Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Colossal


Put ’em up!

(2017) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, Nathan Ellison, Sarah Surh, Haeun Hannah Cho, Carlos Joe Costa, Melissa Montgomery, Christine Lee, Rukiya Bernard, James Yi, Alyssa Dawson, Miho Suzuki, Charles Raahul Singh, Jenny Mitchell, Maddie Smith, Everett Adams, Agamdeep Darshi. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

It is said that within all of us there are both angels and monsters. For the most part, the majority of us try as hard as we can to keep that monster inside and let the angel out but it can be difficult, particularly if we are coping with more than we can handle. That’s when those monsters can show their faces and take control.

Gloria (Hathaway) has some issues. She is chronically unemployed or underemployed. She goes out and parties with friends most nights; sometimes for days. She drinks far too much and often doesn’t remember what she did the night before. Finally, her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) has had enough. While he loves Gloria, he can’t stand being around her anymore. Nothing he can say or do has helped. It’s time for him to remove this toxic person from his life and he not only dumps her, he packs up her stuff and tells her she has to move out of their New York apartment…or rather, his New York apartment.

With no other options, Gloria moves back to her childhood home upstate that her recently deceased mom left to her. While there she runs into childhood playmate Oscar (Sudeikis) who has an inheritance of his own – his parents bar. He offers Gloria a job waitressing there which she gratefully accepts although perhaps working in a bar isn’t exactly the best place to be for an alcoholic. By day, Oscar helps out by buying her things to help furnish her empty home; by night, they work at the bar which has bottomed out in popularity in recent years. Oscar has closed off a huge chunk of it, decorated in cowboy fashion. Gloria resolves to spruce it up and reopen it. In between, there are late nights drinking with Oscar and his friends Garth (Nelson), a philosophical drunk and Joel (Stowell), a handsome local who catches Gloria’s eye.

But things take a turn for the strange when news reports show a gigantic monster rampaging in Seoul, South Korea and then disappearing. Like everyone else, Gloria is amazed and alarmed. Unlike everyone else, Gloria discovers she has a strange connection with the monster. The monster makes strange hand gestures that are very much reminiscent of the same quirky gestures Gloria makes. She also discovers that the monsters rampages take place when she is in the playground at a local park. She begins to realize that she is the monster.

Before too long, a second monster appears – a giant robot and Gloria’s monster is needed to do battle with it. She also finds she needs to do battle in real life as well with someone she trusted who has become abusive and controlling. Can she summon the strength to fight on both fronts and in doing so, save the lives of millions of people in Seoul?

Giant monster or kaiju films have regained popularity recently with the successes of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island as well as dozens of films in Asia. This is a very different take on them. Spanish director Vigalondo has been an up-and-coming name in horror films in recent years and this might just be his best work yet. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking, the latter of which being a rare quality in movies that are as entertaining as this one.

Hathaway gives a marvelous performance as a woman who has lost control of her life and who’s made a ton of bad choices, many of which were informed by alcohol abuse. She is appealing here as she is in most of her films and even though her character isn’t always doing the right thing we still end up rooting for her. Sudeikis is also a very likable screen personality and while the movie begins with him playing a role that is typical for him it changes somewhat as the film progresses. It’s really a marvelous role for him as it allows him to expand his range.

While the special effects reflect the movie’s small budget, the movie explores all sorts of things during the course of its run time from living with substance abusers to domestic violence and taking responsibility. These are some heavy topics for what is essentially a kaiju comedy that turns into something a little deeper.

This played the Florida Film Festival last month and one of the programmers for the Festival reported that a couple of angry ladies accosted him following the screening of this film and complained that it glorifies domestic abuse. Quite frankly with respect to the ladies making the complaint, I believe that their interpretation is quite a bit off the mark. One of the points that the movie is making is that domestic violence can come from people who are the nicest of guys outwardly; that’s why it’s so shocking when it happens in the film. Rather than glorifying domestic violence, the scenes depicting it show it for what it is – a disgusting, cowardly act.

While the movie’s final third is a little less impressive than the first two, it maintains interest throughout. Vigalondo has the annoying habit of having the onscreen characters visibly react to things that the audience can’t see which after having been done a few times gets to be a little bit annoying, but that’s really small potatoes. This is an inventive take on the giant monster movies that is both retro and modern. It’s cinematic fun of the highest order and should be a must-see for anyone who likes good entertainment with a dash of perspective.

