Category Archives: 2012 Movies

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Ambercrombie & Fitch (2022)

I don’t know if the superficial fashion company Ambercrombie & Fitch deserves a better expose but a superficial documentary now on Netflix feels like a nostalgia trip that trades in too many glancing, annoying generalities. White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Ambercrombie & Fitch feels like an extended segment from one of those old I Love the 90s specials that used to dominate VH1 where a group of talking heads chatted nostalgically about whatever pop culture bon mot of the past that deserved reverence or being forgotten. I think there could be a story here too. Ambercrombie’s success was built upon two men, both of them gay, creating a brand image basically around the kind of man they found most alluring and attractive: WASPy, muscular, young, and their idea of what it meant to be American (a.k.a. white frat boys). One of those men was closeted and mercurial, and the other was a prominent photographer who was also a predator, but both of these men were responsible for a largely heterosexual cultural landscape accepting their vision and wanting to match their personal preferences. There’s also a story about their wantonly discriminatory hiring practices, keeping minorities in the back or with overnight shifts, wanting to maintain their CEO’s image of people in stores, including hiring people based upon attraction (i.e. thin and white) and not even whether they could be a functional employee. However, director Alison Klayman, no stranger to documentaries that feel rushed and uninformative (Jagged, The Brink, Take Your Pills), would rather speed through an armada of interview talking heads for clipped sound bytes and vague explanations for what made Ambercrombie so popular and then stopped being so (“It was really cool… and then I guess it wasn’t”). The doc completely misses relevant subjects like the online shopping revolution, the decline of malls and mall culture, or anything of actual meaningful cultural contribution beyond the rise of social media. According to the movie, because of social media, more people have voices, I guess just forgetting there was an Internet beforehand. It is strange, by today’s standards, for a large fashion company to be willfully uninterested in its brand being more inclusive. By the end, the documentary even seems to sell a redemption story, so it doesn’t go far enough in its condemnation because that would get in the way of its nostalgia trip and would actually push the interview subjects to confront more of their own actions or inaction. Alas, White Hot is yesterday’s news without any lasting appeal or insight.

Nate’s Grade: C

Marry Me (2022)

Marry Me has a premise that is so silly that it feels like it would be the setup of a fake movie within some other movie universe, something depicting the creative lunacy of Hollywood for easy satirical laughter. But no it’s real. Based upon a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby of the same name, Jennifer Lopez plays music superstar Kat. She’s a best-selling and provocative performer and her latest single, “Marry Me,” is ruling the charts. She co-wrote the track with her fiance, and the two plan to marry live during one of her stage shows. Then news leaks that her fiance has been cheating on her with her assistant. Kat is stunned and as she’s still processing her hurt feelings onstage she spots a “Marry Me” sign in the audience, held up by Charlie (Owen Wilson), an ordinary math teacher and single father. She agrees to marry him on the spot, and Charlie is rushed onstage and the two tie the knot. Now, what to do and can they make this actually work?

Think of Marry Me as Notting Hill but where it starts at the level of international fame for romantic coupling. I found the premise to this movie, at first glance, to be absolutely preposterous. I was hoping that the movie wasn’t going to spend so much time worrying how to legitimize this silly impulsive marriage between two complete strangers. Fortunately, from their first “I do” onward the pair doesn’t really view their subsequent “relationship” as more than a publicity stunt. He’ll get more attention for his school and causes that are important to him. She’ll get a run of media attention and allow her to rebrand herself in the wake of her history of cheating louses. I was happy that the movie, at least early, doesn’t try to make this spontaneous union credible. Kat wonders, “Hey, maybe something so crazy just might work,” and of course we know it magically will, but at least they’re not panicking about how they just got married and how they are going to make this relationship work when they could as easily get annulled and got about their separate lives again. So from there, Marry Me follows the path of having these two fake lovebirds become real lovebirds over the course of their shared time.

We know it’s all going to work out, their romantic fate is sealed, but the process needs to still feel organic and earned, and that’s where I found Marry Me to be unsatisfying. Rom-coms will live and breathe depending upon their quotient of cute moments to swoon moments, ultimately winning you over and desiring the coupling. This movie already starts with the couple together, at least in a legal sense, but they don’t know one another and have no immediate feelings for one another, so the movie is like any other rom-com. They have to fall in love for real now, almost like an arranged marriage. However, I found the interactions between Kat and Charlie to be far chummier than passionate or romantic. Lopez and Wilson have zero chemistry together. There is no heat between these two. He’s too laconic and she’s too pressing. As the movie progressed, I could believe they were becoming friends. He got her to be more self-reliant, and she pushed him outside his moderate comfort zones with social media and self-promotion. They’re better friends but I felt nothing romantic between them and that’s a pretty big problem. In fact, that’s the biggest problem in a romantic comedy. If I walk away feeling like the leads would be better friends than lovers, then you haven’t put in the work, and that’s the case here.

We associate fun and cute moments from rom-coms, amusing scenarios that force our couple to work together or wacky situations where they learn more about the other in a new setting, and Marry Me feels too unimaginative here as well. This is another vital area for the development of the relationship to feel genuine, and simply just for audience enjoyment. The three screenwriters are unable to take the Notting Hill-dynamic of an ordinary person thrust into an unwanted, elevated level of fame and scrutiny and do anything with it. Charlie’s life never feels too disrupted from before; his casual public walks with Kat do not have dozens of paparazzi hounding them, annoying fans inserting themselves into his personal life, envious family members and exes coming back into the picture for attention, or even Charlie’s past being litigated by the media. His new life feels strangely absent the surreal touches we would expect and want from this plucked-from-obscurity setup.

The script assembles the standard rom-com tropes without anything more personable to make it feel meaningful to this story and these characters and their conflicts. Charlie asks Kat to come to the school dance, and this sounds like it has potential to be fun, but it never goes further than the mere idea. She’s there, the kids are flummoxed and naturally starstruck, and she sings a song to them. That’s it. When the third act comes calling, we’re left impatiently for the resolutions to hit their predictable end points. We know that the bad ex will still be the bad ex, we know that the big decision about whether to go to the fancy music industry gig or the humble Mathlete championship is no struggle, and we know the valiant efforts to travel back in time will be crossed at the exact moment desired. Marry Me disappoints because it squanders its unique or alluring plot elements and too often settles for resuscitating stale genre tropes.

Marry Me feels almost out of time, like an early 2000s rom-com star vehicle for Wilson (Loki) and Lopez (Hustlers). Both actors are in their 50s now, and ostensibly playing characters in their 40s, but the movie treats them like they might as well be in their late 20s. He’s divorced with a pre-teen daughter and she’s had multiple high-profile marriages, but so much more could have been articulated, especially about a 40-something woman trying to keep her perch in an industry always looking to replace aging superstars with the next young pretty thing available. This perspective gets the occasional mention, but that conflict feels mysteriously ignored, like even approaching the idea would be insulting rather than establishing an intriguing new level of self-reflection and potential connection for these two middle-aged characters. A big screen rom-com with characters in their 40s, or beyond, is such a rare find, let alone having one of those characters in the shallow field of entertainment. Ignoring this opportunity is confusing.

While the writing and chemistry is lacking in Marry Me, the two stars are still enjoyable to watch. I didn’t believe their romantic union but I believed that they genuinely enjoyed hanging around one another. So while Marry Me doesn’t work as the story of two people miraculously falling in love under contrived circumstances, it can work as the story of a burgeoning friendship of unlikely friends. If you think of it from that angle, the movie is a lot more agreeable and entertaining to watch over the course of its 110 minutes. Lopez and Wilson are still charming leads, and the movie never gets too serious or overwhelming to actively dislike. It’s ultimately a middle-of-the-road rom-com, low-key enough to coast on the appeal of its stars but absent anything to make the characters and their romance feel personable and meaningful. It’s no different than something you might see on cable in the middle of an afternoon. You can do worse than Marry Me as far as formulaic rom-coms go, but you could certainly do better, and I advise you dear reader, in your rom-coms as well as your relationships, not to settle for less.

Nate’s Grade: C

Spencer (2021)

People have been fascinated by Princess Diana since her storybook ascent from ordinary woman to being princess of England. Her 1981 wedding was watched by over 750 million people worldwide. It seemed like a dream come true, a childhood wish to be chosen from obscurity by a prince and elevated into a privileged world of wealth and power. Except Diana Spencer’s real experiences were far from a dream. Prince Charles continued seeing his real beloved, Camilla Parker Bowles, a divorced woman that the royal family had (allegedly) forbidden Charles from marrying. Diana pushed back against the overbearing influence of her powerful in-laws until her tragic end in 1997 fleeing from paparazzi in pursuit. She was a figure of fascination, idealization, and pity, and the question always remained how well anyone ever truly knew this woman on her terms.

Enter Chilean director Pablo Larrain, best known for 2016’s Jackie, which attempted to untangle another complicated woman in conflict with the ownership of her image and identity. Spencer is Lorrain’s latest is prime Oscar-bait as Kristen Stewart (Happiest Season) slips into playing the people’s princess during a fictionalized Christmas retreat with the royal family.

If you’re familiar with Jackie, and it’s a great movie that I would recommend, then Spencer feels very similar in subject and approach. I had to go back to my review of Jackie and I was stunned at how applicable several points of the review were for Spencer as well: “We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the facade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really?”

Wow is that still ever apt talking about Diana, a woman who is told to compartmentalize herself, to present one version of her to the public, the ravenous masses that all wanted a piece of her, and all have their own idealized version of her as princess, and another in private. The question arises how Diana can approach privacy inside her gilded cage. She’s living a life in the public sphere as a figurehead for a country’s monarchy, the mother of potential kings, and intense scrutiny both outside and within. The royals are formulated on tradition and ceremony and notably control. Things have always been this way and they’ll continue to be this way because they’ve always been this way. Diana’s life is micromanaged to an absurd degree, including which outfits she is to wear on which occasions, how much lead time is needed for family dinners, and even forcing Diana onto an archaic scale to be weighed before and after the holidays, because weight gain bespeaks a happy holiday in their opinion. Even before the royal family literally sews her bedroom curtains shut, denying Diana even a glimpse of the outside world they fear, you can relate to how much this people’s princess could feel like she was locked away in a tower.

