Riding the Rails


All aboard!

(1997) Documentary (PBS Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys

 

In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.

Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.

Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.

Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.

Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.

Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.

In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.

I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more background information and context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American Hobo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Little Things

Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

(2021) Suspense (LaskCecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern, Alexander Salzberger, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Christina Indrenius Zalewski, Naida Ragimova, Bengt Braskered, Karin Holmberg (voice), Tobias Almborg, Bill Hugg, Maria Norgren, Nilla Hansson, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almén, Meliz Karige. Directed by Frida Kernoff

The mind is a powerful and mysterious instrument. It can pick up on the smallest clues, but it can make up things out of whole cloth. When it isn’t functioning properly, we cannot trust the sensory input we receive from it. What, then, does one do to distinguish what reality is?

Molly (Milocco) has suffered an awful tragedy. One moment she is napping on the beach, smiling at the whisper that her partner is going for a swim, the next her life has been completely upended. So much so that she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Now, though, she is about to be released to try and resume a normal life. An apartment has been arranged for her in a high-rise on the edge of an unnamed city in Sweden. It is spacious, not particularly new but at least it has potential. There is a nice balcony with a view.

Molly settles in with what possessions she has and is urged to make of it a home. She tries gamely, looking for décor but seems a bit unsure as to what appeals to her. And there is a persistent knocking noise coming from one of the apartments above her. Maybe it’s someone hanging a picture, but the knocking is irregular and lasts too long. Maybe someone is dancing on their floor at night?

Molly goes upstairs to inquire of her upstairs neighbors – all men – as to what the source of the knocking is, but nobody else seems to hear it. There are also strange stains appearing in the ceiling. Molly begins to suspect that the rhythmic knocing could be morse code – someone might be trying to communicate with her. And the idea forms that there is someone being held captive – a woman. Other clues begin to arise – bloody clothes found in the dumpster, loud arguing, glimpses of abusive behavior by one of the men living above her. Molly calls the police, but they are less than helpful and given Molly’s history, fairly certain that what’s going on is all in Molly’s head. As the knocking becomes more insistent, Molly grows more desperate to find the source. She is absolutely convinced that there is a badly injured woman calling out for help the only way she can and Molly is just as certain that she’s the only hope the woman has of rescue.

Kernoff has some admirable instincts as a filmmaker. She creates an atmosphere that is slightly off-kilter, letting the viewer know that there’s something that’s not quite right. Is it Molly? Is it something sinister? We’re never really sure until the end and that’s some masterful filmmaking. Kernoff also makes magnificent use of light and shadow. Early on much of the light is reflected off of other surfaces – mirrors, windows, floors. Molly often tries to hide within shadows; behind the curtains of her apartment which are generally drawn, always in a kind of half-light that visually illustrates Molly’s fragile mental state.

She is aided by an extremely strong performance by Milocco who is on-camera virtually every moment, most of the time by herself. She carries the movie with confidence; the more certain Molly grows, the less certain the audience is. That’s in part good writing but also Milocco’s instincts that help create that dichotomy.

One of the underlying messages is the way women are marginalized by men. That’s not to say this is anti-man; Molly is generally treated like a well-meaning but foolish child who is given a pat on the head and reassurances that her concerns will be looked into – sometimes by other women as well. Our patriarchal society in general tends to believe women less often than men. It is why so many women are hesitant to report instances of sexual assault; often they are disbelieved, even asked if they might have misinterpreted what happened to them. To an extent, olly is treated as an unreliable witness in the film not only by the various men in the movie but also by Kernoff herself; we all have that kernel of doubt in our heads right up until the very last moments of the movie when that doubt is resolved.

Molly, like most victims of trauma, lives partially in those moments of trauma. Throughout the film, Molly returns again and again to that day in her head when tragedy befell her. We never see the event actually take place; we assume what has happened. It is as if Molly can’t bring herself to face the actual event. We hear a scream and we surmise. It’s very effective and from a psychological standpoint, quite an accurate representation of what trauma and tragedy does to the hyman psyche.

The movie is not without flaws. Although at a compact 78 minutes it doesn’t ask for an unreasonable investment of time, the pacing is kind of jerky; it does build to a climax but there are also some moments that seem inert compared to others that passed before it. During a freak-out near the end of the film by Molly, a GoPro is placed on Molly facing her so as she moves in almost a whirl of angry, frustrated movement – a tarantella of ranting – we are treated to Milocco’s facial expressions as she rages at the upstairs neighbors, insisting that there is something terrible going on – but the camera movement becomes dizzying and a bit intrusive. Molly’s world is spiraling around her, I get the visual representation but the end result is that I had to look away from the screen until the scene was done, missing the nuances of Milocco’s performance.

Although the movie does contain some horror tropes – the knocking itself sounds like it’s coming straight out of a haunted house movie – this isn’t a horror movie at all. It’s more of a psychological thriller. Given the strength of Milocco’s performance, the nuances of the film’s message and the overall unsettling tone, this is a worthwhile film to seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the major indies picked this one up for release in the fall or winter. If you’re not already watching the Sundance festival virtually (where it premiered), this is one to keep an eye out for on your own local festival or when it eventually gets a national theatrical/VOD release, which I’m pretty certain it will.

REASONS TO SEE: Kernoff does a fine job of setting an unsettling mood. Milocco gives a bravura performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Johannes Theorins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Night

The Sharks (Los tiburones)


On the inside looking out.

(2019) Coming of Age Drama (Breaking Glass) Romina Bentancur, Federico Morosini, Fabian Arenillas, Antonella Aquistapache, Valeria Lois, Bruno Pereyra, Jorge Portillo. Directed by Lucia Garibaldi

 

Janis Ian once wrote a song called “At Seventeen,” about a young girl’s awakening to sexuality and objectification, misogyny and emotional heartache. I wasn’t yet 17 when the song came out and I remember being absolutely confused by it; do girls really feel this way? Is this what they go through? No wonder I don’t understand them. If you think understanding the truth at seventeen is no picnic, try doing it at fourteen.

But that’s what faces 14-year-old Rosina (Bentancur), who lives in an Argentine seaside resort. When we first meet her, she’s running away from her home to the beach, chased by her father (Arenillas). We learn that she has injured her older sister Marianna (Aquistapache) who needs stitches near her eye. Rosina claims she didn’t mean it, but her diffident behavior makes you wonder if she did. As the two leave, Rosina sees a dorsal fin come out of the water. Could it be a shark? Nobody believes that it is; sharks are apparently rare in those waters.

Her father decides that Rosina will spend the summer helping him out doing maintenance on a resort – sweeping the debris off the tennis courts, pruning shrubs and so forth. She takes a shine to Joselo (Morosini), an older boy who is supplementing his fishing income by working for Rosina’s dad. In turn, Joselo has an interest in Rosina but it’s purely sexual. They meet at the garage where Joselo hangs out; he masturbates and she watches, but ignores his please for her to touch herself. Finally, he gives up and seems to lose interest in her.

But she doesn’t lose interest in him. She tries a number of different ways to keep his attention, but his focus seems on hanging out with his mates, playing soccer and trying to hook up with someone older. In the meantime, a seal carcass has washed up on the beach and the fishermen, whose livelihood could be decimated by a shark, start taking her story seriously.

Bentancur gives Rosina a perpetually bored, morose expression as if she is far above what is going on around her but at the same time can’t be bothered to change her circumstances. She is isolated within her own family group; her self-absorbed mother (Lois) is trying to start up an online beautician business without a basic understanding of computers, much to Rosina’s eye-rolling bemusement. Marianna, who is stressed out over a college entrance exam, she can’t stand and her little brother is beneath her notice. She spends most of her attention on Joselo and exploring her burgeoning sexuality, sometimes in graphic terms that might make the average guy squirm. Rosina feels like a real teenage girl, with all the maddening drama and emotional fallout that implies.

Garibaldi often places the camera behind Rosina, who never so much as cracks a smile until the movie’s final shot, almost as if we’re following her around like a documentary crew. She often uses wide shots to expand the distance around Rosina, even in interiors. We feel her isolation nearly from the get-go.

The pace is very deliberate and there isn’t a whole lot of action, so this is the kind of movie that Gene Siskel might have loved. Those with short attention spans and who are in need of more aggressive stimulation are probably not going to look on this movie kindly. Those who want to get into a character’s world – not inside her head so much because Bentancur gives such an internalized performance as Rosina – and who want to experience a certain moment in that character’s life unfiltered will probably delight in this. You’ll have to decide which camp you’re in and choose accordingly.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosina is a fascinating and realistic character.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations, profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This Sundance world dramatic entry from 2019 is Garibaldi’s first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic Pizza
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Legend of Swee’ Pea

Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

American Animals


These aren’t your father’s Reservoir Dogs although they may look it.

(2018) True Crime (The Orchard) Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson, Drew Starkey, Lara Grice, Jane McNeill, Wayne Duvall, Gary Basaraba, Kevin L. Johnson, Whitney Goin, Jason Caceres, Gretchen Koerner, Elijah Everett, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Betty Jean Gooch. Directed by Bart Layton

Everything looks easier in the movies. Real life is significantly harder. In real life, the hero doesn’t get the girl let alone ride off into the sunset with her, luck doesn’t side with the virtuous and crime never ever pays.

In 2004, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky was rocked by the violent robbery that took place in their rare books section. It was further rocked when it turned out that the perpetrators were students attending the university (and the neighboring University of Kentucky). All of the criminals came from well-to-do or at least comfortably middle class families. None of them had a history of criminal behavior. So what happened?

Layton, a veteran British TV documentarian with one previous feature film (The Imposter) to his credit, fuses comedy and drama along with the documentary in this his first narrative feature film in a startling mash-up that moves at a frenetic pace like the best of Steven Soderbergh’s heist movies. He casts a quartet of talented young actors to play the leads and then utilizes the actual subjects themselves to insert commentary that is often contradictory as human recollection often is, and at times even interact with their fictional selves.

The mastermind is Warren Lipka (Peters), a young man who suspects that he will lead an unremarkable life, a fate worse than death in his opinion. If he doesn’t have the temperament or the skills to do something for the betterment of all, well it’s better to be infamous than un-famous. His childhood best friend is Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), who while touring his university is shown the John James Audubon first edition Birds of America, one of the most valuable books in the world and one that happens to be housed at Transylvania University. When he remarks upon it to his friend, the wheels begin turning in Lipka’s mind as he sees it as the way to make his mark. He’s seen enough heist movies to know what is needed to make the robbery work.

At first the discussions are all very theoretical but gradually over time these discussions cross the line into planning an actual robbery. The two know they could never pull this off on their own so they rope in fellow students Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson), a mega-organized math whiz, and entitled jock Chas Allen (Jenner) who will drive the getaway car. Their only obstacle; the kindly middle-aged librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Dowd) who is physically present in the library at all times. The boys are confident they can overcome the security measures protecting the book.

While the movie doesn’t have the pizzazz, the flair or the star power of the Oceans franchise, it does have a tone all its own and a unique viewpoint. While the gimmick of conflicting testimony has been used in other movies before (notably and most recently I, Tonya) it is utilized brilliantly here and doesn’t seem gimmicky at all.

This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival; it was also at Sundance where it made a notable splash. There is good reason for both of those facts; this is a wildly entertaining and occasionally poignant film with enough teen hubris to choke a horse. It’s just now completing its theatrical run at the Enzian and will shortly be available on VOD although I would highly recommend that readers in Orlando check it out at the Enzian. While there is one brutal and shocking scene of violence that might be difficult for the sensitive, this is essential viewing and all efforts should be made to see this movie one way or another. The real crime is if you fail to do so.

REASONS TO GO: This is a refreshingly original take on the heist film. Layton mashes up drama, comedy and documentary into a new genre all its own. The pacing is perfect. Fine performances by Keoghan and Jenner.
REASONS TO STAY: There is one scene that may be a little bit too much for those sensitive to violence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and a scene of brutal violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set at Transylvania University in Kentucky where the events actually happened, the movie was filmed in North Carolina at Davidson College.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
A Quiet Place

Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press


Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) runs out of fingers to count how many pro wrestling titles he’s won.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger

 

Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”

It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.

This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.

The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.

After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.

The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.

These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda  become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Wrinkle in Time

Hearts Beat Loud


Isn’t this how Phish got started?

(2018) Dramedy (Gunpowder & Sky) Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Alex Reznik, Andrea Morales, Michael Abbott Jr., Harrison Chad, Robert Reed Murphy, Rafael Poueriet, McManus Woodend, Faith Logan. Directed by Brett Haley

 

Sometimes you just need a movie that’s going to make you feel good. More often than not you’ll reach for a favorite from childhood or even young adulthood, something as familiar and as comforting as an old blanket on a rainy day. Other times though you still want to try something new. If this is one of those times, have I got a movie for you.

Frank (Offerman) is the proprietor of Red Hook Records, the kind of store John Cusack would love. He resolutely and stubbornly sells only vinyl in the hipster-infested neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. When one such hipster scolds him for smoking in his own store, Frank replies acidly that if he’ll buy something, he’ll put out his coffin nail. The hipster counters by whipping out his phone and ordering his record on Amazon. Such brazen acts of douche-ness should be rewarded with a bazooka to the face.

His smart and pretty daughter Sam (Clemons) is heading to med school all the way across the country at UCLA in the fall. Frank is okay with this although the cost for sending his baby to college is staggering; there’s no way he could afford it on what he’s pulling in from the store so after 17 years he’s shuttering the business, despite the attempts by his sympathetic landlady (Collette) and kinda-sorta-maybe love interest to help him out.

One of Frank’s great joys is having a regular jam session with his daughter. Frank, who in his youth recorded an album, recaptures a little bit of his past glory in these sessions. On this night, a tune his daughter had been working on becomes a really good single. Dad wants to start a band with her and tour; she wants to go to med school. He takes the recording of the song and without her knowledge submits it to Spotify. It is added to a curated New Indie playlist. Suddenly things are starting to happen. You can guess where this is leading.

Haley, who directed last year’s excellent The Hero, surrounds these two with a pretty fair cast, including Danner as Frank’s mom who is showing signs of dementia and shoplifts from time to time, Danson as a pothead bartender and Lane as Sam’s girlfriend. There’s not a poor performance in the bunch and Offerman in particular is marvelous – I think this is his best work to date as a matter of fact. While it might seem to be a bit presumptuous for his daughter to tell Frank – often – that he needs to grow up, it’s also true that Frank seems to be spending his time in Just-Out-of-College Land.

There are a few bumps in the road; the relationship between Sam and Rose feels contrived and a bit too ridden with indie clichés to really hold up.. Also some of the roles (in particularly the mom and Rose) that are woefully underwritten and could have used some fleshing out. The soundtrack is really nice – you have to love a movie that gives a shout-out to Jason Molina and Songs: Ohia – and both Offerman and Clemons, who do their own singing and playing in the movie, are actually pretty good.

Some movies try too hard to be charming but this one pulls it off organically. Certainly you’re being manipulated a little bit but in the end if you walk out of the theater feeling good, that’s worth it’s weight in gold in these troubling times. Incidentally while the movie has opened up in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, it is rolling out nationwide and will be making it’s Orlando debut on June 22nd. You should definitely check it out.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is nifty and the original songs ain’t half-bad. This just might be Nick Offerman’s best work to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The relationship between Sam and Rose is a bit too indie clichéd.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug references and brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Offerman and Danson previously worked together in the second season of Fargo for F/X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Band-Aid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Worker’s Cup

Casting JonBenet


A gaggle of beauty queens await their call.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green

 

The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.

The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.

Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.

Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.

We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.

As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.

Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.

It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.

Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kate Plays Christine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Post

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore


Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey are out looking for trouble.

