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Proxy (2013/I)
Child murder scene ruins Hitchcock wannabe director's attempt at black humor, 18 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The best word to describe Zack Parker's new pseudo-Hitchcock horror/thriller is 'twisted'. Let's give Mr. Parker some credit for hitting up all those doctors and dentists and actually getting his film produced. But beyond that, there's something rather seedy and exploitative about Parker's tale of two demented women and their need for attention.

'Proxy' might have actually earned positive points in the pantheon of horror or thriller genre goodies, had he infused his characters with a modicum of verisimilitude. But alas, there's none of that here. Proxy begins with anti-heroine #1, Esther, whose late-term pregnancy is terminated violently in an alleyway, by a hooded assailant. We're fooled into having sympathy for Esther as it appears that she ends up as a classic victim who attends a bereavement group.

But soon, Parker attempts to shock by revealing that Esther's lesbian lover, Anika, killed Esther's baby in utero, at her request. Esther reveals her contempt for motherhood but instead of arranging for an abortion, the staged street assault is consummated because she merely wants attention. The motive of perverted Esther is awfully hard to believe in but Parker asks us to suspend our disbelief and continue on with him into darker scenarios to come.

Then Esther meets her so-called 'proxy', Melanie, at the aforementioned bereavement group. Esther discovers that Melanie attends the group as part of a twisted fantasy where she imagines that she's lost both her husband and young son in a car accident. Then Esther spies Melanie pretending that she's lost her son in a department store. What happens afterward is where Mr. Parker completely lost me. It's one thing to have a black comedy where all the characters are sort of perverse and demented and their actions might occasionally amuse; but please don't do things like have one of your characters murder a young child.

But nothing will stop Mr. Parker in his quest for cheap thrills. He actually has Esther go over to Melanie's house, and drown a child in a bathtub (fortunately, Mr. Parker doesn't show the actual drowning of the child in all its gory detail). Nonetheless, the murder leaves a most unpleasant taste in one's mouth, for the rest of the film. As for Esther's motive in killing the child, she deems Melanie a hypocrite for 'fantasizing' about mourning for her child, and decides to have the fantasy, turn into reality.

Wouldn't you know it but Melanie's creepy husband, Patrick, kills Esther by blowing her away with his handy shotgun and she unceremoniously falls into the bathtub in slow motion, with all her blood and guts splaying in multiple directions. The attendant police investigation is not shown on screen and we're asked to believe that the police are stymied in uncovering Esther's identity. What's more, Melanie actually succeeds in maintaining hers and Patrick's anonymity, despite the media coverage (a story about a woman breaking into a home and murdering a young child, probably would have went viral all over the internet, and made the national news). Still, Mr. Parkers maintained at a recent Q&A, that this was merely a 'local' story.

Before the denouement, the narrative slows down considerably as there's too much focus on a despondent Patrick, contemplating his next course of action. Mr. Parker intimates that Patrick is one step away from being a serial killer himself (he fantasizes about what he could have done to Esther had he only wounded her and brought her down to the basement, where he could have done it the 'right way', using all of his special 'equipment').

Melanie becomes a proxy as she fulfills Esther's prediction that she'll basically become a killer just like her. 'Proxy' plays out when Anika decides to take revenge on Patrick and Melanie for Esther's death. She's not that surprised when she finds Melanie has already finished Patrick off in the bathroom but IS surprised when Melanie blows her away with Patrick's shotgun.

Kristina Klebe as Anika probably steals the show as Esther's over the top lesbian lover. There's not much more to recommend about 'Proxy'. Worse than the characters lack of believability is probably the director's failure to approach the story with a sense of fun. Instead, he inserts scenes including the murder of a child, wholly inappropriate for the atmosphere of black humor, which he is attempting to convey.

Noah (2014)
6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Aronofsky's rock monsters can't turn this antediluvian and post-antediluvian potboiler into compelling drama, 6 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

My question about 'Noah', Darren Aronofsky's bloated, CGI-effects laden Biblical epic, is whether it was worth making at all. The tale found in the Bible doesn't exactly lend itself to good drama. It's a simple tale that's actually taken from an earlier story from Mesopotamia. You all know the story: Patriarch saves all the creatures on earth (in pairs of two) by building an ark after God (known as the 'Creator' here) decides to destroy all of humanity, after they turn inexorably wicked.

Russell Crowe can't be blamed much for another one of his grim-faced, ultra-serious performances (much like his dull 'Robin Hood'), since he's simply been directed to follow Aronofsky's (for the most part), dull script. Before Aronofsky serves up his version of the building of the Ark and subsequent flood, he introduces a human antagonist in the form of one Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) who is quite conveniently a descendant of Cain (all-time bad guy who killed good old brother Abel). Winstone actually is much more lively than Crowe as 'king' of the desolate realm he rules over. He gets wind of the Ark and God's plan to wipe out everyone, so he plans to kill Noah and take over his ship.

