Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MOVIE REVIEWS #161: "MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL", "STYX", "DEADPOOL 2", "ANT-MAN AND THE WASP", "CREED II", "BLOCKERS", "BEN IS BACK", "WHITNEY", "COLETTE", "AMERICAN ANIMALS", "BORG VS. MCENROE", "A SIMPLE FAVOR", "KUSAMA: INFINITY", "MONSTERS AND MEN", "OUTSIDE IN", "BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)", "DOWNSIZING", "TWENTY TWO", "MEAN DREAMS", "GLORY (Grozeva & Vaichanov)", "ALPHAGO" and "SPETTACOLO"!

I don't have too many thoughts on this year's Emmys. I didn't predict everything but I did pretty good with my predictions, "Fleabag" did better than I would've thought; I liked that show's first season a lot, but I'm unsure why it caught on now. Mostly, I think the results, especially regarding "Game of Thrones" dominance in that, the voting structure just doesn't work anymore, (and frankly it never did) because basically the only shows that win now are the shows that the Academy is actually watching, and not as much based on quality. And again, I don't think that's necessarily bad, but it shouldn't be the only factor, the same way only judging on quality and making voters watch every potential nominees and only having those voters vote, etc. etc. should be the only factor. Other than that, while I wish I was able to keep a closer eye on it this year, I'm kinda happy I missed most of it this year.

Anyway, I've been busy and I've been watching a lot of movies. I've also been hanging around the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas a bit lately; they're closing down soon for renovations now that Virgin has bought it out and I don't think it's gonna go back to being the Hard Rock as it is now. If you get a chance, you should go and visit it, it's one of the few cool places in Vegas that tourists and locals like and it's also like Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame museum. The history there is absolutely worth the visit.

Anyway, let's get to the reviews, we got a lot!


MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019) Director: F. Gary Gray

★1/2


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In another entry into the evergrowing popular Hollywood genre of FTSDDA, Franchises That Should’ve Died Decades Ago; why the hell is there another “Men in Black” movie? I mean, seriously this one doesn’t even have Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in it this time, which, wouldn’t have been a bad idea early on in the franchise to somehow try to extend the franchise outside it’s earliest parameters, but at this point it just feels like an obvious and desperate cash grab, which, it of course it. I mean there is talent here, F. Gary Gray’s proven to be a strong go-to director for several genres, including comedy; although special effects comedy sequels have a notoriously bad reputation. Hell, the first two “Men in Black” sequels have partially proven that, as did the movie that “Men in Black” gets the most comparisons with, the original “Ghostbusters” and its sequel.

Actually, the original “Men in Black” really should be put on the same pedestal as “Ghostbusters” come to think of it; they have a lot in common on top of being big-budget action comedies that somehow actually managed to be funny with both the dialogue and the special effects. “Ghostbusters” somehow has much more of a devoted fanbase, and in hindsight, I’m not exactly certain why, ‘cause it really is a bit of an overrated movie. Oh, pipe down, it is. (Its sequel is also better than it’s reputation, which is a big distinction from the “Men in Black” films which have only had sequels that range from the stupidly bad at it’s worst to the forgettably unnecessary at they’re best.) Anyway, I certainly didn’t see the outrage or disgust at the main characters being replaced by new actors in this one that “Ghostbusters” had for its reboot, which was otherwise decent if it wasn’t for the goddamn post-credits scene which damn-near turned it into fanboy garbage.

Anyway, the real problem with this fourth in the “Men in Black” franchise, this one titled “Men in Black: International” is that they should’ve done this years ago. On the surface this isn’t a bad movie, or a bad concept, but Will Smith turned out to be the biggest moneymaking superstar Hollywood’s ever seen and only now did they finally dare to trust that the concept itself with new characters could live on it’s own. Which is particularly weird considering this franchise has a successful run, in comic book form. Technically “Men in Black” is one of the first Marvel movies, as they bought, I believe it was Malibu Comics that owned the “Men in Black” trademark. (Somebody more knowledgeable can correct me if I’m off there, but I’m fairly certain that the movie were more tuned towards the tendencies of Smith and Jones then they were the original tone of the comics. The point I’m making is that there was always room there, perhaps for a television series to expand on this universe, or even in earlier films, but twenty+ years in, and now I’m supposed to just blindly accept “Men in Black” again? 

(Sigh) 

This franchise missed its opportunity.

I feel bad for that too, ‘cause I like what we get here. We get a smart young, precocious and ambitious probationary agent, Agent M (Tessa Thompson) who managed to find her way to “Men in Black” and immediately goes on her first mission in the London Branch where she’s teamed with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) a hero agent who’s fallen onto hard times personally, he’s basically a James Bond-type, but the depressing version, not the idyllic one. They get a simple assignment to protect Vungus (Kayvan Novak) a member of intergalactic royalty who’s on Earth for a day between his travels, but things go wrong. This time, it’s found out that there’s a mole in the London branch and M is apparently the one assigned to find them, all the while fighting off a pair of Alien Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) who come from a race that they haven’t found before, but may be apart of a Hive species of aliens that H along with his now boss Agent Hight T (Liam Neeson) fought years ago and defeated. The Hive, are basically this universe’s version of the Borg btw and now they’re after one of the Galaxy’s most powerful weapon that Vungus entrusted with M to keep safe. Meanwhile Riza (Rebecca Ferguson, looking like she belongs in a Katy Perry video) an alien weapons trader is also after the weapon and she happens to be H’s ex-girlfriend.

All this is technically fine, and there’s few chuckles here and there, Kumail Nunjani gets a decent joke in as Pawny, a small pawn that becomes M’s defender after his original queen was killed by the Twins (Who btw, they’re definitely knock-off from the Twins in “The Matrix Reloaded”, which did that much better; also that’s the best of “The Matrix” movies.) Mostly though, I was bored. I didn’t laugh all the time, the fun is dead.


The biggest thing the original “Men in Black” film had was that it was unique and fresh for it’s time. There wasn’t a lot of quick-witted comedy mixed with legit good special effects action, that was also just as comedic. There’s a bunch of movies that have basically tried to be “Men in Black” since then, most of which have not been as successful, but whereas the first “Men in Black” stood out from everything else, “Men in Black: International” might as well just be one of those “The Kingsmen” movies or something. (In fact, those two franchises could easily crossover each other, especially now that it’s established that “Men in Black” does have a global reach and not just a national one.) It’s a shame, they may not have invented this genre, but “Men in Black” I’d argue convinced the masses that they wanted more of it, and it certainly has inspired others over the years, especially in Hollywood. Everything that made “Men in Black” special, even taking out it’s stars, is just not special anymore, this movie isn’t special. It’s admittedly a fair attempt, but it’s just too late an attempt to matter now. 


STYX  (2019) Director: Wolfgang Fischler

★★★★

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Famously, Samuel Mudd was hung for treason for splinting up a leg of an injured man. That injured man was John Wilkes Booth and he had just killed President Abraham Lincoln, but Mudd was a doctor. In this country, at least it used to be before HMOs and everything else that completely fucked up our health care system, doctors saw someone injured, it was their duty to help them, no matter what. “Styx”, essentially has the same parable at the center of it’s core; what if you’re required to help those who are injured, but things could be worst if they do.

The movie’s named after the river in Hell, but it mostly takes place in the vast Ocean. Rike (Susanne Wolff) is a doctor, but she’s not in the hospital, or even in an ambulance at the moment. She’s aboard a sailing yacht, alone. She’s on vacation heading for an island known for being a scientific Darwinian haven. She’s an adept sailor and everything’s going as plan. Then, there’s a major vessel that she sees, and there’s dozens of people on board screaming for help. They’re African refugees. She can’t contact them, but she contacts for help. The help tells her to not go out to them, but she sees the refugees running and jumping into the Ocean, and most of them can’t swim. Something is clearly wrong, but her and her little yacht isn’t enough to help whatever the problem is. 

She’s assured help is coming, but it doesn’t seem to soon enough. Even when it’s around, other boats might get in trouble if they go out to retrieve refuges. Soon enough, one of the refugees is good enough to swim to Rike, barely. The young boy named Kingsley (Gedion Douer Wekesa) isn’t that she go out and help after she’s nursed him enough to survive his near-drowning.

The movie has been compared to JC Chandor’s “All is Lost”; that’s a movie I loved that was a one-man show for Robert Redford as he played a solo sailor in the Indian Ocean struggling to survive. “Styx” isn’t that dire, or even that silent despite a noticeable lack of a film score. It’s shot amazingly, there are some sequences where I wonder how Director Wolfgang Fischer managed to get those shots. It's the first film of his I've seen and I'm not familiar with his previous feature-length directorial effort "What You Don't See", which he made a decade ago, but this feels like a distinctive and personal work of his. Wolff’s performance is striking. I don’t think it’s as good as “All is Lost” since that was pure man vs. nature conflict, “Styx” is more parable. It’s a fascinating and good one, but it’s also a generic one. Who are these refugees for instance? What country are they from? I don’t know, and we don’t learn. They’re just refugees in the Ocean? They could be anybody. That’s the point, but the fact that they are refugees perhaps shifts certain peoples’ behavior? I’m just saying that there’s minor issues with “Styx” that prevents it from being great, but it’s still very impressive, one of the first films from 2019 that I’m genuinely excited by.



DEADPOOL 2   (2018)  Director: David Leitch

★★★

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I recalled liking the original “Deadpool” quite a bit when it first came out. It was different and refreshing, especially from a Marvel movie, it clearly stood out. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) the cancer-ridden mutant vigilante who can’t die, a mutant who was a mutant by force instead of by nature, a rarity in the X-Men universe, was funny, sharp, strange and did better than most when it comes to satirizing and circumventing the conventions of the superhero genre. It was the same kind of blast of pop culture euphoria I felt when the first “Shrek” movie hit. Some might argue that “Shrek”, especially after a few sequels, lost that insouciant touch. I can’t necessarily disagree with that regarding “Shrek” and I fear the same thing will happen if “Deadpool” continues on any longer then this film, but that said, I still enjoyed it.

This time, like the last, Deadpool wants to die. Unfortunately, this comes after he loses his wife Vanessa Morena Baccharin) after she gets killed because, he’s Deadpool, and people superhero vigilantes love get killed. Anyway, this ends him at the X-Men Academy place where most of the X-Men don’t want to deal with him. Colassus (Stefan Kapcic) still reluctantly keeps him along as does Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) are still trying, along with Negasonic’s girlfriend Yukio (Shioli Kutsana) they even allow Deadpool to be part of the X-Men, as a trainee, and he accepts as a way to deal with his latest bout of grief, which is a better option then sleeping on a bunch of gas tanks that are lit on fire.

He does try to befriend a trouble young mutant named Firefist (Julian Dennison) who’s life is under threat by a time traveling missionary named Cable (Josh Brolin does his best John Cena, wait-, or is it John Cena doing his best Josh Brolin? I really couldn’t tell for most of the film.). Deadpool decides to form a makeshift family he calls the X-Force, because he doesn’t like how sexist “X-Men” is, out of some rejected or otherwise untrained mutants. The only big one that comes out of this group surviving is Domino (Zazie Beets) who’s mutant power, and I’m not making this up, is that she’s, well, lucky.

Like the first “Deadpool”, the movie is almost way too insider and self-aware, this time it sorta got on my nerves here. I think they were trying for something akin to “22 Jump Street” but, I felt like it just became too much eye candy and not enough reason to actually find Deadpool interesting anymore, which the whole first movie had in spades. The movie has a different director, David Leitch, the guy behind the John Wick movies, most of which I've found utterly forgettable, and I feel like that with this film too, but the writers are from the original film, and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were the guys behind "Zombieland" which is one of my favorite comedies in recent years, so, this weird combination is giving me a very conflicted review.

“Deadpool 2” isn’t necessarily a safer sequel but I think it’s got its own head up it’s ass. I don’t hate it, but the longer after I watch it that I think about it, the less interesting it becomes as a narrative.


ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) Director: Peyton Reed

★★1/2

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Okay, first things first, I’m sticking with my, “Knock half-a-star off for a stupid post-credits scene thing here, although if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure I could assess “Ant-Man and the Wasp” accurately if I wanted to now that I’ve gotten to “Avengers: Endgame” and yes, I will be talking about that movie more in the future, but yeah, whatever interest or passion I used to once have in the MCU, which was minimal to start with, it’s basically gone. Just to recap, I did like the first “Ant-Man” fine, not thinking much of it as anything special, and I think I kinda just feel the same way with this one. If “Deadpool” is the raunchy R-rated comedy of the Marvel Universe, this is the TGIF sitcom of the universe. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that something that, at times is funny, but, disposable, forgettable.

In this one, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still Ant-Man, working for Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) when needed for his studies on quantum molecules, or something like that, but is also still on house arrest and is constantly quarreling with agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). However, Pym and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who has her own suit and costume, have decided to seek out some old plans and try to find their long last mother, the original Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), who got lost in the depths of the quantum realm years earlier. I think,-, I got lost in the quantum mechanics lingo in these movies. Basically, years ago, she got shrunk to such a small level in order to penetrate a runaway rocket and block the explosion device from the inside that they thought it wasn’t possible to go and find her afterwards, but now that Lang has pulled it off, they’re determined to try and find her. I’m amazed they think she survived thirty years in that, but Ant-Man in particular likes to handcuff science to a wall clobber it repeatedly with a billy club.

Meanwhile, the Feds are after them for a few things, most notably working with Scott Lang, but also, Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) an underground weapons and technology trader who wants to get his hands on Hank’s technology, as well as Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) the son of a former co-worker of Pym who went out on his own after a disagreement and she suffered from the effects of her father’s Elihas’s (Michael Cerveris) work. She now is working with Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) a former S.H.I.E.L.D. to hope heal her life-threatening injuries, if possible, but not at a cost of sacrificing others.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp”, is underwhelming. Not a bad movie necessarily, but just there. Maybe part of this is that I’m just too jaded to even really even try to appreciate the MCU, but while I think they did a good job trying to advance the story, I think “Ant-Man”’s potential narrative are fairly limited. I’m not sure they can get a third feature focusing on him, and I’m not sure I want one at this point. I don’t blame anybody for it, they’re all trying, but when you stretch out over so many friggin’ superheroes, even some otherwise interesting ones would fall by the wayside and “Ant-Man”, well, I think Paul Rudd does a lot, and Michael Pena in particularly has some great character moments, but…- this might not be one of the worst MCU films, but it’s one of the most forgettable, and that’s almost as bad. Almost….


CREED II (2018) Director: Steven Caple, Jr.

★★★

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Oh boy. I was already a bit iffy going into “Creed II”, well, for a few reasons. One being that Ryan Coogler is no longer writing and directing, and even more suspect is that Sylvester Stallone has gone back into his screenwriter cap for this one, and knowing already that we were going into, admittedly interesting, obvious and bizarrely timely-once-again, territory with him going back into the Ivan Drago (Drago Lundgren) being one of the villains in this film, and already a few minutes, it’s mentioned that Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. Which, is a bit weird considering that I swore he was a middleweight last movie. Well, he might’ve been a Light Heavyweight,- (Okay, confirmed, light heavyweight) but he wasn’t a heavyweight. I mean, it’s not unprecedented for a great fighter to go up in weight class for the heavyweight title, (Heavyweight means no weight requirements btw.) but light heavyweight to heavyweight in this day and age, maybe? I believe that last happened when Roy Jones, Jr. beat Chris Byrd, but even that was like twenty years ago now, and Chris Byrd was light for a heavyweight champ at that point who often threatened to go back down to cruiserweight.

Adonis also apparently has youth on his side in winning the Heavyweight Title, which sounds weird ‘cause I’m pretty sure he was thirty in the last movie, which is pretty old for a young boxer, and it’s seven fights later. I mean, granted the Klitschko Brothers shared those heavyweight titles until well into their forties, but-um,- I’m starting to wonder if these filmmakers even watched “Creed” to be honest. I was hoping that this wouldn’t be “Creed II: Rocky IV Part II," but-eh….

Actually, why don’t we talk about “Rocky IV” for a second. Now, having had most of my family from the South Philly/South Jersey area, “Rocky” has an important place in my heart and mind. The whole franchise I’ve seen several times, and the first one in particular is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s not, “favorite” necessarily, it’s almost ingrained in my DNA; the story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is just there with me. It’s beyond just a personal preference. I get the same feeling when I hear “Born to Run” on the radio, or I eat a good Philly Cheesesteak, it’s just something that apart of me. That said, “Rocky IV” is the worst of the films. I know, some people think “Rocky V” is worst, um…- yeah, I gotta disagree there; I liked “Rocky V” fine, but “Rocky IV” is just goofy. I’ve seen all the movies, including “Creed” dozens of times now, but “Rocky IV”, is the one where I genuinely just stop believing he can actually win those fights. Also no fight can ever be that ridiculously violent and have both men survive. The thing is, it’s still a beloved cult classic and people still watch it in the franchise and mostly enjoyably watch it, and that’s because that while it’s not a good movie, it isn’t a bad story. You take out the dopey bits and the “America, Fuck Yeah!” ‘80sness of the narrative, the idea that a foreign, roided up monster would kill Apollo Creed, Rocky’s former rival-turned-best friend, enticing Rocky to come out of a long retirement, for no money, to defend his friend’s honor on his own soil; that’s actually quite a good narrative. “Rocky IV”’s failure has always been mainly in it’s execution; that’s why even the lesser of these movies have hung around as long as they have, the stories are good; it’s the storytelling that’s sometimes been iffy, and boy was it iffy with that one.

At least in this one, Ivan Drago has a little more dialogue and he talks a little more like a human these days, when he’s allowed to, which still takes like 20+ minutes into the movie, after he’d already been in four of five scenes. (Oh yeah, um, the reason that Drago was so mute in “Rocky IV” wasn’t to make him more menacing, it was because Stallone was dating Bridgette Nielsen at the time, so she got the dialogue instead of him. Not that Dolph Lundgren is the greatest linguist or anything, but you know, neither is Stallone, so….) His son Viktor (Florian “Big Nasty” Montanieu) has a little more dialogue, but most of the movie was just as quiet. I prefer this movie’s Ivan Drago. He seems like the aged old muscular but knowledgeable retired Russian athlete that I’d expect from him, perhaps even moreso, plus he seems to have gotten more emotional levels than he had before. His son however is Ukrainian which was confusing the hell out of me for a bit; in fact the movie’s geopolitical standing in the movie’s universe is actually a wee bit bizarre to be honest. Let’s just say that I don’t think Ivan is as political as those Khlitchkos are.

That’s not the big problem though. Mainly the issue is that the movie is way too predictable, story wise. The execution, compared to “Rocky IV” is much better, but definitely feels like a few people were asleep at the wheel compared to “Creed” though. Obviously, the Drago vs. Creed stuff comes up, but I even saw Bianca (Tessa Thompson) having a baby, ahead of time. Hell, even Many Jane (Phylicia Rashad) saw it. (I’m not certain that Rocky of all people saying to Adonis that his kid being born would be the best day of his life makes sense; that was a particularly bad day for Rocky if I remember correctly.) There’s a lot of strangeness to be honest here. Adonis fighting a championship fight over a bet involving a car, the fact that for the second fight with Drago, which is in Russia, Rocky takes Adonis to train for the fight in-, uh, Death Valley?

Okay points for being unpredictable there. I also like the ending, which despite some questionable choices by Ivan, makes a lot of sense in that it actually brings together the story of all four men really well, better than the movie probably deserves actually. Overall, I guess I like “Creed II”. It definitely feels like contractually-obligated arbitrary sequel, but at least it was knowledgeable enough to know where to go for a sequel. I guess; I mean it obviously took the easiest route to a sequel, but they added enough tweaks to it to add levels to the intrigue at least, even if I would’ve preferred they focused more attention to some of those facets more than the ones they did focus on. I don’t know if there will be a “Creed III”, and I’m not sure where they would go with that, so I guess I’m curious in that regard. Still though, I feel disappointed that this became more of a Rocky movie than a second “Creed”. That felt like and was an original and essential tale, “Creed II” doesn’t, and that’s its biggest disappointment.


BLOCKERS (2018) Director: Kay Cannon

★★★


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I think I’ve mentioned before that I, and most of my high school graduation class, really didn’t do the Prom thing. And I do specifically mean my graduating class, ‘cause I don’t think it spread to the year before or two or the year after or two; I don’t know what it was exactly but my class in particular had, and still has to some degree, has a real rebellious streak in it when it comes to participating in certain obligatory rituals. Hell, our ten year reunion event actually had a rebellion that included somebody setting up an alternative ten-year reunion gathering, for those who didn’t want to go to the supposed main reunion that was set up but still wanted to catch up. I’ve never regretted missing the Prom the way some in my family have said that they regretted missing their own, perhaps if it was as elaborately put together an event like the ones set up in most of the movies I see about it, including “Blockers”, and if I went to a high school that was more culturally rich, so much so that it would make going to an event like a prom seem more rewarding, I might feel differently about that.

That said, regardless of the Prom or not, I never liked the idea of sex pacts, but “Blockers” actually got me thinking about them a bit more positively. That’s another plot device that comes up in these losing your virginity comedies. I guess my generation’s version of this was “American Pie”, which I never honestly liked to begin with. I mean, some of the sequels to that film are actually somewhat decent, but that was supposedly the big losing your virginity comedy of the time and they kept trying to turn it into “Porky’s” or something, which also is only good for like, maybe two scenes and the rest of it is just stupid. Actually, I generally don’t like most of these movies. Maybe I just can’t relate or don’t want to relate to them on a teenage level, but I also think there’s a shallowness involved in them. Most of them think of sex as some kind of object to obtain, even the best ones that seem to be about teenage love, and honestly I think the problem I have with these films is that the teenagers are usually so shallow and dumb, one-dimensional characters that I just don’t feel like being around these dick-for-brains assholes long enough to care about their great epic quests to get laid. I mean, all of my best friends had more sex, alcohol and drugs in high school than I have ever had, and yet, I never felt like that was all they thought about or that that was their singular superobjective in life; even the ones who had way too much of one or all of those things, there was more to that then them.

But that’s kinda what’s making me rethink it; the girls in the movie aren’t entirely wrong, losing one’s virginity is such a dumb societal construct that it’s probably a decent idea to just pick a date and time and someone and just get the damn thing over with so you can move onto other things, and you know what, if that’s the case, then yeah, I guess prom night’s as good a night as any, and as long as you’re not like those idiot teenagers who all got together to get pregnant at the same time, like the ones in “17 Girls”, then yeah, I guess I’m okay with sex pacts for high school. Hell, I think it’s promote it if I was a high school administrator or something. Provide condoms, rooms if the school can afford it; it high schools are actually trying to set us up for the real world, then I would be advising teenagers to be setting up sex pacts with each other, maybe make it a whole special day with an assembly to promote it as well…-

I’m getting a bit track off here; didn’t I have to review?  Right, “Blockers”. Anyway, it’s prom night and three lifelong best friends, Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Vishwanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) decide that on this Prom night, they’re going to lose their virginity with their respective dates, Austin (Graham Phillips), Connor (Miles Robbins) and Chad (Jimmy Bellinger). Their parents find out about the plan and decide to, well, block them from doing such a rash decision. Which again, the more I think about it, the less and less rash it seems, but they don’t entirely know that yet. Julie’s mother Lisa, (Leslie Mann) is a single mom who’s particularly close with her daughter and any sense of losing her is scary, and this, on top of her daughter going to college across country with her boyfriend brings back some painful memories. Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena) is particularly emotional and yet overly competitive, and doesn’t trust Sam, who’s nicknamed “The Chef” for, reasons, and Kayla is definitely the most willing when it comes to spending Prom on the drugged and drunked up road, which is worrying despite her being physically fit to pull it off. Sam is the most reluctant to join the pact, and while her father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) is more-or-less okay with her losing her virginity at prom, he’s not thrilled about her losing it to Chad, because he suspects, correctly, that Sam is a lesbian. Despite him not being as present in her life since divorcing her mother Brenda (June Diane Raphael), especially since she got remarried to Frank (Hannibal Burress), he knows his daughter before she’s even out to herself yet. She’s secretly got a crush on Marcie (Saraya Blue) a literal, cape-wearing out lesbian at school who seems to float in and out around her like a Superhero to a Lois Lane whenever she’s in trouble, but still isn’t entirely sure it’s a girlcrush or if she’s gay, so she wants to test it with Chad that night. Apparently, nobody told her about the appeal in the community that being a gold star lesbian can bring, but she is a bit awkward and strange, just like her father, and they apparently share much the same porn fetishes as well.

Anyway, it’s a decent idea for a comedy, as the parents try to follow their kids around Prom night, as they go from the official prom to the several after parties, trying to track their daughters with their phones as both trios end up leaving trails of destruction and chaos in their path. (Note to future filmmakers: Please stop showing me John Cena’s ass; I appreciate his willingness to go to great lengths for a project, and he’s pretty funny in this, as everybody is, but seriously, I’ve seen enough.) The movie does feel a little bit like they didn’t quite know where to go with the comedy bits; for instance a bit with Austin’s parents, Ron and Cathy (Gary Cole and Gina Gershon) that’s funny, but kinda just ends; it was also a bit repetitive. There’s also a lot of comedic threads that feel like they might’ve went longer on the page, but got cut short in the movie. The joke that the limo driver Rudy (Colton Nunn) is excessively determined to make sure the kids have a good time, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Comically, the movie feels like a mixed bag, despite the good performances by everyone. Overall I liked it, because I liked the message and the performances. Leslie Mann in particular, seems to have this strange, soft-spoken emotional mess part nailed so much that she almost be named for it at this point. I like the kid actors too though; I wouldn’t be shocked to see them evolve into other roles. None of them seem familiar to me offhand, but I liked how they seemed to mimic their parents’ behaviors well. “Blockers” is a  probably more of a cute concept for a comedy then a comedy, but I laughed more-than-enough, and I certainly prefer that sex pact idea from a parents perspective than I do from the kids.


BEN IS BACK (2018) Director: Peter Hedges

★★★

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There’s a lot of movies about addicts. About being an addict, about being on whatever they’re addicted to, about trying to get sober from their addictions, about being in the throes of their addictions, etc. etc., and there’s also quite a few movies out there about addicts coming back home after “recovering” from their addictions, usually after rehab. “Ben is Back” is one of the latter, and those I feel are fairly difficult to make. Conceptually, they’re a challenge, the main conflict in most of them, is character vs. self, it’s a battle of their inner demons, the external enemies to that conflict however, the society and world at large, or their personal familiar world, act not as antagonist, but as stimuli that the main character must overcome or survive. Of course, being an addict, especially after being so severely addicted that you were sent away because of it, to get clean, means that you probably hurt a lot of people, particularly those closest to you. So that stimuli that might’ve seemed innocuous before, it’s all become more and more potent ever since; there’s a reason it’s called, “triggering.”

“Ben is Back” is Peter Hedges’s film about Ben (Lucas Hedges), a 19-year-old addict, who unexpectedly comes back home for Christmas. He’s still heavily in rehab and his sponsor has told him not to go back home, but he does. His family is trying to deal with it. His younger siblings that his mother Holly (Julia Roberts) had with her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are excited to see him. His closest sibling Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is more standoffish and everybody has their struggles adapting to the situation. Ben is not to be trusted in the house, Ben is not allowed to be alone at any point, etc. etc. They love him, but whatever he’s done to them in the past has traumatized the family members old enough to understand that they should be careful even with the idea of Ben even being around them anymore, much less actually being there. That said, they do go on with him. They go to the church play where his siblings are in, they go shopping with Ben, when Ben’s in need of a meeting, they find an AA meeting and yes, his mother sits in with him on the meeting. Everywhere Ben seems to go, he finds his past actions haunting him. Some are more flippant, like bad jokes that the family tells about his drug use, it’s not to embarrass or humiliate him intentionally, I think it’s more, their own selves trying to cope and deal with it. It must be difficult having an addict for a brother, or a son. That’s just the ones who love him; the ones who have damn good reasons to want to hurt him are another matter, and those people are always around as well.

I’ve never been a drug user myself, so I’m not gonna pretend expertise here, but, from what I do know and have experienced is that people who are users seem to have firsthand knowledge of where they can get drugs and where to find them more than others. It’s not even the need to know everyone around them like Ben seems to happen to, since it’s his home and neighborhood, they can see the world differently; like they’re zoned in on certain details and things that personally I would probably be blind to. The movie I think of most that comes to mind with this is Laurie Collyer’s underrated “Sherrybaby” where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s an addict out of prison who’s regular life and surroundings seems almost the opposite of the world we’d expect someone with her addiction, in her case, heroine, would surround herself with. Yet, when she falls off the wagon, she knows exactly where to go and to whom, it’s like she sees a drug store that’s not even there.

Ben, has pissed too many people off, and despite several other character in this film, the movie is essentially just a two-hander with Hedges and Roberts playing mother and son as they both struggle with this brief involvement and reunion they find themselves in. At one point, Ben being back in town, leads to the family getting hurt and they both go out deep into his hidden past in order to make things right, if they can trust each other to do so. Or more precisely, Holly being able to trust Ben, and Ben trying to trust himself to not give into temptation, despite everything being a trigger. It’s interesting that his addiction mostly seemed to be over-the-counter medicine in this case, which evolved from there; interesting in that it’s probably just accurate. OxyContin addiction is the new plague that we’re really only beginning to understand and fight our way through, but even still, we’re a long way to go in that regard.

You’ll notice that I haven’t given much of in terms of whether or not I think the movie is any good; in fact, as of this moment, I’m really not sure what kind of star rating to even give the movie, and I’m debating it myself actually. It’s weird, normally I like movies like this; the aforementioned “Sherrybaby” made my Ten Best List, and the other movie that comes to mind with this film is Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” in which Anne Hathaway plays an addict who’s released from her rehab temporarily to go to a family member’s wedding, and while that character actually does a decent job staying sober, it’s everyone else’s reaction to her struggling with the fact that she is sober and still a pain in everyone’s ass that’s the struggle. Still, that movie was more-or-less played for tragicomic effect. “Sherrybaby” was more serious, but it also seemed more subdued and nuanced, and in both cases, it was the main character who seemed to be the cause or the center of the chaos that surrounded them, either intentionally or inadvertently, but more often intentionally. “Ben is Back” is somewhere in between those films, and I can’t figure out where exactly. His presence does uplift everything, and things happen, but is he intentionally anything that other than the fact that he’s present at all? This is hard to say.

In that respects, I guess it’s more a movie about the mother who’s got this uncontrollable time bomb of an addict son she’s trying to deal with, and all the baggage that that entails. All the guilt, the pain, the mistakes she made, or not stopping the ones that she should’ve seen coming, etc. etc.

I guess my issue with “Ben is Back” is that it’s trying desperately hard to fit too much of everything into one movie. There’s strong performances, but there’s seems to be a little too much. It’s not just about Ben, it’s about his family, but not just about his family, about what he did to them and others, but not just what he did to them, it’s how they’ve coped with it or not, but then there’s the past catching up to him, and now there’s a long thriller where they’re looking for something that was taken from them, because of Ben’s past, because Ben is back, because someone from Ben’s past, found out that Ben is back, and told others that Ben is back, and…. This movie seems to be a snake that’s eating its own tail at times, and I’m not sure why it has to be, exactly. I guess, it makes the movie a bit unpredictable, but at what cost. We’ve already got enough tension and drama with just the idea that, “Is Ben going to fall off the wagon, or not?” that didn’t exactly need a thriller subplot to make compelling. You could’ve had all this and still had the fact that the past haunts Ben and the discovery aspects of his actions and the cross-angles of his and his mother’s relationships with everyone, that alone would make a decent movie. Trying to shove in too much more, kinda loses the theme and the consistency. For instance, at one point, Holly is determined to make sure that the family dog is there for Christmas morning, after he’s temporarily missing, and then, just a scene or two later, she’s thinking that it’s not important and not something that’s essential. This isn’t so much, inner conflict, or struggle as it is, just, not putting enough action in between those scenes to justify such a swift change of thoughts and emotions, and it’s not just that scene or that character, there’s a lot of this back-and-forth trust/mistrust/trust again stuff going on with several characters. It’s acted well enough that the movie kinda gets away with it, but it still feels like jet lag trying to follow everyone’s objectives intently.

I guess I’m recommending it, ‘cause while I think everyone’s objective for their actions seem questionable, the superobjectives they have, seem consistent. That said, I did struggle with this movie. Perhaps that’s the idea, to come at me with several different conflicting stimuli to make the audience understand the struggle that an addict goes through every day. I guess if that’s the intent, it worked, after trying to sort out my thoughts on the movie, I certainly feel like I would prefer something to take the edge off, but-eh, well, we know where that path leads.


WHITNEY (2018) Director: Kevin MacDonald

★★★★★





I’m sure there’s been several Whitney Houston biodocs made in the years prior to and following her passing. It’s noted that “Whitney”, Kevin McDonald’s latest music biodocumuentary, he had previously made “Marley”, which I absolutely loved among other great documentaries in recent years, was made in association of her estate. Says so right on the cover of the DVD, and I could’ve figured that just based on how he got so many of Houston’s family members and rights to her music, including her mother, legendary backup and gospel singer Cissy Houston to be interviewed for the film. That said, I’m not entirely certain that’s the greatest perspective I want, naturally they’re going to be more protective of her than not, but at least we’re told right away from a bias perspective.
Although that doesn’t calm me down much, ‘cause I’ve never particularly been big on Whitney Houston. There’s definitely a few songs of hers I like, but honestly I don’t particularly care for most of her songs. I guess I shouldn’t hold that against her, she wasn’t what I would consider a songwriter per se, which, yeah, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a singer-songwriter guy, so that always was gonna be a slight knock from me, but for somebody who was, basically just a voice; I was never that into her voice. Especially when it’s just holding a goddamn note for hours. (Sigh)

I’ll get this out of the way too, I never watched “The Bodyguard”, still haven’t, partly because I think she basically ruined that Dolly Parton song. I think that’s my big issue with her really, it’s that she supposedly is this great vocalist, which she was, she could sing in that way that “American Idol” judges go gaga over, but I always thought she was a questionable interpreter of the music she was given. Now she wasn’t always given the greatest songs to begin with and sometimes she did probably make them as good as they could’ve been, especially a lot of her early pop dance songs, which I usually think of as her best work, but-it’s mentioned that she was often portrayed as just, “the singer with the spotlight”, which is true. Literally and figuratively, she wasn’t a dancer really, she could be a model or actress occasionally but that was never a main objective for her. Her main thing was that you’d put her on stage, give her a mike and put a spotlight on her and she’d blow the roof off. Sometimes, I don’t think blowing the roof was what’s best for her songs though. “I Will Always Love You” is the perfect example, who the hell reflects back on a past love that you’re leaving to go somewhere else by screaming your vocal cords out like that?! You’re saying goodbye forever, not singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl!? (Although she famously did that too, and she was good there; I still prefer Marvin Gaye’s version though.)

I don’t know, I might be harder on that song, ‘cause I still remember when it ruled the airwaves for like six straight months or however long it was number one, but it’s true that I always thought there was something that unnerved me about Whitney Houston, for me; after watching the documentary though; I think I can finally pinpoint what really frustrated me about her. It’s the way they manufactured and packaged her. Houston was always portrayed, from the beginning as this, perfect soul with the voice of god. An old soul from the innocent young woman, kinda like Adele is now, except I actually believe it with her. I never bought it from Whitney, and it’s probably because it was so manufactured. Clive Davis at Arista Records is usually the one credited with that, but this film makes it clear that that he had a minor role at best in this and her whole family were really the ones to blame here. Cissy Houston kept Whitney as a backup singer, probably longer than she should’ve been, teaching her to sing music that would last longer than the modern fads of pop stars that were younger and better. I think that strategy worked, but it also took a lot of the character out of her songs that might’ve helped a lot of them, especially that run of power ballads that never seemed to end. Her whole family was controlling and powerhungry though. Her father was a corrupt official in the Ken Gibson Newark mayoral office, other members of her family had some control over her life, and they tried to push out people who they read as a threat to that power. Including Robyn Crawford, who, during the time when the tabloids were linking her to Eddie Murphy and Randall Cunningham among others, which were true, she was apparently so fascinated with sex, a friend of her bought her a vibrator to keep her busy, (I’ve had to buy that gift for a similar female friend myself, so… sigh) but also with Robyn Crawford, a lesbian that she did seem to have an affair with, and who her family tried to pay a hitman to take out! Her father even sued Whitney for compensation at one point, which was ballsy since he and a few others were clearly stealing from her to begin with.

They also were the ones who got her into drugs, mostly her brothers, and this was long before she was ever famous, so I think we all owe Bobby Brown an apology for that assumption and narrative. I mean, Bobby Brown has his own issues, especially after her fame devoured his after “The Bodyguard” came out, but, her “estate” and “family”, they at least come out pretty lousy in this movie. Basically, Whitney seemed to be their mealticket, and honestly, I don't think there’s anyhing inherently wrong with that, Whitney herself was generous to a fault but it did lead to her, especially in her early years having her career, controlled way too much. Going with Bobby Brown wasn’t so much a rebellion against her upstanding family, but more an inevitable side effect of being with her family so much that she’d end up with someone who was so similar to them. Despite the fame in her family, she did grow up in or near the ghetto street of Newark, New Jersey. And her family were hustlers and addicts, and one pedophile who apparently did abuse Whitney and at least one of her brothers when they would stay over at her place while her mother was touring somewhere. (I audibly gasped when they revealed who it was btw, ‘cause it did shock me.)