(2016) Crime Comedy (Netflix) Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Gary Anthony Williams, Devon Graye, Christine Woods, Robert Longstreet, Derek Mears, Jason Manuel Olazabal, Dagoberto Rodriguez, Dana Millican, Myron Natwick, Robin Blair, Buck Eddy-Blair, Marilyn Faith-Hickey, Jared Roylance, Michelle Moreno, Cristi Miles, Lee Eddy, Jana Lee Hamblin. Directed by Macon Blair

 

There comes a point in life where you just have to say “enough.” You can’t take another jerk in your life, you can’t bear to just swallow the selfishness of people and be polite. What triggers that feeling may vary from person to person.

For Ruth (Lynskey) it starts with a very bad day. A nurse’s assistant, her day begins with a most unpleasant patient, an elderly woman with racist thoughts, suddenly dies. It ends with Ruth coming home to a house which has been broken into. Her laptop is gone as is her grandmother’s silver set. The police in the person of Detective William Bendix (Williams) seem fairly indifferent to her plight.

With the aid of her martial arts-loving devout Christian neighbor Tony (Wood), Ruth endeavors to find her grandma’s silverware which has a sentimental value to her. Utilizing a tracking program on her laptop, she does recover her computer and discovers that the stoners using it picked up the device at a dicey pawn shop.

This will lead her into the world of incompetent, petty criminals, wealthy douchebag lawyers and home invasions. The journey there will be dark and twisted; will she come out all right on the other end?

This made a lot of noise at this year’s Sundance, winning the Grand Jury prize for dramatic presentation. Blair, a childhood friend of director Jeremy (The Green Room) Saulnier, is making his feature film directorial debut and I must say he has a really bright future if he chooses to pursue that aspect of filmmaking; Blair has appeared in front of the camera in several of Saulnier’s films as well as this one in a cameo as an annoying bar patron.  He has a great eye for shot composition which makes the film pleasing from a strictly visual point of view.

He also had the good sense to cast Lynskey in this. She’s an actress who simply doesn’t get her due; I can’t remember a performance of hers that was anything but compelling and here, in a rare opportunity to carry a movie herself, she knocks it out of the park. Ruth is an essentially mousy character who has been pushed too far. There’s a great scene where she stands up to Bendix at the police station, a confrontation that leads to an unexpected revelation. She also has great chemistry with Wood, who has morphed into an actor with a very broad range of styles. He may be one of the most versatile actors working in Hollywood today.

Ruth’s journey is a fascinating one. Even though she’s dealing with a sort of darker side of humanity not of her own doing, she keeps up her optimism pretty much throughout and although her naiveté gets her into situations that are somewhat precarious, she manages to prevail even though logic tells you that she shouldn’t.

The tone is a little bit off-kilter which can work in its favor, but also discourage more traditional moviegoers from wanting to see it. I admit, there were times when I was a little bit put off by the somewhat unconventional atmosphere. It’s not that there are a lot of eccentric indie trope characters in the movie, although there are a few; it’s just the situations can get a little bit wonky.

This is a good metaphor for life in 2017. Most of us feel the way Ruth does; there are a few too many assholes in the world and all we want is to live life as asshole-free as possible. Our society has in general become far more self-centered; there is little thought given about others, whether they are part of our circles or not. It is ironic that with communication so much easier we understand so much less than we once did. The world is indeed full of assholes; to counteract them, we need more people like Ruth.

REASONS TO GO: Lynskey is a much underrated actress who has become one of my favorites. The shot composition is terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The vibe may be a little too out there for some. The film is a little preachy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blair used his own experience of having his apartment broken into and his laptop stolen plus a perceived lack of police follow-up to inspire the story; the title comes from a line in a gospel song sung near the end of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Holden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Stray

The Fundamentals of Caring


Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

(2016) Dramedy (Netflix) Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Julia Denton, Megan Ferguson, Samantha Huskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Ehle, Donna Briscoe, Alex Huff, Alex Boell, Bill Murphey, Frederick Weller, Matt Mercurio, Robert Walker Branchaud, Eric Singer, James Donaldio, Matthew Pruitt, Ashley White, Kristi Von. Directed by Rob Burnett

 

One of the truths about caregiving is that often the caregiver receives from their charge as much if not more than they give to them. That isn’t always the case, but most of the time we see things in those whose care we are charged with that change how we see ourselves.

Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is entering the field of caregiving after having spent most of his life as a novelist. He has been unable to write following a tragedy that left him devastated and he and his wife (Denton) on the brink of divorce. Picking up the pieces, he wants to help someone in need rather than just bag groceries or flip burgers.

His first client is Trevor (Roberts), a young man with Muscular Dystrophy and  a frazzled mom (Ehle). His American dad abandoned the two of them; the two ex-pat Brits are also starting over in Seattle, with mom working for a major bank but going through caregivers as caustic Trevor is a bit of a handful, with a penchant for playing practical jokes and insulting those closest around him.

Ben urges the routine-bound Trevor to get out of the house; Trevor has a fondness for cheesy American tourist traps, particularly those things that advertise themselves as the “Biggest” anything. Ben knows that watching specials on the Travel Channel is nothing compared to seeing these plays in person in all their chintzy glory. With mom getting ready to go on a business trip to Atlanta, Ben begins planning a road trip of his own with Trevor. At first, mom is appalled but eventually relents.

They pick up a foul-mouthed hitchhiker on the way, a comely girl named Dot (Gomez) who is headed to Denver and art school. They also pick up another stray, the very pregnant Peaches (Ferguson) whose husband is overseas. On Trevor’s say-so, this ragtag group makes a detour to Salt Lake City to confront Trevor’s no-account used car dealer dad (Weller) but eventually they make it to the Nirvana of Trevor’s bucket list – America’s biggest pit. Yes, he aspires to see a tourist attraction that is essentially a great big hole in the ground.

Trevor and Ben are in fact mirror images of one another; both are bitter at the hand life has dealt them and both have been shutting out others, using their sense of humor and/or grief to push the world away from them. The caregiving has, by movie’s end, gone both ways; Ben is able to move on and Trevor is able to live life more fully. That’s a bit of a Hollywood cliché and I’m not sure that was what the Jonathan Evison novel, which I haven’t read, intended.

One of a handful of projects that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that was picked up for theatrical and streaming distribution by Netflix, the movie has a somewhat accelerated pace that makes one feel like Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel) was trying to cram too much into an hour and a half. The pace of the story isn’t organic at all as the closed-off Trevor seems to accept Ben way too easily, while for his part Ben who started off the movie sullen and uncommunicative seems to open up much faster in the film than humans usually do; there’s no sense of progression, only that the filmmakers wanted the relationship to reach the stage where the road trip could begin quickly.

Rudd is one of the most charming actors in Hollywood; he is so likable onscreen that even in off-beat roles (which are often the ones he takes) he still manages to capture your rooting interest. Here, it starts off with Ben deep in the throes of depression and the character is morose and grief-stricken. It doesn’t take long for Rudd to shine through even in those extreme circumstances and in some ways that’s not a good idea; Ben’s grief is part of the central aspects of his character and he seems to pull out of it way too quickly. It isn’t until the movie ends in fact that we realize that the movie has been about Ben all along and Trevor is the caregiver; the title is about how they both learn to care about life but the focus is certainly on Ben. Rudd pulls that aspect of it off well.

The movie is riddled with cliches and is predictable throughout. Gomez with her baby face looks is somewhat miscast as the fiercely independent Dot, while the character of Peaches seems to be unnecessary baggage. Cannavale turns up in an uncredited glorified cameo as Dot’s father who turns out to be following his daughter, making sure she gets to Denver all right.

I expected a bit more out of this film than it delivered. I enjoyed the road trip dynamic but there was no build up to it that would have given the personal growth more meaning. It just seemed to be too rote for a movie that came out of the independent pedigree it had. This could have easily been a remarkable film about the nature of caregiving, but in the end the script doesn’t serve the subject matter well. Netflix subscribers who are Paul Rudd films should check it out if they haven’t already; if you can take or leave Rudd, you are well-advised to find better movies to stream on the home video giant.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Rudd is as charming as always. Some fun road film moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels really rushed. The scrip is somewhat pedantic.-
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, sexually suggestive content and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rudd and Cannavale both appeared in Ant-Man last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jack of the Red Hearts
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The BFG