Soundtrack Review: ‘Music From The Big House’

Bruce McDonald’s documentary “Music from the Big House” has blues singer Rita Chiarelli visiting Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary (a.k.a. Angola Prison) where she puts on a concert with the inmates there. What results is a tale of spiritual uplift and redemption as these prisoners serving sentences of ten years to life show a love of music which helps get them out of the dark place they were once stuck in. On top of that, it produces a fantastic soundtrack which is a must buy even for those who have not seen this documentary. Whether you are a fan of blues music or not, this soundtrack will have you up on your feet and clapping along with the rhythm.

Starting off this album is a piece of the film score by Christopher Guglick called “Rita’s Journey” which illustrates the solemn nature hovering over her visit to a prison once known as the bloodiest in all of America. Before we get inside the prison walls, we get a good luck at the surrounding area, and the music Guglick creates captures the stark and sad nature surrounding this penitentiary which reeks of death even on the outside. Another piece entitled “Convicted” illustrates the emotional nature of the crimes these convicts have committed and which put them behind bars. This piece also marks the first time we get specifics on what they had done.

For those not familiar with Chiarelli, she has been called the “Goddess of Canadian blues” and her passion is thrilling to take in here. Her first song on this soundtrack is “These Four Walls” which she wrote after making this documentary. It illustrates deeply the time she spent with these convicts and the bleak nature of life in prison. She wails like few others do, and you will be pinned back in your seat at how powerful of a singer she is. Listening to her will make you wonder why more people don’t know about her in America.

The music featured here, however, is not restricted solely to the blues as there are bits of church and country music to be found throughout. One standout band is The Jazzmen who will get you all riled up with their rendition of “Mississippi Boy” which is just boundless in its energy and joy. Among the other bands performing here are Pure Heart Messenger who bring the house down on “Glory Glory” and “Rain on Me” which has lyrics speaking to the salvation these inmates have found through music.

I also enjoyed the prison yard rehearsals featured here as Chiarelli works on getting the harmonizing just right. The tracks “Rest My Bones” and “Rain on Me” show how serious they all take this music and I am a sucker for all the melodies they come up with.

Like any great soundtrack to a musical documentary or concert movie, “Music from the Big House” really makes you feel like you’re in the room with these musicians as they perform their hearts out. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to see this great documentary, you owe it to yourself to buy the soundtrack which is as powerful as any which came out in 2012.

NOTE: Part of the proceeds from the purchase of this soundtrack will go to the Angola Prison Music Program so that they can buy the equipment they need. It does not go directly to the inmates as this is not allowed.

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s ‘The Ward’ – His First Film in a Decade, and Maybe His Last

Master John Carpenter described “The Ward,” his first feature length movie in ten years, best through a video message at the Toronto International Film Festival:

“’The Ward’ is an old school horror movie made by an old school director.”

It’s good to know this going in as Carpenter is not trying to reinvent the wheel or outdo all other horror releases out now. The plot of “The Ward” is as old fashioned as they come, and it allows Mr. Carpenter to exercise the skills he has perfected for many years. It’s not on a par with “The Thing” or “Halloween,” but in the end I didn’t care. For me it was an absorbing movie which kept me entertained throughout its running time, and it was far more entertaining than those summer blockbusters duds “Green Lantern” or “Bad Teacher.”

“The Ward” stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman whom we first see her indulging in a little pyromania, and not the kind Def Leppard made an album about. The police pick Kristen up after she burns down an abandoned farmhouse, and she gets sent straight to the ward of the movie’s title. Her fellow patients are not necessarily the “Girl, Interrupted” type, and Angelina Jolie is nowhere to be found. The intentions of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) appear ambiguous at best, and dealing with the chief orderly and Nurse Lundt, both who are deadly serious, is no picnic.

Actually, let me segue here for a moment; Nurse Lundt’s name seems to rhyme with a certain derogatory word. Which one you say? Well… You can just figure that out on your own. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, or perhaps it is just the name of someone they knew from way back. Well, whatever the case, Lundt certainly gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money in the seriously mean category, but her voice is not as lovely as Louise Fletcher’s was.

Now this being a psychiatric ward, it is mandatory that a ghost is roaming the halls. Kristen first sees it while taking a shower and, of course, everyone says she’s a nut which is redundant considering she’s staying in a mental institution. Then again, the patients may know more about what’s going on than they initially admit. I hate to think they’ve spent all their time there without seeing at least one ghost, you know? Anyway, patients start to disappear one by one, and Kristen aims to find out what happened to them on top of escaping the ward before it claims her as its next victim.

Now whatever you think of Carpenter’s directorial skills these days, his efforts in generating suspense are still strong. Carpenter is smart to not reveal all the important plot details right away, and he holds you within his grasp throughout as he leaves you guessing or imagining what’s really going on. Even if you see the ending coming from a mile away, the journey to it was an entertaining one for me.

I was skimming through another review of “The Ward” online which said Heard was as believable a mental patient as Charlize Theron was a mine worker in “North Country.” Now what is that supposed to mean? That she’s too good looking to be in a psychiatric ward? Give me a break! Heard does good work here portraying a strong-willed protagonist you want to root for. She’s engaging and believable, and while others may see her as being miscast, I did not. By the way, I thought Theron was great in “North Country” and I utterly accepted her as a mine worker. And in case that one reviewer didn’t notice, both actresses were in “North Country” and played different versions of the same character.

Lyndsy Fonseca is very good as Iris, the first girl to befriend Kristen. She appears to be the most emotionally balanced of the patients, and Fonseca makes her character’s awareness all the more convincing. Mamie Gummer gives a good performance as Emily, and she gives Emily a complexity she might otherwise not have had. Danielle Panabaker makes her character Sarah the epitome of Carly Simon’s classic tune “You’re So Vain,” and she’s a kick to watch. And Laura Leigh rounds out this strong group of actresses by making Zoey a convincingly traumatized person whose escape from reality consists of her acting like a little girl.

In terms of horror, Carpenter still makes effective use of cheap scares. While they have been used to death by dozens of filmmakers, he always makes them count. This is especially the case with “The Ward’s” final scene which truly took me by surprise. I should warn you though that the movie has one of those pull out the rug from under you kind of endings which I am really sick of. However, Carpenter doesn’t telegraph the ending to us like others typically do, so I’m willing to let it pass this time.

If there’s anything missing from “The Ward,” it’s Carpenter’s music which I am a big fan of, and his unique sounds were missed. Not that I want to knock Mark Kilian’s work here as he gives the film an appropriately atmospheric score which works very well, and it does have a bit of that Carpenter sound to it. Still, I yearn for a new score from Carpenter or even his son Cody who did amazing work on “Masters of Horror.”

Am I being too forgiving to “The Ward?” Perhaps. I’ve always been a big admirer of Carpenter’s work, and I even have good things to say about “Ghosts of Mars.” Many have expressed their big disappointment with “The Ward” as they want it to be on a par with “Halloween” and “The Thing.” Others found it not gory enough, but then again Carpenter’s strongest films don’t always rely on it like the “Saw” movies do. Personally, I don’t want to spend time comparing “The Ward” to his best movies because to do so would just be asking us to hate it before the opening credits even begin. You can only let an artist remain in the shadow of their past work for so long until you realize your spoiling the experience for yourself.

With “The Ward,” Carpenter was looking for a movie with a tight schedule and a limited location which didn’t require him to stay for a long time or get completely exhausted after shooting only half of it. With the limited resources he had, he made “The Ward” worth watching, and I got very involved in the plights of the characters. There’s nothing original on display here, and it may very well remind you of a gazillion other movies like it, but I’m glad the master finally directed a feature film again after so long. I just hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for Carpenter’s next film. And if there’s anyway Kurt Russell can star in it, you can sure bet I will be watching it on opening day!

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ten Years Later, ‘The Town’ Remains a Riveting Crime Thriller

I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”

While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”

“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”

Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.

Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.

Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.

Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.

Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.

The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.

You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!

Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:

“Ask me anything you want.”

“I won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”

Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’ – 10 Years Later and it is Still Awesome!

Upon seeing how the filmmakers gleefully manipulated the Universal Pictures logo to make it look like something out of an old Atari or Nintendo game in addition to scoring the fanfare with the prehistoric techno music we knew these games to have, I knew I was in for a very entertaining time at the movies. I always get a kick out of people messing around with the studio logos we see at the beginning of every motion picture. It is an immediate sign of how we are about to see something different from the usual Hollywood fare, something we do not get enough of. Perhaps if audiences embraced more movies like these, we wouldn’t have to deal with all these remakes and reboots!

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie in a theater back in 2010. It is also another inspired masterpiece from director Edgar Wright who has previously given us the giddy cult classics “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, it is really an ode to all things video games and a collage of the visual audio effects from them, and they are combined with a story featuring characters who are anything but boring. It is also beautifully shot, perfectly cast, very well written, and extremely well directed. In case you are wondering, yes, I love this movie, and I love it just as much 10 years after its release.

The Scott Pilgrim of the movie’s title is a 22-year-old man child who plays bass guitar with his friends for the rock band Sex Bob-omb. Finally rebounding from a devastatingly painful break up a year ago, he has started dating a 17-year old girl named Knives who is still in high school. Scott’s friends, including his gay roommate Wallace, tell him ever so bluntly he has lost his mind and assume he is trying to rebound with someone they consider to be his “fake girlfriend.” But then he gets a glimpse of the new girl in town, the mysterious raven-haired Ramona Flowers, and he is hopelessly smitten on sight and becomes intent on asking her out.

However, there is a catch; if Scott is going to be in a relationship with Ramona, he will have to defeat her seven evil exes. Indeed, Scott does get an email warning him of this, but he ends up deleting it quickly after declaring it as “boring.” As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, big mistake! When Scott and his friends perform at a battle of the band’s competition, he is suddenly met by the first evil ex of the bunch, Matthew Patel. Other exes include those with mystical powers, a former skateboarder who has since become an actor, and another bass player who has developed telekinetic powers thanks to his Vegan diet. Let the battles begin!

Basically, the movie treats Scott’s life as though it were one old school game with dated graphics, and we watch him take on each ex (note, not all of them are men) as if he were in a real life Mortal Kombat tournament but without all the blood and guts. That’s the thing; there is no real gore to be found here as was the case in Edgar Wright’s previous two films. I bring this up because I gave my sister in law the DVD for “Hot Fuzz,” and she was horrified at the sight of Timothy Dalton’s face being impaled on a tiny replica of the Big Ben tower.

Scott defends himself pretty well, but he is also dealt a harsh beating without suffering any broken bones. It sounds cool when you think you can take a licking without a shattered collarbone or worst, but he does feel pain, so this side effect of taking on those people who were at other times equally enamored by Ramona is unavoidable. In defeating the exes, he will capture Ramona’s heart and become the first boyfriend of hers who is far from evil. He will also end up inheriting a boatload of coins after delivering the final blow.

I do have to say, however, it sucks he has no time to collect the coins or have some big gym bag to put them in. The amount spilled would have set him up in the local video arcade for life!

What I loved about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is how endlessly inventive it is in its visuals and the scenarios Wright comes up with, and it integrates all these images from video games deeply engraved in our minds to make us feel like kids again. There is one shot in particular which defies easy description, but it had me laughing harder than anything else I had seen in 2010 to the point where I got seriously light-headed. I’m pretty sure you’ll know it when you see it.

Now the pitfall of having such great visuals is other elements like acting and the screenplay might fail to get the same attention. But Wright, along with Michael Bacall, has written a script containing characters who, while flawed, I came to care about deeply. Unlike all those characters from those Pac Man or Super Mario Brothers games we played at home or, in my case, at a friend’s house, these are not just one-dimensional beings with one simple goal in mind. Scott doesn’t just have to defeat the league of evil exes, he also has to develop a strong self-respect before he can move on with his life in Canada.

Leading the cast here is Michael Cera who plays Scott, and he gives one of his best performance here. He was dealing with a backlash back then because many assumed he was just playing the same character in every movie he was in; an awkward young man who isn’t sure how to feel or act about anything due to a deep fear of embarrassment. But Scott is not really the same sort of character Cera has been portraying. Sure, there is a good dose of awkwardness when we first see him talking to Ramona, but he’s about to give up on getting her to go out with him.

It’s also important to note that Scott is not always a likable character. At times he is caught red-handed in being very dishonest with his friends, and he doesn’t always take their feelings into consideration. The major triumph of Cera’s performance is he still makes you root for Scott in spite of some of his selfish actions.

Playing the beautiful Ramona is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I cannot think of another actress who has looked so incredibly gorgeous with dyed hair. Winstead has appeared as John McClane’s daughter, Lucy, who proved to be just as tough as her dad in “Live Free or Die Hard,” she showed off a fantastic set of vocal pipes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (one of the two movies in “Grindhouse”), and she was a force to be reckoned with in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Winstead makes Ramona look tough and intimidating on the outside, but she also allows us to see the wounded person underneath that cold defensive exterior of hers. Ramona may look mean, but she is a wounded soul. Then again, who wouldn’t be after having endured seven failed relationships?

There is also a dynamic scene stealer to be found here, and it is Kieran Culkin who plays Scott’s roommate, Wallace Wells. Shamelessly stealing men from Scott’s little sister while texting gossip on his phone like it is second nature, Culkin gets to bring the same biting wit of his which he used to great effect in “Igby Goes Down.” He is a fiendish delight in every scene he is in.

As for the exes, each actor imbues their characters with the specific traits and powers they come equipped with, and they succeed in making each one totally unique from the other. Brandon Routh gets to really let loose here in a way he never got to in “Superman Returns” as Todd Ingram, the Vegan ex with telekinetic powers. Witnessing his expected demise brings about one of the funniest moments as Scott finds this rival bass player’s kryptonite. Jason Schwartzman is also excellent as a slick theater manager who uses his charms on anyone and everyone around him, and he is a slimy delight as a record company exec who earns your trust only to break it when you’re not looking.

What else is there to say about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World?” Plenty! The director of photography on this splendid picture was Bill Pope, the same man who did wonders for many of Sam Raimi’s films as well as “The Matrix” trilogy. His style perfectly matches up with Wright’s sensibility, and the way he sets up certain shots is amazingly brilliant. Furthermore, I have to applaud artists like Beck and Nigel Godrich for giving Sex Bob-Omb some kick ass music for them to play. In movies like these, I expect the bands to get stuck with some lame music which is geared more to sell a soundtrack than fit in with the overall story. That’s not the case here, thank goodness.

There are also inspired turns from Anna Kendrick (“Up In The Air”) as Scott’s sister Stacey, Alison Pine whose character of Kim Pine shows a bitter and stony expression, and Aubrey Plaza whose heavy stares and sarcastic state of mind as Julie Powers is a sight to behold.

I was depressed to see “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” bomb back in 2010. I could not believe it had such a lousy opening weekend, and I was miffed that audiences were more eager to see the god-awful comedy “Vampires Suck” snag the number one spot at the box office instead of this one. Over the years though, it has become a cult hit, and Wright did manage to score a big hit with “Baby Driver.” Regardless of its initial reception, this movie has proven to have a long shelf life, and I invite you to watch it if you have not already. Besides, in this time of an endless global pandemic, this one will take your mind off of it for a couple of hours.

