DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Bombshells and Dollies


Thank heaven for pin-up girls.

(2019) Documentary (Tri-Coast Worldwide)  Raquel Perez, Pinup Little Bit, Tom Ingram, Dita von Teese, Ivy Fox, Cherry Dollface, Brittany Jean, Miss Victory Violet, Lulu Devine, The Blue-Haired Betty, Marilia Skraba, Lisa Love, Angie Honeyburst, Ruby Red, Dixie Delight, Ginger Watson, Angelique Noire, Bo Huff, Hell Cath, Bernie Dexter, Shannon Brooke.  Directed by Daniel Halperin

 

When you think of pin-ups, you likely think of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth; of pictures painted on the nose of bombers during World War II. You might even think of the artwork of Antonio Vargas.

]The art of the pin-up is not just for the Greatest Generation anymore. Once used as inspiration, to remind soldiers, sailors and airmen what they were fighting for back home, the art-form has undertaken a resurrection. Today, it is an expression of individuality as well as a celebration of feminine curves. They aren’t centerfolds however while undeniably sexy, it is a modest sexiness that shows enough cleavage and leg to be alluring but never tawdry. Generally in vintage fashions wearing the kind of heavy make-up that was popular in the 40s and 50s, modern pin-ups recreate the simple charm of those wholesome but undeniably sexy women. One of the best-known modern pin-up models, Dita von Teese, makes an appearance explaining how she got into the artform.

It is therefore not surprising that rockabilly culture has embraced the pin-up. Rockabilly, for those unaware of the musical form, was first popularized by Sun Records back in the 50s and counted Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins among its earliest stars. The form underwent a revival in the 80s with bands like the Stray Cats, the Blasters and the Kingpins leading the way. Today, it remains a cultural phenomenon with a thriving underground scene throughout the world.

Viva Las Vegas is the largest rockabilly festival in the world, with tens of thousands descending on the Orleans Hotel off the Vegas strip to celebrate the cars, the tattoos, the fashion and the music. A pin-up contest seemed like a natural addition and was suggested by renowned pin-up model Rockwell de Vil (real name: Raquel Perez) to festival founder Tom Ingram. It has become one of the most popular aspects of the festival since.

A panel of judges selects four finalists; a fifth is selected by the entrants. The remaining seven finalists are selected by Internet vote. The finalists are brought to the festival from all over North America and the world; in 2018, finalists represented the United States, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Entrants also came from Italy, Russia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and many other countries.

The women who enter are nothing like you probably expect them to be. They come from all walks of life. Several are married with children; others are gay. The entrants have a variety of ethnic backgrounds and body types; many have been the victims of body shaming while others have gotten grief for their perceived anti-feminism. The truth be told, these ladies are the ultimate expressions of feminism; they choose to celebrate their beauty as well as their intellectual abilities and their competency in other fields. These ladies have causes, from the plight of veterans to support for suicide hotlines (one contestant lost two brothers to suicide), animal rights and other community causes. Many of the models donate their time and effort to charity.

The film is partially a celebration of pin-up culture, although it is given only a kind of cursory background which mainly concentrates on its beginning during the Second World War and doesn’t really trace its evolution. What the film is primarily, however, is a competition documentary and in that sense it is fairly typical for the genre; we get to know the contestants and then wait with anticipation as the winners for the 2018 contest are announced. Undoubtedly you will have your favorites – I know I did although I won’t tell you who all of them are. I will tell you that I was particularly fond of African-American model Pinup Little Bit, who is a wife and mom and who looks to mainstream model (and sometimes pinup) Angelina Noire as a role model. I think once you see this film you’ll agree that Pinup Little Bit is a role model herself.

One of the things I liked best about the documentary was the way that the contestants bonded. While there is a certain amount of competitiveness among them, they all realize that they are part of a subculture that is often misunderstood and many of them talk about inventing a persona of a pin-up model which they adopt once the make-up goes on. It’s actually kind of a nice thing to see. There’s also a nice little coda at the end of the film that I really appreciated, and I suspect you will too.

In fact, all of the women here are. They all have their own reasons for squeezing into the vintage dresses, putting on the lipstick and getting that Victory Wave in their hair but all of them are unforgettable. I would have preferred to see a little more context for the whole pin-up culture – it’s not just for rockabilly, kids – but the documentary is reasonably fascinating and the fact that we’re talking about some truly beautiful women doesn’t hurt either.

REASONS TO SEE: Treats the women with respect.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fairly typical contest doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pendleton and Ailes attended grade school together.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Blood and Money

The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

An Irish Story: This is My Home


On the road again.

