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When you see the price they paid I’m sure you’ll come and join the masquerade.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm Hope Raymond, Eliza Bolvin, Brian Smick, Zachary Cowan, Valerie Fachman, Hans Probst, Ashley Raggs, Mioyoko Sakatani, Perry Fenton, Vicky Lopez, Mira Gutoff, Hunter Ridenour, George Arana, Jaime Soltys, Tony Clark, Wendy Taylor, Wendy Wyatt-Mair, Trevor Ossian Cameron, Malachi Maynard, Ethan Fry, Amber Tiana, Celina Garcia. Directed by Scott J. Ramsey

 

There are movies that exist in a larger universe, whether it be a shared cinematic universe like Marvel or the Friday the 13th franchise, or in our own reality. Then there are other movies that seem to exist in their own space, separate from what we know and understand. They create their own reality – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either.

In a beautiful mansion on the rugged Central California coast, a monthly masquerade ball for charity is about to take place. Run by a group called the Foundation (which is also the name of the production company for this and other films, something that might feel a bit uppity to some), the privacy and security of those attending are taken very seriously. The ball is by invitation only. Everyone is required to wear masks and I’m not talking the kind that the CDC recommends. Nobody is allowed to use their own names – they’re all assigned letter-and-number code names, like B7 or G8. I’m not sure if this makes them sound like spies or bingo numbers.

The grand muckety-muck of the Foundation is Christian (Raymond), also known as the Queen, and she and a select few realize that the charity ball is just a pretense; once the checkbooks are put away and the more repressed sorts have gone home for the evening, the party turns into a huge sex party where anything (and everything) goes, so long as those who attend are not forced to do things they don’t want to do. At this particular party, Christian notices an interloper and she eventually susses out the identity of Stella (Bolvin), an old rival from high school. She is now a fairly well-known sex cam performer, although her boyfriend Jackson (Cowan) isn’t aware of that fact – he thinks she’s teaching night school. She was invited by Christian’s right hand man Danny (Smick), ostensibly to add some notoriety to the mix, but in large part to get under the skin of his employer.

It doesn’t seem to faze Christian much, and she ends up inviting Stella to the next one, urging her to bring along Jackson – whom Christian had a serious crush on back in high school. At the next party, things start to go horribly wrong for Christian as her secret perversion is revealed, her mother Lynda (Fichman), a former pop star, and who suffers from dementia, turns up and all of this threatens the entire structure of the Foundation.

This is described – accurately enough – as an erotic thriller mixed in with LGBTQ+ camp with, I might add, some dark comedy thrown in for good measure. But the real meat of the movie is as a character study, as the movie really looks in at the fragile reality behind the façade of a strong capable woman that is Christian.

The movie enjoys some sumptuous production values considering its low budget, and enjoys a really nifty soundtrack. The movie missteps a bit with the acting performances – the acting is like what you might find at a Broadway audition circa 1957 and is a little overly broad and stiff for the movie camera. Some of the dialogue is cringeworthy, even though (I think) it’s meant as satire. The film owes a lot to Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut in terms of the set-up and the overall air of decadence, but there’s a very thin line between pushing boundaries and coming off as pretentious.

This isn’t strictly LGBTQ+ either – I would categorize the sex more as pansexual than anything else – and while there is a certain amount of fluidity in the lead characters’ sexuality (particularly Christian’s) there is all kinds of hooking up going on that will titillate those of any sexual preference, although there is surprisingly little graphic sexual content considering the setting.

The ending is not at all what you would expect; normally I find that to be a good thing, but to be honest, it didn’t feel earned and the more I thought about it as time has gone by since I screened the film, the less it felt right. To be fair, this was never meant to be a movie for a wide audience; this isn’t going to be everyone’s brand of vodka. If you’re the sort who delights in the erotic (particularly the fringes of same), this might well be the kind of entertainment you’re looking for and then some. For most though, it’s going to be a hard sell.

REASONS TO SEE: The production values are surprisingly strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well over the line into pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and sexual references as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A companion album featuring music by goth-pop artists The Major Arcana (of which director Scott J. Ramsey is a member) entitled At the Devil’s Ball was released in conjunction with the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Earwig and the Witch

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Pain and Gain


Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

Mark Wahlberg is surrounded by chaos.

