Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Academy Awards best picture, The Artist. Spoiler alert. It won’t make my top 20 movies of 2011. I hesitated watching last year’s best picture for a while because the premise wasn’t all that appealing. I finally decided the time had come. I didn’t view it with drudgery nor with anticipation of seeing the best film of 2011. Enough time had passed since it was released that I felt like I was coming at it fresh. And without further ado, my review.
Some like to defend their behavior based on (for lack of a better term) the Robin Hood principle, which is taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It is not uncommon to hear this defense when someone is caught in an illegal activity but the person is known to contribute to their community. Enter Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians minus the illegal shenanigans. None of the blackjack playing Christians come out and say they are modern day Robin Hoods but they also don’t hesitate to express their disdain for the casinos, all while thriving in those very same villainous caverns for their bustling business.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rationale behind the team of Christians performing their own modified version of Bringing Down The House (or 21 in movie form), the success of the documentary rests on telling a good story with compelling characters. The main narrative is relatively straight forward and well told. A couple of guys learn how to count cards, learn there is money to be had at the blackjack tables, and eventually expand on that revelation by finding investors on the one side and players on the other. Before you know it, there is over a million dollars flowing into the hands of a team of card counting Christians. The method to the madness is all based on math. The theory is you put the odds in your favor by keeping the count on the cards. Every card represents either -1, 0, or 1. The higher the count, the better chances there are that you’re going to beat the house. It’s more complex than that when it comes to placing bets, etc. but the theory is so strong that casinos disallow it. Counting cards is not illegal but the casinos will see you out the door if they think you’re turning the odds in your favor.
The characters making up the team are not so interesting. The team managers come off as smarmy if not outright dull. The players spend most of their time justifying their actions and don’t offer much more than that throughout most of the doc. The only other person who shares much screen time is a game room manager of a casino. He explains the casino’s point of view. There is so much time spent on Christians feeling guilty, or at the very least on the defensive, they explain away their time at the casinos. Little to no time is given to those who oppose their business venture. It’s as if the players are swinging at windmills. Of course there is plenty of real opposition to what this team of statistically driven blackjack playing Christians is up to, but almost none of it is represented on the screen. We’re left with rather mundane personalities running a less than mundane operation.
The guilty consciences never seem to wrestle with the all too real dilemmas their card counting gets them in. Casinos kick them out. They keep coming back. Casinos kick them out even quicker. They come back in disguises. Casinos kick them out some more. They take on fake identities. The cycle continues. There is a lot of talk about accountability within the group and how they couldn’t do this if they all weren’t believers in Jesus Christ. However, no one seems to flinch when they have no choice but to either give up the gig or use deceitful means to continue. There is no choice for most, at least that is how it is portrayed. You do what you have to do. After all, they’re taking down the big bad casinos. Granted, it’s a business, with investors expecting a rather high return on investment (35%). Robin Hood may have messed up when he spread the wealth around. He should have gotten some investors and paid dividends. Eventually the money would get back to those in need.
Possibly the worst moment, which should make every Christian cringe when they see it, is when the team goes on a long losing streak and suspicion of theft within the team heightens. The team has allowed at least one non-Christian to join. The team starts losing and guess where the blame goes? Yep, the man in black. Literally. The non-Christian is shown in a long sleeve black shirt when the accusations are made on camera. The suspicion comes from one particular team member who says God spoke to him and told him the non-Christian was stealing. Bam! Goodbye bad guy. Was he stealing? We don’t know and there is really no way of knowing. Every player is given large sums of cash to bet at the blackjack tables. They track their wins and losses. Who’s to say a loss was to the dealer or the player’s wallet? There is no way to know. And the director doesn’t help shed further light on the mystery. He instead follows a team member who begins questioning his participation on the team. After that we’re left with the team managers hitting the casinos in order to break the losing streak.
Holy Rollers is a generally well paced documentary with a solid soundtrack. Unfortunately there aren’t enough interesting subjects and the opportunities to counter the defensive stances from the team are never taken. The story is well told though it doesn’t need more than an hour to tell it. For non-Christians, the film will likely only further suspicions of those who hold to the Christian faith. And for Christians, there are likely to be many conversations and looks of befuddlement as they try to work out exactly what the purpose of the doc was.