(2020) Music Documentary (VisionDave Browne, Dave Rooney, Jose Andres, John Good, Tony McGuinness, Joanne Rooney, Aisha Browne, Joe Magee, Jessie Nickoley, Chad George, Greg Ahn, Gavin Carpenter, Simon Knuusen, Heather Lingle, Daragh Kenney, Teresa Murphy, Henry Parnell, Steve Carey, Russ Warner, Jonathan Adams, Kevin Lowney, Teresa de la Haba. Directed by Karl Nickoley

 

There is an old saying: “The luck of the Irish.” Any Irishman will smile ruefully at the cliché, clap you on the back and tell you that it’s all bad luck. Looking at the history of Ireland, you can’t disagree.

Dave Browne and Dave Rooney are two Irish gentlemen who now live in the United States – Las Vegas, to be exact – and make up the Irish folk band the Black Donnellys. Some may be aware of their Guinness world record owned by Browne, for playing guitar continuously for 114 hours straight at Dublin’s legendary Temple Bar.

The duo – both hoping to get their green cards and eventually become American citizens – hit on exploring their new home and at the same time, making the record books once again by playing 60 shows in all 50 states in just 40 days. It might sound easy on paper, but trust me – it’s anything but.

We’re brought along on their journey, starting with a gig in their home base and then heading down to Arizona and California and continuing on and on and on. Everyone knows what Murphy’s Law is – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – but let us not forget that Murphy was an Irishman (he was also an optimist, but that’s another story for another day). The RV that they rent has mechanical issues. A volcanic eruption in Hawaii threatens their flight back to the mainland. Gigs get canceled with little notice, causing them to scramble.

Throughout the boys keep their sense of humor intact, even though the grind of the blitzkrieg tour clearly begins to wear on them. They also have financial issues on the way; at last they break down and start a GoFundMe page to help them get through the tour and their fans come through. It’s amazing how people respond sometimes when you just ask for help.

The music is rousing and guaranteed to get you out of your seat and on your feet, clapping your hands and dancing like a fool. Be sure to have plenty of Guinness on hand when you’re watching this at home.

The main attraction here is Browne and Rooney, however. They are about as Irish as you can get, telling stories effortlessly and with self-deprecating humor. They are charming, genuine and extremely likable. They get reflective from time to time on the struggles of Irish immigrants in the United States, and of course the things that have troubled their beautiful homeland.

Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you feel better and let’s face it, who doesn’t need that? This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting – but it was just what I needed.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is wonderful. Browne and Rooney are charming, engaging storytellers. A truly entertaining music doc.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit repetitive in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are more fookin’ F-bombs than you can fookin’ count.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Black Donnellys are currently the house band at the Ri Ra Irish Pub in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Direction: This is Us
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dosed

Method of Murder


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria Bell


Gloria Bell’s life is in a whirl.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (A24) Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Brad Garrett, Holland Taylor, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sean Astin, Chis Mulkey, Caren Pistorius, Cassi Thompson, Tyson Ritter, Barbara Sukowa, Jenica Bergere, Sandra Rosko, Sonia Gascón, Aileen Burdock, Janet Sherkow, Ari Schneider, Cristobal Tapia Montt, John Luder, Jennie Fahn. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

Laura Branigan’s 80s pop hit “Gloria” despite its sprightly synthesizers, upbeat melody and delicious pop hooks is not a happy song: “Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’/If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?” Gloria is a lonely and desperate lady; such is the fate for Gloria Bell.

Gloria (Moore) has been divorced for several years, an amicable parting that has left her alone (husband Dustin (Garrett) is remarried to Fiona (Tripplehorn) and Gloria is friends with both of them) but not ostensibly lonely. She works as an insurance claims adjuster/mediator and at night hangs out in clubs where she can dance to the pop hits of her youth. It is on one of those nights that she meets Arnold (Turturro) who is recently divorced.

Arnold is a gentle and loving man and Gloria dares to hope that he might be someone she can commit to. However, Arnold soon begins to show some character flaws; he is still tethered to his ex-wife and unemployed adult daughters both as a provider and as an emotional punching bag. Arnold turns out to be something of a weakling and at times chooses the path of least resistance rather than standing up for what he truly wants out of life. He is a man crushed by the weight of his perceived obligations. Can Gloria have a future with a man like that?

In a year where women as filmmakers are becoming more visible, so are stories that put women front and center and this one has much to recommend it. First and foremost is Julianne Moore; she is an actress who I (and I’m not alone on this) consider essential. Nearly every performance she gives is a clinic and this one is one of her best in recent years, including her Oscar-winning role in Still Alice. There are plenty of critics who say that her performance here exceeds those of the nominees for Best Actress at the most recent Academy Awards but like them, I’m skeptical that her performance in March will be remembered when nominations are being considered in January of next year. Moore brings a kind of inner light to the character that makes her excessively attractive.

