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Zero Days (2016)
Well-Done, Disturbing Documentary
Zero Days is an important documentary devoted much needed attention to the issue of cyberwarfare, focusing on a case study of the Stuxnet attack. It provides a behind the scenes take on the discovery and the development of the virus, as well as the political developments that caused it to spiral out of control.
Alex Gibney does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of the computer virus, as well as the political context that spurred the United States and Israel to develop the computer virus. He assembles a good cast of interviewees from various perspectives on the issue. Although Gibney has a definite viewpoint, he gives both sides of the question a hearing.
Although I had previously watched news coverage dealing with Stuxnet, this documentary goes far more in depth, making good use of inside sources within the NSA. In particular, Gibney examines the split that emerged between the United States and Israel over the use of the virus, ultimately culminating in a near disaster. The film provides a disturbing warning of how the American and Israeli governments have potentially opened a Pandora's box.
This film is important viewing that should be seen by everyone interested in current events or concerned over the implications of American foreign policy.
Decent If Dry Documentary
Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By the Devil follows the development of an art exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Bosch's birth at a museum in the artist's hometown. Although the film requires a keen attention span and leaves one wishing to learn more about the artist, it offers good insights about the art world.
The documentary is at its best when focusing on the intricacies of constructing an art exhibition. The curators are faced with numerous issues, not the least of which is determining which paintings are actually works by Bosch. They employ some surprisingly high tech methods in their quest for the truth. Some of the best moments in the film are when a curator tells someone whether the work they've volunteered for the exhibition is - or isn't - by Bosch.
However, the film also digs into the seamier side of the art world. We encounter collectors who purchase art works they don't appreciate simply for their value as an investment. Viewers also get a look at the wrangling that goes on when one museum tries to borrow an art work from another, with the curators at a certain Spanish museum displaying an unseemly glee over the fact that they have more works by the Dutch Bosch than Bosch's hometown.
The main challenge facing a documentary dealing with Hieronymus Bosch is that little is actually known about his life. Even with this restriction, it would have been nice if the curators had engaged in a bit of speculation about what forces molded his distinctive vision. Was he an early surrealist? Was he mentally ill? Even so, the film is worthwhile for those who are interested in art.
Maya & Marty (2016)
Fun Variety Show
"Maya and Marty in Manhattan" is a well-done revival of the variety show format, with a fun blend of music and comedy. Both Maya Rudolph and Martin Short bring a surplus of comedic talent to the proceedings, bolstered by some celebrity guests.
The comic skits are similar to what you'd see on Saturday Night Live, a mixture of pop culture spoofs and political satire. Martin Short also brings back his character Jiminy Glick. The writing for these skits, at least in the first episode, is spot on.
If the pilot is any indication, the music should also be a selling point. Miley Cyrus gave a strong performance, with Maya Rudolph joining her to demonstrate a mean set of pipes as well. The inclusion of a Broadway dance performance by Savion Glover, while not as strong, offered a change of pace.
The only weak spot is that both Rudolph and Short demonstrate a tendency to stick to familiar territory. Rudolph dips into her repertoire of weird accents at least twice, while Short, as mentioned earlier, resurrects Jiminy Glick with mixed results, as he and Larry David end up just laughing at their own skit.
Head of the Family (1996)
Horror Comedy with No Real Laughs or Scares
Head of the Family is an extremely weak effort from Full Moon Pictures, failing at being a comedy or a horror film. Although it boasts some decent make-up effects and a decent performance by J. W. Perra, it otherwise offers little of interest.
The film follows an adulterous couple that blackmails the local family of freaks into disposing of the female's lowlife husband. Unsurprisingly, things start to go downhill when they try to wheedle money out of the family.
Aside from a weak, predictable plot, the film suffers from numerous other problems. The acting is mostly awful, with Jacqueline Lovell especially poor as the distaff half of the murderous couple. The only actor who is remotely compelling is J. W. Perra as the eponymous head. The actors are not helped by a terrible script which reduces each character to the most basic one note.
Other than Perra's performance and some good makeup, the only thing this film has to offer is its brevity and copious nudity from Lovell.
Guilty Pleasures (2010)
Interesting Take on a Mundane Subject
A documentary on Harlequin romance novels might not seem like a particularly interesting prospect, but Guilty Pleasures manages to be both insightful and at times moving. It features little of the kitsch one would expect from such a topic. The film examines the lives of three women who are avid Harlequin readers, as well as a male model and an author involved in producing the books.
The women depicted have all moved beyond simply reading the books to allowing what they read to shape their lives. For some, this is constructive, as in the case of a Japanese housewife inspired to take up ballroom dancing. However, in other cases the novels provide a means to fill the emptiness of otherwise unfulfilling lives, as in the case of an Indian woman in a loveless marriage. She bases her expectations of love on what she reads in the novels, even though her husband has abandoned her.
At its best, Guilty Pleasures is a sad look at how pop culture shapes people's mindsets and expectations of the world. Where people once turned to religion or philosophy to fill voids in their lives, they now look to third rate novels. Although the film is far from maudlin, it opens a door into how some people try to cope with the sadness of their lives.
Well Done If Pretentious
Youth is an interesting if overly artsy character study examining an elderly composer staying at a resort with his friend, an aging director. The composer has to deal with various personal problems as well as a request to perform for the Queen of England.
The film mainly succeeds on the basis of its performances. Caine is excellent as usual as the composer, while Harvey Keitel does well as a director at the end of his tether. However, the stand out of the cast is Rachel Weisz, who plays Caine's daughter, jilted by her husband, the son of Harvey Keitel's character. Weisz captures her character's pain and sense of betrayal and should have earned an Oscar nomination for her role.