I’m glad I’m not a parent living in New York City. As Nursery University shows us, there are a lot of parents living in NYC who have lost their minds, and it’s all over enrolling their child into the perfect nursery school.
The documentary follows several families in New York City wading through the treacherous waters that are procuring a preschool for your soon to be toddler. Each family comes at it from a slightly different perspective and situation. By the end, it is clear – they’re all lost in the mire. The filmmaker (Marc H. Simon) does his best to maintain composure. While it would be easy to make the subject matter feel like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (think Best in Show), Simon refrains and lets the characters represent themselves on screen – warts and all.
The odds of getting into a nursery school of any standing are slim. For every open spot there can be over a hundred applicants. Making matters worse is the sticker shock. Numbers are thrown around early in the film that made me wonder if we were talking about college. It was not unusual to pay $20,000 and up for nursery school. Some were as high as $50,000 per year. Nursery school. This is the place where kids go to drool on one another and maybe learn to hold a crayon, right?
Even parents who did not grow up wealthy and in this hyper competitive setting of schooling for tikes have bought into the lie which says your child is ruined if she does not get into the right nursery school. In fact, one consultant (yes, they have consultants for getting into nursery schools in NYC!) made reference to a child getting into the right preschool, which leads to the right kindergarten, grade school, high school, university and eventually lands them a plush job at Goldman Sachs. Remove the first piece to that long chain of schooling and the child never achieves success as a prestigious mover of digits from one electronic account to the other. The documentary captures the insanity of this thinking quite well. Where it falls short is thinking this topic has 90 minutes of entertainment value. Because it aims to be fair and not mock the easily mockable, the second half of the film feels stretched thin. Some of the subjects are fairly likable, none are truly abhorrent, and therefore none are entertaining enough to hold interest for a feature length film. Their plight is not one we can empathize with. We’re left with watching the absurd attempt to turn into suspense about whether Johnny gets into the $30,000 per nursery or the $40,000 nursery.
Tackling a topic that seems surreal to everyone outside of it should be an easy win. It’s unfortunate that the narcissism on display never goes completely overboard to the point where it’s so sad it’s funny. And that is likely the result of a director who holds back on highlighting the truly ridiculous nature of his subject matter and the subjects themselves. Being fair to those who’ve let you film part of their lives is admirable, yet two rather famous documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog prove it’s possible for directors to walk the line between fair and exploitative for great results. Nursery University walks too closely to the safe side and ends up giving an informative and somewhat entertaining film.
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven shows what remained of the director’s interest in more traditional forms of storytelling. Like his more recent films, beautiful cinematography and stream of conscience voice over narration are dominate. Missing are the elements that some would label as self-indulgent. I won’t go quite that far, but let’s just say that Malick has a way of testing an audience’s patience at times.
Whether intentional or not, Days of Heaven borrows its main narrative straight from the Bible. Possibly a mix of stories between Moses and Abraham. Set in the early 1900’s, Bill is a steel-mill worker in Chicago who leaves abruptly after accidentally killing his supervisor. Bill heads south for Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and Abby’s younger sister. It’s the younger sister whose voice we hear narrating much of the movie with her distinctive Chicago accent. It’s a voice that contrasts with the beauty of the scenery on display – like a rusty spoon dragging across a chalkboard.
Bill does what any outstanding gentleman of his day would do which is pretend his girlfriend is his sister. He and his “sister” find work in a wheat field that belongs to a rich farmer (Sam Shepard). The farmer notices Bill’s fake sister and makes it known that he wouldn’t mind if she stayed on past the harvesting season. Around this same time Bill overhears the farmer’s doctor say that the farmer is dying. The setup is perfect for Bill, a man who has proven himself to be less than upright so far. He tells Abby that she should accept the farmer’s invite to stay. She’ll marry the farmer, Bill and the Abby’s little sis will get the run of the house as they wait for the farmer to keel over. Ah yes, the best laid plans.
Everything starts to fall apart when the farmer doesn’t die. A bit of conflict arises as a result and the whole thing ends rather practicably. In the midst of this simple story is sparse but generally solid acting. Malick will never be accused of letting his actors run rampant with dialogue. The tension that should result from the story and character conflict within never resonates. Instead, the film feels as though it’s never sure what is more interesting, the characters and their developing plot or the gorgeous scenery around them. As a result, the end is inevitable more than tragic. A beautiful film that is too distant from its emotional drive.
