Friday, November 17, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Starting Over (1979)

Starting Over (1979)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.   
Written by: James L. Brooks based on the novel by Dan Wakefield.
Starring: Burt Reynolds (Phil Potter), Jill Clayburgh (Marilyn Holmberg), Candice Bergen (Jessica Potter), Charles Durning (Mickey Potter), Frances Sternhagen (Marva Potter), Austin Pendleton (Paul), Mary Kay Place (Marie), MacIntyre Dixon (Dan Ryan).
Divorce wasn’t something new in 1979 – but Hollywood dealing with it in any sort of serious way, was at least somewhat new at the time. Paul Mazursky’s wonderful An Unmarried Woman had come out the previous year – and was a hit, and an Oscar favorite, and Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer ended up being the biggest box office and awards hit of 1979. Those two films are, for various reasons, still remembered today – but Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over has pretty much been forgotten. It’s easy to see why – it’s not a great film and Pakula is one of those great journeymen directors – who did everything from Klute to The Parallax View to All the President’s Men to Sophie’s Choice – who is more craftsmen that auteur, and those guys tend to get overlooked. It is the first screenplay by James L. Brooks – in between his sitcom career and the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment (1983) – but those looking for Brooks’ best work, will find it elsewhere. The film is uneven – Roger Ebert called it a sitcom version of An Unmarried Woman – and he wasn’t exactly wrong. Yet, it does have three good performances at its core, and it is trying for something interesting. I don’t think it quite gets there – Brooks it seems didn’t have the guts to go where he would in Broadcast News, and instead the film insists on a happy end that doesn’t make much sense – but this little curiosity of a film is worth seeing.
The film opens with Paul (Burt Reynolds) and his wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) breaking up – she wants him to leave, he doesn’t want to, but does anyway – something made easier by the discovery that she has been unfaithful to him. As he leaves, the audience is treated to, for the first time, a hilariously bad song by Jessica, sung wonderfully awfully by Bergen – who is convinced she’s going to have a hit on her hands (and, of course, she’s right). Paul ends up moving to Boston to be near his brother (Charles Durning), and try and peace his life back together. It is his brother’s wife who introduces him to Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh) – a nursey school teacher, who at first doesn’t want to date Paul – she has had it with divorced guys –but eventually she relents. They seem perfect for each other – he even says as much to his “divorced men’s support group” – but is he really over Jessica? When she shows up in Boston one day, wanting him back, what will he do?
Reynolds is, I think, an underrated actor. Sure, he has done more bad movies than good (and some are downright horrible), but he was one of the biggest male movie stars of the 1970s for a reason. He has an effortless charm about him here – making the fact that women are drawn to him understandable. Bur Reynolds also does a fine job showing us Paul’s insecurity – his hesitation in jumping into bed with Marilyn, the way he loves her, but is still drawn to Jessica. Of the three leads, it is Reynolds who has the most screen time, and delivers the most subtle performance. His two female co-stars both got Oscar nominations – and they are both wonderful, but their roles give them more showoff moments. Bergen steals every scene she is in here – she is downright hilarious when she sings, and she is the right mixture of infuriating, alluring and annoying to make at least some of what Paul does plausible. Clayburgh is wonderful as Marilyn as well – a somewhat kooky woman, who is happy in her life alone without Paul before he arrives, but willingly lets her guard down – even if she fears being destroyed. Both women are able to convey at least some complexity underneath all the humor in the movie – and judging on the basis of this movie, it’s a shame neither was given a great role in a Woody Allen movie at some point. They would have nailed them.
The problem with the movie is mainly in Brooks’ screenplay. While his ear for dialogue was already well-tuned – there is never a doubt about who wrote the thing – the plot mechanics creak under the weight of all the clichés, and as the film progresses, the characters make decisions that just don’t make any sense – right up to the happy ending. I know that Brooks is dealing with romantic comedy standards here – but it makes for an uneasy mixture with the divorce drama he’s also writing. By the time he made Terms of Endearment, he had mastered this tricky comedy/drama tone he does so well (he perfected it in Broadcast News) – but here, whether it’s Pakula’s direction (he was a journeyman – but many a thriller journeyman) or more likely Brooks’ screenplay, the mix is off.
Starting Over is an interesting film – it’s interesting to watch Brooks before he perfected his style, it’s interesting to see Pakula try his hand at comedy, and it has three performances that help paper over the films rough patches – mostly (as great as Clayburgh is, I have a tough time with that last scene in the movie). It’s mainly been forgotten – and there’s a reason for that. But it was also an Oscar nominated hit in 1979 – and there was a reason for that as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Michael Green based upon the novel by Agatha Christie.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Edward Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Henry Masterman), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Tom Bateman (Bouc).
The best thing about the new version of Murder on the Orient Express is Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Agatha Christie’s infamous detective Hercule Poirot. Sporting the best mustache I have ever seen, Branagh somehow finds new dimensions to play in Poirot – even for those of us who have seen Albert Finney’s Oscar nominated turn in the 1974 original film, and who had a mother who watched a lot of David Suchet as Poirot, and as such, watched a lot himself. Branagh’s Poirot is almost a tragic figure – he certainly is a sad one – pining over his lost love, and admitting that his curse is that he can only “see things the way they ought to be”, so when something is amiss, it sticks out. This makes much of his life miserable – but makes him a great detective. But despite being this sad figure, it’s still a joy to watch Branagh in this role – he’s funny and clever, and has Branagh swinging for the fences again, in a role a worthy of him, for the first time in I’m not sure how long (yes, he’s very good in Dunkirk – but that’s a different kind of performance). If they announced tomorrow, a new movie or television series with Branagh as Poirot, I’d be enthused.
