ST. VINCENT (2014)

October 19, 2014

st vincent Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray’s Vincent cracks a rare on screen “Chico and the Man” reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray’s Vincent – a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts). Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver’s mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It’s here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role straight – none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver’s principal and teacher (a standout Chris O’Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the “bad” likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don’t mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O’Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have missed the fully-engaged Bill Murray last seen in Lost in Translation (2003)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: unpredictable endings are why you see movies

watch the trailer:

 


FURY (2014)

October 18, 2014

fury Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker takes on WWII, he better have something new to say or a new way to show it. Director David Ayer (highly recommend his End of Watch, 2012) literally takes us inside a Sherman tank with its crew of 5 men, including their leader played by Brad Pitt.

Having the tank as a centerpiece brings a level of claustrophobia to the treacherous German war front. The battle scenes are excruciatingly tense, and actually beautifully filmed. This may seem an odd description for a war movie, but bouncing from inside the tank to the German countryside is done with such style that it provides contrast to the brutality and violence of war.

Pitt’s crew is made up of Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (especially good). They are forced to take on a rookie with no tank training … but he can type 60 words per minute. Logan Lerman plays the rookie and he brings the natural sensitivity we’ve come to expect from his roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Noah. We buy off on the difficult transition since the others have fought campaigns together in Africa, Belgium and France. Jason Isaacs is also well cast as an Allied forces captain.

What works here are the battle sequences. What doesn’t really work are the numerous moments of personal drama injected to help us understand how war can change a man … no matter how hard he tries to hold on to his humanity. The sequence with the two German women, a piano and fried eggs seems especially drawn out and unbelievable. We understand the point pretty quickly, but the extended sequence becomes downright awkward.

The most interesting question the movie asks is whether a soldier can be so disgusted and sick of war, yet somehow addicted to the action. Mr. Ayers previously wrote U-571 (2000), so he is clearly interested in the mentality of soldiers in a claustrophobic setting. More of this approach would have been welcome here.

***NOTE: The film uses actual WWII tanks, and it’s the first time a Tiger I tank has been used in film.

***NOTE: Just a personal note here, but every time Brad Pitt said anything, I flashed back to his role in Inglourious Basterds. A change of inflection would have helped.

watch the trailer:

 


A COUP IN CAMELOT (2014, doc)

October 18, 2014

a coup in camelot Greetings again from the darkness. With no shortage of books, movies, TV specials, documentaries, or research papers about President John Kennedy’s assassination, one could wonder what yet another new project could possibly bring to the table. The answer is: eye-opening evidence presented in a concise manner by a group of experts.

The film begins with the actual break in regular TV programming for the announcement of November 22, 1963. It then moves forward by reminding us of the litany of unanswered questions remaining 50+ years later. We see many of the most familiar images from JFK’s trip to Texas (“nut country”), including an enhanced Zapruder film. A quick history lesson follows showing how JFK was planning a full withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, which is later described as the basis for what could be the conspiracy or titular “coup”. The Warren Commission is discussed along with the gaps in interviews and evidence.

Five key areas are examined under the microscope here: the Secret Service, forensics, chain-of-custody with the body, the autopsy process and report, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Experts from each category detail their research and conclusions. The panel includes Vince Palamara, Sherry Feister, Douglas Horne, Dr David Mantik, Barry Ernest, Jerry Dealey, and Dick Russell. This group represents an extraordinary amount of time and diligence in researching testimony, documents and evidence … in fact, dwarfing the time spent compiling the Warren Report. Discussions of lapses in Secret Service protocol, triangulated crossfire, contradictory medical testimony, doctored photographs, and “patsy”, take on real weight and substance. The documentation appears strong to corroborate these conclusions and theories, and at a minimum raise significant doubt about who was involved and why.

If you are expecting testimony from wild-eyed conspiracy theorists living on the fringes of society, you will be disappointed. Instead, filmmaker Stephen Goetsch and writer Art Van Kampen offer screen time to historians, physicians, researchers, and experts-in-field so that they may provide an educated and trained interpretation of the evidence. Much of the material may be familiar to those who are well read, but the methodical and deliberate method of presentation is what makes this one worth a look.

