Monday, June 30, 2014

Bronx Obama [film review]

As Barack Obama's profile rapidly ascended during the 2008 presidential primaries, a bartender in an establishment frequented by Louis Ortiz commented on his striking resemblance to the politician, right down to the prominent size of their ears. The middle-aged Ortiz didn't see it until he shaved his goatee one day, at which point the widowed single father of a teenager (in a fitting moment of optimism-based symmetry) felt stirred by something that had been in short supply since being laid off from his phone company job a year prior - hope. Filmmaker Ryan Murdock saw the potential in Ortiz's engaging story as an Obama impersonator, first presenting it as a radio feature on NPR's This American Life, then as a New York Times short film, and now as his feature length debut, Bronx Obama. As a likeable underdog thrust into an unlikely and challenging situation, Ortiz makes a highly ideal documentary protagonist.

Ortiz's new career starts modestly, as he competes with the costumed characters in Times Square for tourist tips and makes appearances in rap videos, on HBO's Flight Of The Conchords, and in some commercials and a low-rent film in Asia. Eager to improve the overall pedigree of his gigs, Ortiz signs with a talent manager and steps his game up, evolving from a mere Obama look-alike to a full-on Obama impersonator capable of believably emulating the now-President's gestures and voice (losing his heavy Bronx accent proves to be particularly challenging for the Puerto Rican), as well as honing his acting and comedic skills. The manager, a nasty piece of work named Dustin Gold, produces effective results in improving Ortiz's mimicking abilities, but they come as a result of demanding expectations and some oftentimes downright abusive behaviour. Gold enlists Ortiz, along with Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney impersonators, to perform satirical routines at Republican functions during the 2012 election season, where the grind of travelling and Ortiz's discomfort with the humiliating (and borderline racist) material begin to take their toll. Not unexpectedly, a film that's centred around one man's experience impersonating another person eventually crosses an identity crisis threshold, as Ortiz wearily complains "I miss being myself" right before the 2012 election. Along with his sense of self, another casualty of Ortiz's demanding work is his ability to properly parent only daughter Raina, a talented basketball player who Ortiz has to send to live with her grandparents in Florida (Raina's mother died during her childhood). The sweet father-daughter relationship provides a firm secondary layer to Bronx Obama that significantly strengthens the viewer's investment in Ortiz's struggle.

Ortiz's charmingly wiseass sense of humour and the bizarre nature of his work that provides many moments of visual-based amusement (such as Ortiz-as-Obama riding the New York subway, buying a lottery ticket in a bodega, or performing at a music event with Nelson Mandela and Bono impersonators) instill Bronx Obama with a predominantly light tone, but Murdock's delightful film also delivers some thoughtful rumination on the ailing condition of the American dream.

Rating: B

Monday, June 23, 2014

Love & Terror On The Howling Plains Of Nowhere [film review]

The ingredients of Love Terror On The Howling Plains Of Nowhere sound like they've been plucked from a Bruce Springsteen song or a David Lynch movie, as the film delves into the mysterious death of a loner in a remote American midwest town (Chadron, Nebraska), the quirky personalities who populate it, and the eccentric writer documenting it all. Director Dave Jannetta based his film on the 2013 book of the same name from author Poe Ballantine (real name Ed Hughes), a Chadron resident.

The core of the film is formed by the 2006 death of mathematics professor Steven Haataja, who disappeared a few months after taking a job at Chadron's local college. 95 days after last being seen, Haataja's charred body was found tied to a tree on a nearby ranch and while the evidence seems to point to it being a homicide, too many unanswered questions result in a case that remains unsolved to this day. The murder(?) mystery, made more compelling by some shoddy police work and speculations of suicide after revelations of Haataja's history of depression come out, fuels the intrigue of the residents of the quiet town of 5,600. A number of them weigh in with their wide-ranging theories on the case and brief remembrances of Haataja and it's these interviews that really elevate the quality of Love Terror… Jannetta strikes cinematic gold here with one colourful interview subject after another. One, a former detective who worked on the investigation, surprisingly admits to being the case's most likely suspect, while another disgustingly asserts that "If it had been a fucking football coach who disappeared, they would've called in the National Guard". The third component of Love Terror… comes from its significant time spent with Ballantine, who spent six years researching the case for his book. The writer possesses an idiosyncratic charm that fits right in with the documentary's gallery of oddballs, and his philosophical ponderings and recollections from his life never fail to fascinate (like Haataja, Ballantine also struggled at times with severe depression). Ballantine also acts as a sort of tour guide (albeit speculatively) through Haataja's last moments alive, helpfully retracing the likely routes the professor would have had to take to his final destination.

Although its central focus is quite dark, Jannetta and Ballantine add a surprisingly lighthearted and humorous touch to Love Terror…, which is unlike any other documentary I've ever seen. The mixture of these two elements may make some viewers uncomfortable (I was a little), but the end result is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing film that never disrespects Haataja's memory (it should be noted that Haataja's family declined to be interviewed for the film and was opposed to its making). 

Rating: A-

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger [film review]

Documentarian Joe Berlinger wasn't kidding when he described his latest project as the most dense film he'd ever done during the pre-screening introduction for Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger. Berlinger (best known for co-directing the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster) turns his camera this time to James "Whitey" Bulger, the Boston mob boss who terrorized the city during the 70s, 80s, and 90s with impunity from prosecution before going into hiding for 16 years until his 2011 capture in California at the age of 81. For years, Bulger was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the F.B.I.'s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and he inspired Jack Nicholson's vicious character in Martin Scorsese's 2006 movie, The Departed. Whitey… is a film that demands rapt attention from its viewers, with an avalanche of information being disseminated amidst the complex twists and turns that the documentary takes. 

Bulger's crimes that included drug trafficking, extortion, racketeering, loan-sharking, and murder, along with the 2013 trial for them, are the focal point of Whitey… (curiously, his lengthy time on the lam and eventual capture are barely mentioned). Bulger was implicated in 19 murders and ultimately found guilty of being involved in 11 killings, with a total conviction count of 31 that landed him two life sentences, plus five years. Berlinger was barred from interviewing Bulger, so snippets of a phone conversation between the criminal and his lawyer are interspersed throughout the film, although they add little to the proceedings. The documentary is teeming with interviews from retired cops and F.B.I. agents, ex-wise guys, lawyers, reporters, and the South Boston victims' family members. The latter conversations are particularly impactful, as Bulger's acts of brutality take on added dimension via the permanent psychological toll evident on the faces of the people whose lives he destroyed decades ago. There's also a subplot involving one of Bulger's alleged extortion victims, Stephen Rakes, that takes an especially bizarre turn. Berlinger's examination of Bulger's life and crimes inevitably leads to Whitey… taking on a wider scope that finds the filmmaker also probing the corruption that permeated federal and state law enforcement agencies during the decades that Bulger operated at the peak of his criminal power. Called into question is whether Bulger, who is currently preparing an appeal of his conviction, acted as an informant for the F.B.I. in exchange for immunity from his law-breaking, an assertion he firmly denies. The evidence suggests otherwise and one of the film's biggest questions is just how complicit was the government in allowing Bulger to carry out his litany of crimes?       

Berlinger wisely adopts an impartial stance on his notorious subject, resulting in a more comprehensive and challenging film that cements his status as an unmatched purveyor of first-rate contemporary true-crime documentary filmmaking. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning director was recently in contact with Johnny Depp, who requested a copy of Whitey… in preparation for his upcoming role as Bulger in next year's Black Mass. Another drama on Bulger has also been in development by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the past couple of years. 

Rating: A-    

Friday, June 13, 2014

Alfred & Jakobine [film review]

After meeting and falling in love in Japan in 1955, American Alfred Hobbs and Danish artist Jakobine Schou impulsively married, with their mutually adventurous spirits taking them to Casablanca shortly thereafter. Here, the newlyweds purchased a beat-up London taxi built in 1934 and spent the next four years driving it on an epic global road trip, where the couple's passion for each other never waned and their exploits brought them minor celebrity. When their journey was over, Alfred and Jakobine (pronounced "Yauk-o-beena") set down roots in New York state. Not long after, Alfred unexpectedly walked out on Jakobine, leaving her shattered. The couple reconnected at a party a few years later, conceived a son, and Alfred soon exited Jakobine's life once again. 40 years later, an 84-year-old Alfred confronting his mortality decides to fix up that same taxi, travel across America with the son he's never really known, and surprise the woman who's heart he broke by offering her "one last ride", as he describes it.

Alfred & Jakobine directors Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts are the benefactors of this rich source material and have produced a reflective and moving film about the beauty and pain of love. The filmmakers entwine the past and present with an effective balance of first-person recollections and visual aids (taken from the couple's archives made up of 3,000 photographs and numerous hours of their well-crafted 8 mm and 16 mm film footage), and the documenting of both the difficult restoration process of the taxi and the 2,400 mile trip in September 2009 that Alfred and his son Niels took in it from Taos, New Mexico to Jakobine's home in Oneida, New York. Adding to the intrigue encompassing the modern-day trip are the distant relationship between Niels and Alfred, the arduous toll of the trek upon their delicate vehicle, and the fact the unsuspecting Jakobine (who appears to have never gotten over Alfred) has been happily remarried for decades to a likeable chap named Rusty, who actually helped coordinate the reunion. 

Alfred & Jakobine's only real fault is that it doesn't go deeply enough into the many fascinating layers of this story due to the all-too-brief 73-minute running time (presumably due to business considerations involving running times for theatrical screenings and television broadcast, not creative reasons). Specifically, Alfred's mysterious reason for leaving Jakobine never feels explained to satisfaction and the scenes involving the Taos-to-Oneida journey seem scant in comparison to the four weeks it took to complete the trip. Additionally, the lack of stories involving Alfred and Jakobine's adventures in the 50s is disappointing. The film's press kit references one story not included in the documentary that found them "captured by armed guerrillas in (Africa's) Atlas Mountains and being thrown into a desert prison, where they thought they would most certainly die". It's a testament to Alfred & Jakobine's core appeal, however, that a compelling narrative such as this could end up excised from the final cut and the film still has plenty of proverbial meat on the bone. Hopefully, the documentary's future DVD/Blu-ray release allows for a more in-depth presentation. Brevity aside, Alfred & Jakobine proves to be a touching charmer. 

Rating: A