Capturing the raw emotion of two people who believe they’ve found love at first sight is no small challenge for any film. Like Crazy attempted to do it on a relatively slim budget. And let there be no doubt, capturing the feelings of a couple who fall in love and then struggle to cement that relationship over a long distance between them is Like Crazy’s overarching goal.
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) fall in love at college in LA. Anna is from London and has to return. She delays the inevitable and violates her visa in the process. On her attempt to make it back to Jacob she is denied access due to the violation. Apparently no one told Anna just how hard it is to travel in and out of the USA these days, no matter if you look as though your puppy dog eyes and quivering lips could melt even the coldest of border control’s hearts. The couple is left with a long distance relationship. Or are they? Why doesn’t Jacob, a recent college grad, chase after the girl who’s stolen his heart? Because he started a chair building business and that would be too hard to do in London. Right, I don’t get it either.
The two live their lives apart and attempt some semblance of a relationship separated by the Atlantic but it’s not working. Jacob seems to come to this conclusion before Anna and it’s not long before he finds someone new and she moves in with him. That someone just happens to be the star of another small film, The Hunger Games. Yep, somehow Jennifer Lawrence plays the smallest of roles as Jacob’s consolation prize, Sam.
The story continues of first loves never able to forget one another and reconnecting. The strength of the film is not plot or dialogue. It is more like an artistic feature film length music video. Emotion needs to be conveyed in every moment Jacob and Anna are on the screen. For the most part it works. It’s done well enough to make one forgive the contrived plot points and a sloppy editing job in the third act that had me questioning whether I was watching the same timeline or something from the past.
Like Crazy is appropriately titled. The obstacles our young love birds must overcome are absurdly small when put in any perspective. Jacob and Anna are driven by their feelings in some bizarre ways, but never driven enough to see things through to one conclusion or another. They chase feelings from one fleeting moment to another only to find that it leaves them feeling empty. An artful tale that falls short but serves a good study for all who feel in love but have little more than emotions to lean on.
Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, Hugo, is like most love letters – full of passion, often beautiful, yet lacking in anything resembling a cohesive narrative.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who keeps the clocks ticking behind a train station in Paris. Why he and almost everyone around him have British accents is a mystery. I suppose every story set in days of old (yet not too old) demand British accents. Regardless, Hugo does what he needs to do in order to survive, which entails stealing food and other small items he needs to complete his project his father left him, an automaton, a mechanical man who writes with a pen and has a head just small enough to give everyone an uneasy feeling. The station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t make Hugo’s life easy. He is determined to catch Hugo and put him in an orphanage. Inserted for comedic value, the station inspector seems like a distraction more than an integral part of the story, which is fine except for the fact that a decent portion of the film is spent on that character and his pursuit of Hugo. It’s as if someone told Scorsese he had to add some slapstick fun in his film or no child would tolerate it.
Desperate to find all the parts to get the automaton working so he can see what message his father left him, Hugo gets caught trying to steal a mechanical mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) by Méliès. He is forced to give up his notebook which contains the detailed sketches his father left of the automaton. Méliès promises to burn the book that evening and hands Hugo the ashes the next morning.
Hugo makes friends with Méliès’ god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is desperate for adventure. It isn’t long before Hugo sneaks her into Isabelle’s first ever movie. Her godfather won’t allow her to watch films. She is mesmerized by the experience and Hugo is reminded of his father’s shared love for the cinema.
In a moment of chance Hugo discovers that Isabelle is wearing a key with a heart shaped end, which is exactly the key he needs to get his automaton working. In exchange for giving up his secret headquarters behind the walls of the train station, Isabelle allows Hugo to use the key to rev up his automaton so that he can finally see the message his father left for him. To go further is to spoil the surprise, which isn’t much of a surprise mainly because it takes numerous unnecessary twists to revel in Hugo’s true purpose, an undying love for films of old.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully shot film than Hugo. Every scene is masterfully shot with colors dazzling and the motion of the camera purposefully setting every moment. And yet for all its beauty, the story and characters pale in comparison. A two hour film that should be at least twenty minutes shorter without losing an ounce of its cinematic grander, Hugo still entertains even while reminding the audience that it could have been so much better.