Adding all this up, it’s actually difficult to tell who “The Real Whitney” was, if there ever was one, and I’m not alone there. It’s hard to imagine this now, but at one point she was booed at the Soul Train Awards for seeming too white in her music, Rev. Al Sharpton organized protests against her calling her “Whitey Houston”. That’s admittedly a little too ridiculous and far at that time, and now, but I do get it; she never publicly at least, seemed like a real person with real flaws or emotions.
I think that’s why when she got busted with drugs, it made such a big deal; it’s denifitely  the most notorious celebrity drug bust that I remember. The jokes, the Diane Sawyer interview, the scramble to sorta repair her image, a disastrous comeback tour attempt, all of which made her seem crazier and more of a junkie than ever. And yet, I don’t want to think of her that way, ‘cause she was so talented; this manic addict can’t be the “Real Whitney” as much as the R&B princess image was, right?!

One of the interviewees explained that she believed Whitney was ultimately “Trying to find herself”, and that seems distressingly accurate. Somebody who gets pushed and trained into these idyllic images so much, especially when even at it’s earliest, it really was a false image,…- well, let’s put it this way. At one point it’s said that she would often go to see Michael Jackson, or he would go see her in her hotel room, and they wouldn’t say anything to each other, they would just hang out together quietly with each other. They didn’t say much to each other, they just knew what the other went through. Well, that’s a little disturbing considering some of Michael’s transgressions that I betcha Whitney wouldn’t have approved of, but I do understand their kinship however.

After watching “Whitney” I do feel sorry for her, empathetic that she happened to be so gifted and talented and became so famous despite for the most part, her music and career were probably never placed in the right hands or with people who knew how to take care of it and her, and those who did like Robyn Crawford, were eventually shunned away. I feel sorry that she really wasn’t able to figure out who she could’ve been for herself, or if she did, she never was able to find a best version of herself and stick at it for a long enough time. I feel particularly sad for her late daughter Bobbi Christina, who passed a few years after her mother, in a disturbing similar manner; she really never had a chance that poor thing. Whether it was made by her Estate or with their permission, this certainly is the most rounded and probably the closest we’ll ever get to really getting down to the bottom of Whitney Houston was, in fact it probably comes closer to answering that question then Whitney herself ever got. Kevin McDonald’s filmmaking and directing are great as always; he’s been under-the-radar making some of the best and often most important and fascinating documentaries for a few years now and “Whitney” despite my ambivalence is right up there along with “Marley” or “Life in a Day” as his most powerful.

I have one other strange thought that’s haunting me. Bobby Brown was interviewed, although he refused to talk about Whitney’s drug use, which he claimed wasn’t what killed her. In his defense, he was described by her brothers as a “lightweight” when it comes to drugs, which I believe. The drugs were in her system though, and she did drown. One of the last shots is a POV steadicam of going down the hallway of the Beverly Hilton hotel and turning into the bathroom where she was found, and, well, I could help thinking that for someone who was a tall five foot seven and was found floating in water that had fallen ankle deep up to the floor, that seemed like a really tiny bathtub.


COLETTE (2018) Director: Wash Westmoreland

★★★


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Hmm. So, as someone who’s been a ghost on occasion, “Colette” offers an intriguing question of what it actually means to be a writer.

I’ll ask it myself, what is a writer? Is it somebody who just writes all the time? I mean, I do that, but does that make me a writer? Does somebody actually have to sit down and write in order to be the author of a work. I’d argue that, no, they don’t. As somebody who actually has ghostwritten for others, I can tell you that while I may put something on my resume, or maybe even given credit as having written something, that doesn’t mean that I consider myself the creator or author of the work. I am a writer, no doubt, but I couldn’t have come up with that. There are famous artists and creators who don’t actually have their hands on the artwork they create as well, but they do produce the work. It’s their art, if their idea for the art, their name’s on the art, the art wouldn’t have gotten made if it wasn’t for them. You can argue, in my mind, that a writer doesn’t have to have literally written.

Here’s the issue though, what if they’re taking credit for what you’ve written? You see, when I’ve ghosted, I’m taking their ideas and essentially just shaping, forming them into a narrative, into a screenplay or story that they’re looking for. They’ve got the idea, they just don’t have the ability; to me, that’s clearly not my own work no matter how distinctively mine I make it (Or don’t make it). It’s something else, one can say, when it’s your idea and vision as opposed to whoever’s taking the credit for it. This is an idea that’s come up a lot in recent movies. Off the top of my head, Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes”, even more recently, “The Wife”, and now a third film in recent years about a female artist who’s work was credited to a male writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle “Colette” (Keira Knightley), the author of the Claudine novels.

What are the Claudine novels? Well, to be honest, I hadn’t heard of them until now, but apparently, they were a popular series of French novels written by “Willy” (Dominic West) the pen name of a famous flamboyant and extravagant writer. The kind of character who shows off his wealth as he salaciously spends and sleeps his way through the tail end of Belle Epoque days of Paris in the 1890s. He married Gabrielle, a daughter of an old army buddy, and moved her from the countryside of Burgundy to this era of Parisian. Willy is more well-known for his reviews, some short stories, and occasionally as a novelist, and he can write. The guy however, usually doesn’t. He often incorporates ghostwriters for all his work and then edits and corrects his work for later. Sometimes he’s coming up with what they write, other times not though, and he just puts his name on them.

Colette actually begins writing for him as well after they’re married. Usually letters, but then she’s encouraged to write the Claudine novels based on her own experience. At first, he doesn’t appreciate them, but in a pinch of desperation after several failures, they begin working on it again, and it becomes a major hit, and the requests for more begins to pile in. It’s hard to explain, it’s not an open secret necessarily that Colette is the real author, but it’s often easy to insinuate that she is the real inspiration, and that somehow her own adventures and trysts and liaisons keep managing to find their way into the Claudine novels…. Well, I assume most people at the time figured that if she wasn’t the author, then she was at least the muse.

Don’t be too surprised by this either, there’s a long history of female authors historically writing either under pen names, often her husband’s name, or sometimes just doing anything and everything possible to keep their gender hidden, or at least ambiguous for fear that people will be less likely to read them because a book had a female author. It still goes on by the way, that’s why so many female writers go by initials, even today. S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rawling, even E.L. James to name a few, and all those were recent. I don’t know why this stigma still exists, but I have a feeling that we’re just beginning to get narratives about authorship like this.

Unlike Glenn Close’s good wife in the background in “The Wife” or Amy Adams’s shy and connived Meade in “Big Eyes”, Colette was not exactly a wallflower, even in her time. She became just as prominent a social figure known for showing off as she salaciously slept and spent her way through the tail end of the Belle Epoque era of Paris. Occasionally with the same women as her husband, but she mostly ended up with Missy (Denise Gough) a transvestite descended from Russian royalty who was one of the few women of the era who openly lived as a man. They  even once caused a riot performing at the Moulin Rouge, and toured as a pantomimist, right at the beginning stages of the modern version of the mime art form and she toured the Music Hall scene, which lead to her book, “The Vagabond”, the first book published under her name.

The film was directed by Wash Westmoreland, him and his late husband Richard Glatzer were the duo being “Still Alice”, the film that finally earned Julianne Moore an Oscar yet despite that, most people seemed to simply disregard that film as merely a Lifetime level TV movie that got extended into theaters. I think I’m one of the few that listed that film on my Top Ten List that year, and I stand by that rating; that movie was not that easily dismissible and arguably details the effects of Early Onset Alzheimer’s in a more better and more painfully emotional way then anything I’d seen before and remains one of the few films that does it, through the perspective of the person suffering from the disease. It’s especially poignant since Richard Glatzer passed away from ALS complications shortly after the film’s release, and Colette is listed as a tribute to him, and he remains a co-writer of the film. I can see why this would appeal to him. The movie ends with a quote from Gabrielle Colette, stating something to the effect of, “What an interesting life I’ve lead, I wish I had only known as I was living it.”

Compared to “Still Alice”, “Colette” as a film is not as compelling, at least to me, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Once again, Keira Knightley reminds us that she’s one of the best and most transcendent actresses of our time. Her range always amazes me, as she’s got a timeless quality about her that lets her easily slip into period piece roles, and yet she so remains the quintessential archetype for the modern woman. I once wrote a review of “Bend It Like Beckham” where I joked that her role was played, not by her, but by her sports bra. It’s not an inaccurate, and to me, it’s still funny, but you know what, I’ve thinking back on that film recently, and it’s actually a far braver and carefree performance than I would’ve expected, especially of somebody who was so young at the time. As much as I’d like to see her in more modern fair, I can’t deny that she takes any part from any time period she’s placed in and effortlessly transforms them to modern times. “Colette” seems almost too perfect of a role for her in this regard, one that showcases all of her talents. Perhaps the movie is too patient and dwells too much on her, but I can understand why that would happen. It’s a lovely film that works mainly because of her great performance. That alone is worth the watch, and now all I think about now are other transformative women in history or literature that we can cast Knightley in.


AMERICAN ANIMALS (2018) Director: Bart Layton

★★★★

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“American Animals” has a somewhat interesting conceit where the movie tells it’s story both through actors and through testimony from people purported to be the “Actual” guys from the story they’re telling. I can think of a few movies that did something similar to this, most of those were documentaries of some kind and even then most of them, the focus was on the testimony of the real people and the sequences with the actors were more-or-less re-enaction sequences based around their testimony of events. The one that jumps to my mind most with that approach, at least in terms of similarity to “American Animals” are “The Road to Guantanamo” and “Touching the Void”.  Director Bart Layton is also mostly familiar from the documentary genre, most notably, “The Imposter”, and yet,  I don’t think either those are the right jumping off point for this film. They were all clearly documentaries. To me, the example that this film most reminds me of is “American Splendor”. Now, that was a biopic and a surreal dark comedy based on a famous collection of graphic novels and was even more unique and surreal is how it approached it’s subject, often with the real life people the movie was based on entering their own story a few different times, and interacting with the actors playing themselves. They don’t go that far, it’s mostly a typical movie involving the real life people, as well as a few others, many I presume are actors, being the talking heads for what is clearly a regular movie. It’s basically just a heist movie.

A real heist of course, a real stupid one at that. It takes place in 2004 at…- Okay, it says “Transylvania University,” in the movie....- (Google search) Huh, I'll be damned, it's a real university. Anyway, four college kid decide to break into the Special Collections section of the University Library and steal they’re most valuable book, most notably an original rare book of Audoban paintings.

Well, they got correct that that would be something valuable enough for art thieves to steal. Audoban painted birds and basically everything bird paintings and birdwatching even goes back to him. You might have heard of the Audoban Society? That’s him, and he’s very collectible and rare originals of his work are particularly collectible. And it’s not even that out there for a potential crime they can pull off if motivated; given the right circumstances and time, the books are protected mainly by one old librarian BJ Gooch, (Ann Dowd), but yeah, this is still a crime that’s way out of their league. For one, I would’ve at least considered making a switch by creating a fake copy of the book; it can’t be that hard to find a painter who can replicate a painting or two in the book, especially at a college, there’s gotta be an artist around.

Actually, they had an artist, Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) was an art student who specialized in painting. He was friends with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) who’s a bit of a rogue, renegade type who that, if they can pull off the heist, they can easily find a buyer for the work. He even claims to have a connection and a connection that he meets in Amsterdam after meeting with a representative of his in New York. Things seem to go well there and they begin to plan the heist, which despite Warren’s streak of failing to even show up to his practices and games on an athletic scholarship-, I’m not certain which sport, they draft Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) as an accounting major who’s got enough knowledge and preparedness skills to get help them plan out the heist the best they can. Up until then, they were mostly watching heist movies on DVD to try to figure out the best approach to rob since, as they claim, there’s no books on how to rob art. There’s a great use of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” for instance, and at one point, as a very clear sign of just how amateur they are, they give each other color-coded nicknames like in “Reservoir Dogs”. (Yeah, I love Tarantino too, but real crooks wouldn’t do that. It actually makes things way too complicated despite how hilarious it is that somebody’s always complains about being Mr. Pink.)