Turturro also brings some humanity to a role of a feckless loser, making the character almost sympathetic despite some of the spiteful and spineless things he does, although to be fair Gloria herself doesn’t always make the best decisions; the occasion of a birthday party for her bitter and somewhat mean-spirited son (Cera) leaves Dustin feeling ignored and unwanted which isn’t much of a stretch for him who has self-image issues to begin with. I liked the performance but I can see where the character might make it hard for some audiences to relate to him.

In fact, most everybody n the movie is flawed in some way and Gloria herself as I mentioned is known to make decisions thee and me would consider questionable. She is big-hearted however and perhaps a little more optimistic (Da Queen thought “hopeful” would be a better word here but you draw your own conclusions) which leaves her open to be hurt. As together as she often seems, she is at the heart of things extremely vulnerable.

Lelio makes the clever move of using the soundtrack – which is wonderful by the way – reflect Gloria’s mood at the moment. When she is hurt, we hear Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” When she feels hopeful that her relationship with Arnold is becoming something real, we hear Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights.” At the birthday party we hear the whole family singing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” which displays her feeling of isolation. Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love” is an early melancholy moment. Moore sings along with many of the songs here – off-key on most of them.

Gloria is the kind of character that life can’t get down for long as the ending clearly shows. There is an element of triumph despite the setbacks that she suffers and while some critics have complained that there is no growth in the character over the course of the film, I disagree; the character manages to stand tall despite having her heart broken and that can’t be discounted. In any case, how much growth do you expect from a 50-something character? It’s not that someone that age can’t change, it’s that those changes are often subtle and seemingly insignificant.

I found the movie incredibly charming and occasionally moving and it’s largely due to Moore’s scintillating performance. I suspect a lot of the movie-going public is going to give this a miss because we’ve become conditioned to big blockbusters and movies with big emotional pay-offs. You don’t get either of those elements here but this is nonetheless a satisfying movie-going experience you deserve not to cheat yourself out of.

REASONS TO SEE: Moore remains an essential actress. The soundtrack is excellent, reflecting Gloria’s on-screen moods.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turturro is a great actor but his character here will drive you crazy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, some nudity, a fair amount of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All About Eve
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hurley

Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers


Bob Lazar has thoughts none of us can guess at.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard)  Bob Lazar, Mickey Rourke (narrator), Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, Mario Santa Cruz, George Knapp, Layne Keek, Phyllis Tucker, Zack Slizewski, Joy White. Directed by Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell

 

For those who believe that there is life on other worlds, the truth is out there. For those who don’t, often there is no out there when it comes to truth. Some are more agnostic about it; the odds favor life developing elsewhere but until an alien spacecraft lands on the White House lawn, it is only theory. Many believe that aliens have already landed here and much of that belief is centered around two places; Roswell, New Mexico and Groom Lake, Nevada – the latter better known as Area 51. It’s not hard to figure out why Roswell is in the picture but why Area 51?

Most people are unaware of Bob Lazar but to those true believers who accept that aliens have visited our plant he is revered. In 1989, his voice disguised and his identity hidden, he “came out” to TV news journalist George Knapp of Las Vegas that he was an engineer working at building “S-4” in the Groom Lake complex tasked with reverse engineering propulsion systems of alien spacecraft. He asserted that the U.S. government is in possession of nine of them, and that there are alien bodies as well (although he only thinks he’s seen one, a claim walked back from his initial interviews in which he claimed he’d seen them). He later followed up that interview with one in which he revealed his identity.

The scientific community initially pooh-poohed his claims and Lazar became something of a pariah in the scientific community; these days he runs an electronics manufacturing firm. However in the thirty years since he made his startling claims he hasn’t changed his story overly much except as noted. Many of his friends and family have supported him, telling anyone who will listen that Bob Lazar isn’t the type of guy to lie. They point out he hasn’t profited a dime from his claims; why commit professional suicide in that case?

Corbell apparently aspires to make this film part of a series of paranormal investigations and in some ways he’s starting off with a bang. Lazar has been notoriously press-shy for more than a decade now, rarely granting interviews. There is some interest here for those who want to learn where some of these UFO theories got started and how they accelerated into the mainstream. It’s truly an interesting story.