The problem with the new version of Murder on the Orient Express however is that Branagh, the director, doesn’t seem to put as much care into the storytelling as he does in crafting his own performance – or growing that mustache (please tell me it was real). After a crackerjack start at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem the film never really finds it footing again once we are on board the titular train. Part of the problem is that there are so many character (this version even combines two together to help) – but with 15 other major characters, played by one of the best ensembles you can hope for, the result is that most of the cast is underutilized. Essentially, they all get introduced with one character trait, and stay that way. It isn’t that some of them aren’t having fun – Michelle Pfeiffer is a man hungry widow certainly seems to be having a blast, as does Judi Dench as an elder Princess, but the movie does a poor job of keeping the characters sorted out. Every time Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Marquez shows up, you wonder who the hell he is for example – and for a long stretch of the movie, you forget that there is even a Count and Countess on the train. Other great performers are barely utilized – poor Olivia Colman and Willem Dafoe – and some are given little to work with other than their costumes – to be fair, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. both look amazing in those costumes, but you wish there was more there. There’s a problem in your Murder on the Orient Express adaptation when Johnny Depp’s Ratchett has more screen time that practically anyone note named Hercule.
Perhaps some of these flaws could be forgiven in an overall better film. After all, you have a great Poirot here, the costumes and art direction are superb, and Branagh and cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos do what they can to try and open up the story a little – hard to do when the story is confined to a train, and that train is stopped in its tracks alongside a mountain. But the biggest problem with the film is that it screws up precisely the part of the movie where you cannot screw up – the finale, the “solution” to the murder – which is stories like this is always the key moment, and always takes a long time, because the plot is so elaborate that Poirot needs to explain it for a good 15 minutes or so. First of all, the way he even comes to figure everything out is never really explained – he’s putting pieces together that the audience didn’t have, which doesn’t seem fair – and second, his big long explanation is muddled and confusing. It leaves you scratching your head – and I knew the solution before I saw the movie.
Branagh is a talented filmmaker, who has had to change with the times over his 30 year career. Despite the fact that he’s directed some of the best Shakespeare movies of all time – I’ll take his 1996, 4 hour Hamlet over any other version of that play – no one much seems interested in financing those anymore. So he directs a Jack Ryan movie, he directs Thor for Marvel, he directs Cinderella for Disney – and all of those, he brings something of himself to the film. He does so here as well – but this time, it never quite comes together. The movie hints as a sequel – Death on the Nile – and I would love to see it. Although, I think I’d replace Branagh as director, and just let him and his glorious mustache take over the screen.

Movie Review: Kedi

Kedi **** / *****
Directed by: Ceyda Torun.
One of this I noticed on my honeymoon – when we stopped in both Greece and Turkey – is that there are animals everywhere – cats and dogs, who just seem to roam the streets, sleeping wherever they want, and obviously getting fed – since none of them seemed too skinny. It may seem like a small difference between Europe – or at least, those parts of Europe (I didn’t seen any strays in Italy for example) and North America – and yet I think it’s a sign of how in many ways Europeans are simply different – more laid back, and easygoing. Or, at least they were – because now that “progress” has started to catch up, apparently this way of life is in jeopardy. The documentary Kedi opens with a quote about how long cats have roamed the streets of Istanbul – how they’ve seen empires rise and fall, and no one quite knows when they got there – they’ve just always been there. The documentary, which runs just under 80 minutes, is a portrait of 7 cats, and their humans, in Istanbul. Some of these people own their own pet cats – inside cats – but most of them do not. But they get to know, and love, the cats that they see in their everyday life. They feed them, care for them, take them to the vet if need be, and basically love them – but, and this is also key, they let the cats be themselves. Cats are not idiot attention whores like dogs are – they don’t need you to be their friend and tell them how good they are. You have to earn a cat’s love – and these people earn it.
I will admit that when Kedi came out in theaters earlier this year, I kind of brushed it off as inconsequential – if I wanted to watch 80 minutes of cat videos, I can go down a YouTube rabbit hole fairly easily. This is why I didn’t make the time to see it in theaters – a decision I now regret. There is a lot of great footage of cats in the movie – but it is decidedly not of internet cat video quality. Director Ceyda Torun’s camera gets on the ground level with the cats, and really does Istanbul from their point-of-view. The camera follows them everywhere – up trees, down into sewers, etc. – and gets the type of footage of cats people normally don’t get – mainly because cats always seem so secretive – they don’t want you to know what they’re doing all the time, unlike idiot dogs, who crave nothing but your constant attention.
Still, if Kedi were just 80 minutes of cat footage, it would be fun – but not much more. What makes it one of the year’s best documentaries, is that Torun and her camera pulls back, and really does get a sense of the entire community around the cats. She interviews the people who care for these seven cats (more than seven people, because some of these cats have multiple people), who explain the personalities of the cats, their habits, their likes and dislikes. Through the cats, we get to know the people, and through the people we get to know the cats.
As a country Turkey is obviously currently in a state of upheaval – but Torun never comments on this directly. There is one woman who talks about the difficulty of being a woman in Turkey, and many people mention the current changes happening in the city – changes they fear will end up hurting the cats. If there are more high-rises, less neighborhoods, where will they go? Torun doesn’t ignore the issues – she simply lets them play out in the background.
Kedi ends up being a surprisingly touching film. Yes, if like me you are a cat person, you’ll love it even more than if you’re not (especially if, like me, you married someone allergic to cats, so instead of having one, you’re stuck with an idiot dog – a lovable idiot dog, but an idiot dog just the same). But it’s more than just 80 minutes of cat videos.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Greta Gerwig.
Written by: Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson), Laurie Metcalf (Marion McPherson), Tracy Letts (Larry McPherson), Lucas Hedges (Danny O'Neill), Timothée Chalamet (Kyle Scheible), Beanie Feldstein (Julie Steffans), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Father Leviatch), Lois Smith (Sister Sarah Joan), Laura Marano (Diana Greenway), Jordan Rodrigues (Miguel McPherson), John Karna (Greg Anrue), Odeya Rush (Jenna Walton), Marielle Scott (Shelly Yuhan).