REASONS TO GO: It’s definitely a different take on kaiju films. Hathaway makes an appealing drunk. Sudeikis is so charming to begin with his attitude change is all the more shocking. It is refreshing for a movie this entertaining to be this thoughtful as well.
REASONS TO STAY: It loses steam about 2/3 of the way through. The film has the annoying habit of showing actors reacting to things not revealed to the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and scenes of mass destruction and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hathaway was in the second trimester of her pregnancy while she filmed this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big in Japan
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Unrest

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

Woman on Fire


God bless all first responders.

(2016) Documentary (Animal) Brooke Guinan, George Guinan V, Susan Guinan, Jim Baker, Bill Deblasio, George Guinan IV, Sarinya Srisakul, Charlotte Guinan, Joe Baker, Maureen Baker, Charles Radcliffe, Darren Melcchiore. Directed by Julie Sokolow

It is a different world we live in today than those my age lived in when I was growing up. Things are less settled, less certain. You can’t even count on biology to necessarily get things right.

Brooke Guinan is a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York City. She is a rarity in that she is a woman in that very male profession; in New York City there are just 44 women out of roughly 10,000 total firefighters, that’s just 0.4% for those keeping track. But she is also unique; she is openly transgender transitioning from male to female. She is the first and only (to date) transgender working as a firefighter in New York.

She was born George Guinan VI to conservative parents and at a young age presented to Susan Guinan (his mother) a letter explaining calmly that he was pretty sure he was gay. He was 11 years old at the time. Susan and George V (his dad) were devastated but over time, they accepted their son for who he was. When 9/11 occurred, Georgie was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He got a lot of ribbing from the fairly traditional culture of the men of the FDNY but Georgie was pretty sure that he could take it. There was just one problem.

Georgie had it wrong. He wasn’t gay. He was a woman living in a man’s body. Making the decision to transition wasn’t an easy one and when he informed his parents that he would be known as Brooke from now on, her parents once again were devastated. As Susan put it, “First I had to bury Georgie before I could accept Brooke.” Her dad wasn’t sure what to think.

And it wasn’t any easier at work. The ribbing got to be something else from the men. Even the women of the department weren’t accepting Brooke; it took six months for them to agree to allow Brooke to join their support group, mainly at the urging of the group’s president Sarinya Srisakul who had emigrated from Southeast Asia as a young woman and accepted Brooke not just as a woman but also as a friend.

As Brooke became more visible in the department, she was dubbed “New York’s Bravest” and she did a lot of publicity for the department, becoming the face of acceptance for the department and indeed the city. She became grand marshal at gay pride parades and appeared on talk shows and lectures.

Her boyfriend Jim, an Air Force veteran, accepts Brooke but he’s not sure how to break the news to his parents that he’s dating a transgender woman. Jim also seems to be hesitating to marry Brooke; he’s a bit commitment-phobic. When the two decide to buy a house together and invite Jim’s parents, it’s time for things to come out into the open.

Sokolow, who also directed the 2015 Florida Film Festival favorite Aspie Seeks Love, is a director who likes to focus on people who are part of groups that are marginalized by society. To me, that’s an admirable way to choose documentary subjects and Sokolow, a former indie rocker, shows a little more confidence on this her second feature. While she isn’t as innovative with telling her story as she was in Aspie Seeks Love (which was organized by holidays), there is definite improvement when it comes to telling the story.

It helps that Sokolow has a subject who is charismatic, eloquent and important. At a time when the Christian right seems intent on showing just how intolerant they can be to the transgender community, trying to limit which bathrooms they can use because they’re concerned that transgender men will rape straight women (cases of that actually happening: zero) whereas transgender men have been beaten up in men’s bathrooms which often lead them to hold it until they get home. Yes, Virginia, the transgender community should be allowed to use public bathrooms too – and the ones that belong to the sex they identify with. Brooke puts a human face on transgender women, much as the justifiably lauded Amazon series Transparent does. The only difference is that this isn’t fictional.

The quibble I have here is that we rarely see Brooke doing her job; mostly she is seen hanging out at the fire station and doing promotional appearances. We concentrate more on her personal life and her relationship with her family and I agree that this is an important aspect of her life. However, if you’re going to use her standing with the FDNY you should at least give a sense of her as a firefighter. This is clearly a large part of her identity and I don’t think Sokolow was successful in portraying this aspect of her. It does Brooke a disservice because viewers may get the impression that she’s more of a publicity stunt than a real firefighter. That is certainly not the case.

Still, this is a fascinating story and we get to see Brooke’s relationship with her dad, which is simply inspiring. It is good to see how far the two have traveled. I don’t doubt that her dad is Brooke’s hero and he’ll be your hero too. When Jim’s parents do arrive at their son’s new house, they treat Brooke with such affection that it makes one think that perhaps most people are more accepting of transgenders than we think.

This isn’t a big leap forward for Sokolow as a filmmaker but it is definitely a forward motion for her. There is some improvement and that’s always encouraging; the subject matter is certainly worthy of a documentary. I’m not sure if Brooke Guinan is New York’s Bravest but a case can definitely be made for that. You won’t forget her once you’ve seen this film and if that doesn’t spell success for a documentary, I don’t know what does.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives a human face to the transgender community.
REASONS TO STAY: We never really see Brooke at work as a firefighter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guinan is a third-generation firefighter; her father was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and her grandfather retired a captain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Somewhere Beautiful

Seed (2017)


Team Nomad’s success is no shoe-in.

(2017) Documentary (Something Different) Ethan Reid, Shahar Hussein, Pulkit Mahajan, Brian Collins, Adi Abili, Milan Koch, Saheen Ali, Paul Glaser, Christopher Wellise, Peter Berger, Brent Freeman, Sean Hughes, Devin Mui, Arjun Dev Arora, Ahmed, Bettirose. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

When most of us think of hackers, we think of pimply-faced basement-dwelling laptop rats who take out their anger on not getting laid – ever –  by disrupting legitimate websites and from time to time stealing information from major Internet sites. Sometimes we think of the Anonymous hackers who disrupt the socially unjust. We rarely think of hacking as a source for positive change.

And yet AngelHack who were one of the earliest proponents of “hack-a-thons” (competitions for hackers) have turned the innovation of these code writing iconoclasts into potential businesses with seed money coming from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and other underwriters. It’s a very big deal in the hacking community and one of the most prestigious events on the Hacking calendar. They sponsor something called Silicon Valley week where dozens of hackers/code writers/would-be entrepreneurs get together, pitch their apps to first the AngelHack board who determine if they have the stuff to go on to the big stage where they can pitch their demos to industry leaders.

It’s a situation in which the stress levels are ratcheted up to an 11. The documentary follows three teams, including Team Report Taka with spokesperson Bettirose is trying to develop an app that will save lives in their native Nairobi, Kenya; Shahar Hussein is driving for Uber in New York while his brother-in-law Ahmed is watching over their start-up in Palestine which will help businesses there hook up with couriers to deliver packages. Finally Team Nomad, led by three teens are juggling high school with their app which will allow shoppers to take a picture of an item they see that they want to buy and then be taken to a site where they can buy it, something that appeals to the social media generation who can’t be bothered to look stuff up.

Each of these teams are among 14 teams from across the globe vying for interview time with venture capitalists and substantial seed money that could help their dreams take off. Each of the teams are in it for different reasons; one to change the world, another to make a better life for themselves and their families, a third just to prove they can do it.

It isn’t easy though. Team Nomad is having serious troubles getting their app to work for the demo. Shahar and Ahmed are not seeing eye to eye on their business’s future. The Report Taka team needs to be able to convince the various judges that their app is much more than a locally useful app that is worth developing for global use. The day they present after all is called Global Demo Day. The stakes are incredibly high.

This kind of film lives or dies based on how much the audience identifies with the various participants and ends up with a rooting interest for them. Team Report Taka came the closest for me; their app is one that collates reports of dumped garbage and analyzes it, helping the Kenyan government determine if it is proving a threat (garbage that collects in the rivers of Nairobi often contribute to flooding which can be severe enough to end lives). They have a difficult time communicating in English and perhaps understanding the capitalist culture that drives these kinds of things. It’s hard not to root for people who want to save lives though.

The other two teams are less altruistic. Both are working on apps that will aid e-commerce, and that’s all well and good. The teens involved with Team Nomad are often a bit cocky and considering they have a concept and not a working app makes one wonder if they are selling smoke and mirrors. Finally Shahar is maybe a bit mule-headed as is Ahmed and the two of them butt heads on some fairly basic issues. It isn’t always pretty.

Wonder has a nice visual sense and some of the shots here are really cool, but he for some reason decides to do some of the interview segments in unusual locations and positions; the Report Taka team is made to lie down on the floor like spokes on a wheel while Team Nomad is in a dark room lit by blue computer screens. I get that he wanted to get away from typical talking head tropes but it ended up being distracting and off-putting. An A for imagination but an C- for execution.

Nonetheless while the movie doesn’t really add much to the competition documentary subgenre, it is at least reasonably informative although some of the jargon may fly over the heads of those who aren’t technologically inclined. I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy and some of the things that the various participants said left me befuddled but I suppose most documentaries have their share of jargon, no?

I found the process that the teams undergo to be fascinating enough to overcome some of the films’ flaws. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime so those who are members of that service can stream the movie for free; it is also available for rent for those who are not Prime members. In any case, for those who are intrigued by how software is developed, this is a movie that will be right up your alley. For those who may prefer that how their Fandango app works be a mystery to them should probably give this one a pass.

REASONS TO GO: The process is fascinating.  Some of the cinematography is really cool.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a little bit jargon-heavy. Sometimes the filmmaker goes a little bit overboard with the artistic license.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity but not a lot of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three members of Team Nomad were all 16 and 17 years old when the process started and needed to be driven to preliminary events by their parents.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wordplay
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan

John Wick: Chapter 2


Even John Wick’s dog looks badass.

(2017) Action (Summit) Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski, Erik Frandsen, David Patrick Kelly, Perry Yung, Franco Nero, Peter Serafinowicz, Peter Stormare, Vadim Kroll, Kelly Rae LeGault. Directed by Chad Stahelski

 

One of the better action films to come down the pike in recent years was John Wick. In it, a retired assassin un-retires himself when the son of a Russian mobster steals his car and kills his dog. Bad career move. Wick kills everyone associated with the dumbass Russian scion and adopts a new dog.

When the movie starts, Wick is going to retrieve his car from yet another Russian mobster (Stormare) and while all he wants is the car, of course the Russian mobster and his men try to take the master assassin down. Yet another bad career move. Even as the boss retells the story of how Wick once killed three men with a pencil (which we also saw in the last movie), Wick mows down every mobster who comes at him, wrecking the car he came to retrieve in the first place but the point is clear.

Wick returns home and puts all of his arsenal under concrete, apparently intending to retire again. However, he has a visitor – an Italian mobster this time named Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio). Wick owes Santino a favor and the guy intends to collect. It’s what’s called a marker and in the world that Wick lives in, these cannot be refused. Wick promptly refuses and Santino promptly blows up his house.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Wick decides to fulfill the marker anyway (now minus a house) and takes on the job of killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini) who Santino’s dad made head of the mob after he retired – or in other words, passed on. This didn’t sit well with Santino so he figured that if his sister was out of the way, he could take his rightful place as head of the family.

That’s why Wick heads to Rome, visits a tailor who has a way with Kevlar as well as a sommelier who has a nose for fine German firearms and heads over to a rave cum orgy celebrating sister’s ascension to the head of family status at a Roman ruin – those decadent Italians – and takes her out. This doesn’t sit well with her bodyguard (Common) who now unemployed decides to make a point of expressing his displeasure to Wick. Mayhem ensues.

The plot is a little more labyrinthine than before and we get more background on the world of assassins. The Continental Hotel, neutral ground in the first movie, is apparently a chain and the managers (Ian McShane in New York, Franco Nero in Rome) enforce that neutrality vigorously. We get a sense of the complex support system for the killers and the fairly cut and dried rules governing their behavior. This is all to the good.

The production design is also highly stylized from the Hall of Mirrors-like museum display in Rome, the gaudily lit rave, some of the most stylishly lit catacombs I’ve ever seen, the genteel and urbane Hotels and of course Wick’s Fortress of Solitude before Santino blows it to smithereens.

Where the movie fails, curiously enough, is the action – the strength of the first film. Stahelski fails to maintain the interest of the viewer for the length of the movie which he was able to do in the first. Here, the sequences have the effect of numbing the viewer until you feel quite blasé about the whole thing. I didn’t think I could get jaded in an all-out action film like this, but I did.

I will admit my complaints about the film have not been echoed by other reviewers or by friends who have seen the sequel and proclaimed it better than the original. I disagree, respectfully but nonetheless firmly. While it gives us more plot and more insight into the world the first film created and inhabits it with interesting characters who are portrayed by some fine actors like Fishburne, McShane, Nero and Common, at the end of the day I wanted to be wowed by the action and I just wasn’t. This is reportedly intended to be the middle segment in a planned John Wick trilogy. I hope that the third movie will combine the best points of both movies and create an action movie for the ages. When you’re a movie critic, hope should spring eternal.

REASONS TO GO: The mythology started in the first film is fleshed out more in the second.
REASONS TO STAY: The action scenes become mind-numbing after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a stupid amount of violence, a fair amount of profanity and a scene with graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Great Wall

The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro