Films I Neglected To Review: Liars and Tigers and Bores—Oh My!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/06/19 16:04:48
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Fall of the American Empire," "Framing John DeLorean," "Loopers: The Caddie's Long Walk," "Pavarotti" and "The Secret Life of Pets 2."
In two of his best-known films, ''The Decline of the American Empire'' and ''The Barbarian Invasions,'' Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand created pungent, thoughtful and occasionally quite funny meditations on such universal subjects as money, sex and morality as seen through the eyes of highly intellectual characters who wrongly believe themselves to be beyond such bourgeois thinking. Although not a literal sequel to those films, his latest work, ''The Fall of the American Empire,'' definitely follows in their thematic footsteps, though this time around, phrases like ''thoughtful'' and ''occasionally quite funny'' will not need to be deployed at all in the context of a review and if ''pungent'' comes up, it will be for entirely different reasons. Our ''hero'' is Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) a would-be academic who is working as a courier since such jobs pays better than teaching positions and, perhaps more importantly, it allows him to lecture people at length about his moral and ethical superiority to people who don’t appreciate how he liberally sprinkles Wittgenstein quotes into ordinary conversations. On one job, he stumbles upon a botched heist and makes off with two bags filled with money but obviously cannot spend any of it without arousing the suspicion of the cops or the criminals who want their money back. To this end, he assembles a crew to help him launder the money through fake charities and off-shore accounts that includes one of the original thieves (Patrick Abellard), a recently released ex-con with a law degree (Remy Girard), a financial analyst with a facility for bending the rules (Pierre Curzi) and, most importantly, Camille (Maripier Morin), a beautiful prostitute who Pierre-Paul falls for because of her ability to give good quote, so to speak.
The idea of a heist film featuring characters who are entirely too smart for their own good sounds amusing enough--like ''Ocean’s 11'' with a philosophy degree--but ''The Fall of the American Empire'' is not that movie, nor is it much of anything else. Instead of creating characters that were able to hold one's interest even at their most insufferable, as he did in the previous installments of his super-loose trilogy, Arcand only gives us stridently annoying caricatures who prattle on at length and use flimsy intellectual constructs as an excuse to justify their own bad behavior without ever being forced to cop to it. This might be funny if Arcand looked at them as targets of satire but he seems to be completely on their side as they drone on and on in conversations that resemble the kind of college dorm bull sessions that inspire people to look into off-campus housing. Frankly, the only aspect of the film that is liable to keep most viewers from bolting long before the end is the presence of Maripier Morin as Camille--like the rest of the characters, her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold role is painfully underwritten but she is so heart-stompingly attractive that just the sight of her is almost enough to make you forget just how condescending, retrograde and devoid of wit and insight the movie surrounding her truly is, at least for a little while.
As the new documentary ''Framing John DeLorean'' opens, there is much discussion over the fact that while there have been any number of film projects based on the spectacular rise and even more spectacular downfall of the infamous auto executive, none of them have actually reached the big screen. Amusingly, this film manages to simultaneously suggest both the undeniable appeal of DeLorean's story and the pitfalls that can ensue when ambitious filmmakers attempt to impose too much self-conscious style on top of the material. When it sticks to recounting DeLorean's story from his days as an engineer working his way through the corridors of power at General Motors before striking out on his own to launch his own car company that produced one cutting-edge car (which would go on to permanent cultural enshrinement when it was used as the basis for the time machine in ''Back to the Future'') before collapsing in a haze of bad business decisions, drug dealing and financial chicanery that ruined him both professionally and personally, co-directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce have created an undeniably engrossing portrait of the American business mindset at its best and worst that will grip even viewers with no particular interest in the automotive industry as a whole. The problem is that Argott and Joyce have also decided to employ a meta-movie construct as well that involves bringing in actors like Alec Baldwin and Morena Baccarin to play DeLorean and his then-wife Christina (the former under tons of fairly unconvincing makeup) in fictional re-enactments while at the same time musing upon the responsibilities of portraying real-life people. To put it succinctly, the stuff with the actors does not work at all--it may have sounded like an interesting idea but it has not been implemented particularly well and it only serves to take away from the main story as it unfolds. This material doesn’t ruin the film completely--it is still worth watching—but it does transform a work that could have been as sleek and compelling as the DeLorean automobile itself into something as haphazard and clunky as the ordinary vehicles that DeLorean himself strove to set himself apart from throughout his career.
In his latest film, ''Loopers: The Caddie's Long Walk,'' documentarian Jason Baffa offer a look at the often-misunderstood and always-evolving art of the golf caddy. Rather than being just a stuffy history lesson aimed squarely at a very specific audience demographic, Baffa has employed a more genial and laid-back approach that blends together history, humor and biography to chart caddying from its murky early days in Scotland in the 1700s to such famous golfer-caddy pairings of later as Arnold Palmer/Nathaniel ''Iron Man'' Avery, Jack Nicklaus/Willie Peterson and Ben Crenshaw/Carl Jackson. Serving as narrator, perhaps inevitably, is the one and only Bill Murray, a one-time caddy himself who finds just the right way of approaching the material that adds a dash of wit and personal insight to the proceedings without stealing focus from the subject at hand. While the film will obviously be devoured by golf fanatics, those without a strong working knowledge of the game may find it interesting as well, though they may get a little frustrated at the way that Baffa edges toward darker material (such as the way that blacks have slowly been getting edged out in recent years of the caddying jobs that they once dominated) but never quite deals with it in a substantial way. I don't know if I would quite recommend that anyone other than the most devout golf aficionados fork over actual money to see it in the theater but I would definitely suggest giving it a look when it eventually turns up on the Golf Channel.
Having previously examined one of the world’s most beloved pop bands with his entertaining 2016 documentary ''The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years,'' Ron Howard shifts musical genres to cover an equally larger-than-life subject (no pun intended) with his latest film, ''Pavarotti,''a look at the life and work of legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, the man who did perhaps more than anyone in the 20th century to bring opera to the masses. Using a combination of talking head interviews with family, friends and cultural critics and often-astonishing archival footage, Howard charts out Pavarotti's life from his humble beginnings to reaching the absolute apex of pop culture stardom where he was the rival of any ordinary rock star, both on his own and then as a member of the famed Three Tenors. The problem is that while The Beatles movie allowed Howard to concentrate solely on one small and particular moment in time and focus on the detail, this one finds him in the unenviable position of trying to sum up an entire life in just under two hours. To accomplish this, Howard has basically elected to take the more controversial aspects of Pavarotti's personal and professional lives and either minimizes them (such as his sometimes shaky family life and occasional fits of diva-like behavior) or ignores them entirely (there is not a single mention of ''Yes Giorgio,'' his insanely bad 1982 attempt to translate his appeal to the big screen in a vehicle that Mario Lanza would have turned down when he was making movies) to the extent that the whole project too often takes on the patina of hagiography. What does save ''Pavarotti'' from simply coming across as an advertisement for his back catalogue are the brief moments in which Pavarotti is seen in a quieter and more reflective mode (such as during an interview in which he confesses that even he cannot be certain that he will hit all the notes when he is on stage) and, of course, the performance footage in which both his voice and equally outsized personality continue to ring out with a vitality that is stunning to behold. If you have even the slightest interest in opera in general or Pavarotti in particular, you owe it to yourself to see ''Pavarotti'' in the biggest theater possible and with the best sound system available, even though there may be times during it when you find yourself wishing that they had started screening ''Amazing Grace'' instead.
Although I know that I saw ''The Secret Life of Pets'' when it came out back in 2016, I must confess that i don't actually recall much of anything about it other than the fact that it existed and it clearly made enough money to warrant a sequel. Having seen that sequel, ''The Secret Life of Pets 2,'' I have to wonder if the original was as flimsy, nonsensical and at time oddly retrograde as its follow-up, which lacks the creativity and surprise of its title. In a sign that no one involved could think of a reason to make a second film other than to hopefully make a lot of money from families looking for something to see during the wait for ''Toy Story 4,'' the film contains three thin and largely separate story threads that only vaguely come together during the big finale (though the effect here is less ''Intolerance'' than intolerable). In one, amiable terrier Max (Patton Oswald, stepping in for the original's now-toxic Louis C.K.) develops a nervous disorder and ends up learning how to man up from a garrulous old shepherd dog (Harrison Ford at his gruffest) while on a trip to the country with his family. Back in the city, pampered Pomeranian Fifi (Jenny Slate) is entrusted with Max's prized squeaky ball and when she accidentally loses it in an apartment filled with near-feral cats, she enlists the aid of grumpy cat Chloe (Lake Bell) to help her go undercover to retrieve the prize. Finally, wacky bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), now under the delusion that he is the superhero Captain Snowball, is recruited by Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help her rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus where it is regularly abused by the sadistic owner (Nick Kroll). Little kids, the presumed target audience, will probably eat it up—it is bright and colorful and silly enough to serve as a happy 90-minute distraction, though parents with Fifi-sized dogs may want to remind their charges that putting the dog in the dishwasher is not a very good idea. For those who have aged up into the double-digits, there are fewer benefits to be had--the slapstick moments are not especially inspired, the heartfelt moments are about as profound as the musings found on generic greeting cards and some of the life lesson taught by the Harrison Ford character seem weirdly at odds with the otherwise inclusive nature of the surrounding material. Other than to utilize it as a cinematic babysitter for 90 minutes, i cannot recommend ''The Secret Life of Pets 2'' but on the bright side, it is so throughly innocuous that I am pretty certain that I will have forgotten everything about it within a week or two.