There is an art to making the kind of coming-of-age teen comedy that Greta Gerwig gets exactly right in her directorial debut – Lady Bird. In theory, Lady Bird could just another “Sundance” like movie – we see seemingly a dozen like it a year – about seemingly messed up, yet ultimately rather conventional suburban families, and the frustrating push-and-pull people parents and their children as well as high school crushes, losing your virginity, and wanting nothing more than to get out of your home – and home town – and then immediately missing them when you do. Lady Bird should be another of those movies (not unlike say Patti Cake$ - which I caught up this weekend as well) – that I either mildly enjoy as they cycle through the clichés, or else just absolutely drive me nuts. Those have become as formulaic as the Hollywood movies they are supposed to act as counter programming to. But Gerwig has always had a talent of taking something that would normally make me role my eyes, and instead making something honest and genuine out of it. The first film she co-wrote – and starred in – was Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha – which I almost dreaded seeing because I thought it was going to be more twee, millennial naval gazing – and yet that film moved me, made me laugh, and had genuine insight. Lady Bird is much the same way – you’ve seen this movie before, sure, but never quite like this – it is grounded in the real and the specific in a way that makes it feel new and different.
Part of that is because of the lead performance by the great Saoirse Ronan – who is only 23, and already has two Oscar nomination (she should have won for Brooklyn) – and should get a third here. This performance is nothing like her work in breakout Atonement, which itself was nothing like her work in Brooklyn – and her impressive resume already shows amazing range. Here, she’s playing Christine – a high school senior who has decided she wants everyone to call her Lady Bird, and wants nothing else but to get out of Sacramento (the “Midwest of California” as she calls it) – and head to the East Coast “where culture is”. Lady Bird is smart – but not necessarily in the way that shows up in grades, and everyone wants her to be more “realistic” about her college aspirations. Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metclaf – finally getting a movie role that lets her show what many of us have known for years – that she is a terrific actress) is hard on Lady Bird – in part because they are too similar, both too hard headed to be willing to admit when the other may be right. The two are at each other’s throats a lot – which means easy going dad Larry (Tracy Letts – continuing to show he’s one of the best character actors around in addition to be one of the best playwrights) to play peacemaker – although he has his own issues as well.
Throughout her senior year, Lady Bird will do what a lot of teenagers do – she’ll fall in “love” with two boys at her Catholic school – the first is Danny (Lucas Hedges) – from one of those good Irish Catholic families with a lot of kids, but he’s hiding a secret, and the second is Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), the kind of pretentious ass, who smokes cigarettes, read books, and says things like “I’m trying to avoid being a part of the economy” – that teenagers can think sound deep. Her best friend is Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the two of them share a bond that only teenage girls do.
Lady Bird is perhaps a tad too episodic – there isn’t much a plot here, other than Lady Bird finds her way through senior year. Not every episode works – but most of them do, and in total, they add up to something quietly moving. Gerwig, as a screenwriter, knows when to give you that big emotional moment, and when to pull back. It’s also well-directed throughout – unshowy, but finding the right moments. Gerwig had already shown immense talent as an actress – and her two screenplay with Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America) – was a nice blending of their styles. Here though, she finds her voice solo – and it’s remarkable to see. This is one of the year’s most endearing, funny and entertaining films – and in a year this dark, that makes it vital and necessary as well.

Movie Review: The Square

The Square **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ruben Östlund.
Written by: Ruben Östlund.
Starring: Claes Bang (Christian), Elisabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary (Oleg), Christopher Læssø (Michael).
If Jordan Peele’s Get Out had not have come out this year, than Ruben Östlund’s The Square would be the year’s most “uncomfortable” film to sit through – and I mean that in a good way. Östlund’s point is to make us uncomfortable, to have us question our own ethics and morals throughout the film, while at the same time, providing a ruthless – and funny – satire of the contemporary art world. Östlund knows, of course, that The Square is itself an “art film”, so he’s poking fun at himself – and everyone in the audience watching as well. I’m not sure he has any real answers to the questions he asks – nor does he want to – he just wants to prod you into thinking about them. You likely already know if this film sounds like it would appealing to you – and you’re almost definitely right about that. If you don’t want that sort of experience, The Square would be excruciating to sit through – especially since it rambles around for nearly two and half hours.
The film stars Claes Bang as Christian – the head curator at a Stockholm museum of Modern Art – the type of place where they have an exhibit that consists of piles of gravel on the floor and a neon sign proclaiming “You Have Nothing” – but helpful guards who will tell you you’re not allowed to take photos of it. The film opens with a scene in which a reporter – Anne (Elisabeth Moss) interviews Christian about the museum and its philosophy – particularly about a night in which they hosted a talked about the difference between Exhibit and Non-Exhibit – and what art “is”. Christian unhelpfully babbles on and on, without really saying anything in a way that many do when talking about Modern Art – after all, you don’t want to appear to be “pretentious” is discussing these lofty ideals, but you also don’t want appear to be stupid and “not get it” either. This sets up the Christian we will see for the rest of the movie – who time after time has reality interfere with his lofty ideals, as he gets himself into more and more trouble.
It all starts on the streets when he hears a woman calling out for help – but who he ignores, until he is pretty much forced to react, because he’s physically pulled into the conflict by another man, shielding the woman, from what we assume is an angry boyfriend. After it’s all over, the two men congratulate themselves on a job well done – neither one of them realizing the woman is gone, and Christian only realizing later that his wallet, cellphone and cufflinks have been stolen. Instead of just letting it go, Christian will end up tracking his phone to a large apartment building – and it’s there where he really makes a mistake, that will end up haunting him the rest of the movie, and getting him in deeper and deeper trouble.
The film is largely episodic, which each episode operating both as its own sort of moral quandary, comedic set piece, and interestingly, a part of the larger overall picture. There are things that are never explained – like Anne’s pet chimpanzee for instance, who Christian sees one night when he’s over there, and we feel like he’s about to ask Anne why she has a pet chimp – but then again, she’s clearly ready to have sex, and he’s not going to stop that (the sex scene itself is funny, awkward, unerotic, and completely honest – and is followed by an absurdly long conversation about the condom that was used).
Basically the movie is about a man who has lived his life largely compartmentalized – he places the different aspects in his life in different boxes you could say – and throughout the course of the film, those boxes start to be mixed together, and he cannot function. The title of the movie comes from an upcoming exhibit at the museum, which is a literal square where inside “We all share the same rights and obligations” – a utopian idea that we all know what work in practice. There is a brilliant sequence late in the film at the museum during a black tie dinner, where Oleg (Terry Notary) a performance artist comes in and blurs the line between man and animal – at first in amusing ways, and then gradually in ways that start to annoy, and perhaps even endanger people. The sequence is perhaps a microcosm of the whole movie – the social contract works because we all agree to it – but it can be violated so easily, and then what are you supposed to do (and if you don’t know, do you do anything).
All of this probably sounds like it’s more a thought experiment than a movie – and there is certainly a danger that could happen here. But it’s grounded by Bang’s remarkable performance as Christian – who somehow keeps his character relatable – even charming – throughout, even as he does worse and worse things (Moss has the key supporting role – and she helps as well). The movie is also just outright funny. The film won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year – an irony not lost on anyone, as this film that wants to puncture the airless art world wins the biggest prize at the most arty film festival there is. That only makes things more interesting – and perhaps, proves its point.

Movie Review: Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid Goes West *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matt Spicer.
Written by: David Branson Smith & Matt Spicer.
Starring: Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Thorburn), Elizabeth Olsen (Taylor Sloane), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Dan Pinto), Wyatt Russell (Ezra O'Keefe), Billy Magnussen (Nicky Sloane), Pom Klementieff (Harley Chung).
I thought a lot about Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy while watching Matt Spicer’s debut film – Ingrid Goes West. There are times when I think that The King of Comedy is Scorsese’s masterpiece – and even if it isn’t, it was certainly his most perceptive about where the culture was going. You update the clothes that DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin wears and give him an iPhone, and you could pretty much remake the film the today – and it wouldn’t look like the crazy satire it looked like in 1983 – but rather a sketch of reality (put it alongside Sidney Lumet’s Network for 1976 – same thing). Ingrid Goes West doesn’t reach the levels of The King of Comedy – but its aim is in the right place. It is a film about a stalker, but this one isn’t obsessed with someone on TV – a remote person it is actually difficult to meet in real life – but rather someone she “met” on Instagram. What we in the audience (hopefully) know that Ingrid in the film doesn’t, is that knowing someone from Instagram isn’t like knowing them in real life – we all cultivate our image on Social Media to how we want to be perceived, not how we actually are. Ingrid knows as much about her object of obsession, Taylor (Elisabeth Olsen) as Pupkin did about Jerry Lewis’ talk show host in The King of Comedy – nothing.
As played by Plaza, Ingrid is essentially a blank – a person with nothing on behind the eyes, no genuine feeling for other people. She sees Taylor’s Instagram feed when she gets out on the mental ward following another stalking incident that turned violent (maceing a woman on her wedding day because she wasn’t invited to the wedding) – so Ingrid decides to pack up, cash the life insurance cheque she got when her mom died, and move to California to become best friends with Taylor.
It’s clear from fairly early on that the life of Taylor – and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) isn’t as perfect as Taylor proclaims it as on Instagram. Not that they’re miserable or anything – just that they are normal. They have the same fights about money, careers, family, etc. as every other couple has – but of course, you don’t post about that. This all flies by Ingrid, to whom nothing that isn’t perfect doesn’t really register (she remembers it all – but doesn’t acknowledge it). The arrival of Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) threatens Ingrid’s newly found friendship (Ingrid has found ways to weasel herself in) – probably because Nicky is smart enough to see a fellow scammer. Ingrid has to rope in her new landlord – Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) in some of her schemes.
Plaza is scary as Ingrid – because of that blankness. And yet, it is not a one note performance at all – she makes Ingrid someone to fear and pity at the same time – and she can be genuinely funny as well. I wish there was a little more depth to some of the other characters as well. Once we start to realize that Taylor isn’t as perfect as she pretends to be – and that her marriage isn’t either – there’s really not much more there (like everyone, she lies about what books she’s reading on social media). The movie veers to over-the-top territory in a kidnapping sequence (definitely trying for King of Comedy vibes there) – and then just kind of ends shortly after, in the way you probably expected it to from the beginning.
Yet, what works about the movie is excellent – it’s a genuine, sharp tongued satire of our modern age of social media, with another great performance by Aubrey Plaza. It’s funny and disturbing in equal doses – which is how it should be.

Movie Review: Patti Cake$

Patti Cake$ *** / *****
Directed by: Geremy Jasper.
Written by: Geremy Jasper.
Starring: Danielle Macdonald (Patti), Bridget Everett (Barb), Siddharth Dhananjay (Jheri), Mamoudou Athie (Basterd), Cathy Moriarty (Nana), McCaul Lombardi (Danny), Patrick Brana (Slaz), MC Lyte (DJ French Tips), Sahr Ngaujah (O-Z).
No one can really claim that Patti Cake$ is in anyway an original movie. It is basically Eight Mile with a heavyset white women in the lead – and remember, Eight Mile was essentially Purple Rain, with Eminem stepping in for Prince. And Purple Rain wasn’t that original either. You know the beats this story is going to hit from the moment it begins – and it hits them all – and hard. Yet, despite my better judgement, the movie mainly won me over. The performances are winning and touching, and the music is genuinely catchy. No, the film didn’t become the audience favorite so many thought it was going to be out of Sundance – but you’d have to be pretty cynical to hate it.
