John Belushi in Belushi
The life and death of John Belushi have been chronicled many times previously—in books, in biopics, in snippets from other documentaries—yet director R. J. Cutler somehow emerges with something that feels more definitive and more compassionate than any of the others. It’s a comprehensive portrait, employing journalist Tanner Colby’s recorded interviews with family members, friends and professional collaborators to track Belushi’s rise from child of Albanian immigrants in the Chicago suburbs to the most popular comedic actor in America. The interviews allow for new insight into Belushi’s ambitions and insecurities, detailing stuff like his jealousy of Chevy Chase’s popularity on the original Saturday Night Live
cast. But mostly it’s a surprisingly effective piece of filmmaking beyond the raw data, from the animated sequences created by Robert Valley to something as simple as shifting from Bill Hader’s narration of Belushi’s correspondence with his wife, Judy, to eerie silent words on the screen as Belushi sinks deeper into addiction. By the time we reach Belushi’s infamous final days at the Chateau Marmont, it’s not surprising that Cutler refuses to wallow in the muck. There’s a humanity here that truly captures his subject, in all his messy complexity. Available Nov. 22 via Showtime.
Born to Be ***1/2
The most compelling portraits of heroes introduce us to people who not only never set out to be heroes, but would probably resist the description if you suggested it to them. Director Tania Cypriano’s documentary focuses on Dr. Jess Ting, a plastic surgeon heading up the newly-created Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Along the way, Cypriano does introduce a few specific patients, capturing both the elation many of them feel at finally receiving gender-affirming surgeries, and the reality that such procedures aren’t necessarily a magic bullet resolving every emotional issue from a life of gender dysphoria. The real fascination, however, comes from watching Dr. Ting take a specialty he never really planned on—he notes that he was the only doctor at Mount Sinai willing to do this work at all—and deal with the overwhelming demand on his time pushing him to the limit, even as he begins to contemplate better methods for these surgeries. Instead of portraying Dr. Ting as what certain folks might call a “social justice warrior,” Born to Be
shows what happens when a somewhat reluctant participant comes to understand that what he is able to do saves lives in a different way from other kinds of medicine. Available Nov. 18 via SLFSatHome.org.
Buddy Games *1/2
I guess you kinda have to congratulate director/co-writer/star Josh Duhamel on a certain purity of vision in crafting a story about immature idiots where the primary character arcs are simply about making peace with the fact that they’ll always be immature idiots. Duhamel plays Bob, the ringleader of a bunch of friends-since-childhood—also including Dax Shepard, Kevin Dillon, Dan Bakkedahl, Nick Swardson and James Roday—who reunite for a tradition of manly competition, several years after a tragic incident at one such event caused an estrangement. That’s the set-up for some broad, often gross-out comedy where the punch lines include stuff like teabagging, explosive diarrhea and piña coladas infused with a secret ingredient, and none-too-subtle hints that one among the pals is closeted gay. In fact, nearly every joke here is about threats to masculinity, which might have been okay if there had been literally any attempt to treat this behavior as undesirable rather than hilarious (which it almost never is). There’s nothing that feels particularly honest or insightful about male friends bringing out the worst in each other, and while one character ultimately calls bullshit on this nonsense, the final “bros before hos” message makes it pretty clear whose side Duhamel is on. Available Nov. 20 in theaters; Nov. 24 via VOD and DVD.
City Hall ***
See feature review
. Available Nov. 20 via SLFSatHome.org.
Part of what makes Alexander Nanau’s documentary so terrific is that it becomes more that the portrait of journalistic crusaders that it begins as. In October 2015, a fire at the Romanian nightclub Colectiv killed several people on the scene, and many more in the days to come from infections at the country’s hospitals. Nanau initially focuses on journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at Sports Gazette
, exploring the network of corruption that led to hospitals employing diluted disinfectants. But things get really complicated when the filmmakers also begin following Vlad Voiculescu, the newly-installed Minister of Health attempting to sweep out the rot in the system, only to discover that it’s even worse than he suspected. Both sides of this story are amazingly compelling, which makes it a minor frustration when Nanau turns his attention to survivors of the fire, particularly a young woman named Tedy; while it’s understandable to show the human cost of so much callous disregard for life, the grueling fight against entrenched power is the real headline. As much as Collective
shows how important it is to have a free press holding authority to account, it’s also a grim reminder that reform is a fight that depends on refusing to get discouraged even when the bastards win. Available Nov. 20 via SLFSatHome.org.
The Last Vermeer **
Here’s a narrative that seems to be trying very hard to tell a Serious Story about a Serious Time, yet it’s hard to absorb when you’ve got an actor munching gleefully on every available splinter of scenery. In this fact-based drama set just after the end of World War II in 1945 Netherlands, the chewer in question is Guy Pearce, playing artist Han van Meegeren who has been accused of the collaborating with Nazis for selling a $1.6 million Vermeer painting to Hermann Goering. Initially, Allied Capt. Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is out for van Meegeren’s head, until he discovers that the Vermeer might have been a forgery. First-time director Dan Friedkin and his screenwriting team attempt to tie Piller’s experience as a Dutch Jew in the underground Resistance, his wife’s own activities and van Meegeren’s paintings into a complicated study of wartime morality, but that idea never really works here. What’s left is enjoying Pearce—all foppish mannerisms, tweezed eyebrows and self-aggrandizing bon mots—as he plays to the cheap seats, especially in the third-act trial sequence. There are occasions when the things in a movie that are big simply rough roughshod over anything trying to be subtle. Available Nov. 20 in theaters.
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in Mank
While director David Fincher might have dusted off this nearly 20-year-old script by his late father Jack because some of it feels timely, it proves to be a weird cocktail of nostalgia and pedantry. From a framing narrative involving down-on-his-luck, alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) holed up in a Victorville, Calif. bungalow ca. 1940 to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane while also recuperating from a car accident, the story flashes back to Mank’s 1930s days working on the MGM lot, and the events that would draw him into the sphere of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s actress/girlfriend Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Fincher clearly enjoys playing with giving Mank an old-school aesthetic—from rear-projection car rides to reel-change “cigarette burns” in the corner of the frame—and Oldman’s delivery of Mank’s withering one-liners is mostly enjoyable. But as the story comes to focus on the bon vivant Mankiewicz developing a political conscience over the studio’s manipulation of the 1934 California gubernatorial race, Mank
starts to seem too cocky in its ironic mimicking of Kane’s achronological structure, and its righteous anger over political dirty tricks. There are far more compelling ways to navigate through the fundamental conservatism behind Hollywood’s Depression-era dream factory. It’s like someone watched Barton Fink
and thought, “What this really needs is to be as literal as possible.” Available Nov. 20 in theaters; Dec. 4 via Netflix.
Sound of Metal ***
Co-writer/director Darius Marder takes a risky step in tying Deaf culture to recovery culture, but a tremendous central performance fills in the cracks where the story gets jumbled. That performance belongs to Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a heavy metal duo with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke)—until he begins to lose his hearing, and everything he’s built his life around begins to fall apart. Ruben’s history as a recovering heroin addict complicates his ability to come to terms with this new reality, and the movie’s extended second act—with Ruben living in a support community of Deaf fellow recovering addicts—is both about the steps of grieving and the steps of recovery. It’s murky ground, touching lightly on the question of deafness as something that doesn’t necessarily need “fixing,” and Marder’s superb sound design repeatedly complicates that notion by taking us in and out of Ruben’s point of view. It’s Ahmed who provides the anchor with work that depends largely on his eyes, which chart his path through rage and some semblance of acceptance. The result is an incarnation of the 12-step world’s famed Serenity Prayer, about someone on his journey to know what he can and can’t change—or should even try to change. Available Nov. 20 in theaters; Dec. 4 via Amazon Prime.
The Twentieth Century ***
It takes a certain chutzpah to attempt to mimic the aesthetic of Guy Maddin, but Maddin’s fellow Winnipeg native Matthew Rankin turns out a more than passable simulacrum with this cure for the common biopic. His subject is William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne)—an actual Prime Minister of Canada on three separate occasions—in a story that involves the theoretical start of his political career in 1899 Toronto. There’s not a whisper of reality to any of it, as Rankin employs stylized sets and animation to paint a portrait of King as a milquetoast Mama’s boy (the Mama in question played by Maddin regular Louis Negin) who masturbates compulsively to his shoe fetish. And that’s some of the more normal stuff in a narrative that posits the post of Canadian Prime Minister determined by a series of competitions including baby seal clubbing and urinating in the snow. Every visual choice and bit of deadpan humor offers reminders of the better versions of such content provided by Maddin himself, yet there’s more than enough goofy charm here to remind you of the master until a real new Maddin movie comes along. Available Nov 20 via SLFSatHome.org.