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Films I Neglected To Review: Risky Business
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Dope," "The Face of an Angel," "Manglehorn," "The Wolfpack" and "The Yes Men are Revolting"

Although most of the reviews for "Dope" will no doubt cite "Boyz n the Hood," "Menace II Society," "Friday" and other urban-oriented films of the early Nineties (a pop cultural moment that the film celebrates at length), it is actually "Risky Business," of all things, that ultimately proves to be its key influence with a skosh of "Go" added for good measure. In this comedy-drama that was one of the big hits at this year's Sundance film festival, the self-confessed nerd Malcolm (Shameik Moore) has nothing on his mind other than getting admitted to Harvard so that he can create a new life for himself. Those carefully cultivated plans go sideways one night when he and his two best friends, (Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons) attend a birthday party thrown by a local drug dealer--Malcolm is sweet on the dealer's sort-of girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz)--but when the festivities are broken up by gunfire, he flees and discovers that he is now in possession of a large stash of molly. With a rival dealer closing in, Malcolm, with the help of his friends, hits upon an audacious plan to sell the drugs online utilizing Bitcoin and soon finds himself getting in over his head as he tries to unload the drugs, get into the college of his choice and win over the girl of his dreams while somehow not getting shot dead in the process.

The first half-hour or so of the film is hugely entertaining in the way that writer-director Rick Famuyiwa sets up the plot and his colorful cast of characters in a breathlessly exciting and eye-catching manner. The problem is that after a while, it begins to submit to many of the same hood movie cliches that it initially suggests that it will be skewering--the relentless use of what the kids call "the n word" gets a little tiresome (and a scene in which a white character is called out for using it does not quite make up for that) and the occasional flirtations with misogyny (best exemplified by a long sequence involving a babe whose only functions in the film are to get stoned, get naked, nearly relieve Malcolm of his virginity and graphically demonstrate two of the less-appealing bodily functions) being chief among them. Towards the end, it takes a turn for the serious, especially in its final scene, that just do not quite ring true with what came earlier. Neither as good as its supporters have suggested nor as grotesque as its dictators have described, "Dope" has a few big laughs here and there and the young stars (of whom Revolori is probably most familiar from his appearance in "The Grand Budapest Hotel") have an undeniable charm that helps cut through some of the nonsense surrounding them. In the end, it is probably worth a look but, to quote one of the musical classics from the era it venerates, don't believe the hype.

There have been many times when I have seen a film and thought that the real-life story surrounding its production might have made for a more interesting screen venture than the movie at hand and with his latest effort, "The Face of an Angel," the relentlessly prolific filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has decided to test out that theory for himself. In 2011, he bought the rights to a book about the court case of Amanda Knox, the American student in Italy who was charged with the murder of her roommate in a sordid case that made international headlines for years, in order to make a film focusing on the trial and how it was portrayed in the media. At a certain point, Winterbottom decided that doing a straightforward film along those lines was an impossibility and instead reworked it into a fictionalized format that now follows a filmmaker (Daniel Bruhl) who travels to Italy with the plan to make a film about a Knox-like case and becomes simultaneously stymied and unhinged by his attempts to transform such a multifaceted story into a straightforward narrative and by being surrounded by reporters who cynically pursue the most lurid of paths in order to ensure high ratings and readerships.

It sounds interesting in theory and if anyone could pull off such a dramatic hall of mirrors gambit, it is Winterbottom, a director who seems to thrive on setting up audacious storytelling challenges and then trying to make them all pay off. Unfortunately, while he certainly deserves points for the effort, the fact is that he has not quite managed to pull it off this time around. The idea of making a film about a filmmaker charged with creating a screenplay about a real-life incident whose confusion about what approach to take leads him down any number of psychological rabbit holes is essentially the same thing that Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze did in "Adaptation" and they managed to demonstrate a sense of humor about the confusion they were generating at the same time. (Winterbottom himself did something along these lines a few years ago with "Tristram Shandy," a film that began as an adaptation of the famously unreadable novel and became the hilarious story of the attempt to adapt a famously unreadable novel.) By comparison, Winterbottom's approach is oftentimes deadly in its self-seriousness and the meta aspects grow so pronounced after a while that the entire thing threatens to become its own human centipede. It is a shame because some of the film's contemplations about "truth" is perceived by those charged with delivering it are interesting and there is a nice and unforced supporting performance from supermodel Cara Delevigne as the one completely straightforward character, a student who befriends the filmmaker and suggest that he abandon the bleakness and do a love story instead. "The Face of an Angel" is a noble effort and I suppose it is more interesting than a direct translation of the real-life case might have been but it just isn't quite interesting enough to justify all the hoops that it forces viewers to jump through.

Al Pacino has been deliberately chewing the scenery in the majority of his performances over the last couple of decades that the mere sight of him in the new indie drama "Manglehorn" playing a character who speaks in his indoor voice throughout will no doubt startle viewers who have grown used to seeing him playing to the rafters. He portrays a small-town Texas locksmith who has little to show for his life other than a beloved cat, a Yuppie son (Chris Messina) who has little use for him, a young granddaughter he dotes on, a past filled with some amazing events that people still talk about with awe and the memories of a long-lost love that he is still pining for despite having blown things with her nearly four decades earlier--he continues to write her letters that are destined to go unread.) One person who is willing to take an interest in him in his present state is a bank teller (Holly Hunter) that he flirts with while making withdrawals but when they take the next step and go out on an actual date, his relentless pining for the one that got away makes a mess of everything.

"Manglehorn" was directed by David Gordon Green, one of the great young American filmmakers and one whose best films (including "George Washington," "Snow Angels" and "Joe") have always stressed character and mood over conventional narrative structure. That is certainly the case here but this time around, the results are a little more muddled than usual as Green and screenwriter Paul Logan never seem to have a particularly firm grasp of what they are trying to say and the combination of down-to-earth moments with the occasional flights of magical realism, as embodied in the tales of Manglehorn's past exploits, seems more forced than usual. (That said, there is one haunting image in which Manglehorn, carrying his cat for a walk, stumbles upon a multi-car pileup that has been additionally garnished with hundreds of smashed watermelons.) What saves the film and makes it worth watching, however, is the uncharacteristically lovely Pacino performance--having steered fellow overactor Nicolas Cage to one of the best and most restrained turns of his career in "Joe," Green works the same magic here and while the end result is a performance that probably will not be featured heavily in very many YouTube clip reels, it does stand as a needed reminder of what a powerful and eloquent actor Al Pacino can be without the hysterics.

One of the most talked-about documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Wolfpack" tells the story of the Angulos, a Peruvian-American family from New York's Lower East Side whose drunken patriarch has all but forbidden his children--six sons and a daughter--from stepping outside of their apartment more than a handful of times a year at best. On the other hand, he is extremely lenient in regards to the films they can watch and the six brothers not only obsessively rewatch the likes of "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Dark Knight," they memorize the dialogue and recreate them in the living room complete with handmade props and costumes. Eventually, one of the brothers decides to defy his father and venture out into the real world and while that excursion ends in disaster--to avoid being recognized in public by his father, he wears a mask but since it is a Michael Myers mask, this move lands him in court-ordered therapy--it inspires the others to journey beyond the front door for themselves.

This is intriguing stuff, I suppose, but I must admit to being baffled by how debuting filmmaker Crystal Moselle could come across such a fascinating subject and end up doing so little with it. For starters, the story is told in a strangely haphazard manner that grows increasingly frustrating in the way that it never gets around to really dealing with the questions that it raises, including such key ones like the extent of the real physical and psychological damage that was done to these kids by keeping them under such tight restrictions (there is a brief reference to some physical abuse that goes no further) or how Moselle came across their story and convinced the family (especially the father) to allow her into the house to film their story. Moreover, none of the brothers really emerge as individual characters until the very end and while that may be part of the point, it makes for some very confusing moments that are further exacerbated by a chronology of events that is not particularly clear either. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that this story might have benefitted greatly as an hour-long documentary for an outlet like HBO--at a full 90 minutes, it runs long and drags quite a bit in the final stretch. To be fair, "The Wolfpack" has received a number of rapturous reviews from other critics and I wouldn't necessarily want to warn off anyone who might be interested in seeing it for themselves. However, considering how promising the basic premise sounds in theory, I can't help but think that more could have been done with it with a different and more coherent approach than the one utilized here. Where is Michael Winterbottom when you need him?

"The Yes Men Are Revolting" is the third documentary (following "The Yes Men" and "The Yes Men Fix The World") chronicling the antics of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, a pair of progressive pranksters who create elaborately satirical conceptual pieces that highlight corporate, economic and environmental injustices that utilize the very tools designed to push them through, oftentimes so successfully that people who should know better wind up falling for them. To spoil the stunts on display this time around would be grossly unfair but they continue to be remarkable in the way that they inspire feelings of joy--even the ones that don't quite come off as planned are frequently hilarious and, as cinematic street theater goes, beat the efforts of Sacha Baron Cohen like a gong--and anger at the very real societal ills that we take for granted every day that they end up revealing. Compared to the other "Yes Men" films, this one delves a little more into the backgrounds and personal lives of Bonanno and Bichlbaum (not their real names, we learn) and that is a mixed blessing at best--it is interesting to see how their pieces are conceived and executed but the stuff involving their personal issues is nowhere near as interesting as they seem to think it is. For the most part, however, "The Yes Men Are Revolting" is pretty funny stuff that simultaneously pranks entities that really deserve it while illustrating how much the joke has been on you and I over the years.

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originally posted: 06/20/15 00:37:14
last updated: 06/20/15 11:55:58
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