Movie Review ~ The Hunting Ground

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An expose of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.

Director: Kirby Dick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I believe the best kind of documentaries are the ones that expose an ongoing problem that may not be getting the media attention it deserves.  With so many of our headlines looking at the issues we face on foreign soil, there can be a lack of attention to the concerns that are right on our front doorstep. Director Kirby Dick has been a documentary filmmaker of acclaim for over three decades but especially in the last ten years he’s been shining a light on a diverse roster of subjects.

Receiving his first Oscar nomination for 2004’s Twist of Faith which focused on child abuse within the Catholic Church, Dick followed that up in 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, where he attempted to peel back the veil of secrecy surrounding the ratings board of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America.  Controversy surrounded 2009’s Outrage as it looked at the hypocrisy of Washington D.C.’s closeted gay politicians, and 2012’s Oscar-nominated The Invisible War detailed rape within the armed forces.

Now comes The Hunting Ground, a painful journey into the growing epidemic of rape on college campuses from sea to shining sea.  Interviewing dozens of survivors of sexual assault during their college experience, Dick goes further and suggests that many of these incidents are kept on the down low by college officials more interested in keeping the money flowing than guarding their student body.

As is the case with most of the work from this director, it’s pretty incendiary material meant to spark discussion.  Dick seems to be of the position that if he’s presenting the facts, it’s the onus of the individuals and collegiate organizations accused of sweeping reports of rape and sexual assault under the table to provide proof that he’s wrong.  Sadly, it seems clear that Dick and producer Amy Ziering have revealed a long-standing cover-up that’s remained unchallenged until now.

What makes this documentary so powerful and terrifying to watch is not the evidence that shows students have a better chance of being kicked out of school for cheating than raping a classmate but in the stories relayed by the victims themselves.  Mostly women (several men are interviewed but only briefly), it’s painful to hear their narratives of elation at being accepted into higher education turn into somber reflections of grief after being victimized not just by their attacker but by the school that should have protected them.

It’s a well-made documentary that has a lot of talking heads spouting facts and countless faces of survivors with stories to tell.  Dick devotes a nice portion of the film into following the efforts of two females that decided to take a stand and effect change within the collegiate system even if their administrators wouldn’t.  As they travel around and connect with other individuals in similar situations, their network of support grows.

A film that should be shown on all college campuses and especially to all incoming freshman, The Hunting Ground will hopefully be a call to action that a very real problem continues to plague the grounds of higher learning.

The Silver Bullet ~ It Follows

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Synopsis: After a strange sexual encounter, a teenager finds herself plagued by disturbing visions and the inescapable sense that something is following her.

Release Date:  March 27, 2015

Thoughts: If early buzz and trailer/poster quotes can be believed, It Follows could make a bloody little splash in the ever shrinking pond of indie horror films. Though at this point the splatter film has for the most part once again been put out to its cinematic pasture, there’s still room for the one-off winner to break through. 2014’s The Babadook was a nifty bit of slow-burn suspense and It Follows could ride that same word-of-mouth wave to some success. Playing off fears of STDs and the oft-used trope of teen angst, I’m following this film closely…you should too.

The Silver Bullet ~ Snowpiercer

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Synopsis: In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off all life on the planet except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system evolves.

Release Date: June 27, 2014

Thoughts: Gosh, hard to believe this film is finally seeing the light of day.  I’ve been hearing about Snowpiercer for the last several years and though its popped up on foreign soil it has yet to make its debut in US theaters.  While I’m glad this apocalyptic action film is pulling into the station soon, I can’t help but be nervous for the delay, especially with a cast of in demand players populating the train carrying the last remnants of mankind.  Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left AliveThe Grand Budapest Hotel), Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station),  and Ed Harris (The Abyss) are just a few of the high profile stars director Bong Joon Ho got on board.  Let’s see if the wait was worth it.

Movie Review ~ 20 Feet From Stardom

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti

Director: Mogan Neville

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The most I can ever ask from a film is that it moves me.  Now sometimes a movie will move me to the nearest exit and pronto when the lights come up but then there are the movies that you don’t want to end so you stay firmly planted in your seat until the final credits roll, the lights come up, and the usher kindly asks you to leave so he pick up all the junk left on the floor (note…take your garbage with you!!!).  20 Feet from Stardom is a film that captures your attention and doesn’t let go for a joyous 91 minutes.

In 2002 there was a documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it told the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, musicians that backed up countless numbers of Motown artists.  20 Feet from Stardom finds itself with a similar theme but instead looks at those using a totally different kind of instrument…their voice.  Backup singers don’t always get their due but filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on them and produces a truly magical experience that gave me all sorts of goosebumps.

Neville has an abundance of riches when it comes to famous faces that go on camera to endorse the various background vocalists they have worked with over the years but he uses people like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting sparingly in favor of giving more time to a handful of powerhouse talents.

Though Darlene Love may be the most known out of the group thanks to her yearly holiday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films, there’s a nice balance between her story of coming up through the ranks and other, lesser known, names.  You may not be familiar with Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, or Tata Vega but after hearing some of the famous songs they sang back-up on you’ll always have a face to put with a spine-tingling vocal.

While the archival footage is fun, it was the present day material shot for the film that leaves a lasting impression.  Showing that time hasn’t changed the power in their timbre, Neville lets the ladies tell their own stories…the triumphs and set-backs, the struggles and the successes.

It’s an audience-pleasing, good for you kind of movie-going experience that I would hope everyone gets a chance to take in.  In a summer where the action movies are loud and the acting sometimes louder, it was so refreshing to see a film with a big heart to match some powerful soul.

Movie Review ~ Lovelace

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Linda Lovelace, who is used and abused by the porn industry at the behest of her coercive husband, before taking control of her life.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple, Wes Bentley, Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Eric Roberts, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny,

Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  This is the type of review that you hope your parents don’t read…because then you’ll have to admit you’ve seen Deep Throat and, well, will Sunday brunch ever be the same again?  So Mom, if you’re reading this (and, let’s face it, you probably opted for another round of Candy Crush instead) just know that I have seen the infamous adult film that made porno mainstream…but I watched it under duress, I swear.

The star of Deep Throat was Linda Lovelace and she didn’t fit the mold of the adult film.  Pretty but not desirably beautiful, she had one particular talent that earned her the starring role and gave the film its title.  Though she only worked in the porn industry for a total of 17 days, her legend would live on but her story hasn’t been told on screen until now.

It’s too bad then that, as presented by Lovelace, her story isn’t all that interesting or intriguing.  Though it pulls a Rashomon-style switcheroo ¾ of the way through, the movie can’t make…um…head or tails of its starry cast or soapy subject matter.  Turns out that Linda Lovelace was either a) a willing participant that rolled with the punches or b) a victim of abuse forced into a life of drugs and prostitution by her smarmy husband.  The film wants us to feel sorry for Linda so the “b” option is presented in a more heavy-hitting fashion but so much time is spent on the set-up of the “a” option that you leave the movie not really sure of where the truth falls on the spectrum of history.

Credit should be given to all involved for taking care with the period aspects of the film set in the 70’s and early 80’s.  The production design is restrained and just tacky enough to let us know feathered hair and bell bottoms didn’t look all that bad on the right person.  Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman come from the documentary world and one would think that they’d handle their narrative with a bit more efficiency and not as presentational as screenwriter Andy Bellin has made the biopic.

That leaves the cast to make some magic but strangely nothing seems to get their motors going.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) has some nice moments in the last half of the film when we finally get to see a more vulnerable side of Linda but up until that point it’s not a very grounded character for her to work with.  Though the role is undeniably one-dimensional, as Linda’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine) has never met a creep he can’t play to the hilt and that’s true here.  The rest of the supporting cast really are simply brief cameos as the 92 minute film can’t accommodate so many familiar faces with jettisoning some of their scenes (they should be thankful…Sarah Jessica Parker filmed her role as Gloria Steinem only to be excised in the editing room).  It was nice to see Sharon Stone, albeit in an awful wig from a community theater production of Grease, as Linda’s tough, gruff mother.

It’s not the revealing biography that it’s intended to be and honestly I can’t say I took anything of value away from the movie.  Though it’s interesting to get a behind the scenes look about that particular time in film history (however blue the films were), Lovelace leaves the audience unfulfilled.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Twenty Feet from Stardom

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Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Release Date:  June 14, 2013

Thoughts: When was the last time you really stopped to listen to the background singers on a piece of music?  Artists often contribute to their own backing vocals but more often than not those featured on the track are simply relegated to the linear notes (and with most music being digitized these well-sung, unsung heroes may never really be recognized).  The new documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom moves the spotlight from the lead singer to those a little further back that provide harmony and unity to the popular songs of yesterday and today and it looks to be a crowd-pleasing winner.  Filled with celebrity interviews and a look at a few notable backing vocalists, I’m very much looking forward to this June release.

The Silver Bullet ~ Erased (aka The Expatriate)

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Synopsis: An ex-CIA agent and his estranged daughter are forced on the run when his employers mark them both for termination as part of a wide-reaching international conspiracy.

Release Date:  TBD 2013

Thoughts: I’ve long thought that Aaron Eckhart has been underused in Hollywood.  It’s not that he hasn’t had a consistent career over the last decade but it’s been difficult for him to find the right role to fashion a career around. I don’t think Erased is the role to do that but it might be on the right track.  Though the long-delayed actioner feels like a script passed on by bigger A-List actors (or something that was written  in the early 90’s with Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, or Harrison Ford in mind), Eckhart will be the main reason I check this out when it’s released.  Co-starring Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace and April’s Oblivion), Erased looks like your standard man on the run feature but never underestimate the power of what seems like a simple story…those are the ones that can surprise you.