Thursday, June 28, 2012

“Compliance” – Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we saw the drama “Compliance”, an independent film that played The Sundance Film Festival.


The manager of a fast food restaurant is contacted by a police officer to help investigate a possible crime committed by an employee – but when the suspect winds up being the victimized by the officer, who has really committed a crime?


As manager of a fast food restaurant in Ohio, Sandra has her hands full supervising a team of young people who are almost uniformly unreliable and irresponsible. One day at her office, she receives an unusual telephone call from Police Officer Daniels, who informs her that he’s investigating a reported crime perpetrated against one of Sandra’s customers by one of her employees. When Officer Daniels tells Sandra her restaurant’s Regional Manager has been made aware of the situation, she immediately grasps the severity of the problem and assists the officer in any way she possibly can.

Without the name of the suspected employee, Officer Daniels can only supply a vague description as related to him by the woman who filed the complaint, alleging that money was stolen from her purse while paying for food at the restaurant. Based on the description, Sandra determines that the officer must be referring to Becky, who frequently works one of the cash registers at the restaurant. Sandra is instructed to confine Becky to her office and perform a strip search on her to see if the young woman has stashed the stolen money in any of her clothes or underwear. Daniels has Sandra call on Becky’s friend Kevin, a fellow employee, to stand guard; when Officer Daniels proceeds to instruct him to do some rather odd things with Becky, he refuses and storms out of the office.

Shorthanded in a busy restaurant, Sandra is forced to call her boyfriend Van to give her a hand by taking over the guarding duties. Sandra, who has been ordered to hide Becky’s clothes, leaves Van alone with Becky while he remains on the telephone with Officer Daniels, who quickly has Van conducting some highly unprofessional and inappropriate inspections and punishments on the still-naked young woman. Afterwards, an ashamed Van departs, leaving Becky alone. Once a local handyman who has recently been working at the restaurant happens to stop by at that moment, Sandra enlists him as the next watchman – but when he suspects something is up, he tells Sandra she’s been had. Realizing the mistake, can Sandra aid the real police in apprehending the perpetrator of this prank?

At the outset of the movie, the filmmakers inform the audience the story is inspired by true events; afterwards, we are further told this was not an isolated incident – this same prank occurred 70 times across 30 states. Despite this, it is incredibly difficult to believe that so many people would be dimwitted enough to fall for this scam – unless, of course, you subscribe to the belief that most people are profoundly stupid, in which case “Compliance” succeeds in proving the theory in excruciating detail. That said, the film is difficult to watch – not only because it rates highly on the creep meter, but also because it requires such a suspension of disbelief that you might as well expect Spider-Man to swoop in and save the day.

Another problem with this motion picture is the challenge finding a protagonist for whom to root. Certainly, the character of Becky is sympathetic because she’s the victim – nevertheless, it’s not really her story, it’s Sandra’s. While we’re rooting against the guy who’s fobbing himself off as Officer Daniels, we can’t root for the cops to catch him either, because it’s not a story about one of the real police officers (they don’t arrive in the movie until the third act). So ultimately, Sandra is the protagonist, but she’s so flawed and possesses so few redeeming qualities that she can in no way be considered heroic. Lastly, this feels like a stage play rather than a movie. With the vast majority of the tale taking place in a back office with one of the major characters remaining unseen because his presence is on a telephone, it’s way too static to be filmic.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed “Compliance”’s writer/director Craig Zobel and Ann Dowd, who played Sandra. Dowd said she came to the film right after wrapping up work on a play and wound up on the shoot for 14 days. A big fan of the script, she said Zobel gave the cast the latitude to improvise, but she felt that the screenplay was so well-crafted she had no desire to do so. Zobel said he discovered the series of crimes when researching The Milgram Experiment. In real life, he said the person who was accused of the crime was found not guilty because the evidence was purely circumstantial – the prosecutors lacked anything like audio recordings of his voice. The actual suspect worked as a prison guard and was studying to become a police officer; curiously, after the court case, these phony phone calls completely stopped.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

“The Imposter”– Movie Review



This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the documentary “The Imposter” – a story about a teenage boy who disappears, then miraculously is returned to his family years later … or is he?



