Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

Advertisements

The Dawn Wall


You can’t beat the view at dawn on the Dawn Wall.

(2017) Documentary (Red Bull/The Orchard) Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, John Long, Mike Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Kelly Cordes, Terry Caldwell, John Dickey, Jason Smith, Matt Jones, Gail Jorgeson, John Branch, Matt Jones, Tom Evans, Becca Pietsch. Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer

 

There is a fine line between endeavor and obsession. Sometimes a concept can completely take over our lives to the point of souring relationships, alienating family and forcing us to forsake all other things in service to that one thing, that accomplishment that would make our lives complete. It is hard for outsiders to understand.

Tommy Caldwell is one of the world’s most accomplished free climbers – climbers who eschew devices for anything other than safety reasons. Ascent is accomplished only by using limbs; fingers, toes, heels and sometimes other body parts. It requires insane athleticism, even more insane pain tolerance and the kind of focus that requires rigid discipline and unrivaled preparedness.

For rock climbers like Caldwell, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is Mecca. The granite monolith towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The back of El Cap, as climbers affectionately call it, has trails that lead to the top for those who are less Type A. Most reputable climbers have done several different ascents of the mountain which are some of the most challenging on earth. Of particular note is the Dawn Wall, so called because when dawn breaks in Yosemite the Dawn Wall is the first surface to be lit by the rays of the sun. Nearly completely smooth, there are few places for hands to grip, for feet to gain purchase. Even the most legendary climbers, like John Long (who provides much of the technical commentary here) were certain that the Dawn Wall couldn’t be climbed.

Caldwell is the type of man who if you tell him he can’t do something, he goes right out and does it anyway but this was different and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of challenges. While on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, he and then-girlfriend Beth Rodden as well as two other climbers were captured by rebel terrorists. After a remarkable escape, they all returned home safely although Tommy was seriously affected by the incident. Shortly after marrying Rodden, he accidentally sliced off half of his left index finger. Any climber will tell you that free climbers rely heavily on the index fingers. For most free climbers that would be a career killer.

However Tommy Caldwell is not most free climbers. He trained his other fingers to pick up the slack and also to utilize  the remainder of that index finger and emerged a better climber. By this time the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall – which no human had ever accomplished – had taken hold. He spent more and more time researching routes of the wall, climbing parts of it, looking for  route that gave him a chance to accomplish the impossible. His obsession and depression proved to be too much for his marriage. Tommy needed a climbing partner to help him ascend the Dawn Wall; he found one in Kevin Jorgeson, a cheerful California boy who was looking for a new challenge after he had become one of the top boulder climbers in the world. Tommy convinced him to dive right into the deep end – the most challenging free climb on Earth. Together, the two men planned and researched and argued and trained until at last they were ready to make history.

The expedition made headlines all over the world when it happened although to be honest I don’t remember much about it. We see network coverage of the time however, reporters calling on Tommy’s cell phone which apparently got service while hanging on the side of a rock. Documenting the attempt were an army of cameramen and riggers, some hanging from the top of El Cap and giving viewers a unique you-are-there experience. We see the bloody hands of the climbers after a day of hanging by their fingers on razor-sharp cracks in the rock.

The views are breathtaking and Caldwell’s story is amazing. Jorgeson gets less coverage by the team but his moment is in facing the most difficult section of the climb – Pitch 15 (the climb was divided into 32 different sections, called pitches) – which Tommy conquered early on but Kevin made attempt after attempt, always losing his grip and falling (safety lines are worn to prevent them from falling to their deaths). As both men grow more frustrated, Tommy decides to continue on further with Kevin acting as support. Kevin is disappointed but when Tommy conquers the last difficult pitch and stands atop Wino Tower, he knows he doesn’t want to hit the summit alone. He makes an extraordinary decision that puzzles veteran climbers but not those who know him best.

As a character study, we get to know bits and pieces of Tommy Caldwell but he is a fairly shy individual so some things are difficult for him to articulate. That’s okay though: this isn’t really about the story of Tommy Caldwell precisely but at the end of the day it’s about the resilience of the human spirit, the need to conquer the unconquerable, to expand our horizons and to make the impossible possible. In this divisive age where the American spirit seems stunted by political tribalism, self-absorption and malaise, we need men like Tommy Caldwell more than ever. The triumph of mountains conquered – whatever shape those mountains take – is within the grasp of all of us who are willing to make the sacrifice to achieve.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely mind-blowing, particularly the footage on the wall. Caldwell’s story is the kind that is too bizarre to be anything but real.
REASONS TO STAY: Caldwell’s obsessive behavior might be too much for some viewers to understand.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dawn Wall originally made its American premiere at Sundance this year and has also been shown in selected theaters as part of Fathom Events special programming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meru
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Love, Gilda

Hare Krishna!


The swami and the snow storm.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Srila Prabhupada, Allen Ginsberg, Armarendra Das, Edwin Bryant, Yogesvara Das, Rukmini Dasi, Larry Shinn, Shaunaka Rishi Das, George Harrison, Hari Sauri Das, Yamuni Dasi, Sumati Morarjee, Radhanaath Das, Sally Agarwal, Boy George, Mikunda Goswami, Thomas J. Hopkins, Ramesvara Das, Niranjana Swami, Gurudas. Directed by John Griesser and Jean Griesser

 

Most of those reading this probably are too young to remember what was a common sight in airports around the United States and indeed around the world; people in yellow robes and shaved heads, dancing and chanting/singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare, Rama Rama” and asking for donations – sometimes in a very pushy manner.

They are less a ubiquitous sight now than they once were but most people are aware of the Hare Krishna movement even if it is just through the iconic George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” (Harrison had a deep abiding interest in Eastern religions and was extremely supportive of the movement). Few however are aware of how it started.

Srila Prabhupada a.k.a. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City in 1965 at the behest of his guru to spread the word of Krishna consciousness to the West. He had no money, no contacts and a few translated copies of ancient sacred texts to help him. He was an educated businessman with a wife and son who had set all that aside to follow his spiritual quest.

Had he come to New York City in 2017 it would have been unlikely that he’d have made any headway but in 1965 the hippies were beginning to come into their own and they were looking for alternatives to the lifestyles and spirituality that they’d grown up with. The hippies turned out to be extremely receptive to Prabhupada’s rejection of the material and embrace of Krishna consciousness – a devotion to Krishna, an aspect of the Hindu godhead.

 

At first the movement was an ember, a dozen or so devotees living in a converted gift shop in the Village somewhat fortuitously named Matchless Gifts. After a gathering of chanting Hare Krishnas in a local park caught the notice of the New York Times, the ember became a spark. When the nascent movement caught the attention of the Beatles, he spark became a flame that spread around the world, even to the USSR where religion was forbidden and promulgating it a capital offense.

The movie is the work of insiders of the movement – although Griesser uses his birth name for the film, having adopted the name Yadubara Dāsa as a member of the religion – and as such we get some interesting insights. For example, did you know they adopted the yellow garments in order to stand out among the colorful fashions that were all the rage in London at the time? I didn’t and that’s the kind of thing that makes history a joy to me.

But it’s also a double edged sword. Critics have used the term “hagiography” – an uncritical biography that ignores the less savory aspects of the subject – in conjunction with this film and in all honesty the term fits here. The movie shows the Hare Krishnas to be essentially harmless Hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment despite the fact that the movement grew to the point that it had a bankroll of millions of dollars. There is no mention of the transgressions of self-styled Swamis like Keith Ham who created little hegemonies under the aegis of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sort of ruling body for the religion today) or the troubling anti-Semitic and racist remarks penned by Prabhupada himself. The movie would have benefited from a little bit more perspective as nearly everyone interviewed is a devotee with the exception of a few academics. As the song goes, never is heard a discouraging word.

Incidentally the full title of the documentary is Hare Krishna! The Mantra, The Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. I’ve chosen not to use the full title because it is unwieldy and takes up too much space as a title. I have to admit that I’m growing annoyed with the current need for documentaries to follow the lead of nonfiction books and possess secondary titles that are overly long and unnecessary – does anyone think the secondary title here is going to attract any more viewers than just titling the film Hare Krishna!?

The subject matter is an interesting one and I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach to it. This comes off more as a commercial for Krishna Consciousness and in that aspect I’m sure there are people who could benefit from the teachings of the late Prabhupada who passed away in 1977. However, this is a commercial that masquerades as a documentary and those expecting a balanced and impartial look at the Hare Krishna movement will not find it here.

