Boom Bust Boom


Terry Jones is bullish.

Terry Jones is bullish.

(2016) Documentary (Brainstorm) Terry Jones, John Cusack, Andy Haldane, Zvi Bodie, Robert J. Shiller, Steven Kinsella, Perry Mehrling, Dirk Bezemer, Wilhelm H. Buited, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steve Keen, James Galbraith, Randall Wray, Nathan Tankus, Daniel Kahneman, Laurie Santos, Lucy Prebble. Directed by Terry Jones, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett

It is a fact of life that our lives are deeply affected by forces largely out of our control. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these forces are literally beyond our understanding; one of those things is economics. Economics make the world go round in a capitalist society; when the system is working properly, prosperity is shared. When it isn’t however…

Jones, who some may remember from the subversive Monty Python comedy team from the 70s, aims to make sense of why bad things happen to economies. Using interviews with economists and historians to explain why economies that are booming end up going bust eventually.

The concepts are certainly interesting; basically Jones and his fellow filmmakers are arguing that the tendency for good economic times to breed a kind of euphoria that leads to bad decision making, an onset of greed and an eventual “bubble bursting” which takes the economy down. A lot of the concepts here have been argued by now-deceased economists like John Kenneth Galbraith (who like the other deceased thinkers are portrayed here by puppets and voiced by voice-over actors) and present-day ones like Haldane, Kinsella and Bodie.

But unlike most of the financial documentaries we’ve seen in the last couple of years, the finger-pointing that goes on (and there is some, to be honest) is tempered by an optimism that things can change. However our entire institutional mindset has to change, beginning with how we educate our up and coming economists. We see some interviews with college students studying for economic degrees who know little of the history of economic crises, from the Dutch Tulip crisis of the 17th century to the Great Depression of 1929 to even the most recent recession.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, which makes not teaching it more of a crime. And in some ways, this entire documentary – only an hour and 15 minutes long – feels a bit like a teaching aid at an advanced high school teaching economics for students who might want to be economists someday. The puppets and animations that accompany the fairly dry talking head interviews are at least entertaining if at times simplistic.

However, there aren’t enough of them to really elevate this and the interviews can be a bit sleep-inducing, although there are a few charismatic sorts here including activist-actor Cusack who has some pretty strong opinions on the 2008 subprime bubble collapse. There’s also some fascinating information not only about the various bubbles but how they are part of human nature as anthropologist Laurie Santos shows an experiment in which monkeys on an island off of Miami were made to have a capitalist-like society with “monkey money” exchanged for the things they need and how they made horrible decisions based on manipulation by the scientists.

I find stuff like this fascinating; Da Queen, who works in the financial sector, is not normally very enthusiastic about these sorts of documentaries – it’s too much like being at work, she tells me – but she liked this one even more than I did, which should tell you something. I did find the interviews to be occasionally sleep-inducing, but that doesn’t mean that Jones and cohorts don’t explain the subject well, nor that the information isn’t good and necessary.

Not everyone will get into this, but this is useful information in understanding how the economy works. And we all should have at least a basic understanding of it, particularly if we intend to do any investing. If we’re going to make the right decisions with our money, we should understand how the system can work against us – or for us. Education is the first step in making things better; movies like this one provide it.

REASONS TO GO: The puppetry and some of the animation is fun. Some very interesting historical information.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry topic indeed. A whole lot of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and topics.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Directors Terry and Bill Jones are father and son, respectively.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capitalism: A Love Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Automatic Hate

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Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

New Releases for the Week of June 5, 2015


Insidious Chapter IIIINSIDIOUS CHAPTER III

(Gramercy) Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Lin Shaye, Tate Berney, Michael Reid MacKay, Steve Coulter. Directed by Leigh Whannell

The third installment in the popular horror series is a prequel, focusing on psychic Elise Rainier and her reluctant entry into the spirit world in order to help a family and in particular an innocent teen girl in grave mortal peril from angry spirits from the other side, detailing her first steps into the otherworld known as The Further.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, frightening images, some language and thematic elements)

Barely Lethal

(A24) Hailee Steinfeld, Sophie Turner, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba. A young girl trained from childhood to be a deadly assassin has already tired of the life and yearns for a more normal adolescence. Determined to leave the life she never asked for, she fakes her own death and enrolls in a suburban high school. Her ex-handler and current nemesis discovers the ruse and sends an operative in to fetch her, which as you can guess the young lady in question isn’t planning to allow, particularly when her new friends and social circle are put in mortal danger.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Spy Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Lake Square Leesburg
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, teen drinking, language, drug references and some action violence)

Entourage

(Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jeremy Piven.  Vincent Chase, a bona fide movie star surrounded by his friends from when he was young, is living the good life. Ari Gold, agent-turned-studio head who has a movie for his former protégé but Vincent isn’t biting – unless he can direct. The acclaimed HBO series/Hollywood satire hits the big screen in a move that is likely to skewer a few egos that need skewering.