Loved this movie, I did!

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ is More a Love Story Than a Documentary

Tabloid movie poster

“What is a lie when every man has his own truth?”

-Clark Johnson from “Homicide: Life on The Street”

 “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

-Bill Pullman from “Lost Highway”

 “Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them.”

-from “Crosseyed and Painless” by Talking Heads

The story at the center of “Tabloid” is further proof of how truth can be much stranger than fiction. It is an endlessly entertaining documentary on an utterly bizarre incident from 1977 involving former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney. She talks about falling head over heels in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, and of how he disappeared without a trace after they became engaged.

Joyce spent the next couple of years searching for Kirk, eventually finding him in Ewell, Surrey where he was working at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Desperate to be reunited with him, she flew to England determined to rescue and marry him as she sees her destiny as being with him until death separates them forever. But from there the story splinters into two heavily contrasting versions. Joyce claims the Mormon religion is a cult which brainwashed and robbed Kirk of his free will, and that he went with her willingly upon finding him at the church. However, Kirk later told police he was abducted by Joyce and chained to a bed in a cottage where she seduced and raped him.

Whatever the case, this story exploded in the press and became, as one interviewee called it, “the perfect tabloid story.” With its mix of sex and religion, this case came to be known as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case” and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

You may come out of “Tabloid” frustrated as it is not made entirely clear who is honest and who is lying, but getting to the truth is not the intention of this documentary. Morris constructed it in a way which tests who and what we believe in and how our perceptions have been molded over time by the media culture more than we ever bother to realize. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened because the story is so weirdly captivating, and viewers find themselves wanting it to go in a particular direction regardless of whether the facts match up with that direction or not.

John Patrick Shanley was dead on correct when he wrote how doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Everyone in “Tabloid” has an inescapable shadow of doubt hovering over everything they say and what they believe to be true. It’s like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we all read as kids. You know, the ones which tell you to turn to this page or another to where the outcome of your journey remains truly unpredictable.

Seeing the media at work on this “Mormon in Chains” case makes one realize not much has changed in their coverage of events. Back then, the public ate all the lurid details of this absurd story as it touched on those guilty pleasures we are never quick to admit we have. People like to believe they are above “trash” like this, but unconscious minds are always quick to wander to the magazine aisle in the supermarket to peek through the latest issue of the National Enquirer among other magazines which take the truth and manipulate into something wonderfully lurid. We know it is bad for us, but we cannot always keep our morbid fascination in check.

As an interview subject, Joyce McKinney is never boring for one second. At the start of “Tabloid,” she has an endearing quality which makes you want to spend all this time in her company. You will find yourself feeling for her when the world more or less threw her under a bus, and you will not be able to stop empathizing with her even after much of what she says comes into question. You can hear Morris interviewing her in the background, and every other question he asks sounds like, “Oh my god are you kidding me?!”

Still, it does at times feel like Joyce is putting on a performance for us, one which she has rehearsed for decades. Morris said she was the star of her own movie long before he started making this one, and it is easy to see how this is the case. Regardless, you will find yourself wanting to buy her story even as others come up with proof of how she lied.

With all the various facets of her life put up onscreen, you are eager to see where Joyce will take us next as it is unpredictable for those who are not the least bit familiar with this case. Even if she is lying about everything, it’s never less than interesting.

The truth these days is such a malleable thing as everyone shapes it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Others will say we are wrong or lying, but we are quick to defend what we know to be the truth. Many will convince themselves of what is true to where we can no longer be objective about the experience they had. We replay certain moments in our lives over and over again until they seem correct to us. Even Joyce says at one point, “You know you can tell a lie long enough until you believe it.”

What is great about “Tabloid” is how on top it is a love story of the most unusual kind. There is never any doubt that Joyce still loves Kirk after all these years. Even if you feel miles away from truth after watching this documentary, it is safe to say this much is certain.

* * * ½ out of * * * *