Category Archives: movie reviews

Obey Giant Review

Obey Giant, a documentary currently on Hulu, covers the career of street artist Shepard Fairey and explores some of the movement’s influences and history. Fairey is best known as the creator of the iconic Obama Hope posters that were seen everywhere during the 2008 campaign. He’s also featured in Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary (some say mockumentary) about the even more famous street artist Banksy.

Obey Giant gets its title from one of Fairey’s widespread use of pro wrestler Andre The Giant’s image in his early work. Later, he began to use the word “obey” in his stickers and stencils, inspired by the sci-fi cult classic They Live (where advertising signs contain subliminal messages such as “obey” and “consume” that are only visible with special glasses).

One thing that makes Obey Giant more entertaining than the average documentary is that the director, James Moll, stays out of the way and lets Fairey (along with other characters involved in his life) do all the talking without inserting unnecessary interview questions or voiceovers. The film discusses the artist’s early influences, mainly 70s punk rock and skateboarding and concludes with a look at his legal problems after being sued by the AP and a photographer for allegedly stealing an image for his Obama poster.

Fairey’s popularity, along with that of Banksy and other street and graffiti artists, reveals the growing acceptance of this type of art (which doesn’t extend to authorities, who arrest Shepherd just before his biggest opening at a Boston museum). As with Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop co-creator Thierry Guetta, people are willing to line up around the block for his openings, a somewhat strange and paradoxical phenomenon for artists who made their reputations as outlaws who work under the cover of darkness and anonymity.

People have wildly conflicting views of street art, of course. Depending on your cultural and political leanings, you might see it as a vibrant form of rebellion or out-and-out vandalism. As Fairey points out, however, he only covers vacated buildings, something also done by big brands without legal consequences), Obey Giant provides a fascinating look into this world. Personally, I admired Fairey’s commitment and willingness to take risks (not only legal but also placing his art in dangerous places) while feeling a bit skeptical at some of his political views.

His “Obey” campaigns were based on the They Live premise that there’s a sinister subtext to everything put forth by mainstream culture (an idea Fairey eloquently explains early in the film) yet he seems a bit naive in thinking that certain political candidates such as Obama aren’t part of this manipulation. Political views aside, the film is close to flawless in letting its subject reveal what makes him tick. Nor does it (or Shepard himself) shy away from admitting his own insecurities and periods of self-doubt, as when he admits to lying about the photograph he used for the Obama poster.

One thing that stuck out to me is the fact that Banksy’s name is not uttered once in the whole film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is referenced, Banksy is listed as the director and Fairey talks at length about his contentious relationship with Thierry Guetta. However, Banksy’s name is never spoken out loud. A minor detail to e sure, but considering how many other artists are mentioned in the film the commission seems deliberate for whatever reason.

Regardless of how you feel about street art, Obey Giant provides insight into a popular and controversial type of art. It also gets into the lively debate about digital age issues such as fair use, copyrights and the anarchistic notion that art and ideas belong to everyone. Fairey isn’t 100% on the anarchist’s side, at least from what he says here. His argument with the Obama photo is that he transformed the image to the extent that it falls under the category of fair use (the case was ultimately settled). Obey Giant is one of the better documentaries of recent years and is recommended to anyone interested in art, culture, and countercultures.

The Voices Film Review

The Voices (2014), directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is best known for her 2007 animated Iranian film Persepolis, is a strange film that’s difficult to categorize, love or hate (at least for this reviewer). It can be seen as an original, very dark comedy about a superficially likable guy named Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who happens to be schizophrenic and turns into a serial killer. It can be appreciated for its absurdist humor or criticized for its gory scenes, portrayal of mental illness and for the seemingly lighthearted way that it depicts violence against women.

