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The Nice Guys (2016)
Chuckle Chuckle Bang Bang
Greetings again from the darkness. Shane Black sold his first screenplay at a very early age which led him to become something of a phenom with the success of that film, Lethal Weapon (1987). Later, he disappeared from Hollywood for about 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 by directing his own terrific script with the immensely entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (my favorite movie of that year), and then hitting big-budget time with his script for Iron Man 3. This time, Mr. Black (directing and co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) returns to the detective-farcical-comedy-mystery-action genre and even adds an element of being a 1970's period piece.
Black's rapid-fire wise-cracks were perfect fits for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and for this project he's working with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe both fine actors, though neither known for their comedic work. What's clear from the beginning of the film is that both Gosling and Crowe are fully committed to the material and their respective characters. Gosling plays a boozy Private Detective and single dad who just can't quite get things right, while Crowe plays a hired-hand bruise type think of his Bud White in L.A. Confidential (1997), only with an extra 50 pounds and a lot of miles. These two damaged boys play off each other very well, and with Black's dialogue and visual gags, the film provides a good number of laugh out loud moments more silly than the sophomoric humor that's so pervasive at multiplexes these days.
Of course for comedy to really click, there needs to be some type of story to follow. In the opening scene a young boy (Ty Simpkins) watches as a car slams through his house, culminating with a "model/actress" named Misty Mountains meeting a not-so-pleasant ending. We then learn that Gosling's Holland has been hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Mountains with two significant exceptions. Simultaneously, Amelia has hired Crowe's Jackson to convince Holland to stop searching for her. Soon enough, Holland and Jackson are working together on the "case" that mixes in the Auto industry (Big 3), Porn industry, Justice Department (government conspiracies), environmental protesters, Killer Bees, LA parties, LA smog, The Waltons (John Boy), The Rockford Files, Detroit, and Richard Nixon all hot topics in this 1977 era.
As much as the story is needed, it really doesn't much matter. This is a movie of moments some of them featuring funny words, while others focus on pretty astute physical comedy. Gosling (and his stunt double) provides some pretty impressive gags as he is bounced and slammed around for most of the run time. The surprising heart of the film and moral core is Holland's daughter Holly played by Angourie Rice. Despite the title, she is really the only "nice guy" in the whole film, and her good-hearted nature keeps us rooting for Gosling and Crowe, despite their flaws.
Other support work comes from Matt Bomer as a "John Boy" hit man, Keith David, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta (quick, name another Yaya), Beau Knapp (as the toothy Blueface), Jack Kilmer (Val's son as a "projectionalist"), and Kim Basinger (re-teaming with her LA Confidential co-star, Crowe). Also playing a significant role are the mid-to-late 1970's vehicles, the period music and houses and décor that puts us right in the moment, and the clothes and hairstyles that are sure to inspire a chuckle or two.
Fans of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will surely find plenty of laughter here
despite one of the worst trailers in recent memory and even if the film is lacking the one thing it advertises nice guys.
Holy Hell (2016)
Speedos, RayBans, Eye Liner
Greetings again from the darkness. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate. Jim Jones and People's Temple. Charles Manson and The Manson Family. For most of us, this list just about sums up our insight into the world of cults and the horrific and violent endings of each are probably the only reason we know as much as we do. Filmmaker Will Allen, and his library of archival footage spanning more than 25 years, takes us behind the scenes of The Buddahfield, a cult run by an exceedingly odd man named Michel Rostand or Jaime Gomez or Andreas or Reyji depending on what time period and location we are discussing.
The film begins in 1985 West Hollywood as Mr. Allen joins his sister in her search for enlightenment and spiritual awakening. "Why am I here?" he asks ... not referring to the commune of young men and women, but rather why is he on earth what is the meaning of life? We have all wondered if it's simply life and death, or if there is a greater purpose. These unanswered questions are how massive churches are built and how cults are formed. The early film footage reveals exactly what one would expect: young people frolicking in the type of freedom that comes from dropping out of society. It's an innocence that is ripe for plucking, and that's exactly what "The Teacher" Michel does.
Trained as a hypnotherapist, Michel is the guru who claims to possess "the Knowing" true enlightenment and the path to God in the purest form. At this point, I should mention that Michel is seemingly always strutting around in a Speedo and Ray-Bans. If he is a man of the cloth, it's an awfully small swatch. He also wears heavy eye-liner and strikes many pensive poses for the camera and his followers.
The last thing that I want to do is judge these followers on decisions they made early in life. Feeling lost or emotionally empty and aimless can lead to desperation. In filmmaker Will Allen's defense, this documentary acts as personal therapy or even catharsis for his fellow cult members who judge themselves harshly for the two decades of belief in a cause and a man that ultimately proved to be something much less than spiritual. Many of these followers are interviewed on camera and are clearly struggling even years after leaving the cult. It's not just the awareness of so many wasted years, but also the guilt in following a man who was not merely odd, but who also victimized so many.
Creepiness plays a big part here. It's creepy how one guy can so influence the lives of so many others. It's creepy how no one was able to expose this fraud before so many were hurt. It's creepy to hear these folks talk about their mindset during that time. And mostly it's creepy to view the incredible footage shot by Mr. Allen during his two decades on the inside. Lastly, the stalking (with camera) in 2012 which allows Mr. Allen to get the ending for his movie is in itself a special form of creepy one that had me thinking that ALL of these people need psychological help.
If you want to see the internal workings of a cult (from California to Texas to Hawaii) one with Speedos, plastic surgery, ballet, brainwashing, two kinds of peacocks and the subsequent fallout, then you'll agree the film delivers a type of eavesdropping and peeking that is both rare and fascinating
in a creepy kind of way.
Maggie's Plan (2015)
the pickle enterprise
Greetings again from the darkness. A significant portion of Woody Allen's film career has been projects that seem designed to appeal to (sometimes only) the New York intellectual sub-culture. You know the type those who thrive on talking (incessantly) about all the things they know, often without really accomplishing anything themselves. They are the kind of people we usually laugh at, rather than with. Filmmaker Rebecca Miller appears ready to accept the passing of the Woody Allen baton, and at a minimum, her latest is heavily influenced by his comedic-brain food.
Ms. Miller casts perfectly for her first film in six plus years (The Secret Life of Pippa Lee, 2009). Greta Gerwig plays Maggie, whose ever-evolving "plan" is both the title and focus of the film. Ethan Hawke plays John, the middle-aged crisis guy who wants desperately to be showered with attention. Julianne Moore plays Georgette, John's slightly odd and brilliant wife, and mother to their two kids. Other key players include Travis Fimmel as Guy, a pickle entrepreneur and the center piece to Maggie's master plan; Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as friends and confidants of Maggie; and Wallace Shawn, always a treat on screen.
The story starts out pretty simple, and then gets complicated, and then kind of loses focus before ending just right. Perpetually whining Maggie has admittedly given up on ever finding the kind of true love that results in a happy family. Because of this, she has recruited former schoolmate and math whiz and pickle dude Guy to supply the missing link for her artificial insemination. This leads to one of film's rare cheap laughs and one that not even the quirky Gerwig can pull off. A payroll mishap brings Maggie and aspiring novelist John (a 'ficto-critical anthropologist' by trade) together, and her willingness to read his writing and offer some support, is all it takes to finish off John's slowly disintegrating marriage to Georgette (Ms. Moore dusting off the Euro accent she used in The Big Lebowski).
Writer/director Miller is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote Death of a Salesman and was once married to Marilyn Monroe (after Joe DiMaggio). She also directed The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which starred her husband, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Much of her latest film feels contrived and over-written
as if every scene carries the burden of generating a laugh out loud moment. It shouldn't be too surprising that the ultra talented Julianne Moore creates the most interesting character, though unfortunately, she has the least amount of screen time among the three leads. It's good for a few laughs, as well as some cringing
and an ending that actually works.
