Casting JonBenet


A gaggle of beauty queens await their call.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green

 

The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.

The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.

Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.

Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.

We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.

As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.

Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.

It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.

Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kate Plays Christine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Post

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Above & Beyond: Giving Up the Day Job


EDM goes acoustic ensemble.

(2018) Concert Film (Abramorama) Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, Paavo Siljamaki. Directed by Myles Desenberg and Paul Dugdale

 

From time to time musicians feel a need to reinvent themselves and/or their sound. This can be done for a number of reasons; to keep their music from stagnating, to keep their own interest high, to move into a more commercially viable arena or to find success where they had found none previously.

The latter is not the problem for the Grammy award-winning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) group Above & Beyond. The core trio of Grant, McGuinness and Siljamaki has inspired millions of fans with their aggressive beats tempered with chill-down breaks that gave them one of the most rabid and loyal fan bases in all of electronic music, no small feat. It was the reaction of their fans to those breaks that inspired them to take the steps from the DJ booth into the recording studio with acoustic guitars in hand and pianos on their mind instead of samplers.

The results are actually gorgeous. Their goal is playing the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, one of the most distinctive and respected concert venues on Earth – think of it in terms of similar to Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Royal Albert Hall (which they also play during the course of the film). For the Hollywood Bowl concert they enlist an orchestra of L.A. classical musicians to accompany their 17-musician band (which includes four vocalists; one male and three females. It sounds in many ways like Darkwave music – a kind of ethereal goth – crossed with ambient pop. These are acoustic versions of the band’s own songs, sometimes with lyrics added but re-imagined for the concert stage rather than the dance club. Not being a fan of EDM myself, I was unfamiliar with their music so it came as a surprise to me that the songs were so inherently musical. It’s caused me to reassess my opinion of EDM in general.

The film doesn’t get any favors from their marketing department who characterize it as following the journey of the band from the DJ booth to the Hollywood Bowl. I suppose in a strict sense that’s true, but this is almost entirely a concert film rather than a musical documentary; we don’t see much of how the band transitions, mainly seeing rehearsal gigs and some backstage footage and interviews. The film follows the concert film cliché of moving from one song interspersed with rapturous fan reactions to some interview footage and talking head appearances from the band, to another song with rapturous fan reactions to watching the band hanging out on a New York basketball court to another song…you get the drift. I was expecting yin and I got yang which can be disconcerting when you’re viewing the film – be warned in that regard.

The fan reactions seem a little over-the-top from time to time. Some critics have sneered that it is manipulative, but aren’t all concert films essentially gifts to their fans? Of course the fans are portrayed as reverent. Honestly I wonder sometimes if various online movie review sites and daily newspapers hire people because they are absolutely ignorant of how movies work.

As with most concert films the appeal is going to mostly be with the band’s core fans but that doesn’t mean people who aren’t into the band can’t enjoy this either. It might very well make some new fans for the band which I suspect is icing on the cake for them. It might not convince you to paint your face with Day-Glo colors, grab some glowsticks and head out to your local palladium to dance and sweat your ass off but it may well make you wish, as I do, that the soundtrack to this film and that concert is eventually released. I would buy that in a New York minute.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely stunning. This might very well change your appreciation of EDM bands as it did mine.
REASONS TO STAY: The film utilizes standard concert film tropes. I could have used much more background about the transition from electronic than acoustic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the group hadn’t performed in acoustic venues regularly, they have released two acoustic albums prior to the Hollywood Bowl show depicted here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Disaster Artist

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 Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

India’s Daughter


Protesters stand up for women's rights in India - even when they can't stand.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in India – even when they can’t stand.

(2015) Documentary (Paladin) Asha Singh, Badri Singh, A.P. Singh, Dr. Maria Misra, Laila Seth, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Kalyani Singh, Satendra, M.L. Sharma, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mango Lal, Dr. Sandeep Govil, Amod Kanth, Raj Kumar, Kavita Krishnan, Pramod Kishwa, Dr. Rashmi Ahuja, Pratibha Sharma, Gupal Subramanium, Puneeta Devi, Sheila Dixit. Directed by Leslee Udwin

It is estimated that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. It is a huge problem in the sub-continent which is an emerging global economic power. Part of the issue revolves around cultural attitudes towards women which can only be described as barbaric, backwards and unenlightened.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student with a bright future ahead of her. When she was born, her mother Asha and father Badri “celebrated as if they’d had a boy,” which is unusual even in Delhi where the Singhs live. Although relatively poor (Badri is a worker at Delhi’s airport), they had land that they intended to give Jyoti as a dowry when she got married.