To see the trailer and learn more about the film (and a screening at The Texas Theatre), go to: www.acoupincamelot.com


AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL 3 (2014, doc)

October 17, 2014

ATB3 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in filmmaker Darryl Roberts’ documentary series focusing on America’s obsession and ideals of physical beauty. His first was released in 2007 and centered on plastic surgery, while the second from 2011 explored dieting and the quest for thin. Installment number three takes on the sexualization of society, and of girls in particular.

Make no mistake; this is not one of those funny “taboo TV ad” specials. Instead, it’s a sobering look at beauty pageants for little girls, marketing methods (TV, print, retail), and the proliferation of porn into the daily lives of teenagers. The dots are connected to show how these have led to a society struggling with sexual dysfunction.

Mr. Roberts kicks this off with an introduction to what is termed, a Mental Health Crisis – specifically, the Sexualization of little girls. The models used in advertising continue to skew younger and younger, often with 11 or 12 year olds made up and posed to look “desirable”. We are informed that kids watch 25-50,000 TV commercials per year, and many of these advertisements are targeted directly to this ever-growing economic group. Disbelief accompanies our trip to rural Georgia as we meet Beauty Pageant mothers who see nothing sexual about their little girls being half-dressed on stage, performing the type of “dance” moves one would see in a hard-edged rap video. This is our first (but not last) glimpse of how clueless many parents are on this issue.

A well-known psychologist explains the harm in having “girls versus girls” in a contest to see who is chosen as the best, simply on the basis of their looks. The connecting dots then lead us to the frightening topic of teenage pregnancy, where a group of girls detail how they started having sex as young as age 14. Interviews with kids (boys and girls) make the very crucial point that abstinence and even safe sex are not frequent subjects of conversation.  Brain development is scientifically proven to be a factor in the frequent “immediate gratification” decisions made by teens. More on this would have been welcome.

We meet the two interns Mr. Roberts hired to assist with this project. One of the girls, single-handedly takes on the Abercrombie & Fitch chain, after the CEO makes a statement claiming their clothes are exclusionary … basically, A&F only sells to the young and beautiful. One of the interns becomes a crusader against A&F and that leads her to become a spokesperson against teenage bullying – in its many forms.

A university professor explains how there has been a Sexuality Generation Shift, and much of it can be traced to the frequency and accessibility of online porn. This has become the educational front for kids in regards to sexual relationships. These days, girls are either “F***able or Invisible” and “Gonzo porn” never gives any indication that intimacy or feelings should play a role, and now, the dots connect to the high rate of sexual abuse and rape on college campuses.

Though I may not be a huge fan of the look and structure of the film, it’s the message that matters. Mr. Roberts offers up significant statistics throughout, and the interviews prove quite insightful … whether it be a college professor or the clueless mother supporting her wannabe teenage model (who can’t grasp the concept of consistent safe sex). The most significant takeaway is that the world of youngsters today is not just void of any of real guidance, but even worse, their introduction and education of sex is coming directly from the world of online porn. We are judged as a society on how we care for our children, and a disgusting example is provided near the film’s end as Mr. Roberts discloses that one of his interns was (at a minimum) sexually harassed by a producer during the project. It makes for an abrupt reminder that we all must take responsibility for our actions and for the protection and guidance of kids.

Thanks to sponsorship of Carolyn Costin and the Monte Nido Treatment Center, the film will be screened free of charge in a few U.S. cities, including Dallas on October 20. For more information, and to watch the trailer, go to: http://www.americathebeautifuldoc.com/


PUMP (2014, doc)

October 17, 2014

pump Greetings again from the darkness. Documentaries with a message are usually most effective when they engage in debate … share both sides of the argument, if you will. Preaching from a soapbox typically causes the viewer to tune out, and the opportunity is missed. The one exception to this is when the stance is heavily supported with history, facts, data, research and pertinent interviews. Husband and wife co-directors Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell deliver what amounts to a visual thesis on how to break the big oil monopoly.