The unlucky Mr. Pink in this universe is Chas (Blake Jenner) an athlete and fitness specialist who comes from enough money to finance and work at being a getaway driver. Of course, the robbery is mostly a failure, although they do steal a few books and try to get them appraised at a New York auction house, which they don’t manage to do, and actually makes me think that Warren, probably did have a buyer. I’m of two minds regarding the splitting the real life people in with the documentary footage of the characters. I think for the most of the movie, it frustrated me, ‘cause I know is a great documentarian, “The Imposter” is one of the most mind-blowing and compelling documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, and he could’ve made this a straight documentary I suspect. In essence sorta trying to split the difference here, and I’m not sure that entirely works. I get why he’s doing it though, because there’s a point of view aspect of the movie that needs to be explained. Especially from Spencer’s point of view, he seems to be the one who gets weaved into Warren’s world, although the real Spencer often ponders that he and the others, wanted to be something special and this would be something outside their future 9 to 5 jobs or life or whatever. We do get glimpses and him and Warren’s personal lives, Warren’s parents are going through a divorce and we get an occasional cameo by Gary Baseraba as his father that in another movie might be more interesting. Mostly though, we get some fake talking heads talking about how nice young men they were and how, they were all shocked they tried to pull this off. Well, they weren’t as surprised with Warren, but still….

Warren was the one that supposedly made all the connections and struggle to sort through several suspicious e-mails to meet with this mysterious Amsterdam buyer (Udo Kier), or did he? The other guys wonder, but I can’t help but think that, if he didn’t have a connection somewhere, then why go to see Melanie Halloran (Maggie Lacey) at Sotheby’s for authentication at all? And at least in the movie, Spencer is there at the meeting with him? Hmmm. I guess that’s part of the appeal of the movie, using the real-life accounts to try to determine what exactly was real and who’s making up their perspective, and yeah, there is multiple perspectives and certain disagreements on some of the details.

I still don’t know if you needed the real people in order to pull that off. I think that’s where I’m kinda falling apart on this movie. I mentioned “American Splendor” before, I’d argue in that movie, it’s actually somewhat critical and beneficial to the movie that Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff and others were themselves in the movie in the way they were themselves, and that it was absolutely essential they were to help make Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini’s film better. I can check a few of these boxes with “American Animals”, not necessarily all of them though. I guess I can check enough to recommend the movie. I still wonder if Layton might’ve done better by just picking documentary or not documentary, but it does lead to an unusual and arguably unique movie if nothing else. And if Warren did indeed lie about the buyer in Amsterdam, then I can even recommend the film more because I can then even more thoroughly understand and appreciate just how charming and convincing, he can be. Or maybe he’s just a better con man then I’m giving him credit for. Considering his current career choice, I can see it both ways.


BORG VS. MCENROE (2018) Director: Janus Metz

★★★


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I’m smiling ‘cause I’ve been looking forward a bit to this one. And I dwelled upon this briefly recently when I reviewed “Battle of the Sexes”, but tennis used to be about a big a sport, especially worldwide as any of them. ’70s, ’80s, and I’d say even into the ‘90s, tennis was huge. The biggest names, the great personalities, epic athletic matches and struggles. I’d always mention that. It’s seems so long ago since on the women’s side, we’re only now starting to see some people upend Serena Williams once in a while,- but like her two decades run, and the men’s side has basically had the same three men owning the sport for about the same time, while that does lead to some really great, epic matches at times, (I’ve seen some five set matches last for five or six hours, men’s tennis especially at like the Grand Slams can just be as grueling and brutal, as they are awe-inspiring.) but it’s clearly not the same. I’m not entirely why Federer vs. Nadal doesn’t have even half the appeal to me as Sampras vs. Agassi would in my younger days, despite both Roger and Rafael being twice as great as Pete and Andre and lasted twice as long as both of them, but it does. (And it doesn’t help that on the women’s side, Venus vs. Serena usually led to an underwhelming blowout whenever they faced each other, and Serena seems to dominate which second or third name manages to peak up too. At least so far, I guess we’ll see if Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka  pan out soon enough.) So, a movie about Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gednason) and John McEnroe (Shia Labeouf) in this day and age, two of the greatest, most contrasting of rivals, personalities and talents, back in the days when tennis was must see TV all over the world, especially the Grand Slams? Call me at least curious and interested to see how this movie gets done, and even if it sucks, at least it’ll be a nice look back onto a bygone era of sports that I only caught the tail end of and can’t wait to look back and revisit.

Borg and McEnroe had a few clashes over the years, this movie’s decided to focus on, the 1980 Wimbledon Final, which is probably their most noteworthy. Borg is the cool, calm machine that’s been number one for years and has won the last four Wimbledon, then a record-tying feat. McEnroe was the foul-mouth emotional party animal from Long Island. Infamous for his tirades and yelling at the umpires and temper tantrums. (Many times, he often right I might add. You gotta remember, this was before the instant replays in tennis we have now, as well as a more regular stable of trained and WPT-certified umpires; there were a lot of questionable calls, but McEnroe was one of the first to really make his objections known, and in a foul-mouthed, animated way.) The funny thing is that Borg was actually just as petulant as McEnroe in his youth, but he transferred those frustrations into a superstitious pattern of calmness over the years; that’s one of the reasons Borg could play McEnroe so well, he realized that it wasn’t that he was too unfocused from the drugs and partying, but that he was so focused on tennis when he was on the court that the smallest hiccup would screw up his groove and focus. (As a writer, when I’m in a groove and working intently, I’m definitely known to have McEnroe-like outbursts and reactions.)

Now, about the movie…, eh, it’s fine. I don’t know if you’re going to learn much more about Borg or McEnroe watching the film-, well, I take that back, I think you’ll learn a lot about Borg, which makes sense. This was primarily a European production and frankly, McEnroe has talked enough and is still in the public eye today. I hear he’s got a funny show on the Golf Channel now that I’m meaning to look up at some point. Borg, was much more quieter, at least perception wise. What the movie shows is that essentially, they were both nutcases but that’s what made them the great athletes and tennis stars you were, and that’s not surprising. In order to be that good, you have be incredibly devoted to being great at that sport, and it’s a lonely sport. Tennis, with occasionally the exception of Doubles, and I might argue that not even then, is a solitary sports and being the best in the world at it is a very lonely road. Borg managed for years, and McEnroe managed it shortly after, right before Borg retired early at age 26, which btw, was not uncommon back then. (I know, this generation of stars is screwing this up, but most tennis greats peaked in their early twenties and men, at most might play on a high professional level until their 32, 33, maybe 35, and for women, 28 or 29 was usually around the age they’d consider retiring, unless your name was Martina Navratilova and you win doubles Wimbledon titles in your 3rd or 4th decade of competition tennis, but she's a freak of nature exception.) Nothing to take away from McEnroe and believe me, there’s enough material on him to make a very interesting biopic if somebody wanted, but the focus on Borg is correct. He’s the more mysterious one, and this film firmly places itself inside the one aspect of him that we were all most curious and interested about, inside his mind. It’s a little on the nose sometimes, especially with the dialogue about how great these two guys are, and yeah, tennis, despite everything, I suspect is a difficult sports to make a great movie about, especially just one match. Even “Battle of the Sexes” was curiously almost like two movies in one, with the love triangle setup involving the Andrea Riseborough character, which I actually liked, but still, that’s arguably the most famous tennis match of all-time and that had to have an added romance subplot. Comparatively “Borg vs. McEnroe” as a film is more straightforward, and it’s serviceable for those who aren’t more familiar with either athlete, although I’d probably prefer to just scour the internet and see if I can just find that match myself instead of rewatch the movie. That said, I’m recommending it. It’s about as good as it could be for what it is, Stellan Skarsgaard and Tuva Novatny give solid supporting performances as Borg’s trainer and girlfriend respectively, and the casting overall is great. Shia Labeouf as John McEnroe is particular is almost too good of casting, but I also thought Gudnason was really strong as well. The movie also gives us that feeling of that physical, emotional and psychological threshold that it takes for those few rare humans who both want to achieve being the greatest at their sport in the world and manage to achieve it and stick at it for so long. That’s a tough thing to get on film, and you gotta admire that they did that well.


A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) Director: Paul Feig

★★★1/2

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Simply put, Anna Kendrick is one of our country’s greatest actors. I am always amazed and startled at just how wide her range is. She seems to effortlessly slip into any otherwise innocuous role and suddenly, with a look or a flutter or her eyes, she becomes whoever that character is, whether it’s drama, comedy, musical, action, period piece, big budget blockbuster, the tiniest of mumblecore indy,…  I am convinced that there is no role that she couldn’t pull off. At this rate, if I were casting a movie, I’d just hand her a script, tell her to read through and pick the role she wants.

Paul Feig’s latest comedy “A Simple Favor” is another such example of Kendrick’s extremely underrated talents. Feig’s an interesting director; his comedies are continuous moneymakers and he’s clearly talented and adept as a filmmaker. Compared to say, someone like Adam McKay who clearly has a vision and intent with his films, I think it’s a little trickier to determine Feig’s perspective; he’s a studio director and not always a distinctive but I’m starting to see a small pattern of his work. “Spy” was a spy comedy, and that one he did with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that I can’t remember the name of, that was a buddy cop comedy, and several other films of his are simply comedic twists on Hollywood film genres and conventions. Kinda like the Zucker, Abrams Zucker team used to be. So what’s “A Simple Favor” parodying? Well, it’s based on a novel, so it’s not entirely an original idea of his, but it definitely fits with this vision of his as it’s, essentially, a comedic twist on “Gone Girl”. Gotta admit, I never really thought about that, but I’m open to it. Well, one of those erotic missing girl thrillers, “The Girl On the Train” perhaps. Hell, characters even regularly mention some of the progenerate films of the genre, like “Gaslight” and “Les Diabolique”.

Stephanie is a mommy vlogger, one of those Youtubers who gives parenting tips and does way too much arts and crafts and participates in all the school activities and such; the kind the other parents make fun of in snithering tones in private company. Anyway, one day her son Miles wants to have a playdate with his friend Nicky. Stephanie’s okay with it, but his mother Emily (Blake Lively) is a bit unsure, but eventually they get the kids together and in turn, Emily and Stephanie get together. Stephanie is fascinated by Emily, her life, her house, her clothes, her attitude,- she’s not quite single white femaling her, because Emily to cold and observant to let that happen, but Stephanie does get sucked into their world, or allows herself to be anyway, as she tells some stories to help get Emily’s trust. Stephanie’s got a bit of a strange past herself, one that includes some familial issues, that kinda don’t get brought up the way they might in another movie but we’ll ignore that twisted aspect of her character, but Emily is the real mystery. A PR executive for a major name brand fashion designer, she’s always off on some obscure work errand and dressed exquisitely in expensive clothes while never been more than a few seconds or feet away from her next drink.

One day, Emily calls Stephanie to watch her kid Nicky (Ian Ho) while she has to go on another errand. This time, she doesn’t come home, and after a few days, police are called. Emily was a mysterious girl to begin with, but soon, she’s found dead, drowned in a lake in Michigan, but Stephanie suspects foul play was involved. That said, it’s clear that she didn’t know Emily too well as deeper and deeper into the investigation reveals more and more strange and disturbing truths, many of which her failed novelist of a husband, who Stephanie begins having an affair with and moving into his house shortly after Emily’s funeral. Which is very suspicious to the police, especially the head investigator Det. Summerville (Bashir Salahuddin). There’s also some nice cameos by Andrew Rannels, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, and probably strangest to me, Linda Cardellini, not because of her performance, she’s fine as a lesbian artist who turned out to be one of Emily’s past jilted lovers, but because of her character name, Diana Hyland…? I guess that could be a common random name, but that was the name of the actress who played the mother on “Eight is Enough” who tragically died from cancer during the beginnings seasons of that show; she famously won a posthumous Emmy for the TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” that her co-star and then-lover at the time of her death, John Travolta, accepted for her. Yeah, I-eh, hmmm. I’m not certain that that connection was intentional but that still seemed strange.

Anyway, the movie works for several reasons, as a modern-day comedic telling of a erotic crime thriller, with winks and nods to both the classics and modern tellings of the genre and the clichés of it, it circumvents and transforms the expectations well. As a genre piece itself, it’s not bad, but on top of everything else, it’s Anna Kendrick’s natural charm and awkwardness that pulls the movie off most. There’s one scene that I found clever, where she’s being investigated by the detective at the worst, most guilty possible time, and now has to be interrogated by him while wearing one of Nikki’s dresses that she can’t take off. I couldn’t help but think of that scene in “Personal Shopper” with Kristin Stewart putting on her boss’s clothes and doing some questionable things in them and this just sorta played up that scene but upped the nightmare aspects of it to ten. Plus, Kendricks manages to play a few different parts here. She’s a mother, a lover, a mistress, an investigator, etc. etc. This is weird role even for her that she’s playing in this, but I can’t think of anybody else who would pull it off so well. Yet, I can easily see her playing Blake Lively’s role, in another version of this film, which is the reason this movie works, ‘cause if the actress couldn’t convey that, then this movie falls flat on it’s face. It’s Paul Feig’s most interesting and probably successful narrative in a while, and it’s a delightful surprise of a dark comedy.

