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

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Live and on location.

Live and on location.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, Scott Takeda, Eli Goodman, Soledad O’Brien, Thomas Kretschmann, Vic Browder, Ava del Cielo. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

There is a certain glamour in war correspondence. Being close to the front lines, embedded with fighting units, hearing the bullets whine overhead, seeing the results of the carnage…it takes a certain kind of personality to love it.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copywriter for a cable news network whose career is going nowhere. So, too is her love life as her boyfriend (Charles) is rarely home and when he is he’s not really engaged. When the opportunity to volunteer to cover the war in Afghanistan arises, she seizes at it like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.

Once in Kabul, her perceptions change. What was a desperate move to save a floundering career and a boring life becomes a lifestyle. Aided by a crusty Marine Crops general (Thornton), a lecherous local public official (Molina) and a gentle but effective local fixer (Abbott), she begins to learn her way about the armed forces and Afghanistan. She is befriended by a blonde and beautiful rival (Robbie) and an irreverent Scottish photographer (Freeman) with whom she shares moments of terror – and drunken revelry as well.

However, modern mass media is a monster with an endless appetite and the sorts of stories that should be getting told aren’t. Kim’s frustration begins to tell, particularly as her star – once on the rise – is definitely on the wane at the network. She needs a big new story to save her and when it finally presents itself, might just end up being a little too close to home.

This is based on the memoirs of an actual war correspondent, Kim Barker (the first “R” is inexplicably left out) who worked for the print media (not cable) and whose life story only slightly resembled what appears in the film. Ah, Hollywood – but then again, nobody ever said this was a documentary anyway. It was also mostly filmed in New Mexico, standing in for Afghanistan.

There has been some controversy regarding the casting, with white actors Molina and Abbott playing Afghan roles and I can see the point. Then again, both of them do very fine work here – which is likely why they were hired. I don’t know that you necessarily have to hire the same ethnic group to play every single role – and there is more scrutiny on Hollywood’s non-white employment record as of late. I’m not insensitive to that. However, it also must be said that the PC press can take that to extremes, so let us be wary of that. There’s inclusive and there’s impractical.

Fey does some of the best work of her career. That said, she is the queen of the smug look; she is also the queen of the cabbage patch which she seems to work in to her every film (stop it, Tina…just…stop it). There are occasions when that is inappropriate in the film and you’re taken out of a serious moment and thrust into an SNL sketch. However, throughout most of the movie, we get to see a greater emotional range than we’re used to from Fey. She still hasn’t shown the kind of range that one needs to be a great dramatic actress but I think it’s within her grasp. She certainly takes a step in the right direction here.

We’ve seen the life of a war correspondent in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and I’ll be honest, in some ways this film is a bit redundant but in other ways it makes a nice companion piece. We get that it is indeed a masculine profession but there are plenty of women who do it now and seeing the experiences of one is certainly welcome and worthy.

The movie isn’t exactly action-packed although it has its moments; there are an awful lot of expository scenes and that might irritate the attention-challenged. Plus one other roadblock is that films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have traditionally not done well at the box office (with one or two exceptions); perhaps the American public is war-weary but I think it is more that the American public really doesn’t care.

I do like the concept behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but I’m a little disappointed about the execution. There is plenty to recommend about it here, but the movie fails to take advantage of some of its potential by going for easy when they should go for deep. Don’t expect a movie that’s going to ultimately give you a ton of insight (when it could have) but at least it will be entertaining while it is not terribly illuminating.

REASONS TO GO: Solid dramatic performance by Fey. Nicely illustrates the allure of a war correspondent’s life.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the slow-paced side. A little bit too glib at times.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, some brutal war images, a little bit of drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fey dedicated the film to her father, who passed away during filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Forbidden Kingdom

Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall

Sleepless in Seattle


An affair to truly remember.

An affair to truly remember.

(1993) Romance (Tri-Star) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson, Carey Lowell, David Hyde Pierce, Barbara Garrick, Frances Conroy, Tom Riis Farrell, Rob Reiner, Gaby Hoffman, Dana Ivey, Calvin Trillin, Michael Badalucco, Kevin O’Morrison, La Clanche du Rand, Tom Tammi, Valerie Wright, Caroline Aaron. Directed by Nora Ephron

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-5

Back in the 90s (and who knows, maybe it’s still true) radio call-in shows were big. Many of them provided a kind of social service, therapy for those who couldn’t afford a therapist and didn’t mind thousands of people (and maybe millions in the case of syndicated talk show hosts) listened in on their problems and phobias.

Annie Reed (Ryan) is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She doesn’t really believe in romance, although she believes that she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s engaged to Walter (Pullman), a nice enough guy who clearly adores her but she just doesn’t feel inspired, particularly as Walter is allergic to – um, everything. She listens to the Dr. Marcia (Aaron) show late at night and yaks about it with her good friend and editor Becky (O’Donnell) the next day.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) – not one of the lost Baldwin brothers – is in a deep funk. His wife Maggie (Lowell) succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago but things just aren’t getting any better, not even after moving to Seattle from Chicago with his son Jonah (Malinger). Jonah worries about his dad, who can’t seem to get past his wife’s death and resume living and maybe even find happiness. Sam is skeptical about it – he knew he had found his soulmate from the first touch. “It was magic,” he muses, “You don’t get that lucky twice.”

Jonah is so concerned that he phones in the Dr. Marcia show and calls his dad to the phone. Reluctantly he gets on and tells his story and as Dr. Marcia coaxes his feelings about Maggie out of him, Sam is so eloquent, so heartfelt, so lost that he stimulates the maternal instincts of every woman listening. From then on he gets bags of mail from women proposing marriage or just wanting to meet.

One of the listeners is Annie who is drawn to his story. After watching a rebroadcast of An Affair to Remember she impulsively writes an expressive letter to Sam, proposing that they meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. At the urging of Becky (who also mails the letter after Annie chickens out), she flies out to Seattle to ostensibly do a story on the talk radio phenomenon but primarily to find Sam. However, after seeing him with his sister Suzy (Wilson) she gets the mistaken impression that he has a girlfriend and flees back to Baltimore, ready to marry Walter.

In the meantime, Jonah reads Annie’s letter and tries to get his dad, who by now is dating a co-worker (Garrick) that Jonah hates, to make the rendezvous but Sam refuses. Instead, Jonah writes Annie as Sam and tells her that he’ll be there.

More I will not tell you. Either you know what happens so there’s no point in recapping the plot further, or you don’t know and I don’t want to ruin the expert heartstring tugging you’ll undergo. Romantic movies tend to be very much formulaic these days, but this one is certainly not. Yes, it does borrow liberally from classic romances (particularly the aforementioned An Affair to Remember) but it’s smarter than most rom-coms and treats its audience as intelligent people while gently poking fun at how men and women express their emotions.

The interesting thing about this movie is that Hanks and Ryan spend very little screen time together but are often considered to be one of the prime screen couples of the last 20 years – yes, it’s been two decades since this came out. The characters are so compelling thanks in no small part to the sterling performances by Hanks and Ryan that people root for them to be together with unbridled fervor. The chemistry between the two is often discussed when this picture comes up for discussion, but maybe people are channeling their performances from Joe vs. the Volcano which they both previously starred in. They would go on to do one more movie together but for many they are the greatest screen couple since Hepburn and Tracy.

The interesting thing is that Walter, Annie’s fiancée, is really a nice guy whose only fault is that he’s not Tom Hanks. Pullman and O’Donnell both deliver solid supporting performances. The only acting letdown belongs to Malinger and it’s really through no fault of his own; the script (particularly during the last third which focuses more on him) calls on him to do more precocious things and instead of being cute it becomes painfully obnoxious. He’s one of those screen kids who knows better than adults and outwits them, often with the help of his friend Jessica (Hoffman).

This is one of the classic romantic movies. There are women who get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the film. As Valentine’s Day cuddle movies go, you could certainly do much worse. Undoubtedly putting this on the TV and snuggling up together with some microwaved popcorn and a couple of glasses of wine could lead to a memorable evening of your own.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Hanks and Ryan. The prototypical multi-hankie modern romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kid can be a bit obnoxious.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The radio call-in listener Desperate in Denver is voiced by Nora Ephron.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The most recent limited edition Blu-Ray includes a separate score only track as well as a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $227.8M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Affair to Remember

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The LEGO Movie

The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

FFF Banner 2012

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen