Reminiscence


Life is no carnival in the near future.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Javier Molina, Sam Medina, Nono Nishimura, Roxton Garcia, Giovannie Cruz, Woon Young Park, Han Soto, Rey Hernandez, Gabrielle Echols, Andrew Hyatt Masset III, Nico Parker. Directed by Lisa Joy

 

I guess that it makes sense that when you have nothing to look forward to, one’s attention will turn to what came before. In a world where climate change has wreaked havoc, the citizens of a half-drowned Miami find solace in reliving their own memories.

This is the world that Nick Bannister (Jackman) finds himself. A former military man in the border wars that erupted when the oceans rose, he makes a living with a machine that was used to extract information from the memories of military prisoners but he now uses it on civilians who want to relive their favorite memories – a wedding day, playing with a beloved dog, a romantic evening and so on. He also has a side business using his machine to interrogate prisoners of the Miami DA (Martinez).

He has a pretty good life, all things considered – his partner Watts (Newton), although a high-functioning alcoholic, keeps him fairly honest. Until Mae (Ferguson) walks in. She’s lost her keys and needs help locating them. The Reminiscence machine might just be the trick she needs. While in her mind, Bannister discovers that she is a chanteuse, singing a song (“Where and When”) he has fond childhood memories of. He initiates a relationship with her, and for awhile it is summer in Miami.

But then she disappears, and he just can’t believe she up and ran out on him. Using his detective skills, he discovers a dark conspiracy with which Mae may or may not have been involved. At the heart of it is a wealthy developer (Cullen), his mentally ill wife (de Tavira), a corrupt cop (Curtis) and a New Orleans-based drug lord (Wu). Despite Watts’ skepticism, Bannister is convinced that Mae is an innocent caught in events beyond her control, and he will stop at nothing to find her – and the truth.

This is the motion picture debut of Lisa Joy, best known for being co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series with her husband Jonathan Nolan (yes, that makes her Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law and there is no little of his influence felt here). The world that Joy has created here is melancholic and believable. The overall feel is very much like an old noir movie with a healthy dose of romance injected in, as well as some innovative production design and strong visuals. She definitely has a very cinematic eye, from the images of a partially submerged Miami, to a grand piano sinking into the waters during the climactic fight scene.

The noir elements become overbearing, particularly in the overly florid narration which is overused. Joy seems so taken with it that she utilizes the opening monologue twice which I suppose is meant to lend emphasis but instead lends repetition. I get that the elements of the story lend themselves to a noir retelling, but in a lot of ways it feels kind of gimmicky here.

That doesn’t extend to the script which has some pretty interesting ideas throughout, and the production design brings many of them to life. The overwhelming feeling is resignation; people are growing restive at being pushed into soggier and soggier environs while the ultra-wealthy stay largely dry, but the feeling is that we’re on a downward spiral and we might as well just accept that and live in the past because it’s so much better than what we have in store. Not the most heart-warming of messages.

But Joy does coax some strong performances, particularly out of the ever-expressive Jackman who generally does better when his characters are drowning in their own dark sides; while his chemistry with Ferguson (a strong actress in her own right) is oddly flat, it might be due to the somewhat incomprehensible accent she takes on from time to time. It’s jarring and sounds absolutely phony.

Critics have absolutely savaged this movie, and there is some reason for it – the film is definitely flawed, but the visuals are compelling and as I said there are some interesting ideas developed here. Sadly, the insistence on turning this into a Raymond Chandler adaptation instead of letting the story stand on its own really hurts the movie overall, although I will say if you hang in there, the final 30-45 minutes do pick up.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of interesting ideas and visuals here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The noir element is heavy-handed, particularly the florid narration.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and profanity, some sexual content and drug content throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackman and Ferguson previously starred together in The Greatest Showman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 9/20)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Good


					

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest


Your own personal Jesus.

(2019) Music Documentary (Trafalgar/1091) Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, Cristian Flueraru, Dicken Schrader, Milah Schrader, Korben Schrader, Daniel Cassus, Indra Amarjargal, Elizabeth Dwyer, Carine Puzenat, Christian Eigner, Peter Gordeno. Directed by Anton Corbjin

 

Being a diehard fan of a band requires the kind of loyalty that most of us don’t ever give even our significant other. We stay with them through thick and thin, through albums that suck and even through band breakups. It’s a kind of unconditional love that is more than reciprocated; their music helps define us, sees us through our darkest moments, defines our identities. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

Depeche Mode has come a long way in their nearly 40-year existence, from a New Wave cult band of upbeat synthesizer-based songs to a stadium band of portentous and deep, bleak pop hits. As a band, they’ve been through drug addiction, near-death experiences, fame and fortune (and everything that comes with it) and the complete makeover of the industry that they’re a part of. Through it all, they’ve had a connection with their fans that has bordered on religious zeal.

We meet six of them who are attending the final concert in their 2017-18 World Spirits tour in Berlin; Indra Amarjargal is a tour guide in Ulan Bator, Mongolia who lives with her grandmother in a “typical Communist apartment” where she has lived her entire life. Her stepfather introduced her to the music of Depeche Mode, watching concert footage on the Internet. The music connected to Indra initially before the lyrics since she spoke no English at the time; she is fluent in it now and the lyrics have only cemented her love for the band.

Elizabeth Dwyer is a half-African American, half-Irish-American who didn’t get the memo that people of color were supposed to be into hip-hop. She took a lot of grief growing up because of her love for New Wave music but when undergoing chemotherapy for a particularly deadly sort of breast cancer, the music got her through. Cristian Flueraru, who grew up in Romania during the dark days of Ceauşescu learned English by translating the band’s lyrics for friends who were also into their music.

Dicken Schrader became an Internet sensation when the Bogota-based dad made videos of he and his son Korben and his daughter Milah playing Depeche Mode songs with toy instruments. The band keeps the three united, even though the children now live with their mother in Miami. Daniel Cassus, growing up gay in Brazil, took solace in the band’s music, eventually moving to Berlin where he got the courage to come out to his parents. Carine Puzenat suffered permanent amnesia at age 25; the only memory she could retain was the music of Depeche Mode. That music got her through seven years of deep depression.

Much of the interview footage is intercut with concert footage. Strictly speaking, this is a neither/nor: not a concert film per se so while there is footage from the show, it might prove frustrating to fans looking to see a complete show. It’s not a band documentary; we never hear or see the band except onstage and don’t get any of their insight at all. This is a fan’s documentary, but then again so was 101 in many ways – a previous documentary made by Corbjin about the band.

This is very much a movie for fans of the band. Casual fans probably won’t find this as interesting. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the diversity of the types of fans the band has but that is true of any band of sufficient popularity. Yes, the stories are compelling but you could find six fans of just about any band of sufficient popularity that are just as compelling. So basically, what we are left with is a movie that is very dependent on your opinion of the band. Those who love the band will likely love the movie. Those who don’t likely won’t. This will neither make new fans nor alienate old ones. My recommendation to you depends on how into the band you are. Judge for yourself if the film is something that is essential viewing for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes at the concert from a fan’s perspective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not a lot of insight into the band themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fans profiled here were selected via a contest on the band’s Facebook page.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 101
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Christopher Robin

Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Patrick

Miami Film Festival 2018


Today is the opening night for the Miami Film Festival which turns 35 this year. To celebrate, the opening night film will be Jason Reitman’s Tully starring Charlize Theron and Ron Livingston. Reitman and Livingston will be in attendance on the Red Carpet and an afterparty with Miami flair in the Design District.

The MFF – the only major film festival sponsored by a college – has always concentrated on films from Latin America and the Caribbean so there are a lot of films screened during the festival that you can’t see anywhere else or hardly anywhere else. Latin films excel in providing slice of life looks at their culture. I have always appreciated their authenticity; you don’t get young artists living in million dollar lofts in Manhattan with no visible source of income. These are families living in middle class homes, or in wealthy haciendas or in deep poverty. Whatever the situation, Latin screenwriters seem to understand that making things feel real is what connects an audience to a film.