The movie becomes a psychological ghost story of sorts, a woman stumbling through the rarefied halls of history and struggling to reclaim her own identity that she feels is slipping away until she cannot even recognize herself. The royals are extremely image conscious and any break from their rules is seen as a reflection of the crown and thus a repudiation of their influence. Diana is punished for having the audacity to change her dress in front of her bedroom window, never mind that the royal estate is vast. This is seen as careless attention-seeking, like Diana is courting the paparazzi to capture glimpses of her undressing. Her marriage to Charles is unhappy and coasting on ceremony and her adoration of her two children. Charles accuses her lateness as being a sign of Diana possibly having an affair. Never mind that Charles has been callously obvious about his own affair to the point that he even purchased his wife and mistress the same pearl necklace. Diana decides to wear the pearls in defiance, proving to Charles and his family that she doesn’t care and will hold her head high, but at dinner, the pearls become radioactive to her and she fumbles to rip them off, like they’re singing her skin. Diana’s options are small here and the performative gestures of defiance remind me of those period piece romances where flitting glances and a touch of fingers constitute romantic advances. For Diana, choosing to wear a different dress is rebellion. Keeping her curtains open is rebellion. Asking that her young son not go on a family hunt and kill pheasants is rebellion. It’s about recognizing the small acts and their symbolic meaning.

This is also a story of a woman’s declining mental and physical health. Her marriage was crumbling, she was resentful of the pressure of a family that would likely view her as an uncouth outsider undeserving of her attention and consideration. There was not a level of support for Diana, and besides her own children, her only real allies appear to be those representing the help at the massive Norfolk estate. Her best ally in the movie is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), a woman responsible for helping Diana dress herself. Maggie is her lone confidant, and when she is suddenly dismissed and replaced, Diana feels unmoored and betrayed when Charles tells her that Maggie said Diana was “cracking up.” Diana is also suffering from an eating disorder and self-harming and, given the constant pressure on her to perform and all the power she has lost in her position, it makes sense that she would lash out for some semblance of control, over her body, over something tangible and her own. The biggest flight of fancy is that Diana sees none other than Anne Boleyn traipsing the halls and staring back at her in sympathy, nodding at their common ground as scapegoats for philandering husbands.

While some have blanched at Stewart portraying Diana, I found the role to play to her strengths and she delivers a very good performance deserving of awards merit. Much of Diana as a character is internalized, communicated through layers of micro-emotions and gestures. She was private, guarded, and suspicious, not to mention going through tremendous mental strain, and this plays to Stewart’s ability to resemble much through her subtle expressions of discomfort. Her accent is near flawless and the performance feels deeply empathetic without amounting to a bland impersonation. Stewart feels like she’s barely holding it together as a woman going from one indignity to another, wanting to scream silently in every vacant room. Her speaking is very tremulous, almost as if she’s unsure of whether it’s safe to say every additional syllable. She’s most relaxed and warm during the moments with her children, which clearly have a curative and nourishing effect on Diana. The movie is about finding the actual person beneath the headlines, and from an outsider’s perspective it might be impossible. The empathetic script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and the measured, evocative performance from Stewart reclaim a woman often portrayed as a saint or martyr.

The technical direction in the movie is outstanding, though very reminiscent in approach to Jackie. Lorrain prefers to tether his camera to his lead character, often seeing the encroaching spaces from Diana’s height and perspective, walking from room to room, and letting the studious and ornate production design provide the atmosphere of walking through, and against, thousands of years of history and tradition. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is somber and eerie when it’s emphasizing cellos and strings and confused me when the brassy horn section came in, making me feel uncomfortable by the discordant musical elements.

Spencer is a movie where every technical element is in service of a lead performance, and not all of Lorrain’s artistic choices seem to connect as smoothly. He’s already given himself an immersive, impressionistic template to start with that allows for plenty of artistic room, and the movie is filled with quiet moments and metaphors that can be unpacked by some and skipped over by others. The ongoing thread of Diana wanting to return to her boarded-up childhood home is something that feels like it’s meant to be much more meaningful than how it ultimately plays out. There are other symbols through, like a scarecrow or the biography of Ann Boleyn or Diana, during what I assume is a feverish dream, consuming the pearls of her necklace in bold defiance. I found Spencer to be an enjoyable though opaque character study with enough space and consideration to dig through the layers. It feels like a spiritual sister to Jackie but I was not captivated by Spencer like I was with Jackie, a movie that stayed with me for days. I can appreciate the nuance and artistry at play with Spencer but the movie can also feel at points like watching Princess Diana’s sad vacation video.

Nate’s Grade: B

In the wake of COVID-19, some changes…

Everyone is feeling the effects of COVID-19 and the entertainment industry, in particular movie studios and theaters, have been dramatically affected. I will be continuing to review new films when I can, albeit many will likely be smaller indies unless Hollywood embraces Video on Demand. I’m also going to make a real effort to continue seeking out Ohio-made indies and providing reviews for them. I will continue what I did for my huge 1999 in Rewind article and look back at my original teenage reviews and assess my current feelings on the movies and my old writing, for the year 2000, 2001, and now 2002. I’ll be on the lookout for amazingly new so-bad-it’s-gotta-be-seen movies (have you seen Love on a Leash?). In short, I’m going to keep writing. I hope you keep reading.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

11167512_detTake the plot of Bring it On, add remixes and mash-ups of popular music thrown through the Glee grinder, Rebel Wilson’s adlibbed one-liners, and shake, and you have Pitch Perfect, an a cappella singing comedy that was a sleeper hit last fall. My female friends raved about it. It’s from a 30 Rock writer. It’s from the director of the irreverent musical Avenue Q. I like Wilson and the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). I wanted to like it, and while I found most of it passably cute, I could not get too attached and the chief reason was Kendrick’s character. She’s so surly and standoffish and just plain bratty, and for no good reason. It gets really annoying. Her rote romance with a bland hunky guy is made even more incredulous because Kendrick, get this, hates movies. Not certain kinds of movies or movies with certain actors, just the entire medium. Who is like this? That’s like disliking all of music entirely. The overall comedic spirit of the movie is amiable with a few oddball touches that keep things interesting, notably one girl who talks very quietly and says outrageous confessions. Listen well. The performance segments are impressive in their own right enough so that I wish there were more of them. There’s also a level of reality to projectile vomit that I was not prepared for. Overall, Pitch Perfect is a fitfully amusing comedy that never really settles down a functional tone, and Kendrick’s bratty character drags the movie down. It’s far from perfect but depending upon your love of a cappella, it could be good enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

House at the End of the Street (2012)

house-at-the-end-of-the-street-poster-jennifer-lawrenceAs readers will attest, I am a fan of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Some of my pals might say limiting the word to “fan” is being too modest on my part, but I don’t want to alarm anyone. I think she’s a terrifically talented actress and her Best Actress Oscar was well deserved for a film I unabashedly adore. With all of this being said, good actors can still make really bad movies, and that’s what we have with the stillborn horror flick, House at the End of the Street, referred to by marketing by the Twitter-friendly acronym HATES. That seemed like a tip-off, didn’t it? The problem is that for a good hour this movie is more of a drama than a horror movie, and everyone in town seems to be jerks to this guy in town whose sister murdered his family. Apparently him still residing in town lowers their property values… for some reason. I think it wants to be a psychological thriller, but even giving it that much credit assumes there’s some degree of competent execution. It’s not scary, the twists should be easily telegraphed to anyone with a modicum of sense, and Lawrence’s presence is just downright questionable. Why did she agree to do this? What about this clunky script, with its obvious padding to its “shocking” revelation, appealed to this woman? I suppose with her fast ascent to the top of Hollywood, Lawrence now has the clout to never again star in something as drecky as this would-be thriller. Then again, if she does, it’ll be by choice. Or a fat paycheck.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Fist of the Reich (2012)

936full-fist-of-the-reich-artworkIt’s been too long since I’ve last had the pleasure of viewing a Uwe Boll movie. The man is downright prolific when it comes to spitting out multitudes of projects every year sometimes three or four. And yet there’s no guarantee I’ll have a speedy and easily accessible avenue to watch the man’s finished products. Take for instance his biopic on Max Schmeling, finished almost three years ago, and undergone a title change for American audiences to Fist of the Reich. Americans might not know who Max Schmeling was but by God do we know ourselves some Nazis. I can understand why this one was put on the shelf for as long as it was. There’s the fact that it’s entirely in German, Boll’s first completely foreign-language film since 1997. There’s also the fact that it’s still a pretty dull and uninvolving movie, and given the figure and subject matter, that may be enough to make Fist of the Reich the most disappointing film of Boll’s career.

600full-fist-of-the-reich-screenshotFrom 1930-1948, Max Schmeling (Henry Maske) was Germany’s most prolific athlete. He boxed overseas in America quite often, earning the world title in a controversial bout where his opponent was disqualified after a below the belt punch. Schmeling romances a movie star, Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and proposes to her the day their courtship hits the gossip pages. Schmeling also has to fight the growing nationalistic influence of Hitler’s Nazi party, which looks at him as a powerful propaganda opportunity. After a high-profile loss to Joe Louis, in a rematch no less, Schmeling loses value to the Nazi machine and he’s drafted into the oncoming war.

When I say “most disappointing” I know that’s going to strike a chord given Boll’s oeuvre of craptacularcinema, but I really mean it. The biggest failing of the two-plus hours of Fist of the Reich is that it does not provide adequate evidence why Schmeling is a compelling figure of history. It’s a biopic that doesn’t have enough juice to justify why its central hero should even earn a biopic. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies based upon real people where I left thinking, “Well that person didn’t deserve a movie.” And the ridiculous thing is that Schmeling of course deserves his own movie. The man was an international superstar, the pride of a nation during a tumultuous time, one of only three men to beat Joe Louis in his career, and then became a propaganda pawn for the Nazis. The man was even forced into service in the war and was one of only two survivors during a hellish battle. His manager was Jewish, his wife a Czech movie star, and they had to flee their country home to escape from the advancing Russians. That is some compelling stuff even before you get into the psychological depth at play with a man being pushed as a tool of Nazi propaganda and how that constrictive, humiliating, and infuriating chapter would have taken its toll on Schmeling’s soul. There is a wealth of material there to stage a rousing and engrossing biopic, and the fact that Boll and screenwriter Timo Berndt cannot is just inexcusable.

There’s very little depth given to Schmeling as a character; all the edges are sanded off and we’re left with a rather bland do-gooder that really just wants to box. He’s sort of this nondescript, milquetoast nice guy who trudges from scene to scene, doing bland but nice things. You won’t dislike the lug but you’ll find it hard to explain why he’s interesting. This shallowness just compounds as the movie continues, going further into the war as well as the downturns in Schmeling’s boxing career. His relationship with Anny is also pretty bland. They’re nice together and loving in appearance but also mundane. It’s like the movie is progressing scene-by-scene establishing facts and plot points rather than exploring the relationships of characters. Max gets married. Max gets a big bout. Max wants to give Joe Louis a rematch. The film seems so devoid of passion, bled dry by going through the checklist of what audiences desire in their biopics. The movie even attaches a weak framing device where Schmeling and a war prisoner are walking to a border and Schmeling recounts his life. Except this framing device ends with thirty minutes left to go. Can it be termed a framing device if it doesn’t frame a quarter of the movie? It’s not even necessary except to throw in a bit of war violence at the opening to hook an audience. It feels like nobody knows what to do with Schmeling so they’ll just breeze through his life’s big events, make him seem like a charitable fella, and then pray the audience understands the man’s historical significance.

Another reason for the stilted drama is quite possibly the noticeable acting limitations of our lead, Maske. The man is a former champion boxer in Germany who reportedly underwent eight months of acting training to prepare for this movie. Well, apparently eight was not enough (did I just backend into a pun?). He may be a great boxer but he is a very poor actor. His monotone, caveman-like warble reminds me of the speaking tones of early Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t think the guy has more than two sentences at a time. Again, I’d rather have my actors learn how to do something rather than teach a non-actor how to act. Actors can fake singing or boxing, plus there’s editing. Was it really substantial to have an actual boxer in the role? I know Schmeling himself actually wanted Maske to play him in a would-be movie, so there’s some passing approval, but there’s a reason that Maske hasn’t acted in a movie since this one. Maske’s pained acting, limited emotional range, and overall stiffness, combined with the thin characterization, makes for a void at the center of the movie.

MS-ImageI also assumed given Boll’s own background in boxing (he famously boxed a group of critics several years ago in a publicity stunt) that the onscreen bouts would be thrilling to watch. The excitable German ringside announcer seems to be watching different fights than I am. The fighters just don’t have any fight in them, carefully going through the motions, but when they hit they do so like they’re timid, afraid to put any force behind it. The camerawork and editing also fail to mask this feeling. Boxing is such a ferocious sport and we need to feel the danger and ferocity within the ring, but all too often it just feels like another ho-hum occasion for Schmeling, one where he’s rarely put to the test. Even the boxing matches that go to 15 rounds show us two fighters without any blood on them or bruises or any sign, beyond a glistening coat of faux sweat, that these two men have spent over an hour beating the crap out of each other. This limited sense of realism handicaps the movie as well as drawing out the accomplishments of Schmeling.

Boll’s direction also seems rather remote on this movie, curiously so. He relies almost entirely on bobbling handheld camerawork that can get a bit tiresome when it feels like the camera rarely settles. The movie is almost entirely comprised of a series of medium shots, which further adds to the overall blandness of the movie. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Mathias Neumann is entirely lackluster and downright incompetent. The visual compositions are supremely lacking; I don’t think Boll and Neumann even stumble into one engaging visual shot. And we’re talking about a boxer’s career here. The colors of the movie feel so drab and restrained but not in any sort of elegant artistic manner. It just looks like a drab movie, which suits a drab script with a drab lead actor.  I’m also fairly certain that Boll’s longtime musical collaborator Jessica de Rooij borrows liberally, if not outright lifts, the musical themes of John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. Has anyone else caught this?

It may seem foolish of me to admit, especially after twenty movies reviewed, but I actually had some semblance of hope that Fist of the Reich was going to be Boll’s first actual good movie. As it stands, Tunnel Rats is still the best Boll film, relatively speaking. I really thought that Boll’s background and boxing experience would carry over and we’d get a handsomely made, reverent, and absorbing look into the life of Max Schmeling, but time after time, the movie settles for bland. There’s a lot of meat to this guy but it feels about as in depth as a child’s book report, skimming over the drama to cover the significant signposts of the man’s life. As a result, we get an overview of the guy’s life but lack the evidence why we even took the journey. Saying a guy’s a great boxer, or a great humanitarian is one thing, but we need to see this, we need to feel it, and that’s the saddest failure of Fist of the Reich, that it takes an important historical figure and squeezes out all the lingering resonance.

Nate’s Grade: C

Magic Mike (2012)

magic-mike-posterAfter all the hype and the derision from my friends, I finally saw Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike, and it does not pain me to say, as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that I found it mostly enjoyable. I understand the detractors, many of whom were let down by the relentless, frothing hype generating the film’s box-office success. The characters are fairly shallow, and almost all of the supporting players are one-dimensional; many of the male strippers only have their abs and a name to work with as far as characterization. There’s also the general absurd nature of the world of male stripping, where women are whipped into a frenzy and men almost comically gyrate atop them, or in some instances, literally pick them in the air to swing their junk into. The last act also rushes all sorts of storylines: the rookie’s fall from grace, Mike (Channing Tatum) coming to the realization to leave the business, a hastily thrown together romance. With all that said, I was always interested in just watching the ins and outs of this profession put on screen. And when the plot falters, there are always the impossible charms of Tatum to bring me back. Matthew McConaughey is also fascinating to watch as a mixture of showman, zen artist, and sexual being. I even found the dance/stripping sequences to be worthwhile as few insights into the various characters. While being less than magical, Magic Mike’s shortcomings don’t take away from what it has to offer. That may be the most unintended inuenduous statement I’ve ever written for a film review.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cosmopolis (2012)

CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg is a director that’s full of surprises. The biggest surprise about Cosmopolis, his new film based on the Don DeLillo novella, is how shockingly terrible it is. This may be Cronenberg’s worst film. It’s certainly one of the worst films of 2012.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a mega-millionaire currency trader. He’s got so much money he wants to outrightly buy a church just because. We travel with Eric over the course of one day as he travels through New York City in his stretch limo. Along the way, he hosts a colorful array of characters and fears that his high-stakes wagers will be adding up. He becomes more and more self-destructive and looks for new and exciting ways to waste money, talent, and time.

I hesitate to even use the term “film” with Cosmopolis because it’s truly more of an endurance test in didactic, pretentious art house masturbation. The script is really a collection of self-indulgent scenes with very little to connect anything together. Each new scene feels like the movie is starting over. Worse, the dialogue is painfully elliptical, stilted, and monotone, reeking of pseudo intellectual intent, lingering in ambiguity like it’s poetic. It’s not, it’s irritating and obtuse and characters talk in circles without ever really saying anything. It’s the kind of dialogue that reminds me of a pompous student play, something where the particulars involved think they’re making Artistically Daring Statements about Things That Matter. It’s such a mannered way of speaking, so labored in its affectations and superficially drawn to the mistaken belief that obtuse and redundant equals philosophical and thought provoking. The only thoughts I was thinking were of the murderous variety. I felt so pained that I had to check the time and only eleven minutes had passed. It felt like I had spent three times that. I stuck it out for you, dear reader, but otherwise I would have bailed. Here are a handful of dialogue samples to give you an idea:

84058_gal“Why do they call them airports?”
“I have an asymmetrical prostate. What does that mean?”
“Try putting a stick of gum in your mouth and not chew it.”
“Where do limos go to spend the night?”

I feel like I’m even doing a disservice to calling the people onscreen characters. They’re really more just talking heads, mouthpieces for cluttered ideology.  The plot introduces new characters but they only last for a scene and then it’s time for someone new. This would be acceptable if it ever appeared that these interactions had any effect, positive or negative, on our protagonist. As it stands, it’s just a gloomy guy running into one meaningless encounter after another. Oh, and if that was the point of the whole exercise, then shoot me now. I literally cheered when the movie was over. Well, right after incredulously barking, “That’s it?”

Plot is another term, much like characters, that has next to no meaning for Cosmopolis. The plot is a wealthy guy who wants to get a haircut. Yes, that is the inciting incident. He stays in his limo as it slowly drifts down the bumper-to-bumper New York City traffic. He has encounters with people, sure, but mostly it’s the story of one man in his pursuit of a haircut. And you know what dear reader, spoilers be damned, but he gets that haircut too. The final half hour of the movie, almost a third of the whole running time, is spent with Paul Giamatti, an intense and angry man who wants to kill Eric. At least Giamatti’s performance kept me awake. The plot, much like the characters, is really a vehicle for the script’s ideas, so it becomes exasperating when the movie tries to pretend, at points, like now all of a sudden we should care about Eric and his journey. The ideas, as presented, are either on-the-nose or impenetrable. For every confusing conversation about death, you’ll get a leaden capitalism = rats metaphor.

92248_galPattinson (Breaking Dawn Part 2) seems like an apt choice as well as a craven marketing ploy for Cronenberg to get his weird arty movie greater exposure and financing. Pattinson gives a rather cold and detached performance, which I’m sure is also the point but it’s not exactly an outlet to showcase any potential range. I’m sure Pattinson leaped at the chance to work with Cronenberg, but he should have checked out his emotionally vacant character first. Oh I get it that Eric is a guy who seemingly has it all but now feels empty, and I get how it’s meant to be an analogue for the Wall Street set that’s hijacked our capitalism markets (rats!). I get it. It’s just lousy, and Pattinson could have been replaced with just about any young Hollywood hunk. The only enjoyable aspect of this whole movie, and this is simply a theoretical extension, is that plenty of diehard Twilight fans are going to watch this movie and be very very confused.

Cronenberg keeps us locked in that limo, at least for the first half of the film. We get to watch Eric host an array of guests. He gets serviced by a middle-aged woman (Juliette Binoche). He gets a prostate exam while conducting a meeting. He gets up-to-the-minute reports on the millions of dollars he’s hemorrhaging, and he doesn’t care. Money has lost all known value when everything is given to you. Look, I can make vague, self-important statements too. I’ll credit Cronenberg with finding creative ways to play around within the confined space of the limo, making the film less hermetic than it by all means should be. However, bad green screen effect work really proves distracting, so that you’re given another reason to check out when characters drone on as they do.