George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a political thriller that attempts to thrill with the revelation that human beings are not inherently good. Not much of a revelation and not much of a thriller. Ides of March attempts to make grandiose gestures set to menacing music and shadowy backdrops but ultimately ends up being a fairly straightforward tale of political corruption running its course.
Like many films starring George Clooney (many of which I like quite a bit), the character is George Clooney, except this time he’s a top presidential candidate, Mike Morris. Not a hard sell for a culture obsessed with celebrities and has previously elected a former actor into the White House. The allusions to a different kind of candidate are hard to miss as posters with Clooney’s face closely resemble those of Obama in the 2008 US campaign. Instead of pandering to religious beliefs, Morris stands behind his flavor of atheism and reason. His promised initiatives are ambitious. When tempted to waiver on his convictions in order to gain critical votes, this candidate won’t budge. He makes it clear that there are lines that can’t be crossed – until they can.
Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a relatively young but experienced press spokesperson for presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). The challenge for Meyers and the rest of the campaign staff is winning a tight race between their man and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell). Everything seems to hinge on wrapping up the endorsement of North Carolina Senator Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). The price for this endorsement is giving Thompson a prized cabinet seat. Morris won’t do it but apparently his competition will. With that news, Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) goes in for the kill. He invites Meyers to lunch to talk about joining the other team. Meyers complies and from there things get further complicated, with numerous plot spoilers throughout.
Not a bad movie by any means, Ides of March is stacked with talented actors who, for the most part, give fine performances. The problem is that the movie takes a while to get going and then once it hits its stride the twists and turns that make up this political thriller aren’t quite as thrilling as Clooney the director seems to think they are. What is left is an above average film stacked with talent.
If Meek’s Cutoff is close at all to portraying the life of those braving the conditions of the Oregon Trail in 1845 then it was incredibly brutal and, at the same time, a little boring to observe. Of course, no one was observing it. That’s what those of us in this century get to do – marvel at the courage of those who brave the barren land on little more than some livestock, fragile wooden wagons, and limited supplies while also wondering how director Kelly Reichardt managed to make even the tensest moments rather mundane.
This drama follows a group of people in the mid-1800’s led by a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who gets them off the Oregon Trail. The tension between the conditions, the settlers and their guide is hard to miss. Beautiful scenes of desolate lands fill the screen as these people walk alongside their belongings in relatively small wagons pulled by oxen. In the midst of this struggle are few words and little music or sound other than those generated by nature and the movement of the group. When words are spoken they are often faint or grunted out by Meek, whose beard seems to serve as a sort of force field for clear speech.
Along the way the group finds a Native American who they capture. Meek makes it clear he’s not fond of the idea of having this guy around. He’d just as well finish him off. The leader of the group disagrees and gets the final word. The Native American will help them find their way out of the mess Meek appears to have gotten them into. What seems like a setup for an interesting twist on the journey turns into not much more than some further heated debates between Meek and the others. The debates never happen in order to preach about tolerance nor do they heighten the drama much. Much like everything else in the movie, the debates are what they are. They happen and the group continues on.
I don’t expect a movie that is true to its realistic tone to ever raise the stakes through melodrama. Meek’s Cutoff portrays events as matter of fact and in that way it holds interest, capturing a period of history that feels authentic. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging and that is where the film falls short of fully capturing the story it aims to tell.
Is it any less bold to claim that you’ve made the worst movie ever or that you’ve made the best? Both are relative claims and hold little validity either way. Troll 2, the focus of the documentary Best Worse Movie, is said to be the worst movie ever. The zero (or near zero) scores on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB add credibility.
Michael Stephenson was one of the child stars in the film and he leads the direction of the documentary. His quest is to dig deeper into the how and why Troll 2 got made and the growing cult status of the film. In order to do all this he seeks out his fellow cast members and director. Stephenson latches onto George Hardy who played the father in the 1990 film. Hardy is a likeable guy from the first moment we meet him. His charisma jumps off the screen. Hardy is a dentist. He had dreams of once becoming a movie star which is the reason he ended up starring in Troll 2. We learn that Hardy has long since given up the acting dream and has replaced it with life as a dentist. He seems to enjoy the work and the people. He even goes out of his way to perform dental work free of charge for children in low income families. While Troll 2 is the theme of the doc, Hardy is its heart and soul.
