Kevin Hart: What Now?

kevin-hart-what-now-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 14, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Kevin Hart; Joey Wells; Harry Ratchford; Brian Buccellato

Directed by: Leslie Small; Tim Story

Kevin Hart: What Now? isn’t quite as groundbreaking as the marketing may have you believe, but if you’re a fan of his stand-up it remains a must-see event. While the venue itself suggests the next phase in the evolution of this hyperkinetic ball of energy — imagine, just for a second, this guy on a world stage (LaughAid?) — What Now? is actually the third such concert film, following up Let Me Explain (2013) and Laugh at My Pain (2011), and it is the fifth instance in which a camera crew has accompanied him on stage, fixated upon his every spastic move.

In Leslie Small’s film Kevin Hart finds himself stepping out onto the biggest stage of the biggest tour of his career at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where he’s set to perform in front of a crowd 53,000 strong. Ordinarily this cavernous space is reserved for the rituals of diehard Eagles fans — not of the band but rather of the city’s NFL franchise. But on one night in August, this sacred ground would belong to a comedian. The What Now? film that audiences get to see in theaters represents the culmination of a historic tour, not just for this performer but for any comedian who has ever aspired to promoting their brand in the arena setting.

Hart was born and bred in the city of brotherly love. He struggled in the early part of his career to earn the laughs, frequently being booed off stage and enduring endless ridicule. At one show he had a piece of chicken hurled at him. For awhile he scrounged around in Philly under the alias Lil Kev, attempting to duplicate the brilliance of those who had come before him, like Chris Tucker. His humble beginnings in some ways make his homecoming magical. It’s as if he had never gone Hollywood in the first place. Though he’s never projected the image of someone who’d rather sacrifice their soul for the allure of Tinseltown than stay true to themselves, he’s certainly found success there. He has starred in a number of action-comedy vehicles and his performances in front of thousands of live audiences from the sun-kissed beaches of California to the more distant provinces of Europe and even Cape Town, South Africa has earned him a global reputation.

In the hour-and-some-change that we get to spend with Hart on stage — the show is prefaced by an amusing sketch that implicates Hart’s swaggering shortie as James Bond negotiating the poker table in Montenegro — we learn a few things about the guy, but not as much as one might expect out of someone who never seems to hide who he is. Not that his set is intentionally distant or impersonal — he throws members of his family under the bus on a number of occasions, which is pretty funny in and of itself — but there’s a certain genericness about the material he runs with here. Nevertheless, Hart is seemingly able to pull wildly entertaining anecdotes out of his pocket at random and the bulk of his act is spent regaling us over ultimately harmless familial tensions, his insecurities over being vertically challenged, and his experiences as a black male in modern America.

Have you ever gone to a movie — perhaps something just like What Now?  where you start off chuckling at a few things but then there’s that person behind you who finds everything so amusing that some of their energy starts rubbing off on you? Laughter is contagious and the people with whom I was sharing this small theater were having a riot. I found myself committed to what can only reasonably be described as a cackling contest with this unidentified patron, laughing far harder at stuff I should not be. After the movie I wanted to scold myself for allowing external forces to influence me. I didn’t want to go back and write a review of an experience that was largely amplified by what I was experiencing in person. Manufactured, even.

I have to say, other than the running raccoon-as-gangster gag and his trademark manic energy that constantly threatens to break into full-blown Tasmanian devil mode at any moment, I don’t remember much of this set. But I will always remember the first time I was in a movie where it sounded like the guy behind me seriously soiled his jockeys.

kevin-hart-what-now

Recommendation: Fans of Kevin Hart’s stand-up need apply. For obvious reasons. I will always maintain that there is a major distinction between his live performance and his film roles, and take them or leave them as you so please, but I find his on-screen performances entertaining as well. So I’m an apologist. And don’t ask me whether or not you should see this if you are anything close to sitting on the fence. You already know the answer. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Snowden

snowden-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

snowden

Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Finders Keepers

'Finders Keepers' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bryan Carberry; J. Clay Tweel

A man wakes up. Man goes to a local auction at an abandoned storage unit; places the highest bid on a smoker. Man opens up said grill only to find part of another man’s leg inside, as if waiting to be barbecued. Man freaks out and calls the authorities to have it confiscated, only to later realize this find could be his ticket to an entirely different kind of life. Man goes on a crusade to fight for ownership of the body part. Man, what the hell . . .

In the backwoods of North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant, an enterprising but surly Southerner — the Man — meets up with John Wood in the parking lot of a Dollar General, hoping to find a way to negotiate with the equally obstinate man who had lost his left leg in a plane crash that also claimed the life of his father, a successful businessman with a lot of clout in the community.