REASONS TO GO: The historical footage is fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lack of any sort of perspective other than that of the Hare Krishnas themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scattered drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Griesser began documenting the Hare Krishna movement as a photojournalist in 1970.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wolfpack
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dean

Louder Than Bombs


Father and son.

Father and son.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, Russell Posner, Maryann Urbano, Donna Mitchell, Harry Ford, Leslie Lyles, Luke Robertson, Peter Mark Kendall, Paul C. Kelly, Sean Cullen, Charlie Rose, Marielle Holland, Bridget McGarry. Directed by Joachim Trier

Florida Film Festival 2016

We sometimes underestimate the effects we have on our children as parents. Our presence can be destructive if we do or say the wrong thing – but not nearly so destructive as not being there at all.

Isabelle Reed (Huppert) was one of the most decorated war photographers on the planet. However her job took her away from her husband Gene (Byrne) – an actor – and her two sons Jonah (Eisenberg) and Conrad (Druid). Gene left his career in order to raise the kids while mom was away, which was often. However, she finally announced her intention to give up the life of a war correspondent and spend more time at home with her family. Shortly after that, she died in a tragic car wreck.

Now four years later a prestigious New York art gallery/museum is doing a retrospective on her work and Gene enlists the help of Jonah – who is now married and expecting his own first child in the near future – to help sort through her last photographs, which Gene has never been able to look at. He also needs help with Conrad, who has become combative with his father, blaming him for his mother’s death or at least using him as a target for his blame. Conrad spends a lot of time playing Skyrim and wandering the streets aimlessly and alone; his father has taken to following his son discretely. Or maybe not as discretely as he thinks.

As we find out through flashback footage, Isabelle had secrets of her own and as Gene finds out that one of them is about to be revealed in the pages of the New York Times which will devastate Conrad even further, Gene doesn’t know how to soften the blow, which is the worst thing he could possibly do is continue to keep secrets from his son. As all this comes to a head, the dysfunction of all three of the members of this family will start spinning wheels that will change their lives forever.

This is the first English language feature (and third overall) by up-and-coming Norwegian director Trier. Like many of his films, the undertones here are grim for the most part, dealing with abandonment issues, the pain of betrayal and the dysfunction of a family that has had one member torn from it.

Gabriel Byrne is one of the most reliable actors out there. He’s never flashy, but he always brings dignity and gravitas to his roles. Here he plays a very nice man who has lost his rock and his having trouble finding his own spine because of it. He avoids and avoids and avoids but at the end of the day, that does nothing good. He loves his sons with a passion and misses his wife with an ache that never goes away. The portrait of Gene is heartbreaking to say the least.

No less so is Huppert’s portrayal of Isabelle, a driven woman who finds fulfillment through her muse and less through her family, which makes for a certain amount of resentment and guilt. The dead are no angels in life; Isabelle does some things that will make a few people recoil. And that’s what happens from time to time in life; people who seem decent and good do things that are not. And sometimes it is others that pay the price, but more often, the price the transgressor pays is much higher than one could imagine.

Druid plays the angry teen a little too well – there are times you want to scream at him “You selfish PIG! Do you not understand that you aren’t the only one who’s grieving? That you’re not the only one who’s hurting?” But the truth of the matter is that kids that age often can’t see beyond their own pain. They haven’t the tools to. Time gives us that, and time can be a cruel teacher. Be that as it may, Conrad is so thoroughly unlikable that I had trouble watching him. I probably hated the character more than he deserved. Maybe not, though.

There are some real moments of poetry here but this is mostly an examination of pain, and that can be…um, painful. It’s not always an easy thing to watch people dealing with the absence of a loved one and trying to find the answers to questions that may not be answerable. We can only know those around us so well, but sometimes it turns out that we don’t even know them at all. Louder Than Bombs (not to be confused with the Smiths album) turns out to be a very fine film that is often hard to watch but is worth the effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances by Byrne and Huppert. Heartrending subject.
REASONS TO STAY: The teenage character is accurately portrayed – and thoroughly unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, violent images and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Conrad and Jonah watch together with their dad is Hello Again which actually starred Byrne and Shelly Long.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Midnight Special

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!