Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Movie Review - Transcendence

The premise of this movie is that a dying man transfers his mind or consciousness into a computer where he exists as a digital program without a body.

This idea of mixing a man's head with that of a machine isn't new. Just a couple of weeks ago, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the character of Zola do the same thing. The TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation also did the same thing. In Season 4, Episode 19, "The Nth Degree," had the character of Reginald Barclay upload his brain into ship's computer.

Wally Pfister's debut feature is a back-and-forth between humans who trust that technology is our savior, or is our God, and those who think technology will ultimately destroy us. The first half of the film is all about trusting technology. The second half is all about mistrusting.

I didn't catch the metaphor at the time, but in the center of this technology tug-of-war is the Jesus Christ story. Johnny Depp plays Will Caster but his name might as well be Jesus Christ. Will's gospel is about the wonders of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

The people who crucify him argue against these wonders. Why? No specific reason is given in the script by Jack Paglen. They just need to be anti-Will, enough to want to kill him, and kill him they do. Jesus, I mean Will, doesn't stay killed. He's resurrected. The question is if Will has then the same intentions as Jesus.

Will speaks with the same compassion or at times a tone of voice as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), so we're conditioned to be wary. There's no humor or charm to Will once he becomes a digital program. It's not like Scarlett Johansson's character of Samantha in Spike Jonze's Her. Johansson's performance is boiling over with humor and charm. It fools completely as a real-life woman. Depp's performance, his face and voice feel robotic, cold, computerized and stiff. It's a curiosity of how more trusting Will's digital self would have been if that digital self had more of a funny and warm personality.

It's also a curiosity how the screenplay doesn't help to establish relationships and characters. There isn't much setup that bonds or builds the love between Will and his wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (The Prestige and Vicky Cristina Barcelona). There isn't much that bonds or builds the friendship between Will and Max, played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code). Bettany and Hall are good enough actors to make it work, but, again the script doesn't serve them that well.

Max then has to turn against Will and the script doesn't help us to understand why Max makes that turn. Max sides with a terrorist group. Given all that the terrorist group does, including killing Max's best friend, the logical leap for him to then join that terrorist group is not there. It makes no sense.

The ending makes no sense either. Will and Evelyn build this laboratory where Will can conduct experiments and work on advancing technology exponentially further. When that lab goes under attack, he could easily escape, but he doesn't. Evelyn is shot and he could easily heal her with nanotechnology, but he doesn't, and the explanation as to why is too confusing.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.

DVD Review - Lady Peacock

KC Comeaux (left) and
Alec W. Seymour in "Lady Peacock"
When gay men dress up as women in colorful makeup and costumes in order to impress potential mates, it's called being a peacock. Yes, a lady peacock is just another term for a drag queen, but, aside from one person in this movie, the two main characters aren't drag queens.

What they are are totally hot for each other, but there is an acute triangle at work here. The story is simple. Two guys fight over a third, forcing the third to choose which one to whom he'll ultimately give his virginity.

That third guy is named Devin, and he's played by the very cute KC Comeaux. Devin is the object of desire between two boys but is also a lot more than that. He's comparable to Andrew Keegan's character in The Broken Hearts Club (2000).

It's no question that Devin is gay but he seems not to hit the obvious gay clichés or stereotypes. In the gay club, Devin is very straight-acting. The aspiring architect wears a baseball cap. He doesn't talk or carry himself with the same air as the other more effeminate men, not that that's a bad thing.

On one side of him is Conner, a former nerd who's savvy in the gay scene but who has a bit of a confidence problem. On the other side is Edwin, a Latino who isn't shy about anything and certainly goes after what he wants. Conner isn't shy either. He voices his opinion but is sometimes hesitant. Edwin is just a lot stronger. Some might call him bitchy.

Alec W. Seymour plays Conner who first eyes Devin in the club. The two connect but don't have sex. They have a bit of respect for each other. Joshua Cruz plays Edwin who eyes Devin the next night and doesn't share Conner's restraint. He just wants to get Devin in the sack.

Who wouldn't? But, that's when the fight for Devin begins. The gay bar called Club Calais, somewhere in New York, hosts drag queen competitions. Edwin and Conner use that competition as a way to settle the rivalry over who will have Devin's chastity. A turn of events takes the competition off the stage and into the streets or at least the parking lot in front of the club. Yes, things get violent.

