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Films I Neglected To Review: Three Christs, No Waiting, Some Wanting
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Inherit the Viper," "Just Mercy," "Reality Queen!," "Three Christs" and "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael."

"Inherit the Viper" tells the story of three siblings in a small Appalachian town who have been quietly destroying the fabric of their community by illegally selling opioids to their neighbors, many of whom are suffering from injuries working in the local mill. While sister Josie (Margarita Levieva) is the more ruthlessly pragmatic and business-minded of the three (someone is going to be making money off of the opioid problem, so why not them?) and hot-headed younger brother Boots (Owen Teague) is perhaps a little too eager to get into the business himself, former soldier Kip (Josh Hartnett) is a little more circumspect about the destruction that they are causing. After a deal initiated on the sly by Boots goes violently sideways, Kip decides that it is time to break things up for good so that he can try to get a fresh start with his soon-to-be-expecting wife (Valorie Curry). This decision does not sit very well with his siblings and while Josie frantically tries to tie up the loose ends from Boot's problem as the cops begin sniffing around, Kip finds himself going to extremes in his attempts to get out of the life before his family can pull him back in.

Although the addition of the opioid problem may seem to give it a more contemporary feel, "Inherit the Viper" is essentially an old-fashioned lean B crime movie dealing with such familiar elements as violence, betrayal, redemption and the kind of family ties that have a tendency to choke those on the wrong end of them. The end result is a film that is competent enough for the most part but rarely anything more than that. The screenplay by Andrew Crabtree is certainly abbreviated enough (the entire film clocks in at around 80 minutes) but doesn't really flesh out any of the inter-sibling relationships at the theoretical center of the narrative in ways that might have allowed the finale to have a greater impact. Likewise, most of the performances and the direction by Anthony Jerjen are okay but rarely better than that. The best thing about the movie are the performances by the perennially underrated Hartnett as Kip and the great Bruce Dern, who makes the most out of a seriously underwritten role as a local bar owner who seems to exist only to tell a tale that explains the filmís overly metaphorical title--both actors are good enough here with material that ultimately does not quite make the grade to make you wish that you could seem them again soon in something more worthy of their talents.

In the wake of his breakthrough directorial effort, "Short Term 12," the highly acclaimed 2013 drama about a young woman working as a supervisor at a treatment facility for young people while trying to deal with her own issues, many observers could not wait to see what filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton would come up with next. Alas, that turned out to be "The Glass Castle," a fairly disastrous 2017 adaptation of Jeanette Walls's memoir of growing up in a decidedly dysfunctional family situation that rang as false and hollow as his previous effort had rung true. The good news is that his latest effort, "Just Mercy," is a definitely step up in quality from "The Glass Castle" but those who admired "Short Term 12" for the way that it deftly avoided succumbing to cliches will still be disappointed by the by-the-numbers approach he employs here. The film tells the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard Law graduate who moves to Alabama to set up a practice dedicated towards assisting death row inmates who may not have gotten a fair trial or competent defense, a move that doesnít exactly make him the most popular person in the community. This animosity grows when he takes on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman in the town of Monroeville, the very place where, we are repeatedly reminded, Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird." The case seems hopeless--Walter certainly thinks so--but before long, Bryan and his assistant, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), discover evidence suggesting that Walter couldnít have committed the crime and begin an uphill battle in the courts to exonerate him before he can be executed.

Although based on the memoir by Stevenson, who would go on to a long and illustrious career with his program, the Equal Justice Initiative, "Just Mercy" too often comes across like just another plodding legal drama in which everything unfolds with clockwork precision but precious little passion or anger, which seems kind of weird for a story that isnít exactly set that far back in the past. (The original crime was committed in 1987.) The film is incredibly well-intentioned but those intentions rarely transform into compelling drama--even though the story is focused on real people, they wind up embodying all the expected cliches and never help the film make the leap from the perfunctory to the truly moving and inspirational. There are a lot of good actors here but most of them seem to be on autopilot, delivering performances that are technically fine but otherwise unremarkable. The only one of the bunch who manages to break through in any significant way is Jordan, whose role is just as blandly conceived as the others but who brings a convincing sense of anger, sadness and disbelief at the scope of the injustice of the system that he uncovers after beginning his work with Walter. While the others always feel like they are acting throughout, he brings a sense of genuine human feeling to the proceedings that "Just Mercy" needed more of in order to be the film that it clearly wants to be.

As I write this, 2020 is only six days old but if someone were to bet me that I might actually see a worse comedy this year than "Reality Queen!," I would not only take that wage but see if I could get some additional action on it holding on to that dubious distinction for the full decade. In this painful stab at the mockumentary format, reality TV queen London Logo (Julia Faye West)--whose past escapades have included a "leaked" sex tape (co-starring Mike Tyson, which should give you a baseline for the level of humor on display), a hit reality show, a brief stint in jail and more fragrance lines than one could shake a selfie stick at--is fearing that her reign as the poster girl for vapidity is being threatened by competitor Kristi Kim (Candace Kita) and her prominent hinder and tries to turn things around by allowing a British television reporter (Kate Orsini) to follow her around for a week as part of a documentary along the lines of Martin Bashir's infamous film on Michael Jackson. Now one might politely think that the shelf life for a film mocking the excesses of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians might have expired at least a dozen years ago but even if one overlooks that fact, was there really all that much about them that might have sustained anything longer than a sketch or two? Doubtful but director and co-screenwriter (one of eight credited) Steven Jay Berheim (who once helped come up with the "original idea" for the infamous "Last House on the Left" rip-off "Chaos") nevertheless forges ahead to provide viewers (presumably very few of them) with the most crashingly obvious and painfully dated punchlines that could be crammed into the longest 84 minutes you are likely to experience anytime soon. "How dated?," you may ask. At one point, we learn that London, under the belief that it is the world's tiniest dog, has a gerbil for a pet and before you can say "They arenít going to make a Richard Gere joke, are they?," they make a Richard Gere joke and how. The jokes are flat, the insights are nonexistent and the direction and performances would suffer in comparison to one-day-wonder porno videos. The only people in the cast who demonstrate anything close to comic timing are Denise Richards, as London's mentor, and the late John Witherspoon, who turns up as a plumber called on to rescue the gerbil from a fate slightly better than appearing in this film--neither one does anything that could be considered remotely amusing but you can at least think back to funny things from the past they have appeared in and amuse yourself, a notion infinitely more inspired than anything on display in "Reality Queen!"

Very loosely based on a case study published by social psychologist Milton Rokeach, "Three Christs" stars Richard Gere as Dr. Alan Stone, a psychologist with a love for Lenny Bruce, his alcoholic wife (Julianna Marguiles) and for helping anyone in his immediate orbit. Upon arriving at his new position at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, he discovers that two of the paranoid schizophrenics in his care, Joseph (Peter Dinklage) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford), share the same unshakeable delusion--they both believe that they are the one and only Jesus Christ. Upon discovering a third patient, Leon (Walton Goggins), in the system with the same delusion, he decides to embark on a radical new approach to treating them instead of resorting to the usual array of medications and electroshock--he, along with assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope), who seems to have twin yens for LSD and the doctor in addition to a slew of issues of her own, will put them together in the same room in order to see how they interact as a way of studying notions of personality and identity. Naturally, there are some stumbles along the way--the officious head of the hospital (Kevin Pollak) is first determined to see the study fail and then tries to claim credit for it for himself once word gets out about it--but Stoneís approach seems to be having a positive effect on his patients, though it seems as if he is beginning to grow a sort of unconscious messianic complex himself by the lengths that he goes to in order to come across as their ultimate savior.

Throughout his long and generally acclaimed career, Gere has appeared in any number of celebrated movies but has somehow never been even nominated for an Academy Award in all that time. Given that context, it is relatively easy to understand why he signed on for this--on paper, it must have seemed like it could be his "Awakenings" and finally land him in the coveted Oscar derby. However, while that earlier film was a complex and nuanced human drama that managed to avoid most of the cliches found in this sort of narrative, "Three Christs" is a dull and oftentimes hackneyed work that takes an intriguing psychological study and renders it into lifeless melodrama. Part of that may be due to the fact that certain liberties have been taken with the original story (such as a suicide at a key dramatic point) in order to juice things up and part of it may be the inevitable result of putting material like this in the hands of director/co-writer Jon Avnet, returning to the big screen for the first time since the one-two punch of "88 Minutes" and "Righteous Kill." Simply put, he has no feel for the material and allows a story that is meant to puncture the main character's god complex to succumb to it instead--virtually everyone who comes across his path is someone that he and only he can save. There are a number of good actors here but aside from a few nice moments between Gere and the otherwise wasted Marguiles, they are all pretty much wasted, going through the motions with the kind of resignation that suggests that they all realized early on that they were working on a project that was not only not working but would wind up being shelved for a couple of years before seeing the light of day, presumably to their collective sense of chagrin.

I first discovered the writings of film critic Pauline Kael when I, a movie-mad kid of about 8 or 9, came across her collections of reviews in the adult section of my local library (having plowed through the comparatively meager selection in the childrenís section in roughly two days) and dug in. At the time, I had not seen very many of the films that she was writing about but the writing was so strong and distinctive, even to someone as young as I, that it felt as if I was actually seeing the films through her eyes. It was only later that I realized just how truly groundbreaking she was as a critic from her distinctive and slangy style to her willingness to work details from her own intriguing life into her work to her delight at thumbing her nose at cinematic sacred cows while at the same time embracing films that other establishment critics had dismissed as trash. Kael stopped writing about 30 years ago (she passed away in 2001) but her work still vibrates with an intensity that puts most contemporary critics (your truly included) to shame --even the reviews I disagree with (and there are plenty) are a joy to read and I still go back and re-read those collections about once a year. Considering just how groundbreaking she was to the art of film criticism, it seems strange that "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael," a new documentary on her life and work by filmmaker Rob Garver, would turn out to be as forgettably middling as it ultimately is. Part of the problem is that Kael told so much about herself in her writings and did it so well that the film cannot help but suffer in comparison as it tells her story in a less interesting manner (though the addition of home movie footage of her shot in the 1950s is an invaluable addition to her canon). A bigger problem is that Garver has taken the story of a true pioneer and rendered it in the safest and most unsurprising manner imaginable--a grab bag of archival footage, talking head interviews, movie clips (some with only a tenuous at best connection to Kael) and excerpts from her reviews (read by Sarah Jessica Parker) that hits all the key topics (her influence on other critics, her relationships with filmmakers that ranged from nurturing to combative, her controversial essay about "Citizen Kane" that many saw as an attempt to diminish Orson Welles, her brief sojourn to Hollywood in the late 1970s to work as a producer under the aegis of Warren Beatty) but doesn't really go into any of them with any real depth. As a basic introductory primer to Kael and her considerable legacy, "What She Said" is serviceable enough but you would be far better off by getting a hold of her original reviews and exploring her greatness straight from the source.

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originally posted: 01/10/20 10:30:58
last updated: 01/10/20 10:35:59
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