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The Leisure Class (2015)
The Emperor Has No Clothes
As a general rule, film audiences couldn't care less about what goes into the making of a motion picture. They don't care about the budget, the shooting schedule, or the relationship between cast, crew and the production staff. All they care about is the film itself. Of course, since the ins and outs of production of "The Leisure Class" was revealed as part of the reality series, "Project Greenlight," the "behind the scenes" activity of this movie is of greater interest. The relationship between Jason Mann, the co-writer and director of this film, and Effie Brown, one of the line producers, has been a topic of much discussion. Was Jason Mann an auteur whose artistic vision was being compromised by a producer that was more concerned with completing the film on time and under budget? Or was Jason Mann simply an egoistical brat whose sense of entitlement far outweighed his talent?
Despite the challenges that the project faced, if "The Leisure Class" turned out to be a great film, all would be forgiven. Let's not forget that Francis Ford Coppola was almost fired as the director of "The Godfather," which turned out to be one of the greatest American films of all time.
On the other hand, if "The Leisure Class" is not a good film, the fault lies squarely with the director. While he didn't get everything he wanted (what filmmaker does?), he got way more than one would expect from a first time feature director. First of all, he got to do is own script as opposed to the script that was selected by the production. He also got the additional money to shoot it on film. Also, thanks to Ms. Brown, he even got an extra day of shooting to address some issues with the film. The film was budgeted in the $3 million range, while small compared to a major theatrical release, is significantly larger than the budgets for other first time directors. For example, "Short Term 12," Destin Daniel Cretton's award-winning film, was made for less than $1 million. Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" (which Mann inexplicably wanted to hire Pierce's co-writer as his writing partner on a comedy) was made for $2 million. "Pariah," a first feature by Dee Rees, won a cinematography award at Sundance despite being made for less than $500,000. Christopher Nolan made "Following" for significantly less (and it was shot on film!).
If "The Leisure Class" failed as a production it is not because the budget was too low or because one element (such as a stunt highlighted in "Project Greenlight") didn't work out quite as planned. If a film is compelling, an audience will overlook quite a bit. In most any first feature, one can find shortcomings and missteps, but if the filmmaker is talented, one can usually find some indication of that talent.
To his credit, Jason Mann knows where to place a camera and judging from "Project Greenlight," he appears to know his way around the set. Unfortunately, judging from "The Leisure Class," there is very little else to indicate that Jason Mann has any talent as a writer and director.
The biggest problem with the film is a lack of character development. This is particularly true of the female characters, who are mostly passive and appear to be there only to serve the men. Fiona is woefully underdeveloped and whose behavior is based on the dictates of the script without regard to logic. This is particularly troubling, because Fiona is the obvious access character to help audiences to care about what is going on. In general, the characters don't behave like living and breathing human beings.
Less of a problem, but still important, is a lack of a cohesive structure and narrative. Without a clear sense of direction, the whole film seems pointless.
The film also can't seem to decide if it's a dark comedy, farce or some sort of psychological drama. The result is an awkward mix of several genres.
Last, but not least, "The Leisure Class" is dull and humorless. It Nothing in this film was even remotely funny. It's as if the writers thought it was enough for people with British and high brow accents to say outrageous things to be funny. It's not. For example, when the butler says that someone has "defecated on the Bentley," it's obviously designed to be funny, but instead it just comes across as bizarre. The line also makes absolutely no sense within the context of the film.
Perhaps Jason Mann's experience here will lead to work as a journeyman or "gun for hire." But as an artist, there's absolutely no indication that he's a "Coppola" in the making. If his appearance on "Project Greenlight" is any indication, he places too great an importance on the "look" of the film and not enough on communicating with an audience.
Personally, when I look at a film, it matters little if it was shot digitally or on film. It can be in color or black and white. The image can be grainy, even out of focus at times. I can even tolerate uneven performances. If the story is intriguing and/or the characters are engaging, I can overlook a film's technical shortcomings. The aforementioned "Boys Don't Cry" was a prime example. More technically polished films have been made, but few have its emotional power.