I’ve been honored once again to sit on the jury of the Rene Rodriguez Critic’s Award. Named for the longtime Miami Herald film critic, ten films sit in nomination of the award. I am still in the process of seeing them all but I can tell you that all of the nominated films I’ve seen have been worthwhile, some incredible. It makes for a busy film critic but I like it that way.

I’ll be trying to post two reviews a day for at least the next ten days to keep the backlog from growing unmanageable. Some of the films I’ll be reviewing will be difficult to find but when possible I’ll update the reviews with information on streaming and/or theatrical releases.

For those in the Miami area, I strongly urge you to support this worthwhile festival. For those hearing about it for the first time, you might want to consider attending this year’s (it runs through March 18th) or next year’s. The Festival is a reflection of the Miami attitude; there are a lot of parties and hot spots around the City; I’ve never seen a film festival utilize the nightlife of the host city quite as well as this one does.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power


Al Gore checking out the effects of climate change directly in the Philippines.

(2017) Documentary (Paramount) Al Gore, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Marco Krapels, Tom Rielly. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

 

Climate change has been a hot button topic in this country ever since Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought his slideshow to the mainstream back in 2006. Now, more than a decade after the fact, the follow-up looks at what has been done to combat the crisis and in a lot of cases the answer is “Not a lot.”

We see Gore giving speeches and preaching largely to the choir; some folks on the other side of the aisle listen indulgently but really facts and figures aren’t making much headway with them. Gore shows himself to be a tireless worker for the cause; there is no denying his commitment to change nor his willingness to go wherever needed and do whatever needs doing. It’s good to know that there are people like Gore in the planet’s corner.

On the other hand, there are some terrifying images; Gore on a glacier that is melting away, wading in high tide waters in the streets of Miami with fish swimming placidly by. Filmed largely during the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit where the historic accords were signed and through the 2016 election, we see Gore’s optimism at the signing of the Accords turn to dust when Trump, who is heard early on outlining his belief that climate change is a boondoggle meant to bilk American industry and the American government out of billions of dollars. Knowing that every other nation on the planet has adopted the Accords and we remain the naughty children who actually want coal for Christmas may be depressing as hell to left-leaning viewers. However no matter what side of the aisle your politics are you can certainly appreciate how extraordinary it was to get so many industrial nations to agree on one thing as they did at the Accords.

Right-leaning viewers – if they even bother to view this at all – may look at it as propaganda and in a very real sense it is. There is no doubt what the point of view of the film is or its opinions regarding the subject but while this could easily be a depressing “state of the planet” address (and parts of it are just that) there is a lot of hopefulness here. The filmmakers take great pains to describe how all of us can take action right now and still have a major effect on our planet’s health. However, there is no doubt that the federal government will continue to be part of the problem so long as those who favor profit over survival are in power.

REASONS TO GO: There is no doubt that Gore is committed and passionate on the subject of climate change. Rather than just presenting terrifying facts, the film gives some real world ways in which the crisis can be addressed. Some of the images are absolutely stunning.
REASONS TO STAY: Climate change deniers will likely find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: Children may find the themes and some of the images frightening.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it received two standing ovations.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hitman’s Bodyguard

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

Ride Along 2


Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, Tika Sumpter, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd, Arturo del Puerto, Eric Goins, Carlos Gomez, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Glen Powell, Nadine Velazquez, Bresha Webb, Jessica Blalick, Michelle Pieroway, Shelby Courtney, James Martin Kelly, Robert Pralgo, Tyrese Gibson, Liz Godwin. Directed by Tim Story

There are times as a critic that you simply have to understand that there are movies that aren’t meant for you. Their success is completely independent of what you think and quite frankly, you’re a pretty superfluous cog in the process. You also have to understand that just because you don’t find something funny doesn’t mean that others don’t as well.