Unfortunately, Corbell busies up the documentary with a barrage of images of atomic age archival footage and such that after awhile make the movie seem more like a collage than a film. There is also the psychobabble narration that is mumbled by Mickey Rourke; at times poetic, at times it comes off like comic relief. It’s distracting and unnecessary.

Corbell would have been better off going the “simple is better” route. He has a compelling story and an opportunity to really develop it. However he falls into the trap of not only trying to come off as an artist but also of getting too close to the subject and ends up making a manifesto more than a documentary. There’s nothing wrong with making a film with a point of view, but you have to take your audience into account; true believers may require some corroboration but we hear about FBI raids and assassination attempts with absolutely no evidence. Corbell and Lazar claim that much of Lazar’s past has been systematically erased – his work records at Los Alamos expunged (although he does appear on a phone guide there) and his education at Cal Tech and MIT also gone. The latter claim is a little dicier; none of his professors remember him although a couple of students do. It isn’t enough to make much of a case.

This is definitely a missed opportunity that has more to do with a tyro filmmaker trying to make a splash than it does with the subject matter. Had Corbell dispensed with the pretentious narration and the onslaught of unnecessary images, this would have been a more palatable film. As it is the movie seems to be directed only at true believers and at the end of the day fails to convince anyone who isn’t already of that mindset that the truth indeed may be out there.

REASONS TO GO: There is some really interesting material here.
REASONS TO STAY: There is far too much visual input to the point that the film gets annoying after a little while. Little proof is offered to substantiate anything.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Area 51: Secrets and Conspiracies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Bleed Out

Free Solo


Why ask why?

(2018) Documentary (National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Peter Croft, Deidre Wolownick. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

 

It is in man’s nature to push the boundaries; if there’s a goal to be achieved, it is human nature to want to top it. This goes through all endeavors of life – physical, artistic and financial. Being the best at something gives us a sort of patina of immortality. Still, there are some goals so dangerous, so daunting that there can be no topping it. In fact, there are goals that some would call insane.

Alex Honnold has one of those and it involves Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan. El Cap, as climbers call it, is the Mecca of rock climbing. 3,000 feet of nearly sheer granite, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Rock climbers from all over creation flock to Yosemite Valley to try their hand at it and a good many do succeed. However, all of those who have done so have used ropes and safety equipment to make their way up the rock. Honnold wants to be the first to free solo El Cap – that is, climb without any safety equipment or ropes altogether, relying only on his body and a bag of chalk dust to keep his grip from getting slippery.

Climbing El Capitan in the best of circumstances requires rigid focus; one mistake can result in a fall. Even with safety equipment, people die climbing El Capitan. It is seriously no laughing matter and to do so without harnesses and pitons and ropes makes most sensible climbers’ blood run cold. Hell, I know nothing about rock climbing and the thought of it makes my genitalia shrivel. One mistake for a free soloist on El Capitan and the unfortunate will end up a puddle of gore on the valley floor. Pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in conquering the previously thought unclimbable Dawn Wall, recalls that most of the people he knew who made Free Soloing an essential part of their lives are dead.

The film mainly focuses on the preparation for the historic climb. The husband and wife directing team of Chin (a climber in his own right and a friend of Honnold) and documentary filmmaker Vasarhelyi painstakingly set up their camera positions, wanting to keep close enough to get great shots of Alex but also far enough away so that their presence doesn’t interfere with the climb. Chin muses at one point about how ethical his participation is, when at any moment he could see his friend plummeting through the frame to his death.

The question is why do it and that’s never really satisfactorily answered. Honnold has a girlfriend (McCandless) who is steadfast and ends up moving in with him; previous to that Honnold was living out of his van. Not because he didn’t have money – his books and sponsorship deals have been lucrative – but because he preferred not to have any commitments. McCandless is well aware that when it comes to scaling mountains, she will finish second every single time. When it’s time for Honnold to make his ascent, she is sent away and the worry is absolutely heartbreaking.

There is an extreme amount of selfishness that has to do with any sort of obsession and we see it here. The worry of those who love him may register somewhat with Honnold but at the end of the day their excruciating emotional turmoil doesn’t matter enough for him to call off his climb. To be fair this tends to be the truth for those who achieve things that are extraordinarily difficult – I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s wife wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of his going to the moon – but we are left to look at Honnold and other achievers of that nature to be, well, jerks. Honnold seems nice enough and he’s certainly charismatic but the filmmakers are only looking at one aspect of him because that’s what the movie is all about. Consequently he comes off seeming pretty one-dimensional.

It also must be said that the 20 minute sequence of Alex’s historic climb are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments in any movie this year. The climb, which lasted just under four hours, is captured with vertigo-inducing shots of the drop below Honnold’s feet and set to the sound of his breathing. It is inspiring in some ways, but also terrifying.