(2013) Action Comedy (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson, Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Ken Jeong, Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz, Emily Rutherfurd, Larry Hankin, Tony Plana, Peter Stormare, Vivi Pineda, Ken Clement, Yolanthe Cabau, Persi Caputo. Directed by Michael Bay.

We all have some sort of version of the American dream – success, and the rewards that come with it. Not all of us have the tools to achieve it on our own, however – particular in these rough times when achievement is seemingly less attainable than it’s ever been.

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), a body builder in Miami, is a big believer in physical fitness. In fact, the only thing he believes in more than keeping in shape is the aforementioned American dream. He believes that he deserves it. But working at it isn’t always easy. He’s charming and is able to draw lots of new customers – younger customers – to Sun Gym, which pleases owner John Mese (Corddry).

But Lugo isn’t pleased. He’s frankly tired of building up the bodies of wealthy douchebags like Victor Kershaw (Shalhoub), one of the most unlikable people…well, ever (see below). His protégé Adrian Doorbal (Mackie) concurs. Adrian has to work at a taco joint in addition to his full-time job at the gym in order to make ends meet. Adrian also has erectile dysfunction, which requires some expensive treatments. A sympathetic nurse (Wilson) at the clinic hits it off with Adrian.

Lugo wants his share and he thinks Kershaw has too much as it is. In fact, he despises Kershaw. He decides that he is going to take everything Kershaw has. His plan? Kidnap him, torture him and get him to sign his assets over to Lugo and his crew. But they’re going to need a third partner and they find it in Paul Doyle (Johnson), an ex-con who found Jesus and is trying to stay on the straight and narrow but soon finds that he can’t afford the straight and narrow.

So these three knuckleheads, roughly on the same intellectual level as the Three Stooges, go about pulling off their crime of the century. They kidnap Kershaw who’s so unlikable and such a horrible human being that nobody reports him missing even though he’s gone for weeks.

They finally get him to sign but typically they mess things up. Adrian blows all of his share on a house which he pays for in cash (the realtor, when asked about the unusualness of this snaps “He’s black. I figured he was a rapper, an athlete”), leaving him with an operation to get his erectile issues resolved to pay for. Paul falls off the wagon like it was the Brooklyn Bridge and puts almost all of his share up his nose. They decide to go for one more score.

Meanwhile, Kershaw has seen the police who react with absolute disbelief. Nobody believes him – except retired cop and private eye Ed DuBois (Harris). DuBois knows what he’s doing and it won’t be long before these ee-dyots will mess up but he is concerned that others will get hurt before then. He doesn’t realize just how right he is.

This is one of those stories that is so bizarre that it has to be true, and it is – and apparently pretty dang close to the truth. There is one scene so outrageous, so unbelievably dumb near the end of the movie that Bay feels compelled to remind you that this is a true story, even though it is announced early on and often.

Bay is often criticized for his big overblown productions, and with a $20M budget (actually it’s a bit less than that) that won’t be the case here. In fact, I think this might be his best movie to date. It’s snappy, has a real terrific sense of humor. I laughed out loud as much here as I have at some of the better-known and better-received comedies in recent months.

Wahlberg and Johnson are two of the most engaging stars in Hollywood and both are quite willing to poke fun at themselves. They can utilize their huge likable personalities to offset the fact that they’re playing some truly despicable people who do way despicable things.

It doesn’t hurt that they have a particularly engaging cast. Shalhoub, best known for his portrayal of the neurotic Monk gets to play a real jerk and he does so with great relish. Harris, one of the steadiest and strongest actors in the business, plays it pretty straight but every so often you catch an expression that lets you know that DuBois is ready to bang his head against whatever wall might be available that these clowns might actually get away with it (although they didn’t in the end).

The crimes that are depicted here are horrible. I understand that some of the family members of those involved are somewhat upset that the story was essentially a comedy. In all fairness however I think that the tale is well-served by humor and it should be remembered that while the movie is funny, the suffering depicted is not and that the victims aren’t being made fun of. At least, I never got the sense they were – mostly the ineptness of the criminals is what is being held to scrutiny.