Money Monster (2016)
Greetings again from the darkness. Adam McKay and Michael Lewis sought to educate us on the corruption and deceit within the marrow of the financial world. Director Jodie Foster and three writers (Jim Kouf, Alan DiFiore, Jamie Linden) scale things way back to show the effects on a single, working class man and how Wall Street and the media conspire to make it hard on us little guys.
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer type cable news financial guru the kind of media star who makes an Apollo Creed style entrance (complete with "dancing") for each segment. Julia Roberts plays Patty, the show's ultra-talented producer, and the one who keeps Gates and the show from flying off the rails. It's just another typically hectic day in the studio, when the show is abruptly interrupted by a man who charges the stage pointing a gun at Gates. Kyle (Jack O'Connell, Unbroken) has a few things to get off his chest, and makes it clear that he blames Gates for a recent financial loss and he expects some answers.
It turns out that Gates had presented a recent investment as a sure thing, and Kyle believed him. When that company lost $800 million overnight, Kyle's loss was his $60,000 nest egg. Kyle represents the work-class folks who are simply fed up with the lies and manipulation for which the media and Wall Street seeming conspire on a regular basis.
It's Jodie Foster's first directorial outing since The Beaver (2011), and she seems at home with a straight-forward hostage-for-admission story. Created for a mass audience (no segment or issue goes too deep), there are snippets of Clooney and Roberts humor that will satisfy their fans. The three most interesting characters are the gun-wielding, end-of-the rope Kyle; his PO'd-with-a-twist girlfriend played by Emily Meade (who provides the film a lift when it's needed); and Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester, the communications officer for the evil corporation at the heart of the swindle.
As with so many things these days, the hostage ordeal plays out on TV and captures the limited attention span of average Americans heck, the film even references the OJ Simpson event. Of course, this film isn't an instigator, but rather an exhibitor a mirror of the times. Once the spectacle ends, everyone returns to their normal activities.
Since this thriller really only offers a few moments of real suspense, viewers might have more fun spotting and identifying the multitude of cable TV faces sprinkled throughout. The 1970's were the era for extraordinary conspiracy movies, and this one is less Network or Chinatown, and more like Phone Booth or John Q. 'Forget it Kyle. It's Wall Street (and cable news).'
Love & Friendship (2016)
Greetings again from the darkness. Jane Austen ROCKS! Sure, that might be a slightly exaggerated description of the writer who passed away almost two hundred years ago, and is known for such subtle and nuanced work as "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma". But it's difficult to argue the fact that Ms. Austen's 2016 is off to an impressive start. First came Burr Steers' highly creative and entertaining "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", and now Whit Stillman delivers a cracking version of her (apparently) unfinished novella "Lady Susan".
Thanks to the standout performance from Kate Beckinsale, and the manner in which words from Austen and Stillman go zipping by (sometimes honestly, sometimes not), this is one fun and briskly-paced romp more descriptions not typically associated with the prim Ms. Austen. Ms. Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon flashes spunk and comedic timing that we have not previously seen from her. She fits marvelously in the dress of the late 1700's, while packing a diabolical and manipulative nature more often displayed in contemporary settings.
The supporting cast seems to be having a marvelous time. Chloe Sevigny is Alicia, Lady Susan's confidant and gossip buddy and one whose husband (Stephen Fry) continually threatens to ship back to Connecticut (as if it were the coal mines or outback). Emma Greenwell is Catherine DeCourcy Vernon, adversary and sister-in-law to Lady Susan, and Mofryd Clark plays Frederica, Susan's somewhat mousy and inconvenient daughter.
Though the women are standouts here, the men hold their own. Xavier Samuel is Reginald DeCourcy, the somewhat naïve and susceptible-to-advances-from-Susan young man, and Tom Bennett manages to steal most every scene as the quite silly and funny (and wealthy) Sir James Martin. Adding their own special touches are James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave as Sir Reginald DeCourcy and Lady DeCourcy, respectively; and Jenn Murray as Lord Manwaring one of three suitors to Lady Susan.
This spoof/parody will strike a chord for anyone accustomed to the uptight nature of most period pieces, as well as the importance of status, decorum and the corresponding insecurities (a weakness the cunning Lady Susan will most certainly seize upon). Mr. Stillman (Damsels in Distress, The Last Days of Disco) is an immensely talented writer, and certainly a welcome complement Ms. Austen's posthumously published work. It's a deliciously funny and intricate story that features such quips of gold as "Facts are horrible things." Welcome to the zany verbal barrages of Lady Susan, Whit Stillman and Jane Austen. Yep
zany and Jane Austen in the same sentence. I told you she ROCKS!
We must throw a better party
Greetings again from the darkness. When a novel has been deemed "unfilmable" for forty years, perhaps the designation should be honored, rather than accepted as a challenge. That said, there is probably a cult-like movie lurking somewhere in and around director Ben Wheatley's (Kill List, 2011) personal spin on the 1975 novel from J.G. Ballard (who also penned "Crash" and "Empire of the Sun").
Amy Jump adapted the screenplay from Ballard's novel, and in the blink of an eye, the tone shifts from a microcosm of a decaying society and class warfare to all-out anarchy and hedonism. What's fascinating is that the talented cast nearly rescues the film from the misguided script. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Laing, a physiologist who moves into the futuristic (for the 1970's) monolith, seemingly naïve to the wicked ways of this insular community. Sienna Miller plays Charlotte, a fellow middle-class resident, who not only crushes on Laing, but also seems to know where the skeletons are buried. On the Terrace level, the always entertaining Jeremy Irons plays Royal, the building's architect and overseer a kind of great and powerful Oz. An unrecognizable Luke Evans (out of his usual pretty boy mode) is stellar as the aptly named Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who adds a dose of skepticism towards the building - in contrast to Laing's innocent approach.
Beginning at the macabre ending, the film then flashes back to "3 months earlier" as Laing first moves into the building. This device is the only semblance of time provided throughout. We witness how quickly Laing takes to the sport of social climbing, buddying up to Royal, and joining in with the communal decadence.
Power outages, orgies, class warfare and enough cigarettes to qualify as a non-smoking PSA, the film seems intent on ensuring viewers remain disoriented as to the reasons for mass chaos. The building itself could be considered a character, and certainly the use of mirrors and a kaleidoscope makes a statement
even while we hear multiple versions of Abba's "SOS". Black comedies typically make the best cult movies, and though this one is filled with aberrant and deviant behavior, it's somehow not quite twisted enough
or at least not properly twisted for viewer fun. Beyond that, it comes across as an expression of filmmaker anger rather than the commentary on British infrastructure that Ballard intended.
Under the Gun (2016)
fed up with gun violence
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig and journalist Katie Couric, who brought us the 2014 documentary "Fed Up" about childhood obesity, re-team to deliver a "20/20" type presentation billed as a "balanced look at the gun debate". It's a polarizing topic and we hear from the families of victims, experts in the field, and gun rights advocates. Supplemented by some startling statistics, it seems incomprehensible that some common ground has yet to be found.
The opening credits play over a video timeline of gun law highlights and news clips of shooting events such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It then hits us with the first mind-numbing stat during the run time of the film, 22 people will be shot in America, and 6 will die. It's at this point where we realize the "balanced" approach is really not likely since it's an emotional debate as much as (or more) than an intellectual one. It's the stricter gun law faction vs. Second amendment purists.
There is simply no comparison to the personal stories of parents who have had a child killed at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut or at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Regardless of where you stand on gun rights, these stories are heart-breaking and devastating. There is also a segment with Gabby Giffords, who is still recovering from her 2011 gunshot wounds, and along with her husband astronaut Mark Kelly, has joined the fight for gun control laws. ( sidenote: It did seem odd that Kelly's rip of the Cub Scouts made the final cut).
Much of the film is spent on the issues of background checks and the infamous Gun Show loophole. It's here that we begin to understand the strength of the NRA. Founded in 1871, the NRA was originally designed to fine-tune the "aim" of those wishing to shoot firearms. It is now a political powerhouse and one of the most pervasive lobbyists in Washington, DC. The film is quite fair in distinguishing between the NRA senior executives, and the rank-and-file members who are fed a steady dose of propaganda that borders on fear-mongering. Though most NRA members stand in favor of background checks to prevent felons, terrorists, and the underage from obtaining fire arms, the NRA continues to preach that 'they are going to take away your guns' and that 'it takes a good guy with a gun to defeat a bad guy with a gun'.
It doesn't seem that the filmmakers set out to change anyone's mind on the topic, but rather to highlight the importance of some type of compromise or common ground in light of the 32,000 people who die in America from gunshots each year. And seriously, does it make sense that there are more gun stores in the U.S. than McDonalds and Starbucks combined? The most honest and direct moment of the film comes when one of the parents of a victim states, "we don't want your sorry's or prayers
we want your action."
more Huma, less Weiner please
Greetings again from the darkness. Normally I would have no interest in a movie with this title, but in this case, it's a chance to get a glimpse into the psychological make-up of a guy who obliterated his own political career by simply being unable to keep his privates private. The end result of the efforts from filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg is nearly unrestricted access to a NYC mayor candidate's campaign, as well as a look at a politician that is at times tense, and other times funny (in a laughing AT you kind of way).
In 2011, seven-term New York Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned in the aftermath of a sexting scandal made worse by (what else?) his lying and attempted cover-up. The film begins with a clip of one of Weiner's explosive speeches, meant to portray his expertise as a legislator and politician. This is quickly followed by the pun-filled headlines that exposed his sexting habit, seemingly leaving his political career in the dust.
Picking up two years later, the film finds the disgraced former Congressman running a campaign for NYC mayor. We can't be too surprised as we have learned numerous times that many politicians are addicted to power and life in the public eye. What makes this an interesting subject is two-fold: how publicly humiliated Weiner had been, and the fact that his wife is Huma Abedin, long-time Hillary Clinton adviser and aide.
We don't learn how it happened, but we do find Anthony and Huma are still married, are parents to a young child (she was pregnant when the first scandal hit), and that Huma fully supports his mayoral candidacy. As the campaign kicks off, Weiner is a frontrunner, proving that we are a forgiving lot. The cameras capture him in full candidate mode making calls to potential donors, giving speeches, dealing with staffers, and working the crowds at his energy-filled parades. Of course, it's all a façade or at least half of one.
When the second sexting scandal hits and "Carlos Danger" makes headlines as Weiner's online pseudonym, the real trainwreck begins, and we find it impossible to turn away. It's at this point where our feelings are confirmed Huma is by far the more interesting of these two personality polar opposites. Where Weiner is two-faced bouncing between humbled and overly ambitious; Huma is cool, collected and (seemingly) smart.
Weiner remains clueless about his chances, and the level of tension skyrockets in meetings and during spousal moments. It's impossible not to believe that the energies used towards the campaign would have been better spent in therapy both individual and as a couple. His stream of lies proved he had not changed his ways, and his periodic reflective and apologetic moments are diminished by his true color nastiness, which is more pervasive.
The film gets unnecessarily sidetracked during a segment that features one of Weiner's phone sex relationships codenamed "Pineapple". Entirely too much time is spent on her pathetic publicity grab, and fortunately it all falls flat. It is a reminder that the media never misses a chance to film a frenzy even if they have to manipulate it. There is no room in a documentary for TWO trainwrecks! After the film and the irresistible draw of watching this ego-driven dude never once come to grips with why he is socially unacceptable as a leader, we realize there are unanswered questions. Why did Huma stick with her husband? Why was she onboard with him getting back in the game did she really miss the public eye? The filmmaker flat out asks Weiner "Why have you let me film this?" Perhaps the answer to that last question is somewhat explained when you know that Anthony Weiner made an appearance in "Sharknado 3". Some people just need the spotlight.
