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On Edge (2001)
Waste of talent
I had high hopes for this film because of its stellar cast – Jason Alexander, Marissa Winkour, Kathy Griffin, A.J. Langer, and Wendie Mallick all have such strong comedy chops, I figured any movie with these actors HAD to be good. Right? Alas, this was so bad it was unwatchable.
There have been many references to Christopher Guest's mockumentaries in these comments, and I agree that this movie is a long, long way from being in the same league as Guest's. The main difference is that Guest's films genuinely love and respect their subject matters, even while deprecating them. The writers of this film apparently hate figure skaters, and as a result, the "jokes" are offensive, mean-spirited, and sexist, as opposed to being light, good-natured fun. Nearly EVERY scene contains a fat joke at Winkour's expense. The Veda character is stalked and nearly raped in a parking lot by two idiot male groupies, and this is passed off as hilarity. Bulimia and drug use are also given the comedy treatment, and every unfunny, poorly-written gag is repeated several times.
What a waste of talent! The three lead characters (Winkour, Swatek, and Langer) cannot do anything with the material. Kathy Griffin's role was far too short. Jason Alexander seems embarrassed to be in the movie, as if he signed on and then couldn't take it back. The narrator is square, boring, lacks timing, and adds nothing to the mockumentary nature of the story.
Worst of all, the movie is tragically low-budget, and nowhere is this more evidence than in the film's music. Whoever wrote the music was about 20 years behind the times, apparently scoring every scene with AWFUL 80s keyboard pop. Obviously, I can't fault a movie for not having lots of money thrown at it, but the filmmakers didn't even TRY to make this film sound professional. One character is obsessed with Madonna, yet the music she is listening to clearly is NOT Madonna's – it is a very cheap, and not at all realistic, imitation of "Get into the Groove." Similarly, another skater later ostensibly skates to the Titanic theme music, yet the "music" is clearly a bad imitation of the Titanic score, not the real thing. The filmmakers insult the audience's intelligence with this tripe, and make this movie feel like a cheap 80s film instead of one made in 2001.
I am only giving this film 4 stars because of the cast. The writing deserves 0 stars.
Born Rich (2003)
It is well-known that those with money do not ever speak of money--theirs or anyone else's. Jamie Johnson admirably shattered this longstanding taboo, despite pleas from his own father and lawyer not to make the film, and discovered the hard way what happens when the secrecy curtain is lifted from the uber-wealthy. "Born Rich" is ostensibly Johnson's way of finding normalcy, whatever that may mean to those born into wealth; unfortunately, he was ostracized from the Gen-X upper class for turning a mirror onto the real lives of his blue-blood friends.
The most fascinating part of Born Rich isn't what is seen on camera, but what took place offscreen. Luke Weil sued Johnson to have his footage cut from the film, claiming that he--an Ivy-league-educated adult--was tricked into signing a release. Weil's lawsuit was thrown out, and it is now apparent to the world why he didn't want his footage seen. Among other gems, Weil tells the interviewer that any woman who wouldn't sign a pre-nup is "an ungrateful little bitch," brags of coasting through Brown University without attending class, and how he would taunt classmates with "I can buy your family."
Sadly, Weil is not even the most odious of the film's assembled characters. That distinction belongs to Carlo von Zeitschel, a minor European royal who claims to be a descendant of Kaiser Wilhelm II (strangely, his name does not appear in the Kaiser's family tree). With his chain-smoking and foreign flippancy, he sneers "I have no intention of being loyal to any woman anytime soon, not that I probably ever will be... One day I'll fall in love and I'll get married, whatever. I'll probably get divorced a couple of years later." (In the DVD's deleted scenes, he dismisses his American peers as "so cheesy, they're like the f*cking Brady Bunch.")
Weil's and von Zeitschel's contributions to the film are embarrassing to watch, and epitomize everything that is wrong with inherited wealth. The other heirs in the film do not fare much better: Stephanie Erklentz quit her job as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch so she could spend her days shopping and sipping Bellinis with her friends. Cody Franchetti is an Italian textile heir who works as a model because he doesn't want a "real job." Juliet Hartford fancies herself a starving artist (minus the starving part) who, when asked what she would do with a million dollars in cash, says "I'd give it to the homeless," then bursts out laughing and spurts, "Just kidding!"