Wood isn’t having any of it though. No sir, not today. Despite never having met Whisnant he harbors a lot of ill will towards him, and it’s sort of understandable. The bitterness between the have’s and the have-not’s manifests as a redneck version of the ideological disputes between the Capulets and the Montagues, sans the romance of course. And despite a bizarre chain of events that saw Wood transferring the leg from the hospital (yeah, they let him take it home) to a freezer in the back of a Hardee’s restaurant and finally to a storage unit he would ultimately relinquish due to nonpayment, Wood’s confident he’s getting the damn leg back.

Finders Keepers is merely the latest inquisition into this beyond ridiculous backyard fiasco. Front-and-center is this battle over who should be awarded legal ownership of the limb — one that plays out both in reality and on reality TV shows and in the tabloids, the likes of which earn the attention of national media outlets, even if they’re more interested in making jokes. But this isn’t the entirety of what Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s strange project represents.

Finders Keepers represents a kind of tug-of-war between two very different social classes. Whisnant, coming from a much poorer background than Wood, recalls childhood memories that cause him to tear up, citing his lack of inclusion at parties thrown at the Wood estate and his many “whoopings” at the hands of his father as low points in his life. We get to know John on a much more personal level as well. His story is similarly one of redemption, and not simply because he manages to get fitted for a prosthetic leg. His battle with drug addiction is embraced head-on, with interviews with relatives providing a strong emotional pulse. The catalyst for his dependency — a morbid fear he would never measure up to his dad’s success — is rather heartbreaking.

There’s a lot of beauty in the bizarre, apparently. As the narrative develops into something more than just another example of why southern stereotypes exist, the more we see how Whisnant’s bizarre discovery has shaped both the lives of the individuals and the lives of their families. Some of the results are surprising while others are, sadly, more predictable. There’s a clear winner and a clear loser here, and the sheer number of sacrifices and poor decisions made on both sides can be difficult to comprehend.

It’s less white trash fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy than you might think (although funnily enough Judge Mathis‘ gavel becomes a pivotal plot point in the resolution of this custody battle, and Jerry Springer is part of that reality TV charade Whisnant involves himself in). This is a documentary that requires one to set aside personal judgment and biases in order to access the fundamentally human story that exists at the core.

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 5.44.48 PM

Recommendation: Finders Keepers features an outrageous true story that has to be seen to be believed. The brilliance in the design is that neither party is demonized or put upon a pedestal, but rather uses the objectivity of documentary filmmaking to tell a human story that might be easier to identify with than one might first assume. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.goldposter.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Citizen Kane (1941)

Let’s send October off in style, shall we? Four Thursdays and several classics later, we arrive here at the fifth installment of TBT. And really, how can I ignore this one? It’s a film I saw a few months ago and I haven’t seen it since, so with any luck my memory will not fail me. I can finally now say that I have gotten to experience

Today’s food for thought: Citizen Kane.

Incinerating sleds since: September 5, 1941

[Netflix]

How does one hope to reveal anything new or exciting about Citizen Kane, one of cinema’s most poured-over films and a release that’s now over 70 years old? The truth is, they can’t. The best thing that I can hope to do is nod my head and silently agree with everyone who has ever sung its praises. This is a film with such a reputation that it actually takes some effort not to watch it.

Some months ago now I pressured myself into ordering the DVD through Netflix. When it arrived it then sat on top of the Xbox for awhile before I finally decided I should just give it a chance. I carried a healthy level of skepticism going in because there was no way this film was going to be as good as everyone had told me it was. Fifteen minutes in I was completely entranced. Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, and please pardon the strange comparison, absorbs and entertains — and ultimately repulses — much in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, creating an almost mythical character at the heart of the story and protecting him behind layers upon layers of exposition, each one invariably tainted by bias and prejudice. Both feature characters so much larger than life it takes at least 120 cinematic minutes to properly represent them.

In hindsight, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) might be easier to sum up than you would think. The word ‘enigma’ comes to mind. Even ‘celebrity.’ That’s an incomplete picture though. And really, that’s the impression Welles (as director) wants first-time viewers to have. His approach all but beckons those same viewers to watch again, to find out what pieces of the puzzle they have missed. Citizen Kane, in the mode of a film à clef, weaves a dense and complex narrative to paint a collage of impressions about who Kane was, what he represented, and how his legacy would proceed him.

Kane, himself a collage of real-life personalities, was loosely based upon American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, as well as aspects of Welles’ own life. Despite his incredible wealth and influence, Kane was, for all intents and purposes, an American everyman — someone who, if you saw him on the streets, you could walk right up to and touch. And you, in all your mediocrity, would matter to him. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Among the most fervently discussed aspects of this production is its inventive narrative structure, one which spindles out like a spiderweb to incorporate virtually every aspect of this man’s life, accumulating dramatic heft until a remarkable revelation. The core of the story is concerned with developing Kane’s professional life, detailing his impoverished childhood in Colorado, his subsequent adoption by a wealthy banker named Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), and his meteoric rise to national prominence after entering the newspaper business and seizing control of the New York Inquirer, what many today recognize as the tabloid paper The National Enquirer.

Within this framework we see Kane (d)evolve from ebullient and idealistic publisher seeking immortality via his unfathomable business savvy — save for the little hiccup in 1929 where the stock market crash resulted in his forfeiture of his controlling share of The Inquirer — to a mere mortal set on gaining as much power as a man can have — he briefly dabbled in politics before an affair effectively put an end to that venture — while essentially destroying anyone who dared cross him, and God forbid, chose to marry him. One particularly memorable sequence depicts the gradual dissolution of his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the President of the United States, by staging a series of conversations at a dinner table.

All of these developments are relayed through flashbacks, which result from the many interviews conducted by modern-day newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). He’s seeking the significance of Kane’s last dying words (really, it’s a single word ‘rosebud’), at the behest of his newsreel producer. Interviews include friends and associates, some of whom are willing to speak freely about the man while others (notably Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife) initially refuse to be interviewed. Even disregarding the immensity of the character being explored, Citizen Kane established its brilliance through this kaleidoscopic approach, using other people to inform a third party’s opinion about who this man was and why his death was so significant. As people are inherently complex, it only makes sense our best chance of gaining intimate knowledge of a single person is through the perspectives of many.

Quite simply, this is an extraordinary picture that almost suffers from an abundance of potential talking points. I haven’t even delved into how ornate and beautiful its imagery is. The symbolism. The scale. The humanity and the lack thereof, particularly during scenes at his elegant Floridian estate, known as Xanadu. The use of shadows to evoke danger and tension. The sharp suits and elegant dresses suggesting power and prestige both earned and usurped. The film has been praised countless times for its groundbreaking technical aspects, and while I claim to know little about that aspect of filmmaking, to my untrained eye it’s praise well-deserved.

To the uninitiated, Citizen Kane and all of its clout might seem a bit overwhelming and even off-putting. After all, lofty expectations usually serve to disappoint. In my case, I don’t think there was a way to prepare myself for how good this was. The film ends in an estate sale, wherein Kane’s bevy of personal possessions — most of them statues and busts and expensive paintings — are being divided up either for selling or discarding. It’s telling that this cavernous enclave is mostly filled with priceless items that, collectively, mean very little. They probably meant very little to Kane himself. The accumulation of wealth is so ridiculous it consumes the entirety of the frame. In fact, the only thing more consuming than his apparent obsession with gaining more and more stuff is that nagging sensation that we’ve missed the significance of the word ‘rosebud.’

Recommendation: Unforgettable. And quite simply a classic. Orson Welles truly outdoes himself in the lead and as a director, and if you are yet to see this film I urge you to put some time aside and give it a shot. I personally had grown tired of hearing how good a movie Citizen Kane was, but that was before I actually got around to watching it. Between the visual aesthetic and the scope and ambition of its content, this may not be the ‘best movie I’ve ever seen,’ but for all its comprehensiveness and elegant craftsmanship, it’s likely to remain in a fairly elite group for years to come.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 119 mins.

TBTrivia: The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.allposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Walk

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Zemeckis; Christopher Browne

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

In this episode of Remarkable Feats of Human Spectacle and/or Idiocy, Joseph Gordon Levitt balances on a one-inch thick steel cable rigged between the newly-constructed towers of the World Trade Center, looming steel giants that would go on to cast infinite shadows across Lower Manhattan in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Levitt portrays a man with an insatiable death wish, French high wire artist Philippe Petit, who, after coming across a magazine article in a dentist’s office about the towers, becomes obsessed with the idea of creating the “artistic crime of the century.”

If you like going to the circus, Robert Zemeckis’ sensationally goofy ode to stunt/suicidal men should sit right with you. The Walk tiptoes precariously between harmless popcorn entertainment and shameless exploitation, using Petit’s brazen decision to defy death in the most ridiculous way possible to remind the world once again of how terrible a day Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was. In fact, Zemeckis is so obsessed with recapturing what our world looked like physically prior to that day of darkness that I lost track of the number of vertical-panning shots of these most uninspired-looking structures.

If you’re not a fan of the circus, you may find The Walk to be, in the words of my generation, a shit show. Not in the traditional sense of the phrase, in that Petit or his many accomplices that he guilt-tripped into assisting him were perpetually drunk throughout the picture. Rather, this show is just shitty. It’s not particularly well acted (save for Levitt who, as per usual, is clearly dedicated to his craft), it drags for at least half the runtime and it tries to compensate for the recklessness by striking a fanciful tone. The whole thing comes dangerously close to being pointless as tension fails to be generated given we know the outcome before the opening scene spirits us away to Paris and before we’re inundated with a lot of exposition covering the man’s personal and early professional background.

During one of my many periods of zoning out I recalled when American daredevil Nik Wallenda deemed it a good idea to fix a line between a narrow section of the Grand Canyon and walk it without the aid of safety nets or harnesses. (These people view that kind of silly stuff as some form of emasculation.) If we’re talking entertainment value, there’s no comparison between waiting for this fairytale’s happy ending and realizing Wallenda’s walk carried with it the very real potential of having an actual death broadcast on television. Macabre? Maybe, but at least the threat was right there, making viewers the world over extremely uncomfortable for the better part of an hour. Some families reportedly didn’t allow their children to watch it. They’d be fine watching this, though. It’s completely kid-friendly, one of a small handful of aspects you can stick in the Positives column.

As The Walk progresses, something strange happens. As we draw ever closer to the red letter day (August 6, 1974) — that is to say, as Petit’s dream becomes more real — the less authentic this true story feels. Maybe it’s because the actor’s safety never being in question is too thinly veiled. Maybe it’s just because Levitt is such a nice guy he fails to convey the level of arrogance necessary to fully transform. (His accent doesn’t help, either.) Despite Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography culminating in several vertigo-inducing shots as we dare look past Petit’s feet and into the abyss, more often than not the film is unable to escape its Hallmark movie channel sheen.

The Walk relies on the power of illusion. This is Barnum & Bailey on the big screen. If I had known that that was what I was paying to see I would have stayed home and forced myself to rewatch Man on Wire; of course that would mean having to endure the actual high wire artist’s grating cocksureness. In the end, I’m really not sure why I put myself through this. Maybe it’s me and not Petit that needs the psych evaluation.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but I will say it again: if your circus experiences have served you well in the past, here’s another you can attend but this time from the confines of a theater chair. I suppose in some way The Walk is more than just the single act; it is a respectful tribute to the twin towers as well as reminder that it’s pretty impressive what people can do when they put their minds to it. But my recommendation comes down to something simple: whether or not you can stand listening to people say things like, “You gave that building a soul,” or “It’s amazing how you never gave up on your dreams.” If you cringe at stuff like that, then I think for you the carrots are cooked, as they say.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The carrots are cooked.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

117506_gal

Release: Friday, June 6, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Shep Gordon. To not know him is to not live. Or love. Possibly both.

The name’s iconic in at least the music and film industries, after the would-be social worker established his reputation as an idiosyncratic, freewheeling talent manager who stumbled into the gig thanks to a comical encounter involving Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the generally awkward misperception that Joplin was being assaulted by the musician in broad daylight. Amazingly, the situation never culminated in fisticuffs. Hendrix instead asked if the man was Jewish, which he was. (If that sounds gauche coming from me, I assure you it’s far more amusing hearing this from Shep, who tells everything like it is with only the most massive of grins plastered on his face.)

The second question from Hendrix’s mouth was less personal but far more propitious: whether or not the wide-eyed twentysomething would have any interest in management in the music biz.

“Uh. . .yes?”

The tragically-fated rockstar then pointed an entirely too naive Gordon in the direction of one Alice Cooper.  And thus, off we go on our gallivanting through Mike Myers’ passion project, a tribute to one of the greats of Hollywood — a man who has always been grateful to stand behind the spotlight rather than in it. There’s little he can do now to avoid being front-and-center, though one gets the feeling the debut of this highly entertaining documentary won’t have been the first time Shep’s been left somewhat vulnerable, subjugated to public opinion.

One recurring theme that plays out in Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is this sense of great respect and courtesy that Gordon has managed to buoy throughout his lengthy and considerably prosperous career. The number and quality of the testimonials alone speak volumes. If he had a Google+ account — which he doesn’t, no one has a use for those things — his friends circle would include the likes of Sly Stallone, Michael Douglas, Willie Nelson, Sharon Stone (well, former-friend anyway. . .they dated for a time in the ’90s, though she never shows for an interview), American restaurateur Emeril Lagasse (you know, the “Bam!!!” guy?), Canadian pop singer Anne Murray (need you any more evidence of the diversity of his work?), among a slew of others which quite obviously include first-time director Mike Myers.

The man is at once incredibly hard-working, horny and wholly fun to be near. Even if the closest you’ll likely ever be able to get is a seat in a theater or your couch at home, have fun trying to resist his charm and his refreshing honesty. He’s a man who loves his women, as many in the film will also attest to. Curiously, though, for all his exhaustive altruism the fact that the closest he’s been to calling himself a family man thus far was by way of looking after four orphaned children following the death of their mother is a reality that’s jarring and somewhat this. Its particularly difficult to reconcile given Shep’s lovable personality, never mind his ability to put others before him on a consistent basis.

But the biggest surprise of all might be his grand revelation towards the end. It’s a bit of info that’s less inherently surprising as it is shocking based on whom is admitting it: “there’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy.” This comes from a man who understands life is a privilege, not a waste. From a man who’s spent his cultivating those of others, even if some of those lives ironically ceased to be. Jimmy Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Those two whom he had wrestled around with in a crummy motel parking lot when first arriving in Los Angeles, they were gone well before he could retire. Gone also were many other friends and clients — even intimate relationships he had held were disappearing with an astonishing ease.

Strange, then, that the focus of Gordon’s very first project has managed to pull it together enough to have his commentary featured throughout the film. Simultaneously, there’s a warm feeling of reassurance, that maybe. . .just maybe Gordon really is a true protector. An aging Cooper by comparison seems to be a human being one can actually hang out with, without fear of having a live chicken butchered randomly in front of them based on what he or she said to Mr. Cooper.  (Granted, that stunt was actually all Shep’s idea. . .)

The interviews with Cooper and Gordon on a schooner come across most poignant of all. A non-threatening setting and the passage of time does a lot to expose the real artists for who they are, and this is one of the real treats of Myers’ production. We see not only Gordon, but we see the part of that individual, that groomed personality Gordon has undoubtedly helped shape. Despite the film failing to maintain an even consistency in pacing and possessing an arguably far too limited a runtime for a subject as colorful as Shep Gordon, Myers’ effort deserves applause.

Engaging, entertaining. . . surprisingly emotional. There are a million other ways to describe Supermensch, but these seem to fit the best.

ShepGordon

That is one must-have tee

4-0Recommendation: Informative and often inspirational but not completely free from its own relative cliches, Mike Myers’s foray into directing and documentary filmmaking may have more to offer those who are intimately familiar with this extroverted personality, but it still will resonate quite well with anyone interested in meeting a genuinely nice man whose life story may be more complicated than anything anyone might naturally assume about a man still unwed and without children of his own who, by the way, has spent a lifetime making people rich and famous.

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “The three most important things a manager does. One: get the money. Two: always remember to get the money. Three: never forget to always remember to get the money.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

For No Good Reason

114080_gal

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

If there’s any good reason to go see For No Good Reason, it’s the chance to see an extended slideshow of some of Ralph Steadman’s more provocative paintings.

Sure, you know who this guy is. His illustrations have probably even made an appearance in your nightmares at some point. Grotesque, emotionally raw and occasionally quite graphic, the splatter-art that has defined a couple of Hunter S. Thompson novels and the subsequent cinematic adaptations thereof has been a phenomenon you can’t quite ignore. The 78-year-old artist is simply too prolific. He has illustrated children’s books almost as much as he has detailed horrific imagery depicting some of the darkest corners of the human heart. While he has at times proven to be the voice of reason, other times he represents chaos and disorder, using his unique style to express deep frustration and even outrage at humanity’s capacity for evil, wrongdoing.

It is possible Steadman and his ideas are perhaps too big to fit into the home video format, which is essentially what For No Good Reason boils down to. His iconic work deserves much more detail and arguably even it’s own, separate film. Set Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets as the soundtrack to a collage of his best work, and you’re set; you have an instant classic on your hands. Neither the subject nor his art belong in a documentary quite as pedestrian as this. Director Charlie Paul and his wife, Lucy, a producer on the film, have good intentions, though, and they clearly revere the man and cherish the time they get to spend with him.

It’s certainly obvious what the film’s narrator — Hunter S. Thompson aficionado and puppeteer Johnny Depp — thinks, too. (Everything presented here is “amazing” to him. . .though he can’t really be faulted for saying the word over and over again, the work really is just that.) Ignoring all of the film’s blandness and a general failure to launch, the argument that the subject matter isn’t treated with respect cannot be made.

Any fan of the artiste or those with a general interest in the collaboration between Steadman and the father of gonzo journalism — a style of writing in which the narrator/author is not only spectator to the events surrounding him, but becomes a part of the drama himself, and writing from a point of view that’s not necessarily objective — will find themselves intrigued as Steadman regales the small camera crew that hangs about in his Kent, England home about a time in his life, something slightly more than a decade, that would prove to be both exciting and critical for his career. Touring the country with the crazed writer after bumping into him at the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Steadman would go on to experience great success as his frequent collaborations with Thompson gave him exposure he likely wouldn’t have received otherwise. In reflecting, Steadman’s nostalgia and passion for those days is palpable and these moments justify some of that ticket price.

But Johnny. . .oh Johnny: “Amazing.”

The documentary also is quite helpful in providing a first-hand account of how Steadman physically sets about creating his work. This is fascinating stuff as well. It could arguably be the main event. What blossoms out of a simple splattering of black paint is likely to leave the mind reeling. During this creative process the intimacy of the home video is actually beneficial. We always feel like we want to get closer to the artist and his canvas, and here we do.

Watching the soft-spoken Steadman go to work feels somewhat like a privilege, but elsewhere the production feels amateurish. The documentary doesn’t assume it’s audience has read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems a little counterintuitive since this documentary is all but catered to the fandom thereof. (Well, it’s not. It’s catered to the artwork. But the gonzo journalism-obsessives are likely to comprise the majority of the audience. This is a safe assumption, no?)

Outside of seeing the artist at work, there is not a great deal of payoff. Audiences paying to see this movie ought to have a decent background already on the Thompson-Steadman dynamic, but the Pauls make the mistake of assuming those in attendance haven’t yet accessed these beyond-ridiculous pages, this depraved adventure spewed forth from the collective minds of two men hell-bent on doing drugs and living the ‘American dream,’ as it were. There’s too much exposition and back-tracking, on top of a very awkward use of Depp. There’s a sense that we should all be paying more attention to this Hollywood celebrity more than the subject itself at times.

The film features additional interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Richard E. Grant (Dracula), and Jann Wenner (Jerry Maguire) but their talking time is limited to unforgettable segments.

For No Good Reason means well, and it required a lot of effort and time to create. Apparently 15 years in the making, the final result unfortunately stoops to treating its audience as if it has deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts. Unless we have been casually sipping on gin and ingesting ether on a somewhat regular basis, there’s simply not enough here to justify a 90-minute production.

GALLERIA 

small Fahrenheit 451 hell hound

illustration for ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury

ralph-steadman-art-gallery-earth-belly

‘Earth Belly’

91GO7tqUAHL._SL1500_

queen and alice ralph steadman

‘Queen and Alice,’ an illustration for Alice in Wonderland

ralph-steadman-1

2-5Recommendation: Although fans of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalism, and Steadman’s unique art will undoubtedly find something to appreciate about the small window into the man’s life, this rather insignificant documentary ultimately comes off as slapdash, underserving both its subject and target audience by providing redundant information and failing to make proper use of Steadman’s utterly fascinating imagination. There are a few artistic flourishes throughout, but even these feel cheap and tacked-on. Somewhere out there lurks a better version of this film, and the faithful should stay vigilant for whatever that may be.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “It’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads, but aren’t capable of getting it out.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.ralphsteadman.com 

The Act of Killing

17711-series-header

Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Abundant are the films that, post-viewing, make you grateful for the experience, even though they took you far outside your comfort zone. There are even those that you really wish you could un-see; those that haunt your mind like a recurring nightmare. And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, a torturous two hours you should receive an award for enduring.

Before I take my ceremonial bow, the first person to receive a big pat on the back (or hug, I’m not sure which is more appropriate at this point) should be the Danish-based director who skillfully pieces together one of the most horrifying and revealing documentaries that will perhaps ever be crafted. It’s a little difficult, in this present moment at least, to fathom a film going to the places and lengths that this monstrosity does.

A camera crew takes to the dirty streets of Medan, Indonesia where they locate a number of death squad leaders responsible for the mass slaughter of millions of fellow countrymen between 1965 and 1966. The objective? To prompt these men to talk extensively and candidly about the events that took place during the military overthrow of the Indonesian government, while also allowing them to perform re-enactments of precisely what, who and how they killed.

The staged killings would become part of a film Anwar Congo and his ‘gangster’ friends (notables include Herman Koto and Adi Zulkadry) are making in an effort to publicly boast about how they were able to eliminate so-called communists, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese and any other individuals they deemed ‘undesirable’ and threats to the stability of their nation. (The concept of stability is somewhat ironic, considering a military coup d’état became necessary in restoring the perceived balance of power in this perpetually troubled nation.) A paramilitary organization known as Pemuda Pancasila evolved out of the death squads led by Congo and Zulkadry, and has been in place ever since. In the documentary, we are forced to confront this most intimidating of groups as they continue to harass Indonesians mere feet away from the camera crew. Frightening as this organization is, its really not the focus of Oppenheimer’s/Congo’s project.

Really this film has dual purposes. On the one hand, this is an opportunity for these truly vile men to express their nostalgia for the good ole days, when they raped, tortured and murdered those who they thought deserved it. On the other, Oppenheimer is giving these individuals all the tools they need to show their true colors. One might argue that they already have done that by performing the acts that they did in the ’60s, but one would only be 50% accurate in that assumption. What is said and revealed in this documentary surpass the murders themselves.

Watch the scenes in which the fat, disgusting blob of a human being named Herman Koto. . . you know what? There’s almost no point talking about this anymore. It is just crushing my heart. I literally have no words to describe the vast majority of the content, and at the risk of me sounding like I’m writing this film off, this review in itself was next-to-impossible to write, and is causing depression of the highest degree, so I no longer have desire to analyze this as a piece of creative expression. Mainly, because it’s not. This may very well be looked at as terrifyingly effective propaganda for the opposition. I have spent days trying to pin down my feelings on it. Such a task seems now fruitless, and I don’t feel comfortable diverting any more attention to this abomination. There is genius in the construction but the subject matter is too off-putting. It’s almost offensive considering the power that The Act of Killing may add to the anti-communist sentiment found in southeastern Asia.

fucked-up-shit-kids

0-5Recommendation: Don’t do this to yourselves. This is the cruelest thing you’ll ever watch; not to mention, it’s paced like a snail and the subject matter makes it feel even longer. The fact that a documentary was made on these people has scary implications — Oppenheimer just took a can of gasoline to a raging fire. Who knows what’s going to happen next in Indonesia. What a fool. And what a fool this reviewer is for thinking this was going to be anything other than ugly. Where’s my damn prize?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “‘War crimes’ are defined by the winners. I’m a winner.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.theactofkilling.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Summit

summit_xlg

Release: Friday, October 4, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

K2. Perhaps few points on Earth are as coveted as its rarely-seen, wind-swept summit — at least with the sole purpose being to simply leave the footprints behind to say indeed, you were there; you had made it.

