Sunday, February 25, 2018

MOVIE REVIEWS #145-PART 1: "ICARUS", "LAST MEN IN ALEPPO", "GIRLS TRIP", "A GHOST STORY", "WHOSE STREETS?" and "KEDI

(Cough-cough-cough, hack-ack-ack, cough-cough!!! Wipes mouth, sadly sighs.)

Okay, some of you may have noticed my lack of appearances on social media, especially Facebook recently..., well, I've been sick. Still sick, and normally I can fight through anything, but I think I caught a pretty bad flu, and frankly, I can focus or pay attention to anything for a prolonged period of time without getting tired and needing to rest or sleep or just getting dizzy. It is annoying and frankly, I hate it, and just when I thought I was about to do better, I got sicker again, and my mind and body has just been fuzzy the last few days. It's even invading my dreams. But, I need to post, and while I've seen more movies than this, although not in the last few days, I'm posting the reviews I finished now, and hopefully by the time I get healthy next week, I can focus on the Oscar predictions at least and I'll finish these batches of reviews then.


ICARUS (2017) Director: Bryan Fogel

★★★★1/2



As I write, I'm currently frustrated being a Team USA fan watching the Olympics as my country hasn't earned a single medal in two days, something that quite frankly, even for the Winter Olympics, is a major disappointment. Especially our hockey teams lately....-, anyway, it is funny to see this backstory right now. For the second time in my lifetime, back when they were apart of the Unified Team in 1992, Russian Olympians are competing under the Olympics flag, not their own; they're competing under the moniker "Olympic Athletes of Russia" as their country has been banned from these Olympics after the world's uncovered their extremely vast illegal doping conspiracy which spread across almost any sport you can think of, particularly Olympic sports, and was state-sanctioned and executed all the way up to Putin himself, although the way it's describe by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of  Russia's Anti-Doping Laboratory, which is the most ironic name the place could've had if it tried. Before becoming a whistleblower and now currently living under witness protection, although a statement from him was recently released as the cases regarding the anti-doping violations and claims continue to go on.

Bryan Fogel's "Icarus" is the kind of documentary that started as one thing that then evolved into something else. Director Bryan Fogel originally planned to do a documentary on how easy it was to evade the doping testings of the sporting world; he's an amateur cyclist and was fascinated by how Lance Armstrong managed to evade getting a positive test all those years. He got into contatct with Rodchenkov in order to have him organize his training regimen as he prepares for the Haute Route, the world's biggest amateur cycling race, it's similar to the Tour De France in terms of route, and Rodchenkov, who he was first contacting on Skype, eventually went to L.A. with him, as the story began to get leaked and eventually word spread of Russia's corruption. By the way, the actual details of how the state, in particular the FSB, which is modern arm of what used to be the KGB orchestrated this corruption, is both amazing and ridiculous, and if you're a germophobe, there's a lot of talk about urine samples.

The movie doesn't just detail the downfall of the Russian Olympics team, which, by the way, if the state is corrupt enough to give this big of a shit about sports...- I mean, we'll take the hit for Lance Armstrong's out there but we didn't help him out with his lying or inject him personally or steal, taint and switch urine samples for him, but it the state basically regulates it so the athletes can perform, then what-the-hell else are they up to.... it always shows a profile of a wonderfully fascinating and eccentric man as his life is turned completely around. One of his closest advisers and partners drops dead suddenly under suspicious circumstances and he's gone from a Medal of Friendship recipient to public enemy #1 in Russia. They still claim that he's lying, this documentary reveals how blatantly ridiculous that would be. The movie's titled "Icarus" but it doesn't surprise me that Rodchenkov is a huge George Orwell fan cause everything that he seems to do and think feels like it's right out of a doublethink mentality, as does the entire Russia state it seems these days. It's not shocking to me when athletes personally justify their cheating behavior, but it's far more disturbing when it comes from the government; there's clearly other stuff going on.

"Icarus" is a fascinating film, not only for it's look inside Russia and the Olympic doping scandal, but it also works as an investigative thriller and even dives into the athletic underworld of illegal performance-enhancing substances and shows us how they can be so widespread, how tests and results can be altered or twisted and the lengths some people and some nations will go for what, in some cases, isn't even as illustrious a prize as a Gold Medal at the Olympics. And just how easy they can be convinced that they're doing the right thing by cheating the system and lying about it to everyone else.


LAST MEN IN ALEPPO (2017) Director: Feras Fayyad; Co-Directors: Steen Johannessen and Hasan Kattan

★★★1/2

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So, last year, there was a documentary from Netflix called "The White Helmets", you might have heard of it; it won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. I saw it, it was pretty powerful. It was about the Syrian Civil Defense, there the civilian search and rescue group currently working in Aleppo and the surrounding war-torn areas and their job is to basically come in after the bombing or the battle and then, help or save whoever they can. You're forgiven for possibly confusing "Last Men in Aleppo" as a sequel from to "The White Helmets", 'cause it's basically about the same thing, only a bit longer. That's not a knock by any means, and lord knows the more eyes spotlight on this group and the atrocities going on in that part of the world at the moment the better, but yeah, I couldn't help but get the feeling of deja vu come over me while watching "Last Men in Aleppo". The movie has the unfortunate timing of having competition with Amazon's documentary "City of Ghosts" a documentary about the civilian-lead news source Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered which also takes place at around the same area at the same time, and frankly, I liked "City of Ghosts" more. That's not to dismiss "Last Men in Aleppo"; I'm sure if I had seen it separately from this these other films I probably would appreciate it more. This one, is a little long for me, but I imagine it's long for them too. There's some harrowing scenes of them saving babies and kids from rubble and debris that's both harrowing to see and hard to watch. I can say that for the whole film though.

I think ultimately I appreciate that "Last Men in Aleppo" exists much more than I admire it as a film. That's enough to recommend it.


GIRLS TRIP (2017) Director: Malcolm D. Lee

★★★

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Okay, I'm gonna give this film a break, it doesn't deserve it, but...- (Long deep sighing breath) alright, I'm probably gonna regret this, but-eh, Black People, we need to talk.

Ye-ah-up, I definitely, definitely regret that, but, we still need to bring this up anyway. I understand that as a white person that there are going to be aspects of African-American culture that simply I will just not understand, like, how have you guys of all subgroups still so devoted to the ideas of a Christian God and a monolithic deity is so ingrained into your culture that you can have a movie like "Girls Trip", which basically just repeats the premise of "The Hangover" and still involve a scene where the characters are praying? Or, why a barbershop for a local hangout; that's almost literally the last place I would've thought about for something like that. Or how about marriage, too, I know it's a pushing of a message, but you guys are way too fascinated with marriage, in general really. You'll notice that's a lot of rom-coms, especially ones with white people that just do not have that aspect as apart of it.  Hell, there's plenty of aspects of African-American culture that have infiltrated culture-at-large that I simply do not understand, like why is Beyonce still famous, (or ever famous) or Tyler Perry, I know that's an easy one, but he's relevant to this conversation, 'cause "Girls Trip" is a bit of a Tyler Perryifcation of a narrative.

Well, maybe that's a little bit harsh, I'd definitely prefer "Girls Trip" to nearly everything else I've seen of Tyler Perry, but the themes he repeats and deals with-, and you know, it's not even just him, it feels like this movie wants it both ways, it begins with a look at three kind of new-age cliche characters that all eventually find out that they can be happy/happier by doing something in particular and they're doing it this weekend, and one, whatever-the-hell Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is .

One member of the-, (Sigh) Flossy Posse, as they were apparently called in college, as though that was a normal thing, (Seriously, is that a thing? A bunch of friends who go out and party together being so notorious that they get a nickname when they're together? I see so often in movies like these that I never question it, but now that I'm thinking about it..., really, is that an actual thing people do?)  is Sasha (Queen Latifah) who got a journalism degree and now uses it for a gossip website called "Sasha's Secrets", which apparently is a bad career move? (Shrugs) Is it? I mean, in this universe it is, and I don't mean to seem defensive but you know, from what I can tell, most of the Perez Hilton's of the world seem pretty happy with their career choice, including me-, well I was until I just compared myself to Perez Hilton in a positive light, but besides that, is this such a negative career choice? The second is her friend Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) a successful-, um, brand (Shrugs?), who's apparently this hugely iconic modern-day Oprah-figure who's got the ideal life in the public eye. She's happily married to a former pro football player, Stewart (Mike Colter) and she's being given an award later, which is why is at Mardi Gras for a weekend, and also she's got a relationship book out on, I swear I'm not making this cliche up, "Having It All". Okay, this character archetype confuses me even more, 'cause why the hell is she so common in movies? The famous "Has-it-All" girl who, shock, doesn't have-it-all, which means her husband's having an affair, and a rather uninteresting one at that with Simone (Deborah Ayorinde) who is something called an "Instagram Celebrity". (Okay, normally I'd probably put something (Eye Roll) around here, but I'm literally eye-rolling through the whole review.) There other Posse member, is Lisa (Jada Pinkett-Smith) who also had a cheating husband and has now gotten divorced and is currently a single mom with two kids who hasn't had sex in a couple years and has become such a parental figure that the Posse's objective with her, is to get her laid. Okay, that's the beginning of a party-to-end-all-parties scenario that I can get behind, 'cause I know friends like that and I know Dina's who would set up stuff like that for those friends. Hell, I think I've been both those people on occasion before.

I think that's my main issue with this movie, I get that successful people need to party out too, but the reason these people are so successful in life or have these deficiencies in their pursuit of happiness is solely so that they can have these issues overcome later on. I wasn't the biggest fan of "The Hangover" but I did like that how after the partying and the hangover was over, nobody was exactly improved afterwards, some of the characters were incredibly worst off, including missing body parts in some cases. I don't want "Girls Trip" to emulate that either, but I don't feel like I'm observing relatable characters. I feel like I'm looking at the modern African-American celebrity version of real female characters, and I don't know, if you can sit through "The Real" and not want to drill a hole in your skull at how all those women seem like the fakest people you've ever seen, then maybe you'll appreciate "Girls Trip" more than I did. I'm still recommending it, 'cause it's a positive movie overall and there were parts that were genuinely funny to me. Also, I like this cast and these performances. Tiffany Haddish got most of the credit, eh, I guess she's funny, I'm kinda still on the fence on her character and how she's portraying this, but I did enjoy Jada Pinkett-Smith, who seems to find way more fun roles than her husband ever does anymore, and I like Regina Hall, and she's got assistant played by an underused Kate Walsh. Also, speaking of underused, Larenz Tate, man, is it nice to see him again. He's got a small role, where he was an old friend of the girls back in college, so he's aware of the thing that's going on, and he's a potential love interest to one of the girls who he's clearly been in love with from afar for years. He is just a delight to see, anytime really, and it's nice when occasionally pops up in this film. I haven't seen him show up in a feature film role in a long time. You know, I happened to rewatch "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" recently, and I guess he's been on TV a lot, but he does not get enough good film roles; I love seeing him light up the screen every time he's on.

I'm very mixed on this film; I think there's enough that makes me recommend it, barely,, I think I enjoy this film, in spite the issues, not with the execution necessarily, but with the framing, with the perspective that a movie like this is coming from. I feel like there's still a stronger, better story out there that needs to be told, about strong African-American older woman, having a raucous, debaucherous "Girls Night" out, that's a little more deeper than simply, "Quit your job", or "Get a divorce" or- okay, maybe not deeper than "Get Laid" on the other end,- I mean, this is a movie where some really horrible, funny,  sexual things happen to grapefruits and lamps, I'm not sure a tacked on message of happiness is the best choice to frame this in.


A GHOST STORY (2017) Director: David Lowery

★1/2

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Oh boy. Well, I'm not gonna make friends with this review. So funny story, within the same week, I read both a Richard Brody piece for the New Yorker as well as a Mike D'Angelo piece for the AV Club that discussed the reasoning behind the recent Oscar trend of splitting both Best Director and Best Picture, and ironically both of them, D'Angelo in much more detail, how they believed that David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" deserved Best Directing consideration, and even winning, even if it didn't or shouldn't get in anywhere else, including Best Picture. Then, that same week, a friend of mine who's a Hollywood producer whose name I won't reveal posted on her FB account her thoughts on the movie, and I won't go into  complete detail, but she called bullshit on the film and claimed that it was nothing more than an easy-to-make low-budget short film that's extended to an hour and a half. (I'm paraphrasing immensley btw, she was much harsher and in far greater detail.)

All that, was before I ever saw the "A Ghost Story", and now that I have, I can understand both perspectives, but honestly, I'm with my producer friend on this one. This movie, is kinda bullshitting us. It starts off, eh, normal enough, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are a couple, known only as C & M respectively in the credits, and then C dies suddenly, and then he arises as a white-sheeted ghost. It's a nice sheet, it's really well-draped, does amazing things for the body, white's a bit of a bland color, but it works here, I would've preferred a little skin, somewhere, just to get some relief,...- um-, sorry, I dipped into my Zac Posen impersonation there. Honestly there's just, not much else to talk about though, I'm literally just looking at a white sheet. Yes, this is that rare ghost story that is actually from the ghosts perspective. That's something you don't see that often. Off the top of my head, spoilers, "The Others", and-eh, well I guess there's always been Casper cartoons, which are just as disturbing and morbidly dark today...- What the hell were they thinking with him? Anyway, at first C, stays in the house with M, until M moves out, and he doesn't go after her because apparently, he is the house and therefore he stays waiting for her. I don't quite understand it. There's another ghost across the street that he sometimes talks to, we never find out who that is. We then see him periodically haunting the house as new residents come in and out, at one time the house is bulldozed and an office building goes up in it's place. At some other time, it seems like he goes back trapped in time as witnesses some pilgrims, I think?

I think I can read this, in that, basically the ghost isn't just trapped in a spiritual he's trapped in an ongoing time loop where he is continuously experiencing all parts of several time frames at once? At least that's my theory, so it's kind of the same theory that "Arrival" plays with, only in that film it made sense and was awesome. Here, I think it's mostly just a gimmick. I mean, there's greater emotion told through the metaphor of the ghost, I'm not even sure the love conquers all cliche works, even though we end with M arriving at the house and C's ghostly presents, in the way it's played out it's just as meaningless as all the over time periods and scenes, even if those scenes are interesting. This is the second film in a row after "Pete's Dragon" from Director David Lowery that I've outright hated and it's not that he's talented but I think he's over-obsessed with visuals over story, again that's not a bad thing, unless the visuals don't really add to the story. He first broke out a couple years ago with "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" a movie that some people liked more than I did even though I did like it. It was quite an interesting Malick-esque tale of a robber who's spent his time in prison only to run into new roadblocks when trying to reunite with his love. That movie however, I mostly remember for having a double-feature add-on on the DVD of an obscure previous film of Lowery's called "St. Nick" that I really didn't care for. The guy mostly seems to love magical-realism above anything else, but I think he loves soaking in it and doesn't know what to do about it. (Shane Carruth comes from this same modern school, who Lowery is often a co-editor for, and longtime readers will know my disdain for him, but honestly I think he has more vision than Lowery, even if it's mostly misguided)

There's an article on IMDB.com where he lists some movies that inspired him in making "A Ghost Story" and I certainly understood many of them, the phantoms from "Spirited Away" for instance,  "Under the Skin",yeah, there's a lot of that in this film, "Post Tenebras Lux" makes a lot of sense, although I hated that film, so does "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives". I think the interesting thing that delineates all those films he picks is that, they were doing a little more than, just following a sheet. They were way more ambitious than this film was and they felt like it. One movie that he doesn't list is the movie I thought about while watching "A Ghost Story" and that would be Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void", another movie where we follow a character from the moment he's alive to after his death when he becomes a spirit and looks out upon the living world until he rejoins it. Now, these films aren't trying for exactly the same thing, but when you compare the two, my friend's right. "A Ghost Story" just looks and feels like a bad student film version, and Lowery is better than that. I can't really see how I'm supposed to justify giving him credit for this when others who made movies about this subject have given it much more thought and had a much more intriguing perspective and way more technical craft and ambition in their storytelling in their work.


WHOSE STREETS? (2017) Director: Sabaah Folayan; Co-Director: Damon Davis

★★★★1/2




So, Missouri sucks. I'm sorry for not being unbias, and I have good friends and colleagues from Missouri, but frankly, this state sucks, and I'm not the only one saying so. Even the NAACP put out a travel ban on the state, something they never did before. So what gives? Why has the streets of, some place I've never heard of before named Ferguson, become the ultimate battleground for the Race War in the 21st Century in America? Okay, Missouri's not alone in this, but they do this stupid thing where, especially in the big cities, the people in the town, instead of forming suburbs they end up separating out a section of say St. Louis and forming their own town so as to, usually...- well, I'll just be blunt here, it's been done mostly to separate the town from African-Americans. If you've never heard of places like Black Jack, Missouri, I suggest seeking out the great documentary, "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" to look more into the actions that Missouri leaders and people have gone to segregate the African-American population. Ferguson at one point, seems to have been another one of these enclaves that eventually became it's own small town, only this one over time has been taken over by an African-American population. That said, the police in the town literally run the town like it's Falluja, and I'm not being facetious there. Tanks, military weaponry and tactics are all involved, as we see from the battlefield in "Whose Streets?" a documentary that takes us right into the middle of the protests. The more you're there and the more you see how corrupt the police are, how ingrained the corruption is, and how far they'll go to misinform the public about what's happening...- Honestly, an alternate title of this film could've been "Missouri Burning".

Personally, I'm most a fan of the guy whose job,-, well, I guess it became his job, but he's the one who's on the scene watching and photographing the police to make sure there aren't any more Michael Brown. He doesn't always succeed, but the town is always under attack, so they're always fighting back now. "Whose Streets" puts us right in the middle of the battle; it might be a neighborhood that looks like any other neighborhood in a city that looks like any other city, but that's why the fight for civil rights has to take place there. It is their streets, and they need to take them back.


KEDI (2017) Director: Cedya Torun

★1/2

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It's a 78 minute documentary about street cats in Istanbul. That's my review!

Look, I mentioned that I was sick and I am, and I'm cutting this short on purpose, but seriously, this was literally all that was. Maybe in another mindspace I could've enjoyed it the way I enjoyed say "Sweetgrass" which was about sheep, but- you know, that film was interesting. "Kedi" would've been good as a 30-minute short maybe on Youtube, who I'm displeased to find out was behind the funding of this, 'cause of course the top progenitor of cat videos are, but no, I can't pretend this was interesting enough to make a full movie out of. You like following cats around the city? No, of course you don't, you're human right? So, no, there's no reason you'd enjoy this film. The end.
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