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"Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art" Review

To paraphrase the Blur album title, modern art is rubbish. Post-modernism's war against truth and beauty has led to mountains of junk called "art" by elitist snobs where more effort goes into the titling and description card that hangs next to this claptrap explaining why some mess that could have been made by a brain-damaged wallaby on a meth jag represents abuse or systemic racism or the evils of late-stage capitalism. It's a scam and ugly. Go to a museum and look at works painted prior to the 20th Century when skill and technique were required and compare to current nonsense.

In fact, let me help you. This is Caravaggio's "The Calling of Saint Matthew":

And this is Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 70":


Now that we've established that I have a rightfully low opinion of modern art, let's talk about Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, a fast-paced documentary about how a bunch of super-wealthy elites paid millions for forged Abstract Expressionist (AbEx to the art snobs) paintings supposedly from Jackson "Expensive Drop Cloths My Specialty" Pollock and Mark "Rectangles Are Me" Rothko among other creators of sloppy claptrap that snooty doofuses chin-stroke over the energy of all that oily-black paint splattered all over a canvas. (Something about fools and money applies here.)

The tale starts in 1995 at New York City's oldest art shop, the Knoedler Gallery, which was in operation well prior to the Civil War, and the arrival of a woman named Glafir Rosales who claimed to represent an anonymous Mexican art collector who had come to America in the 1950s and bought tons of AbEx pieces on the cheap from the artists, but was looking to sell them. Starting with a Rothko (the rectangles guy) bought by the gallery's director, Ann Freedman, for the fire sale price of $750,000, eventually auctioning for $5.5 million. 

While the painting and the dozens more Rosales brought in over the next decade lacked the usual provenances, they were examined by numerous experts who deemed them authentic works of their respective artists. Eventually suspicions over the sheer quantity of supposedly unknown works - some of these artists like Pollock were extensively documented at work, yet none of these painting showed up lurking in the backgrounds of their studios - led to closer examination of the paintings and their eventual exposure which led to Freedman's resignation in disgrace ahead of the gallery's closing in 2011.

Beyond the absurd amounts of money for ugly paintings, the central question is how could such a scandal have occurred. Why didn't Freedman realize that how unlikely it is for so many paintings to come out of nowhere? One, two, even a dozen, perhaps; but over 60 works which sold for over $70M passed through her hands with her buying wildly below their auction value and flipping at great profit. As one talking head says, “Either she was complicit in it, or she was one of the stupidest people to have worked at an art gallery.” While it may seem judgemental, it's a question begging asking. Eventually one well-heeled victim sued and it went to trial forcing those who had authenticated the forgeries to explain how they'd blown it. The doc also hints that the trafficking was known to the gallery's owner, Michael Hammer (father of actor and cannibal wannabe Armie), who used the proceeds to keep the gallery solvent.

 As for where Rosales and her Spanish grifter boyfriend who used her as the face of the scam got the paintings, the answer is a Chinese national math professor who lived modestly in Queens. He'd come to America to pursue an art career, but when that didn't work out, he took to making fakes for his own amusement. In China, art reproduction is considered legit work and we're shown operations cranking out duplicates. When the scandal broke, he fled back to China (where he wouldn't be extradited), and refused to participate in the doc. While he's probably the least culpable in this fraud, it would've been nice to hear his story.

 Made You Look is of a piece with previous art docs like Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? (about a lower-class woman who found a Pollock painting in a thrift store, but the snooty art world refused to accept it) and My Kid Could Paint That (4-year-old girl becomes art world phenom until it's learned her father is the actual painter) - both of which my DVD reviews have disappeared online, darn it - where the hype and sophistry surrounding modern "art" makes one question whether the art itself is the point or it's just a elite intellectual class thing?

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Monster Hunter" 4K Review

 I've been calling for an end to Christopher Nolan's career for some time now. It doesn't matter that up through Inception everything he made was very good to excellent (scores in the 7-9/10 range); in the ensuing decade he has made four stinkers - The Dark Knight Reloaded (4/10), Intersuckular (2/10), Dumbkirk (4/10), and simply abysmal Tenet (1/10) - and you can only grade on a curve because The Dark Knight rocked for so long. He's become too insulated from reality and, no, that Dumbkirk was Oscar nominated and the movies make money doesn't change the objective fact that they're bad movies and Nolan has lost the plot.

But at least for the first half of his career he made a string of quality movies. (He's like Rob Reiner, who racked up a string of top-flight films, then made North - which Roger Ebert infamously said in his review, "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it." - then never made another good movie again.) Maybe he'll come back like M. Night Shyamalan did for a moment before disappearing up his ass again. I'm not confident. 

But what explains the continuing career of Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with the overrated Paul Thomas Anderson of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood)? He's directed 13 films and with a few scattered exceptions - the flawed-but-very good Event Horizon; perhaps the first Resident Evil; the 2008 Death Race was kinda fun; I know there's affection for his 1995 Mortal Kombat take - he has made some gawdawful trash, pretty much wrecking the career of his wife and frequent star Milla Jovovich. (In comparison, Hollywood only allowed Renny Harlin and Geena Davis to pair up twice, but The Long Kiss Goodnight was good. Come on, Milla, you used to be married to Luc Besson. Can't you tell the difference?)

 Despite cratering the Resident Evil franchise with the increasingly bad final three entries, Anderson is back wrecking another Capcom video game franchise with his adaptation of Monster Hunter, which is about...wait for it....hunting monsters. Yeah. It's deep.

Jovovich stars as Capt. Artemis - which anyone who saw Ready Player One recognizes as the Goddess of the Hunt which immediately alerts us as to how profound this movie is going to be (i.e. not profound) - who is in an unnamed desert with her squad of red shirts searching for a missing squad whose tracks simply end. When a big CGI storm swoops in like a discount version of Mad Max: Fury Road, they attempt to flee but when passing some stones with ancient markings on them, lightning strikes and they are transported to another desert of white dunes. They rapidly realize they're not in desert Kansas anymore when a big monster which can swim through the sand attacks their vehicles.

The survivors manage to make it to a rocky area with caves preventing it from following them, but are immediately beset upon by giant crab-spider looking things who manage to kill everyone in the squad except Artemis because they weren't married to the director. Womp womp! Soon she meets the Hunter (Tony Jaa), whom she initially fights because they can't communicate, but eventually forges an alliance with because he appears to know how to fight these monsters and she's only alive because it's been a day and she's married to the director. 

After the obligatory training montage to teach her how to use this world's weapons, they tag-team the monster - called a Diablos because even trying for a slightly original name would've been too much work (if it's from the game, hold your comments; don't care) - and then set off for a dark tower on the horizon (similar to the dark tower from the Dark Tower movie) which may have the means to return her home. Along the way they encounter an oasis with the sailing ship (reminiscent of Soul, but not a ripoff) we saw the Hunter fall off of in the prologue, captained by Ron Perlman, sporting a wig that makes him look like a grown-up Feral Kid from The Road Warrior, and speaking English because he decided to study the people being sucked through the portal stones, because that's how you learn English when there's no TV, I suppose.

 The rushed third act consists of Artemis and her new pals fighting to get her into one of the unstable portals to transport her back. Do any monsters follow her through and attack the military which comes to rescue her instantly? (Duh, it's in the trailer.) Luckily, Jaa and Perlman show up in time to help her and protect our world because SEQUEL, amirite? Pffft. 

I didn't go into Monster Hunter with any expectations of quality. The last chapter of the RE series, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, was terrible even by the sinking standards of its predecessors, with spastic choppy editing that turned action scenes into incoherent noise. Anderson deploys the same meth addict aesthetic here as well, even during quiet scenes. At one point they encounter a mass of wrecked ships in the desert which was clearly practically built as a real set, but rather than allowing the viewer to appreciate the effort during a break in the action, it's cut-cut-cut-cut-cut-cut like Michael Bay at triple-speed.

 There's little else to discuss here. There are no characters - Artemis is a tough chick who has a wedding ring engraved "Forever" in a tin box in her pocket that we never learn about; the Hunter prays to a pair of small totems representing a dead wife and child; Perlman is Perlman - the action is adequate, the visual effects are mostly sufficient. There are monsters that are hunting and hunted....Monster Hunter.

The 4K presentation is bland. There aren't many colors that benefit and the dynamic range is OK, but nothing you'd demo your home theater with, much less watch a second time.

Score: 2/10. Skip it.

"Coming To America" Review

 The trend of incredibly belated sequels like Blade Runner 2049 (which came out 35 years after the original) continues next month with the release of Coming 2 America, the sequel to 1988 Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming To America, on Amazon Prime after its theatrical release was nuked by Hot Fad Plague 2020-21. I haven't seen the original entirely since it was in theaters, but a former co-worker (who suddenly passed away a year ago; I miss him) and I used to quote bits of the movie, especially the old Jewish man (also played by Murphy under Rick Baker's Oscar-nominated makeup) who hung out at the barbershop. 

Since the missus hadn't seen it and it had been 33 years for me, we decided to catch up on the original. She quickly fell asleep because, as I'm finding distressingly often lately, this comedy "classic" simply doesn't hold up beyond the parts people remember so fondly. It's similar to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which was never a great movie, but is really thin stuff now. (That it's sequels actually were significantly better bucks trends.) 

For the kids out there, Coming To America was the story of Akeem (Murphy), the crown prince of Zamunda (the fictional African country that's not Wakanda), who lives a life of ridiculous luxury, having even the most intimate personal hygiene performed by servants. On his 21st birthday, he is presented the woman whom it has been arranged for him to marry by his father, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones. Bored and disenchanted with his pampered life and not interested in marrying a woman who has no will of her own, having been raised to only serve her future husband, he begs his father to allow him to travel to America for 40 days. King, thinking it's just a Rumspringa-style break to "sow his Royal oats," approves.

Accompanied by his best friend and aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem decides the best place to find a Queen of his own would be Queens, New York City. He requests the cab driver take him to the most common area of the borough and ends up in a rough neighborhood where their mountain of luggage is promptly stolen by the locals the moment their backs are turned. Posing as students, they move into a squalid apartment with a shared bathroom for the floor and set out to meet women. 

After an unsatisfactory (but amusing) tour of the clubs, Akeem and Semmi attend a local rally where Akeem spots Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), a bright, independent woman when she gives a speech. Wanting to meet her, he and Semmi take jobs at her father's McDonald's knockoff, McDowell's. Concealing his true identity and reveling in doing manual labor, something Semmi does not share Akeem's enthusiasm for, he tries to get to know Lisa, who is dating Daryl (ER's Eric La Salle), a snotty heir to the Soul Glo hair relaxer fortune, which makes him prime husband material to her father (John Amos) to the extent that he announces Daryl's engagement to Lisa at a party without bothering to let Lisa know first. 

Taken by Akeem's polite charm, Lisa starts falling for him, but the usual spanners get thrown into the works when Semmi's telegram home requesting more money sparks an intervention by King Joffe and his wife (Madge Sinclair) as they rush to America to retrieve their wayward son, blowing his cover, and causing a rift between the lovers. Don't worry, it all works out in the end; no Romeo & Juliet double suicide ending here. 

What was so surprising about revisiting Coming To America was how dreadfully dull and slow-paced it is and how completely forgettable the core plot was. What has propped it up as a "comedy classic" is all the superfluous bits involving Murphy and Hall playing alternate characters disguised under Baker's makeup from the old barbers and Jewish man at the barbershop to a reverend and mediocre R&B singer fronting the band Sexual Chocolate. That the goofy sideshow material is what endures in the collective memory is a testament to the rote story. 

The core problem with the story, beyond its shallow familiarity, is the complete lack of a character arc for Akeem. He starts the movie bored with his life and seeking to break free of tradition and then does just that. Other than changing scenery, he doesn't evolve. If he had been a spoiled brat (like the Daryl character) and angered his father who then sent him to America to learn some humility amongst the poor folks, that would've been something. Instead he's always decent and good and just needs to get a like-minded decent girl to like him, too. Murphy is charming as Akeem, but only really unleashes his talents as the makeup characters. 

Beyond the script, most of the blame lands on director John Landis' shoulders. After a streak of genuine classics - he did The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places - he never had another critical or commercial hit after the tragic accident which occurred while filming his segment of the Twilight Zone movie other than Coming To America. (While Trading Places filmed after the accident, something clearly broke in Landis and the CTA gig was a charity offering from Murphy and they butted heads during filming.) Clocking in at nearly two hours, everything drags and lacks energy. 

The sequel was directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) who last teamed with Murphy for the very entertaining Netflix biopic My Name Is Dolomite. While the premise is a head-scratcher (Akeem finds out he has a son in America, but since he never has sex with anyone in the first movie, um, whut?) and they're bringing back the barbershop guys (who looked to be at least in their 60s, so shouldn't they be dead by now?), there's not much of a bar to clear to be an improvement over the original. We'll see.

Score: 4/10. Skip it and watch the barbershop (note Cuba Gooding Jr. as the customer), Sexual Chocolate, and robbery (with Samuel L. Jackson!) scenes on YouTube.

"Romeo Is Bleeding" DVD Review

I couldn't remember much about the 1993 noir crime drama Romeo Is Bleeding other than one shot (which is one of the great foreshadowing bits in movies), that co-star Lena Olin was hot, and that it was a pretty good movie. After revisiting it for the first time in easily 20-plus years, only the first two points hold up.

 Update 5/14/2024: I finally reviewed the movie here. Different score and recommendation.

 As for DVD quality, can't recall and DVD is like VHS to me, so pass on that. Watched it in HD and that was fine looking.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Climax" Review

Unlike fellow art house film provocateur Lars Von Trier, France-based Argentinian Gaspar Noé is lesser known to all but the most left-of-the-dial cinephiles, having made only five feature films in 20 years. The only one of his films I've seen is Irreversible, his 2002 sophomore effort which most people know due to its Memento-style structure (where it begins at the end of the story and each successive scene happens chronologically before) and the notorious scenes where a man is graphically murdered with a fire extinguisher in the opening scene and where Monica Bellucci is raped in an excruciatingly long single take. It's a good movie, but rather rough stuff. 

Prior to Climax, Noé's previous film was Love, which was on Netflix at the same time as Judd Apatow's series of the same name, which surely led to some people who were looking for a light rom-com co-starring Gillian Jacobs (Brita from Community) to be confronted with a dimly-lit opening scene of unsimulated sexual activity. HBO it wasn't! (And it was theatrically presented in 3D!)

So with the introduction of who would make such a movie as Climax out of the way, here is what happens in a movie which has this as its IMDB synopsis: "French dancers gather in a remote, empty school building to rehearse on a wintry night. The all-night celebration morphs into a hallucinatory nightmare when they learn their sangria is laced with LSD."

  • A woman is seen from high above staggering through the snow before collapsing.
  • We then see a bunch of videos of people talking about their dance career aspirations filmed on a old TV screen.
  • The end credits roll in reverse off the top of the screen.
  • In an unbroken shot, all the dancers who were interviewed do a loosely-choreographed dance sequence like a line up at a rave. Lots of krumping and flailing about.
  • Afterwards they drink sangria and we get fragments of obviously improvised dialog where pairs of dancers discuss who they want to have sex with and other banal topics.
  • Then the cast members names flash on the screen in wildly formatted fonts - Noé's name appears several times - and we get another dance number shot from above which renders the spastic motions boring because all dimension is missing. Busby Berkeley this ain't!
  • Then the drugs kick in and everyone proceeds to freak out, accusing each other of being the culprit, throwing one person out in the cold, leading to people having sex or trying to kill each other, with plenty of screaming from everyone.
  • The next morning, those who aren't dead are cuddled up with whomever they paired off with.

There is actually less plot to it than the bullet points may suggest. There's some dancing, a lot of talking, then it becomes a nightmare shown in (what I've read is) a 43-minute uncut shot. (Usually there are points where you can tell they've stitch segments together (like in 1917), but here it could actually have gone down as one bonkers Steadicam move through murkily-lit hallways bathed in lurid reds and sickly greens.

The only familiar face in the cast of unknowns is Sofia Boutella (The Mummy, Atomic Blonde) who used to be a professional dancer who toured with Madonna and Rihanna before starting in movies as the knife-legged chick in Kingsman: The Secret Service. While not really the lead, she gets slightly more screentime, but is limited to mostly screaming, flailing about, and screaming some more. What a waste of an exotic beauty.

I watched this on Amazon Prime Video in four or five chunks over a couple of weeks, despite being only 90 minutes long, because there was so little point to any of it, but I still wanted to see where the heck this mess was going, which ultimately turned out to be in circles and nowhere. Even as an experimental film, it's still a self-indulgent mess. 

Score: 2/10. Skip it.

"American Animals" Review

Considering how many movies have the word "American" in their titles - American Sniper, American Splendor, American Pastoral, American Made, American Assassin, American Pie in the past two decades alone - it would be understandable to glide right past American Animals (a reference to Charles Darwin's Origins of the Species) because it doesn't even hint at what it's about, but here's why you should check it out: It's an interesting hybrid of a docudrama, caper heist flick, AND documentary.

Based on an actual incident in 2004, it's the story of art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), who takes a tour of his college's (Transylvania University, which is in Lexington, KY, not Dracula's neck of Eastern Europe), rare book collection which includes some impressive items including first editions of John James Audubon's The Birds of America and Origin of the Species. Bored and seeking excitement and/or inspiration, he enlists childhood pal Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, American Horror Story, Quicksilver in the later X-Men movies) in developing a plan to heist the books and fence them in Amsterdam. 

Since the book collection is on the second floor of the university library in a secured room and can only be accessed by appointment with an employee present, they realize they will need more hands and they loop in friends Chas (Blake Jenner, Glee) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson, nothing you've heard of) as wheelman and lookout, respectively. After extensive planning, they make an attempt at the heist in old man makeup and clothes that look like an AARP-endorsed version of the Beastie Boys "Sabotage" video, aborting when there are too many people in the book room. However, they make a second run the next day which goes.....well, you'll see. 

Despite trying to take care in their planning, their sheer incompetence and general lack of killer criminal instincts become their undoing. Apparently it took the FBI weeks to apprehend this gang who couldn't steal straight, but it really should've taken them a couple of days if they actually left so many loaves of bread for law enforcement to follow back to those who dropped them.

Where American Animals elevates the caper flick game is the integration of the real perpetrators (and to a lesser extent their families) in documentary talking head interviews. At one point, when there are differing recollections of how an event transpired, a real person is placed on screen next to their re-enactor which also introduces an element of unreliable narration as the gang have Roshomon-like differences in what went down ranging from what color a scarf was to whether one member actually did what he claimed to have done.

While using actors to dramatize events is a standard move for everything from America's Most Wanted to documentaries including writer-director Bart Layton's previous film, The Imposter (about a con man who convinced a Texas family he was their long-lost son despite looking nothing like the missing boy, being much older, and having a French accent which is worth watching, too), American Animals inverts the ratio to make the real people commentators on the recreation. What could've been a cheesy gimmick works quite well and frankly could've been used more because they're charismatic and appealing fellows despite being felons. (In another odd wrinkle, the real people are actually mostly more attractive than their actors.)

 The pace gets a bit slack towards the end, but overall American Animals proves truth can be stranger than fiction and that sometimes fictionalizing true events is best served by having the real people narrating. For that alone, it's worth checking out.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.)

"MI-5" Blu-ray Review

 This was a looting pickup from a closing Family Video, chosen because it starred Jon Snow (aka Kit Harrington) and looked like a spy action flick and cost 75 cents. While the movie somewhat delivers on its billing, it has a crucial detail which made it extremely unsatisfying to engage with: It's a spinoff film from a British TV series I'd never heard of called Spooks which ran for 10 series (86 episodes) from 2002-2012 (and was called MI-5 in the USA) with this film coming out in 2015 under the title Spooks: The Greater Good. Watching this would be like watching a 24 spinoff without knowing the show and its hero, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland). 

Here is the synopsis of MI-5: The Motion: "When a terrorist escapes custody during a routine handover, Will Holloway (Harrington) must team with disgraced MI5 Intelligence Chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) to track him down before an imminent terrorist attack on London."

That's pretty much the movie. Pearce was the main character in the series and I guess if you were a fan of the show, what happens to him and what he does would carry more resonance, but since I wasn't, it didn't. It was fairly easy to spot some of the twists with the others being totally out of left field. It was more entertaining looking up the couple of familiar faces from American TV shows and discovering they were actually British including David Harewood (Martian Manhunter on Supergirl) and Eleanor Matsuura (Yumiko on The Walking Dead and Baron Chau on Into The Badlands). 

Because it relied on familiarity with the Spooks cast other than new additions Harrington and Jennifer Ehle (who's a ringer for Miranda Otto), I just couldn't work up much enthusiasm for a fairly beige spy thriller. If you're a fan of the show, have at it. Otherwise...

Score: 3/10. Skip it.  

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