In August of 2008 as many as 11 lives were lost on the world’s second-tallest mountain’s razor sharp ridges and unforgiving slopes during one of the most tragic expeditions attempted in its history. On the first day of the month, 18 climbers made a push for the top, each armed with the singular hope of experiencing exhilaration, discovering liberation, achieving affirmation.

Instead, what awaited them was nothing short of devastation.

The Summit, part-dramatization and part-documentary, juggles climber ethics and responsibilities, the history and politics of high-altitude mountaineering, as well as the psychology of being in the moment — a phenomenon known as ‘summit fever,’ a mental state that causes sound judgment to be compromised when in reach of the top of the peak, gets touched upon. Piecing together first-hand video documentation and convincing re-enactments, a tension-filled story is created that’s meant to reflect all of the confusion and chaos of those fateful days. While the strategy hardly diverts from the legions of other extreme-outdoor docu-dramas, it makes no attempt at providing the material in a traditional, coherent manner. This is rather unfortunate, given the gravity of the events.

It seems strange to label the recounting of an ill-fated expedition as ‘confusing,’ but the way in which director Nick Ryan wants to do the recounting is just that, and the result is an audience with more questions than answers. The scenery is jaw-dropping and the cinematography in general staggering. The Summit also employs a few inventive shots that will give any moviegoer vertigo. Thus, Ryan fulfills at least two-thirds of the requirements to make this kind of viewing stimulating.

To be fair, the event Ryan is depicting/reporting on seems to be shrouded in mystery, even to those who were caught up in it. In fact, it’s this mystique that perpetuates the story. How can so many people who are so experienced, get into so much trouble so quickly? How can 18 people begin a push for the 28, 251-foot summit and only seven return to base camp? Who was to blame for the multiple accidents and mix-ups in the Death Zone? Will we ever know the truth?

It’s really the story structure that doesn’t do this event any particular favors. We start up on the mountain quite high up in the beginning, zoning in on a group of Korean climbers who have just fallen and are dangling precariously on a section of steep slope, bloodied and unmoving. Something has gone horribly wrong, but we are not sure what that is. Nobody on the mountain does, either. Cut to the beginning of the day, when everyone is making a push from base-camp. We get some incredible insight into what goes on around there — logistics, meetings, the regular goofing around between good old boys — and all of this is extremely interesting. Too bad we keep getting interrupted by the story which continues to move around like a Mexican jumping bean.

Between trying to keep track of several parties attempting to make summit bids and those trapped down lower on the mountain undergoing individual crises, it’s difficult to keep up with who’s who, and perhaps more strangely, why some losses of life receive full backstories, while others barely get a mention. Historical/political elements factor in awkwardly as well, seeming to be more of an obligation than a contributor to the drama that unfolded in 2008.

Still, if you’re not worried about disorientation or anything like that, The Summit makes for a satisfactory enough watch and the visuals are certainly worth the while. Director Nick Ryan should be commended for attempting to set up a story that goes in a different direction than other documentaries, but it just doesn’t quite pay off for him.

thesummit-1

3-0Recommendation: Given the event, the mountain, and my general love for the outdoors, I walked away unable to stop feeling just a little bit letdown by The Summit. Still, it manages to deliver most of the goods. It just would have been nice to have had a stronger impression of just how messed up of a day this was on the mountain. Nothing that a little research on the internets can’t clarify, though, I suppose. . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “You have to save yourself from K2.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fifth Estate

movies-fifth-estate-poster-benedict-cumberbatch-daniel-brulhl-julian-assange

Release: Friday, October 18, 2013

[Theater]

Yeah, thanks. . . thanks Bill Condon, if we wanted to sit through a lecture on information gathering in the digital age, we would (and a lot of us probably) have made tuition payments for school.

However, this is a movie and we want to be entertained as much as we desire to be informed; unfortunately though your work seems capable of handling only one of those — and that is to inform. Inform. Inform. Inform. Inform. Inform. Prepare to be drowned in informing, actually. This film feels more like a Powerpoint presentation than a creative device. And no, I’m going to try hard and not turn this ironically into a stern lecture on how NOT to make a movie (though I could).

