|The Keeping Room
|The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
|The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?
Two terrific documentaries amid an otherwise weak crop of movies:
You talk about White People Problems. Nancy Meyers' phony baloney "The Intern" comprises two eye-rolling hours of muddled messages and weepy hand-wringing. Theodore Shapiro merits a Razzie nomination for an intrusive, generic score that might have been used between scenes on "Touched by an Angel," or as background on an infomercial. The much-maligned Anne Hathaway occasionally appeals as Jules Ostin, the founder of a Brooklyn-based online clothing retailer called About the Fit. As she bicycles through the open floor plan, we're firmly located in Bullshit Movieland. It's also a bad sign, though it wasn't always, when Robert De Niro turns in the best performance in a movie, and he does what he can to smooth out the inconsistencies in Meyers' conception of septuagenarian Ben Whittaker, a financially secure widower and Jules' new intern. But nothing can save her ending, in which Jules' husband Matt (Anders Holm), after being caught cheating, promises to be a better husband and father (to JoJo Kushner's fingernails-on-chalkboard Paige) if she'll take him back. As Jules cupped his hand in hers, I turned to my friend and said, "Bonehead bought it."
The word "incredible" gets tossed around too freely nowadays, but Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center genuinely qualifies as one of the incredible acts of daring and artistry in modern times. James Marsh's 2008 documentary "Man on Wire" told the story to perfection, with copious humor and heart-stopping excitement both leading up to and during what Petit called his "coup." If ever a movie cried out NOT to be made, it is Robert Zemeckis' corny, annoying and banal dramatization "The Walk," with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. Regular readers know how much I love JGL - I could happily watch him read the phone book - but his French accent here, like everything else in the movie, is so aggressively over-the-top, you just want out. (Ben Kingsley, who's cashed a lot of paychecks this year, approaches Ham Actor DEFCON 4 as "Papa Rudy," Petit's mentor in funambulism.) Characters speak not recognizably human dialogue but scripted pronouncements. Some reviews have praised the visual effects, but to me they looked artificial and detracted from the purity of the moment, generating only the most visceral of reactions. Enough said. Watch "Man on Wire." Watch "Man on Wire." Watch "Man on Wire."
Capsules from the art house: I'm a big fan of Brit Marling's, but I dozed off during "The Keeping Room," 95 minutes of miserabilism being marketed as a sort of feminist Western. In the dying days of the Civil War, tough-as-nails Augusta (Marling), her sister Louise (a wasted Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (memorable newcomer Muna Otaru) hole up in their Southern Gothic home to fend off a pair of soldiers intent on raping and killing them. There's really no more to the story than that, the suspense of the visceral variety that does not require your brain to be engaged… The documentarian Amy Berg has a way of taking inherently sensational material (the West Memphis Three case, sexual abuse of boys in Hollywood) and sapping it of force, producing films that are scattered, under-reported, and repetitive. She's done it again with "Prophet's Prey," about the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints and its now-imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs. Connections between the FLDS and local businesses and law enforcement in its Southern Utah stronghold are hinted at but never proven. One interviewee floats the notion that Jeffs induced the death of his father, the church's previous "prophet," but Berg adduces no evidence. The critic Mike D'Angelo wrote of her film "An Open Secret," "Such an important subject deserves a serious, thoughtful film. Instead, it got Berg."… Next up, from the "truth is stranger than fiction" file, one of the funniest flicks of the year: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel's documentary "Finders Keepers." John Wood grew up in itsy Maiden, North Carolina, where his father was the town patriarch. Trapped in dad's shadows, he developed an expensive drug habit. During a sober patch, John and his father went up in the latter's small private plane, encountering a freak windstorm that caused them to crash. His father was killed, and John's leg was amputated (he now walks with a prosthetic) but, at his demand, FedEx'd to him after the surgery. When the repo man came for his home, John scampered to put his belongings into storage, placing the amputated leg inside a barbecue grill. His mother paid the first few months, but when John missed several subsequent payments, the storage unit went up for auction, where it was purchased by a true redneck named Shannon Whisnant. Shannon's dream is to be famous and on TV every day. When he found the leg (by now almost fused to the grill), he saw his big break. He had T-shirts ("I'm a friend of the Footsmoker") printed and charged ($3 for adults, $1 for kids) to get a glimpse of the appendage. Then John Wood caught wind of it and demanded his foot back. (Whisnant: "It's mine. I've got the receipt.") That's only the beginning of this sprawling and hilarious white-trash saga, whose myriad twists and turns never fail to surprise.… Make a mental note: Stanley Nelson's "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" will come to PBS early next year. Be sure to record this beautifully reported, comprehensive film. It's an important document for students of this period in (African-)American history, but consummately enjoyable for neophytes as well, alive with the ferocious pulse of the era but grounded in the perspective and humor that only time allows…Finally, a big thumbs down for Jon Schnepp's "The Death of 'Superman Lives': What Happened?" Like "The Walk" and "Man on Wire," "Superman" pales so badly beside its obvious recent precursor, "Jodorowsky's Dune," that the effect is fatal. I'm not much more into sci-fi than comic books (which is to say, almost not at all), but Frank Pavich made "Dune" (another "making of" movie about a movie that wasn't made) accessible to all with its hysterically funny anecdotes, its lament for what might have been and its clear visual evidence of the uncompleted film's cinematic legacy. " The mind-numbingly wonky "Superman," by contrast, is strictly for fanboys. It's amazing that Schnepp (who ill-advisedly includes himself in all his interview footage) could obtain such insider access and produce a film so unentertaining. It began to deplete my will to live.