Yet, the performances of the peacocks are full songs with director Jana (AJ) Mattioli not doing a lot of coverage for them. Mattoli just keeps the camera straight on. It allows you to fully appreciate the performances as they're happening.

The songs for the most part are lip-sync. I don't think it's out of a lack of ability for the boys to sing. As KC Comeaux proved with a brilliant YouTube video, he can definitely sing. Check it out here. Lip-sync just comes from a long tradition in the drag world.

The B-story involves Conner's friend Mathew, played by Simon Vargas. Mathew is in an acute triangle too with an older white guy who's in a 15-year relationship with a cupcake maker. It sounds pretty funny, but there is a strange sweetness to it that goes to age disparity in dating with a genuineness and a gentleness that you don't often get in films.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.

Monday, April 21, 2014

DVD Review - Let the Fire Burn

Michael Moses Ward, one of two survivors
of the 1985 Osage Avenue fire in Philadelphia
On May 13, 1985, a great fire destroyed 61 homes on the western-most block of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a raging inferno. The greatness of this fire cannot be underscored. It consumed 61 homes, which is to say the entire city block. What's notable about this fire, other than its size, is how it got started and how it ultimately got to be so large.

The fire was actually started by the Philadelphia Police Department and the fire got to be so large because the Philadelphia Fire Department was basically told not to do anything. In fact, the title of this documentary, which tells the events leading up to and through this fire, comes from a quote by then Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, the city's first black mayor, elected in 1983. Mayor Goode said, "Let the fire burn!" And, burn it did. As a result, the fire ended up killing eleven people, including five children, and ultimately none of the officials involved were punished.

At the time, the Philadelphia news media did an excellent job of covering this event. Director Jason Osder has done the task of gathering that news coverage and assembling it into a non-narrated narrative that walks us through the events that concluded in the conflagration. This movie is comprised of nothing but footage from 6ABC, CBS3, NBC10, WHYY and Temple University, as well as information from The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. A lot of it is footage during the fire, but there's also a lot that comes from the run up. 6ABC even did a documentary in 1976 about the subject at the center of the fire.

The subject is that of the organization known as "MOVE." The organization was founded by a man calling himself John Africa. The organization seems like it consisted mainly of John Africa's family but then started recruiting various members it could find. Some of them were former Black Panther members. As such, MOVE was perhaps looked at as a similar militant group. Members who were interviewed in the late 70s and early 80s continually spoke of their rejection of government institutions, rejection of technology and rejection of processed foods in favor of eating more raw foods and the utilization of more raw materials from the Earth.

All of this seems innocuous until MOVE started disrupting or being an annoyance to their neighbors. MOVE was originally established in the Philadelphia neighborhood called Powelton Village, just north of the city's Ivy League school UPenn and Drexel University. One disruption came in the form of MOVE breaking the sidewalk concrete. More incidents occurred, escalating to confrontations with police that turned deadly.

MOVE was eventually forced out of Powelton Village and re-organized in what was 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia. Once there, the organization continued to cause disruptions and annoyances to their neighbors. Some city officials had already labeled MOVE a terrorist group. Tension reached a boiling point forcing a standoff at that house on Osage Avenue.

The neighbors were evacuated leaving the MOVE members barricaded in the Osage Avenue house. The police and fire department surrounded it and proceeded to take aggressive measures to get those MOVE members out. It's those measures that were the most outrageous and over-the-top and that ultimately led to the fire.

Thanks to the news media, almost every minute was captured on live television with the news reporters having to comment in the moment, speak off-the-cuff and often be flustered or in shock as to what was happening. Osder's inter-cuts the Special Investigation Commission, which was broadcast on the Philadelphia PBS station after the incident and featured testimonials of the people involved. Former MOVE members and police officers are all questioned.

Osder's selection hits the central issue of how do we treat radical and rebellious groups that claim religious freedoms. I don't wish to compare MOVE to polygamists to Scientologists or the Westboro Baptists, or even to cults, but those thoughts do cross the mind when trying to contextualize and understand MOVE. I suppose the closest comparison would be to the Black Panthers, but it wasn't necessarily only white people who had a problem with MOVE. Fellow black people did too.

The broader question, however, goes to police and government misconduct. No matter the opinion of MOVE, the five children who died that day in the fire did not have to die and shouldn't have. It was the police's aggressive actions and the fire department's negligence or lack of actions that are to blame. Yet, they weren't blamed. They all got away with killing 11 people needlessly.