I wish it had a better title. If it was titled “The Oopsy Jar” I think it would’ve been more memorable.


KUSAMA: INFINITY (2018) Director: Heather Lenz

★★★1/2


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I must confess that I’m going a bit blind into this one as I am not particularly familiar with Yayoi Kusama, the great Japanese artist. I’ve had that issue a lot lately with documentaries regarding important historical female figures, I’ve noticed; probably not so much coincidence as it is, just the fact that so rarely are the major female figures given as much press and notoriety and recognition as their male counterparts. It doesn’t help that Kusama is also Japanese either in that regard, but that I’m still kinda surprised that I’m not more familiar with her. She began as a painter who eventually expanded into sculpture and then stretched herself to more avant-garde and surrealist work. It’s rare to see somebody who was directly inspired by both Georgia O’Keefe and Claus Olderburg to begin with, much less one that was often on the same equal contemporary pedestal with Andy Warhol.
“Kusama: Infinity” is a biodocumentary of her life and work; the title comes from her fascination with the endless nature of life as well as her obsessive nature. Her first fascination artistically was dots, which she made several magnificent paintings on, that are quite elaborate and they are utterly fascination. I’m not sure how she does it, it’s like she takes the paints and paints around a black canvas to create the dots, making the paintings, some of them very large in size, seem like endless webbing or a net, almost fabric-life.

She’s still often shown wearing polka dots, something she often did in her art work, especially her more avant-garde work where she was often only wearing dots, but whatever it was that fascinated her, consumed and enveloped her. Mirrors are a big one; she was the first artist to create a mirrored-room concept, she often was photographed in leotards encased in mirrored balls that she was selling on the streets of Italy. Her childhood, which included some traumatizing moments involving a father who constantly had affairs and parents who were at each other’s throats, led to being surrounded by long pieces of sculptural fabric that,- well, they look like a collection of penises, penises that she made furniture out of. She has some struggles with sex for much of her life, but she eventually overcame that at some point and nudity became a major aspect of her shows, especially her more protest pieces and nude happenings around the Vietnam War. The ‘60s and New York City were a good combination for her artistically, even if she was often ostracized by the primarily white male artistic establishment and was depressed enough to try suicide once or twice. She once just jumped out her window and happened to land on a bicycle that broke her fall.

In America and most of the rest of the world, she was respected, if not appreciated, but in Japan, she was often rightly rejected, and considered scandalous. When she went back home in the ‘70s, she had another suicide attempt and checked herself into a mental hospital, probably long overdue, where she eventually went into collages, and had to rent out rooms that once upon a time, used to exhibit her just to get her art showcased.

Now, she’s recognized as the single most successful living artist in the world and even in Japan, and her hometown that once ostracized her, have now embraced her work. She definitely was ahead of her time; I can’t imagine what social media would’ve done for her work in the ‘60s, it would’ve blown people away, especially her mirrored rooms stuff, and back then when she and everyone else was naked and painted with polka dots. I always think of dots myself and being the kind of thing that makes you stand out, but she’s not wrong though, they do make you blend into the background just as much, even in the most vibrant of colors and imagery. I’m always amazed when I think about, sand paintings or other such art works where they’re created a dot of paint or a grain of sand at a time; the work involved is just unparalleled and it’s difficult. In a sense, everything is just small little dots that surround us.

In terms of a documentary, I think I still would prefer a little more insight into Kusama herself. We get inferences about the trauma that she endured from her family, and we can perhaps guess but we don’t get many specifics. We understand her objection to the Vietnam War contextualized through growing up in a Japanese dictatorship that threw her country into World War II and sent men to the war and women to the factories, but she’s overall very private I guess. She spent much of her adult life living in a psychiatric ward and often took a psychiatrist with her to exhibitions of her work. She had one or two interesting stories about her dating life, but “Kusama: Infinity” is more a celebration of her work than a deep dive into Kusama the person. I guess that should be expected, artists really should put themselves more into their work anyway than pontificate on it and she does that in spades; anybody could tell that. I think it’s disappointing considering how much the last biodocumentary about an artist I saw, “McQueen” dived into it’s subject and their work.

Still “Kusama: Infinity” documents one of the biggest and most-important artists alive and working today, and it embraces and celebrates the enigmatic and fascinating artist behind those works, and celebrates and honors the power of her art as well. I mean, those-, those penis furniture sculpture pieces, they’re-, boy they’re gonna haunt me out for awhile. I guess I should knock her a bit for probably accidentally inspiring the rise of tentacle hentai porn, but-eh, I’ll let that slide.


MONSTERS AND MEN (2018) Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

★★★


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I run into a movie like “Monsters and Men” on occasion. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s caught up in itself by trying to say one-two many things at once. It’s more essay that film, and that’s necessarily a bad thing. I could argue for instance that most of Michael Moore’s movies are basically just long essays, but that’s somewhat expected out of documentaries, when you’re doing it with a feature film, it can be done, but it’s a lot more complicated. “Monsters and Men”’s most noted film inspiration did it well, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s more direct inspiration might be, say one of David Simon’s TV shows, like “The Wire.. Instead of Red Hook, or inner-city Baltimore, this film takes place in Bedstuy, New York, but like “Do the Right Thing” involves the death of a popular face of the local African-American neighborhood by the police. Big D or Darius (Samel Edwards) worked a local corner for years and yes, he sold drugs, but he also gave everybody a dollar if asked, and was nice to nearly everyone around, and it wasn’t just drugs they hooked them up with. He’s a staple of a neighborhood, and after an apparent complaint, he’s killed by a dirty cop named Scala (Steve Cirbus). He claims that Darius went to grab his gun, which would not be a reason to shoot him, but it also wasn’t what happened, and the first protagonist of the film, Manny (Anthony Ramos) filmed the incident. Interestingly, he was told mainly by another cop to back up, not to stop filming, either way, despite recently getting a good job as a lobby receptionist at a building, he is soon arrested, purportedly for giving a gun to a teenager.

Our second protagonist is Dennis (John David Washington) one of the cops. He wasn’t at the shooting, but saw the video and knows Scala is a shithead, but is more inclined to either stay silent or defend the fact that being a cop means putting your life on the line every day. “When you go on a domestic violence call, and get a gun pointed to your head, then you can talk about the way we behave,” to paraphrase something he combats with to a friend at dinner time, when talk of Darius’s murder and Manny’s arrest comes to the table. I would combat that with, “That wasn’t a domestic violence call, and that there wasn’t a gun pointed at his head,” but he is a good cop, yet he knows damn well that there are problems with the system. The first scene of the movie shows him being pulled over. He tells his partner, that it’s the sixth time this year that he’s been pulled over. When word of an IAB inquiry comes down, the cops all seem to talk about whether or not to stay quiet the same way a neighborhood seems to keep quiet when the police come knocking. I don’t know if he or any of them recognize that irony.

The third protagonist follows Zyric (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) a baseball prodigy who also gets pulled over one day by the cops. They let him go, despite actually having drugs on him. He’s a nice from the neighborhood who had just been a random character until now, mostly sticking to baseball, but Darius’s death makes him want to do something, even if it might cost him his chance at the pros. Honestly, I doubt it would, but he begins joining the local community organizers and marchers, right as his pro day comes.

I think the point of “Monsters and Men” is to simply depict the way people in a neighborhood get affected by a death like this. How the family of those involved feels, how it picks up in the conversation, how it effects others in the neighborhood. Some take action, some retreat as seeing it as a part of their life, some try to go through it, etc. etc. I think the idea is to get an overall sense of the neighborhood by showcases a few tales from it. In this case, I think it comes off as more episodic then movie. This is why I suspect the David Simon comparisons might be appropriate, if this was just a TV episode of one of his shows or two, I probably would admire or enjoy it. As a movie, it feels rushed and smaller than it should be, even with a powerful final shot. I like the idea more than I like the finished product. Still, I think I’m gonna recommend this. It’s an admirable debut feature from a talented young director and he’s gotten some strong performances all around. A lot of this cast has to basically come into the movie with their characters already set and that can be more difficult that getting characters to change and evolve throughout the film. “Monsters and Men” is an ambitious debut from a filmmaker who I suspect has better more succinct work coming up ahead.


OUTSIDE IN  (2018) Director: Lynn Shelton

★★★

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You ever watch one of those movies where you know something’s just a little bit off, but you can’t completely tell what it is? “Outside In” feels like one of these movies to me. It’s got great, talented people involved, it’s not a terrible narrative, it’s told pretty well; it has some good back-and-forth levels of conflicts, etc. etc., but somehow, Lynn Shelton’s latest just doesn’t seem as powerful as it probably should.

Of the big Mumblecore or Mumblecore-adjacent director, Lynn Shelton is probably the most subtle one. I guess that means that her films tend to be more focused on the relationships between the characters then the actual narrative of the story, although she can do those as well, but still, “Outside In”, in this regard, is definitely more nuanced. I mean, in this movie, a character spent years helping somebody else get out of prison after he was imprisoned for decades for a crime he didn’t commit. I mean, just off the top of my head, that’s the plot of “Conviction” on top of several other movies, and yet, that’s set-up, just a line of exposition dialogue.

That’s not necessarily a problem though; “Outside In” is one of those movies that’s about what happens after someone’s finally released from prison after a long period of time; in this case, Chris (Jay Duplass) had been imprisoned for twenty years for a crime that he didn’t commit. He friend Ted (Ben Schwartz) throws him a big get-together to celebrate his release. For some reason, the movie I think of most with this narrative is Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard”, which is odd; I don’t particularly think of that film as a good movie, but it’s more powerful than I want to recall. Anyway, the character that most helped Chris get out was his old English teacher Carol (Edie Falco) and now that he’s out of jail and struggling to figure out how to adjust and live a modern life today. He struggles to find work, and also, he has a crush on Carol. He tries to be friends with her, and to be with her, but she’s conflicted. For one thing, she’s married to Tom (Charles Leggett) who’s been turned off from her fascination with this case. She’s also struggling to connect with her own daughter Hildy (Kaitlin Dever), who actually ends up finding a kindred spirit in Chris as they become uncomfortably close friends.

It’s not exactly a love triangle situation, but there’s tension at different angles from everybody. Even Charles has conflicts with Ted and others stemming from the past and how Christ essentially took a fall for his then-friends mistakes and they’re not sure whether they can get over their failures and start anew on either side.

There’s good ideas in this movie; I like little moments and scenes between characters, at least I like them in theory; I sometimes struggle for a whole movie out of this. I’ve gotten that issue with Lynn Shelton in the past, but this is the first time where I really can pinpoint it as an issue. The movie was written by Shelton and Duplass, and it is curious that Shelton’s focus seems to be on the Carol character, who, is on-the-surface one of the least interesting in this story. On the surface anyway. The movie’s metaphor is to see Carol’s world as being trapped and imprisoned, both by her own marriage and family, but also by her apparent options out of it. I call Shelton a Mumblecore director, and I don’t think I’m gonna too much panic by making that kind of declaration, (I think anybody that cares about Mumblecore or Post-Mumblecore verbiage at that point has more of a stick up their ass then I do) but she is one of the older filmmakers in this collective, not starting until her thirties and was more inspired by personal, character-based narrative that you might find more in tune to people like Claire Denis then the filmmakers she’s most noted for hanging around those who usually find the absurd and comedic qualities of everyday life and then exploits them. Even her movie “Humpday” about two guys making a porno was more about analyzing relationships and what that action or potential action says about them.


In this respect, I wonder if she’s just got a greater story in her and this aesthetic is just not the best way to tell it. I revisited Andrew Bujalski’s “Results” recently, and oddly, despite me admiring some of his earliest work, especially “Computer Chess”, it’s way more fascinating seeing him expand and create a more cinematic world to tell his stories in, even a light rom-com like that one. Shelton does a lot of TV work; I’m particularly fond of her directing on “GLOW”, she can do work on a biggest budget and tell some amazing stories that way, and I think she’d prefer it if she did. This was a big story to have taken place in a small Washington state suburb, and the movie never really encompasses that contrast fully. It doesn’t play as irony, it plays as though she’s limited by her surroundings and budget; (Not her cast, they’re all good, Falco in particular) with more tools at her disposal, I bet she could’ve told this story much better than she does here. I’m still recommending it, barely, but I’m still waiting for the film that matches in scope her potential and talent. 


BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) (2017) Director: Robin Campillo

★★★★1/2


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The first fifteen minutes of “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” takes place in a meeting of ACT UP Paris. ACT UP was an AIDS-advocacy group founded in New York during the late ‘80s as it attempted to struggle to get awareness and knowledge out for the AIDS-epidemic; if you want to learn more about that movement, as well as the entire history of the fight for AIDS, I’d recommend seeking out the documentary “How to Survive a Plague”, that documentary chronicled the political fight and struggle that activist groups like ACT UP took in America, especially the New York City area, but I don’t really know much about similar struggles and histories therein of those struggles in Europe. I assume they’re similar enough to those that occurred in the U.S., and if that’s the case, the movie is believable. The group does things like protest at politicians and others who are against funding treatment and publicizing their plight, or the pharmaceutical companies who may or may not be hiding results for their trials to find a possible treatment or cure, or sometimes they bombard high school randomly and give the class a lesson on AIDS awareness complete with pamphlets and condoms among other things.

In those respects, it’s not that different and why would it be? I suspect many lovers and loved one met at rallies and meetings like ACT UP, especially since, where else where HIV Positive gay men find others. “BPM…” , tackles both these narrative, it shows the work and struggle and protest that these groups took to fight, literally for their lives at that point as population were dying fast at the time, and it’s also a love story set in this world. We get to know several of the activists actually as the many of them aren’t just arguing and debating themselves over the minutes of the weekly meetings about how to proceed with the next protest, but are mostly following Sean (Manuel Biscayne Perez), one of the founders of ACT UP and Nathan (Arnaud Valois) one of the few members who’s not HIV Positive, or Poz, as it’s said there.

That said, it's hard to separate out and distinguish the political from the personal, and that's the point. At the peak of the epidemic, AIDS consumed everything and it's natural that even the personal lives of the affected were consumed with activism and politics. I mean, it was their life, literally. It's scary to think about how many died in such a quick period of time. And every other time I turn around these days, I keep hearing people talking about wanting to relive the '80s, and I don't have any idea why. It was an era where predominantly, those who needed help the most were quite often the most ignored and had to fight to get even basic rights and fight to survive. "BPM..." technically takes place in the early nineties, but the fight continued deep into that decade as well, and often continues to go on, despite amazing advancements. I'm old enough to remember when HIV was literally a death sentence and "BPM..." is a reminder of that time and just how pissed off people actually got that people were dying and dying regularly. Friends, junkies,  prostitutes, people who got infected blood in the hospital, many lives were effected.

The movie is intimate, almost a documentary-like look inside ACT UP Paris, with some occasional personal scenes and erotic romance thrown in. I want to credit the acting here most especially. I didn't even mention Adele Haenal's strong performance as the most high-profile female in ACT UP. The casting of this movie might be the greatest technical achievement of the film. The movie was directed by Robin Campillo, who's mostly known as a screenwriter in France, this is his third feature directing, most notably after his breakthrough "Eastern Boys". "BPM..." is his most powerful and personal film yet as much of the film was based on him and his co-writer Philippe Mangeot's real experiences with ACT UP and they've created a great love letter to a time, an era, and to those they loss and everyone who was, and still is affected. I wouldn't want to have to dress several of my friends and lovers for their deaths, and it would make me pretty pissed off too.


DOWNSIZING (2017)  Director: Alexander Payne

★★

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In this alternate universe, Wayne Szalinski's Shrinking Machine actually works well and is accepted by a portion of the general public, after of course some minor mishaps involving their family including a giant baby destroying the iconic guitar outside the original Hard Rock Café.

Okay, I got that joke out of the way. Um…, yeah, I don’t know what to make of “Downsizing” to be honest. It’s weird. Very weird. I’m gonna assume that most people are familiar with the premise, that it’s a sci-fi universe where, in an effort to help Earth survive humanity’s self-destruction, they’ve begun implementing downsizing as a way to help eliminate or mitigate the waste and other human-born activities that leads to humanity’s destructing of the world, in essence, they’ve begun miniaturizing the population and creating small little Lilliputian self-enclosed cities around the world. However, this idea is just causing my head to explode, so we’re gonna talk about this movie as though that’s not what’s going on and instead, we’re just going to replace the downsized communities with a, regular, generic Utopian-like community. The kind of places that seem great on the outside, but then you realize involve HOAs and therefore should all be banned from existence, only smaller and more sorta like Utopia, and the exchange rate is unusually beneficial, and nobody seems to be worried or concerned that that’ll change, and there’s “Cheesecake Factory”’s and “Olive Garden”’s there. In fact, I’m gonna call them UHC’s for the rest of the review, Utopian Housing Communities.

So, in this world, a Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jacobsen (Soren Pilmark) has created these experimental UHCs and in the coming years, they’ve been spreading all over the world; there seems to be on in and around several major cities. This intrigues Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and after much deliberation and a convincing timeshare-like presentation, they decide to collect their earnings and sell what they’re not taking and move into one of these UHCs, this one is called Leisureland, and is purportedly one of the best ones in the lot. Right at the time that they’re accepted however, Audrey chickens out and her and Paul end up divorced because of it. This force Paul to get a cheaper apartment in Leisureland and a part-time job to make some extra funds. He tries starting to date again, but it’s difficult out there finding companionship in the UHC, and it’s especially difficult considering his globe-traveling eccentric upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) keeps the volume at his parties particularly loud.

Eventually, Paul’s luck starts to turn around a bit when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc Lan, is a, somewhat, um, difficult character to discuss. She’s a Vietnamese refugee who was a political prisoner, and was forced to live in a UHC against her will. She eventually escaped in a TV box with several other political refugees, but she was the only one who survived, and even then, she lost part of her leg in the journey. Paul was a physical therapist, so tries to help her out by correcting her artificial foot, but doesn’t completely pull it off, and now, she’s working as a cleaning person for Dusan, while she lives in the forgotten ghetto section of the UHC, where she helps take care of the other disenfranchised and ill. Yeah, there’s a more fucked up section of the UHC, so, it’s not exactly the paradise that’s described in the brochures.

However, there’s good news, despite the effort of the UHC’s the world’s going to end!

Wait, what…?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!??

Yeah, I’m-, this is just-, this is just a weird thought experiment that went awry somewhere. Let’s start with the most controversial aspect, that Hong Chau’s character, ‘cause while Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are two of the best writers around, they did write this character, unfortunately, with a particular vocal pattern that’s very cliché and disturbing. Now, I guess, you can say it’s somewhat explainable, and to be fair, Hong Chau acts the hell out of this role, but we run into some questionable Asian stereotypes with this portrayal. I’m more concerned with the concept. I originally thought that this must’ve come from an adaptation of something, especially considering these filmmakers rarely create their own material and are great at adaptations; Payne is the writer/director behind great movies like “Election”, “Sideways”, “The Descendants”, among others, some of the greatest movies in the last twenty years have been made by Payne and often with Jim Taylor as his writing or producing partner, but up until now, they’ve all been adaptations, even "Nebraska" wasn't written by Payne who just directed that film. This is a rare original idea, and I guess it’s an interesting one. I guess the movie I kinda liked-better-then-most that did something just as on-the-nose metaphorical was Andrew Niccol's “In Time”, which was a sci-fi action-thriller that literally took place in a universe where time was currency.

However this movie, feels more like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to me. There’s several problems with that movie, most of it I blame on Kathleen Kennedy, ‘cause she kept that disaster of a project alive for over a decade when she shouldn’t have, (And why the internet doesn't hate her for that instead of the who cares behind-the-scenes stuff with "Star Wars"; I will never understand) but the big problem is how they basically told a very traditional and simple story, but in a slightly unique and different world. Let’s face it, it was basically a remake of “Forrest Gump”, which (Shrugs) I guess that’s one way to adapt that story, although that short story should’ve never been adapted to begin with so, maybe do something they’re familiar with makes sense there, but again,- that movie’s a total disaster they shouldn't have made to begin with. “Downsizing”, isn’t that bad, but it easily could’ve been. In this case, it is a traditional narrative, although Payne & Taylor are creative enough to come up with a few interesting wrinkles. Yet, where exactly does it ultimately lead to? A guy goes from one life and one group of friends to another. I guess you can argue that, being small,- I mean, joining a UHC and almost joining an apocalypse cult, helped him see the error of his ways, or fall in love?

(Sigh)

I’m stretching here. Like I said, there’s a traditional narrative where there shouldn’t be, because this wasn’t a story; it’s a thought experiment that they shaped into a story. What would happen if…, da-da-da, da-da-da, happened? In a world where Richard Linklater wrote “Betrayal” and Harold Pinter created The Before Trilogy, would the blue men in “Avatar” actually be green? Discuss. It’s one of those nonsensical questions, that’s fun to think about on lazy Saturday night over coffee, marijuana, a Philip K. Dick novel book on CD and a lava lamp, but does it actually have a purpose? It feels like whatever point “Downsizing” was supposed to make about, the environment, society, climate change, etc., all of it got lost in this narrative idea and the struggle to kick out of it was just too much.  I guess on some level, I can admire the attempt, but this really is a disappointing failure, especially considering who’s involved.


TWENTY TWO (2017) Director: Ke Guo

★★★★


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Every time I think that we’re eventually gonna run out of stories to tell about World War II, something like “Twenty Two” comes along and violently shakes that diluted thought out of me. But, holy hell, how did I never hear about this? In fact, normally, in most history books, China is curiously absent from World War II in general; I guess I just presumed they weren’t involved, but that’s just not true. In fact, they were heavily involved. Like fourteen million dead, involved! A major ally to the U.S. and U.K. and fought alongside the U.S.S.R. on occasion to combat Japan. They actually first joined the war after Pearl Harbor, after the U.S., and while they weren’t capable of winning the war in the East over Japan at that time, alone, they held off a Japanese insurgence long enough for the West to eventually come in and overwhelm Japan from both sides of their island.

“Twenty Two” details a very forgotten chapter in what’s already a forgotten chapter of this war’s history,  the “Comfort Women”, as they were called. Several hundred thousand Chinese women (as well as Korean and Philippino women) who were taken by the Japanese army and turned into sex slaves. Forced prostitution. As of the time the movie was made, there were just 22 of these prostitutes who’ve survived until now and the movie, along with Director Ke Guo’s original short film on the subject, that was titled, “Thirty Two” are his attempts to document their stories on camera. They’re dying fast too, on top of occasionally interviews in the actual women, Ke Guo is often looking towards their surviving family members to put their whole lives in context.

He’s also putting his own journey into finding these women under the microscope. He began this project decades ago, and he had that the publicity would inevitably end up in getting an official apology from the Japanese government. That apology never happened, but the publicity did help the piece of history become more well-known shortly afterwards in the areas.

“Twenty Two” is essentially more a continuing of him telling their story as much as it is the women’s story, which I guess is knock against the film, technically, but for the most part, the movie is bare bones.

It presents us the women, and we have them tell their stories, sometimes in really graphic detail. Some managed to overcome this,, this,- I can’t even think of the right nouns and adjectives to make what these women went through sound adequate. Which-, when you really think about just how bad World War II actually was, that hundreds of thousands of women, were kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a military branch of government, and in comparison to the other atrocities that occurred in this war, we’re only now starting to tell their story and get it out to the public…- Seriously, this thought is hurting my head.

I’m not even going to go into more detail on the documentary; I’m just gonna end this review early by saying that If I ever complain again that we’ve tapped out of World War II stories to tell, smack me against the side of my head, really fucking hard and remind of this movie.


MEAN DREAMS (2017) Director: Nathan Morlando

★★

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“Mean Dreams” marks one of the final film appearances of the late great Bill Paxton. By all accounts, he was one of the most beloved and nicest guys to ever work in Hollywood, and he wasn’t just an actor either. He clawed his way up working on several positions before getting regular roles, and he even directed a great thriller in “Frailty”, a film that still holds up. Oddly, while most think of “Aliens” in regard to him, my initial instinct is to think of “Big Love” the HBO series that he starred in as a devout Mormon who practiced polygamy and had escaped from one of the major polygamist cult sects of the LDS church. I’m not gonna pretend that series is perfect, season four is a big, “What-the-hell-were-they-thinking there?” moment, but I think it’s an underrated show and he was amazing in the role.

Anyway, I thought I’d share that thought of him in case I never get another chance. He’s playing a bad guy in this one; he played several over the years, all of them well.

