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Films I Neglected To Review: Wet Hot American Romantic Comedy
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Heli," "Ivory Tower," "Radio Free Albemuth," "They Came Together" and "Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger."

If you see only one film this year in which viewers get to see a man being tortured by having his genitals soaked in gasoline and set on fire, the controversial Mexican drama "Heli" should help fulfill your oddly specific and somewhat disturbing entertainment prerequisites. In it, a dopey young police cadet wants to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend--his 12-year-old girlfriend, that is--and decides that stealing a couple of bags of cocaine is the most logical way of attaining that seemingly sensible goal. Needless to say, the local drug kingpin takes a not-unreasonable objection to this and things do not go well for him, his pre-teen fiancee or her family as a result. The film won the Best Director prize at last year's Cannes for Amat Escalante but while the film does have a starkly beautiful visual style at times, it is largely an alternately brutal and banal bore--the kind of film that seems to be made for critics who like to use words like "transgressive" and "redemptive" a lot in their reviews. If you must see it, however, you might want to consider waiting for it to come out on DVD, if only because you can immediately follow up a viewing by taking a look at the making-of featurette so that you can see how they did it.

Having already examined one venerable institution attempting to adjust to the rapidly changing times in his 2011 documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times," filmmaker Andrew Rossi now turns his cameras to examine the equally shaky status of the American collegiate experience in the fascinating new film "Ivory Tower." Through interviews with a wide range of authors, academics and school administrators, Rossi looks at how skyrocketing tuition increases, plummeting academic standards and shifting social attitudes have caused many to question whether a college education is really worth all the time, money and effort, especially since acquiring one will, more often than not, plunge students into enormous debt as a result. This is a vast and complex story that fits uneasily into a 90-minute time frame at times and I am not especially convinced by some of the alternatives to the traditional collegiate experience that Rossi offers up. That said, it still does a good job of boiling a complex story to its essentials and for every parent and teenager currently sweating out how to pay for college this fall, "Ivory Tower" is pretty much a must-see.

The visionary works of the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick have inspired any number of film adaptations over the years and if nothing else, "Radio Free Albemuth" is certainly one of them. Based on his posthumously published and overtly autobiographical novel of the same name, the film posits an alternative 1985 America under the increasingly dystopian control of a president (Scott Wilson) close in style to Nixon than Reagan and focuses on Nick (Jonathan Scarfe), a record store clerk who has been receiving mysterious visions from what appears to be an alien entity known as VALIS. Based on these messages, he uproots his family to Los Angeles and soon becomes a high-powered music executive. The visions persist and inspire him, with the help of best friend Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigam) and former pop star Sylvia (Alanis Morissette), he finds himself trying to start a revolution against the government by producing a song with subliminal lyrics designed to inspire the people to rise up against their oppressors.

"Radio Free Albemuth" has been sitting on a shelf for nearly four years and is only now getting a token theatrical exhibition (along with a simultaneous VOD release) and while that is usually the sign of a disastrously bad movie, that is not quite the case here. Obviously this decidedly low-budget effort from screenwriter/director John Alan Simon lacks the stunning visual style of such big-budget Dick adaptations as "Blade Runner," the original "Total Recall" and "Minority Report" and it never quite manages to sell its narrative in the way that the similarly trippy "A Scanner Darkly" did--there is a fine line between "mind-bending" and "incomprehensible" and the film trips over it too many times for its own good. Still, this is an ambitious film with a good cast, a nifty soundtrack (including contributions from the one and only Robyn Hitchcock) and a willingness to actually grapple with Dick's complex themes and ideas instead of jettisoning them in favor of elaborate action sequences, as has been the case with too many lesser adaptations of the writer's work. If you do decide to check it out--and I suppose it is just good enough to warrant a mild recommendation--try to see it at a midnight show as I suspect the later hour will leave moviegoers more susceptible to its weird charms and send them out into the night with their heads spinning.

Having expertly skewered Eighties-era summer camp comedies in their 2001 cult favorite "Wet Hot American Summer," writer-director David Wain and co-writer Michael Ian Black have now latched on to an even more popular genre--the romantic comedy--in their latest film, "They Came Together," and the results are almost as hilarious as before. "WHAS" vets Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star as a couple who, over the course of a long dinner with another couple (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader), tell the convoluted story of how they met and fell in love--he was an executive at a giant corporate candy company charged with shutting down her quirky indie sweet shop and even though they hate each other at first. . . well, you get the drill. Utilizing an army of performers ranging from other "WHAS" alumni (Christopher Meloni, Ken Marino) to newcomers to the fold (Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Jack McBrayer) and a couple of wildly unexpected cameos (which I wouldn't dream of revealing), the film mercilessly rips on every cliche of the genre from the sassy African-American pal to the inevitability of Norah Jones on the soundtrack in ways ranging from the silly to the surreal and while not every gag works (an extended bit involving Meloni suffering from gastric distress at a Halloween party goes nowhere and does so at excruciating length), the ones that do it inspire some of the most explosive laughs of the season. If you love rom-coms, there is a very good chance that you will never again be able to take them seriously again and if you hate them, this is quite simply the movie of your dreams. Unfortunately, as was the case with "Wet Hot American Summer," "They Came Together" is only getting a token theatrical release (though it is also available as a VOD title) and will almost certainly get lost in the shuffle of blockbusters but if you get an opportunity to see it, be sure to take it in order to get in on the ground floor of what may be the next big cult comedy.

For more than 30 years, James "Whitey" Bulger ran a criminal empire that terrorized South Boston and was reported to be responsible for at least a dozen murders before going on the lam for a 16-year period (hitting #2 on the Ten Most Wanted list behind Osama bin Laden) that ended with his arrest in 2011. And yet, despite plenty of evidence pointing to his crimes during his reign of terror, he was never once charged with anything and as a result, there were rumors to the effect that he was actually a government informant who convinced the Feds to look the other way in regards to his activities in exchange for information on others. Using Bulger's recent criminal trial as a framework, "Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger" takes a look at his activities through old surveillance films, interviews with victims and cohorts and off-camera comments from Bulger himself to examine his misdeeds and the shocking degree to which the FBI may or may not have knowingly allowed him to run amok.

Although director Joe Berlinger is best known for the "Paradise Lost" films that helped to free the unjustly accused West Memphis 3, he is not trying to use his talents to somehow exonerate Bulger--the evidence against him is far too overwhelming. However, he is interested in the culpability of the government that apparently condoned Bulger's activities, no matter who got hurt as a result, as long as it got them something in return and in that regard, the story he presents is almost as chilling and enraging as Bulger's. The end result is a fascinating look at power, crime and corruption so astonishing that if it were presented as a straightforward movie (as it was loosely via the Jack Nicholson character in "The Departed" and will be next year in an official Bulger biopic starring Johnny Depp), it would almost seem too crazy to be believed. In this case, however, truth proved to be infinitely stranger than fiction indeed.

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originally posted: 06/28/14 04:59:33
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