In 1994, 13 year-old Nicholas Barclay from San Antonio, Texas mysteriously disappeared.  Despite the best efforts of his family and the police, he doesn’t turn up and after a while, is presumed dead.  Over three years later, a scared, homeless young man is found in Spain, claiming to be Nicholas.  After a thorough investigation by the American Embassy, the FBI and the Spanish authorities, they determine that this young man must be who he claims to be, so they contact his family to inform them that they have found the boy and that he is safely in their custody. 

But can everyone be sure?  Nicholas had blonde hair and blue eyes; this young man has dark hair, brown eyes and speaks with something of a French accent.  Furthermore, he appears to be a little bit older than Nicholas would be, having a bit of a beard growth, which also appears dark.  Nevertheless, Nicholas’ older sister Carey travels to Spain to bring home the young man who is believed to be her brother.  Convinced of his identity, Carey tries to jog his memory by showing him photos taken before his disappearance, carefully reminding him of the various friends and relatives from his past. 

Despite the stark differences in his appearance, speech and behavior, the entire family – including and especially Nicholas’ own mother – decide to believe that this young man is their long lost boy upon his arrival in San Antonio.  Learning of this fantastic story, a television show hires the services of a private investigator to track down the young man and his family so they can research his background and interview him  on their program.  But when the private investigator suspects something, it forces the FBI to revisit the case.  Will their discovery wind up sending potentially innocent people to prison? 



When reviewing a movie, I try to do my best to avoid including spoilers or revealing the ending; my intent, generally, is to help you to decide on your own whether or not to see any given motion picture, regardless of my opinion (honest it is!).  With “The Imposter”, however, it becomes a bit of a challenge because the entire thing is a spoiler.  Even the title itself almost gives the story away – but not quite.  At the outset of the film, you feel pretty confident that you know who The Imposter is – but by the end, you are left asking the question, “Who was the real imposter here?”

Through a series of interviews, home movies and re-creations, the tale of this missing person is masterfully told in a way that demands the viewer increasingly suspend disbelief – and it is only because you know that the story is totally true that you become willing to do so.  If this had been made into a dramatic movie – like “Six Degrees Of Separation” or “Catch Me If You Can” – this account of serial misrepresentation would be deemed as so improbable that no one would ever buy its premise; but it is precisely because these are real people who lived out this situation that you give yourself permission to believe, even with lingering doubts. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the director of “The Imposter”, Bart Layton.   Layton said he decided to make this documentary not when hearing about this particular incident, but by learning of the individual who was believed to be the imposter himself; eventually, after researching this guy extensively, Layton learned about the Texas family and chose to focus the film on that single episode.  While interviewing the imposter, Layton said he found himself having to be on guard so as not to be fooled or manipulated as were many of his other victims. 



Thursday, June 21, 2012

“The Invisible War” – Movie Review




This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary “The Invisible War”, about rape in the United States military.


Despite a regimented life with structure, obscure rules and a sometimes mind-numbing host of regulations, the United States military has the rather disturbing history of turning a blind eye to accusations of rape within their ranks. Even though fellow soldiers may be sent on missions that may call upon them to risk their life, the safety and well-being of a significant segment of their population have been treated with an unexplainable and unforgiveable disregard when it comes to reports of rape, a criminal act steadily on the increase over the years in all branches of the military. The trust that is necessary to exist between soldiers and their commanders has been violated, along with the victims themselves.

The army, navy, coast guard, air force and marines are all culpable in this disgrace. Statistics stat that a large number of these crimes go unreported, either out of fear or shame or the fact that the rapist is a friend of the commander to whom the rape must be reported – in some cases, the rapes aren’t reported to the commander because it is the commander himself who committed the act. Discouragingly, even when the women have enough courage to report the crime, very little good comes as a result; few are prosecuted and in the rare event someone is found guilty, they receive nothing more than a mere slap on the wrist.