See the trailer, interviews, a promo and fan video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity and some drug use)

Love and Mercy

(Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks. Brian Wilson was the genius behind the Beach Boys sound and success. One of the most gifted composers and arrangers of his time, he was beset by demons of an abusive childhood and exacerbated by drug abuse. After a complete mental breakdown, he comes under the care of psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy whose motivations and methods become suspect. Emotionally fragile, he meets a courageous woman who helps him emerge from the darkness and back into his music.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music Biography
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, drug content and language)

Saint Laurent

(Sony Classics) Gaspard Ulliel, Jeremie Renier, Louis Garrel, Lea Seydoux. Designer Yves Saint Laurent was one of the iconic figures in fashion during the 60s and 70s. His couture changed the idea of fashion permanently and his ideas reverberate in the industry today; his lifestyle and personal problems kept the tabloids busy. He has been the subject of several films as of late; this is the most recent and features a performance by Ulliel that has been attracting some attention.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fashion Biography
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for graphic nudity/strong sexual situations, substance abuse throughout and some language)

Spy

(20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne. A CIA analyst with dreams of field work gets her chance when a ruthless arms dealer threatens world peace and because they are familiar with all of the field agents in the Agency, someone who isn’t known to them must infiltrate their organization and stop a global disaster from occurring.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Spy Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity)

Unfreedom

(Dark Frames) Victor Banerjee, Adil Hussein, Bhanu Uday, Preeti Gupta. In New Delhi, a woman is placed in an arranged marriage that she doesn’t want to undertake because she’s in love with someone else; another woman, in fact. In New York City, a fundamentalist Muslim kidnaps a liberal Muslim scholar who has outspoken views about his religion. All four will come face to face with gruesome acts of violence that will affect their views on religion, sexual identity and family.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Fashion Square Premiere Cinema
Rating: NR

1408


John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

(2007) Horror (Dimension/MGM) John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormack, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Kevin Dobson, Paul Kasey, Benny Urquidez, Gil Cohen-Alloro, Drew Powell, Noah Lee Margetts, Jules de Jongh (voice), William Armstrong, Emily Harvey, Alexandra Silber, Kim Thomson. Directed by Mikael Håfström

Our Film Library 2015

There are places that have a presence in them, a kind of echo from the past. There are other places that have a feeling in them, one that tells of contented lives – or contorted ones. Then there are places that are just effin’ evil.

If Mike Enslin (Cusack) seems bitter it is with good reason. His career as an author has all but faded into oblivion and the death of his daughter Katie (Anthony) has split he and his wife Lily (McCormack) even further apart. He is intent on doing a sequel to one of his most successful books, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses with a new conceit, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotel Rooms. However, the cynical Mike doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He really doesn’t believe in anything.

He gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan with the cryptic message “Don’t Go in 1408.” He takes this as a personal challenge and heads promptly for the Dolphin. He demands to be given room 1408 to stay in but Olin (Jackson), the manager of the hotel, is reluctant. Mike invokes a New York state law that requires the hotel to rent the room to him so long as it is up to standards. Olin responds that 56 people have died in that room in 95 years and nobody has lasted more than an hour. Mike thinks that Olin is trying to create a mystique that will attract people to the hotel and dismisses his claims. Reluctantly, Olin allows Mike to rent the room.

At first, the room seems like any other room in any other hotel. Then, little things start to happen; the clock radio begins playing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for no reason. Strange calls from the front desk about food Mike hasn’t ordered. Then, he begins to see spectral visions of past inhabitants of the room and the clock radio begins a countdown from 60:00.

The visions begin to grow more terrifying and his dead daughter appears on the hotel TV set. Mike’s attempts to leave the room are fruitless, the door knob breaking off in his hand. An attempt to leave through the air conditioning ducts gets him attacked by a mummified former guest.

Soon it becomes apparent to Mike that the room isn’t just interested in him; it wants his estranged wife to come to the hotel and enter room 1408. Knowing that he was wrong about the room, that it is indeed an evil place, he must somehow prevent the room from claiming the last vestige of his family.

This adaptation of a Stephen King short story is one of the finest adaptations of his works ever, right up there with The Mist and the first Carrie. Some have compared it (favorably and not) to King’s other haunted hotel story, The Shining although like King himself, I never warmed to Kubrick’s version of the novel and never found it particularly scary. Not so for this one.

Cusack was at his best here, playing an embittered man and failed novelist (a favored protagonist of King’s) who still deep down has love in his heart, particularly when he is forced to confront his deepest pain. Cusack has a knack of making guys like Mike Enslin relatable and even admirable, despite being not the easiest guys to get along with in the world. While you can clearly see why Lily would have given up on their marriage, you still end up rooting for Enslin to survive.

This isn’t as effects-driven as other movies based on King’s works nor does it use as much CGI as popular horror movies. Much of the effects here are psychological and Håfström goes out of his way to implant seeds of doubt that everything happening is occurring in Mike’s head, which leaves you with a sense of not being able to trust what you see which is deliciously disorienting to the viewer.

There are false endings here – scenes that make it appear as if Mike’s ordeal is over but then something else happens and horror movies have had a tendency lately to go to that particular well a bit too often. It works okay here but it did make me grumble a bit, curmudgeonly critic that I am. You may not find it quite as annoying as I did depending on how many horror movies you watch.

Once this gets rolling it is quite a ride, although it takes a good long time to get going as Olin attempts to dissuade Mike from entering the room. Hey, if Samuel L. Jackson is scared of a room, I would certainly think twice about going inside. Of course, if Mike didn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Leaves us questioning reality throughout. One of Cusack’s best performances ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might have gone to the false ending too often.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images of violence and terror as well as some adult themes and horror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The axe wielded by the fireman late in the film is the same one Jack Nicholson used in The Shining.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an extended director’s cut with an ending different than the theatrical version (which is also included here). There are a couple of brief webisodes here as well.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $132.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror (1979)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues

Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend