Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Movie Review - Where to Invade Next

Last year, the Oscar Academy's Documentary Branch determined 15 films as potential nominees from 124 eligible as part of a shortlist. That shortlist included this film by Michael Moore, the most successful filmmaker of his kind in terms of box office. This film didn't get the Oscar nomination, even though it should have. It's arguably the funniest documentary of the year that isn't about or by a comedian. It shows a true skill and a great sense of humor that Moore can take subjects like healthcare and police brutality and wrap them in humor excellently.

He has a comical premise, which is the government is sending him to various countries to steal ideas about how to fix socioeconomic problems and bring them back to apply to the United States. He visits about 10 countries, including Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia and Iceland. He talks to mostly middle-class workers about issues like education, healthcare, the criminal justice system and women's rights.

Moore's hope is that the U.S. would adopt the policies of these European countries. He doesn't argue that the American system should be totally reformed. He doesn't acknowledge that in pockets of the U.S. a lot of these policies are already enacted. His preference is simply that the policies become nationwide. Some critics say that Moore's film also doesn't acknowledge that a lot of those policies can't become nationwide due to political logistics or cultural lack of will.

The policies could be considered left-wing. The policies as ideas do possess a lot of logic that would vastly improve people's lives and people's overall happiness, as well as productivity in school and work. He concludes a lot of these policies might vastly improve American society overall when it comes to bettering relations between different races and the sexes. The policies might not be easy to transfer to the U.S., but I don't begrudge Moore for dreaming or aspiring for them. It doesn't account for many who are right-wing who only want more money and power.

One theme Moore underlines over and over is that of human dignity, along with fairness and equality, which are themes that have run through most, if not all Moore's films. This film in many ways might feel like a lot of his other films, but his sense of humor, his direction and editing make it so entertaining that one can forgive it.

Yet, when Moore wants to be serious, he can be. One sequence that is perhaps the darkest and most haunting of anything he's done is the sequence in Bowling for Columbine. I'll refer to it as the "What a Wonderful World" scene because it was edited to Louis Armstrong's famous song. In this film, Moore mimics that sequence but instead uses the song "We Are the World." Moore led us previously through the events ending in 9/11. Here, he leads us through the events ending in what could be BlackLivesMatter.

Moore is very topical and relevant. He's also very comprehensive at a lot of the core, social issues that should and need to be addressed. It's powerful and important. It's also a shame that it didn't get an Oscar nom.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

DVD Review - Freeheld (2015)

It's two movies for the price of one. Not literally, but this film feels like one thing at the start until it pivots and begins to feel like something else.

There are clearly two halves. The first is enjoyable. The second attempts to re-create the Oscar-winning documentary Freeheld (2007) on which this narrative is based. It does so with diminishing returns until eventually collapsing under its own weight and certainly not packing as emotional a punch, even if you haven't seen the 2007 short subject.

Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights and Still Alice) stars as Laurel Hester, a detective with the Ocean County Police Department in New Jersey. She's served in the police force for over 20 years. She's very good, very tough and very capable. She looks a little like Farrah Fawcett from Charlie's Angels or something. Laurel has a secret though. She hides the fact that she's gay.

Ellen Page (Juno and Inception) co-stars as Stacie Andree, a mechanic from Pennsylvania who likes to play volleyball and dance to country music. She falls for Laurel after meeting at a game in Philadelphia. They start dating, despite the age gap. They eventually buy a house and move in together. The only real problem is Stacie's desire to be out and open, whereas Laurel wants to stay in the closet.

The film focuses more on Laurel at first, so much that the whole thing feels like it's going to be about a female detective in the early 2000's solving crimes, while reconciling her sexuality as being a part of her identity. Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road and Man of Steel) plays Dane Wells, the detective who works with Laurel on cases. He's her partner on the force and comes off as a very masculine, old school-thinking kind of guy. Luke Grimes (Brothers & Sisters and True Blood) plays a newly-minted, NJ detective who is also secretly gay but he's even further in the closet than Laurel.

Having Laurel in the middle of these two guys and there being a divide among the police are barely touched in this film. It could have been an interesting and compelling narrative, but the movie doesn't really go there. It abandons Laurel as lesbian detective and makes the film a carbon copy of Philadelphia (1993). It's not surprising given the writer here is Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of that 1993 film. Nyswaner penned the Tom Hanks flick where he plays a white professional who becomes terminally ill but faces discrimination for being gay and has to battle it in a legal proceeding.