Apart from anything else, I did find aspects of The Voices quite funny. Specifically, the way Jerry hears his cat and dog talking to him, playing the parts of angel and devil (with the cat, naturally, being the latter). Reynolds himself does a moderately good job of doing these voices, with the cat having a Scottish brogue and the large bull mastiff speaking in a cartoon-dog southern drawl. We actually see the cat’s mouth moving as he “talks” to Jerry and urges him to commit all kinds of hideous crimes.

There is nothing realistic about The Voices, even apart from talking pets. Jerry is a man with a history of mental illness who, it seems, has recently been released from an institution. He sees a therapist regularly, played by Jacki Weaver. He lives in a depressing industrial city called Milton that is somewhere in the middle of the country. Jerry inexplicably inhabits an entire building, a former bowling alley. While this makes for a convenient headquarters for a serial killer, it is hardly credible that a man who works in a warehouse is able to rent out an entire building all by himself.

Jerry’s workplace is similarly bizarre and off-kilter, with employees who wear pink uniforms and, at least in one scene, dance in musical style numbers around the factory. There is even a local Chinese restaurant that features unlikely Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators. One feature of The Voices is that we are meant to notice a large gap between reality as perceived by Jerry (when he is off his meds) and the real, far less colorful and hopeful world.

Jerry’s descent into complete madness begins when his romantic advances towards attractive co-worker Fiona (Gemma Arterton) are not reciprocated. Despite this, the scene in which he brutally murders her does not really make sense, even given Jerry’s mental state. He is clearly infatuated with Fiona and she is actually being nice to him, albeit in a dishonest way, up until the point when things go wrong. After they hit a deer, Jerry inexplicably turns violent against Fiona.

The most complex relationship in the film involves Jerry and another co-worker, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), the only character who genuinely likes Jerry. The begin a romance, but Jerry’s evil cat Mr. Whiskers, along with Fiona’s head (which Jerry now keeps in the freezer) are urging him to continue his killing spree. Funny, sick or just plain bizarre stuff, depending on your tastes.

We get quite a few glimpses into Jerry’s back story; his mother was also mentally ill and also heard voices. However, as any mental health advocate will tell you, most schizophrenics are not violent, especially not in the premeditated way that Jerry’s actions ultimately unfold. Perhaps they were thinking of the real life infamous killer Son of Sam, who supposedly followed orders given by his dog when he went on a killing spree in the 1970s.

It’s hard to say what director Satrapi and writer Michael Perry were trying to achieve with The Voices. The focus on Jerry’s tragic childhood and the absurdly upbeat and surreal ending set in heaven with a dancing Jesus, seem to be urging us to sympathize with this unlikely but not entirely unlikable serial killer. At the same time, it’s impossible for any remotely sane person to justify anything Jerry does in this film.

Critical response to The Voices has been interesting and extremely conflicted. I read one review that called the film “perfect,” which seems like excessive praise. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reading a vitriolic but insightful feminist critique of the film by Maryann Johanson, on The Flick Philosopher. I’m not sure if I agree with her conclusion that the film is thoroughly misogynistic, but it does bring up some salient points about the way violence against women is trivialized.

I’m not a big believer in quantifying films with stars (or, even worse, using a binary, absurdly simplistic “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system), which is why I don’t use stars on any of my reviews. However, just to put things in perspective, if I were rating The Voices on Netlfix or Amazon I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a film that’s darkly funny, interesting, disturbing and extremely uneven.


Inside Llewyn Davis Review

Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.

The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.

Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.

In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.


Radio Free Albemuth: Philip K. Dick’s Prophetic Dystopia

The novels of Philip K. Dick are not easy to translate into film, but Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon, does a good job at conveying some of the cult novelist’s more far out (yet far from implausible) ideas. Whereas Richard Linkater’s Through A Scanner Darkly was a mostly animated, surreal movie where the line between reality and hallucination was always on the verge of collapsing, Radio Free Albemuth is closer to being a conventional science fiction film. In fact, the movie has a deliberately retro feel to it, as it depicts an alternative late 20th century America that has too many similarities with the actual 2014 America for comfort.