Among the stories that are told include that of a young woman, now married and with a daughter of her own, who was so violently beaten in the course of her sexual assault that her jaw was broken; following a long delay in a bloated government bureaucracy, the Veterans Administration has refused to honor her claim for medical coverage. Additionally, the stories of several men are told – heterosexuals who were raped by other presumably straight military men. Ultimately, the military is seen to be as misogynistic as The Taliban, with the philosophy that for women, rape should be considered nothing more than an occupational hazard as a consequence of their loyal service.


If you are one of those people who holds the entire United States military in high esteem and believe them to be the greatest in the world, seeing the documentary, “The Invisible War” might well permanently alter your perception. While it could be argued that the offenses and their perpetrators may be in the minority, the true problem lies at the top because those in charge are the ones responsible for trivializing the crime, if not sweeping it under the rug altogether – effectively raping the victims yet again; officers in the military are complicit in the crime, as if they had committed it themselves – which in some cases, they did.

While this is an important story that should be seen whether or not you are or know someone in the military, there are some problems with the presentation of the information. For one thing, there is a dizzying array of talking heads – you almost get the sense that the filmmakers were aware of this themselves because every time a subject matter expert was on camera, their name and title almost always appeared in graphic at the bottom of the screen, even though they had previously appeared at least once already in the documentary. Likewise, the viewer is frequently bombarded with an almost overwhelming combination of statistics; while the filmmakers clearly did their research, it can be demanding for the viewer to process the data and after a while, many of the figures become a blur.

Prior to screening this film, our instructor interviewed two of the filmmakers, Producer Amy Ziering and Director Kirby Dick. They said that while getting people to go on screen to discuss their rape was challenging, they wound up finding so many victims willing to come forward that they had to winnow down the number of people they would interview – and from there, further reduce the number who would actually make it into the final cut of the documentary. Their work on the “Invisible War” from beginning to end was almost two years; the director and the producer took turns interviewing the various subjects in the movie.





Saturday, June 16, 2012

9th Ave. International Food Festival – Day 2


Typically, the weather on the weekend of the 9th Avenue International Food Festival has rain on at least one day – I’ve attended some when it rained on both days.  This year, however, the weather was perfect on Saturday and Sunday – sunny and warm all day long.  On the final day, I decided to start off small with some finger food, so I got a chicken spicy roll from the Bali Nusa Indonesian restaurant located near 46th street. 

Bali Nusa Indonesian Chicken Spicy Roll


From Breeze, a Thai/French restaurant near 46th st, Thai Steamed Dumplings – a mixture of one chicken, one shrimp and one with veggies. 

While the purpose of the food festival is to highlight restaurants along 9th Avenue, there are some eateries in this Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood that are not located there.  Perhaps the best food I had all day came from a Mexican place on 10th Avenue and 47th street called AƱejo Tequileria – the shrimp ceviche (and yes, I sampled the leche de tigre!) …

Food-wise, things ended on a rather disappointing note – I stopped by the stand of Leon Bakery at 48th street and ordered the Tacos Dorados – one with cheese, one with chicken and one with potatoes.  Unfortunately, it was a little bland to my taste, neither hot nor warm and not anywhere near as crispy as it looked it might be. 

Closing this year’s report on the festival is an unusual video of performers – a group of belly dancers, some of whom with a belly that had no business dancing, especially in public. 

Another 9th Avenue Food Festival is in the books – between the great weather and (mostly) good food, it was a success!  It is with great anticipation that I look forward to next year’s festival. 

For additional videos and photos from this year’s festival, please be sure to check out my Google+ page.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Rock Of Ages" - Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we saw the musical comedy, “Rock Of Ages”, starring Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand.


When a young woman arrives in Hollywood to pursue a singing career, can she succeed despite constant rejection, a failed romance and demeaning subsistence jobs?


In 1987, rock & roll fanatic Sherrie (Julianne Hough ) flees the confines of her Tulsa, Oklahoma residence for the chance to seek a singing career in Hollywood.  Upon being robbed the moment she sets foot in the new town, she immediately meets Drew (Diego Boneta), also an aspiring singer, who offers to help secure her a waitressing position in the same nightclub where he works as a barback.   Drew takes her to meet Dennis (Baldwin), owner of the legendary Bourbon Room on The Sunset Strip where many historic live rock albums have been recorded; Dennis is reluctant to hire Sherrie, but when his assistant Lonny (Brand) informs him that they’re short-staffed on this busy night, she wins the job. 

Meanwhile, The Mayor Of Los Angeles is running for re-election on the promise that he’ll clean up the city.  To this end, he enlists the aid of his ultra-conservative wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to take the lead on this project; after doing a bit of research, she realizes that the best place to start is on The Sunset Strip – and since The Bourbon Room is the main attraction there, closing its struggling doors once and for all becomes her main objective.  Discovering that the nightclub has been remiss in paying its taxes, she seeks to have the place shuttered.  In order to save his establishment, Dennis decides to book the rock band Arsenal, led by its famed and notoriously temperamental singer, Stacee Jaxx (Cruise). 

Jaxx performs with his band at a jam-packed Bourbon Room, but his sleazy manager (Paul Giamatti) makes off with  the evening’s take, leaving Dennis broke and still unable to pay his nightclub’s city taxes.  When Drew suspects Sherrie of having an affair with Jaxx, their budding romance effectively comes to a crashing halt, causing her to quit her job at The Bourbon Room and eventually being forced to take a job as a stripper.  With Drew and Sherrie finding disappointment in both their personal life and professional life, can reuniting somehow help them to find a way to ignite their careers on a more successful track? 


In the first scene of this movie, we see Sherrie on her bus ride into Hollywood where she and the other passengers (as well as the driver) spontaneously burst into song.  It was at this point that I immediately dropped out of the film, never to return again.  If you are a big fan of the TV show “Glee”, then you are likely a good candidate to enjoy “Rock Of Ages” – which is to say that I’ve never even seen a fraction of an episode of “Glee”, so that’s where I’m coming from.  While devotees of  the 1980’s music scene might appreciate the film on those merits, you have to keep in mind that while the arrangements might be true to the original recordings, the performances are not – in some cases, rather bland carbon copies.

Rock Of Ages” is based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, which I must admit that I’ve never seen, despite living in New York City (theater is expensive).  As a result, I’m certainly in no position to compare the stage version to the film version – but that’s irrelevant since any movie needs to stand on its own, regardless if it’s an original screenplay or based on other material (e.g., a book or a play).  Will fans of the stage version like the movie version?  I suppose it depends on how married you are to the stage version and what you envisioned it might be like if made into a film.  I would think that just about any aficionado of the musical genre would like “Rock Of Ages” – but for me, I could’ve done without the Alec Baldwin/Russell Brand musically-enhanced love scene.

The corny nature of the script could be overlooked if stories told in a campy way are your thing.  One remotely positive thing about “Rock Of Ages” was Tom Cruise’s performance, as much as it deeply pains me to say so.  I’m given to understand that he did all of his own singing in this film and I must say that he pulls off the whole rock star prancing about rather convincingly.  That said, however, I did not find his portrayal of Stacee Jaxx to be enough to save this movie from being a non-stop sensory (and sensibility) assault.  I’m sure that “Rock Of Ages” will be a huge smash – but just as there are some hits that don’t resonate with everyone, be confident that this film will have no problem whatsoever finding its own very loyal (and rather sizable) audience. 

Saturday, June 09, 2012

9th Avenue International Food Festival – Day 1



While it may be true that for some the unofficial beginning of summer is the Memorial Day Weekend, for me, it arrives the week prior when we Big Apple gourmands descend upon The 9th Avenue Food Fest.  Once again this year, I attended the mecca of culinary delights, New York City’s 39th Annual 9th Avenue International Food Festival on May 19 and 20, 2012.  Rather than clutter this post with excess narrative, I’ll just show you some photos and comment as necessary. 

 My first stop along the way was The Delta Grill at 49th street. 


With so many delectable choices, it was hard to pick just one, but this time, I chose the alligator sausage with spicy Cajun mustard on the side.  I always love this because the sausage has a very crisp snap when you bite down on it and a dip of mustard is a particularly nice touch.  

Next stop was Bombay Indian Cuisine near 51st street. 


Here, I had the vegetable samosa.  As hot and spicy as you’d expect, this was filled mostly with chunks of potato, with occasional other veggies – including and especially peas – tossed in. 

My old nemesis, The Onion Bloom!  Finding the stand near 53rd street, I couldn’t resist, even though I knew I had no chance.  

In my youth, I could be characterized as the shark in the movie Jaws -- “The Perfect Eating Machine”.  Age has slowed me down considerably over the years since, so I can no longer conquer this entire delicious plate – I could barely consume about a third of it, much less finish the whole thing.   But with that horseradish for dipping sauce, it’s superb! 

Of course, the festival is a large celebration that is mostly about food, but not entirely.  Along the way, you’ll find various local performers.  Here, for example, are a couple of square-dancers  from a neighboring dance company. 

Coming soon will be Day 2 of 2012’s food festival.  In the meantime, please be sure to check out my Facebook page for additional photos and videos. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

“Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” – Movie Review




This week, the Summer Semester of my movie class started with a screening of the comedy/drama “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” starring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener and Directed by Bruce Beresford.


When a woman learns her husband wants a divorce, she takes her teenage children to their grandmother’s house – but when the visit causes past issues to resurface, can they resolve their conflicts or will they forever be divided by their history?


While preparing for a dinner party, Diane (Keener) is taken aback when her husband Mark (Kyle MacLachlan) asks her for a divorce. The very next day, she rounds up her two teenage children – Jake (Nat Wolff) and his older sister Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) – and packs them in her car to make the long drive from Manhattan to the artists’ colony of Woodstock in upstate New York. Diane’s ultimate destination is the home of her long-estranged mother Grace (Fonda), whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years – which means this will be the first time Diane’s children will meet their grandmother.

Upon arrival, it is immediately apparent to Diane that Grace hasn’t changed very much – she’s still quite the hippy in her mindset and continuing to live in that lifestyle, remaining mentally stuck in the 1960’s. Despite her age, Grace is still an avid pot smoker and a real true believer in free love with anyone and everyone available. When Grace throws a party in honor of Diane’s visit, Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is among the invited guests. A handsome, charismatic man, Grace makes sure to introduce Jude to Diane believing that they are a match made in heaven – especially now that Diane is on the verge of a divorce.

As they spend more time together, it becomes painfully obvious to Diane that she and Jude are two very different people – while she has considerably more conservative leanings, he is particularly liberal and made from the same hippy mold as her mother. Despite these differences, Diane and Jude develop strong feelings for each other and she begins to fall in love with him. Just as it appears as though things are about to get serious between them, Diane learns about a secret her mother has been keeping which drives a wedge between them, as well as between Diane and Jude. Will the uncovering of this awful truth cause Diane’s relationship with both Grace and Jude to be irreparable?


If you can put aside for one moment the political transgressions of her past (which may be more of a challenge for some than others), Jane Fonda is one of this nation’s best actresses – and it is for this reason alone that special attention must be paid to any new movie in which she stars. She is now an older woman, roles for whom are few and far between – and the quality of those few that are available can tend to be extremely uneven at best (e.g., “Monster-In-Law”). So, it is with this in mind that having her play a senior citizen stuck in The Love Generation would be a sure-fire sensation – a no brainer. Well, that may have sounded like a good idea in a pitch meeting, but its execution was not up to the expectations her fans.