Although she has received critical acclaim for her role, Jane Fonda's performance is rather weak. Her character is a one note Hollywood actress on the outs with Keitel, and her appearance is little more than a cameo.
The main problem besetting Youth is its at times weak writing. The film is overly pretentious, relying too much on quirky set pieces and dream sequences rather than on character development. Keitel's character in particular goes in a direction that the script does not set up at all. Luckily, the strong acting makes up for the faults in the writing.
Where to Invade Next (2015)
Moore Serious than Usual
Where to Invade Next marks something of a change for Michael Moore. Although it features his usual snark and left wing views, it takes a more serious approach to its subject than previous Moore outings. Moore visits various countries, mostly in Europe, to show government policies he thinks the United States should adopt. Among the countries he visits are Italy, France, Slovenia, Iceland, Finland, and Tunisia.
Rather than examining every aspect of the countries he visits, he focuses on one or two policies he thinks are especially important. For example, in Italy, he looks at the amount of vacation time allotted to workers and the strength of Italian unions. Conservative critics will inevitably complain that he fails to give consideration to the flaws of these countries. However, Moore himself admits in the film that none of the countries profiled are perfect.
Moreover, Moore at times goes out of his way to explore the most challenging aspects of the other countries' policies, including aspects most Americans wouldn't be comfortable with. For example, when discussing the Norwegian criminal justice system, he considers the light twenty-one year sentence given to Anders Brevik, the white supremacist terrorist who killed over seventy people. As Moore makes clear, even policies he supports have downsides.
Over all, the film is well worth watching and shows a more serious side of Moore as a filmmaker. That said, towards the end it starts to suffer from pacing issues, and the film could easily have been ten to fifteen minutes shorter. I personally would have ended the movie with the interview with the Icelandic banker who describes why she wouldn't have wanted to live in the United States. What she said summed up the film as a whole and would have made a perfect conclusion.
The Alpha Incident (1978)
A Poor Man's Andromeda Strain
The Alpha Incident is basically a poor man's version of The Andromeda Strain with elements of Scanners and A Nightmare on Elm Street mixed in for good measure. It suffers from low production values and a claustrophobic setting.
When a space probe returns to earth with a deadly disease, the federal government in its wisdom decides to transport it cross country by train with only one agent to guard it. Naturally, someone exposes themselves to the disease and several people end up quarantined in a rural train station.
The major factor working against this film, other than its obvious plagiarizing of The Andromeda Strain, is its limited budget. Much of the screen time is spent watching people doing nothing in a train station. When we go elsewhere to see efforts to cure the disease, the NASA laboratory looks to be a high school chemistry lab. Even much of the camera work is shoddy, with a foggy look like a dream sequence.
The Patriot (1986)
Lame, Predictable Action Movie
The Patriot is a poorly written action thriller that doesn't even manage a coherent ending. It has a stereotypical action plot, in which a group of terrorists steal some nuclear warheads and a renegade Special Forces operative have to track them down. However, it does not have any logic or well-drawn characters.
The film fails on multiple levels. First, the protagonist seems like the last guy you would put in charge of tracking down some lost nuclear warheads. He is first introduced to us through a bar fight in which he takes some money, then lies about having money to a girl he borrowed money from. He gets involved in the warhead chase when his girlfriend discovers something near an oil rig that he just knows came from a nuclear weapon, and subsequently gets killed. When the Navy turns to him to track the bomb down, his first priority is to seduce an old girlfriend. Yeah, I'd totally feel confident entrusting our national security to this guy.
The Patriot also suffers from severe predictability. For example, when Ryder meets with the Navy admiral in charge of the warhead hunt (Leslie Nielson in a rare post-Airplane serious role), we immediately know that the Admiral's antsy assistant is a traitor. When we meet the villains' idiotic henchmen, we know the main villain will eventually dispose of them.
Perhaps worst of all, the film's ending is so poorly done it's difficult to tell what happened. At the climax, Ryder is trying to defuse a nuclear weapon on a countdown to detonation. (Why the villain had the countdown going is never adequately explained, as he was in the same place as the fracking bomb!) He goes to cut a wire which will either end the countdown or immediately detonate it. The scene then fades to white, and we next see a country road where Ryder picks up a hitchhiking girl he previously met at a bar. So, did he successfully defuse the bomb, or is the country road some strange metaphor for the afterlife?
The only redeeming feature of this movie is the late Stack Pierce's performance as the film's main villain. Unlike the other villains, who come off as either moronic or borderline insane, Pierce comes across as scarily competent, so much so that one wishes the film had been about him.
The Alien Factor (1978)
Half Decent Monster Movie
The Alien Factor is a halfway decent low budget monster movie, following a small Maryland town plunged into chaos when several creatures intended for an intergalactic zoo are accidentally released. The film features low budget but surprisingly effective monsters, but it is hampered by stilted dialogue and wooden acting.
The main thing The Alien Factor has going for it is its monster costumes. Although all of the monsters - with one exception - are obviously guys in suits, the suits themselves aren't that bad looking. Furthermore, the monster designs are creative and not just cookie cutter creatures you've seen a thousand times. The insectoid alien was especially impressive.
However, good creature effects alone do not a great monster movie make. The film suffers from a weak script with awkward-sounding dialogue. The script never focuses on a single protagonist, weakening the overall plot. Moreover, the twist ending is telegraphed well in advanced. Still, this is a good monster movie for the undemanding or a boring afternoon.