Chuck (2017)

Everybody knows Rocky. Many might know that Rocky is based on a true story about a New Jersey boxer who stood up and faced Muhammad Ali for fifteen punishing rounds. Director Phillipe Falardeau’s new film Chuck seeks to bring us the story of the “real Rocky,” told with a charming irreverence that makes you like a guy who really isn’t that likable, and root for an underdog that you know is going to lose.

Liev Schreiber is Chuck Wepner, a New Jersey liquor salesman and heavyweight boxer known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” whose main claim to fame is the time that he went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. The film traces the rise and fall of Wepner as he becomes an unlikely contender to fight Ali, and then finds that the fame it brings him only fuels his most self-destructive, self-hating tendencies. While Chuck largely plays like a standard redemption narrative (does anyone ever become successful and actually wind up happy and healthy about it?), it nonetheless avoids many clichés by embracing the good humor of its central character, a man who’s just happy to be recognized.

The film cannily avoids just being a “true story” version of Rocky, and instead shifts its focus to the seedier reality behind the Hollywood façade. Chuck is a good boxer, but he’s chosen to face Ali because he’s one of the few white heavyweight contenders. Rather than finding this insulting, Chuck is elated – he gets to fight Muhammad Ali! He gets to train like a professional boxer! That in itself is enough to make him happy, and his happiness is infectious – he wants to give a good performance in the ring, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether he has the ghost of a chance at winning. After the Ali fight, he basks in the glory of being someone who actually exceeded expectations, becoming a hometown hero. But Chuck has to continue to rewrite his own narrative, telling ever more elaborate stories about his career, and exaggerating his importance to the degree that people begin to call him on it.

Things get weirder when Stallone makes Rocky. The film turns Chuck into even more of a hero when he lays claim to being the “real Rocky Balboa,” and pushes him even deeper into a seedier world of easy sex and easy drugs. This is where the film begins hewing more closely to the redemption arc and loses much of its impact. As the focus shifts to “saving” Chuck from himself, it ceases to be interesting and feels more like a light comedic version of Raging Bull.

Supposedly Chuck has to learn how to be a real human being rather than attempting to play an icon’s part, but the film fails to exploit this element to its greatest potential. Chuck’s education becomes secondary to hitting every redemption narrative mark, and the loss of his identity in the wake of “becoming” Rocky is almost incidental to the story. The Chuck of the beginning of the film is pretty much the same as the Chuck at the end of the film. He’s still easy-going, still fundamentally decent, and still just a little self-involved. Perhaps the film meant to imply that Chuck’s flaws are what make him Chuck, but the lack of a fully developed character arc makes the narrative feel hollow.

The performances do make the film, and occasionally even draw it away from the clichés it constantly flirts with. Schreiber is outstanding here, very likable and believable as an easy-going boxer. The punishment that Chuck takes as a fighter isn’t quite as visceral as many boxing films, but Chuck is more of a dramedy than serious rendering of a fighter’s rise and fall. The secondary cast is likewise impressive, including Jim Gaffigan as Chuck’s best buddy, and Ron Perlman as his manager. A weirder piece of casting comes with Naomi Watts as Linda, a bartender whom Chuck develops a flirtation with, Linda comes off as Watts cosplaying Vickie LaMotta from Raging Bull, largely because the character is introduced late and remains underdeveloped. More affecting is Elisabeth Moss as Phyllis, Chuck’s first wife who puts up with his antics with a combination of acerbic humor and eventual disdain.

Chuck is ultimately a decent film, not a major Oscar contender, but certainly not a bad film by any means. It could have made much more of its underlying themes, and so comes across as somewhat superficial, failing to completely integrate the interesting character permutations into a cohesive whole. The film seems to want to be more than a standard redemption narrative, but is too entrenched in the classic Hollywood structure to really break free of its own clichés.

Chuck is currently showing at Tribeca Film Festival.

November (2017)

If you ever wanted to see a Bergman film set in 19th Century Estonia and populated by a cast of peasants, aristocrats, demons, confused cows, angry pigs, witches, werewolves, and ghosts that turn into chickens, with some heady appearances by Satan himself, then November is what you’ve been waiting for. A gorgeous and wholly unquantifiable work of weirdness, director Rainer Sarnet’s film plunges you into a fascinating netherworld of fairy stories and then abandons you there.

Insofar as November has a clear-cut plot, it tells the story of Liina (Rea Lest), a peasant girl living with her father in a tiny forest community on a Baron’s estate. Liina is in love with Hans (Jorgen Liik), who only has eyes for the Baron’s daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis), a sleepwalker who spends every night wandering to the top of the manor house and nearly plunging off. The romance winds through a narrative that encompasses warding off the plague, in the form of a beautiful young woman, a white goat, and a black pig; making deals with the Devil (Jaan Tooming) for the souls of kratts (farm implements brought to life to perform menial tasks); badgering the local witch for love potions; and searching for hoarded treasure.

November is based on the novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk and is steeped in Estonian folklore and tradition. As such, there’s probably a lot that an American audience (and an American reviewer) is going to miss, but that almost makes November more interesting, as it engages the viewer in its folkloric tropes at ground level, with minimal explantion. Shot in black and white, it’s a gorgeous film, with a depth and complexity of image that rivals the work of Bergman or Tarkovsky. While it most clearly falls into the category of a dark fairy tale, there are healthy bits of humor and surreal drama—the Devil in particular is a bizarre, almost clownish figure, easily fooled and easily angered. Stained with mud and snow, stark and wild as the Estonian landscape that the peasants inhabit, the film defies easy categorization.

November is like a fever dream, steeping the viewer in a world populated by strange creatures and people with rules that don’t entirely follow those of a recognizable reality. The fairy tale tropes, common to most Western traditions, do serve to ground the viewer somewhat, and if you pay attention, you can begin to understand trajectories of characters and vignettes. Christian and pagan traditions mix together in new, often outlandish ways, as the peasants attempt to outwit the Devil and use Communion wafers as bullets for hunting. But November is very much an Estonian film, and feels like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and don’t completely understand the customs. It builds on notions of greed and avarice especially, as the peasants are horribly poor while also hoarding money and possessions well after they’ve died. Yet their lives are richer, more in tune with the cycle of nature and life and death, than that of the German Baron (Dieter Laser) and his daughter, who live a stark, cold life in the crumbling manor house.

November will not appeal to everyone. For a fairy tale, it’s very slow-paced, taking its time to set scenes and construct images, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. You have to pay very close attention, to be willing to allow the film to wander off on tangents seemingly unrelated to the central story, to accept images that don’t seem to be grounded in any single narrative and without any clear explanation. November is building a world, not telling a straightforward narrative, and asks the viewer to engage with it like a child listening to a folk tale. If the viewer is willing to accept that—to go along for the ride—it’s an enlightening, exciting, and deeply bizarre experience.

November is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. See it – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Take Me (2017)

Quirky films are an art form and no one knows quirk better than the Duplass Brothers, who have kindly produced director/star Pat Healy’s Take Me for our viewing pleasure. The film is playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and is so wonderfully odd that it really must be seen.

The film opens with Ray Moody (Healy) attempting to get a loan to support his fledgling business in Los Angeles, after he fled Atlantic City due to some “unpleasantness.” But his business isn’t exactly normal—he’s in the “simulated kidnapping” trade, providing what he describes as an alternative therapy for clients who hire him to kidnap them for a multitude of reasons. Divorced, having difficulty making ends meet, and forced to constantly borrow money from his brother-in-law, Ray jumps at the chance when Anna St. Blair (Taylor Schilling) offers him an exorbitant amount of money to kidnap her for the weekend. As the viewer no doubt suspects, things are not quite what they seem, and things go hilariously pear-shaped for poor Ray.

Take Me hits numerous quirky and slightly uncomfortable elements that raise questions about its central character without making us dislike him. Ray is a weird little man, sporting a bad wig and trying desperately to justify his slightly sick business venture as curative therapy for people with eating disorders, anxiety problems, or just a need to move outside of themselves for a few hours. But he’s also curiously likable, thanks mostly to Healy’s combination of wide-eyed innocence and eagerness to please. It’s necessary for the viewer to really root for Ray right from the start, because otherwise what happens next will simply be unpalatable.