Because of Academy rules, Osder's movie was not eligible for an Oscar. Osder compiled all stock footage and shot no new footage for this documentary. Osder did win the Jury Award for Best Local Feature at the 2013 Philadelphia Film Festival. This movie won two awards at the Tribeca Film Festival. It also won an IDA Award, as well as a Spirit Award. It is a knockout piece.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.

DVD Review - Philomena

I wanted to see all the films nominated for Best Picture around the time of the 86th Academy Awards. This is the last one for me to review. It was up for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Music, Best Writing and Best Actress. It lost all four, but I think its nominations were deserved. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, this is the story of how former BBC News journalist and Prime Minister press secretary Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, met retired nurse Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, and helped her to find her long lost son, originally named Anthony.

The movie deals with a very serious subject in which a woman has her toddler son taken away by prudish nuns and the Catholic Church. She then has to deal with not knowing what happened to him for almost 50 years. Yet, there is comedy to this film and a lot of it comes through Dench's performance and her character's relationship with Coogan's character.

The screenplay by Steve Coogan himself and Jeff Pope throws together these two contrasting characters on a road trip. This is not unfamiliar territory for Coogan. He recently wrote and starred in the film The Trip (2011), which also throws two contrasting characters on a road trip. For this film, the way in which the two characters contrast is in their beliefs. Philomena is a devout Irish-Catholic, whereas Martin is practically an atheist.

What's great is that these opposing beliefs aren't expressed in grand debates between the two while driving in the car. They do take issue with each other on one occasion, but it's not a constant back-and-forth. Where the contrasts come out is in certain behavioral actions. Her tactics to dealing with things or people clashes with his tactics. One breakfast scene is an example where how they respond to something shows their contrast just as much as if they had some long verbal match.

The dynamic between Philomena and Martin come to a head at the very end in a very powerful and well-acted scene between Dench and Coogan. It's very simple but resonates so strongly, and in one great punch it also exposes the hypocrisy and the narrow-mindedness, as well as the un-Christ-like practices within the Catholic Church.

Yet, at the same time, this movie is not a condemnation of the Church, or an attack against it. Philomena never loses faith or sight of her beliefs and values. Her love and forgiveness, which are fundamental in the teachings of the Church, are two things she doesn't allow to leave her spirit at any point. Yes, she makes her mistakes. Yes, she has horrible things done to her, but she maintains her love and forgiveness.

This movie is not How to Survive a Plague (2012), but it does have a brief education on AIDS and HIV in relation to Republican politics in the 1980s and early 90s. One of the characters turns out to be gay and Coogan's script properly addresses the issues, surrounding what a gay person would have to handle back in that time. It's handled delicately in the hands of director Stephen Frears who has dealt with gay issues in films like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987).

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Movie Review - Bears

The opening scenes are breath-taking of the Alaska peninsula. All of the landscapes that follow are equally so. From snow-covered mountains to high-grass meadows to sandy beaches to a literal golden pond, any nature photographer worth his salt can craft beautiful visuals out of this.

The more and more I watch these Earth-Day, Disney films though, the more and more I realize the formula. The filmmakers take a year in the life of a particular animal and observe all that the animal does to survive, like finding food and fending off predators.

John C. Reilly's narration is funny and entertaining, as he provides us with what intuitively the bears are thinking or comedic riffs on their actions, as well as with educational material on the environment and habits. The most interesting bit to come from his narration is the way in which several animals, including bears, wolves and even ravens, are really good at being thieves.

Unfortunately, filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are at the whim of whatever they capture and whatever the animals do. If what the animals do isn't enough to write an interesting or compelling narrative, beyond the typical narrative for these nature documentaries, then it makes for a boring film, which this movie ultimately becomes.

For the most part, this movie is a bunch of brown bears splashing around ponds and streams fishing for salmon, eating it and then laying around scratching themselves. There isn't the fight for survival or dissection of bear behavior or animal society as in Disney's African Cats or Derek Joubert's The Last Lions (2011).

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated G for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 17 mins.

Movie Review - The Raid 2: Berandal

Iko Uwais (left) and Cecep Arif Rahman in a
really long, kitchen fight in "The Raid 2: Berandal"
I wrote a review to this sequel's previous film, and I feel like almost everything I said a year and a half ago about that previous film, I could say again. The exception is that I didn't enjoy this second-go-round. This film was too long and it revels in violence and brutality to a degree that became extremely unappealing. The Raid 2 is more martial arts porn that showcases and is a vehicle to see a ton of guys get killed. This would have been fine, if the film didn't try to be more than just porn. The fact that it tries to tell a dramatic, and seemingly epic story causes it to collapse under its own weight.

Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais reprises his role as Rama, the Jakarta police officer who took down a drug lord in control of a high-rise building. Rama did so, pretty much by himself with nothing more than his feet and fists. This movie follows almost immediately after the first ends with Rama being put undercover to expose police corruption connected to another drug lord named Bangun, played by Tio Pakusodewo (Java Heat). Bangun is maintaining the peace opposite other mobster families.

How Rama infiltrates Bangun's organization is through impressing and even saving Bangun's son, Uco, played by Indonesian-German actor Arifin Putra, in several prison fight scenes. Rama is given the false identity of Yuda, the name of Uwais' character in his very first film Merantau (2009). Rama pretends to be Yuda, a hardened criminal who is sentenced to the same prison as Uco. His job is to befriend Uco and gain his trust. Aside from a cafeteria talk where Rama is stoic, the two prison fight scenes, the bathroom and the mud yard fight, are all we're given. The film cuts to two years later and it jumps to Uco embracing Rama and it's not enough. There needed to be more to build that relationship between Rama and Uco.

After a while, the movie loses sight of what Rama is doing as an undercover cop, what his goal is or even that Rama is a presence here. There are literally many, many, many scenes where Rama is absent and there is no regard to where he is or what he's doing. It got to a point where I ceased to care about Rama.

There's even a redundancy where Rama learns that there is another undercover cop. It's at that other cop's reveal that it's confirmed that Rama is redundant and his character was not needed at all in this plot. Writer-director Gareth Evans could have made this movie exclusively about Uco and Bangun, a father and son, mobster tale of jealousy and betrayal, but Evans ruins it with a ton of unnecessary stuff.

For example, Evans introduces a character, Prakoso or Koso, played by Yayan Ruhian, who played a completely different character in Evans' previous film. Clearly, Evans likes this guy who is a very good, martial artist. Ruhian is actually the fight choreographer for all three of Evans' Indonesian movies. Sadly, everything about the character of Koso is completely unnecessary and a waste of narrative drive. Never at any point do we care about Koso but so much time and reverence is given to this character that it didn't make sense.

Because of all this waste, this film feels like it just wants to revel in depravity and violence. One scene has a random moment where we see pornography or gender-bending sex occur with no explanation and another scene has a character slowly and methodically slice open and kill five men one by one. The fight scenes go on forever when they didn't need to do.

It's one thing to do the display of endurance, which the first attempted that makes the movie like watching ballet or some form of dance. For martial arts enthusiasts, this is a night out at the ballet. For those who aren't martial arts enthusiasts, this comes across as Evans merely wanting to paint the screen with blood, even to the point of contriving action scenes that feel extremely, extremely contrived.

Rama is captured and the bad guys are ordered to get rid of him. Instead of shooting him while he's down and unconscious, which they should have done, they drag him out and put him in the back seat of a car. Instead of tying Rama up or throwing him in the trunk, which they should have done, the bad guys give him a nice comfy seat in the back seat. Why do they do this? It's not because it makes sense. It was because Evans wanted a fight scene in the car, resulting in a very long and crazy car chase scene. This is an example of Evans contriving action against all logic.

Evans has so much gore, so much blood, and so much of it in the face of the audience. It's clear that he's reveling in violence. One scene has Rama press a man's face against a hot stove, melting the side of the person's head. Evans' camera lingers on the man's face as it's being burned. He lingers on it for a long time, almost as if this is his porn and in-your-face violence arouses him. With the face-burning scene, he's giving you the cum shot.

It's bad enough when the villains engage in this kind of pornographic violence, but to have the filmmaking do this to the protagonist is the worse. Rama is already a non-presence here. To have him depicted in this pornographic way is further unappealing and distancing.

At least, Evans is honest in his intentions. An early scene has Rama strip completely naked, so Bangun can look at his penis. The point is that Bangun is making sure Rama can be trusted. Any evidence of Rama's disloyalty would result in his death or violence against Rama. This is the perfect scene illustrating what this movie is.

Here, you have Iko Uwais naked and in a pornographic position but the scene is all about the threat or the infliction of violence. It's not like a naked Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). That movie took the time to develop that character and not revel or dwell in the violence.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 30 mins.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review - Interior. Leather Bar.