Hopefully, "Project Greenlight" will revise their selection process in the future to promote filmmakers who actually have something compelling to say. The Sundance Institute which has had an excellent track record of nurturing compelling, modestly budgeted artist-driven films is perhaps the best example of a program that nurtures new talent. Over the years, Sundance has developed such diverse projects as "Real Women Have Curves" (which Effie Brown co-produced), "Requiem for a Dream," "Fruitvale Station," "Maria Full of Grace," "Paradise Now," "Love and Basketball," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "Boys Don't Cry."
The Walker (2015)
A Light, Mildly Diverting Web Series
"The Walker" follows Walker, a gay man (played by Rightor Doyle) who has just been cut off of his trust fund and now must find a real job. To make ends meet, he starts working as a "walker" (or a closeted gay man serving as an escort) for wealthy women. This new activity tests his close relationships with three straight women. These women include Roz (Betty Gilpin) with whom he has known the longest, who works "behind the scenes" in the entertainment industry. Then there is Sunny (Carey Mulligan), a struggling actress with a sharp tongue. Finally, there is his flighty friend Dot (Zoe Kazan), who spends significant amounts of time with Walker despite having a boyfriend (Arjun Gupta). All three women (who are also friends with each other) depend on Walker for companionship and emotional support. Each episode focuses on how Walker impacts on their respective lives. The series is like "Sex in the City" without the sex.
The strongest aspect of the material is the chemistry between the four leads. They all interact so well in fact, that the viewer is willing to overlook how little is actually revealed about the characters and their relationships with each other. Also, as a web series, with each episode under ten minutes, not a lot is required to sustain interest, particularly with such an attractive cast. Also featured are guest appearances by people who have appeared on some of television's most popular shows.
However, despite an appealing cast, the viewer is left wanting more. Particularly ripe for exploration is Walker's complicated relationship with Roz.
Of the initial run of eight episodes, the fifth episode, "What It Takes to be a Reality TV Star" is perhaps the most intriguing. It takes a humorous look at the portrayal of gay men in the media.
Overall, "The Walker" should be appealing to people who find themselves in similar relationships to the characters portrayed on the series. For those individuals, they might want to binge watch the entire season. However, for others, "The Walker" is best viewed in small doses -- one episode at a time.
Excellent Political Documentary
CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT & UNBOSSED is an excellent documentary about a fearless lady and her bold campaign for the nation's top political office. Rather than wait for the "right time," Chisholm stepped into the presidential race in 1972 as not only the first black person, but also the first woman to mount a serious presidential campaign. She also did it on her own terms.
While she failed to win the nomination (that went to Sen. George McGovern, who eventually lost to Richard Nixon), she did incredibly well given the substantial obstacles that she faced. If one were to compare her bid to Carol Moseley-Braun's 2004 bid for the same job, it is all the more impressive. So much so in fact, that you wonder if Moseley-Braun even bothered to study her campaign. If she did, one would think that she would have fared much better.
Unlike Moseley-Braun, Chisholm did not try to downplay the fact that she was a woman or that she was black. To her it was a badge of honor. If anything, Chisholm's campaign had tremendous symbolic value. It served as a test of the "American Dream." The question that the campaign seemed to ask was not so much could a black woman win, but would she be taken seriously as a candidate. The viewer can make that determination after watching this film.
The documentary combines historical and contemporary footage to effectively give the viewer a sense of the political environment that Chisholm found herself in. For those unfamiliar with the campaign, it may bring a few surprises.
The director wisely allows the participants to speak for themselves. This includes interviews with former Congressman Ron Dellums, author Octavia Butler and Chisholm herself.
Overall, CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT & UNBOSSED is a powerful documentary. Chisholm's outspoken nature is a refreshing alternative to the sanitized and overly cautious political candidates that dominate the political landscape today. Irrespective of your political affiliation, this provocative film will stay with you long after you've left the theatre.
I, Robot (2004)
Much Better Than I Expected
When I first heard of the film, I thought it was going to be simply a programmer with great special effects and non-stop action. As it turns out, I, ROBOT does have the requisite action and special effects, but it also has a story with something to say about the world.
Will Smith stars as Del Spooner, a cop who has a big issue with robots, which have become enormously popular in 2030s America. His suspicions of them are in complete contrast to most other people, who think they are a great help to society.
When the inventor of these robots dies, Spooner thinks he was murdered by one of his creations, while everyone else believes it to be a suicide. What follows is a roller-coaster side of twists and turns as the film drives toward an unexpected conclusion.
What could have been simply a generic action picture, turns into something much more. I, ROBOT will entertainment, but it will also ask you think as well. Hopefully, it will inspire other producers to do the same with their big action films.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Not Just An Attack on Bush
Having actually seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," I can say that there is more to Michael Moore's film than meets the eye. Sure it's an attack on Bush and his foreign policy, but what resonates the most about this film is the human stories about the men and women that have fought in Iraq.
The fact remains that the mass media doesn't seem particularly interested in showing what it is like for the average American soldier fighting in Iraq. When was the last time that you saw a news piece on a specific soldier that was killed and effect that the soldier's death has on a family?
Another thing that really struck me about this film is the hypocrisy of Members of Congress who voted for war, but whose children are noticeablely absent from the battlefields. According to the film, only one Congressman has a child fighting in Iraq. This is not merely a partisan attack, but one that crosses all party lines. Of course who is the war being fought by? The poor and unemployed. This is made particularly clear when Moore follows two recruiters in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. With an official unemployment rate of 17%, the military offers one of the few opportunities for the town's young people to find gainful employment. It's a sad commentary.
Overall, "Fahrenheit 9/11" will not sway highly partisan voters one way or another. However, it may get a few people to examine U.S. foreign policy more closely and our treatment of veterans in general, which is definitely a good thing.
Charlotte Sometimes (2002)
Intriguing Concept - Average Execution
CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES tells the story of Michael (Michael Idemoto), an automobile mechanic that rents part of his converted house to Lori (Eugenia Yuan) and her lover Justin (Matt Westmore). Lori and Justin's relationship is based almost entirely on sex, so after their frequent coital encounters, Lori finds herself knocking on Michael's door in search of emotional intimacy. Lori and Michael talk, watch videos and basically just hang out together. They are friends, but clearly Michael is in love with her.
So Michael doesn't have to hear the sounds of Lori and Justin's love making, he often escapes to a local bar for a drink or two. One day, Lori asks Michael if she can fix him up on a date. He declines.
On a subsequent visit to the bar, Michael meets Darcy (Jacqueline Kim). Intrigued by her, Michael begins to spend time with her. Although Darcy's clearly interested and Michael's attracted to her, he decides to wait for them to have sex. This is true despite that fact that Darcy tells him that she is going out of town.
While Darcy's away, Michael examines his feelings toward her and learns more about her in the process. We also discover that things aren't quite what they seem.
In Eric Byler's film, which he wrote (based on a story by Byler and Jeff Liu) and directed, the basic situations are set up very nicely. There isn't the compulsion like some new filmmakers to explain every detail. On the other hand, some of the dialog is obvious, especially when it comes to Michael's expression of his feelings toward Darcy. However, given the nature of Michael's character, that's not a significant shortcoming of the script. A major logic problem that develops at the end is a problem. It causes unnecessary confusion in the final act of the film.
In terms of character, Michael is much too passive. Rather than show some initiative, he waits for others to take action before he does anything. Simply put, there is no fight in him. As a result, it's hard to connect with Michael on an emotional level. This is really a shame, because being in love with a woman that only wants to be your friend is a situation in which most men can relate.
That aside, the other main characters are pretty much on point. Justin is a self-absorbed ladies man that is unwilling to share himself emotionally. Lori is the pretty and sweet girl that always feels unsatisfied in relationships because she's always attracted to emotionally unavailable men. There's something very different going on with Darcy, but you'll have to see the film to find out.
