THE MILLIONAIRES’ UNIT (2018, doc)

February 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine, if you will, a world where the one-percenters view their privileged life as carrying more responsibility towards civic duty, not less. While that’s difficult to conceive these days, the film takes us back 100 years to the beginning of WWI, and introduces a group of Yale students who believed exactly that. Co-directors Darroch Greer and Ron King provide the best kind of history lesson – one told through personal stories.

WWI, “the war to end all wars”, lasted about 4 years and featured new technology such as machine guns, tanks, and airplanes (Wright brothers first flight was 1903). Though U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated the country would remain “neutral”, a young visionary named Trubee Davison saw things a bit differently. Trubee was a student at Yale University and the son of HP Davison, a powerful JP Morgan executive. Trubee was also a natural-born leader and inspired a group of his classmates to join the First Yale Unit … a flying club dubbed The Millionaire’s Unit by the media.

The film tracks their training and subsequent call to service during the war. They became the first Naval aviators in WWI, and the Naval Reserve Flying Corps actually preceded the US Air Force. We see spectacular clips from the era, along with reenactments (dogfights!), photos, and letters/correspondence to/from the men. Actor Bruce Dern enthusiastically narrates, and it’s interesting to note that he is the grandnephew of one of these Yale pilots.

Profiles of a hand full of these men are remarkably well done and help us understand that each were defined by their service and dedication to the cause and to each other. Much of the focus is on Trubee, a fascinating guy who later spent time as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Personnel at the CIA; however, we also get to know Robert Lovett, Kenney MacLeish, “Di” Gates, and Dave Ingalls – each an interesting story, and in combination, stunning in that so few of us have been exposed to their courage.

The 2006 book, “The Millionaire’s Unit”, written by Marc Wortman, was the basis of this documentary that took longer to complete than WWI actually lasted. These young men were volunteers who, despite their elite social and financial standing, believed so strongly in “fighting for the ideals we hold sacred”, that they risked it all – some paying the ultimate price. As you might expect, after the November 11, 1918 Armistice was signed, most of these Elis continued serving their beloved country in some capacity. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told with the respect and personal aspect afforded by the film.

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POOP TALK (2018, doc)

February 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Poop. Poo, doodie, s**t, feces, excrement, doo-doo, dung, dookie, defecate, bowel movement, and number 2. Director Aaron Feldman threatens to waste (pun) our time by opening on comedians dumping (another one) their various forms of scatological humor. Instead he leaves us a special surprise (!) by creating some kind of docu-comedy on poop that also serves as a bit of an awkward sociological case study.

The surprise here is that the comedians from the opening never stop. They ARE the movie. It’s actually 75 minutes of comedians riffing on poop. They tell us their jokes, but more interestingly, they tell us the motivations for this line of humor. Indelicacies and embarrassment are what drives comedy, and I counted 39 different folks providing some insight here. Rather than a rant, it’s more of a case study on the realities of why we draw such a hard line between our public persona and the regular (hopefully) occurrence in the privacy (also hopefully) of a bathroom/toilet. Even that last part isn’t a given, as the process in other countries like Korea and India is detailed.

The Sklar brothers are Executive Producers and also provide some terrific on screen segments, but the list is too long to name all of the participants – most of whom you will recognize. I’ve seen some documentaries that might best be labeled as turds, but never one who focuses on that topic. Why is it taboo?  Are there differences in how men and women tend to treat this (definitely yes)? The laughs are aplenty and its flush (the last one) with insight from comedians. That’s enough reason to sit through this one … and you won’t even need a magazine!

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BLACK PANTHER (2018)

February 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adaptations of Superheroes, Comic Books, and Graphic Novels have been driving the movie theatre box office for a few years now. Where the financial success of a film was once measured in tens of millions, it’s now hundreds of millions. Beyond that, these enormous productions are pressured to make political and social statements … providing the hope of which real life leaders seem to fail. This latest from Marvel and director Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), carries all of that plus the expectations of an entire gender and race. It’s a heavy burden for a comic book character, however it seems, regardless of one’s perspective, it’s likely the film delivers, satisfies, and … oh yeah … entertains.

The bar has been set so high for action sequences and special effects, that we take the great for granted and only speak up on those that falter. What allows this film to take its place among the best of the genre is a combination of story depth and the payoff for showing us a world we haven’t previously seen. The cultural aspects of the (mythical) African country of Wakanda are not only interesting, but the setting itself is breath-taking. An explosion of color, texture and technology blended with intriguing and multi-dimensional characters bring the film to life and draw us into this wonderland of tradition, culture and humanity.

It seems ridiculous to speak of a comic book film in these terms, but the number of talking points raised during its runtime are too many and too varied to discuss in this format. What we can make clear is that it’s cool to watch an entire movie where people of color and women are strong, confident, and intelligent. Chadwick Boseman has played Thurgood Marshall (MARSHALL), James Brown (GET ON UP), and Jackie Robinson (42), and here he takes on a fictional icon in King T’Challa/Black Panther. He perfectly captures the pensive nature of a King balancing tradition with the needs of his people to evolve and transition. His chief adversary “Killmonger” is played terrifically by Michael B Jordan (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) as a man out for revenge and power. For most movies this head to head battle would be enough … but not this time.

Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”), and relative newcomer Letitia Wright play Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri respectively; a triumvirate of three of the strongest women you’ve likely ever seen on screen. Nakia is the love interest, but also carrying out her own humanitarian missions, while also proving to be beyond adequate as a soldier. Okoye is the ultimate warrior and absolutely loyal to her country, while Nakia (T’Challa’s sister) is a contemporary version of James Bond’s Q – the ultimate technology whiz, and one with the zippiest zingers. Any of these characters could be the basis for a standalone movie, but together they elevate this to something much more than a couple of dudes in sleek suits fighting.

Martin Freeman (THE HOBBIT), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT), Sterling K Brown (“This is Us”), Angela Bassett, and Forest Whitaker are all contributors, and Andy Serkis is a frenzied standout in an all-too-brief turn as Klaue. The strong cast delivers even in the few moments when the script lags. In fact, the only piece of this puzzle that didn’t seem to fit was the traditional hand-to-hand combat to determine the next king. Why is it that a nation so advanced still relies on primitive courses of decision-making?  Perhaps this is merely commentary on our society, though providing a more intellectual solution would have been in line with the rest of the story.

The world of Wakanda is stunning. The costumes are sleek, colorful and fascinating. The characters are multi-dimensional. The action sequences are top notch (armored rhinos!). The cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who recently made history by being the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography (MUDBOUND). It’s these factors that allow Mr. Coogler’s film to achieve the level of importance that most comic book films wouldn’t dare to strive for. On top of everything, it accomplishes the one thing I demand from these type of movies … it’s quite fun to watch!

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Allowing three regular guys to play themselves in the cinematic re-telling of their courageous and heroic actions is a fitting tribute to the men, and it’s an approach that we must be willing to cut some slack. On August 21, 2015, a terrorist aboard the Thalys train bound for Paris was thwarted in his attempt to carry out his mission of evil. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler ultimately subdued the terrorist (who won’t be named here), likely saving many lives.

The real world heroics fall right in line with director Clint Eastwood’s two most recent films, SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER. Unfortunately, while we admire his decision to allow these heroes to re-enact their life-saving bravery, we can’t let slide the downright boring first two-thirds of the film taking us through the origin story of their childhood (Sacramento 2005) to the backpacking trip that put them on that train. Some of the scenes are inexplicable. For instance, Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the mothers of Spencer and Alek respectively, and their confrontation with the boys’ elementary school teacher is a candidate for the worst and most embarrassing scene of the year.

Based on the book “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes” (written by the three men and journalist Jeffrey E Stern), the script is adapted by Dorothy Blyskal, and when combined with some of the director’s choices, generates some unintended audience laughter … rarely a good thing. Watching three regular guys – three lifelong buddies – retrace their steps through Germany, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam is almost tolerable because these are really nice guys. However, we can’t get over the feeling that we are watching home movies of our friends’ trip – a trip we weren’t even on. Jokes about selfie sticks and hangovers don’t make it any easier.

When the film finally gets to the moment of truth on the train, we end up where we should have started … admiring the heroics of three regular guys: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler. We witness then French President Francois Hollande awarding them with the Legion of Honour. Themes of God, military and friendship are commonplace in Eastwood films, and eagle-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of Alek wearing a “man with no name” t-shirt (in honor of the director). Bottom line, it plays like a film about nothing – until the end when it’s really about something special.

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BOMB CITY (2017)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This feature film debut from Texas filmmaker Jameson Brooks (co-written with Sheldon Chick) was an Audience Award winner at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival. It’s based on the incredulous true story of a tragic crime and the subsequent trial that occurred in Amarillo in the late 1990’s. It’s also an introduction to a talented and exciting filmmaker with a message that is as every bit as important now for every community as it was 20 years ago in the Texas panhandle.

The courtroom scenes serve as the story structure while flashbacks are blended with the defense attorney (Glenn Morshower) commenting/mocking the evidence as it’s shown to the jury. This style keeps those unfamiliar with the story uncertain as to the actual victim and the circumstances of the crime – at least until the final act when we see a re-enactment of the crime and the final day of trial. However, even if one is familiar with the specifics of the case, it is presented in such an exceptional manner that it will surely be just as impactful.

Keeping in mind that this is west Texas (remember “Friday Night Lights”) and football reigns supreme, so the ongoing battle between the Punks and the Preps sets the stage for ultimate cultural battle … especially in an area that is home to a nuclear bomb assembly plant. Volatility abounds. There is a terrific sequence with parallel cuts between the mosh pit of a local punk rock concert and the on-field violence of a local high school football game. There are more similarities than differences, well, until the kids from the two sides cross paths in the real world. Class differences are obvious, and so is the usual teen angst and rebellious nature.

Distinct differences in how the authorities handle each group’s form of release are on full display. The punks are caught tagging, while the pasture party of the jocks gains frenzy. One of these ends with handcuffs, and the other with polite dismissal. The core of the story is the ongoing comparison between Brian (in a wonderful performance from Dave Davies), sporting a colorful Mohawk as he skateboards through town, and Cody (an effective Luke Shelton), a buttoned-up football player always striving to prove his mettle as he cruises around town in Daddy’s Cadillac. A sense of doom-filled destiny accompanies their scenes, and of course, we know it won’t end well.

Many will find the film reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola’s 1983 film THE OUTSIDERS, which featured the Greasers versus the Socs. The biting realism and grit of Mr. Brooks’ film helps us better understand the similarities between the two groups who look so different. And that’s the real message here: judging others by looks will never lead to understanding and peaceful coexistence. The cinematography of Jake Wilgonwski is a huge part of the emotional reaction we have to this story, and the notes provided at the end of the film leave us wondering if, 20 plus years later, we are any more advanced as a society than what occurred in that Amarillo parking lot.

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THE INSULT (2017, Lebanon)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a film opens with a statement that ‘the views expressed are those of the authors and director, and not of the government of Lebanon’, one quickly understands the difference in artistic freedom in that country versus what occurs in the United States, where cartoons and memes regularly poke fun at this country’s President. Director Ziad Doueri and his co-writer Joelle Touma present an intense story of human nature that might happen anywhere, but since the leads are a Lebanese Christian and a Palestine refugee, that opening statement is warranted.

One morning, a seemingly innocuous exchange between Tony (Adel Karam) and Yasser (Kamel El-Basha) takes place. While watering flowers on his balcony, the overflow sprays Yasser on the street below. Yasser, a city contractor, orders his team to fix the drainage issue, and Tony reacts violently – leading to Yasser delivering the titular insult. From there, all heck breaks loose. Apologies are requested and never delivered. Appeals to rational reconsideration are made. Tony’s pregnant wife (an excellent Rita Hayek) pleads with him to let it go. Yasser’s boss threatens him with termination. Still, two stubborn and prideful men refuse to give in.

The subsequent courtroom drama feature other side stories, not the least of which is the relationship between the two opposing attorneys (Diamond Bou Abboud and Camile Salaheh), one a rising legal star and the other a veteran attempting to make up for a past failure. Emotions run high as two too-proud men turn what was little more than a playground standoff into a national incident being fought in the legal system and the media. Tony is a hot-head who somehow thinks an apology from Yasser is actually an apology for how Palestinians “messed up this country”. Yasser’s stoic nature barely shrouds his bitterness at the world since the Lebanon Civil War. History and childhood roots play a role, but mostly it’s human nature that is at the core of this escalation.

Though the title is not plural, there are multiple insults slung throughout the film, each reminding us of the power of words and the futility of the “sticks and stones” phrase. Our own prejudices and preconceptions alter our views and reactions, often preventing us from standing in the other fellow’s shoes. Again, this situation could have played out in most any neighborhood on the globe, but this particular locale shows various ethnic and religious groups are still grappling with what it means to live together – despite the years of wars and unrest. We don’t see a great deal of Middle Eastern cinema, but three days after I watched this film, it became the first ever movie from Lebanon to receive an Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film) … proving yet again that the language of cinema is universal.

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HAVE A NICE DAY (2018, animated)

February 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need only read the credits to understand that this is a personal project of Liu Jian. It’s kind of comical to see his name come up as writer, director, illustrator, producer, and editor. He even wrote at least one of the songs featured in the film! An animated film from China that is clearly influenced by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and some modern day madcap caper films offers a nice respite from the typical January releases that hit the theatre.

Jian’s film is a crime thriller with socioeconomic subtext that hovers over each scene. An extended opening credits sequence provides the lay of the land (in this case, city) for the upcoming story. There is very little build up to the crime that ignites the cluster that follows. Xiao Zhang steals a bag filled with one million yuan. The bag belongs to “Uncle Liu”, a feared crime lord and gangster who sends his trusted and ruthless hitman “Skinny” to retrieve his money.

The old adage, “follow the money”, comes into play here. Following the money is not as simple as it sounds, as these aren’t brilliant criminal minds at work here. In addition to Tarantino, thoughts of the Coen Brothers came to mind, as did the Scorsese gem AFTER HOURS. Xiao Zhang has no heroic or altruistic motives. He simply wants to pay for a re-do of his fiancé’s botched plastic surgery. The zaniness around the money involves many colorful participants, each who have their own designs for the bag.

A couple of odd musical interludes involve Shangri-La and some ocean waves, and there is a God vs. Buddha debate that reminds of the infamous Mighty Mouse vs Superman argument in STAND BY ME. The film played well at festivals and at 77 minutes, it’s a briskly-paced chase movie that might have benefited from a bit more humor.

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