The problem is how does Noah and his family defend himself against an entire Army? Aronofsky's 'brilliant' idea is to conceive of a coterie of fallen angels, 'The Watchers', who also happen to be rock monsters. You'll recall that the enjoyable sci-fi dramedy, 'Galaxy Quest', also featured a much more malevolent rock monster. But here, Aronofsky's monsters are much more benign—and are willing to defend the Ark from Tubal-cain's bad guy minions. If there's one thing that really ruins 'Noah', it's the presence of the ridiculous rock monsters, that reduces the film to feeling like one of those old, cheesy episodes, from the original Star Trek series or a clunky Transformers-like fest.

If you're expecting some great flood scenes, with the Ark being tossed about in a turbulent sea, you will be disappointed. Noah and family are tossed about for a few seconds and the creature passengers remain undisturbed, as they enjoy their bucolic sleep. I'm sad to report that the storm (as storms go), ranks way below iconic disaster scenes, such as the twister in 'The Wizard of Oz'. Instead, Noah gets to duke it out with Tubal-cain, who manages to be the only one of his army, to slip on board the ark.

Meanwhile, Aronofsky opts for melodrama to compensate for his lack of a good 'Poseiden Adventure' involving the Ark. Ila (Emma Watson), adopted by the family early on, suddenly finds she's 'with child' as a result of grandfather Methuselah's transcendent intervention (Anthony Hopkins has the only comic scene in the entire movie, with his successful quest to dine on a clump of delicious berries!). While Noah probably will get some great marks from animal activists, on the other hand, I have to no doubt he will receive failing marks from those concerned with female empowerment. Yes, religious zealot Noah actually has the idea that God wants him to murder Ila's twin newborns, to ensure that all mankind is punished for their transgressions. While he's trying to decide should he or shouldn't he (i.e. kill the babies), the character's likability factor goes down considerably (yes I know this is Biblical times, but it's hard to like a character who comes within one second of committing infanticide). What's more our modern sensibilities are offended when the womenfolk give him hugs afterward—it's hard to stomach the idea that Noah is forgiven so easily.

That's about it folks. When all is said and done, 'Noah' is kind of a bore. On the positive side, there's some occasional good cinematography, including a nifty scene where Noah gazes upon Tubal-cain's tribe, as they do their 'Hieronymus Bosch' impersonation. Ultimately Mr. Aronofsky does not possess a creative enough spark to turn this antediluvian and post-antediluvian potboiler into compelling drama. We're stuck with clichéd battles attended by absurd rock monsters and a cringeworthy protagonist who spends a good deal of time contemplating the murder of his grandchildren. Time to get out my old copy of 'Ben Hur'—chariot racing seems a lot more exciting than both humans and animals getting tossed around in the hold of a ship, on a storm-tossed sea.

Prisoners (2013)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
An exciting serial killer thriller but I had trouble believing torture victim wouldn't crack, 30 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is back with another densely plotted movie with 'Prisoners'. His 2011 'Incendies' was interesting but ultimately full of too many scenes which forced the viewer to suspend one's disbelief, one too many times. 'Prisoners' also has some questionable plot points but it's eminently more entertaining than Incendies.

Villeneuve proffers up an interesting protagonist, Keller Dover (played by an intense Hugh Jackman), a survivalist type, who has no compunctions about teaching his son how to shoot a deer, on a hunting trip, depicted at the beginning of the film. While Jackman has a lot to work with depicting the hot-head Keller, Terrence Howard has little to do playing Franklin Birch, Keller's exact opposite: a passive (and thinly drawn) middle class black professional. The break into Act II occurs when Keller's and Birch's daughters are abducted after disappearing from the Birch family home.

Since an RV was parked right near where the girls disappeared, the driver ends up as the number one suspect. The police soon track the driver down at a rest stop and he tries to escape by eluding a police blockade with his RV. The driver turns out to be Alex Jones, who on the surface appears to be mentally feeble. When Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can find no evidence linking Alex to the girls' abduction and concludes he doesn't have the mental capacity to kidnap the girls, he's forced to release him, and allow him to return to the residence of Holly Jones, his aunt, a creepy senior, expertly played by Melissa Leo.

A good deal of 'Prisoners' revolves around Keller's abduction and subsequent imprisonment of Alex, who he believes knows where the kidnapped girls are. Keller insists that Alex told him "they didn't cry until I left them," when Keller tries to choke him at the time he's released by the police, in front of a multitude of TV news reporters (no one else hears what Alex says to Keller).

