Quick Movie Reviews (Arkansas, Spaceship Earth & The Painter and the Thief)

Arkansas

It’s very safe to say that Arkansas-born actor and writer Clark Duke looked straight into his influences for his directorial debut. Based on a John Brandon novel, the country-fried crime film Arkansas has its narrative roots in the elevated pulp of Elmore Leonard, and its cinematic roots in the darkly comic, casually violent films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. However, the movie never quite rises to the level of its inspirations. While Arkansas is a promising and sometimes entertaining first feature, Duke just really struggles to combine these borrowed ingredients; often even at times feeling like a much lesser rip-off in the overall aesthetics. The plot of Arkansas is intricate, though not really complicated: aloof drug dealer Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and his cocky business associate Swin (Duke himself) stumble into a bad scene after a routine drug run goes bad, forcing them to work for Bright (John Malkovich), a proudly malicious drug kingpin and full-time park ranger. Ranger Bright mercilessly exploits Kyle and Swin because he’s somewhat higher-ranking than them in the local gangster food chain, which is overseen by the mysterious crime boss Frog (Vince Vaughn) and his equally mysterious drug supplier “Her” (Vivica A. Fox). Kyle and Swin are mostly okay with being exploited for a whole, until Swin starts dating Johnna (Eden Brolin), a local girl who is an earnest Christian, but is also predictably smarter than her association with Swin might suggest.

arkansas-
Image via Lionsgate

After that, Arkansas is only ostensibly complicated by a series of flashbacks and tangential sub-plots that give viewers a little more background info about Frog and his business associates, all of whom either hustle and/or are hustled by other drug dealers, which comes with a couple of dryly funny moments. The film is at strongest when it cuts back and focuses on the origins of Frog, who stumbled into the drug trade almost by accident, learning at the feet of the sage, cool-headed Almond (Michael K. Williams). Yet, Vaughn and Williams are so exciting to watch in those flashbacks, it’s when we cut back to Hemsworth and Duke, that makes the latter look meager by comparison. Kyle and Swin make an interesting pair when they’re first introduced, but their part of the plot never becomes as tense or as urgent as it should be. Arkansas tries to show that the choices these characters make will echo each other across the generations, and speak to a deeper moral rot in their lives. But next to Frog and Almond, the movie’s actual protagonists seem like limp lightweights. When they’re at center stage, the film often sputters. There’s a sort of tanginess to Arkansas at times, but more often it’s a derivative film that struggles to coalesce and fully realize its many influences and combined ingredients.

Grade: C+

Arkansas is available on VOD

Spaceship Earth

Remember when it was still outlandish, the thought of people isolating themselves from the rest of the world for the foreseeable future and the greater good? Back in 1991, it came into a different light. Under the glare of large media attention and scrutiny of a whole planet watching from the other side of the glass, eight scientists clad in bright red jumpsuits sealed themselves inside a giant pyramidal simulation of Earth. For two long years, they’d live together in what they called Biosphere 2, hoping to determine whether we could replicate the necessary conditions of human life in an artificial, airtight environment. While the experiment has faded from the public consciousness, its the focus of Matt Wolf’s documentary Spaceship Earth, as it looks back on the project with more awe and less skepticism than the journalists who cast a harsh spotlight back in the day. While the film is arriving at a very oddly prescient time, it’s perhaps stranger that it took this long for someone to make a movie about Biosphere 2, given the possibilities and the juicier details, including the persistent rumors that the participants engaged in cult-like behavior.

Whether they were something of a cult is one of the film’s many unanswered questions to go along with its overlong, over-admiring first hour. Throughout, we get only a passing understanding of what went wrong with the experiment: the dipping oxygen levels and food shortages, etc. Those hoping for a crash course in the science of this scientific endeavor won’t find much here. Spaceship Earth mostly skims over both the findings and the failings, and neglects a lot of the logistics — understandable omissions for a two-hour documentary more interested, perhaps, in the social ramifications of those two years behind the glass. Not that it totally illuminates that aspect either: Selective anecdotes paired with random naturalistic glimpses of the scientists result in a highly mediated remembrance. At one point, one of the interviewees emotionally cuts off a line of questioning and walks away from the camera and it’s treated as a dramatic punctuation, but it’s simply the most explicit expression of what feels like a general reluctance to dish about the conflicts that erupted behind the scenes. Did gaining access to the footage and those who shot it come with the expectation of softball questions? Or did everyone just stonewall when it came time to air the experiment’s dirty laundry? Either way, we get only an broad and abstract sense of what life within Biosphere 2 was really like.