Strictly put, this was not a story that needed to be turned into a movie. I’m sure DeLillo’s novella has its own weight and power, but the big-screen adaptation of Cosmopolis is all flaccid pontification, empty verbal masturbation, and crushing dead weight. It was a Herculean effort for me to watch this meandering movie to the end and I know I can’t be alone in this regard. If only the characters were really characters, or the plot had any minute sense of momentum, or that the dialogue was less purposely obtuse, or if the movie felt like it was at least going somewhere or had some small recognizable shred of purpose. I won’t go as far to say that you should be worried if any of your friends gushes to you about how great this movie is, but you should probably keep an eye on them or see if they bumped their head. This movie is more like an insufferable lecture by the most boring people who confuse cerebral with impenetrable. If you’re not going to supply me any significant means of entry to engage with your art, then I’ll just go play with somebody else. Cosmopolis feels like the worst and most pretentious student film you’ll ever see. The rub is that a great director like Cronenberg made it.

Nate’s Grade: D

West of Memphis (2012)

west-of-memphis-posterThe West Memphis Three murder case gained substantial notoriety thanks to an HBO documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who were on hand in 1993 to document the trial in their film, Paradise Lost. Three eight-year-old boys (Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch) went missing one day in May in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found the next day in a nearby creek. The boys had been hogtied and bore plenty of vicious marks, one of them having a severed penis. The horror shocked the small town and the blame landed on a trio of local teens (Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols). Miskelley had confessed under police interrogation and so was tried separately, but all three were found guilty. Miskelley and Baldwin were given life in jail and Echols, the supposed ringleader, a teen who disliked authority and read about magic and demons, was given the death penalty.

In the years that followed, thanks to the exposure of the Paradise Lost films (a second was released in 2000 and a third in 2011), advocates flocked to the cause, belied by the overwhelming belief that the three convicted had been unfairly railroaded. Celebrities spoke out and got involved, chief among them Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They began communicating with Echols and his wife, Lori, and personally bankrolled a new team of forensic experts to amass new evidence that could allow for a potential appeal. Jackson even hired Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to helm her own documentary, West of Memphis.

11979797-largeDenied at most turns by the same flat-footed officials, the West Memphis Three struck a deal with the Arkansas attorney general in August 2011. The three would be granted freedom if they agreed to an Alford Plea, a rare legal circumstance where a defendant can plead guilty while still maintain their innocence. Eighteen years later the West Memphis Three are free but there are still many questions that need to be answered, mostly involving the conduct of officials involved in the case and the identity of the real killer.

As an ardent follower of the case, as well as the three previous documentaries by Berlinger and Sinofsky, I was concerned that West of Memphis would be more or less a rehash of what has already been covered in earlier, better movies, and to some degree it is. When you’re the fourth documentary to the table, there’s going to be some repetition. Berg’s film serves as a nice introduction to the case for newcomers and provides a diligent overview of the main facets of the murder case. There are a few finer points that Berg’s film spends more time illuminating that I think are worth mentioning. The first is extensively laying out why Miskelley’s confession was coerced. The teen, whose mental faculties are low, was locked away in police custody, without a parent or lawyer, for most of a day, with only a scant portion recorded. On these recordings, Berg clearly points out, with the assistance from some expert talking heads, how police officials guided Miskelley into the statement they wanted to hear. It’s pretty damming stuff to hear and a clear-cut case of a coerced confession.

What West of Memphis does best is narrow its focus to police and prosecutorial misconduct, picking apart the evidence that put two men away for life and one on death row. The fact that the prosecution used Damien’s own teenage poetry against him, evidence that might simultaneously doom and embarrass us all, should speak volumes. This was a case where the only thing tying the defendants to the crime scene was Miskelley’s false confession and the flimsy idea that the crime scene was a satanic ritual. Berg finds several of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the stand about how the three were involved in satanic practices, and in those new interviews each witness comes clean, admitting they were pressured by police or offered attractive deals to link the defendants to the satanic motive. Their recantations are satisfying to hear and, in journalistic lingo, a true get for Berg and her crew.

We expect our law enforcement officials to be just but mistakes will happen; however, in the event of those mistakes, we expect officials to try and correct them, to make things right. What West of Memphis shows is that the West Memphis officials dug down deeper in the face of compelling evidence, refusing to admit when they were so clearly wrong. In the years after the case and following the Berlinger and Sinofsky films, there have been renewed efforts to revisit the physical evidence of the case. To a fault, every professional profiler, including one guy who was there at the founding of the FBI, concluded that the crime had nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. They also concluded that most of the wounds, argued by prosecutors to be responsible by a serrated knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s family mobile home (a knife the prosecution expressly knew Baldwin’s mother admitted to hurling in that lake a year prior to the case), were in fact made post-mortem by local scavenging animals, mainly large turtles with snapping jaws. There’s a reason that the wounds aren’t bloodier. It’s because the victims were already dead.

1682107-poster-1280-west-of-memphis-aims-to-give-a-hearing-for-justice-that-never-wasBut the most enlightening piece of evidence is what was found thanks to DNA, namely nothing. On not one single piece of evidence or anything relating to the victims was one scrap of DNA linked to Baldwin, Misskelley, or Echols. Seems rather open and shut, doesn’t it? Except Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original case, dismissed the reams of new physical evidence and rejected the motion for an appeal. It got to the point where, at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state was arguing that the only new evidence that should be considered when granting appeals is evidence that points to guilt. The state argued, to the disbelief of the court justices, that new evidence that could overturn (wrongful) convictions should be disallowed. Fortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this motion unanimously. It’s quite clear that law enforcement officials sought to save face rather than enact justice.