Beginning with a colorful montage of beautiful and colorful automobiles, we are quickly reminded of Americans love of their cars which leads to the addiction to oil. The next 90 minutes provides a trek through the key historical events that led to our oil dependency, and ends with a proposal on how to stop it.

The history lesson discusses John D Rockefeller and his Standard Oil monopoly, followed by his political influence to get Prohibition passed. This after Henry Ford called alcohol “the perfect fuel”. We then learn of how large companies drove out the trolley system in favor of an interstate freeway system for cars. We re-live the 1973 gas shortage as the Arab countries flexed – or extorted, depending on your take. Jumping to 2008, the surge in oil prices to $147 per barrel is described as the economic earthquake, with the Stock Market crash termed an aftershock. In other words, oil is the foundation of our economy. Today’s global market is discussed along with the exponential growth of China’s car industry – 15 million cars sold this year. This time-line with specific data leads to the impressive second half of the film … how to get ourselves out of this mess.

For those who say it’s foolish to discuss breaking our dependency on oil because it is used in so many other ways, they are missing the point. The cause is less oil dependency for cars, not a total break from it’s use in products such as medicines, clothes, plastics, etc. The filmmakers offer the options of both electric cars and alternative fuel sources.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is briefly discussed, with the acknowledgment that battery technology improvement is vital to the future success of electric cars. A more immediate solution comes in the form of alternative fuels – ethanol and methanol. We see the exceptional strides Brazil has made with strong leadership. We see how our current vehicles already have the capability to run on these biofuels, if not for a simple software adjustment built-in by auto-makers. Nine million flex fuel cars on the road now, and many of these owners remain unaware of their options. Why? Because fueling stations are so tough to come by, as only the most independent of stations are not contractually obligated to big oil companies.

The film is exceptionally well researched and the data delivered in an easy to understand format. The Tickell team won the Sundance award for the 2008 documentary Fuel, and their message is even stronger this time out. By the way, Ms. Tickell is a former child actress known as Sam Elliot’s daughter in the 1989 Christmas classic Prancer. She and her husband are now renowned environmental activists, and this project is really a call to action … the choices are available NOW to break the oil monopoly.

watch the trailer:

 


LIFE AFTER DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979 (2014, doc)

October 15, 2014

life after death from above Greetings again from the darkness. By definition, documentaries tell us the story of something that has already happened. The best ones expose a great story, and it usually boils down to how interesting we find the subject. The Canadian Punk duo Death From Above 1979 has a history that is both entertaining and a bit unusual – even within the music industry.

Between 2001 and 2005, the band performed 546 live shows around the world. And then it was over. Bandmates Sebastien Grainger (drums and vocals) and Jesse F Keeler (bass, keyboard, backing vocals) melded their creative flow into an incredibly energetic live experience. They were in perfect sync onstage, and audiences responded.

Filmmaker Eva Michon (Grainger’s wife) provides us with interviews from music executives, members of other rock bands, and especially Grainger and Keeler. We learn of their influence, and also witness their conflicting insecurities and musical confidence.

Their first full album “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine” sold 100,000 units in 2004, but the follow-up “The Physical World” wouldn’t be released for a decade. The reason for the delay is the crux of this band’s story … they broke up! It seems clear the two band members grew apart creatively, causing a crack in the friendship. They quit speaking, even while on tour. In 2005, they were opening for Nine Inch Nails at Madison Square Garden, and a few weeks later they went their own separate ways.

Grainger finally reached out to Keeler in 2011, and the band reunited with an invitation to play famed music festival Coachella. A surprise show at SXSW in Austin was shut down by the cops after the crowd spun out of control. The video here is the best we see, and certainly more exciting than the actual footage from Coachella.

The reunion just doesn’t play well on screen, and it robs the film of it’s core moment. The interviews are insightful and the photos and early footage are excellent. All that’s lacking is a wow moment. Still, fans of the band will be all over this, while those unfamiliar will find it interesting enough.

watch the trailer:

 

 


KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

watch the trailer:

 


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