Set against Ray is Anna, played to maniacal perfection by Taylor Schilling (of Orange is the New Black). The major question that the film opens up is whether or not Anna really hired Ray to kidnap her, or whether she’s an innocent victim sucked in by someone else. At first she seems to be on board, but Ray begins to suspect that her terror is genuine, leading down an ever-weirder path as he attempts to suss out whether this is all just an elaborate game, or he’s accidentally kidnapped a woman. The film walks the line on that one, shifting back and forth and keeping the viewer (and Ray) guessing all the time. Much of this is due to Schilling’s performance, which moves from palpable terror to gleeful sadism and back again, terrifying Ray and forcing him to question everything that he sees and does.

Take Me pushes the envelope of what viewers will endure, believe, and, most importantly, laugh at. At times, it threatens to go over the top, but largely succeeds at not making the events too dark while also maintaining a tense, sometimes worrisome tone. It’s a testament to the comedic and dramatic talents of the two leading actors that they succeed as well as they do. Ray and Anna fall into a combination of conflict and comradery, as one attempts to discern what the other is doing and why. That conflict increases with every scene, and eventually the film delves into the complex of psychology that fuels Ray’s business and his reasons for doing it. Darkness beckons at the edges—“what happened in Atlantic City?” is a constant question lingering at the peripheries of the story—but the film never falls into the trap of making things truly dark. Without the comedic edge, Take Me would be unpalatable; with it, it just about succeeds.

There are those who probably will not like Take Me and that’s just fine. This kind of quirk is highly dependent on the viewer being willing to accept a degree of discomfort in every frame, and to still find a deep enjoyment in it. Personally, I just want to see Healy and Schilling make more films together.

Take Me is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Hedy Lamarr was many things, not the least of them a Hollywood star and actress known more for her beauty than her undoubted talent. But she was also just this side of a genius, a talented inventor who created (among other things) the basis of the technology employed in cell phones, Bluetooth, military and satellite communications, and Wifi signals. Without Lamarr, our world today would be very different, yet she never made a dollar off of her invention. Instead she was often treated as a sort of campy secondary player, a Hollywood star fallen low in the wake of drugs and bad marriages, finally living out her life in voluntary exile as she grew sensitive about her age and appearance.

Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story attempts to throw light on Lamarr’s contributions to science, as well as the inherent injustice of a studio and a media system that insisted on valuing her only for her beauty and never for her mind. She was also condemned for that beauty—the film discusses the history of Lamarr’s first major film, the Austrian production Ecstasy, in which a teenaged Lamarr appeared nude and simulated an orgasm. The film would haunt Lamarr’s career, condemning her to be treated (and remembered) as a man-trap, the whore in the virgin/whore dichotomy that was so popular in Hollywood of that time (and still is). Entrapped by a face that was deemed too attractive to be taken seriously by the men who surrounded her, Lamarr struggled for even the smallest bit of recognition for being something more.

Bombshell traces Lamarr’s life from her childhood in Vienna, her first marriage and subsequent escape from Austria, to her arrival in Hollywood, her participation in the war effort, and finally her self-imposed exile from friends and family until her death in 2000. Much attention is given to Lamarr’s invention, a “frequency hopping system” developed during the Second World War that would have enabled radio-controlled torpedoes to avoid being jammed by enemy radio frequencies. With the help of the composer George Antheil, whose knowledge of player pianos helped the pair to design a mechanically workable system, Lamarr patented her invention, only for it to be rejected by the Navy. She was also denied a place on the National Inventors Council, instead told to use her Hollywood stardom to go out and raise money for war bonds. The patent would remain on the shelf until 1962, when a version of it was finally used on Navy ships. Lamarr and Antheil didn’t receive credit for it, or any of the money attached to it, though it forms the basis of much of the technology used by the public and the military today.

The denial of Lamarr’s intellectual and creative abilities is a theme that runs through Bombshell—she married men who were jealous of her, treating her more or less as a trophy wife. Hollywood used her in much the same way, exploiting her beauty and her vague Otherness while giving her little room to flex her creative or intellectual muscles. And this evidently had a long-term effect on how Lamarr valued herself and her own mind. The film paints a picture of a woman denied much intellectual recognition or outlet by society at large, loved for her beauty while dismissed for everything else. She was a bombshell, and bombshells were not expected to be able to think.

Bombshell makes extensive use of talking head interviews with Lamarr’s children and friends, including TCM host Robert Osborne and actress Diane Kruger. A 1997 interview with Lamarr, conducted by a Forbes reporter, forms the basis of much of Lamarr’s own story, thankfully allowing the actress a chance to speak on her own behalf. But Bombshell focuses too often on Lamarr’s personal problems than on her intellectual abilities, switching tack to talk about her addiction to methamphetamines and her many failed marriages. This becomes a sordid foray into the actress’s past that, while well-intentioned, becomes slightly uncomfortable. Not much is made of Lamarr’s other inventions, including an improved traffic light, despite the film reiterating that she was constantly at work on something in her home laboratory.

One has the sense that there is far more to Lamarr even than what Bombshell wants to present. The film might have done better to focus more on her abilities, both acting and inventing, than on the sad permutations of her personal life. This was a woman who wanted to be remembered for what she accomplished, and yet the film continues to delve into things that she obviously would have preferred not to discuss. There is a sense of sordidness at the edges that somewhat undermines the film’s project to bring Lamarr’s talent and inventive intelligence to light. It is the trap into which many biographical documentaries fall, sadder here because Lamarr literally withdrew from public life in an effort to avoid such scrutiny.

But Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story does so much good for its subject, despite the occasional forays into the lurid. Lamarr received scientific recognition for her invention in 1997, but it is only recently that the public has been made aware of just how much she contributed. Bombshell gives a window into a woman’s life, an accomplished woman, a brilliant woman, a woman who should have been given more respect, more understanding, and more love for what she was and not what people fantasized her to be. It’s hard not to think of other actresses who suffered a similar fate to Lamarr, valued only for their bodies, their glamour, and then made into campy caricatures of their former selves. Thankfully, Hedy Lamarr is no longer a punchline.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will show on PBS’s American Masters.

The Endless (2017)

Actor/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead open their latest film The Endless with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft, setting the immediate tone for a movie that will take some of Lovecraft’s notions about time, reality, and the monstrous unknown, and attempt to bend them into new shapes.

The Endless begins with a day in the life of Aaron and Justin, two brothers who escaped from a UFO death cult ten years previously. Still having difficulty finding their way in the regular world, their lives are further upended with the arrival of a tape bearing an apparent suicide note from the cult. Aaron insists on returning to the mountain where it all began to see what has become of the cult and the people they once knew. There they find their old friends and begin to get involved in cult life again—much to Aaron’s excitement and Justin’s chagrin. But things are still a bit weird—no one in the cult appears to have aged a day in ten years, strange things are happening in the woods, and the forest deity that the cult worships may or may not be a metaphor.

Those metaphors, by the way, are what dooms The Endless to failure, relying on half-baked concepts that it believes are intellectually riveting. The Endless aspires to depth without ever quite earning it. Its story feels like a first draft in which the author has a number of good ideas but no idea how to make them pay off. As a result, it falls back on tropes that I have seen one too many times, mixed up with a few platitudes about being allowed to live your life to fullest, even to the point of fucking it up. There are themes here about control and about the comfortable notion of a higher power—an “unknown”—controlling everything. But if The Endless wants to be some sort of semi-spiritual fable about free will, it doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to follow through on it, instead slipping back into time-bending tropes that have been used to better effect in other films, and relying on the notion of a monstrous and god-like unknown to drive the narrative.