Overall, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES presents a very worthwhile scenario, but doesn't live up to its potential. For those looking for an intelligent film that presents its characters in interesting ways, it is definitely worth a look. It features an attractive cast with generally strong, believable performances. I just wish Michael's character had a little more fire in him.
The film is nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. One is for the "John Cassavetes Award" for best feature made for under $500,000. The other is for "Best Supporting Female" recognizing Jacqueline Kim's fine performance as Darcy.
While not a great film, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES is better than a lot of what Hollywood has to offer. It's also an apportunity for audiences to see some fresh young talent in a film with something on it's mind
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
This film is quite a disappointment for me. It is neither the awe inspiring spectacle that Spielberg is noted for nor a compelling drama. The main problem seems to be is the muddled narrative. It is all over the place. Without getting too much into the particulars of the plot, the film starts off okay, but by the second act the film starts to drift aimlessly and never gets back on track. In the last reel or so, the film rolls off a series of endings which mostly fail to generate the emotional impact that is Spielberg's trademark. Some semblance of a theme survives, but its impact is weakened by the film's lack of urgency. The theme is also not brought out in the most compelling way. If you have any interest in seeing this film, it's probably better to see it in the theatre. If you see it on cable, you're bound to start channel surfing about thirty or forty minutes in.
Fresh Twist on Familiar Subject Matter
In the thirty-three years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, his life has taken on an almost mythical status. The result is that people often forget that he was a real living and breathing man. He was a person who loved (and made love to) his wife. Dr. King was an intelligent man with the gift of oratory, but otherwise ordinary, who suddenly found himself thrust into an extraordinary situation. Commend HBO, director Clark Johnson, the screenwriters and the incredible cast for breathing life into the often told story of Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Previous films on Dr. King, paint him as an almost superhuman figure -- a saint even. With Boycott, the filmmakers have wisely brought him "down to earth' and reveal Dr. King as a noble, but clearly human being who has feelings and weaknesses. Remember Dr. King was only 26 years old with a young wife and child, when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Also significant is that the film explores Dr. King's relationship with his father at the time. All of these elements help to give the film a special power that will resonate with viewers. Jeffrey Wright gives a powerful performance in the lead role than rivals if not surpasses Denzel Washington's performance as Malcolm X. Wright is so riveting, that you actually forget that you are watching a performance. The film's documentary-style approach also gives the film an almost eerie sense of realism. There's also some more subtle touches that help to place the viewer into the period. Some of the most striking were the scenes showing how black passengers were required to pay their bus fare and how they were treated once they got on the bus. Boycott is not a mere "history lesson," but a moving portrait of a time and the role that a people played in improving their quality of life.
Boesman and Lena (2000)
An Intense, Powerful Drama
It's always nice to see Angela Bassett getting to do a role that she can really sink her teeth into. She is at times intense, funny and even sexy in her role as Lena, a "colored" woman forced to make a home on a desolate mudbank just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Danny Glover is also good in a not entirely sympathetic role as her partner, Boesman. Willie Jonah gives a finely nuanced performance as the stranger that discovers Boesman and Lena's new living area. It's not often that you get a chance to see an intelligent film dealing with mature themes. Although it is based on a play, the late director John Berry (who also directed Claudine) opens the material up by having the film shot in the widescreen Cinemascope format. He also keeps things visually interesting through the creative blocking of actors and by showing us things only mentioned in the play. Just like Diahann Carroll in Claudine, John Berry may have directed Angela Bassett into an Academy Award nomination. This is definitely a film worth searching for.
Men of Honor (2000)
A Moving and Inspirational Film
You think you've had it tough? You should check out this film. Carl Brashear is the epitome of courage and determination. What this man had to go through to become a navy diver, should be an inspiration to us all. And significantly, after seeing this film, I learned that what is shown is not even the half of it! Cuba Gooding, Jr. does some of his best work to date as Brashear. De Niro, as usual is good as the southern redneck who trains him. George Tillman in only his second major feature (after "Soul Food"), has made a quantum leap as a filmmaker. If you want to be moved and inspired, you definitely need to check out this one.