The story follows a record store employee named Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who starts to receive mystical visions from a mysterious source called VALIS. He and his writer friend Phil (Shea Whigham, playing author Dick himself) try to unravel a mysterious series of events that involve interrogations at the hands of stormtrooper-like government agents and a radical organization plotting to overthrow the fascist government.

Radio Free Albemuth portrays a low tech, pre-Internet America that feels even earlier than the 1980s. The cultural climate is more like the 1950s and the enforced conformity, with the ever present threat of being hauled in for your political beliefs recalls McCarthyism, with some Orwell thrown in. It is, however, unsettling to note that, while the technology is retro, the proto-fascist political rhetoric spouted by President Fremont has an all too contemporary ring.

The film is a bit confusing when it comes to the time frame and how it relates to historical events. Dick wrote the novel in 1976 and it was published after his death in 1985 In the book and film, the Soviet Union has collapsed and America is run by the right wing President Fremont (Scott Wilson), who has been in power for 15 years. So Dick foresaw the end of the Soviet Union some 20 years before it actually happened. It’s worth noting that in the late 1970s, when Dick wrote the novel, the Soviet empire hardly seemed to be falling apart and the Patriot Act was still far in the future.

Dick’s vision can be seen as prophetic in a number of ways. Not only did he foresee the impending end of the Soviet Union, but his pre-9/11 foresight that the U.S. government would use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties was eerily prophetic as well.

Singer Alanis Morissette provides the musical talent for the story as Sylvia, a woman who also has visions and whose family is connected to that of Fremont in a mysterious way. One of the subplots involves inserting a subversive revolutionary message within a pop song.

Those not familiar with Dick, or with conspiracy theories and/or metaphysical ideas regarding parallel realities might find this material inaccessible and farfetched. The film also turns rather dark towards the end. Whereas it starts out with Brady being hopeful at accessing a higher intelligence, gradually the power of the Orwellian state overshadow the other elements. While Dick’s visions are metaphysical and hopeful on the one hand, they definitely tend towards the dystopian as well.

Radio Free Albemuth is certainly full of interesting ideas about consciousness, metaphysics, politics and what it might take to become free in the face of widespread oppression. These are themes that have universal relevance.

Radio Free Albemuth is currently available on Netflix Streaming.

About Fifty: Midlife Crisis and Lots of Golf

About Fifty (2011)
Directed by Thomas Johnston

About Fifty covers familiar cinematic territory -middle-aged guys having a midlife crisis and trying to recapture their youth. In this case, the pair are recently separated Adam (Martin Grey) and longtime bachelor Jon (Drew Pillsbury).

Although this film is categorized as a comedy on Netflix (it received little attention elsewhere), it is more of a drama. In fact, a lot of it is quite depressing. It is also full of cliches of this genre. The men deal with prostate exams, senile parents, fight off desperate cougar-type women in a bar, obsess about golf scores and experience career and marriage malaise.

For About Fifty to have really worked, it would have had to go in one of two directions. Either a goofy comedy or a drama that breaks new ground. Instead it waffles between mild comedy and cliched melodrama.

I should also confess having a prejudice against movies where golf takes up more than a few seconds of screen time. In About Fifty, this incredibly dull sport dominates at least three scenes.

About Fifty on IMDB

Related Blogs

    Best Sources For Movie Reviews

    Reviewing The Reviewers

    There are thousands of places to find movie reviews online, from obscure independent sites (like this one!) to giants like the MRQE (Movie Review Query Engine).

    This is a short and extremely biased review of some of my favorite (and not so favorite) places to find movie reviews.

    VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2013

    This is the largest print book of movie reviews you can find, and it gets updated every single year. I often wonder how they can keep putting it out each year and still include all the new movies that are released.

    The partial answer is, as huge as it is, it’s not close to comprehensive. In fact, in the few editions of it I’ve owned, I’ve noticed that each one has more movies missing.