Jyoti had other ideas. Her dream was to bring modern medical care to impoverished villages such as the one where the Singhs held ancestral land; she convinced her parents to sell the land so she could get the education she needed. When they agreed, the rest of the family was dumbfounded. Jyoti’s tutor Satendra described the family as “traditional with a progressive mindset.”

On December 16, 2012 Jyoti had completed her last exam and would start her internship the following day. Her entry into medicine would mean a lucrative salary that would enable to bring her family out of poverty. A friend invited her to see the movie Life of Pi and she went for an evening out.

At about 9:30pm, she and her friend boarded a private bus that offered to take her home. As recounted by Mukesh Singh (no relation), the driver of the bus, several of his friends who were along for the ride – his brother Ram Singh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma and a juvenile whose name has been unrevealed due to Indian law, approached the couple and asked them why they were out so late when Jyoti’s friend was clearly not her husband, her father or her brother. When the friend told them to mind their own business, he was viciously attacked and beaten. The other men then dragged Jyoti into the back of the bus and proceeded to rape her over and over while the bus circled around the streets and highways of Delhi, the girl screaming for help throughout.

The rape was a brutal one; she was beaten, bitten (dental impressions were among the forensics used to find and convict the men) and raped so savagely not only by the men but using a crowbar as an insertion that the juvenile, who appears to have been particularly bloodthirsty, reached inside her and pulled out her intestines. The bus finally stopped across from a hotel and the two victims were thrown off and left for dead.

A passing police patrolmen discovered them – they were astonishingly still alive – and summoned an ambulance. While her friend would recover from his beating, Jyoti would linger on for several days before succumbing to her injuries. The doctors who treated her described it as a minor miracle that she had not been dead on the scene.

The incident galvanized Indian women. Protests erupted in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere and despite some police overreaction (tear gas grenades and water cannons were used against the mostly female crowds) the government of India convened a special legal committee to look into the laws governing sexual assault in India headed up by the respected judge Laila Seth and some real changes were made.

Director Udwin interviews Mukesh who clearly feels no remorse for what happened – in fact, in his view the bitch had it coming because she was out late and not properly escorted. If she hadn’t fought back, he opined, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as if women are supposed to simply accept that they are being raped and move on. Mukesh, like his friends residents of a Delhi slum, can quite conceivably blame his archaic attitudes to ignorance and poverty.

What is jaw-dropping however is that his lawyers A.P. Singh (again, no relation to the victim) and M.L. Sharma – who are presumably well-educated  – reflect the same attitudes. How much of it is legal grandstanding in order to support their clients is debatable but it is clear that the attitudes towards India are outdated at best and misogynistic for certain. These attitudes are colliding with the desires of Indian women, who see how women in the West are enjoying careers and independence, to have the same for themselves. Udwin exposes this conflict dispassionately and looks at the incident as a catalyst. However, one can’t help but feel affected by the obvious grief of the girl’s parents. Jyoti, whom the Indian media dubbed “India’s Daughter” (hence the title of the documentary) became a symbol but we get a sense of who the girl was, although she only appears in the movie as pictures of a toddler for the most part.

There are a few flaws here. The format is very much like an American television newsmagazine program which means a whole lot of talking heads. The musical score occasionally, in order to sound ominous I suppose, is a bit overbearing and sounds like it was purchased in the same way as stock footage. While there is plenty of footage of the rioting and protests that followed Jyoti, there is little footage of the woman herself which may well be at the request of her family, who were at the center of a media storm in India back when this all happened; I can imagine they wouldn’t want a repeat of that.

At the end of the short but powerful documentary (which has aired on British television already), Udwin scrolls statistics of sexual assault, female genital mutilation and other sexual violence against women from various countries around the globe and those statistics are sobering. India isn’t the only place where women are raped after all, but perhaps their attitudes towards women may be more openly misogynistic than in other more supposedly developed countries where that misogyny is hidden below the surface but no less uncivilized. This could be an early contender for the Documentary feature Oscar. However, you won’t be able to see this in the country where perhaps it would do the most good – India has banned the film because of the views espoused by the rapists and their defenders which shows that India has a very long way to go in making things better. Sweeping a problem under the rug and ignoring it is generally the best way for that problem to grow worse.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally raw. An eye-opening look at attitudes towards rape and women in general in India. Complete look at the issue. Respectful to the victim.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking heads. Occasionally overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent and sexual content, including graphic descriptions of rape and mutilation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Back in Time

Desire for Beauty


The things we go through to look good.

The things we go through to look good.

(2013) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Kulesza, Maria Czubaszek, Lew Starowicz, Mikolaj Lizut, Katazyna Miller, Piotr Najsztub, Julia Pietrucha, Maria Rotkiel, Marzena Sienkiewicz, Agnieszka Szulim. Directed by Miguel Gaudencio

There is no doubt that our society in general is overly obsessed with physical beauty. We place a great deal of stock in it; We choose our mates largely due to it; we buy products because of it. Sex sells, so we all want to be sexy.

This unusual Polish documentary looks at the obsession with beauty as four individuals begin the road to plastic surgery. Kasia, a wife and mother, is going for a breast augmentation. She has always wanted larger breasts and although her husband insists that this isn’t something that he desires, she quite candidly tells interviewer Agata Kulesza (an acclaimed Polish actress, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the aunt and judge Wanda in Ida) that she is doing this for herself alone.

Kuba is an aspiring actor who seems handsome enough already; he thinks a little Botox here and there might get him roles that he wasn’t being considered for until now. Monika is having a few nips and tucks done; she wants to remain young and beautiful for as long as she can. However, she is denied the procedures she wants done; the doctors believe she is too young for it.

And finally there’s Kamilla, whose nose has been the cause of much bullying (we see a re-enactment of her school days when a bitchy young girl, after borrowing some smokes in the bathroom, proclaims haughtily “If I were you, I’d get plastic surgery.” Fed up with the teasing and the bullying, she resolves to get rhinoplasty which she sees as the key to finding peace and happiness for herself.

We follow all four of these subjects through the various stages of surgery, with Kulesza conducting periodic interviews while in Kamilla’s case, we see re-enactments of the teasing she has to endure. In fact, this is an odd mixture of documentary and drama; one reviewer characterized it as “reality TV” and she isn’t far off the mark. This isn’t scripted all that much but there are segments which certainly are. How much of it is scripted however is not very easily discernible; some of the situations seem rather contrived and/or convenient if indeed they are real.

The cinematography is exquisite here; some of the images are downright cinematic paintings. Subjects look pensively into the horizon, the light of the setting sun creating an angelic corona around their heads. Mothers play with children, chasing after them in the park. Friends hang out in clubs, dancing to the mechanized beat of modern music. While not all of the footage is germane to what is happening in the storylines, the movie would be less beautiful without it.

The subject of beauty and our attitudes towards it has an inherent problem; the subject itself is shallow. Beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and the societal obsession with it is something that would make a great documentary. At times there is some depth to the conversation here but it is incomplete; the director, who has done a couple of features as well as a passel of award-winning music videos, seems more focused on beautiful images than in depth of thought. Perhaps that is his point in a nutshell.

Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more on why society is so wrapped up in physical beauty and why it is such a driving force. This much is universal; it’s the same in Asia as it is in Europe and the Americas. Why is beauty so important to us? Why aren’t we more focused on, say, intelligence, or character? Alas, these questions aren’t even asked and perhaps this isn’t the right venue for it. The people who are focused on here are fairly simple and even though they are all already beautiful, they are not satisfied with it. That is, perhaps, the point after all.

The movie received a brief theatrical release in Europe but is hitting VOD here and can also be seen on Vimeo. While this is certainly not the last word on the subject, Desire for Beauty serves as an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on how this obsession with looks is impacting society – and ourselves.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Interesting blend of drama and documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: Not always easy to tell where dramatic recreations begin and documentary ends. Unavoidably shallow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity and harsh language as well as some graphic surgery footage not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kulesza accepted her role in the film after meeting with the director despite the fact that there was no script written.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Roar

Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner