Tag Archive: review

Love Etc. (2011): Grade: B-


Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Love, Etc. is available for rent via the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Jill Andresevic

American romantic movies fall into two camps. The first type offers an escapist/fantasized version of romance, where the world looks like the love child of Starbucks and Banana Republic. The lovers are poster children of conventional beauty, and so long as they find each other attractive, chemistry inevitably follows. The story doesn’t bother itself with such petty things like personality and such dilemmas as dealing with what the couple will do once the passion dies off. Examples of this are not difficult to find because EVERY SINGLE FUCKING HOLLYWOOD ROMANCE falls under this camp.

The second type shines a harsh white light on romance and reveals all the ugliness that exists beneath its facade. These films deal with such realities as the dying out of passion in a relationship, lack of chemistry, financial limitations, children, and breakups. The characters in these films look like everyday people (more or less), they lead everyday lives, and they have everyday problems. Sometimes the relationships work and sometimes they don’t. Recent examples of such films are Blue Valentine, Like Crazy, Revolutionary Road, and many of Woody Allen’s movies.

Director Jill Andresevic’s Love, Etc. is a light, frothy documentary that mostly lands in the second camp, but it also gives the film a romantic sheen with its beautiful rendering of New York City. The film follows five stories over the course of one year in the five boroughs. The first story (“First Love”) is about two high school seniors, Danielle and Gabriel, who are in their first serious relationship. The second (“Single”) is about Scott, a single, gay man who bravely decides to become a surrogate dad of twin babies. The third story (“Getting Married”) presents Chitra and Mahendra, a newlywed Indian couple who go through difficulties of Mahendra’s being unable to find a job and the couple’s doubts as to whether they got married too soon. The fourth (“Starting Over”) introduces us to Ethan, a divorcee construction worker who is raising two teenagers while looking for a new partner. The fifth story (“Lasting Love”) is about Albert and Marion, an elderly songwriting couple who has been married for 48 years. As Marion begins to battle dementia and failing health, Albert becomes her caretaker in their twilight years.

Although both Love, Etc. and Crime After Crime (the last film I reviewed, which you can catch here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/crime-after-crime-2011-grade-c/) were distributed by the Oprah Winfrey Network, there is a stark contrast in quality between the two films that is indicative of what a lot of money and talent can do to make your film stand out. One of my biggest issues with Crime After Crime was the film’s lack of style, depth, and the educational/corporate video feel the film had. I suspect the reason for this was a combination of lack of funding to produce a more polished looking movie and perhaps the filmmaker’s experience. On the other hand, you look at Love, Etc. and you can immediately tell that the documentary had plenty of money backing it up and it had a highly talented production crew to put it together.

For example, despite this film being her first feature film, director Jill Andresevic has produced award-winning marketing campaigns for Nike, and has made over 40 short documentaries for Cadillac that featured stars like William H. Macy and Jay Leno. Her backers and producers are also highly experienced individuals who have won Emmys, produced independent films for major filmmakers, and who possess a lot of money and connections to have gotten this documentary made. As an additional and interesting note, the memorable music score for Love Etc. was composed by Rob Simonsen, who also scored this past summer’s The Spectacular Now.

More money and more experienced talent does not automatically translate into a better film and the movie landscape is littered with the carcasses of big-budget films made by the best talent money can buy. However, Andresevic and the producers behind Love Etc. had a clear vision of what they wanted their movie to be about, how it would look and sound, and they had the means and experience to bring their vision to life.

Each story in Love Etc. represents the various stages of a romantic relationship (a teenager’s first love, getting married, breaking up, being single, and growing old together). Like Woody Allen back when he still made films in NYC, director Jill Andresevic also uses the city as a character in her film, beautifully rendering the city as a romantic backdrop to these relationships (I’m sure it helps that the executive producer of this film, Jonathan Tisch, is a former chairman of NYC’s tourism bureau).

Love Etc. does not shed some profound light on a puzzling question that has confounded humanity since the beginning of time. Nor does it intend to, and unfortunately, it seems like the movie critics have punished it for somehow not being ambitious enough. Drawing its inspiration from all of those romantic comedies and reality shows we never get sick of watching, Love Etc. simply gives us the real version of that in a nice Hallmark envelope. In a way, this film serves as a behind-the-scenes for Hollywood romantic comedies and “reality” shows – Andresevic is showing us what the real couples who inspire these movies and shows are like. Some of the stories portrayed are more compelling than others. I for one was unable to get into the teenage relationship and it was exasperating listening to the two teenagers coo over each other and lament how much they will miss each other when they go off to college. On the other hand, the story of the old songwriting couple is a sentimental and warm story that made me wish an entire film was made just about them. When you watch 79-year old Albert stir a can of Campbell’s tomato soup for his wife, Marion, your eyes well up because even in such a mundane thing as stirring soup in a can, you can see how much Marion means to Albert.

Jill Andresevic obviously gained her subjects’ trust to confide in her to reveal intimate details about their relationships. With a combination of lucky happenstance and an instinct to capture true moments, Andresevic provides us with surprising revelations that I would normally only expect a more experienced director to pull off. One such revelation occurs three weeks after Chitra and Mahendra’s wedding. The newlywed couple is sitting on their couch arguing about how little Mahendra does around the house. When they eventually bring up the issue of whether they got married too soon, to my shock Mahendra pretty much admits that the marriage was a mistake! The film is peppered with these moments and Andresevic makes sure that each story receives its equal share of screen time.

Despite how beautifully New York City is captured by DP Luke Geissbühler, I wish we could for once have seen a different city receiving the spotlight. Imagine how beautiful San Francisco or Chicago would have looked through Geissbühler’s eye? The film would have also benefited more if it had spent more time observing the couples engaging in the actions and situations they instead described to the camera in interviews.

I enjoyed watching Love Etc. even if my level of enjoyment was only slightly more than what I would have gotten from a well done reality show on Bravo. As a result, the film does not stay with you once it is over, but at least for the few hours you are watching it, Love Etc. gives you a nice realistic warm and fuzzy escape.


Crime After Crime (2011): Grade: C+

CrimeAfterCrime_poster-large1Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Crime After Crime is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Yoav Potash

I enjoy trashing messy, big budget action movies like the ones Michael Bay puts out, or bad major studio films from directors who get paid a lot of money for what they do. I do not enjoy trashing movies made by the blood, sweat, and tears of newbie filmmakers who hit the pavement day after day to find organizations willing to throw enough pocket change to fund their film and spend many years and sleepless nights putting their labor of love together. For one, I open myself up to the criticism of, “I didn’t see you making a fucking movie.” Cheap shot, I know, but its one critique I have often heard before. For another, the entire filmmaking process from conception to sale is an indescribably difficult process for any filmmaker. Not that my reviews are widely, if ever, read, but a negative review on the internet makes a bigger impact on these smaller films, which depend more on good word of mouth to even register on the public’s peripheral vision, than the bigger studio films. Finally, when the film you are reviewing also happens to be one that is trying to educate you about something, I am even more reluctant to criticize the film, and am willing to give the film far more leeway in the interest of recognizing the filmmaker’s effort to make us aware of an important social or political issue.

With this in mind, it took me far longer than the 2 milliseconds it normally takes me to decide a Michael Bay movie blows to determine that, despite its important message and the compelling journey Deborah Peagler endured to get out of prison, Crime After Crime is an underwhelming account of that journey. Crime After Crime was a widely acclaimed film that earned a place at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 (no small feat), and garnered 25 major awards (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, The National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award, the Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism, and a New York Times Critics’ Pick). Bay Area filmmaker, Yoav Potash, took over 5 years to put this documentary together with support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and Netflix, among others. The cherry on top was broadcast and home video distribution by none other than the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Crime After Crime is about the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman from South Central Los Angeles who was wrongly convicted to serve 25 years to life in prison for the murder of her abusive pimp boyfriend, Oliver Wilson. 20 years after her incarceration, two rookie land use law attorneys who knew nothing about criminal law, decided to represent Deborah pro bono, and get her out of prison. Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, the two unlikely attorneys who took on Deborah’s case, pulled off the near hopeless task of finding long-lost witnesses, smoking gun evidence purposely withheld from public view, and uncovering corruption at the highest levels of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.

We love stories about those who get wrongfully imprisoned by the criminal justice system for something they did not do. These stories draw audiences in because they are about the blameless underdog, the Davids who stand up to the Goliaths (the corrupt prosecutors, stone-faced judges, and ignorant juries) and face seemingly insurmountable odds. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, In the Name of the Father, and A Thin Blue Line exemplify this. Crime After Crime provides an interesting wrinkle to these types of stories in that Deborah Peagler was not entirely blameless. On May 27, 2982, she did, in fact, lead Oliver Wilson, the father of her daughter, to a park in Los Angeles, where two Crip gang members beat Wilson to death. In short, despite how cruel and abusive Oliver Wilson had been to Deborah, and how deserving he probably was of an ass beating, Deborah technically committed a crime under the laws of this country.

This film goes beyond simply asking whether Deborah Peagler served her “debt to society,” because there is absolutely no doubt that she did. Under the Penal Code section and sentencing laws applicable to her crime, Deborah should have only served a maximum of 6 years! The more important question posed by this film is whether Deborah even deserved to have been imprisoned for what she had done. For that, I am going to provide you with a very brief legal background on how victims of domestic abuse are treated under the law.

In 2002, California became the first state to allow battered women convicted of killing their batterers to petition to the court what is called a “writ of habeas corpus,” containing evidence proving that the battering led to the killing. With this petition and their evidence, convicted women could now seek a whole new trial, to reduce their sentence, or try to get some other type of remedy. Because most of these women did not know the law, understand the legal process, or have an attorney, the California Habeas Project was formed to recruit and train volunteer attorneys to help these women file their petitions. This is how the two lawyers in Crime After Crime became involved in Deborah’s case.

Within the first few minutes of seeing Deborah, you immediately sympathize with her. One would expect to encounter an angry, hateful individual pissed at the world for imprisoning her far beyond the number of years required for her crime. After all, here is someone who was (1) regularly beaten and made to become a prostitute by her boyfriend; (2) sentenced to serve more years in prison than what is allowed under the sentencing laws; (3) improperly/illegally prosecuted by a corrupt and powerful Los Angeles D.A.’s office that refused to acknowledge its wrongdoing; and (4) became diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while in prison. Instead, we see someone whose glass is always half-full. Deborah is a survivor and she has transformed her unfortunate circumstance into opportunities to educate herself (she earned two Associate degrees while in prison), and to help others (she has helped many women in prison to read and write). She is a remarkable woman who exudes a strong maternal quality, and who holds a strong belief in God. In getting to know Deborah and her family, you cannot help but imagine what it would be like if your own mother was improperly imprisoned for 26 years, and your entire childhood interaction with her consisted of sporadic, brief meet-ups at the prison.

Deborah’s story is not unique. There are thousands of women who were imprisoned under the same exact circumstances as her. Many of us may have already heard or read similar stories. However, how many cases have you heard of in which someone has managed to receive parole with the help of attorneys who know nothing of criminal law, and after being repeatedly rejected by the parole board and the courts? As an attorney, I can attest to the difficulty of what attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were able to accomplish. The result with which Safran and Costa got for Deborah is something that most times is only seen in the movies. Their success is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that they worked with Deborah for 7 years without receiving any monetary compensation and in addition to meeting the various obligations of their regular day jobs. Any attorney looking for a dose of inspiration or motivation should look no further than this film.

Adding yet an additional layer of interest to Deborah Peagler’s story is the corruption and secrecy committed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office relating to her case. The city of Los Angeles has always been saddled with a reputation of having corrupt politicians and police officers (e.g. the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the recent revelations in the city of Bell, etc.), all of which has been memorialized in such films as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Here, for reasons not fully explored in the film, the D.A.’s office managed to convict Deborah through the use of an unreliable witness and the suppression of evidence. In internal correspondence that were kept secret during Deborah’s trial, even the D.A.’s office admitted that the evidence against Deborah was unreliable. And yet, they were still willing and able to get the court to impose a 25-to-life sentence on her.

The underlying story of Deborah Peagler and her legal journey to freedom is a compelling and inspirational story that has a nice mix of drama, hope, and suspense. Unfortunately, Crime After Crime does not fully explore the various facets of this story on the same scale as a filmmaker like Errol Morris has done with this same subject matter. On a general note, the tone and structure of this film comes off feeling more like something made specifically for instructional use in schools and other institutions rather than a film intended to be shown theatrically. Its progression from Deborah’s story, to the lawyers involved, and finally to the revelations concerning the D.A.’s office is too cleanly outlined as if I was watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (sorry for dating myself there with that reference). There is a general lack of spontaneity that the film sorely needed.

Throughout the film, I always felt that filmmaker Yoav Potash was either somehow restrained from delving deeper into his subject matter or he just simply chose not to take that next step to better illuminate the facts and characters of the story. For example, I never got a good sense of what Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were about. Sure, we learn how Safran’s Orthodox Jewish belief guides him to help those in need, and we learn that Costa had a painful experience in her past that helped her relate to Deborah’s situation. However, I felt there was even more to explore in terms of what these attorney’s lives were like in balancing their family life with their day jobs and their work on Deborah’s case. Related to this was the work of the late investigator, Bobby Buechler. This man has a very interesting background that is never touched upon. It may have been that Buechler wanted to keep his contacts and investigative methods a secret, but I think there was a huge missed opportunity by not spending some time with him and how he obtained his evidence to support Deborah’s case.

Most disappointing is how little the film digs into the levels of corruption at the L.A. District Attorney’s office. Much of this may and probably was due to the lack of resources and access to delve more into this issue, and the risk that Deborah’s case may have been jeopardized if filmmaker Potash decided to pull a Michael Moore on the D.A.’s office. Nevertheless, aside from two moments in which Potash confronts Deputy D.A. Lael Rubin and D.A. Steve Cooley about Deborah’s case, the film just scratches the surface of the corrupt workings of the D.A.’s office.

Crime After Crime is an illuminating account of how dysfunctional our criminal justice system is. Having the facts and law be on your side does not necessarily mean you will gain justice for your client, and this film shows how depressingly common this is in American society. Despite the film’s shortcomings, Crime After Crime is still one that should be watched by not just attorneys and advocates of victims of domestic abuse, but by everyone. Like me, you will probably be shocked to learn that the vast majority of women in prison are there because they killed their partners in response to being abused and battered by them. How California remains the only state to address this problem with its laws (which it only addressed recently in 2002) is just as perplexing as the parole board and District Attorney’s office’s refusal to acknowledge this problem.

Chiller-poster-2-328x500Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Chiller is only available for rent via Amazon Prime. I have also provided a link below where you can watch the entire film for free on Daily Motion.

Starring: Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, & Paul Sorvino

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: J.D. Feigelson

Wes Craven’s Chiller reminds me of Stephen King’s short stories (as an aside, with the exception of The Stand, King’s short stories are better reads than his novels). Those stories typically have straightforward, simple plotlines that cut right to the chase without wasting any words. They don’t dwell on huge character backstories or veer off into the author’s political or philosophical views. These stories are essentially fun, cheap thrills. This pretty much describes Chiller and if you can get past the HUGELY shitty VHS transfer (it is so bad that in one scene you can hear on one of the soundtracks a sound feed that must have been picked up from another channel by whoever recorded the film), Chiller is a fun ride that is best enjoyed with a group of drunk (or high) friends sitting around with absolutely nothing to do on a Saturday evening.

When I first heard of Chiller, the first question to enter my mind was why a director with the presumably big clout that Wes Craven had (he had just released the popular A Nightmare on Elm Street the previous year) would opt to make a TV movie? I mean sure, there was some pretty rock-on shit that was made for TV back in the 80’s (Shogun, North and South, The Winds of War, Burning Bed), but once you have established yourself as a feature film director, you only go back to doing TV if your feature film career stalls out. However those who are familiar with Craven’s work will know that Craven didn’t hold himself above working in television. In fact, Craven has put out some pretty memorable stuff for television, such as the 1980’s version of The Twilight Zone and two other made-for-television films, Invitation to Hell and Summer of Fear.

For someone who didn’t enter the movie business until the late age of 33, Wes Craven has created quite a colorful filmography for himself. He has gone from making visceral 1970’s grindhouse movies like The Last House on the Left (Craven’s first film, which is still one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen) to 1980’s supernatural horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street to the post-modern 1990’s slasher film Scream. Craven’s best work tends to be those films that were made for a low budget. The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now please don’t interpret “best” to mean that these films are actually good, award-deserving movies. Many of them are not, but they are the best that Wes Craven has put out and they provide, at most, the fun, cheap thrills that I attributed to Craven’s also-low-budget film, Chiller. Again, lest I lose my good-taste-in-film credentials, I really want to stress the fact that Chiller is by no means a good movie. Putting that aside, however, I had great fun watching over-the-top performances from Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, and Paul Sorvino.

Chiller is about Miles Creighton (The Warriors and Xanadu’s Michael Beck), a young man who died 10 years ago. Refusing to accept the finality of his death, Miles’ mother (Poltergeist’s Beatrice Straight) has his body cryogenically frozen until such time medical technology can advance far enough to bring her son back to life. That time arrives when one night, Miles’ preservation unit malfunctions and Miles’ body begins to thaw out. Miles is rushed to the hospital, where doctors perform an operation that was not possible 10 years ago. The operation is a success and Miles returns back to the land of the living. However, although Miles is successfully resurrected in body, he comes back without a soul.

With Chiller, Wes Craven makes no bones about the fact that the pipe dream concept of cryogenically freezing your body for a later lease on life is creepy as hell. Aside from the fact that scientists have yet to bring back a person to life after cryogenically freezing their body, this controversial process poses very interesting questions for those who believe in an afterlife. Craven explores this idea in a scene where a priest (Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino) questions how someone like Miles can be brought back to life when his soul has either gone to heaven or hell. The priest asks whether the soul can even be brought back to Earth to its host body and he concludes that it cannot – once the soul has left this world, it is gone forever. The film’s best dialogue exchange follows this scene, in which the priest finally confronts the true nature of Miles Creighton. Expecting to get a description of heaven or hell, he asks Miles what it was like being dead for 10 years. Miles replies that nothing happens when you die – its all just blackness. Michael Beck gives a wonderful delivery of that line and just as fun to watch is the priest’s shocked reaction to hearing that his faith in God may be a sham.

The character of Miles Creighton also represents Wes Craven’s swipe at the mantra of greed that defined Corporate America in the 1980’s. Upon Miles’ return to the living, he takes over his father’s company and immediately begins firing the old people, makes the women screw their way to the top, and cuts all corporate charitable contributions. Miles is a precursor to Gordon Gecko, who came onto the scene just two years after this film’s release.

Let’s face it – Michael Beck was never really a good actor. The only reason he became somewhat famous was due to the cult successes of The Warriors and Xanadu. Those films, in turn, became popular for reasons other than Michael Beck’s performance. I may be inciting the wrath of rabid cult fans of the films I just mentioned, but I would argue that Beck’s best career performance is in this made-for-TV movie. Sure, Beck’s performance is hammy and way over-the-top, but he is after all playing a man without a soul, which seems to be interpreted to mean people who are complete evil assholes. What helps sell the performance is Beck’s cold, calculating, yet handsome, look. In terms of looks, he is perfectly cast. With a movie like this, no one should be concerning themselves with plot holes, but there is one that I absolutely must point out: If Miles has no soul and is therefore, purely evil and uncaring toward his fellow man, then why does he have a soft spot (until the last scene) for his mother? Is Wes Craven trying to tell us that a child’s love for his mother can survive even without a soul?

Speaking of mothers, Beatrice Straight plays Miles’ mom. If you think you don’t know who Beatrice Straight is, then you are wrong. Beatrice Straight played the paranormal investigator in Poltergeist (she also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Network for a performance that is considered the shortest one to ever win an award) and she was one of the best things about that classic film. Straight’s style of acting is one that you don’t see in movies anymore and it harkens back to the acting style that was prevalent in Hollywood before the 1970’s. She, like Michael Beck, also plays up her character in a hammy manner and her character is not very well developed, but she is still a delight to watch.

It is difficult to imagine Paul Sorvino playing anything but a mobster, but he does a fine job as the concerned and reserved priest, who tries to convince Miles’ mother that her son is not the same man she once knew. I mentioned the scene between Miles and the priest, and that is the highlight of the film.

Chiller may not be something I would recommend to the discerning film snob. It does not have the signature Wes Craven gore and blood, it has a shitty VHS transfer, and it is low-budget in a bad, porno film way. However, Wes Craven offers up a straightforward tale that appeals to our very basest levels of entertainment and fun while also giving us a half-baked metaphysical discussion and a critique of 1980’s corporate America. I wish someone would put out a nice, pristine version of this movie with a Wes Craven commentary (like they did with Invitation to Hell).