However, these vignettes also speak volumes about the sense of narcissistic confusion that stems from having enormous wealth handed down without integrity or values. The real problem with some of these kids is poor parenting, not excess. It is very clear that well-rounded, responsible adults come from proper mentoring, not undeserved wealth or social status.
And despite soundbites like these, Johnson manages to make you feel sorry for his subjects; despite their grossly excessive lifestyles, their wealth is tremendously isolating. These children are locked in their own private world, surrounded only by others like them. They have been trained to never socialize or date outside the upper crust, and while most attended college, their trust funds give them no incentive to make a meaningful contribution to the working world, and no mentors to provide guidance. (When Johnson asks his emotionally-detached father for career advice, he is vaguely advised to become a collector of historical maps.) He goes to great lengths to show the perils of having too much money, using his grandfather's messy life as an example.
The bright spot of "Born Rich" is Ivanka Trump, who is witty and articulate, and balks at the notion that the rich have no problems. She, along with S.I. Newhouse IV and Josiah Hornblower, appear to be the most well-adjusted of the bunch. They have contemplated the bizarreness of their lives, and seem to be aware of the trappings of decadence and materialism. (Newhouse chose to live in a shared college dorm instead of his father's plush Manhattan penthouse.) These three have no pretenses: they are just young adults with big bank accounts and huge legacies to fulfill.
The film is very short - barely over an hour - and Johnson doesn't attempt to delve into the more meaty issues characterizing the class war. He simply turns the camera on his friends, and allows them to expose the classism on their own. Some seem refreshingly average, others troubled, others spoiled, arrogant and mean. But they are all human, and face the same struggle for self-identity as anyone else.
This is why it is extremely important to remain thoughtful and open-minded while watching, and not to categorize all super-rich as "elitist snobs," or naysayers of the rich as "jealous." If you have such pre-formed opinions, you will find little here to change your mind or encourage you to think deeper. Still, every viewer will have a strong reaction to the film in some way, because inherited wealth is at odds with the capitalist principle of worth by way of achievement. That idea will undoubtedly rankle you, regardless of sympathies.
It took enormous chutzpah for Johnson to make this film. Though it is unlikely to change high society's hush-hush attitudes about wealth, or the public's reaction to class clash, this film is a daring experiment and (hopefully) a promising start to a great film-making career.
Heir to an Execution (2004)
Michael Meeropol should have made this film, not Ivy
I have always been fascinated by the Rosenbergs and was eager to see this film, but came away disappointed. It's a good thing I knew all about the Rosenbergs beforehand, because otherwise I would have been very confused. The film didn't give any back story on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Who were they? What did they (allegedly) do? How were they discovered? Why were they chosen to symbolize the witchhunt era? Why were they executed, when hundreds of other convicted spies were not? What evidence suggests they were guilty, and what evidence suggests they were not? A documentary should elucidate the viewer and make them feel more knowledgeable on a subject than before. Ivy did practically no historical research when making this film, which betrays the entire purpose of a documentary. She interviewed family members and tracked down old people who knew her grandparents, but otherwise provided no context. Someone who is not American, or unfamiliar with the McCarthyism era, would be baffled by this film, because it assumes that everyone already knows the story.
It is clear that Ivy put her whole heart into this project, and the result is a very sincere attempt to humanize the grandparents she never met. However, I wanted to understand what truly happened, and my questions were not answered.
The best thing about this film was Michael Meeropol, Ivy's father. He is a passionate, articulate activist who knows more about the subject than his daughter. The scenes in which he speaks were the smartest in the film. I began to wish that he had directed this documentary, and not his daughter. Ivy, despite her good intentions, is ditzy and a weak interviewer. She has the very annoying habit of trailing off questions halfway, and leaving her subjects to figure out what she is asking. Her interviews were unstructured and the narration was rickety.
Furthermore, the biases and shoddy journalism are apparent. Ivy and her brother are naively insistent that their grandparents were "innocent" (a word that gets thrown around repeatedly) despite admitting that they never examined the evidence or studied the story beyond hearing it from their father. The Rosenberg records were unsealed by the government in 1995, and yet Ivy didn't bother looking at them until she made this film.
Everyone has the right to know where they come from. While the Meeropol family's efforts to define their legacy are admirable, the result was a very amateurish film. It is too bad that another family member with better documentarian abilities didn't take the helm.