The film takes place in the downtrodden wasteland of suburban New Jersey. It’s there where Patti (Danielle Macdonald) lives with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett) and chain smoking Nana (Cathy Moriaty). The family is poor – Barb is a hair dresser, not making very much, Patti – who’s now 23 bartends, at a low rent dive. Patti can never be sure if Barb has a new man in her life or not – Barb drinks a lot, and battles depression – and when she wants to, her rage can be turned on Patti.
Patti alongside her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) – who works in a pharmacy – have what is likely an unrealistic dream of becoming rappers. It’s a dream Barb does not encourage – she had dreams of her own music career, and they didn’t go far. Patti and Jheri have to deal with the assholes who don’t think they’ll be able to do it, not because of their talent (they don’t see them perform) – but because of who they are, an overweight white girl and her Indian friend. It doesn’t help that Patti has stage fright, and backs down quickly when they do get their chance. Eventually these two misfits will meet a third one – Basterd (Mamodou Athie) – who lives in a shack by the cemetery, and is some sort of metal/rap musical genius.
You know where this is headed, right? If you don’t, congratulations on watching your first movie ever. For the first half hour or so of the movie, I resisted, because everything seemed to be running on a track – everything was too by-the-numbers, and easy. But gradually, the movie does wear you down. A lot of that has to do with Macdonald, who brings genuine emotion to her role as Patti – you don’t often see women like her in the lead roles of movies, and she knows it. She lacks confidence, but is a genuine hard working and nice person – and when we do hear her rap, she is legitimately great as well. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag – I don’t know that Jheri ever really becomes a complete character, and Basterd certainly doesn’t. Bridget Everett, the bold, brash stand-up comedian really does bring it as Patti’s mom as well – she surprised me, in a good way.
The film is directorial debut of Geremy Jasper – who also wrote the music for the film. As a first effort, it’s pretty good – he certainly isn’t swinging for the fences, but then that’s a mistake too many inexperienced directors make – trying to do too much, and end up doing it all poorly. Patti Cake$ lacks ambition – but it does what it sets out to do.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Movie Review: Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 **** / *****
Directed by: John Ridley.
Written by: John Ridley.
Back in April – the 25th Anniversary of the L.A. Riots (or L.A. Uprising if you prefer) I reviewed four films in one massive review on the subject – Spike Lee’s Rodney King, L.A. 92, Burn, Motherfucker, Burn! and L.A. BurningL The Riots 25 Years Later. All of them had something of interest to say about the riots, but had their drawbacks as well (some more than others). Of that group, I thought L.A. 92 – which aired on National Geographic – was the best – essentially the filmmakers pieced together archival news footage of the events, and cut it together so it felt like you were watching things unfold in real time. At that time, I did note that there was another film I wanted to see but it wasn’t available yet – John Ridley’s Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 – which I did not watch when they aired it on network TV, since they were reducing a movie that ran 2 hours and 24 minutes to a 2 hour slot, full of commercials – this did not seem like an ideal way to present an important film. So I waited – and finally, with the film being released on Netflix, I was able to take in Ridley’s film. I’m still not sure it’s better than L.A. 92 – but the two are clearly the best, and both offer much different, important angles on what happened – and Ridley’s film provides more context, without getting lost (which was the issue with the very ambitious, not altogether successful Burn, Motherfucker, Burn).
Ridley – the acclaimed novelist. Oscar winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, and TV creator – has crafted a brilliant documentary that looks backwards in time from 1982, until the riots a decade later. The first hour of the film is basically the lead-up to riots, as it documents the controversial police chief Daryl Gates, the LAPD’s problems with dealing with the African American community – the deaths that resulted from the chokeholds that the LAPD later banned, giving their officers the metal batons used to beat Rodney King instead, and finally the beating that King received at the hands of those officers. This distillation of a tumultuous decade in Los Angeles has been the downfall of other filmmakers – who either dive too deeply and get lost, or don’t understand it at all – but Ridley moves deftly and quickly through this history, and in a way that is engrossing, fascinating, infuriating and emotional.
The next hour of the documentary, is basically the riots themselves – the trial of the police officers accused, and the anger that spilled out into the streets. What Ridley does here is fascinating – he has interviews with almost everyone you would want him to (the officers who beat King obviously are not here, neither is King himself, who died in 2012, or Gates who died in 2010) – but he doesn’t let us know who they are until after they start speaking. We get their story and their perspectives, without pre-judging them, and only gradually do we understand the roles that they played. Ridley also presents the most complex view of the riots themselves I have seen – showing how some people, however well-meaning they were, actually did things to make things on the ground worse. There is footage here I have never seen before, and while that doesn’t necessarily change your view on what happened, it deepens it.
The final 20 minutes or so of the documentary are a fascinating coda – and unlike the other documentaries, Ridley doesn’t treat it as an afterthought. We have seen – in this film and others – some of the brutal attacks that happened during the riots – including that on the white truck driver, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film has interviews with the young black men who carried out that beating (it doesn’t reveal who they are until late in the film, even though they’ve been there throughout) – and while I found myself not necessarily feeling bad for them – they were guilty of something, right? – you kind of do have to wonder why it is that they faced harsher penalties than anyone else.
Throughout Let it Fall, Ridley does a great job at showing sympathy and empathy for many involved – especially those who lost loved ones, who he gives the space the breathe a little bit, and tell their stories, and doesn’t just rush them through. This is documentary filmmaking at its finest – and even if you’ve seen this history in the other films mentioned (not to mention last year’s magnum opus O.J.: Made in America) it is still more than worthwhile. American still needs to deal with the fallout of this – and they haven’t yet, which is why this documentary is so relevant today – even if Ridley never comes into the present, it’s still easy to feel it.

Classic Movie Review: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
Directed by: Jeff Margolis 
Written by: Richard Pryor 
Starring: Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert both invented – and perfected – the stand-up comedian concert film. The film was shot, produced and distributed independently – hitting theaters in early 1979, after being film in December 1978 – and was the first film to be an entire stand-up comedian’s act – which is amazing when you think of it –why did it take so long? In an age when Netflix seemingly drops a few stand-up specials evert week, something like Richard Pryor: Live in Concert can probably be viewed as one of the most influential films of its era – and that would be true even if the film was so hilarious – which it is.
The film is only 78 minutes long, and is just Pryor stalking the stage in Long Beach, California – to a largely white audience – who eat up every moment of Pryor’s routine. A comedy album of Pryor would undoubtedly be funny – but it is his physical presence, the way he twists and turns his body that makes much of what he’s doing out and out hilarious. Whether he’s showing the difference between how white and black walk through the forest, the various reactions of a deer, recreating his amateur boxing career, impersonating his grandmother as she beats him with a switch, or curls up on the stage as he recreates his heart attack, Pryor shows just what a brilliant physical comedian he was. This is not a lazy man’s comedy performance – ones where the comedian stand on stage in one spot (or get a stool) and tell jokes from 90 minutes – this really is a whole body performance. And it’s brilliant.
It’s also honest – as Pryor, as always, isn’t afraid to air his demons on stage. True, his recounting of the incident where he shot his car to stop his wife from leaving him is short – but it’s there, and he doesn’t make excuses for it. There is material about his drug use, his family life – and even a joke about police killing black people. Pryor doesn’t hold back – even though, at his heart, he really is a stand-up comedian like everyone else. He’s just better at it.
In 1979, Pryor needed a movie like this to accurately capture who and what he was onstage. Today, he could do any number of TV specials, where he is able to say or do whatever he wanted – but in 1979, that would have been impossible. I didn’t count the number of times Pryor says “nigger” in 78 minutes, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t average at least one per minute. It was smart of Pryor – and his people – to do a movie like this, and to keep it relatively simple. The director, Jeff Margolis – has basically spent his career doing concert specials and films, and knows what’s doing – point the camera at Pryor, and let him go.
There isn’t much to say about the film unless I would start recounting jokes – which I won’t do. It is a great film, and one of the most influential of its time – both in terms of format, and content for modern comedians. It is a showcase for Pryor’s particular brand of genius – and it’s brilliant.

Movie Review: Band Aid

Band Aid *** / *****
Directed by: Zoe Lister-Jones.
Written by: Zoe Lister-Jones.
Starring: Zoe Lister-Jones (Anna), Adam Pally (Ben), Fred Armisen (Dave), Susie Essman (Shirley), Retta (Carol), Hannah Simone (Grace), Ravi Patel (Bobby), Brooklyn Decker (Candice), Jamie Chung (Cassandra Diabla), Erinn Hayes (Crystal Vichycoisse).
Anyone who is married – or has been – knows that it is not easy. The rewards of a long marriage are plentiful, but the downfalls are there as well, and if you don’t reckon with them, and work on them, they can destroy the marriage. The marriage at the heart of Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid is one of those marriages who, in real life, would probably end – not necessarily in fireworks, but just kind of fizzle out. The married life really isn’t for either of these people, but they’ve embraced it anyway – and considering that nothing else in their life is working out, they have to wonder what it says about them if this fails as well. This is obviously a setup for a musical comedy.
Band Aid was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, who also stars as one half of the couple, Anna, and wrote all the songs as well. Her husband, Ben, is played by Adam Pally – and they play this L.A. couple whose life is basically a bunch of failed dreams – she once had a book deal, but that fell through, and now she’s an Uber driver – he was an artist, now making a living doing corporate logos – although sometimes he just blows that off to smoke weed and play video games. Everyone else they know seem to have their life in order – marriage, career, kids – and they have nothing. A miscarriage a year ago has left them sort of numb – especially since they don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about anything. Then, by chance, they pick up some instruments and start writing songs together – songs in which they say all the things they cannot say in real life. They drag in their weird neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen) to play the drums – although he often just sits there and listens to them yell at each other. But somehow, through the music, this couple comes together – at least for the time being.
All of this probably sounds more than a little insufferable, right? I know I had avoided the film – even if I fully support Lister-Jones’ idea to hire an all-female crew on the movie, because the whole thing sounded hopelessly twee – yet another film about hapless, grown-up hipsters who still act like teenagers. To be fair, some of that is true here – but not all of it. The film is peppered with enough humor, and enough genuine insights into marriage and relationships – and pivotally, the songs are good enough – that the whole thing doesn’t collapse under its own navel gazing weight. In fact, the film is more genuinely moving and insightful than most Sundance comedy/dramas I see in a given year.
Yes, to a certain extent, the whole thing is a pile of clichés – and while I like him just fine here, I’ve never warmed to Adam Pally as much as many seem to (he always strikes me as someone I wouldn’t want to spend any time in real life with – and if I did, I’d want to punch in the face). But there is genuine chemistry here, and the film is honest enough to admit that all this may just be temporary – that in a way, the music is yet another way for this couple not to deal with their shit. That sets it apart – enough – for it to be a decent movie. I look forward to what Lister-Jones does next.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Martin McDonagh.
Written by: Martin McDonagh.
Starring: Frances McDormand (Mildred Hayes), Sam Rockwell (Officer Jason Dixon), Woody Harrelson (Sheriff Bill Willoughby), Peter Dinklage (James), Caleb Landry Jones (Red), Abbie Cornish (Anne Willoughby), Lucas Hedges (Robbie Hayes), Clarke Peters (Abercrombie), Zeljko Ivanek (Deputy), John Hawkes (Charlie), Brendan Sexton III (Crop Haired Man), Nick Searcy (Father Montgomery), Sandy Martin (Mama Dixon), Amanda Warren (Denise Watson), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Jerome).
It is not an easy thing that writer-director Martin McDonagh pulls off in his third, and best, feature film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the year’s most quotable film – full of great one liners, funnier than any comedy you will see this year. It’s also a film that completely and totally breaks your heart, and will have you in tears. It is full of complex characters that at times you will love, and times you may well hate – and which one it is may change more than once during the film. It is, simply put, one of the very best films of the year.
In the film, national treasure Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes – the mother of 20 year girl who six months before was raped and murdered, before he body was set on fire. The police still have made no arrests, and don’t really have any leads. So Mildred decides to up the pressure on the police – renting out three never used billboards to make her message heard loud and clear – she isn’t happy with the job the police, led by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is doing. While you can immediately relate to the righteous anger that Mildred feels – it’s surprising how much you instantly like Willoughby as well. He’s charmingly played by Harrelson, who can give as well as he takes – and goes toe to toe with McDormand and more than holds his own. He’s dying of cancer – and thinks that may win him some sympathy from her. No such luck. There are other major characters – Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) isn’t the sharpest guy on the force, and already has excessive force complaints against him – but he’s extremely loyal to Willoughby and doesn’t like what Mildred is doing to him. The casting supporting these three is the best ensemble of the year – Caleb Landry Jones as the slimy ad salesman in town, Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s surviving child, who wants a normal life, John Hawkes as her ex-husband, screwing a 19 year old and best of all Peter Dinklage, who nurses a crush on Mildred. His role at first doesn’t feel like much – but his last line in the movie is both my favorite in its delivery, and changes your perspective on the film more than a little bit.
McDonagh – who won an Oscar for the very entertaining short Six Shooter, and followed it up with the great debut feature In Bruges (and it follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, not nearly as good, but a hell of a lot of fun) has gone deeper here than in the past. His three leads are deeply flawed, yet sympathetic characters that he makes more complicated as they go. McDormand knows this the best role she has got since Fargo, and rips into it with a vengeance – but doesn’t go the easy route, and make her one note. You start out hating Dixon – but it’s surprising just how much you like him by the end – it may well be Rockwell’s best work ever. And what can be said about Woody Harrelson, except that this is the type of role he does to perfection. The movie offers no easy answers – and the final actions that each of these characters make are not so simple themselves – and complicate our feelings towards them as well.
The film is set on a sprawling canvas of Middle America in a way that we often do not see. It is set in the same area (or at least state) as Netflix’s recent series Ozarks – but captures the characters better, and with less condescension. It’s a messy, poor, dead-end town with not a lot going on – that boredom, and homey small town values, giving way to something darker underneath. These people probably all voted for Trump – yet you like them all.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is precisely the type of film that I am a soft touch for – it’s the type of film that made me fall in love with movies as a teenager in the 1990s (had it come out then, I probably would have watched it approximately 25 times by now). But it’s hardly a throwback, and has more complex characters than many of those films did to go along with the snappy dialogue. In short, it’s the best film of its kind to come out in a long, long time.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Movie Review: 11/8/16

11/8/16 ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Duane Andersen & Don Argott & Yung Chang & Garth Donovan & Petra Epperlein & Vikram Gandhi & Raul Gasteazoro & J. Gonçalves & Andrew Grace & Alma Har'el & Sheena M. Joyce & Daniel Junge & Alison Klayman & Ciara Lacy & Martha Shane & Elaine McMillion Sheldon & Bassam Tariq & Michael Tucker.
I assume the filmmakers behind the new documentary 11/8/16 thought that the film they were making was going to turn off differently – just like practically everyone else in the world did. The premise of the film is that a group of filmmakers follow various people, from different parts of America, in different walks of life, on Election Day 2016. There are Hillary supporters and Trump supporters – even an Evan McMullen supporter, and one guy in Hawaii who doesn’t even seem to know an election is going on (to be fair to him, he is a convicted felon, who spent the last 20 years in jail – so he couldn’t vote even if he wanted to). When the film begins, almost everyone – even those who are Trump people – admit they think Hillary is probably going to win. What happens for the rest of the documentary will either be joyous schadenfreude for Trump supporters, or a slow motion horror film for everyone else.
The filmmakers seem to deliberately trying to avoid the extremes on either the left or the right in the documentary. There are a few New York artists who believe that the whole system is corrupt, and so being involved in it in any way makes you corrupt – but they’re not exactly Bernie Bros shouting about rigged elections. On the right the film does have a couple in Massachusetts argue about Trump’s suitably for office – even as they both vote for him, her more reluctantly than him – and a family of a coal miner in Virginia, neither family seems like the type who would change their twitter handle to proudly state that they are “Deplorables”. Their comments rise to the level of perhaps, vaguely racist – but with enough wiggle room to leave doubt.
I understand why the filmmakers decided this – I don’t think they wanted this documentary to become another polemic – another instance of people screaming at each other, and not listening to what others have to say. Their goal was clearly to make a film in which no matter what your affiliation, you could sit down and watch – and maybe come away with some understanding of why people voted the way they did. But if the 2016 election was about anything, it was about those extremes, and pretending they don’t exist – as this documentary does – leaves an incomplete portrait of what that day – and that election was like. We know why, say, a coal miner would vote for Trump – you can be against coal, and think we need to move away from it, and understand that.
The result is a film that basically skims the surface of the 2016 election, and to be honest, I’m not quite sure what the overall value to that is. The film is never less than engaging – no matter your political beliefs, you will probably find some people here you immediately relate to, and others you immediately despise, etc. – and it is somewhat interesting to see the slow dawning realization that Trump could actually win, and then he actually did from the outside – rather than the inside as we all experienced it a year ago. But the film feels somewhat incomplete and cursory. It’s too civil to be a documentary about 2016 – not because the film necessarily needs to take sides, but it needs to show that discord that it actively avoids.

Movie Review: Machines

Machines *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Rahul Jain.
Machines is a documentary that takes us inside a textile factory in India, and basically simply observes the workers as they go about their day. The film runs only 70 minutes, and it takes a good 15 minutes before any of these workers actually speak to the camera – until then, we see some brilliant, beautiful cinematography from inside that factory, as the workers go about their day. Eventually, the unseen and unheard filmmaker will start interviewing the workers about what they do – their long days, of back-to-back 12 hour shifts, and what they need to do to simply get to the factory – many of the workers are from other places in India, and take 36 hour train rides, with no food, water or even seats – to be able to work for almost no money.