The hecklers, the eye rolls, the angry outbursts all lead up to Lawrence O'Donnell asking Weiner "What's wrong with you?" I asked myself that same question after the movie when I realized that I was mesmerized the entire time. As for Huma ever allowing herself to be the subject of a documentary, we can only assume that she is too sagacious to allow such unfettered camera access to her work. I suppose her appearance in the next "Sharknado" is equally unlikely.
The Liberators (2016)
"Lost" and Found
Greetings again from the darkness. The story of how art was treated during WWII is fascinating: Himmler devised the plan to hide/store the valuable art in a cave to protect it from the bombings (they weren't as worried about citizens); much of it was stolen by soldiers from both sides; and the decades of effort to recover and return the displaced works. Those recovery efforts have been chronicled on screen in The Monuments Men (2014) and the far superior documentary The Rape of Europa (2008).
First time director, and Denison Texas native, Cassie Bryant narrows her focus to one specific case the Quedinburg Treasures a collection of medieval artifacts with tremendous religious and historical value. Her interest stems from the connection to the small town of Whitewright, Texas just outside of her hometown. In what could be described as a mixture of research, mystery and crime, Ms. Bryant follows the work of Will Korte. He has spent a career tracking down missing/stolen WWII art, and considers the Quedinburg Treasures the most important case of his career.
The film avoids the use of a narrator, and instead utilizes first person interviews and news clips. Much of this occurs in regards to the research both Mr. Korte and those local to Whitewright, including the Meador family, friends and neighbors. The trail leads to Joe Tom Meador, and ultimately to the recovery of a substantial portion of the treasure.
When the focus shifts to the trial, the film loses a little steam, as by this time, much of the mystery has been solved. The interviews with super attorney Dick DeGuerin have some interest due to his philosophy about good people doing bad things, as well as his humorous perspective on how the case never should have gone to trial.
There is little argument in the adage that artistic relics provide much of the cultural heritage for any society or era, and this story carries an odd twist in that the motivation may never be determined so that we might classify as either the spoils of war or outright theft. It's also dumbfounding to think that a Goodwill Store might have played a key role in the missing pieces (if one is to believe the family).
Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016)
It's a kick
Greetings again from the darkness. From rags to riches a common expression that often leads to a paint-by-numbers movie. Co-directors Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist are fortunate in that their "coming of age" subject is the globally famous Pele' often considered the greatest soccer/futbol player of all-time.
Rather than revisit the career of the transcendent player who later dedicated his life to humanitarian causes, the film kicks off with a 17 year old Pele trotting out onto the pitch at the 1958 World Cup. It then flashes back 8 years to when 9 year old "Dico" was growing up in the slums of Sao Paulo. We get to see his relationship with his family his dad taught him to play, and his friends were loyal to him and encouraged him to pursue his dream.
There are some similarities to "The Sandlot" as we watch the joy these boys have in playing the sport whenever and wherever they can plus the origin of the somewhat derogatory and now immortal nickname. It seemed that Pele' was able to carry this love of the game throughout his career. We see boys huddled around a radio listening to the 1950 World Cup as Brazil's team was humiliated an event that played a role in Pele' returning pride to a bruised country.
Kevin de Paula plays Pele' as he works his way up through the age groups and national teams. Often the youngest and shortest player, the film depicts him as a shy kid often out of his element the polar opposite to the beaming superstar we so often saw later in his career. There is an explanation of the roots of the "Ginga" style and its ties to the Brazilian culture and martial arts.
For some reason, Vincent D'Onofrio is cast as Brazil's Coach Feola and we are forced to endure a tortuous accent that is basically inexcusable these days. There are also some exaggerations in the crowd scenes and shots of the press, though young de Paula underplays the lead. Colm Meaney plays George Raynor, the coach of Sweden in that infamous 1958 World Cup, and we do get a cute little cameo from Pele' himself.
The film does a nice job with the young man's childhood and progression towards superstar (the IOC named him the athlete of the century). He is presented as close to his family, and inherently quiet and calm. The match clips of Pele' that play over the closing credits are proof that a movie just can't capture the transcendence of his talent. Pele' is truly the reason it's "the beautiful game".