Kevin Hart is a comedic actor who laughs all the way to the bank. His movies are essentially critic-proof; while he’s never gotten reviews above the lukewarm level, his movies time after time are hits. Does that say something about America’s sense of humor? Probably. It just as likely says something about critics’ understanding of filmgoers.

In this buddy cop sequel, Hart plays Ben Bishop, now a rookie cop having graduated from the academy he hadn’t entered yet two years ago for the first Ride Along. During a stake out, despite having been told by his soon-to-be brother-in-law James Payton (Cube) who is an accomplished and let’s just say badass detective, to stay in the van, he almost ruins a drug bust by coming in and interfering at exactly the wrong moment, ending up getting Payton’s partner (Gibson) shot.

However the incident unearths facts that lead James to Miami where a prominent businessman (Bratt) turns out to be a vicious drug lord looking to set up a superhighway of illegal material through the Southeast. Even though he’s marrying James’ sister (Sumpter) in a week, Ben begs James to let him tag along – which finally and inexplicably James allows him to.

Along with a cute Miami detective (Munn) and a greedy womanizing hacker (Jeong), the two misfit cops make their way through Miami like bulls in a china shop. Ben causes havoc wherever he goes until accidentally stumbling onto clues that lead the more serious James closer to getting his man, if the man doesn’t get them first.

One thing that can be said about Ride Along 2 is that it has already made history; it will forever be remembered as the movie that stopped Star Wars: The Force Awakens box office run as weekend champion. Pretty much though, that’s all the history it’s going to make. Kevin Hart has tons and tons of screen presence. He can also be a really funny guy when given the right material to work with. Most of the jokes here are fairly tired although there were a few good laughs in and among the bunch.

He has some pretty decent support. Ice Cube has become a solid actor and while he hasn’t displayed a ton of range yet, he does what he does really well. Munn has a huge amount of talent; she’s been impressive in virtually everything I’ve seen her in. However, she’s awaiting – and still awaits – that right role that will put her over the top.

So why doesn’t this movie work as well as it might? Well, the writing is the big culprit. The plot doesn’t seem to have been given a whole lot of thought and that would be okay if there were the jokes to cover for it but that is simply not the case. I will grant you that my sense of humor may be a lot different than most people’s but at the crowded screening I attended, I didn’t hear a ton of laughter. The action sequences are pretty rote, and there’s a touch too much mugging and not enough acting. The appeal of Hart is undeniable but sometimes a little Hart goes a long way.

At the end of the day, this falls under the “pleasant but not memorable” category. It’s entertaining enough that you can pass the time with it nicely, but it isn’t a showstopper that you’ll come back to again and again. The critics have been unduly harsh for the most part; it’s way too inoffensive to be worth the vitriol. Think of this as a sitcom that has a decent run for a couple of seasons but after that is canceled and is essentially forgotten; people don’t even binge watch it afterwards except if they’d never seen it before. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s viewing.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin Hart leads a solid cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not funny often enough. Ludicrous plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of police action violence, a bit of rough language, some sexuality and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film starring Ice Cube to be set in Miami; the first was All about the Benjamins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Revenant

Best of Enemies


William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal make their points.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammar (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Tyanauer, Noam Chomsky, Sam Tanenhaus, Ginia Bellafante, Brooke Gladstone, Todd Gitlin, Andrew Sullivan. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

Politics can be as divisive a conversation as can be. Many are as passionate about their political beliefs as they are about their own families and umbrage can be taken with the slightest of provocations. The modern political process is about as civilized as we evolved cavemen can make it, right?

William F. Buckley Jr. in many ways was the father of conservative commentary. Patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, he embodied for many the conservative man; a bit condescending, a bit argumentative, and absolutely sure he was right. While Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and his ilk are nothing like Buckley – they are more shouters than speakers – much of their philosophy stems from this man for good or ill. As the founder and editor of the National Review, he helped shape conservative thought into what it is today.