Tom Hanks' role becomes Julianne Moore's in this film's second half. After that, it has a lot of echoes to the documentary, but that's all it is. It's echoes. It doesn't have or simply isn't the full range of sound that the documentary has or is. It tries to give us more by taking us a little behind the scenes of the other side.

Josh Charles (The Good Wife and Masters of Sex) plays Bryan Kelder, a man known as a Freeholder. A Freeholder is an elected person who sits in the county legislatures in New Jersey and is an administrator for county matters. When Laurel gets sick and is diagnosed with lung cancer, he and the other four Freeholders for Ocean County have to decide if Stacie gets Laurel's pension benefits.

In the documentary, the Freeholders just sit in the front of the board room and listen to Laurel and Stacie make their arguments. Here, we follow Bryan and go home with him in a sense. We learn a bit about his family. Nyswaner doesn't do enough with this character. Nyswaner could have made him the Denzel Washington-equivalent from Philadelphia, but quite frankly he wastes time with another character who isn't that compelling.

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher and Little Miss Sunshine) plays Steven Goldstein, the head of Garden State Equality, the advocacy group that stages protests in support of Laurel and Stacie. The Freeholders deny the pension, which is money that automatically goes to spouses of Ocean County police. This movie takes place between 2000 and 2006, before legalization of same-sex marriage. Laurel and Stacie get a domestic partnership, which is supposed to be analogous to marriage but cases like this prove it's not. Steven pushes to change that.

Carell has moments that are funny like when he flirts with Shannon and Charles' characters, but other than that, his amount of screen-time is rather unnecessary.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.

DVD Review - Shelter (2015)

This film could be a companion piece to last year's Time Out of Mind, the movie that had Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City. Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) stars as a homeless woman in the same place. Like with Oren Moverman's film, this piece, written and directed by Paul Bettany, also pairs his star with a black man more down on his luck. Moverman offered Ben Vereen. Bettany instead offers Anthony Mackie with whom he shared a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but this certainly is not a movie about super heroes.

Mackie is Tahir, a Nigerian immigrant who sleeps on the streets, in the corners of alleyways, on top or even under bridges. He plays drums on white plastic tubs, like other street musicians, for money that he uses to buy food or whatever he can to sustain himself.

Connelly is Hannah, a drug addict who sleeps on top or even under bridges too. She also engages in prostitution in order to sustain herself. As the film progresses, more is learned about her. She has an easy way out of homelessness, but she chooses not to take it.

She falls in love with Tahir reluctantly. In many ways, he helps her to clean herself up and get back on track, but it could be argued that her love also causes some serious destruction. If anything, it causes her to make stupid decisions, which undermine her situation. However, it doesn't take away from the external difficulties of dealing with the shelter system.

Bettany doesn't make the case as well as Moverman. As he's said in interviews, specifically one on the DVD's extras, Bettany wasn't trying to make that case. He repeats that his goal was to do a film on judgment and judgments that people who aren't homeless have on people who are homeless or even judgments amongst the homeless themselves.

He does accomplish this goal. He perhaps goes too far. It's interesting to see the two characters sit down and have such an intelligent conversation about belief, as well as creationism vs. the Big Bang Theory. He then proceeds to saddle them with such horrible life-stories. That weight is perhaps too much.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations and brief, bloody violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Movie Review - Hail, Caesar

Joel and Ethan Coen's film feels like a rebuke to Jay Roach's Trumbo. It's set in 1950's Hollywood. It involves a group of writers who identify as Communists who try to subvert or exploit the movie-making industry. In Trumbo, those writers are fighting oppression and discrimination, and just struggle to find work. Those writers are heroes. Here, those writers become more the subject of derision and slight villainy. It's not enough of a rebuke because those writers or interactions with them don't constitute a storyline that rises to an equal level. It's arguably not even a central storyline despite involving George Clooney. It's essentially just a trifle, no weight to it at all, and you don't care about it. You don't care about Clooney's character and the whole Communist conspiracy thing is revealed to have no stakes.

Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, one of the biggest Hollywood actors who is the lead of a huge production called "Hail, Caesar" that has him playing a Roman general holding slaves in the time of Jesus Christ. One day, Baird is drugged and kidnapped from set. Later, the head of the movie studio making the production gets a ransom note from the kidnappers.

Josh Brolin co-stars as Eddie Mannix, the aforementioned head of the movie studio who not only has to oversee Baird's safe return but he also has to manage several other productions that are having problems, as well as controlling bad press in the media.

All of this is great foundation for an interesting send-up of what has been criticized as the controlling and authoritarian studio system of that era. Unfortunately, this foundation collapses because quickly it is felt that none of it matters. As weird and funny characters pop in and out, it becomes clear that they're there just to pop in and out, ultimately being of little to no consequence.

The Coen brothers try to build up the importance of this "Hail, Caesar" production, but it never goes far enough. It really never goes anywhere, except into several irrelevant or non-sequitur places. A subplot involving Scarlett Johansson and Jonah Hill was extremely pointless. The subplot involving Channing Tatum was less pointless but still ultimately of so little consequence.

Tatum plays Burt Gurney, an actor performing as a tap-dancing, singing sailor in a musical where the signature song is "No Dames" where a group of boys in the Navy lament and/or praise the fact that serving at sea means they won't encounter any women. It is perhaps the second, most homoerotic role Tatum has had, behind Magic Mike and just ahead of his cameo in This is the End where he proclaims an actual homosexual act. Tatum is well-used for his dancing abilities but not well-used elsewhere as Tatum still isn't a good actor.

Other Coen regulars like Frances McDormand pop in for one scene. The Coens also wrangle quite a few of the supporting cast from The Grand Budapest Hotel, but perhaps the real standout is Alden Ehrenreich who plays the young, handsome cowboy on-screen and off-screen, Hobie Doyle. Ehrenreich is a 26-year-old actor who essentially had his first feature be Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro (2009).

It's unclear though if the Coens are mocking Ehrenreich's character or not. The Coens also don't allow us into Hobie's head or give enough to build a narrative arc for him. The trick is that Hobie is good at physical things like horse acrobatics, but Hobie is not good at other things like delivering dramatics. Hobie is the Channing Tatum of the movie-within-this-movie.

Sadly, the Coens use Ehrenreich for really only one joke, which gets repetitive, and let him have fun with lassos of rope and pasta, but otherwise they waste the full range of a boyish actor who not only has the look but the talent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

With a bookend of a Catholic confession, the Coens try to make us feel something for Brolin's character, but the Coens move him from plot point to plot point without really rooting him in anything firm. I wasn't sure if his Eddie Mannix cared about his job or his family. I wasn't sure if Eddie cared much about anything. Yes, he seems concerned with getting forgiveness from the priest but that felt like a role he was playing as anything else.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.

Movie Review - 4th Man Out

If one didn't know the premise of this film, it doesn't take long to figure out what it is. Evan Todd stars as Adam, a 24-year-old mechanic in Albany, New York, who is nervous about wanting to tell his friends something, a secret supposedly. It's maybe not apparent, given Adam's appearance. He looks like your run-of-the-mill, scruffy, white, heterosexual, single dude who goes out drinking with his scruffy buddies as they talk sports and hit on girls. Yet, almost right away, it's clear that Adam isn't interested in hitting on girls. After being anxious and agonizing over it, Adam finally whispers to his best friend that he's gay.

Parker Young (Suburgatory and Enlisted) co-stars as Chris, the aforementioned best friend who is obviously the hottest of all the four guys we meet. He's also the clear ladies man. He's the most charming, and the one who sleeps with the most women.

Chord Overstreet (Glee) also co-stars as Nick, a guy who doesn't seem that different from Overstreet's character in Glee. Except, Nick is more homophobic. He becomes convinced that Adam wants to have sex with him, either because all gay men are lecherous and/or because Nick himself is just so irresistible. Nick has a natural curiosity. He doesn't seem that bright, but he does read a lot, if only to randomly spit out trivia.

Jon Gabrus (CollegeHumor Originals) plays the fourth friend, Ortu, the funny, overweight guy. He's uneasy because he likes to make a lot of gay jokes or throw out one-liners that have homoerotic undertones or gay double entendres. These jokes are either mocking or lobbied as insults. At a poker game, a one-liner makes the dynamic or the energy in the room awkward.

It's not due to Adam being offended but due to Ortu and the other two guys not wanting to offend or hurt Adam. There is an empathetic sense from Ortu, Nick and Chris. They aren't bad guys, despite some of the disgusting things they do. There are a lot of stereotypical misconceptions they harbor about gay people, so much that it throws them into a bit of a panic and high discomfort, which they only express when Adam is not in the room.

None of them are mean though. Maybe they do a few stupid things, but in general they quickly accept and eventually grow comfortable with Adam. Their homophobia really is only an issue for less than a third of the film. The turn occurs where it becomes obvious that Adam is a shy guy and doesn't date any men, even after leaving high school, so Chris, Nick and Ortu take it upon themselves to help him become more comfortable and open about his homosexuality.