This is a powerful chronicle of the power of achievement and the obsession that fuels it. My issue is that some kid somewhere is likely to be inspired to follow Honnold into free soloing and end up dying because of it. For that reason, I really hesitate giving this the kind of acclaim the film probably deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The final climbing sequence is edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff and is the best sequence in the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers really focus in on Alex’s obsession to the exclusion of everything else pretty much, making him a very limited personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much peril and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honnold and Caldwell recently became the first climbers to scale the Nose on El Capitan in under two hours.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dawn Wall
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Randy’s Canvas

Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story


All she wants to do is dance, dance…

(2017) Documentary (Greenmachine) Darlinda Just Darlinda, Minnie Tonka, Gal Friday, Hazel Honeysuckle, Jezebel Express, Murray Hill, Duane Park, Garo Sparo, World Famous Bob, Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, Trigger, Jonny Porkpie, Val Valentine, Little Brooklyn, Shelly Watson, Gigi LaFemme, Anita Cookie, Tatah Dujour, Sailor Sinclaire, Blanche Debris. Directed by James Lester

Burlesque is an art form which is rarely considered as such; some reformed to it as “titty shows” and even less flattering epithets and dismiss it as pandering to the male desire to objectify women. This sort of opinion exists both on the left and the right.

Honestly, the opinion is about as wrong-headed as you can get. Yes, the dancers do remove their clothes and there is a sexual element to what they do but that’s only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We see the girls developing and practicing routines putting in long hours trying to hone their craft. There is often a sly and saucy sense of humor to their sets; one particularly clever dancer did a set in a costume resembling a Dungeons and Dragons monster known as a Beholder.

This documentary focuses on the recent revival of Burlesque and focuses on a diverse selection of dancers in the New York City area and fittingly so as the epicenter of that revival has been New York although there are strong scenes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere as well. That revival has been a hit among hipsters but also in the LGBTQ community to a very large extent. None of the real names of the dancers are there; they all use stage names much like their antecedents did with a somewhat playfully sexual tone.

The film starts with a brief summation of the history of Burlesque and quite frankly, there are documentaries that show off that history much better than this one does but that’s all right; the object here is to concentrate on the modern take on Burlesque rather than looking back at what came before. There are plenty of docs that will give you a more comprehensive look at the somewhat checkered past of Burlesque. For all intents and purposes this movie begins with the 1996 revival that was spearheaded by the Cher/Christine Aguilera film Burlesque, a few clips from which are shown here. It’s hard to believe more than twenty years have passed since that film.

The dancers are preparing for a pair of Burlesque competitions (there’s a competition for everything and documentary filmmakers will always find them) in Las Vegas (the Burlesque Hall of Fame) and New York (the Burlesque Festival) which at least for this veteran documentary viewer gets to be pretty anti-climactic. Yes, these are important events for dancers but the viewer rarely gets invested in them in the same way.

The film shines not so much when it’s looking at the competitive aspects but on the personal ones. The stories of the ladies are fascinating and no two are exactly alike. We also get a lot more in-depth things; explanations as to why they feel empowered by taking off their clothes and what led them to do it in the first place. It is also worthy of note that not all of these women fit the traditional perceptions of beauty; some are heavyset while others have a more alternative aesthetic. Every one of them though are compelling and I daresay I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t want to spend more time with any of them.

The dancing is inventive and the costumes and routines fun. The modern Burlesque dancer is into more than just twirling tassels with their breasts (although there is some of that here) but putting on a coherent show with an actual story of sorts. It is obvious that a lot of hard work and imagination goes into the creation of these routines and the viewer is sure to have a newfound respect for these women when they see the physical hardships as well as the emotional and mental ones that these ladies go through.

The background stories are compelling and the ladies for the most part articulate and thoughtful. I could have done without the two competitions – they seemed an unnecessary distraction. The movie really shines when the dancers themselves take center stage. There are a few male dancers as well (a troupe of men wins one of the competitions) and the movie doesn’t really explore the connection between the LGBTQ community and modern Burlesque but that’s okay. Those looking to see boobs and pubes may end up disappointed; much of the time nipples are covered with pasties and the crotches with panties or décor. The prurient interest factor therefore is a little bit obscured but at the end of the day this is less about the breast than it is about the rest. These are extraordinary women and you won’t be sorry to get to know them.

REASONS TO GO: The interviews with the dancers show surprising depth and self-reflection. The girls particularly Gal Friday and Hazel Honeysuckle are intriguing personalities.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary’s format is a bit formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
 RBG

The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate