S Is for Stanley

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now available on Netflix following a lengthy film festival run, Alex Infascelli’s “S Is for Stanley” is required viewing for Kubrick obsessives and cinephiles. Based on Emilio D’Alessandro’s memoir “Stanley Kubrick and Me,” the documentary presents a chronological account of the relationship between the legendary filmmaker and the unassuming family man and driver who would labor as Kubrick’s courier, chauffeur, gofer, and personal assistant for three decades. D’Alessandro went to work for Kubrick in too-good-to-be-true fashion: he made a safe and timely delivery in inclement weather of the “rocking machine” — the penis sculpture/murder weapon brandished by Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” — and the rest is history.

Like some of the anecdotes shared in Jon Ronson’s fascinating, parallel “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes,” the stories expressed by D’Alessandro — which often speak to Kubrick’s fastidiousness, intellect, and obsessive note-writing — are illuminated with complementary images of both the daily minutiae of SK’s longhand and typed instructions as well as numerous physical objects and artifacts accumulated over the years by D’Alessandro. Kubrick fanatics will love the goofy, endearing missives about getting fussy jacket zippers repaired just as much as the supply of tasks directly related to film productions from “Barry Lyndon” to “Eyes Wide Shut.”  

D’Alessandro dispels no myths governing Kubrick’s reputation as an eccentric, offering multiple examples of the spectacularly high expectations set by the director for the devotion, competence, and all-hours availability of those in his employ (one comical aside relates Kubrick’s desire to have D’Alessandro install a telephone in the latter’s farm tractor so that he might be reachable in the field). But Infascelli and D’Alessandro also take care to reveal Kubrick’s largesse and magnanimity, including an offer of help following a devastating accident that severely injured D’Alessandro’s son.

Infascelli makes good choices with regard to organization and pacing, and displays confidence and comfort in his reliance on D’Alessandro’s on-camera interview as the backbone of the narrative. Kubrick’s presence, of course, is every bit the movie’s main attraction, and Infascelli uses voiceover by Anthony Clive Riche (and Roberto Pedicini in the original Italian language version) as Kubrick whenever key text is read aloud. D’Alessandro’s wife Janette Woolmore is the movie’s only other significant subject to appear in content newly shot for the film, and she contributes several insights that whet the appetite and fire the imagination for thousands of fans who will marvel at the simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary world built by Kubrick (a great example of which is carpet from the Overlook Hotel set of “The Shining” that still covers the floors of the home shared by Woolmore and D’Alessandro).

D’Alessandro is not shy about naming famous names, and Kubrick would frequently ask his opinion of the actors selected for important roles, but Infascelli holds the gossip to a minimum. Jack Nicholson is torched by D’Alessandro for the twin vices of sexual conquest and cocaine. Tom Cruise shared a brief silver screen moment with D’Alessandro when Kubrick asked the latter to appear as a news vendor. And even though little detail is offered, D’Alessandro and Matthew Modine bonded like father and son. Aside from the celebrities, Infascelli projects warm regard for Christiane Kubrick, who introduced the documentarian to D’Alessandro. Disappointingly, although not surprisingly, “S Is for Stanley” does not discuss Kubrick’s more well-known personal assistant Leon Vitali, leaving aficionados to speculate as to the nature of the relationships within Stanley Kubrick’s trusted inner circle.

Thoroughbred

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

First-time feature filmmaker Cory Finley adapts his own play and comes up with one of the year’s most diabolically pleasurable movies in “Thoroughbred,” a taut exercise in moral darkness. One of the most sure-footed debuts at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the movie is certain to attract a devoted audience when distributed by Focus Features. “Thoroughbred” injects jet-black comedy into the tightly and deliberately constricted premise of carefully plotted parricide, placing the sensibility closer to the dreamlike fantasies of “Heavenly Creatures” than to psychological devastation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Lily and Olivia Cooke’s Amanda are wealthy, East Coast nightmares of entitlement and privilege. Childhood acquaintances (and maybe even once upon a time friends) brought together again by parental decree, the girls initially circle one another carefully, poking and testing for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Both are troubled: Lily has been busted plagiarizing an essay and Amanda is a social pariah after an “Equus”-like incident with a valuable horse. The former has been retained to tutor the latter, but just who is the teacher and who is the student proves too slippery to guess as Finley toys with audience expectations.

As Lily and Amanda spend more time together, they progress toward a stomach-turning conspiracy to murder Lily’s stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), and Finley constructs a perfect storm of paranoia and dread as the stakes get higher. We are constantly unbalanced by the dangerous unreliability and untrustworthiness of the young women, who could as easily be playing each other as working together. The addition of small-time drug dealer Tim, engaged by the girls to dispatch Mark, escalates the suspense and, like classic noir, multiplies the ways things can go sideways. Tim is played by Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles, and the actor brings an excitement to the screen that will be missed.   

While the virtually single location dialogue underscores the drama’s stagebound origins, Finley capitalizes on the noteworthy skills of his collaborators. In addition to the perfectly modulated performances of his dual leads, the director transforms the elegant mansion where the action is set into a recognizable character, working with talented cinematographer Lyle Vincent, whose contributions to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” testify to his expertise. Louise Ford’s editing, Jeremy Woodward’s production design, and Erik Friedlander’s score form another cinematic hat-trick. Roland Vajs’ sound design, especially the evocative, Poe/Melville-worthy relentlessness of Mark’s rowing machine, adds another layer.  

Taylor-Joy and Cooke make a formidable pair, exploring the thematic contours of amorality with arresting ease. Amanda, who practices a terrifying ability to feign empathy every time she gazes in the mirror with her dazzling but phony smile, can simulate emotion for any occasion. A scene in which she offers a master class in on-demand tears is one of several that elevate “Thoroughbred” into a sly metanarrative exploration on the nature of acting and performance. That sort of icebox talk, so closely associated with Alfred Hitchcock (as well as obvious inspiration Clouzot in “Diabolique”), often manifests as imitative flattery, but in Finley’s case, the comparison to earlier masters is to be taken as a compliment.      

 

 

Wonder Woman

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Since 1941, Wonder Woman has been so many things to so many people that the decidedly mixed bag of her long-delayed big screen headliner comes as little surprise. Directed by Patty Jenkins following a disheartening gap of years since 2003’s “Monster,” “Wonder Woman” at least makes good on its promise to expand the long(ish) term prospects of the DC cinematic universe. And no true fan will root against the sorely needed step in the direction of gender-based superhero egalitarianism at the multiplex. But the film’s screenplay, by comic book and television veteran Allan Heinberg, fails to sustain the excitement generated by the promising opening acts, relying for the umpteenth time on a by-the-playbook climax confrontation that we’ve all seen over and over again.

As the Amazonian demigoddess brought to life from sculpted clay (and later reimagined as the daughter of Zeus), Gal Gadot successfully navigates the considerable challenges required of the tiara. Wringing pathos, strength, and humor from dialogue that capitalizes on Diana’s fish-out-of-water status in World War I-ravaged Europe, Gadot consistently balances on the tightrope that affords her the classical knowledge of the ages — she is fluent in hundreds of languages and displays a commanding grasp of the detailed biological and physical components of human sexual intercourse — but renders her a babe in the woods when it comes to the magic of ice cream and the politics of war.

As detailed in Jill Lepore’s indispensable “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” the character’s creation by William Moulton Marston is a saga as farfetched as any of the adventures contained within the pages of All Star and Sensation Comics. Diana’s accoutrements, from kinky boots to bulletproof wrist cuffs, hint at the erotic inclinations of Marston’s devotion to a matriarchal philosophy of female-led domination and submission. And despite a lighter tone than other recent DC properties overseen by Zack and Deborah Snyder, Jenkins unsurprisingly scrubs out camp and kitsch, notwithstanding the tantalizing prospects of the Lasso of Truth applied to a reluctant Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and the presence of Lucy Davis’ delightful but underused Etta Candy.

With the exception of Diana’s progressive attitudes about no-strings-attached sex with Steve, Jenkins gravitates to the ass-kicking bona fides that elevate Wonder Woman to the top tier of the Justice League (and/or Super Friends, depending on your flavor). The set pieces that visualize her combat abilities, including a swords, spears, and arrows-versus-guns shoreline skirmish on Themyscira/Paradise Island and a one-woman advance through the “No Man’s Land” of the Belgian front lines, provide the movie’s deepest emotional satisfaction, a feat not quite duplicated with Diana and Steve’s abbreviated romance/friendship or the diluted soup of too many villains and, as Sheri Linden observed, a “one-on-one showdown that turns into an endless conflagration [that] grows less coherent as it proceeds.”

The demands of the massively budgeted studio franchise entry leave little wiggle room for experimentation, but I am not the only one who would have been interested in a more intimate and shorter experience either confined to the “utopian gynocracy” (as Dana Stevens puts it) of Themyscira or a deeper exploration of the Diana Does London chapter. What kind and size of role will Wonder Woman play when she lines up next to the males that form the rest of the JLA? Hopefully, something worthy of her status in the pantheon. The outlook for her solo efforts is more promising, even if those films never take full advantage of the period prospects of Diana’s centuries-spanning longevity. Either way, things are a lot more exhilarating when she’s around.   

 

    

Star Wars Nothing But Star Wars

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The prodigiously gifted team of collectors, archivists, programmers, and aficionados of movie madness operating as Cinefamily celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of George Lucas’ game-changing blockbuster with “Star Wars Nothing But Star Wars,” a wildly entertaining mixtape of gems, oddities, outtakes, clips, interviews, fan films, newscasts, commercials, public service announcements, and all sorts of other media devoted to one of the most durable franchises in motion picture history. Made available online to coincide with a trio of public screenings at the Cinefamily headquarters in Los Angeles, the nearly 95-minute feature is an eye-popping, brain-melting phantasmagoria of the nooks and crannies of the Death Star’s attic and the Sandcrawler’s storage bins.

Loosely organized both chronologically and thematically, the mash-up concatenates the familiar and the obscure, reminding us of the unprecedented pop culture earthquake that shook the weeks, months, and years following May 25, 1977. The most rabid fans will have seen (and in some cases, personally amassed) a great deal of the source material, from the “Star Wars Holiday Special” to the Underoos advertisement to the sour, curmudgeonly, and tone deaf critique provided by noted hater John Simon. But no matter how deep your knowledge and love, the rapid-fire montage parade unearths delights and surprises that, in the Cinefamily tradition, carom from the awkward and the embarrassing to the glorious and the sublime.

In one deeply satisfying and pleasurable section, the dangerous watering hole known to die-hards as Chalmun’s Cantina lives up to Ben Kenobi’s “wretched hive of scum and villainy” admonishment/warning regarding Mos Eisley spaceport. Bea Arthur’s Ackmena, a Rainier Beer spot, a “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” PSA, and a sketch from “The Richard Pryor Show” (featuring the legendary comic’s colorful way with words) all make a case for the kegs of inspiration supplied by the most notorious tavern on Tatooine. And while the Cinefamily assemblage sticks close to period content, a few prime selections of more recent vintage, such as the Sid Lee agency’s 2010 Adidas Originals World Cup promo featuring Daft Punk and Snoop Dogg, are worthy additions.

As an unauthorized work, “Star Wars Nothing But Star Wars” also takes perverse joy in drawing on the sleazy, seedy, and lurid adaptations of the mythology, which unsurprisingly go hand in velvet glove with the disco-era vibes of outwardly wholesome tributes like the spectacular episode of “Donny and Marie” in which the Osmond siblings (as Leia and Luke, presciently) interact with Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, Redd Foxx as Obi-Wan, and Paul Lynde as Darth Vader. The family-friendly atmosphere of innocence cultivated by Lucas on the big screen collapsed almost instantly, and Cinefamily has the pornography to prove it. “Star Babe,” the inaugural “sexual space fantasy” homage, kicked off a long line of lewd cash-grabs, but “Star Wars Nothing But Star Wars” adroitly includes “The Empire Strikes Back” outtakes in which the farmboy and the princess move in for a romantic (almost?) kiss long before a major act of retroactive continuity would cast them as siblings.     

Alongside Luke and Leia’s scuttled ecstasy, the document uncorks a trove of completed and semi-completed scenes that never made it to the final prints. Devotees have previously studied the early looks at Luke interacting with Biggs (and Koo Stark’s dismissive Camie) and the awkward wampa attack inside the Rebel base on Hoth, but these cutting room artifacts are — in their stilted, pace-killing roughness — ideal corresponding partners to the incredible homemade tributes, like Itami Rose’s beautiful interpretation, that, in the wonderful galaxy of remix culture, would pave the way for marvels like the “Star Wars Uncut” project.  

Everything, Everything

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Everything, Everything”

Planted squarely in the heart of YA-adapted teen fantasy, Stella Meghie’s film of Nicola Yoon’s 2015 novel “Everything, Everything” doesn’t always capitalize on its absolutely bananas premise, but logs excellent mileage from charming lead Amandla Stenberg. Following in the contaminant-free footsteps of “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and “Crystal Heart” (but not so much “Bubble Boy”), the story follows Maddy Whittier, confined for 18 years to the sealed safety of her protective physician mother’s (Anika Noni Rose) designer home. Diagnosed with SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency), the rare genetic disorder made famous in part by Ted DeVita and David Vetter, Maddy falls for boy-next-door Olly Bright (Nick Robinson), and decides to risk her life for her new love.

The cases of DeVita and Vetter, which inspired Randal Kleiser’s made-for-TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” fueled popular interest via the medical ethics and built-in pathos of children who could not experience one of the most basic human expressions: skin-to-skin contact with their own family members. Maddy’s circumstances are less severe, as she spends time in face-to-face proximity with both her mother and her longtime nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera). Meghie, working from a screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe, filters the viewing experience through Maddy’s eyes, coming up with some visually appealing ways to supplement the text balloons that commonly convey contemporary communication in cinema.

“Everything, Everything” is not the sort of exercise that holds up under close scrutiny, and those viewers preoccupied with logic over lovemaking will come away disappointed. For example, Maddy’s compliant and well-adjusted attitude incongruously clashes with her curiosity about the world and her place in it. She verbally cites internet access as a balm, but given the wealth and resources at her mom’s disposal, one might imagine that a desire to explore the world outside would have at least inspired some mother-daughter conversation about ways to make that happen (the presence of a fantasized astronaut alludes to the space suits worn by DeVita and Vetter when they ventured outside their “bubbles”).

And even if the acquisition of a credit card is easy, Maddy’s reckless flight to Hawaii would require state-issued identification, something Maddy lacks (as pointed out by Susan Wloszczyna) if, as emphasized, she has never left the house. The potentially predictable twist that Maddy does not, in fact, truly have SCID but has been cruelly imprisoned by her unstable mom is the bombshell that rips the largest hole in the tale’s credulity — not because it lies outside the realm of possibility but because the film seemingly can’t be bothered to develop Rose’s Dr. Pauline Whittier as a complex and complete character.

In spite of the lapses, “Everything, Everything” effectively navigates the romance at its rapidly beating heart. Stenberg and Robinson flirt and kiss and communicate and show concern for one another with the earnest intensity of a thousand true-blue TV couples, making the most of lines like “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside” and “My life is better with you in it.” From “Love Story” to “A Walk to Remember” to the more recent “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Space Between Us,” the familiar contours and durability of the illness and/or health-risk meet-cute genre finds no shortage of contestants, but the presence of the progressive Stenberg, a self-described intersectional feminist, brings to “Everything, Everything” a welcome blast of fresh air.   

Colossal

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Colossal,” Nacho Vigalondo’s highest profile film to date, mashes genres with a premise so otherworldly that it nearly gets away with its distressing supply of missed opportunities. The gonzo suggestion that the actions of a giant monster looming over Seoul, South Korea are directly, psychologically linked to an American alcoholic will attract curiosity seekers. Others will be intrigued by the presence of Anne Hathaway in the lead role of Gloria, whose booze-soaked irresponsibility finally drives boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) to boot her from the New York City apartment they share.  

Gloria retreats to the small hometown of her childhood, seeking refuge from her messy personal crisis in a vacant family house. She soon encounters childhood pal Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a bar owner who offers Gloria a job at his tavern. Despite, or perhaps because of, the proximity to liquor, Gloria accepts. Oscar’s romantic interest in Gloria is not reciprocated, and she takes an interest in Oscar’s friend Joel (Austin Stowell), another regular who hangs out with mutual buddy Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). While Vigalondo fills in the blanks of the interpersonal relationships, a much weirder drama unfolds in the foreground.  

Reappearing a quarter century after its initial sighting, a strange creature towers over the urban cityscape thousands of miles from Gloria, materializing out of thin air during a precise time window. It dawns on her that the kaiju, somehow, mirrors her movements within the boundaries of a local playground. She confides the unbelievable truth in Oscar and her new friends, and Oscar figures out that he, too, can get in on the action as the controller, ala “Pacific Rim”-style “drifting,” of a giant robot. Richard Brody generously maintains that “Colossal” is “a gender-centered trauma involving the physical force exerted by males (of any age) against females,” but Vigalondo’s preoccupation with the rules of his game limit that exploration.    

Working from his own screenplay, Vigalondo sustains an air of believability through the combined efforts of the play-it-straight ensemble and the solid special effects. “Colossal” falters, however, in several lapses related to the demands invited by Vigalondo’s foray into magic realism. Gloria only superficially accepts that she personally caused the deaths of hundreds of innocents, and Vigalondo fails to convey a level of guilt, shame, horror, and revulsion that would deepen and intensify the character (not to mention anything close to a passing thought that someone, for good or ill, might reach out to the police, or a scientist).

One of the primary features of the Japanese “strange beast” genre is that the kaiju can be protagonist or antagonist, and Vigalondo flirts with the relative good/evil perception of the monster and the robot. But given the film’s tone, how should we wrestle with the massive-scale death and destruction wrought by Gloria and Oscar? Cinematically speaking, we are conditioned not to think about such things. Dan Rubey, writing about “Star Wars,” noted, “…Obi-Wan Kenobi’s brief attack of heartburn does not convince us that something tragic has happened. We do not experience the deaths of the people on [Alderaan], and thus those people do not exist in the film.”

Rubey goes on to argue that the explosions of Alderaan and the Death Star are presented in such a way that the viewer is invited to enjoy them aesthetically. The recent critique of Brian Williams for his unironic application of a Leonard Cohen lyric to describe the April airstrike in Syria by the U.S. military as “beautiful” is another example of Rubey’s concept of the “abstract and generalized” romanticizing of mayhem. One could claim that certain genre films deliberately obscure the costs of battle — the post-9/11 depictions of rolling dust clouds and collapsing buildings in superhero movies, for example, provide a bounty of case studies.

The Dinner

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Immediately following the dizzy, frightening, ambiguous, disorienting final scene of Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner,” which ends with a character saying “I love you” and a cut to black, the credits roll while Savages’ “Fuckers” nails the prevailing mood on the soundtrack. Jehnny Beth sings, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down, don’t let them wonder why you frown,” as the audience stumbles into the light, hopefully to do a good deed or maybe take a shower. The song perfectly complements the movie’s satirical portrait of topics ranging from white privilege to sibling rivalry to mental illness to the sometimes grotesque blind spots of parents for the sins of their children.  

“The Dinner” was at one point planned as Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut. Based on the novel by Herman Koch (which has already been filmed twice), Moverman adapted the screenplay and ended up at the helm. He enlists a talented ensemble to explore the morals and ethics swirling around the aftermath of a horrific crime: do the wealthy and powerful parents of teenage boys responsible for a ghastly homicide conceal it or face the consequences and pursue a path of transparency and answerability?

The grown-ups, such as they are, include brothers Paul (Steve Coogan) and Stan (Richard Gere), Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul, a onetime high school teacher of history whose debilitating emotional struggles appear to be compounded by Stan’s successful political career, will take center stage as the group meets at a chic and expensive restaurant to strategize. Stan, a congressman running for governor, surprisingly emerges as the voice of reason and honesty, an irony not lost on many viewers (and Moverman himself) quick to draw parallels between the timing of the film and the blatant dishonesty and chicanery of the Trump administration.   

Moverman gets away from the restaurant in a series of flashbacks. In one, Paul and Stan argue and clash in and around the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the director draws on Stephen Lang-narrated audio excerpts and eerily shot imagery that subjectively intensify Paul’s rapid deterioration. Paul’s poisonous classroom monologues, also on the topic of the Civil War, are less effective. Some have read the Gettysburg interlude as a rather broad metaphor framing fraternal discord, but “The Dinner” also hints at the legacy of slavery in America. Unfortunately, the racist insults inflicted on Stan’s adopted son Beau (Miles J. Harvey) by members of his own family are not deeply investigated.

The mysterious conclusion of the film indicates a deliberate open-endedness meant to provoke thought, but the most damaging flaw of “The Dinner” resides in the enigmatic portrayal of the male cousins before, during, and after the murder. The boys remain unknowable, unreachable, and, in the case of Paul and Claire’s son Michael (Charlie Plummer), frighteningly immoral. Claire’s unwavering support of her boy is more chilling as a result, and Linney — as usual — is tremendous. Each member of the principal cast feasts on juicy moments, and supporting work by the reliably excellent Adepero Oduye as Stan’s aide and Michael Chernus as the restaurant’s lead staffer, elevates the bleakly comedic aspects of the story. The latter’s hilarious running commentary on the farm-to-table/French cuisine mash-up menu items fully exploits the decadence of the rich. When presenting a cheese course, Chernus brags about the previously FDA-quarantined Mimolette, crowing, “But we have it for you tonight.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

In the sequel, the franchise, and the series, the dialectical tension pitting familiarity against novelty challenges the storyteller to thread the eye of the needle. “Is it is good as the first one?” is, unsurprisingly, the question that drives conversation. In “The Myth of Superman,” Umberto Eco recognizes a parallel conundrum for the mythological figure: the “emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable” versus the change and development associated with novelistic characters. Director James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” like its predecessor, is plenty entertaining and will get better with repeat views. It isn’t perfect, but neither was the first.

The cinematic incarnation of “Guardians,” like so much post-1977 space fantasy on the big screen, owes much to “Star Wars,” and at least one of the trailers for “Vol. 2” revealed that Kurt Russell would arrive as Peter “Star-Lord” Quinn’s long-missing father. It was a short leap, then, to imagine that Papa Ego would pull a Darth Vader-style dick move akin to “Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” That bad dad/lost parent plot, enhanced via Star-Lord’s status as a man-god, pads the generous running time. The secondary stories, including the impending disappointment of the Sam Malone/Diane Chambers romance between Gamora and Peter and the bluntness of a more mirthful Drax as he figures out empath Mantis, unfold while Star-Lord chooses between his two families.   

Rocket and Groot separate from the other Guardians to keep an eye on Nebula, another whisper of “The Empire Strikes Back” tactic of splitting up the team. Baby Groot basks in the “Awww!” goodwill of our inner dendrologist, but “Vol. 2” belongs heart and soul to the indispensable Michael Rooker. Rooker’s Yondu Udonta, who made off with all his scenes in the first “Guardians,” steals another complete set here. A more bitter than sweet pity, then, that the rich expansion of Yondu and his emergent largesse comes at the expense of his life in a neatly parallel-structured heroic sacrifice.            

In my review of the inaugural “Guardians,” I complained about the relegation of Gamora to Smurfette status and the film’s overwhelmingly masculinist constitution and point of view. One of the sequel’s improvements is the psychological and emotional exploration of the sibling relationship between Gamora and Nebula. The scenes Zoe Saldana shares with Karen Gillan are much better and more satisfying than the character’s ongoing deflections of Quill’s lower-stakes flirting. With a third round guaranteed, Gunn will hopefully provide Gamora with a level of agency worthy of Saldana’s talent.

Because we anticipate them, Gunn’s other “Guardians” hallmarks, from the ongoing additions to the “Awesome Mix” (love the Zune gag) to the 80s pop culture references to the wiggy cameos, aren’t quite as fresh this time around, but they form — along with Howard the Duck and Stan Lee’s audience with the Watchers — the combination of broad appeal and geek insider status that serves multiple constituencies. The onscreen deconstruction of the lyrics of a pop song, even “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” is like dancing about architecture, but Russell’s Ego the Living Planet clearly doesn’t know any better.  

Casting JonBenet

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Available to view on Netflix beginning April 28, Kitty Green’s challenging, fascinating, and unnerving documentary feature “Casting JonBenet” is one of the best films of the year. Ostensibly about the ongoing fascination and morbid curiosity surrounding the 1996 murder case referenced in the film’s title, Green’s conceit is to populate her study with actors — almost entirely locals and wannabes from the areas surrounding the Ramsey family’s Boulder, Colorado home — auditioning for roles in what appears to be another fictionalized, made-for-TV true-crime drama. Green, however, is more ambitious and more expansive than the instantly lurid associations conjured by the tabloid-fuel topic would suggest.

It turns out that the taped audition interviews are the main event for the show business hopefuls, who candidly talk about their own difficult personal experiences with a degree of openness that soon alters our assumptions about the twisted public “ownership” of various scandals, felonies, and transgressions. In other words, it can be thoughtlessly, effortlessly easy for any of us to speculate about the details of a case when that information is treated like entertainment. Green’s subjects represent the entire range of opinion regarding possible culprits in the unsolved killing, but the filmmaker miraculously succeeds in humanizing JonBenet’s death via the disclosures made by this cohort of strangers.  

“Casting JonBenet” says much about the frustrations of truth-seeking, and the tremendous editing by Davis Coombe shrewdly juxtaposes statements of auditionees convinced of a given suspect’s guilt against the sincere beliefs of competitors equally convinced of that same suspect’s innocence. Some of those seeking to play one of the family members (Patsy Ramsey, John Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, and JonBenet Ramsey) or one of the other faces (the police chief, Santa Claus, or false confessor John Mark Karr) affiliated with the sprawling investigation convey self-delusion bordering the ridiculous, and Green does not shy from comic asides.

Green used the same unusual approach to nonfiction exploration in her 2015 short “The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul,” and considering the success of “Casting JonBenet,” one imagines that the filmmaker could log plenty of mileage with the device as applied to other cultural/pop-cultural figures. The application of inventive storytelling techniques in the realm of the documentary aligns “Casting JonBenet” with an entire range of titles that experiment to varying degrees with the boundaries of the form (possibly inviting re-visits of mind-blowing stuff like “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” “My Winnipeg,” “The Arbor,” “The Act of Killing,” “Tower,” and so on).

The absence of closure to the JonBenet tragedy, driven by a number of the crime’s circumstances and features, continues to inspire a cycle of books, interviews, defamation lawsuits, and television and film productions. And even though many salacious aspects are revisited by Green through the people seeking parts in her film, from the unusually lengthy ransom note and oddly specific monetary demands to the sexualization of preteen beauty pageant contestants, the filmmaker is not interested in constructing another conventional account of the Ramsey saga. It is impossible to argue that Green has closed the book on JonBenet. More likely, she has reclaimed some small bit of compassion from the remnants of what disappeared following two decades of wild speculation and unqualified judgments.

Tower

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Now on Netflix instant watch and not to be missed is director Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” one of the most memorable and gripping films of 2016. Carefully, even meticulously, constructing a moment-by-moment chronological account of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin murders committed by Charles Whitman from the observation deck of the Main Building, Maitland’s film relies on the use of interpretive performance and rotoscope animation — two fairly unorthodox stylistic choices in nonfiction. The approach, however, is a spellbinding display of fully human reactions to what was at the time a virtually unthinkable, unfathomable action.

Maitland focuses on those directly involved in Whitman’s crime, developing for the viewer a sense of deep identification with lawmen, casualties, and first responders. The director also deliberately avoids any psychological profiling of Whitman as deranged and monstrous antagonist, positioning the sniper behind the distant reports from his rifle that registered to witnesses as puffs of smoke along the tower’s ledge. That decision both honors the innocent people caught in the assassin’s crosshairs and heightens the sense of urgency and immediacy of the date by sharing with the audience a sense of the confusion, panic, and uncertainty that gripped the campus.   

Although she was not Whitman’s initial victim, 18-year-old Claire Wilson was the first person shot from the tower. Wilson, who lost both her unborn son and her boyfriend Thomas Eckman to the killer’s bullets, could not move from the hot sidewalk where she fell, and Maitland uses her story as a key to understanding the astonishingly selfless displays of courage shown by strangers during the terrifying ordeal. Rita Starpattern, who happened upon the scene and stayed on the ground next to Wilson, held her hand and shared encouragement until John “Artly” Fox and James Love put themselves in harm’s way to move Wilson to safety.

Maitland eventually reveals, in direct, close-up portraits, the subjects previously portrayed by actors in the animated reconstructions. These moments — effectively withheld for maximum impact — are startlingly concrete. Bridging past and present, the revelations and reunions cathartically pulsate as we watch the older versions of the fated cohort traverse time itself. Wilson and Fox, Aleck Hernandez Jr., officers Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy, along with several others, are given the opportunity to share with us, and in some cases, each other, thoughts that might otherwise have gone unexpressed.   

“Tower” is based partly on executive producer Pamela Colloff’s 2006 “Texas Monthly” oral history “96 Minutes,” and if there is anything missing from the film experience, it is the necessary omission of comprehensive coverage of all the day’s details (more than a dozen were killed and more than 30 were injured). But Maitland, like Ari Folman in “Waltz with Bashir” and others, has explored the ways in which we might arrive at truth. “Tower” expands the vocabulary we can use when thinking about the presentation of fact-based content in the movies.

In a valuable essay, Nea Ehrlich wrote about animation and the nonfiction film, saying of “Waltz with Bashir,” “Despite its stylized imagery, the film clearly signifies recognizable references that could not be documented otherwise. By referring to personal views of reality and memories, the non-mimetic imagery does not diminish the truth value of the film’s documentation because it refers to aspects of reality that cannot be directly indexed as they do not physically exist.” Ehrlich could just as easily have been writing about “Tower.”