Aaron Dancik's debut screenplay is interesting in that it has that turn. The homophobic guys end up learning just as much, if not more about gay culture than the actual gay man and help him to come out in ways other than just saying the words. They also try to find Adam a romantic interest. The problem is that Dancik's script as it's depicted is too thin.

Dancik doesn't fill out enough of the world in which the straight guys inhabit. For example, Ortu throws a 4th of July party in his backyard, which occurs in the movie's last act. We see Ortu's girlfriend in this scene and Ortu does something with his girlfriend that felt hollow. Because we get literally nothing about the girlfriend, it's impossible for us to care about her or Ortu's relationship with her.

Besides Nick's homophobia and propensity to read and spit out trivia, we get hardly anything about him either, except a love of Les Miserables. Based on various montages, Nick is only identified as average, white, heterosexual male, which is only slightly less than Chris. Sadly, by the end, there's not many details about Chris that can be recounted either. It's also odd how Chris of them all never realized beforehand that his best friend was gay.

An action that Chris takes in the last third makes no sense. He does something, which is obviously meant to help Adam, but two seconds later, he has an attitude with Adam as if his prior action never happened. His romantic subplot is a bit clunky in its depiction. Apparently, there's one girl with whom he's supposed to be falling in love, but the movie never sells that point. At the end, it's something taken for granted.

Adam's romantic subplot isn't clunky but it's not clear what Dancik and first-time director Andrew Nackman were trying to say. There is a montage of Adam dating a series of men, all different and all clearly not suitable for him. The last guy whom he meets named Matt is hinted to be "the one" for Adam, but there's no real rhyme or reason as to why. The movie cuts before he even asks Matt out or expresses his true feelings for him.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.

Playing in select cities and VOD.
For more info, go to

Friday, February 5, 2016

DVD Review - Chi-Raq (Black History Month)

Black History Month doesn't have to be all about what happened fifty, a hundred or even two-hundred years ago. It can also be recent history. Co-writer and director Spike Lee deals with recent history in his latest film.

He places words on screen. At first, the words are lyrics in red against a black background, lyrics to a rap song, "Pray 4 My City." Performed by Nick Cannon, the song is pure rage and sadness over what's happening in Chicago. Lee then puts on screen words to a startling statistic, and now recent historical fact. The words read that the deaths, mostly murders by gun violence, in Chicago have been greater than all the deaths of combat troops in the Middle East wars like Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2005.

A lot of the murders are gang violence between rival African-American men. Aggressive policing and subsequently aggressive incarceration are not the answer, but for the government it's the only answer. Lee proffers another answer, one that comes from both recent and ancient history. Because Chicago has been compared to Iraq, in fact "Chi-Raq" is a combination of Chicago and Iraq, both being seen as horrible war zones, Lee proffers a solution to force peace between men at arms.

This film is an adaptation of a play by Aristophanes. Aristophanes was a Greek writer who created Lysistrata in 411 BC. Lysistrata was about a woman who decides that the best way to achieve peace between the warring men was to deny them sex.

Fast forward nearly 2500 years, Lee probably shows his process when he has his female protagonist named Lysistrata, played by Teyonah Parris, literally do a Google search of this idea, denying sex to stop war. It's a sex strike or sex ban. There have been several, successful, sex strikes over the past decade or so. One occurred in Liberia, orchestrated by Leymah Gbowee, resulting in her winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lysistrata here decides to copy Gbowee's sex strike. She lives in Englewood, a neighborhood in the south side of Chicago, which has the description as being "the most dangerous" neighborhood in the city. Lee fictionalizes the gang violence as occurring between the Spartans in purple and the Trojans in orange.

Lysistrata is the girlfriend to the leader of the Spartans. She decides to go to the girlfriend of the leader of the Trojans, Indigo, played by Michelle Mitchenor, and get her to get all women on both sides to agree to the sex strike and stand strong to it.

Angela Bassett co-stars as Miss Helen Worthy, a woman who has lived in Englewood longer than Lysistrata and Indigo. She steers them toward coming up with the sex strike and is instrumental in getting older women and all other women who aren't linked to the gangs or who even live outside Chicago and beyond to join the sex strike.

It's an interesting premise that could have led to a great satire about the battle of the sexes. Instead the whole thing feels like a rant that Spike Lee is giving in movie-form rather than telling a cohesive story with a structured narrative and character development. For example, Lysistrata is more an idea or concept than a fully fleshed-out character. We never learn if she has a family or what her interests are beyond the movie's premise. Why or how she was attracted to the Spartans' leader is never explored either.

Nick Cannon who plays the Spartans' leader and titular character, Chi-Raq, and Wesley Snipes who plays Cyclops, the Trojans' leader, are more just concepts as well. Chi-Raq is a rapper and Cyclops has one eye, and that's really the extent we learn about them. Except, both like sex, which stereotypically all men like.

What Lee doesn't reconcile is that women like sex too. However, Lee never really shows women struggling with the denial of sex. Even if we accept the stereotypical premise that men desire sex more, he doesn't fully account for soldiers in war zones like in the Middle East or even men in prison who are already denied sex. He dismisses masturbation or homosexuality, and he doesn't dare tread on the dark ground of rape.

The best sequence is a 10-minute scene where Mike Corridan, played by John Cusack, delivers a very powerful sermon as a priest at a local church in Englewood. Cusack also delivers the best acting performance of any person in the film. Mike becomes a vehicle for Lee's rant in purer form, but Cusack makes it work. He lays out the bigger problems like economic inequalities, contributing to the crime rate. Yet, sadly, those bigger picture problems are ignored for the rest of the movie.

By the end, Lysistrata wants the Spartans and the Trojans to give up all their guns, but she makes no mention of them not selling drugs or not picking up a book and getting an education. Gang violence results from drug trafficking and one gang trying to dominate or consolidate and make more money. Giving up guns won't magically lift all the men and women out of poverty, get them educated, trained or give them jobs with a living wage.

Lee's attack of the problems in Chicago are ultimately superficial. It addresses the symptoms but not the cause or root of the real problems.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content including nudity, language, some violence and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

DVD Review - The New Girlfriend

Une nouvelle amie is The Danish Girl meets Carol, but set in modern-day France and has a more optimistic tone but just as superficial a tact. It's a roundabout, love affair involving two characters who both end up blurring gender and sexual-orientation lines. It's an unlikely path to romance and to family and parenthood that most people probably haven't seen. In that, it's surprising and somewhat refreshing. As such, it's vastly more interesting than Tom Hooper and even Todd Haynes' Oscar-nominated films, which in terms of queer cinema aren't.

Anaïs Demoustier stars as Claire, a woman with a good, office job and a good boyfriend, but her best friend Laura recently died. This has supremely affected her. She's in mourning as any person would be, but it goes further and deeper for her. She's almost in depression and is hesitant to visit Laura's husband and baby. Her hesitancy arises not from the loss of a life-long friendship and how visitations to husband and baby might remind of that loss. Her hesitancy arises more from the loss of a lover, if not the love of her life.

Written and directed by François Ozon, the opening ten minutes is reminiscent of the opening of Pixar's Up. We have what could be considered a montage depicting the life and death of a couple in love. That couple are two schoolgirls, Claire and Laura. Watching this montage, it becomes clear that Claire's feelings go beyond that of Greta Gerwig's character in Frances Ha.

Aside from Laura's marriage and birth of her baby, it's assumed that the montage might end with Claire and Laura running off in some kind of lesbian affair. Alas, such isn't the case and the two go their separate ways and build separate lives, much like in Brokeback Mountain. Yet, the separation is brief.

Ozon uses a powerful image to convey what becomes a powerful theme in the film. We see Laura getting dolled up in a wedding dress, but it's not to attend her wedding. It's to put her in a coffin. She's dressed in her wedding gown for her funeral. It's a powerful image. A wedding denotes two people coming together whereas a funeral denotes loss, and Ozon is conveying the coming together through loss or death, which is a grim idea for a romance, but there's a lot of truth in it.

Romain Duris co-stars as David, the husband and now widow of Laura. He's left to raise their, six-month-old, baby daughter, Lucie, on his own. Lucie is a fussy baby who clearly misses her mother and David, a tall, skinny guy, seems like a lonely guy with not a lot of friends. We don't figure out why until Claire is pushed by her boyfriend, Gilles, played by Raphaël Personnaz, to visit David.

Spoiler alert! Based on the novel by Ruth Rendell, it's revealed that David is a cross-dresser and is possibly transgender. David has started wearing Laura's clothes and a blonde wig. Claire is shocked and doesn't accept David's transition. The rest of the film is essentially Claire learning to accept David who is becoming "Virginia." At the same time, Claire has to come to terms with her latent homosexuality.

The way she gets there is such a roundabout way as to be almost confusing. Yet, Ozon's direction and the acting performances are so deft and inspired that any confusion is assuaged.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some strong sexual content and graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.