Before discussing the issue of Alex's refusal to talk, there are two red herrings in the plot, designed to throw you off track. Both involve Detective Loki's interaction with two suspects. The first is a priest who's on parole for a sex crime—out of the blue Loki finds a bound, deceased man in the priest's basement. The priest claims that he was forced to kill the man after he revealed (during confession) that he was a serial killer, who would kill again. Later, Loki chases after a suspicious man seen at a vigil for the missing girls, in front of the Birch's home. He turns out to be a wannabe serial killer, Taylor, who breaks into the family houses of real serial killer's victims and steals their clothes. Loki, who supposedly has solved all of his cases, blows this one, after Taylor grabs one of Loki's deputy's guns and shoots himself in the mouth.

Even if you believe in both these incredible turn of events, one is hard pressed to believe in the film's main premise—that Alex would refuse to talk, despite being tortured for days by Keller. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. One of the arguments that Alex doesn't talk is because he is mentally handicapped. But that's debunked by the points Keller raises—he knew about the girls and told Keller; he tried to escape from the police in his RV and had a driver's license and was able to drive.

Another reason (which seems to be suggested by the filmmakers) is that he's under the spell of Aunt Holly and is either a) afraid of her, b) evil like her, or c) both. He seemingly is given a free pass at film's end, despite Keller's statement that he confessed that he basically knew where the girls were (the free pass may be due to the fact that Keller's credibility was completely suspect, by breaking the law by abducting him). Still, while possible, I still think it's unlikely that Alex would never have turned against the old lady. Think of the child abduction case of Steven Stayner. He was imprisoned for seven years but when given the opportunity, he escaped and saved a newly abducted child. Alex was the first child abducted by Holly and her husband and the filmmakers would like us to believe he was psychologically beholden to his captor. But in real life, the Stayner case proves the opposite. I would like to think the desire for freedom would still burn in Alex's breast and his abduction by Keller would have been the perfect opportunity for him to spill the beans about his aunt. By confessing, he's smart enough to know that Aunt Holly would immediately be taken into custody and he would not have to be afraid of her anymore.

Prisoners represents a critique of those who embrace the survivalist mentality and act as vigilantes. We expect Keller to save his daughter but actually Detective Loki does so after racing to the hospital and saving Keller's daughter from poisoning (Loki's big car race is not that exciting, since the outcome is pretty much expected). Instead, Keller underestimates Holly who turns out to be responsible for the girls' abduction as well as numerous other serial killings. Keller ends up in that hole and my interpretation of the abrupt (but clever) ending, is that he WILL rescue Keller, and let him face the music.

'Prisoners' indeed will drag you into its electrically-charged story and keep you at the edge of your seat to the end. The supporting players, those who play the wives and children of Keller and Franklin, do quite well, but are saddled by underdeveloped parts. Ultimately, you will have to overlook the red herrings and the main premise that the feeble (or perhaps not so feeble) Alex, will not crack under torture. I prefer to believe that he would, as most people would in that situation.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Multiple welcome interpretations for Sorrentino's plush, Fellini-like feast, 24 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'The Great Beauty' is the story of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servilo), an aging journalist from Rome who begins a course of self-reflection on the occasion of his 65th birthday. In his younger days, Jep was determined to become the #1 bon vivant amongst the Roman nouveau riche—and succeeded! He published one novel and like many one hit wonders, rested on his laurels and rode into middle age on the coattails of that one success. Jep sustained himself by writing occasional magazine articles with the support of his acerbic magazine editor, Dadina, a dwarf who appears to be instrumental in keeping him afloat, despite his self-doubts.

Jep faces a crisis when the husband of a woman who he briefly dated when he was 20, reports that his wife has suddenly died. This is 'The Great Beauty' of the film's title—we see her in a series of flashbacks as Jep muses on the woman 'who got away'. But 'The Great Beauty' has a double meaning—it stands for the collective soul of Rome itself—with its attendant characters, who run the gamut from the profane to the magisterial. Director Paolo Sorrentino takes us on Jep's vibrant, episodic journey, as he interacts with characters from both his past and present.

A good part of 'Beauty' is taking in the decadence—fortunately good-natured Jep is the hero here, parrying all the negative talk with the quick wit he's accumulated over the years. Some of the 'lost ones' include a pretentious performance artist who offends Jep by smashing her head into a wall and calling it art and a fellow journalist who he takes apart after she brags about her fame due to the publication of 11 novels by a low rent Marxist press. And Jep wants more from a woman who wants to show him nude photos of herself on her computer since as he says, at his age, he "wants more."

Jep is thrown for a loop when the 40 year old stripper daughter of a bar owner he hasn't seen for 30 years, dies of AIDS, after they strike up a friendship. While Jep advises not to cry at a funeral because it might upset the family, he does the opposite at the funeral of the disturbed son of a female friend. And when his best friend, Ramono, decides to throw in the towel, give up his playwriting career and return to his hometown, he continues to soldier on, despite his isolation.

It's really not clear what turns Jep around from his cynicism to embracing life in all its beauty (which includes despair)—I believe it's his accumulated experiences that causes him to start looking at life as a glass half full, rather than half empty. Beyond the positive, is the sense of awe—perhaps Jep experiences this when he meets the man who's taken a photograph of himself, every day of his life.

Religion comes into play at film's end, when the nun is seen taking an injection to cure her of sweaty hands (she needs dry hands to meet the Mother Theresa clone, 'The Saint'). Jep obviously is put off by all the discount Botox doctor's 'takers' including the status seeking nun. Later, the ex-Exorcist Cardinal hardly impresses as a man of faith, with his obsession with culinary delights (as opposed to devotion to spiritual matters). But 'The Saint' appears to be the real deal, as Jep is shocked to find her sleeping on his floor in his apartment. Her devotion to the poor, her sense of sacrifice, proves there's a good side to the church, despite all the failures.

Ultimately, it's Jep himself, who represents all that's good about Rome—the man who isn't afraid to look deep into his soul, plume the depths of despair and emerge triumphant. Jep's journey ends where it begins—to a moment in his youth, in all its naivety and simplicity. 'The Great Beauty' sometimes goes on for too long (not sure if I liked all the long-winded party scenes) but nonetheless, 'The Great Beauty' requires obligatory repeat viewings as there is so much food for thought in this most thoughtful, Fellini-like feast.

Indian Summer (2013/II)
French oncologist displays his mixed feelings regarding Ayuvedic Medicine's approach toward treating cancer, 17 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I caught 'Indian Summer' at the first Socially Relevant Film Festival in NYC. It's directed by a Brit, Simon Brook, but it's filmed in French on location in both France and India. The film stars Nella Banfi, a breast cancer patient, who decides to explore alternative cancer therapies in India, eschewing more traditional routes in her native France.

After undergoing treatments by Ayurvedic practitioners in India for three years, and returning to France cancer free, she looks up a leading oncologist, Dr. Thomas Tursz, who had scoffed at her decision to try Ayurvedic medicine prior to going to India, and challenges him to meet the doctors who treated her there.

Tursz, with great skepticism, agrees to accompany Nella, and they're off on a journey to explore the world of Ayurvedic medicine. They first meet with a former engineer, now a monk, who informs Dr. Tursz that Ayurvedic medicine differs from Western (Allopathic) medicine, in that practitioners there attempt to treat people holistically, not simply focusing on symptoms.

Tursz and Nella visit a rural factory where herbs and medicinal plants are prepared and later at a more modern clinic where various natural preparations are manufactured and rigorously tested. At the clinic, a woman from England sings the praises of Ayurvedic treatments which cured her of a painful case of Sepsis, following traditional cancer treatments.

The Ayurvedic approach also extends to healing the body using oils directly applied on the body via massage. One surprising aspect of the treatments is that in one case, a leech is applied to a man's leg to draw blood.

The most interesting aspect of the film is not so much the exploration of the Ayurvedic approach but Dr. Tursz's reaction to it. In one respect it's admirable that Tursz is open-minded enough to come and take a look at the alternative approach. Often he's heard praising the spiritual approach which is missing in western medicine; at one juncture he actually concedes that some traditional practitioners are 'arrogant'. Nonethless, Tursz makes it clear that Ayurvedic practitioners would be seriously remiss if they failed to use the traditional system initially and only utilize Ayurvedic Medicine as a complementary approach.

Dr. Tursz doesn't seem like he would be willing to design experiments where each system is tested as a separate entity. This is borne out at film's end, when Nella accuses him (affectionately), that he hasn't changed a bit and in effect is only paying lip service to the Ayurvedic methodology.

While westerners who have gone for cancer treatments in India actually view treatment as an 'alternative' approach, the Indian practitioners view Ayurvedic medicine as mainly 'preventative'. Hence, they don't seem to object when Dr. Tursz suggests that it would be a mistake to fail to include traditional treatments in conjunction with their own treatments.

From my point of view, Nella's choice to investigate and ultimately undergo Ayurvedic treatments was the right one. After all, everyone knows that the traditional treatments utilizing chemotherapy by western oncologists always leads to damaging side effects to the human body and often to the creation of iatrogenic disorders.

What the documentary fails to do is question the efficacy of the Ayurvedic treatment for cancer in more detail. There needed to be more examples of both success and failure in the Ayuvedic treatment of cancer so that people can decide for themselves whether ultimately this is the route they want to go. Nonetheless, 'Indian Summer' has great value in making people aware that there are alternatives out there for treatment of serious diseases such as cancer and there are courageous people such as Nella, who are able to think for themselves and not be intimidated by orthodox practitioners, who often insist that the axiom, 'my way or the highway', is the only one to follow.

Disconnect (2012/I)
Interesting trio of three internet tales that have trouble resolving themselves, 14 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Before directing 'Disconnect', Henry Alex Rubin was mainly known for making TV commercials. 'Disconnect', his first feature, employs three separate stories, focusing on a theme of how the internet can 'disconnect' people (as well as ultimately 'connect' them).

The most compelling of the three stories involves cyberbullying. Jason and his friend Frye, target Ben, a socially inept fellow student, on Facebook, by pretending to be a sexy co-ed, Jessica Rhony (an anagram for 'Horny'). Ben is lured into sending them a lewd picture of himself with his pants down and the boys promptly send it to all their fellow students on Facebook.

This is how tragedies develop and 'Disconnect' cogently shows the sequence of events that leads Ben to hang himself (the oxygen deprived boy ends up in a coma). Eventually, Ben's father, Rich, an attorney, discovers that Jason is responsible for the ruse and ends up confronting the boy, along with his father, Mike, a former cop, now turned private detective.

We find out why Jason turned out to be a cyberbully as the father-son relationship is dissected. Mike is a strict martinet with his son, causing the boy to be deeply resentful of the father. But when Mike discovers Jason is responsible for the cyberbullying of Ben, he destroys the son's hard drive and physically defends him, after Rich comes over and strikes the boy with a hockey stick. Father and son will finally bond but at the expense of the truth: Rich will never get any satisfaction in seeing Jason brought to the bar of justice in juvenile court.

Less successful of the three stories, involves a go-getting TV reporter, Nina, who convinces the young chatroom stripper, Kyle, to be the subject of a TV interview. Eventually the FBI attempts to force Nina to reveal Kyle's employers. Kyle reluctantly gives her an address but somehow his group is tipped off, and they flee the location. Like Rich, Nina attempts to confront the bad guy and receives a punch in the face for her efforts. Kyle and his entourage flee and Nina learns a hard lesson that altruism with certain types of people, has its limits.

The least successful of the three stories involves a troubled married couple who recently lost a child. Cindy and Derek are victims of identity theft and employ Mike (the private detective from the cyberbullying story) to track down who stole their credit cards. Mike initially determines that their suspect is a man who Cindy was communicating with on an online chat support group. Derek goes as far as breaking into the man's house and putting a rifle to his head but Cindy receives a call from Mike, that this man was also a victim and not responsible for the thefts. Cindy is able to convince Derek, a former Marine, to stand down, and a second tragedy is thankfully averted.

Certainly, 'Disonnect' has some interesting stories to tell and holds your interest until the end. But all three stories sort of leave you hanging. I wanted a little more, perhaps with a twist. Nonetheless, the characters do have their epiphanies—especially Mike, with the self-revelation that he's been a hard ass with his son; Nina, in her quest for fame and glory that was not really worth taking and Cindy and Derek's desire to repair their marriage, only succeeding after Derek's deep-seated anger issues almost end in tragedy.

Whether the larger the film attempts to address—the issue that the internet is responsible for the alienation of modern man--that's a subject I leave to the pundits who specialize in such higher philosophically-inclined ruminations.

Redford impresses as cast away sailor, doing most of his own stunts, 6 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

J.C. Chandor has gone far afield in his second feature and he should be applauded for tackling a subject so different from his first one, Margin Call—about the 2008 financial world implosion. Here it's minimalism at its best, Robert Redford all alone in a sailboat on the Indian Ocean, with virtually no dialogue throughout the film. It begins with Redford's unnamed character (referred to 'Our Man' in the credits) reading his epitaph in a voice-over narration. Flashback eight days earlier and we see how this intrepid sailor ended up in so much trouble: a shipping container somehow has landed plump in the middle of the sea, and rams his tiny sailboat, causing the cabin to fill with water. As a result, all his high-tech equipment is ruined and he's forced to be creative with makeshift repairs.

The first half of the film focuses on the sailor's efforts to keep his boat upright. What keeps our interest is the various ways in which he goes about surviving: stockpiling rations, emptying the hold of water and climbing up the mast to secure the sails. The sailor also comes up with an ingenious way of collecting rain water. Then there's a tremendous storm and the boat is turned upside down and then righted again.

The second half of the film revolves the sailor's actions after he's forced to abandon ship. All that's left is his tiny inflatable raft, which he's mercilessly tossed around in, during a second storm. There's also an obligatory scene with sharks surrounding the small craft and passing giant ships, which fail to spot the hapless sailor, as he fires flares into the sky.

In reading some posts on the internet, those who have sailing experience indicated that the depiction of the sailor's skills in attempting to save the ship lacked authenticity (for example, the flimsy patching job would not have held out in that kind of sea). As someone with no background in the area, I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of simply being entertained. I did take issue with the film's ending, where the sailor dives into the water and sinks toward the bottom, in an apparent suicide try. He did seem awfully deep before he saw the other boat and could be rescued and I wonder if he could so easily have held his breath that long and was able to swim back up, where he was pulled to safety.

Nonetheless, most of 'All is Lost' will keep your interest to the end. Redford's performance is admirable given that he did most of the stunts. I look forward to Mr. Chandor's next film since he has proved that he's capable of applying the old adage, 'variety is the spice of life', to his film career, which is certainly a good thing indeed!

Clooney's episodic tale of WW II team of stolen art finders, fails to work dramatically, 2 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'Monuments Men' is based on the true life team assembled during World War II, of museum directors, curators and art historians, assigned to save pieces of art before they were destroyed by the Nazis. According to the article, 'How Accurate is Monuments Men?', featured in Slate Magazine online, the original task of what was to become MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives), was to protect historical buildings and not recover works of art. The film is only very loosely based on the true historical events so the question arises, has Mr. George Clooney successfully adapted the story to the silver screen, so that it works dramatically? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

'Monuments Men' would have worked much better as a documentary but Clooney was determined to turn this into a rip-roaring action-adventure flick with a few comic interludes. The problem of course is that there is no central antagonist throughout the film. The nature of the mission was that it occurred in different locales and at different times, hence the narrative had to be episodic in nature. So we're introduced to one villain after another--and once each one is disposed of, we move on to the next.

'Monuments Men' begins with Frank Stokes (Clooney) assembling his crackerjack team of art experts who must undergo basic training, before they're thrust into combat. It's sort of like 'The Dirty Dozen' with the characters being much more low-key and with little panache. Matt Damon as James Granger is assigned to learn as much as he can from Paris curator Claire Simone (a convincing Cate Blanchett), who kept a journal of all the art work stolen by Viktor Stahl, a Nazi official, who she was forced to work with prior to the German retreat (there is an unlikely scene where Stahl fires his pistol at Claire, as she watches trains loaded with the stolen art work, leave for Germany, from the Paris train station).

Later, team members Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), track Stahl down who is disguised as a farmer. Murray and Balaban manage to mine a few laughs as the hapless Stahl is unable to explain away how Rothschild property markings appear on the back of all the paintings he has on the walls of the villa he's staying at. Stahl is then promptly taken into custody.

The film also covers the deaths of two team members who are killed in combat. One of the British members, Donald Jeffries, is killed at a Belgian church, as he attempts to prevent one of the Nazis from stealing the famed Michelangelo statute 'Madonna and Child' (the recovery of that particular piece along with the Van Eyck altarpiece, is the central focus of the film's narrative). A French member, Jean Claude Clermont, is also killed when he's caught in the crossfire of a battle (Clermont is an entirely fictional character as there were no French military personnel assigned to the Monuments Men team).

We shift back again to James Granger who still must convince Simone to provide information on the stolen artwork (she's miffed as she's now being held as a 'collaborator', despite her clear anti-Nazi sentiments). Granger shows her a copy of Hitler's 'Nero Decree' in which he ordered that "all military, transportation, communications, industrial, and food supply facilities" be destroyed. Historically, there was nothing about artwork being destroyed in the decree, but obviously, for dramatic purposes, Mr. Clooney added that in. This convinces Simone to finally help Granger and she provides him with her journal that contains all the names and original property owners of artwork stolen by the Nazis.

By including artwork in the 'Nero Decree', (as mentioned in Slate Magazine), Historian Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt points out that this was inserted in order to move the plot forward; the Monuments men are seen "racing against the Germans who are set now to destroy the art if Hitler can't have it." Karlsgodt doesn't even believe that the Monuments Men even knew about the Nero Decree during their mission: "The systematic destruction (as seen in the film) being carried out as a result of the Nero Decree never happened," she says. "Nazis destroyed art that they considered degenerate, like Cubist, Surrealist, Expressionist paintings, and we know that they burned several thousand— at least—paintings that they thought were actually toxic to the German spirit… (But) they didn't destroy the art they valued." (This included Germanic art, and the Ghent Altarpiece depicted in the film, which Hitler considered to be an example of "Aryan genius.")

The rest of 'Monuments Men' feels rushed. The team uncovers the 'mother lode' of stolen artwork in a salt mine as well as gold from teeth extracted from Jews sent to the concentration camps. Later they find another mine where the Michelangelo's 'Madonna' is located. The drama is manufactured when they're forced to remove the stolen artwork (including the Madonna) just before the Soviets arrive in the occupation zone designated for them. In reality, the Monuments Men had plenty of time to remove the artwork from the cave—a matter of days and not hours, as depicted in the film.

Clooney gets his last licks in as he interrogates the Nazi colonel responsible for stealing and destroying a good deal of the pilfered artwork. In the case of both Nazis and Monuments Men alike, they're only on for a short time and there's no opportunity for the film's scenarists to develop any of the characters.

Karlsgodt feels that the film's focus on Michelangelo's 'Madonna' and the Ghent Altarpiece undermines the true significance of Hitler's plans and their connection to the Holocaust. Quoted in Slate Magazine, she remarks, "It leaves out a really crucial aspect of this history. Hitler saw it as a key way to seize the assets of Jews. He was not only eliminating Jewish influence, he was also getting their art."

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
McConaughey is superb as redneck homophobe transformed into compassionate, alternative health activist, 26 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'The Dallas Buyers Club' is the first mainstream film that has the guts to question both the efficacy and legitimacy of Orthodox Medicine's early AIDS medication research as well as highlighting the unhealthy relationship between the researchers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies, who pushed toxic treatments on an unsuspecting public. The man who led the valiant crusade against this nasty coterie of entrenched interests was the unlikely Texas electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy, Ron Woodroof (played brilliantly by Matthew McConaghey), who went from being a redneck homophobe to a tolerant, alternative health activist.

When we're first introduced to Woodroof, he's the epitome of what some may call 'Trailer Trash'. Woodroof pals around with his homophobic buddies, has sex with prostitutes and uses drugs like candy. After sustaining a work-related injury (he's zapped by a faulty electrical current), Woodroof's brought to the hospital to recover. The tests reveal that he's got AIDS and he's told he has 30 days to live. First Woodroof's in denial but remembers that he had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user. As he researches causes of AIDS in the library, it dawns on him that his drug use in general probably was also a big factor leading to his illness. As we break into Act II, Woodruff's life is upended as he's ostracized by his community and must fend for himself as he seeks a cure.

When AZT first came out, the double blind experiments prevented subjects from knowing whether they were getting the real thing or a placebo. Woodroof is forced to bribe a hospital worker to obtain the drug but after using it for a short time, finds his health getting worse. When his supply at the hospital runs out, it's then that he hears about a doctor in Mexico, Vass, who might have some AZT. It turns out that Dr. Vass was barred from practicing in the US after giving his patients non- approved, alternative medications. It's this Dr. Vass who enlightens Woodroof about the dangers of AZT and how it's completely toxic. He gives him the protein, peptide T, along with some other non-toxic medication and Woodroof finds himself getting better. I'm not sure if the medication did the trick or it simply was the lack of flooding his body with toxic stuff like AZT that stabilized the very ill Woodroof, but whatever the case, this Dr. Vass was on to something.

After his health begins to improve, Woodroof gets the idea that he can make money by importing the alternative AIDS medications and selling them by subscription (Dallas Buyers Club members must pay $400 per month to get the medications); he smuggles them into the US dressed as a priest and claiming they're for his personal use. Earlier, Woodroof met a transsexual diagnosed with AIDS by the name of Rayon (Jared Leto) who he tries to avoid due to his homophobia. But after his own bout with the illness, Woodroof becomes more accepting of Rayon, who becomes his business partner, bringing in new clients from her contacts in the gay community.

'Dallas Buyers Club' is perhaps the first mainstream film that criticizes both allopathic medicine and big Pharma. When Dr. Sevard finds out about the buyer's club, he castigates Woodroof because his efforts are interfering with his AZT trials. It's obvious that in the doctor's view of things, only orthodox medicine has the right to grant access to treatment for AIDS sufferers. Worse is the attitude of the FDA in the form of point man Richard Barkley, who ends up confiscating Woodroof's medications and threatens to have him jailed. Later, Woodroof attempts to challenge the FDA's new rules which make it illegal to dispense alternative medications for AIDS sufferers. While Woodroof loses in Federal Court (the Judge sympathizes but argues that legally, his hands are tied), he emerges as a hero to the gay community along with progressive sympathizers.

Not everyone in the medical community views Woodroof as a demon. Gradually, Dr. Eve Saks comes around to his point of view. She's right however, when Woodroof gets angry over the fact that Rayon was taken to the hospital and given AZT while he was away. Dr. Saks tells Woodroof that ultimately Rayon died from her own drug usage and not from one or two days of AZT treatment. The idea that Woodroof would lash out like that is understandable given the fact that he had just learned of Rayon's death. But ultimately,Woodroof's blaming Rayon's death solely on AZT (especially for the short time she was administered the drug), was irrational.

If there is one sour note in the film, it's in one of the closing credits. We're informed that due to Woodroof's efforts, AZT was modified so that it was less toxic and millions of AIDS sufferers were saved. I hardly believe that Woodroof would have been happy with such a statement. The whole point of the film was that Woodruff was a crusader who fought for alternative medications and he himself lived longer, not because of toxic pharmaceutical products but because he took benign alternative ones--which perhaps gave his body a better chance than the kind of medicines touted by mainstream physicians and their government minions.