Another aspect that Berg’s film does better is illuminating another suspect the police have ignored for 18 years, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch. The movie devotes a solid 45 minutes on the subject, painting a convincing portrait of a suspect with long ties to abuse, anger, lies, and manipulation. A hair of Hobbs, matching his DNA exactly, was found tied into the knot of one of the bound boys. Weirdly enough, Terry Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines for defamation, which fortuitously provided an opportunity to question Hobbs with the full penalty of the law behind them. Under oath, his story crumbles and his alibi at the time proves to have a sizable a gap, a period where the boys were killed according to medical reports.

Clearly Terry Hobbs is a compelling suspect though I wish the movie didn’t feel the need to resort to superficial assertions concerning how he “behaves guilty,” like his lack of emotion concerned the case. Questioning why he waited over two hours to tell his wife that their son was missing is a fair line of inquiry. Questioning his history of spousal abuse and violent run-ins is fair. Questioning why he isn’t more outwardly bereaved is not. It’s the same prejudicial judgments made against Damien when he was being tried, the idea that he just wasn’t acting like an innocent man (to be fair, Damien was also a moody teen at the time). Berlinger and Sinofsky are guilty of this as well, devoting a disproportionate amount of Paradise Lost 2 to pointing a suspicious eye toward John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers, and a theatrical, larger-than-life figure. At least with Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers make amends, and there’s a nice scene where Byers apologizes to Echols. This guilt-by-superficial-judgment is a dubious line of accusation that Berg and her film should rise above (just the facts, ma’am).

From there, though, I started feeling like West of Memphis is best served as a complimentary film to be paired with the altogether superior Paradise Lost documentaries. There is something to be said for Berlinger and Sinofsky being on the ground from the get-go, having unprecedented access to the victims’ families, the families of the accused, the attorneys on both sides, and the accused themselves. Naturally over three films you get a much stronger sense of the nuances of the case, but Berlinger and Sinofsky also gave you a much stronger sense of the community and the full context of the crimes. I was bothered at how often Berg’s film eschews direct on-camera interviews with Miskelley and Baldwin. Late in the film, as the movie explores Baldwin’s hesitancy to admit guilt for a chance at freedom, a friend recounts her phone conversations with Baldwin on the tricky subject. Why isn’t Baldwin himself on camera talking about this rather than a friend relaying her conversations with the man? Throughout the film, when it concerns the accused, the movie feels oddly removed from the source (Damien and his wife are credited as producers for the doc). It’s got plenty of talking heads and famous celebrities on camera but I’d rather hear from those directly involved. It’s just another reminder of the access and relationships that were formed through the Paradise Lost films. You’ll get a good overview of the fascinating and horrifying case with this movie, but to get a better understanding of the people involved, reference the meatier Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

west-of-memphis-3-movie-2012-damien-echols-jason-baldwinBy the end, even after 18 years in prison, it’s remarkable and inspiring how free of bitterness the three men are. They still have to live with the guilty verdicts but they are free, and rather than dwell on what was taken from them, the men are thankful for their freedoms and thankful for the diligence of the people who believed in their innocence, who fought long and hard so the day would come when they three of them would be set free. Berg’s film even dedicates its last moments to those advocates and their efforts, saying that their involvement made all the difference. This is an example where a movie literally saved somebody’s life. Without the exposure of the Paradise Lost, it’s very likely Echols would have remained on death row and been executed. On a personal note, this was the final moment that got me to cry (there were a couple others that made me teary). It’s because of the shared happiness and accomplishments of helping, in whatever small way, three innocent men get their long overdue freedom. I won’t overstate my involvement, but I was there, writing letters, sending in donations, advocating, since 1999. I have never been happier to retire a T-shirt than with my “Free the West Memphis Three” shirt (I wore it one last time to watch this movie). The forward-thinking, gracious attitudes of Baldwin, Miskelley, and Echols are inspiring, and it even inspired me to seize the moment myself rather than remain passive in a personal relationship.

Coming in after a trilogy of other extensive documentaries, West of Memphis can’t help but feel a little late to the party. Its strengths lie in deconstructing the prosecution’s case and assembling new interviews where key witnesses have an opportunity to come clean and recant. Otherwise, it’s like listening to another singer perform a song you’re already familiar with. The case is so deeply troubling and morbidly fascinating that there’s definitely room for four movies on the topic and then some; Atom Egoyan has filmed a movie based upon journalist Mara Leveritt’s book on the case, Devil’s Knot (starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth too). It’s easy to become immersed in this case; I know I have over the years. It all came down to a police force pressured to find a killer and three teens that were different in a small town. There are many tragedies tied to this case. The three boys who were gruesomely murdered. The three men who were wrongly convicted and lost 18 years of their lives. And since the West Memphis Three plead guilty, it means that the police can officially close the case, allowing the real killer to continue to walk free and unpunished. That should trouble every single person. West of Memphis is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary, though I think it’s best viewed as a supplement or introduction to the superior Berlinger and Sinofsky films.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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