What you are probably going to see a lot of, though, is me rehashing how I wish I hadn’t anticipated this release so much; a lot of reiterating how disappointing a film The Fifth Estate has turned out to be.

While anchored by two very likable actors in Benedict Cumberbatch (doing his best to approximate his unique physique to that of the real Australian hacker) and Daniel Brühl (a selling point for me personally having just seen him in the incredible race film, Rush) and being based on the real Daniel Berg’s book, titled ‘Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website,’ this movie seems to be hacked virtually from the get-go. The pace is slower than dial-up AOL and despite said cast even contributing earnest performances, what we’re given as the story behind Julian Assange and his controversial WikiLeaks webpage isn’t nearly substantial enough. It’s like ticking items off a grocery list, the way we move through several critical moments in his career.

I wish I hadn’t anticipated this film so much.

It’s always troubling in a movie when you find yourself sitting there, consciously picking out all the things on-screen that you saw potentially greater versions of. In this case, director Bill Condon (who is literally one hump away from having a terribly awkward surname) mismatches the talented Cumberbatch and Brühl with a lifeless script that gives only broad brushstrokes as to who the man behind WikiLeaks is; you could get the same information by checking him out on Wikipedia. (Wiki-whoops.) That said, though, the actors bring weight to some of the drama that occurs. Some, being a keyword.

A good deal of what comprises Condon’s data-heavy docudrama/biopic are partially edited recordings which were some of the major milestones in the WikiLeaks era. For example, videos you may have seen on YouTube countless times (depending on how quickly such material got blocked) will resurface again and again throughout the movie — footage of atrocities committed during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan; rare footage of the events of September 11, etc. Condon’s putting all of this information out there but there’s absolutely nothing being done with any of it. I understand its good to be objective on certain things, but there’s a difference between being neutral and distancing the audience.

Coupled with some very suspect editing and special effects from some 90s rock band music video, what should be a riveting and morally gouging narrative turns out to be a complete cock-up. I have no other words for it other than that. (Well, that and I’ve been waiting a long time to bust that word out.) What I deemed to be one of the year’s more intriguing stories (which is now only true in the theoretical) is steeped in amateurish filmmaking and this fact is simply exasperating. And even worse, I almost fell asleep twice throughout. I wish I hadn’t anticipated this film so much.

I don’t even concern myself with the fact that Assange himself considers the movie to be “fiction masquerading as fact.”

While the concept of ‘the fifth estate’ is indeed interesting, its significance to the film couldn’t be more contrived, as its explained away in a line of dialogue, rather than manifesting itself in the style and tone of the writing. Simply put, the term refers to the existence of a group of people who don’t affiliate themselves with any of the four other societal groupings (thinking about it historically, you have the first class “clergy,” second class “nobility,” third class “commoners,” and the fourth class “press.”)

As it pertains to the world now, Assange and his controversial site — where thousands of the planet’s best-kept secrets are made available to the internet-browsing public free of charge — would most definitely plead the fifth (estate). His nature epitomizes both the terms ‘loner’ and ‘enigmatic.’ He must be an incredibly difficult person to relate to, yet somehow Cumberbatch manages to portray him with an amazing confidence that is hard to ignore.

I also didn’t find Laura Linney to be all that terrible either, playing Sarah Shaw, a government official who represents those in high power who stand to lose quite a lot with all of this unearthing of secrets that pesky Assange has been doing. Linney’s given a considerable amount of screen time, and while she’s never been an actress I’ve been able to take seriously for even as long as a minute, here she seems more than capable of delivering the drama. She may not be half bad, but in a movie that is, she seemingly continues to be unable to catch a break. The same cannot be said for Anthony Mackie, however, who is plain awful in this movie and who I can’t wait to never see again in a major motion picture.

The most disappointing aspect to this film is the opportunity that is squandered to reveal an intriguing profile of one of the world’s most controversial figures. I mean, if it was tough then it’s going to be impossible now. Assange, seeking protection from being tried for treason among other crimes in various countries, has been hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, likely to remain there for the foreseeable future. His character will forever remain a mystery, since this film makes an attempt to characterize him but ultimately what it settles for are generalizations, cliches and generally menial statements on the nature of a globally-connected society.

To that end, The Fifth Estate comes across as nothing more than an obligation, an exercise. . .a data dump. Well, that and a film I wish I hadn’t anticipated so much.

5th-estate-1

2-0Recommendation: This is probably the flattest and most uninspiring biopic I’ve seen. Very little about its material seemed to merit a major motion picture, and instead seemed to be simply a reason to put Cumberbatch in another lead role, which by no means is something I necessarily disapprove of. But if you want to get to know more about WikiLeaks, as well as the man behind it (good luck on that), you’d be best served by seeking out the documentary, We Steal Secrets. I’m probably not going to be the last to suggest this, either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth. Two people, and a secret: the beginning of all conspiracies. More people, and, more secrets. But if we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower. Someone willing to expose those secrets, that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com