What exactly is going on in The Endless isn’t clear from the outset, and I’d rather not say too much about the twists that the film goes through to reveal itself. I will say, however, that it doesn’t quite manage to establish the rules of the world it creates, leaving the viewer to try and figure it out for themselves from a series of ultimately incoherent clues and random conversations. This wouldn’t be objectionable if there were any indication that the film itself understood its own rules without explicitly revealing them, but there is a fudging going on here that the filmmakers seem to take pains to conceal. Once the basic structure is revealed, I was reminded of quite a few other films that take a similar perspective as The Endless drops into some well-worn traps it would have been better to avoid. The cult angle abruptly vanishes in the third act as the film shifts focus, and immediacy of certain character choices take a backseat to attempting to elucidate—again, without success—the meaning of what we’ve been seeing.

All of this is a damned shame, because The Endless does indeed have a lot going for it, especially in the set-up and the cinematography. There are some brilliantly creepy moments—including a tug of war with the invisible deity—and the film manages to merge concepts from authors like Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis into its own wavering mythology. Benson and Moorhead are disarmingly charming actors, lending their characters off-beat humor even in the oddest of circumstances. The major question during the first half of the film is whether or not the cult is really a cult, and the cheerfulness and apparent good-nature of all the inhabitants conceals an underlying hostility that is creepy without being totally off-putting. The film could go either way, and for much of the first half manages to walk that line without telegraphing its eventual intent.

But The Endless just isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, and fails to fulfill any of its narrative promises. Benson and Moorhead are experienced directors by now, but they appear to have difficulty ending a film (an affliction that many directors currently share). Their ending is simplistic, and The Endless’s attempts to Say Something Important fall flat in its wake. While I hesitate to write the film off, given its evident desire to do something more with its genre-twisting, it was a disappointing end to what might have been a fascinating story. Lovecraft did it better, and that’s really saying something.

The Endless is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

A River Below (2017)

Every year, the Tribeca Film Festival showcases some of the most interesting documentaries currently in the running, usually adhering (either by accident or design) to a general theme. Last year, nuclear proliferation and the rise of the police state was a major source of dialogue within Tribeca’s documentary entries. This year, the focus has shifted a little to the relationship between art, media, and commerce, and the effects that art and media can have on real world problems.

One of the major issues facing any documentarian is the fact that once you have turned a camera on something, you are affecting its outcome, even if just by drawing attention to a subject. Assuming the documentarian to be operating in good faith, this can sometimes, result in the exposure of corruption, or increased scrutiny on a humanitarian or environmental crisis. It can also cause untold ripple effects that the filmmaker might not have ever foreseen.

A River Below from director Mark Grieco grapples with the issues of environmental reality in a media-driven world. Its initial focus is on an apparently clear-cut environmental problem: the disappearance of the pink river dolphin, a native species of the Amazon that is being hunted nearly to extinction by fishermen who use its flesh to catch a scavenger fish popular as a dish in Columbia and Brazil. Attempting to find ways to conserve the dolphin are Fernando Trujillo, a marine biologist, and reality TV star/conservationist Richard Rasmussen. These men act as the dual stars of this increasingly fascinating and bizarre story of media, nature, and economy.

The film appears to be just an investigation into the conservation attempts surrounding the pink river dolphin and its relationship to the local economies of the Amazon—a troubled but not unknown set of issues that encompasses both the human and the environmental toll of the fishing industry and the political system. The film takes a sudden twist, however, when it discusses one of the major turning points in the attempts at conservation: video footage of the slaughter of a pregnant dolphin by local fishermen, released to popular TV show Fantastico. The video inexorably leads the documentary down a new political and media-fueled path. The story of the video, and the ripple effects that it has on everyone involved, takes up the majority of the film’s runtime, raising questions about the meaning of reality and the future of conservation in an increasingly media driven world.

A River Below deals with a multitude of complex and thorny issues. The filmmakers themselves must make choices about how their film is put together and what they show, but rather than condemning or lauding any of their subjects, they let the subjects speak for themselves—sometimes allowing the camera to continue running long after someone has ceased to speak. There’s a tacit acknowledgment that editing will affect the way that the topic is seen, and certainly the viewer might begin to come down on a single side (at least one of the main players in this drama comes off very badly indeed). But the film also doesn’t shy away from depicting every side of the story, further entwining the viewer in a circuitous course as confusing and dangerous as the Amazon itself. The crux of the story is the degree to which fiction is used to augment reality in order to bring closer attention to a real problem, and who is sacrificed on the altar of someone else’s conservation attempts. The results—what the camera does and does not show, what difference editing does indeed make—have diverse effects, many of them unintentional.