First and foremost in this weakly-attempt at a “dramedy”, the problem is with its screenplay – one that neither its gifted actresses nor talented director with a stellar track record can salvage, try as they might. While the performances are as good as they possibly can be given the flawed material, it is the triteness of much of the dialog and many of the situations that ultimately is the downfall for this film. This has the look and feel of one of those motion pictures that might’ve been better conceived of as a TV movie for the Lifetime channel. One positive note: Fans of Rosanna Arquette will be delighted to learn that she appears in this movie as one of Grace’s Woodstock pals that attends many of their get-togethers.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s screenwriters, Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert. The team lives in upstate New York and said that they got involved in the project when a local production company in that area wanted a screenplay that was set in their locale and wound up with a happy ending. Muszynski and Mengert set out to write the script and wound up finishing an initial draft two months later. Regarding their collaboration process, the pair said that they do not write together; instead, they take turns with various portions of the script, writing scenes or portions of scenes, then hands it over to their partner when one of them gets stuck at some point.



Sunday, June 03, 2012

“Paul Williams: Still Alive”–Movie Review


This weekend, my movie class began its bonus screenings for the Summer Semester with the documentary “Paul Williams:  Still Alive”, about the singer-songwriter Paul Williams. 



When a fan of the singer-songwriter Paul Williams discovers his idol isn’t dead, he decides to shoot a documentary about the star’s life – but when Williams is resistant to record the more sordid details of his past, will the documentarian have enough footage for his film? 



In the 1970’s, the singer-songwriter Paul Williams was a ubiquitous presence on television and in films.  Famous more for his compositions than for his singing ability, he gained acclaim, fortune and awards for his many popular songs that were recorded by such diverse recording artists as The Carpenters, Barbra Streisand and David Bowie.  A frequent guest on talk shows such as Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and especially Johnny Carson, Williams’ reputation grew as a raconteur and comedian as well as a composer; these appearances led to many acting jobs on various TV series and movies. 

Unfortunately for Williams, all of the success went to his head and by the 1980’s, he had more or less dropped out of sight due to substance abuse – alcohol and cocaine being his addictions of choice.  A number of people – including many of his most ardent fans – incorrectly assumed that Williams had died.  After a couple of failed marriages and downward spiraling career directly attributable to his alcohol and drug abuse, Williams had lost much of his fortune – a significant amount of which also went to feeding his habit.  Having hit rock bottom, he went to rehab and has been sober since 1991. 

Subsequently remarrying to a woman who has dedicated her life to work with him to help rebuild his career, Williams now tours around the world performing and making personal appearances at various conventions.  For the past number of years, he has served as both President and Chairman of the Board at ASCAP, where he helps to ensure that nearly half a million musicians, composers and lyricists get the royalties due them for the playing and/or performance of their songs.  With fame behind him, Williams shuns the spotlight these days – and with that being the case, can the filmmaker coax him into coming clean about his past to provide enough content for his documentary?



Director Stephen Kessler has created an unusual – and in many ways – unorthodox documentary in that he has insinuated much of himself into the story, almost in a Michael Moore–esque manner (only without the political axe to grind).  Kessler, who narrates the movie, has almost as much screen time as his subject.  The result is that he has made “Paul Williams:  Still Alive” nearly as much about him as it is about Williams.  You can either view this as a quirky, daring and original style or you can see it as creepy, obnoxious and egomaniacal.  I experienced it as the latter rather than the former. 

Will anyone be interested in a documentary about this sensation from the 1970’s?  Clearly, this movie is targeted to a very specific audience – namely, people who are old enough to remember Williams when he was on the scene back in those days.  If you believe the documentary, he’s still got quite a following around the world – YouTube, for example, is littered with people who are familiar with his songs and they gladly perform them in their own inimitable way.  Williams definitely has a fascinating story to tell, but as a reluctant subject, both he and Kessler collaborate in sabotaging the effort. 

Prior to the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s subject, Paul Williams.  The 5’2” Williams, now 71, looks every year of his age, likely attributable to the hard-partying lifestyle he enjoyed for many years during the 1970’s and 80’s.  Although his youthful gnome-like appearance is long gone, he has not lost either his ability to tell a good story or to crack the occasional joke.  About working with Streisand, he reinforced how difficult she can be, but credited her with providing him with much of the success he went on to experience.  Once, when Johnny Carson asked him what it was like to work with Streisand, he replied, “It’s like trying to have a picnic on an airport runway”.