That’s about one of the few good things I can proclaim about “Mean Dreams”, but it’s definitely not a great movie by any means either. . Paxton is Wayne Caraway a new police officer for the local county’s sheriff department. I’m not certain when or where the movie takes place but I suspect it’s the recent, perhaps the Great Plains somewhere?. His daughter Casey (Sophie Nelisse)  meets up with the neighbor’s kid Jonas (Josh Wiggins), a son of a disgruntled rancher Elbert (Joe Cobden) and a disturbingly quiet mother Lynette (Vickie Papavs); think Allison Janney’s role in “American Beauty”. Wayne is a violent and corrupt cop, who naturally beats his daughter up. Jonas, who quickly becomes attached to her, decides to run off with her one night and a bag of money and Wayne relentlessly decides to go after them.

Okay, so clearly the inspiration here is “The Night of the Hunter”, the great surrealistic horror/thriller that was the lone film directed by the great Charles Laughton. Replace Robert Mitchum’s as the false preacher with Bill Paxton as the corrupt cop, up the ages of the kids a bit to young teenagers, you’ve basically got the bare bones of that film and the minor details distinctions. It’s not a terrible idea in of itself, there’s several decent re-imaginings of that film; the one I’d probably most point to is David Gordon Green’s overlooked “Undertow”; that’s a pretty good movie. There’re a couple other ones out there, but “Mean Dreams” is truly one of the weakest of the bunch.

I think the big issue with the film is the writing. Like nearly all re-imaginings of “The Night of the Hunter”, the freedom available within the narrative will almost surely make the story compelling. Anything or everything can happen to our child protagonists, (Well, kids and a dog in this film; I forgot to mention the dog that goes with them.) and that unpredictability means that we’re never quite sure what’s gonna happen or how. The problem in this case, mainly is the setup. This is as generic and almost trivial world of adult characters you could have for the movie. Paxton acts the hell out of his role, but all the adult characters including him are basically one-dimensional.

Perhaps this version of the film could’ve benefitted by starting in the middle of the narrative, using context and occasional flashback to tell this story, it would’ve been stronger; the discovery of why these kids are being hunted down would’ve made this movie seem like cliché; especially sinc the two kids are relatively well-written and on top of that, very well-acted.

The film was directed by Nathan Morlando; it's his second feature after 2011's "Citizen Gangster" and I think it’s an interesting style exercise, but I wouldn’t call it a successful movie. There’s good performances here, including a compelling cameo by Colm Feore who I always enjoy seeing, but this screenplay still needed a few retouches. I’m torn on this one a bit, ‘cause I like the direction of the film and I can find the appeal of the movie through it’s influences, but I’m struggling to even praise this one. It’s almost there, but when you look at the films that “Mean Dreams” is obviously inspired by and compare, it becomes harder to give it slack. I’ve just seen this done better too many times.


GLORY (Grozeva & Vaichanov) (2017) Directors: Kristina Grozeva & Peter Vaichanov

★★★1/2

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There is no good scenario that involves finding a lot of money. Finding a little money, randomly lying around somewhere, on the street or in a parking lot, floating away or something like that, that’s usually fine. Lucky even. Not too much harm will come from finding a few dollars here or there. Finding, a lot of money though, stacks of money, a considerable amount, there’s nothing good that happens there. Frankly, and this will sound, counter-intuitive, but the truly best scenario is to turn the money in, and even that option, obviously sucks. It’d be nice to keep it of course, but that kind of money, somebody will look for it, and therefore, looking for you, and if that’s the case, which is almost always will be, then, you won’t be able to spend the money anyway. Even putting it in a bank of some kind, would leave a trail, and would frankly raise several suspicions.

Of course, being the person who found a lot of money and turned it into the proper authorities, means that you’re the putz who found a lot of money and turned it into authorities. And things can get worst from there. “Glory” is a Bulgarian film where a Railway Linesman names Zlanko (Stefan Denolyubov) who finds several thousand dollars in money and turns it in. This catches the attentions of Julie (Margua Gosheva) the head of Public Affairs for the Ministry of Transport; her Ministry’s corrupt and she’s the one who’s job is to put a bright face on things, or if that’s not possible, distract the media with something else. She does this with Zlanko’s story. Zlanko seems like a fairly regular man, quiet, keeps rabbits as pets, speaks with a bad stutter that makes the fact that he’s constantly being asked suddenly to give a speech on television somewhat tragic and comical.

Anyway, he’s presented with an award for his good deed, and during the ceremony, Julie takes his watch. Just slips it off his hand because they’re presenting him with a new one. A new one that doesn’t work. He then asks for his previous one back, which Julie, can’t find, or even searches for that hard. Instead, she tries to find and pass off a duplicate to him but he calls bullshit on it, and goes to the Press. I should mention that he’s a railman, which means it’s very important that his watch run on time, ‘cause you know, trains.

Interestingly, the movie is shown primarily through Julie’s perspective as she’s the kind of career woman who says she wants to have a family, she even trying to go through invitro fertilization throughout this whole ordeal, but she’s not exactly interested, constantly being annoyed at how the shots interrupt her day and keeps skipping appointments and procedures to deal with a work issue, mostly this issue with the Railman, who the press seems mostly in favor of, but she decides to fight against him, instead of, you know, searching for his damn watch, which is all he wants.

I gotta be honest, this was a frustrating film to watch. It’s not a bad movie by any means; it’s well-made, the performances, especially by Gosheva; I thought were really strong, but this is one of those really frustrating slow-motion car crashes of a movie. A misunderstanding of epic proportions that could’ve all been avoided if one character didn’t act like such a fucking idiot. Would there have really been a problem if he was wearing a watch while getting presented with a new one to begin with?
The movie’s been compared to Frank Capra meets the Dardenne Brothers according to Indiewire. I guess that’s not a terrible description, the hyperreal feel and setting definitely lends itself to the latter, and I guess subject matter has a Capraesque feel about it, mostly I feel it’s more parable. I forget who wrote it, but there’s a famous short story involving somebody borrowing a diamond necklace and then the couple losing it and having to nearly go broke and ask favors from loan sharks to find a suitable replacement only to find out later that they the necklace was a fake. It’s that kind of parable, except that monologue Tim Blake-Nelson’s character has in Steven Gaghan’s “Syriana” about how great, important and necessary corruption is.

I should look that monologue up again in these days and times; I’m sure it has a different form of relevance now. Although, I also think about The Red Riding Trilogy of films where it’s clear as all Hell that corruption is above all, just stupid. “Glory” shows that as well, corruption’s biggest problem being that, in an effort to simply do whatever needs to be done to achieve and retain power, they forgot about doing the actual regular business of, in this case, running a Transit Ministry. “The Red Riding Trilogy” was about how corruption led to the Yorkshire Ripper getting away with his crimes and having his reign of terror last over a decade, “Glory” is about a guy just wanting his watch back; I honestly don’t know which form of corruption is worst strangely enough. I know in both situations, without corruption, terrible things could’ve been prevented. Seriously though, all she had to do was think for a second, the guy returned a bunch of money when others didn’t; he did the right thing, if all he wants is his watch, maybe there’s a reason, and maybe if she did realize that, she would’ve looked for it a little bit harder to begin with.


ALPHAGO (2017) Director; Greg Kohs

★★★★★



I tend to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable, even dare-I-say an expert on games. Not necessarily game theory, but as someone who's always had a fascination with games ranging from sports to casino to board games over the decades, I tend to play nearly everything short of role-playing D&D-type games, at least enough to learn about the general rules and some tendencies and strategies involved in potentially winning. Hell, just a few days ago, I pulled out a deck of cards,- (Yes, I often have a deck of cards on me...) and gave a curious friend of mine a quick two-minute lesson on how to play baccarat. The point I'm making is that, even as someone who prides himself on knowing the basic of the traditional and most beloved of basic games, even I stay away from playing Go.

Go is actually one of the oldest and most continuously played board games in the world. It's not a terribly difficult game, I would compared it to something like "Dots" or "Othello"; it's just two players putting white and black stones on a square board, the object is to obtain the most territory, and yet I don't even try to play it. Maybe I will later, but if anybody remember that scene from "A Beautiful Mind" where John Nash loses that game to his Princeton rival, and he declared that he played perfectly and that the game must be flawed, that game was "Go". The movie doesn't even show the part where Nash became so obsessed with how he lost that game that he tried to prove that he was right and essentially created the game Hex as a response to the somewhat randomness of Go.
You'd think that even with that kind of reputation, a computer playing "Go" at the level of a top professional or expert wouldn't be that difficult, right? I mean, how long has it been since Big Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, over twenty years? Or how about WATSON winning at "Jeopardy!" against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings? That should be enough of an accomplishment, right?

Um, yeah, there's a reason I stay away from Go; Go is a hundred times more complicated and difficult than chess, with literally millions of possible and likely move scenarios that can be made. It can take years of just programming the computer to consider and teach a very high-tech computer to play this game and play it like a human might, and better. That computer, creative by a British-led team of Google DeepMind engineers based in Seoul, South Korea is is "AlphaGo," and they've got several challenges up ahead, with they hope will be the defining moment of their creation. They've got a five-game battle against Lee Sedol, the multiple-time World Champion at Go. "He's the Roger Federer of Go," it's explained to us. He shows up to play the masters and he wins, and this is his toughest challenge yet.

The documentary takes a look at the behind the scenes of the AlphaGo team as they prepare and during the much ballyhooed best of five match with Sedol they have upcoming. This is stuff I absolutely live for. I remember being captivated by WATSON winning on "Jeopardy!", and I love seeing this struggle between man and machine. "AlphaGo" actually goes farther by not simply looking into the process of how the mechanics that went into creating AlphaGo, but into this fascinating almost spiritual struggle that Lee Sedol goes through. Go was original a Chinese game and there is an eloquentness to it that may be described as zen-like, all the way down to the fact that it's just black and white stones. Lee is the best, but he's never played anybody this strong. When computers mastered chess, it changed the game forever, taking a cerebral game and turning it into a mathematical, analytical one. Ironically, something almost the opposite happens here, as "Go" turns into a game of human strategy, but the computer can analyze the game differently and make the more cerebral moves that a human player wouldn't normally make. This actually shocks and distresses Lee, but eventually, he adjusts and begins seeing the game differently as well.

Something similar happened on "Jeopardy!" recently with James Holzhauer, as he completely altered the way we think about how to play that game, and here, you see the greatest human in the game, getting his mind altered and his game improved by having to play a machine. And then seeing the human actually out-think and outwork the machine in response, 'causing it to start playing differently than it's supposed to as well. This stuff is fascinating and the documentary shows all this in real time. It's intellectually stimulating and fascinating and it's one of the most fun documentaries I've seen in a while. I can watch this again and again, and frankly it makes me want to actually try to learn and actually play Go. Well, maybe not that.


SPETTACOLO  (2017)  Director: Jeff Maimberg and Chris Shellen

★★★

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In Tuscany, Italy, for the last fifty or so years, the town has put on a theatrical performance. Each year, the townsfolk get together, to write, act and perform in plays, where they play themselves and depict their lives. It’s become a long-standing tradition and “Spettacolo” is a documentary about the latest and potentially the last edition of this annual tradition. It’s become a famous tradition that’s received attention, praise and even tourists over the years to come and see the unique production. It didn’t start as a theatrical production for outsiders, it was a post-war local thing that eventually evolved over the years and it does look like a fun little tradition despite much of the modern day turmoil the production takes.

In fact, these days, it’s hard to even get many of the townspeople to participate. Getting together and putting on a show for your friends and family about your friends and family isn’t a purely Tuscan tradition, stuff like that happens anywhere and everywhere of course, but stuff like this also happened more often when there wasn’t much else to do in towns like Tuscany, so it was more common and easy to get people excited. Nowadays, it doesn’t have the same appeal, especially to the younger generations, so the event is essentially run by and celebrated by the older fogies in the town. It’s still a nice thing to observe, but I can also see why it’s a dying tradition.

The documentary, was for me, more informative than entertaining however. It’s a nice little local narrative but eh, it didn’t entirely appeal to me to be honest. It’s got a few nice moments between the townsfolk preparing for the show and building the set, and rebuilding the set, and some of the other trivial aspects of putting on a show,…. I can see how some would find it fascination, so I’m recommending the documentary, but I’ve seen some better and more interesting docs like that. The history and the idea of the townspeople starring and portraying themselves is a neat twist, and maybe another day, I’d find it more interesting, but admittedly I wasn’t entirely in the right mood for it. There’s nothing wrong with it thought. “Spettacolo” is a pleasant, nice little informative but light documentary and I think that’s all it was going for.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi dear...

I loved your post. It was a really Nice Movie Review. Thanks For Sharing.

Thanks

David Baruffi said...

You're welcome. I appreciate it. :)