And that’s kind of the point here. Criminals by and large aren’t a bright lot – all Hollywood romanticizing to the contrary. For the most part, they’re effin’ dumb. Criminal jobs rarely are pulled off smoothly and more often than not, they wind up imprisoned. Pain & Gain isn’t really a cautionary tale so much as it is a reminder that while any idiot can get lucky, generally speaking their luck runs out pretty darn quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny. Terrific performances from all the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too gruesome in spots. As things spiral out of control for the main characters towards the end of the movie, the sense of the surreal becomes a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some of it quite brutal and graphic. There’s also some nudity and sexual content, a fair amount of drug use and pretty much non-stop foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg bulked up to 213 lbs. for the film, essentially using his own body building supplements to do it. While his sons loved their new muscular dad, his daughters reportedly hated his over-the-top physique.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Informant

The Art of the Steal


The Art of the Steal

The Barnes Collection.

(2009) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Richard H. Glaston, Walter Annenberg, Ed Rendell, Phillip D’Arcy, Rebecca Rimel, Raymond G. Perelman, Bernard C. Watson. Directed by Don Argott

Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia inventor, created a mild antiseptic called Argyrol (based on silver nitrate) in 1899. Used in the treatment of venereal diseases, the drug made him a millionaire by the time he was 35.

With a keen eye for art, he began to amass a collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art that up to that time the art establishment had turned its collective nose up at, particularly in Philadelphia where art was more or less background wallpaper for social climbing. When Barnes displayed his collection, the press was so vitriolic in its reviews of his beloved collection he never forgave them, particularly Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In a huff, he established his collection in his home in Lower Merion Township (outside of Philadelphia) and arranged the paintings in ways so that they worked harmoniously with one another, adding an extra dimension to their genius. There the collection sat becoming more and more acclaimed as time went by and the painters he had collected – Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne – became revered as masters. The Philadelphia Museum of Art – the one at the head of the stairs that Rocky Balboa runs up in Rocky – wanted the collection, but Barnes, having seen the art collections of friends wind up in the hands of a museum he considered a cultural house of prostitution, wrote up an ironclad will with the help of the best lawyers of his time.

He stipulated that the collection remain intact; no piece could be sold, moved or loaned. He created a foundation to oversee the collection, limiting public access to it and making it reserving it for the study by art students and those who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to a major collection of that kind. After he died in a 1951 car crash, his will kept predatory hands away from his collection.

After his death there began an epic struggle for control for the collection. On one side is the Barnes Foundation, administered by Lincoln College (an African-American college in the Philadelphia area) and the bluebloods and city fathers of Philadelphia aligned on the other. At stake is a nearly priceless collection that Philadelphia’s politicos saw as a potential tourist attraction that would generate interest worldwide.

The fact is that they did succeed at circumventing Barnes’ will and getting the collection moved from the crumbling Lower Merion facility to a new one in downtown Philadelphia, slated to open later this year. In many ways this is disturbing in that the will of someone who purchased artwork can be contravened by those who seek personal gain from its use, use they didn’t earn.

The movie has one point of view and one point of view only – that of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, who opposed the move and fought it tooth and nail. There are no opposing arguments – although to be fair, none of the opposition agreed to be interviewed for the film – which begs the questions about expanding access of a world-class collection for the world to see, as well as maintaining the facilities that would keep the artwork in the best shape possible for years to come. There is evidence that the Lower Merion facility was in danger of falling into sufficient disrepair that the artworks it housed could be damaged and potentially lost forever. There is also the argument that the art in the Barnes collection deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

The fact is that the artwork was bought and paid for by an individual who made it very clear what his wishes for the disposition of that artwork were. Whether or not that his wishes were in the best wishes of the artwork or of the general public may well be beside the point; whether a city has the right to take eminent domain over a cultural treasure in obviation of the wishes of those with legal control of that treasure. It is a point not explored by the film but then again, perhaps it wasn’t even a question for the filmmaker.

WHY RENT THIS: A very concise, well presented documentary about an outrageous contravening of the will of a Philadelphia art collector.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is literally no other viewpoint but the one of the Friends of the Barnes Collection; in some ways it’s more like propaganda.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but not many.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Barnes Collection includes over 9,000 pieces of art conservatively valued at $25 billion and includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos and 14 Modiglianis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,890 on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Day 1 of Cinema365: From the Heart