On one level, I admire Machines a great deal. The camera work in the film – all with natural light, is fluid, and beautiful – it makes great use of the space, and does the workers in long, unbroken shots as they strain themselves to do their work – or in some cases, simply to stay awake. They are machines themselves – or at least treated like them. It’s interesting to hear their own take on the work they do, and whether or not it is exploitive. It’s also interesting when, late in the film, the director follows things up the food chain – to those who are selling the finished product, or those who own the factory. The factory owner here is precisely what you would expect – he dismisses workers complaints, says that most of them don’t care about their families, no matter what they say, and that if he raised their pay to the point where his workers would comfortable, they would stop caring, and the factory would suffer. If this were scripted dialogue, it would sound too on the nose.
On another level though, I think the movie is lacking some context. You cannot help but wonder when you watch the film how it is that director Rahul Jain and his camera crew got inside the factory to begin with (it turns out that he visited a factory formerly owned by his grandfather – and he knew some of the workers), or just how widespread this practice is. When, late in the film, a group of workers confront his camera – ask him what he is directing, and what he is going to do – if anything – to help them, it’s a legitimate question. The workers believe that he will be just another person who comes down, listens to their problems, and then leaves – and there’s no evidence to suggest that is exactly what he does.
Still, there is value is simply depicting life in this one factory, and sticking closely to that perspective – illuminating it to those watching, without turning Machines into another “hyperlink doc” that preaches to the converted for 90 minutes, and then asks you to “Get Involved!” at the end. Machines is far from a perfect doc – but it’s still an important one.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Steven Murphy), Nicole Kidman (Anna Murphy), Barry Keoghan (Martin), Raffey Cassidy (Kim Murphy), Bill Camp (Matthew), Sunny Suljic (Bob Murphy), Alicia Silverstone (Martin's Mother).
With each of his films, I grow more in awe of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos – not necessarily because each film is better than the last (they aren’t) – but because each film is a strange high wire act, with so many ways they could go wrong, and only one way to go right – and somehow, he pulls it off. His latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is hilarious and horrifying and heartbreaking, sometimes all at the same time, in the same scene. Lanthimos has made a film that will challenge those few audiences who still want that in a film – and like he did in Dogtooth and The Lobster – made a film that you won’t soon shake.
The film stars Colin Farrell as Dr. Steven Murphy – a heart surgeon, with an outwardly perfect life – beautiful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), two kids, and girl of 15 Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and a boy a few years younger, Bob (Sunny Suljic). They live in a nice neighborhood, in a beautiful house and seem to have it all. Behind those closed doors though – of course – not everything is quite right, there are fractured and fissures in the family that we noticed, but are not discussed. These are eventually exploited by Martin (Barry Keoghan) – a 16 year old boy, who Steven has “befriended”. Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table a few years ago, and Martin seemingly wants Steven to take over for the father he lost. In one hilariously awkward sequence, Steven goes to Martin’s house for dinner – where his mother (Alicia Silverstone – perfect in a one scene role) tries to seduce him. When that doesn’t work, Martin has to bring out the bigger guns. He tells Steven that one of his family members needs to die – Steven killed Martin’s father, so one of his family needs to die to balance the scales, see. Steven can choose which one to kill – but if he doesn’t, all three of them will die – they’ll become paralyzed, refuse to eat, and eventually bleed from their eyes. When both Kim and Bob become paralyzed from the waist down – Steven still doesn’t believe what is happening. He turns to science to solve the problem – which, of course, it cannot.
Lanthimos isn’t really one for backstory or explanations in his films – there was no indication of why society had gone the way it did in The Lobster for instance, or why the parents do what they do in Dogtooth. The same holds true here – we never really understand if Steven was at fault for what happened to Martin’s dad – he says he wasn’t, but his friend and anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) says he was (to be fair, Matthew is receiving an awkward hand job at the time). How Martin accomplishes what he does is also never explained. In this case, I take these as good things – what explanation would really suffice, anyway?
Lanthimos has gotten to the point in his career that he is able to cast the right actors in his films – those who get in, and are willing to go there with him. Farrell is just as good here as he was in The Lobster last year, in a much different role. Here, he is essentially playing a man who views himself as God – as infallible – who makes life and death decisions, but doesn’t want to deal with the consequences. He is oddly cold and clinical throughout much of the film – grasping at straws in science to explain the unexplainable. Nicole Kidman is also good – once again, showing just how adventurous an actress she really is – playing Anna, who on one hand is a caring mother, and yet, she exactly doesn’t offer to sacrifice herself now does she to save her kids? Barry Keoghan, who you will remember as the young guy who gets on the boat when he shouldn’t in this summer’s Dunkirk, is chilling as Martin. The kids are good – especially Cassidy as Kim, who falls for Martin, and sings a pop song in a haunting way that hasn’t left my head since. I’ve already mentioned Silverstone – and I don’t know what made Lanthimos think of her, but I’m glad he did.
The film is shot in Lanthimos’ trademark style – there are lots of long, flat, tracking shots, intercut with some haunting overhead visuals. Lanthimos drains much of the emotion out of his actor’s performances, and does the same thing with his shots. The production design is perfect – lots of cold, sterile hospital corridors, which is echoed in Steven’s home as well.
I’m not quite sure that the film quite rises to the level of Dogtooth or The Lobster – it isn’t quite as original as either of those films, and feels more like Lanthimos putting his own spin on a Michael Haneke film. Yet, oddly, it works. The film is a mixture of tones as genres – scenes that shouldn’t be funny are, and scenes that should horrifying are hilarious, and often at the same time. Lanthimos continues to push himself – and us in his audience – to tough places, forces us to confront harsh things – and then doesn’t give us the answers. He is one of the best directors working anywhere in the world right now.