from foreclosed homes that the banks will pay Carver money to install “new” units, which of course Carver simply has Nash reinstall the old units. Shifty, no?

Eventually as Nash continues to help Carver do his dirty work, Carver puts him to work doing the work that Nash is most wary of – presiding over foreclosures. Nash is sympathetic to the victims but soon becomes good at it and continues to help Carver with his chicanery. He even helps Carver set up a deal that will make them both unimaginably rich.

The issue is that Nash has a conscience and it’s beginning to get pricked, particularly in the case of a particular homeowner (Guinee). And when it all comes to a head, will Nash choose money or conscience?

This is a movie that captures the Great American Nightmare circa 2015 (yes, it’s still the Great American Nightmare). It’s a story that’s all too tragically common and will hit an emotional resonance that will touch even those who haven’t had money problems in their lives.

Garfield takes a role that he’s really more suited to than the teenage costumed superhero that he has been playing most recently. He’s still not the commanding screen presence that he might be but he’s a talented actor in his own right. What shines here though is Shannon as the slimy real estate agent whose greed and cynicism are palpable. He has a speech in which he talks about America bailing out winners that sounds like something Trump would say. I daresay that the orange-haired Republican Presidential candidate would probably like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

Dern, who has become one of the best actresses that is always getting notice but never getting noticed if you catch my drift, is once again magnificent here. She is the movie’s conscience and there are few actresses who can pull it off without being maudlin but Dern accomplishes it. She probably won’t be more than an afterthought for a Best Supporting Actress nomination here but that’s more because the script goes off the rails at the end.

Yeah, the ending. Let’s talk about it. What bugs me about Hollywood endings is that you establish a character, establish their credibility and then as the movie ends suddenly they change and act a completely different way than they’ve acted throughout the film. That’s not the way real people act and audiences know that. If you’re going to be charitable through the first 85% of the movie, the audience is going to expect you to be charitable the last 15% too. You have to follow your own internal logic. This movie doesn’t do that.

Still, it’s a fine movie that for the most part covers an issue that faces all American homeowners even those who think they’re well off. Other than that 1% we’ve heard so much about, most Americans are only a single paycheck away from financial issues and once you’ve got those it can be excruciatingly difficult to climb out from under them. The game is rigged that way and nobody wants to talk about it. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Bahrani who do.

REASONS TO GO: Real life horror. Terrific performances by Shannon and Dern.
REASONS TO STAY: Inexplicably bad ending.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language including some sexual references and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATINGS: 7/10
NEXT: All This Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

No Escape


Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell carry the movie.

(2015) Action (Weinstein) Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Claire Geare, Sterling Jenns, Stacy Chbosky, Tanapol Chuksrida, Jon Goldney, Nophand Boonyai, Thanawut Kasro, Kanaprat Phintiang, Bonnie Jo Hutchison, Danai Tung Thiengtham, Vuthichard Photphurin, Manfred Iig, Bonnie Zellerbach, Karen Gemma Dodgson. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

It is one thing to be in a situation in which you are in mortal danger. It is quite another when your entire family is in that same situation with you. The entire dynamic is changed; you may fight for your own life but when it comes to your family…

Jack Dwyer (Wilson) is an engineer whose business has gone belly up. Forced to take a job to take care of his family, he goes to work for the multinational Cardiff Corporation, going to a Southeastern Asia country to work on cleaning up their water supply. He is going to be there for some time, so he brings his family – wife Annie (Bell), daughters Lucy (Jenns) and Beeze (Geare). The girls are a bit on the spoiled side – Lucy, a pre-teen, acts out constantly while the younger Beeze has a maniacal attachment to a stuffed teddy bear named Bob.

The family befriends scruffy Hammond (Brosnan), a British ex-pat, on the flight over and when the car that Cardiff was supposed to send around to fetch them doesn’t arrive, Hammond and his local buddy Kenny Rogers (Boonthanakit), who runs a taxi service and is freakishly devoted to the singer in question that everyone knows him by that name, offers to give the exhausted family a lift to the hotel. Once there, the phones, television and internet aren’t working. Jack heads down to the concierge (Boonyai) to complain about the situation and ends up spending some time with the womanizing drunken Hammond at the bar.

What Jack doesn’t know is that the country’s prime minister (Photphurin) has been assassinated and a rebel coup has begun. The rebels, easily identified by their red bandannas, are virulently anti-foreigner and what Jack also doesn’t know is that they’re particularly pissed off at his company who have taken over their country’s water supply.

While out to fetch a newspaper the next morning, Jack runs smack into a confrontation between rebels and riot police and is caught in the middle. As he runs back to the hotel, he soon finds to his dismay that the rebels not only have numerical superiority but the upper hand; they are well-armed and are completely overrunning government forces. They are also executing foreigners on sight. Jack, realizing the situation is out of hand, goes to collect his family including the willful Lucy who has gone AWOL to the hotel swimming pool. Once he collects his family, he takes them on the advice of Hammond to the hotel roof, which turns out to be not as safe as he would have thought when a rescue helicopter turns out to be anything but. In order to escape he is forced to throw his screaming reluctant children to the roof of an adjacent office building and hide them there after the inhabitants are butchered by the rebels. They try to head for the American embassy, but even though it is only a few blocks away it might as well be on the moon, considering how dangerous the streets are.

Dowdle, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew, has done some fairly high-profile genre work in the past, including Devil, Quarantine and As Above, So Below. This is less a genre film and more of an action thriller, broken down to almost a primal level – a man trying to protect his family, doesn’t get any more primal than that.

Wilson and Bell aren’t the first choices I’d make to cast an action movie, but they do credible jobs here, even if Bell is given little to do but be menaced by rebels and to try and calm down her hysterical children. What I like about the roles is that neither Wilson or Bell are ex-Navy SEALs or kickboxing champions. They are ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation and from time to time they freak out, understandably.

The kids though are another matter. They are whiny, bratty and basically are there to put the entire family in jeopardy at every inopportune moment. I don’t mind that happening from time to time in the movie but it seemed like every ten or fifteen minutes in a kid would cry, disobey their parents or snivel to the point where they got noticed by angry rebels. I know the kids are part of the motivation for Jack but they needed to be less involved in the action.

Some have criticized the film for making the rebels faceless, but that’s an invalid criticism. Of course the rebels are going to be mostly faceless; this is an action movie. At one point, Hammond comments that the rebels are trying to protect his family just as Jack is. The real villain here is the faceless corporation; nobody complained that the executives of Cardiff were faceless. Political correctness, once again taken to ridiculous lengths.

The action sequences are the film’s highlights; Dowdle directs these deftly, making sure the tension is extremely high throughout. Those action fans who love that kind of thing should flock to this movie; Die Hard it isn’t but it does action right, and that’s not nearly as easy as it sounds., The cinematography isn’t bad, although the urban scenes, mostly filmed in Thailand, are a little bit scruffy. It’s the night filming which is when most of the movie takes place that looks more thrilling.

This is nice entertainment, transitioning from the late summer doldrums into the early fall doldrums and let’s face it, is about as good a movie as we’re going to get until November for the most part. There are a few plot points here that are a bit dicey but if you are willing to overlook them, this is a fairly fun action thriller that does exactly what an action thriller is supposed to do.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty harrowing in places. Wilson, Bell and Brosnan are always worth seeing.
REASONS TO STAY: The kids are far too annoying. Here’s to almost.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it graphic) and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michelle Monahan was originally cast as Annie Dwyer but when production was delayed, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of the role. Lake Bell took over the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southern Comfort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets


How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Ron Davis, Leland Brunson, Tommie Stornes, Tevin Thompson, Lucia McBath, John Guy, Cory Strolla, Vic Micolucci, Angela B. Corey, Russell Healey, Alia Harris. Directed by Marc Silver

Florida Film Festival 2015

The United States has never really been able to have peace between different racial groups, particularly the white European segment and the African-American segment. In places like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City, there have been massive protests about the murders of young unarmed African-American men by white European-American men, mainly police officers.

In Jacksonville, Florida on November 23, 2012 – ironically, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving – four young African-American boys pulled into a gas station to pick up some sundries at the convenience store on the premises. They’d just come from the local mall where Jordan Davis’ girlfriend worked and had plans to enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Like young men of any color often do, they had the music on way too loud. The driver, Tommie Stornes, went inside to make his purchases.

Into the spot next to them pulled in Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend Rhonda Rouer. They had just come from his son’s wedding and had enjoyed several cocktails; they were looking forward to continuing the party in their hotel room before driving home to Brevard County. While Rouer went inside to buy wine and chips, Dunn asked the boys to turn the music down.

Initially Tevin Thompson complied but this apparently upset Davis who turned the music back on, exclaiming that he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. This led to a verbal confrontation between Davis and Dunn. According to Dunn, Davis threatened to kill him and when Dunn saw the boy pull a shotgun out and point it at him, he pulled his own gun from the glove compartment and fired into the vehicle. Stornes, who had returned to the vehicle by this time, pulled out of the parking space and Dunn left the vehicle, continuing to fire – ten shots in all. Rouer returned to the parking lot shortly after, and Dunn calmly left, returned to his hotel room and ordered pizza.

Three of the shots had hit Davis however, and when Stornes stopped the car a short distance away, they noticed Davis gasping for air. He’d been struck in the leg, the lungs and in the aorta. They made a frantic 911 call but it was too late. Davis would die from his injuries. Dunn never called the police, never took any responsibility for his actions. He was arrested later because an eyewitness got the license plate number from his car. Police searched the boys’ vehicle and no weapon of any kind was found.

This powerful documentary doesn’t really concentrate much on the actual shooting, although there is a poignant sequence in which the last moments of Davis’ life are described while home video footage of him as a baby is displayed on the screen. Mostly, this is about the aftermath – the devastation on his parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath (they had separated when Jordan was young and his mom had since remarried), his friends and his girlfriend.

They cover the trial, following the awful ordeal of reliving the death of their son, the demonizing of the four boys that the defense used to try and apply Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. The movie is an indictment of that law as well as the mentality surrounding it. A mentality that has led to open season on young black men, that has led to massive racial tensions in a country that is supposed to be far too enlightened for them.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel angry. The pain and suffering of Jordan Davis’ parents and friends is palpable. The arrogance and self-delusion of Dunn is chilling. And even as his parents were dealing with the trial of their son’s murderer, off-camera other African-American boys were getting shot down. Given the circumstances that America has found itself in over the past year and a half, it’s hard not to put this film in that context.

However, that context has to be done by the viewer; the filmmakers make little note of them, although surely they had to be aware of what was happening elsewhere. While the movie overall is incredibly moving and emotionally wrenching, one thing was missing: Jordan Davis. We never really got a sense of who this 17-year-old young man was, or what his plans for the future were other than they probably didn’t include the NBA (his friends joke regularly about what a lousy basketball player he was). At the Q&A following the Florida Film Festival screening of the film (one of the best I’ve ever attended, by the way), his father described him as hoping to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after he graduated. He wanted to serve his country. Sadly, he never got the chance. In any case, I would have liked to have seen more of Jordan in his own story. He was more than just his murder and I think the movie would have been even more effective had we gotten to know him a little bit better.

This is the kind of tragedy that is far too common in our society. It is a senseless waste of human life. These four boys weren’t ghetto kids; they were from middle class families and had never been in trouble with the law. Even if they had been from a poor neighborhood, that still didn’t warrant what happened to them. Davis might have lost his temper and said some intemperate things, but that wasn’t worthy of a death sentence.

I don’t know that Dunn would have reacted differently had not the Stand Your Ground law been in effect. I think it’s impossible to know whether he would have or not. Chances are, the law wasn’t on his mind when he drew his weapon. What  was on his mind was anger and fear. Anger that these boys stood up to him; perhaps fear that they were guilty of being young and black. Which in his mind, did carry a death sentence.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely riveting.  Couldn’t be more timely. Nonpartisan.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have explored the underlying issues more thoroughly. Would have liked to have known more about the victim.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was initially titled 3 1/2 Minutes but has since added the 10 Bullets to the title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound

The Graduate


So here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

(1967) Comedy (AVCO Embassy) Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry, Brian Avery, Walter Brooke, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Eddra Gale, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, Kevin Tighe, Ben Murphy, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Elisabeth Fraser, Lainie Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols

With Mike Nichols, one of the more acclaimed directors of the 60s and 70s, passing away recently it behooves the critic to look back at some of his best films and this one, his second feature, is considered by many to be his best which is a difficult choice to make when you consider you also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Carnal Knowledge and Silkwood to choose from.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated from a prestigious Northeastern university and like many 21-year-olds then (and now) has not a clue where to go from here. After a party thrown by his parents to celebrate his graduation, he drives the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) home where she tries to seduce him. A little unnerved, he turns her down and scurries home.

