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Films I Neglected To Review: Approaching the Borderline
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Finding Steve McQueen," "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley," "Madonna and the Breakfast Club," "Transit" and "Wonder Park."

''Finding Steve McQueen'' is a heist film based on real-life events that involves a bunch of guys who get together with a seemingly foolproof plan leading towards an undeniably enticing reward that nevertheless proves to be a big disappointment. Unfortunately, that is also a pretty good description of the film itself, which knows that it has a potentially fascinating story to tell but no clear idea of how to present it. As the film opens in 1980, Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel) meets his longtime girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor) at a local diner to confess something to her. Eight years earlier, while living in Youngstown, Ohio, he went to Los Angeles with a crew including his sleazy uncle (William Fichtner) and his Vietnam-scarred brother (Jake Weary) to pull off a heist. The target is a bank with a vault that supposedly contains upwards of $30 million dollars of Richard Nixon’s slush fund money and the idea, according to the Nixon-hating uncle, is that no one would dare investigate the crime because doing so would cause a scandal that could potentially topple the presidency. Inevitably, the heist does not quite pay off as hoped and Harry ends up on his own, finding bliss with Molly (whom he meets cute with on the day of her estranged husband's funeral) but always waiting for the inevitable moment when the other shoe drops for him at last.

It is a great tale, to be sure, but as it turns out, it doesn't necessarily make for a great movie, at least in the hands of screenwriters Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon or director Mark Steven Johnson. They have made some effort to keep the film from turning into just another heist film exercise but the structure they have employed, including the parallel story of the locally based federal agents (Forest Whittaker and Lily Rabe) investigating the case while trying to figure out why hundreds of FBI agents have been sent in from Washington to ''assist'' them, Harry’s post-robbery life with Molly and the framing device in which he explains everything to her, is way too complicated for its own good and also diminishes a good deal of the tension since it is evident from the outset that at least our hero survived his predicament. It has a light and reasonably amiable tone that is a refreshing change from what one normally finds in most recent crime films but there are times when it veers a little too much towards the silly for its own good and the repeated foreshadowings of the impending Watergate scandal are delivered with all the subtlety of a motorcycle boot to the face. ''Finding Steve McQueen'' (the famed actor has nothing to do with it other than being Harry's idol) is occasionally interesting and some of the details are amusing, especially when we discover what leads to the downfall of the seemingly brilliant gang of thieves, but it just never quite clicks together into a completely satisfying whole.

Throughout his career to date, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney has never wanted for fascinating subjects to train his cameras on--he has so far covered such topics as the Enron scandal, Hunter S. Thompson, super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, Wikileaks, Scientology, Steve Jobs and the history of Rolling Stone--but in his latest work, ''The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley'' (premiering this weekend on HBO), he tackles perhaps his most jaw-dropping subject to date. It tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, who was at one time considered by many to be the next Steve Jobs, her avowed idol. At 19, she left school to found Theranos, a Silicon Valley-based company that promised to revolutionize health care with a machine called the Edison, a device that could scan for identify hundreds of different diseases and complications from a single pinprick of blood that could allow users to learn of any problems without having to resort to expensive visits to the doctor or even pricier conventional blood tests. With her cool demeanor, undeniable good looks and a life story made for fawning magazine profiles, her company was soon raking in millions from people hoping to get in on the big new thing, including a deal to install Edisons in Walgreens pharmacies around the country, and she was being venerated by the likes of Joe Biden, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. There is only one slight hiccup to Holmes's ascension to the pinnacle of the scientific community--not only does the Edison not work as advertised, it could never work under the rigid parameters that she set for her creation. However, that doesn’t stop her from continuing to sell people on the promise of her dream by any means necessary, including outright fraud, until it all finally collapses.

Those with some working familiarity with the story of the spectacular rise and fall of Theranos, either through its extensive media coverage or through John Carreyrou's best-selling book ''Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup'' (Carreyrou turns up as one of the numerous talking-head commentators) probably will not find anything especially new or revealing here. However, while laying out the story in a reasonably smooth manner (albeit one that could use a little bit of trimming in parts) that won’t scare newcomers away (unless they don't like the sight of blood or needles of any size), Gibney does give viewers something that the story wasn’t able to convey in its print incarnations--the sight of Holmes cheerfully going through her paces presenting herself as a tech genius and a brilliant entrepreneur long after she must have known that her product was a dud. Whether striding purposefully for the halls of her company, taking part in a Errol Morris-style interview (that turns out to have been conducted and filmed by Morris himself) or doubling down on her belief that Theranos is a success even after the house of cards begins to crumble, her friendly but serious-minded demeanor never cracks for a second and it is only when you realize that she hardly ever seems to blink do you get a sense of the effort that must have gone into creating and presenting that facade. Her clear detachment from reality, not to mention the willingness of so many to join her in that state, is what gives ''The Inventor'' its juice and will leave viewers flabbergasted and thinking that there is no possible way that anyone could ever again fall for a con of that magnitude--at least until the next one comes along, of course.

No, ''Madonna and the Breakfast Club'' is not a mashup of two of the more significant and lasting elements of American popular culture circa 1985. Instead, it is a largely bewildering and mostly tedious docudrama hybrid that focuses on the musical icon's pre-fame days as seen through the eyes of a few people who happened to be there at the time and held on to just enough mementos and memories to finally cash in on their bystander-to-history status. The main focus is on Dan Gilroy, a New York City musician who met Madonna when she arrived seeking fame and fortune in 1979, hooked up with her both personally and professionally and eventually made her a part of The Breakfast Club, the band that he formed with his brother, Ed, until Madonna’s undeniable talent and unstoppable ambition led her to go off on her own to superstardom within a couple of years. There are interviews with the Gilroys and other people hanging around during that period, ranging from the director of ''A Certain Sacrifice'' (remember that one?) to a deejay who is still inexplicably proud of the fact that he wouldn't play her tapes, but, in a bizarre twist, director Guy Guido also employs actors to play the characters and act out events even though most of this footage is combined with the narration of the real people instead of the dialogue from the actors.

Then again, after witnessing the rare moments when the doppelgängers are allowed to emote, most viewers will hardly be clamoring for any more from them. As Madonna, newcomer Jamie Auld so accurately resembles what she looked like in that period that the effect is downright disconcerting--unfortunately, she demonstrates none of the personality or raw charisma that allowed Madonna to strike such a chord with people when she first burst on to the scene. (As for the other actors, they are just as forgettable as the people they are playing.) Basically, ''Madonna and the Breakfast Club'' is a film about Madonna that contains no Madonna music to speak, no actual appearances by Madonna outside of bits of archival footage, old photos and an audiotape of a conversation between her and Dan that is not exactly Rosebud in terms of personal revelation, and no real insight as to who she was as a person back then and how those events helped make her into the global phenomenon that she would become. Deep devotees might check it out for sheer curiosity value--no doubt hating themselves for it when it is all over--but others will find themselves describing ''Madonna and the Breakfast Club'' with a word that is rarely applied to Madonna herself. . . boring.

Over the last few years, Christian Petzold has shot to the top of most lists of esteemed international filmmakers for reasons that I have never quite managed to personally understand--while undeniably talented from a stylistic standpoint, there has just been something about his films, especially the absurd ''Phoenix'' (2014), that has eluded me. Although I am still not entirely sold on him, I must admit that his latest effort, ''Transit,'' is the first of his films that I have seen that comes close to living up to the hype. As the film opens, France has just been invaded and an ordinary man, Georg (Franz Rogowski) has been charged with trying to smuggle a North African refugee with a dangerous leg infection to safety in Marseilles. Before leaving, Georg, a refugee without papers himself, stumbles upon the body of an author named George Weidel who has just committed suicide. At first, he just grabs the author's final manuscript and letters to his wife in the hopes of exchanging them for some money but he then decides to assume the dead man's identity so that he can escape as well. While forced to lay low in Marseilles while waiting for his transit papers to go through, he strikes up unexpected relationships with the young son of the man he brought back with him and a beautiful woman (Paula Beers) who he keeps running into and who turns out, perhaps inevitably, to be the wife of the dead man who does not yet know of her husband’s fate.

On the surface, ''Transit'' may sound like a standard WWII melodrama but that leads into Petzold's most fascinating stylistic coup. Although based on a semi-autobiographical 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, the film actually takes place in a time period mashup that combines the WWII era with contemporary times where contemporary cars are on the streets but the Internet does not exist and the word ''Nazi'' is never mentioned. This sounds like the kind of gimmick that could get old really quick but Petzold establishes it in a smart and not overly precious manner and uses it as a clever way to underline the fact that while the trappings of any given time period may change, other things--love, deception, bureaucracy and man's insatiable capacity to inflicting harm and evil on others--stay resolutely the same. The end result is akin to a surrealist spin on ''Casablanca'' that Petzold pushes through with equal parts suspense, romance and a certain degree of sly humor and which is aided by the undeniable chemistry on display between Rogowski and Beers. I may not totally be on the Petzold train quite yet but ''Transit'' is the first film of his strong enough to inspire me to look forward to what he comes up with next.

''Wonder Park'' is an animated film that spends its entire running time serving as a hymn to the power of imagination without ever demonstrating a sliver of such a thing itself. It tells the story of June, an obnox--I mean adorable and imaginative young girl who spends her time designing a fantastical amusement park (one evidently free of anything resembling safety inspectors) named Wonder Park with her doting mother (Jennifer Garner), only to trash all of their designs in a fit of despair and anger when Mom takes ill and goes away for treatment. Through complications far too uninteresting to get into here, June ends up in the woods and stumbles up what appears to be the actual Wonder Park, complete with the array of adorable animals (including Milk Kunis as a pig, John Oliver as a porcupine in love with said pig and Norbert Leo Butz as the monkey in charge who creates the attractions with the aid of his magic pen and voices of inspiration that only he hears). Alas, the park is now in ruins, the voices of inspiration have long since stopped speaking and the gang is constantly being chased by an army of garishly cute chimpanzombies. June soon--though not soon enough for audience members over the age of five--that she is responsible for both the existence of the park and its current state of disrepair and, with the aid of her new friends, struggles to bring the joint back to life before the chimpanzombies destroy it for good.

While I readily confess that I am decades removed from the film's target demographic, I have a sneaking suspicion that even if I saw it at a more age-appropriate time, i still would have hated the damn thing as much as I do now. The allegedly original storyline is nothing more than a compendium of themes, ideas and plot elements from too many other and better sources to fully list here--I noticed borrowings from everything from ''The Wizard of Oz'' to, of all things, ''The Talisman.'' The animation is undistinguished at best and garish at worst, the vocal performances are listless (they all sound as if they employed the Krusty the Klown approach to recording voiceovers) and the only laughs to be had come from how badly it fumbles the more serious emotional beats, especially in the way that it resolves the stuff about the sick mother. Forty years ago, when animated feature films were relatively few and far between, a film this shoddy might have been able to pass muster but at a time when a new family-oriented film hits theaters every couple of weeks or so, a film as lazy and uninspired as ''Wonder Park'' needed to either go back to the drawing board or go straight to the direct-to-video wasteland where it so clearly belongs.

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originally posted: 03/16/19 01:51:17
last updated: 03/16/19 03:18:39
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