Val Lauren (left) and Christian Patrick
in "Interior. Leather Bar."
This is not a feature-length film. It's only 60 minutes, but it's an effort from James Franco, starring James Franco and about James Franco's exploration of gay sexuality in cinema. His supposition is that there isn't enough of it and that what little gay sex there is doesn't go far enough, at least not in mainstream, multiplex movies. While films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Milk (2008), also starring James Franco, are few and far between.

This past year saw the release of Blue is the Warmest Color and Stranger By the Lake, which both won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and both feature graphic, gay sexuality. This past year also saw Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, which also contains graphic sexuality. These films might negate Franco's argument, but Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) convincingly made the case that within the industry-at-large there is a reticence about exploring not only gay sexuality but simply gay characters. Steven Soderbergh's problems with getting financing and American theatrical distribution for Behind the Candelabra also aide in Franco's case.

Franco's intentions here are noble and progressive. It's great that he's tackling these issues and pushing these issues. Unfortunately, the final product here is inadequate. There isn't enough information or context to have care in the characters or this fake situation.

Yes, despite James Franco and everyone else appearing as themselves, these are "characters" and this is a fake situation. It's filmed like a documentary, but the way certain moments play out, it's obvious that this whole thing isn't real. It might as well be an episode of The Office.

It stars Val Lauren as a version of himself who in reality has worked for Franco a couple of times before. Previously, Val Lauren was the titular character in the James Franco-directed Sal (2013), about two-time Oscar nominee, gay actor and murder victim, Sal Mineo.

Lauren meets with Franco and co-director Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love) about their next movie project. It's similar to how Franco opens Sal, which is of Mineo meeting with his agent or manager about his next movie project, which is also addressing a controversial story involving gay sex. Here, Lauren discusses with Franco and Mathews their intentions to re-create the lost 40 minutes from the film Cruising (1980).

According to a title card, director William Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes out of Cruising in order to appease the MPAA ratings board. Franco and Mathews want to re-shoot or re-make those 40 minutes. From what we gather later, that footage is mostly scenes inside the leather bar where gay men who like wearing leather and enjoy sadomasochism go to have sex.

Presumably, Franco and Mathews don't actually re-create all 40 minutes because they don't show all of it, only a few scenes. If they had shown all 40 minutes, this movie in its entirety would have been longer. What they do is only show two scenes. The rest of the movie is just Franco and Lauren and a lot of the other actors, many of whom from Playhouse West, sitting and talking about the movie. Some don't understand why Franco is doing this. Some who are gay hope to see Franco naked. Some actors who are straight discuss what they're comfortable doing on screen in terms of nudity and sex acts.

These conversations are interesting, but the focus is more on Lauren, which is understandable, but some more back story or interviews with these actors would have been helpful. One could argue that the movie wants to be more cinéma vérité or fly-on-the-wall that's secretly capturing these actors in between filming scenes, but that's invalidated when a casual conversation between Lauren and another actor getting makeup to be a drag queen is revealed to be staged and the director is prompting questions.

It's compelling to watch Lauren watch the filming of the sex scenes. It's compelling to figure out what's going through Lauren's mind. He's a straight guy watching graphic, if not pornographic, gay sex occur right in front of him. He might feel obligated to stay but he does stay and continues to look. He objects to it to a degree but also sees the beauty in it afterward.

The question is what is watching Lauren meant to do. Is Lauren meant to go on a journey? If so, to what end? He's not homophobic. He's not even making objections that some of the gay actors aren't. It might be that Franco and Mathews are trying to imply that Lauren is going down the scene path as Al Pacino's character in Cruising, so that by the end the audience wonders about Lauren's sexuality. Maybe he's now a little gay.

Making that implication seems to force the issue, especially in an environment where you don't trust the filmmaker or don't understand him. Basic questions needed to be answered. For one, how does Franco and Mathews know what these 40 minutes are? Were they able to find that footage from 30 years ago, which was supposedly destroyed? Did they have a conversation with Friedkin or Pacino about what happened in that cut footage?

Franco and Mathews depict full-frontal nudity and actual fellatio with erect penises. I think that Friedkin is a bold and progressive filmmaker, but I question if he actually filmed real fellatio or anything like what Franco and Mathews film. Friedkin did edit unsimulated sex scenes from a porn film into the movie but nothing he filmed himself. It's a wonder how much of a fight Friedkin put up for those 40 minutes. If it wasn't that big of a fight, then why does Franco care about these 40 minutes so much?

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic, gay sex.
Running Time: 60 mins.
Available on Netflix.