Gore Vidal was an author and essayist, was from a well-connected Mid-Atlantic family (his father was a Senator). While he didn’t attend college, he was noted for being patrician, erudite, intelligent, urbane and witty, for many he embodied the liberal man; a bit strident, a bit acerbic and absolutely sure he was right. The author of the controversial Myra Breckinridge, he was a gay man who believed that sexual identity should be done away with and everyone should be free to love whomever they wanted. He was very much ahead of his time and was a champion of lefty causes.

Both men ran for office unsuccessfully and both men absolutely hated each other with a passion, feeling that the other stood for everything they were against. Both believed that the political thoughts of the other would be the ruin of the country. Neither man would back down an inch from what they believed. You wouldn’t want to invite them to the same party.

And ABC News did just that. During the tumultuous 1968 elections, they were lagging in third place far behind NBC and CBS, both of whom had respected newscasters (David Huntley/Chet Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, respectively) leading their gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. ABC, whom it was joked wasn’t in fourth place because there were only three networks, didn’t have the funds to go toe-to-toe with their competitors. So rather than compete, they sought to innovate. They decided to give the conventions only 90 minutes coverage each night and 30 minutes of that coverage would be given to discussion between Buckley and Vidal.

These debates turned into all-out wars as at first the commentators attacked the other position, then attacked the other personally. They were donnybrooks indeed – both men were master debaters, fine speakers and insightful. However the latter category all but disappeared as they cut each other to ribbons with well-placed barbs. Buckley apparently chose not to prepare for the debates, whereas Vidal assiduously studied and strategized. Buckley had faith in his own intellect that he could take his opponent apart with ease.

The Republicans had their convention that year in Miami and a great effort was made to keep protesters as far away from the venue as possible. The Democrats had their convention in Chicago and Mayor Richard Daley boasted that he would maintain law and order but that didn’t work out so well for him; there was heavy rioting from protestors and scenes of brutality by the Chicago police were broadcast for the nation to see.

It was in that atmosphere on the ninth debate out of ten that things reached a head between Buckley and Vidal. When the latter accused Buckley of being a crypto-Nazi, the conservative lost his cool, attacking Vidal with “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” While Buckley would later apologize for reacting in anger in print, the antipathy between the two men never lessened.

The movie essentially documents the debates, showing highlights from the broadcasts as well as background on the two combatants. We get plenty of talking head interviews, from Buckley’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus and from Vidal supporter the late Christopher Hitchens (who might have been the only modern political commentator to be able to hold his own with the two giants). We also get to hear the words written by the two, voiced by John Lithgow (Vidal) and Kelsey Grammer (Buckley).

The subject is captivating and the filmmakers make a good case as to why this was a turning point not just in national politics, as a case can be made that modern conservatism had its beginnings in the 1968 elections, but also in the way politics were covered. The Vidal-Buckley debates weren’t the first usage of competing viewpoints as political analysis, but they captured the imagination of the viewing public at the time and came into more widespread use afterwards. These days, it’s almost the only kind of political analysis you can find.

Where the film falls short is in really giving us more than cursory background on Buckley and Vidal. We get the basics – stuff you could easily pick up from their Wikipedia pages – but little more about who these men were. It seemed to me that they were two sides of the same coin; perhaps that was why they loathed each other so much beyond the political disagreements. Maybe they saw in each other a little bit of themselves.

This is still fascinating stuff for anyone who follows modern politics and wants a sense of how we got to where we are now. We see the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News and of course the Internet trolls and wonder what happened to bring us to this point. To a large extent, it was this set of debates. It was the political/intellectual equivalent of going to an auto race and hoping for a crash. It is far more visceral and satisfying to watch people screech at each other rather than put any thought into what’s going on around us. And maybe that’s just human nature. But it is also depressing as all get out that we’ve devolved from respecting news to preferring shouting matches.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating archival footage. A precursor for modern political campaigning.
REASONS TO STAY: Is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Our Nixon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paul Taylor Creative Domain