Best Worse Movie spends quite a bit of time early on reveling in Troll 2’s notoriety. There is no shortage of interviews with rabid fans. Time spent around screenings. It’s as if the first act of the doc is to convince us that Troll 2 is so bad it’s good. The only time these screenings are interesting is when we get to see Troll 2’s director Claudio Fragasso react to the audience. He’s happy people like his film after all these years, but sours when he discovers that they like it because they think it’s terribly funny. Fragasso begs to differ. He knows the film has flaws but doesn’t take kindly to the label of it being the worst ever. One of the more awkward moments comes when Fragasso interrupts a cast Q&A to set the record straight. Walking through the audience, he says the actors don’t remember the facts. He then becomes more aggressive and calls at least one former cast member a bad actor. It plays for laughs from the audience but Fragasso isn’t laughing.
When the doc is at its best it’s focusing on the characters who starred in the film. Their current day lives and relation to the film after 15+ years is engaging and sometimes even simply bizarre. The moments with Fragasso acting out in great denial. Margo Prey, who played the mother opposite of George Hardy, is living in another world. Whether the scenes with Prey are meant for laughs or sadness it’s hard to tell. And then there is Hardy’s pursuit of basking in the fame of being in the worst movie ever. Instead of being embarrassed about it as some other cast members are, Hardy embraces it. He decides there are enough fans of the film out there that he should aggressively pursue opportunities to make appearances. We spend time with him at a number of festivals and events, all of which turn out to be duds. In these moments we get the sense that Hardy has been bitten by the bug of minor celebrity status. A once likeable guy turns into an oddly self-promotional tool, and all under the banner of being in the worst movie of all time.
There are moments in Best Worse Movie that are fantastic. The documentary as a whole never achieves the same success. There is a lack of focus that distracts and often strays into less interesting topics. Too much time is spent patting Troll 2 on the back for how bad it is and the cult like status that achievement has earned the film.
Not even close to the worst documentary ever, Best Worse Movie gives some interesting insights into the people who made Troll 2. Had it stuck more closely to those people, it could have been very good, maybe even great.
Some actors are easy for me to believe in a historical setting while others are not. Tom Selleck falls in the hard to believe category. It’s no fault of his own. He’s not a bad actor but put him in a period piece where he’s a sharp shooting American cowboy, Matt Quigley, and I find it hard to believe him in that role. There is something about him that feels too modern for that time. Thus Quigley Down Under is a bit handicapped for me with Selleck in the lead role.
Matt Quigley answers Elliot Marston’s ad for a sharpshooter. Professor Snape…errr…Marston (Alan Rickman) is a rich Australian who says he needs someone who can pick off dingoes from great distances. Quigley eventually shows Martson in person just how good of a shooter he is. He hits a bucket three-fourths of a mile away several times until the bucket disappears in a dust cloud.
From the start we see that Quigley is a man of great honor. He teaches a gruff man a lesson when that man tries to shove aside an older couple to beat them onto the boat for Australia. Just minutes after getting off the boat, Quigley sees some men mistreating a woman and intercedes on her behalf. The tone of these first couple scenes has a light hearted, almost slapstick feel to it, which isn’t problematic until further into the story where the tone changes rapidly between light comedy and melodrama. Making matters worse is the character Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) who is the woman Quigley valiantly steps in to protect. As one might deduce from the name, Crazy Cora is not quite right in the head. In the beginning she is played for laughs. The second half of the film she’s played for drama. It’s as if her whole purpose is to make crystal clear the tonal changes.
Quigley makes his way to Martson’s and learns that Marston has hired Quigley to kill aborigines, not dingoes, off his property. Quigley responds to this little twist by punching Marston through the wall, outside Marston’s home, not once but twice. Quigley is eventually overtaken and he and Cora are left to die in the dessert several days away from civilization. Except Quigley doesn’t go down without a fight and gets just enough energy to kill the two Marston henchmen. This leads to a very watchable tale of an odd couple (Quigley and Cora) fighting the odds and eventually seeking justice not just for themselves but the aborigines.
There may be some eye rolling moments and certainly some miscast characters, but it’s hard not to at least like Quigley Down Under.