A River Below might have done well to scrutinize its own motives slightly more, or at least reveal the apparatus behind the film. In a film that purports to tell a straightforward story, it fails to completely acknowledge that even in telling the story, and constructing it the way that it does, it produces a very particular narrative. While Grieco and his crew are attempting to present a non-biased perspective, even the presence of their camera affects the way that the subjects talk.

A River Below ultimately doesn’t provide answers to some of its thornier problems, but it does lay bare the way in which media scrutiny affects the world. As the film winds its way further into the jungles of the Amazon, a simple narrative fails to emerge, save for the single overarching element of exploitation. The dolphins and people alike are caught in the same webbed system, and many are unable to extricate themselves from it.

LA 92 (2017)

LA 92 is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. Few documentaries plunge you into the middle of a rioting city, into the bleeding heart of America itself. Made up entirely of archival footage, including home video, news reports, and behind-the-scenes images, the film tells the story of the violent destruction of much of L.A. following the Rodney King verdict in 1992. The film traces the city’s history of racial discrimination and police brutality that came to a head (once again) with the beating of Rodney King and the exoneration of the police officers by a primarily white jury.

The film begins with footage of the Watts riots in 1965 that followed the brutalizing of two African-American men by police officers. Moving forward to the 1990s, L.A. remained in turmoil, brought to a head when Rodney King was dragged from his car and beaten bloody by several LAPD officers. Not long after King’s beating, a Korean grocery store owner shot and killed fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins over a carton of orange juice—the shooting, again, caught on the security camera. The owner was eventually convicted but the judge commuted the sentence of sixteen years in prison to community service and a fine. The King verdict, then, is seen in the light of more than thirty years of racial violence in L.A., and the fairly recent spate of violence against African-Americans that the American justice system failed utterly to punish.

The foment of anger and despair is palpable throughout LA 92, and the viewer is forced into close proximity with that anger. It’s impossible to trace the series of events, up close and personal, and fail to understand just what a searing and shocking miscarriage of justice the King verdict was. The energy and the anger is so intense in the lead up to the King verdict that it’s hardly surprising it boiled over into total violence. What is shocking is the degree of violence, and the film draws the viewer directly into the heart of the riots via footage filmed right at the ground level. Protests outside L.A. police departments turn into riots; marches meant to be peaceful boil over into burning and looting, as the city’s incredible fury finally erupts.

LA 92’s greatest strength is that it does not purport to be a political work—it simply shows what happened, and why. It’s a difficult film to watch as it shows, with an unflinching gaze, an American city transforming into a war zone, people bloodied, beaten, cars burned, buildings gutted, and citizens clashing with each other, while police and National Guard troops stand by and do nothing. The lack of concerted police response to the riots exposes a police department and a city government apparently unaware of the degree of anger surrounding the King verdict, and unable or unwilling to do their jobs and protect and serve the people of Los Angeles. There are images here that will be seared in the viewer’s memory: of a woman watching her shop burn, screaming at the unfairness of it; of a man dragged from a truck and beaten almost to death; of Korean shopkeepers arming themselves with automatic weapons to patrol in front of their shops like soldiers; of young men and women, howling in impotent rage, breaking and burning everything in their path because no one will give them justice; of King himself, nearly in tears, begging for it all to stop.

But LA 92 is far more than a historical document—it’s a warning. The film shows, in stark and certain terms, the consequences of a country refusing to provide its citizens, all of them, with the protection and the justice they deserve as human beings. What happened in L.A. in 1992 is not shocking at all, given the current events surrounding police brutality and violence against African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, and across the country. Nothing that happened in L.A. in 1992 was right—not the verdict, not the riots, not the government response, not the loss of life and of property, not the violence done against a city by its own people. But it is the result of an apparently incurable sickness in this nation, as we continue to refuse justice to people because of the color of their skin, as we continue to treat human beings like animals.

It happened before. It is going to happen again.

LA 92 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will premiere on National Geographic on April 30.