spaceship-earth
Image via Neon

At times, the film feels like an attempt to reclaim the experiment as an act of ambitious environmentalism, not the ill-fated folly the press made it out to be. Spaceship Earth doesn’t ignore the mistakes and setbacks and stranger aspects of the group’s dynamics, exactly. But by communicating them almost entirely through snippets of news reports, it does make reasonable objections to the process seem like naysaying. Meanwhile, a constant swell of inspirational music works overtime to present the venture in terms its participants might prefer. Years after the first mission, Biosphere 2’s billionaire backer, Ed Bass, allowed the giant ecological system to fall into the hands of those who wanted only to make a profit from it — including none other than Steve Bannon, offering the film a late-game antagonist. But one can agreeably lament this turn, yet still wonder if we’re really getting the whole story about how the experiment went down. At one point, one detractor, when asked what Biosphere 2 was if not “real” science, describes it as “trendy ecological entertainment.” And in large parts, that’s no so far off from what Spaceship Earth offers. Often being both overly admiring and lacking in personality, Spaceship Earth ultimately stays too broad and removed from its subjects to find any sort of in-depth insight. 

Grade: C+

Spaceship Earth is available to stream on Hulu

The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief tracks the unbelievable saga of an unlikely friendship, and is comprised of life’s natural highs, shattering lows, and the gradual moments of growth in between. The reason and ways our two focal subjects, Barbora (the painter) and Karl-Betril (the thief), are connected is revealed during the opening credits — he was caught on surveillance footage stealing two of her most prized paintings. And throughout, director Benjamin Ree’s captures the film’s drama with spontaneity  — capturing it all almost by accident, as it starts with Barbora creating one painting, The Swan Song, in time lapse. It’s one of the numerous instances in which this character study simply goes along with the lives of what compels it, showing people to be complicated in each one of their own individual actions.

But it all really gets going when Karl-Bertil is in court to be sentenced for the theft and Barbora approaches him with an unusual request: she wants to paint him. He doesn’t know where the paintings he stole ended up, but her pain from the robbery has evolved into forgiveness, and an active curiosity to understand someone who could so such a thing. Barbora quickly sees what is behind Karl-Bertil’s tense, self-destructive veneer. She learns that he has done so much with his life — before he got involved with criminal activity, he was a traditional carpenter, and worked with kids with Aspergers — that it’s a tragedy he has not done more. Throughout the film there are moments so intimate and unguarded that you may briefly dissociate and question what you’re watching because of how honest it is. And the first of those moments comes with Karl-Bertil’s reaction when Barbora first shows him the painting that she has made of him. With Ree’s approach to shoot from a distance and steadily focus on Karl-Bertil’s face, it’s a moment that quietly displays the boundless potential of compassion.

painter and the thief
Image via Neon

The Painter and the Thief continually follows their lives after this moment, highlighting their developing friendship while exemplifying how a person’s pain is not simply healed by another’s selflessness. Karl-Bertil goes through an extraordinary course of events, and the film shows his general trajectory through a long period of time. And Ree parallels Karl-Bertil’s life with Barbora’s own struggles and with her passion in art, showing how they’re both held back from such struggles. In an act for a movie that’s about how one person sees the other, there are warming passages where Barbora tells us bits about Karl-Bertil’s life story and vice versa. Throughout, sometimes the two stories don’t seem to thematically speak to each other — it can be like watching individual lives in their moments of therapy, self-reflection, heartache — but when the two’s lives intersect periodically it feels rewarding. While Ree’s structuring of all the events can sometimes come off jerky — feeling like its overtly pulling you with each dramatically reaching cutback — he still finds a way to present the two life stories in a manner that feels like they’re always in progress, steadily watching closely. A deeply compelling portrait of compassion and forgiveness, The Painter and the Thief is a documentary that renders everyday humanity as a touching work of art.

Grade: B

The Painter and the Thief is available to stream on Hulu

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