Afterwards, he reconsiders and awkwardly arranges a hook-up at a local hotel. The affair continues on through the summer; Mrs. Robinson just in it for the sex. Mostly though Benjamin just drifts in the pool at home, not able to make a decision on graduate school or heading directly into the workforce. He’s not even looking to date anyone, although Mr. Robinson (Hamilton) and Ben’s dad (Daniels) push him into dating Elaine (Ross), the daughter of the Robinsons. Benjamin is at first reluctant and does everything possible to sabotage the date but realizes that he was unkind to the poor girl who ran out of the strip club he took her to in tears. He tries to make it up to her and the two end up connecting and Benjamin feels like he might be falling in love.

Mrs. Robinson is NOT pleased and wants him to cut things off with her daughter. Benjamin has no intention of doing so, even though Mrs. Robinson threatens to come out with their affair so Benjamin heads this threat off at the pass and tells Elaine about it. This does not go well and she ends up fleeing back to Berkeley in the fall.

Benjamin, thoroughly besotted at this point follows her there and tries to explain what happened. That’s when Mr. Robinson gets involved, letting Benjamin know that their relationship is over and he will press charges if he continues. He also lets him know he is pulling Elaine out of Berkeley and marrying her off to Carl (Avery), a high school sweetheart leaving Benjamin at a crossroads.

The American Film Institute lists this as the 17th best movie ever made which is pretty impressive when you consider that well more than 100,000 films have been made all time just in the United States alone. Nichols established himself as one of the finest film directors of all time with his first two movies (Virginia Woolf was his first) after making his name as a theatrical director, which he returned to regularly over his long career.

In many ways this was a counterculture film in the sense that it looked at the hypocrisy of American culture and examined the angst of the younger generation which was at the time beginning to rise up and rebel against the norm. When placed in the context of its time, this was a monumental touchstone to the film industry who began to break away from the strictures of the studio system and were making movies that reflected the growing unrest and taking artistic and creative risks that would redefine the medium in the 70s and set the stage for a new golden age of movies.

Hoffman was not well known when he was cast for the part; his audition consisted of a love scene with Katherine Ross which Hoffman, who had never done one, felt awkward about. It was that awkwardness that convinced Nichols to cast Hoffman, as he was looking for a kind of underdog quality to Benjamin. Hoffman’s performance was a career-maker; it established him as a major new talent and led to one of the more interesting acting careers in the history of Hollywood. Bancroft also turbo-charged her own career, playing an older woman even though she was merely 35 at the time. Her performance here is considered one of the finest of her career.

And we can’t discuss The Graduate without talking about the soundtrack. “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel was one of the greatest songs ever written for a movie and plenty of other Simon and Garfunkel songs pepper the soundtrack, most notably “The Sounds of Silence.” Few films have ever utilized the songs of a single artist the way this one did and as well.

This is definitely a movie of the 60s and while some of the visual and dialogue references are somewhat dated, the movie stands up surprisingly well. Even today the affair between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin can seem a little bit daring. One wonders how the movie would have fared if it had been made in 2014 and released now (as a matter of fact this Tuesday is the anniversary of the movie’s release). Something tells me that modern audiences would have taken to it as much as the audiences of its time did (see the Box Office Performance if you don’t believe me).

The Graduate is a bona fide classic and should be required viewing for all film students and film buffs alike. There are many transcendent moments in the movie – the climactic scene in the church is one that I can watch over and over again, for example. While the movie may feel a bit too sophisticated for some, it nonetheless remains a movie whose greatness cannot be denied.

WHY RENT THIS: Bancroft and Hoffman both set the bar high. One of the best films about sexual politics ever. One of the greatest soundtracks ever. Holds up pretty well approaching 50 years later.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little dated in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and situations, sexual situations and a bit of mild foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Faye Dunaway was offered the part of Elaine but turned it down in favor of Bonnie and Clyde.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a one-on-one interview with Dustin Hoffman and an extensive six-page booklet with notes and photos from the film. The 40th Anniversary edition (from 2007) includes the Hoffman interview but oddly not the booklet. It does contain a featurette on how the movie influences modern directors, a four-song CD with the Simon and Garfunkel songs from the movie and finally, a featurette on the seduction scene and what prompted the characters to do it.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Stream), Amazon (Stream only), Vudu (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye, Columbus
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: From Russia With Love