    Still, it’s by far the best of its kind. This doesn’t mean I always agree with the reviews. Far from it. In some cases, the reviewers seem to try too hard to pander to mainstream and conventional tastes. Still, it’s a superb reference, especially if you want a hard copy movie review resource.

    Movie Review Query Engine

    This is not a movie review site per se, but a meta review site. That is, it lists reviews for any movie you look up. Once again, it’s not comprehensive. Many indie films you might find on Netflix, for example, can’t be found here. The focus is on mainstream movies that get reviewed by major reviewers -e.g. Variety, The New York Times, Roger Ebert, etc. For this, however, it’s a great resource.

    IMDb

    This is probably the most complete movie resource on the internet. It’s the one place you are almost certain to find any movie that’s been released, whether a TV movie, an obscure indie film or a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.

    That said, the reviews on this site are nothing special. They are simply reviews written by users of the site. The reviews are on a 10 star scale, which, in my opinion, is too many stars to be useful. Furthermore, many films are not reviewed at all. All in all, Imdb is better for looking up information, such as the year, cast or director of a film than reviews.

    Netflix

    Netflix is strange when it comes to reviews. The whole system has seemed very buggy over the last couple of years. For example, I’ve noticed that for many films, all reviews were rated 100% “helpful.” The whole “helpful” vs. “not helpful” system, which I believe started on Amazon is very dubious in itself, but as long as you’re going to use it, you may as well make it honest. And when all reviews are rated helpful, it renders the whole thing pointless.

    As for the reviews themselves. Netflix customers on the whole tend to be a very mainstream and/or conservative bunch. You’ll find many reviewers, for example, objecting to curse words or the immoral values of a certain movie. This puritanical bent is quite common among Netflix reviewers, and can result in reviews that don’t really tell you much about the movie.

    Amazon

    Amazon.com reviews for movies are similar to their reviews for books (and everything else they sell), which means a very mixed bag. Overall, however, Amazon reviewers tend to be more sophisticated and educated than Netflix reviewers, probably because of the literary origins of Amazon.

    The main limitation of Amazon for movie reviews is that you’ll only find movies that are available for sale in at least one format. This includes lots of movies, of course, but it also excludes some good ones.

    My Amazon Reviews (this includes book reviews as well as movies)

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      Stone -a Film With Psychological and Spiritual Depth

      Stone is a surprisingly complex and thought-provoking film from director John Curran. To describe the plot of this film -a probably sociopathic prison inmate (Edward Norton) schemes with his wife (Milla Jovovich) to manipulate his parole officer (Robert DeNiro) to win early release – makes it sound like a possibly interesting, but predictable crime drama. Yet the longer it goes on, the more nuanced and complicated things get.

      Robert DeNiro, of course, specializes in playing unhinged, or about-to-go-unhinged characters, and this is no exception. As Jack Mabry, an unhappily married parole officer about to retire, he listens to provocative religious talk radio on his way to work and has a cynicism, borne of long experience, towards his inmate “clients.” Norton, meanwhile, gives a great performance as Stone, a streetwise career criminal doing a long sentence for arson. When he pressures his beautiful wife Lucetta to contact his parole officer outside, it seems like a fairly straightforward set-up -Lucetta will try to seduce Mabry so they’ll have something on him, and Stone will go free.

      Yet mid-way through the film, Stone apparently has a spiritual awakening after reading a prison book that instructs him to repeat a certain mantra. Is this real, or part of his scheme? Much of the film involves conversations between Stone and Mabry. At first, Stone behaves like you might expect a violent convict, barely able to suppress his anger at Mabry having power over him. Yet after his “experience,” his personality is transforms, which only makes Mabry dislike and distrust him all the more.

      Meanwhile, Lucetta’s motives are not as clear cut as we first assume. A natural seductress, she doesn’t have much trouble getting to the repressed Stone, but we are soon left wondering whose side, if anyone’s, she’s really on. As for Mabry, it is revealed early on that he has a violent and unstable streak in him, and we’re not sure when he might become unravelled.

      There’s a certain ambiguity to Stone that will not please many viewers. Yet I was impressed with the psychological subtlety of it, and how it maintained its integrity by not devolving into a standard Hollywood climax. Highly recommended if you like character based stories that have some psychological, and even spiritual depth.

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      Exit Through the Gift Shop

      No one seems to know for sure if Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary or a prank played by street artist Banksy. Either way, it’s a fascinating portrayal of both the street art movement, pop culture and the strange point where the two meet.

      The film starts out with Frenchman Thiery Guetta, the cousin of street artist Space Invader, filming various street artists in Paris, Los Angeles and other locations. Street art was the next phase of graffiti that became popular in the 1990s, and we see leading practitioners of this art, such as Shephard Fairey at work, painting their elaborate creations in prominent locations around cities. While some people label graffiti and street art simply as vandalism, and on one level it is -and I doubt that few street artists themselves would argue with this- much of it is also undeniably creative and original. While it’s sort of redundant to say it’s subversive, it may be one of the few statements that can be made nowadays that this could truly be said about, as there’s no commercial intent behind it. Or so it would seem.

      Yet Exit Through the Gift Shop ends up being more about the commercialization of art than street art per se. When Thiery finally meets the mysterious English street artist Banksy, we watch him leave his mark around Los Angeles, London and, most daringly, on the infamous wall in the West Bank, right under the noses of military patrols. When Banksy pressures Thiery to put together an actual documentary, however, the result is a disaster and it’s revealed that Thiery knows nothing about filmmaking, so Banksy takes over the project and the focus turns on Thiery. That’s at least the official story, which hasn’t been confirmed to this day.

      The denouement of the film comes when Thiery reinvents himself as Mister Brainwash and has a major opening in L.A. that turns him into a celebrity. At this point, a man who starts out as an amiable eccentric is transformed into a near megalomaniac who proclaims himself the next Andy Warhol. Indeed, many of his paintings are variations on Warhol’s themes, with lots of giant Campbell’s Soup cans, Elvis renditions and distortions of famous paintings. Despite the obviously derivative nature of his work, his opening is a huge success, and he goes on to design one of Madonna’s album covers. The people Thiery filmed earlier, from Fairey to Banksy are now less than enthralled with him, and the implication is that he is a sellout while the art critics and general public are gullible fools.

      Taken at face value, the film doesn’t quite add up. Why would the anarchic Banksy put his name behind the film if he truly despised the result? The fact that we see Banksy himself with a very public art opening earlier in the film proves he isn’t as adverse to publicity as he pretends. Still, whatever we might suspect about Banksy’s intentions or honesty, he undoubtedly has real talent. In a review in the English paper The Sunday Times, Wendy Ide mentions that she once interviewed Banksy, and he revealed that It’s A Beautiful Life is his favorite film. Probably not coincidentally, that’s the name Thiery/Mister Brainwash gives to his art exhibit that Banksy allegedly had nothing to do with.

      Exit Through the Gift Shop [Blu-ray] is a truly postmodern film about contemporary culture, which means its ultimate veracity, or lack thereof is of secondary importance at most. It causes the viewer to contemplate that ancient question, “What is art?” This makes it more meaningful than 99% of other contemporary films.

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      Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide

      Leonard Maltin's 2009 Movie Guide (Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (Signet))

      Review

      “The go-to choice for both film geeks and casual couch potatoes.” —The New York Times Book Review “The best of the bunch.”—San Francisco Chronicle “The single most important reference book in every home.” —Esquire
      –This text refers to an alternate

      Paperback
      edition.

      The New York Times bestselling film guide— revised and updatedThe most authoritative book of its kind, now with more entries than ever before, updated and revised for 2009
      Buy Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide at Amazon