In the end, even Woodroof's alternative medications were not enough to prevent him from dying of AIDS. But he lived seven years longer than his initial diagnosis of 30 days. 'Dallas Buyers Club' not only bravely holds up a mirror to a medical establishment that has for too long been given a free pass in regards to increased scrutiny but it's also a perceptive tale of a man who transformed himself from a bigot and self-centered materialist to a compassionate healer with a moral and humanitarian core.

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Chronicle about prepubescent's 'tough guy posturing' due to a bad environment, proves obvious, repetitious and heavy-handed, 24 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete' is a first-time screenplay by Michael Starburry. His protagonist is the 'Mister' of the title played by Skylan Brooks. The plot is rather simple: when Mister's crack-addicted mother (played by Jennifer Hudson of 'Dreamgirls' and 'American Idol' fame) disappears during one particular summer in a Brooklyn public housing project, 12 year old Mister and Pete (an eight year old abused Asian-American kid Mister's mother is supposedly taking care of for a drug addict acquaintance), must fend for themselves.

Right off the bat the premise is a bit hard to swallow. Perhaps it's happened in some rare cases, but the idea that two young kids would go unreported for an entire summer without anyone from child protective services being notified, would be a rare event. Nonetheless, 'Mister and Pete' plays out more like a 'fable' than a drama culled from real events.

Still, Starburry's narrative suffers from wandering aimlessly throughout the bulk of its second act. The whole idea is that Mister has become hardened by events and characters in his environment. He can no longer act like a normal twelve year old and falls into a shell where he doesn't allow anyone to help him. It's called 'tough guy posturing' and beginning with the overly aggressive Mister cursing his high school teacher out for giving him a failing grade in school (despite his teacher offering him a ride home in his car), we must endure (over and over again) this kid 'with an attitude', until he experiences an epiphany at the denouement.

Starburry also attributes an additional character flaw to Mister, more befitting of a young adult: the quest to 'make it big' in the entertainment business. The deluded Mister believes that if he passes an audition for a TV show based in Beverly Hills, this will solve all his problems. He even has Mister reciting a well known scene from the film 'Fargo' as his audition piece, an unlikely choice for a kid from the projects (why does Mister pick 'Fargo'? Is he a film studies major in school? Or is 'Fargo' simply Starburry's favorite movie?).

The aforementioned 'tough guy posturing' attributed to our protagonist is the result of a series of interactions that causes Mister to clam up emotionally. The most dramatic of these interactions occurs when he spies his prostitute mother performing a sex act on a man during a bathroom break, while the family has been having lunch.

There are additional interactions Mister has with a series of thinly drawn characters from the projects including a bully who at one point beats him up, a gang leader (Anthony Mackie) who gives Mister a wad of money after taking pity on him and a homeless man (Jeffrey Wright), who suddenly warms up to Mister, after the beleaguered kid shares some of his dwindling food supply with the gruff bum on the street.

Occasionally, Starburry goes in for cheap stereotypes, like the grocery store owner (was he supposed to be Arabic or Indian?) who attempts to strangle poor little Mister after the kid obnoxiously overturns a few store displays inside the man's store.

Only Jordin Sparks manages to temporarily evoke a sympathetic note as Mister's 'adult friend' who promises to help the 'home alone' kids but even she ends up mysteriously vanishing, later revealed to run off with a well-heeled white guy from the suburbs.

After resorting to stealing to put food on the table, Mister finally sees the light and runs for 'help' after poor Pete falls ill. This leads to both being discovered as neglected children and ending up in a dreaded juvenile institution (which Mister imagined initially to be some kind of torture chamber). All's well that ends well for Mister, when his mother turns up sober at the facility and reclaims him. But what about little Pete? Presumably he'll remain with the state, until his own mother gets herself together (or will she?).

Unlike most reviewers, I did not find Mr. Brooks' performance as the hardened 'Mister', to be at all enjoyable. But whose fault is that? Clearly Mr. Starburry's, as the first time screenwriter boxed himself into a corner by making 'Mister' into a thoroughly obnoxious character throughout. Yes we did get the point that Mister was a victim of his environment, but still, wasn't there a way to make him a little more charming? Perhaps if he was drawn as a more normal kid, he would have had some friends in the neighborhood, who could have helped him and his charge, Pete, out. Or simply Mister didn't have to be depicted as a little tough guy. Of course if he wasn't, Mr. Starburry's entire heavy-handed and rather OBVIOUS narrative would be lost: that his environment (especially the lack of normal motherly love), shaped him into the little monster, that he temporarily became, for one short summer.

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