Archive

2015

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Brian De Palma is a fascinating subject, in many ways, as fascinating a subject as a director. His best work is admittedly and unabashedly derivative, basically a total homage to Hitchcock (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables).  He has also made some atrocious films (Body Double, Casualties of War, Bonfire of the Vanities) and some films you can hate and then love and then hate again (Scarface, Carlito’s Way).

No matter how you feel about De Palma’s work, his recollections of film making in 70s and 80s Hollywood are a blast, and he’s a very easy and open storyteller.  This is an entertaining, comfortable review of his work presented entirely in clips and a single interview.

A few great tidbits: as a teenager, De Palma tailed his own father when he was cheating on his mother; during the execrable Casualties of War, Sean Penn would physically bully Michael J Fox and whisper to him “television actor.”

Good, fun stuff.  I’d take this sort of retrospective over a slathering like HBO’s Spielberg any day of the week.  Currently on Netflix streaming.

I looked at the IMDB description for this film, and nearly did a spit-take when I saw it categorized under “Comedy.”  A woman estranged from her family for years, clearly mentally disturbed and also a recovering substance abuser, arrives at her sister’s massive Thanksgiving get-together in Texas, where we get to watch every holler and stomp destabilize her like a gut punch, as she repeatedly retreats to the bathroom or patio to pop pills, smoke and/or eventually, booze.

Hilarious!

What follows is an intense exploration of the sufferings of a sick mind as it shimmies and shatters and the shards go flying into the innocent bystanders.  Krisha Fairchild is riveting as the poor wretch, but I’m simply too old for this kind of film.  One reviewer noted: “The story will eventually draw the viewer outside Krisha’s perspective, but the beauty of the film is that its compassion deepens along with its very real sense of horror — compassion not just for Krisha but for those who still love her or have given up on trying.”

Not so.  I don’t care about her and i don’t want to care about her.  She’s a narcissistic cancer and it’s neither fun nor interesting to watch the world try to pull her from a dizzying descent down the crapper.

Winner of the South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Jury Award and Audience Award, available on Amazon Prime, and as entertaining as orange juice on a canker sore.

An uplifting and engaging documentary about a Welsh barmaid and her two dozen working class pub clientele who decide they are going to kick in 10 pounds a month to back a racehorse. And by “back”, I mean, purchase the mare (who had a racing history of “last”, “eighth” and “pulled up”), purchase the semen, inseminate the mare, raise the foal, and then hand it over to one of the more premier training stables – Sandhill – the owners of which are naturally skeptical but happy for the monthly fee. The horse, Dream Alliance, is, of course, loaded with charm, and he leads a racing life ready-made for a Hollywood film, which I cannot believe is not in production as we speak.

This is a very nice, sweet, beautifully filmed documentary. It hits the class clash a little hard, and it could have included a little bit more about how racing in Great Britain works (for example, the damn horses don’t have a gate – they just take off in a gaggle – and there are hurdles on the straightaways!), but these are minor nits.

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A charming, light romantic comedy about a young New Yorker (Great Gerwig) who has an affair with an older would-be fiction writer/academic (Ethan Hawke) married to an even more prestigious academic (Julianne Moore). Hawke leaves Moore for Gerwig, but Gerwig soon realizes she has upset the natural order of things. What follows is her “plan” to rectify her error, which is breezy, funny and blessedly bereft of skin-searing indictments about betrayal, trust and commitment. It drags a bit at the end, but ultimately, the film delivers as a sweet, semi-screwball slice of life. It’s also satisfying to see such a product from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose The Ballad of Jack and Rose a decade ago was as heavy, dreary and miserable a film about relationships as you could imagine. Perhaps she’s in a better place.

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Given the subject matter – reporter Tina Fey gets out of her rut in NYC by going to cover the war in Afghanistan circa 2003 – it’s amazing they managed to make such a boring film. The first error is casting Fey, who can barely get one inch past her Liz Lemon character from 30 Rock. She’s little more than a smirk and a wink, so any transformation in or development of her character is simply impossible, and when she starts an affair with photographer Martin Freeman, she seems as put-off by the experience as the audience. Their love scene is akin to two kangaroos boxing, and further suggestions of coitus are shown the morning after, where Liz Lemon is hungover and horrified she may have slept with Griz.

Taxing her limited dramatic abilities further, the filmmakers ask her to try her hand at being an “action junkie.” You can almost hear the voices in Fey’s head imploring her, “act, damn you, act!”

So, we are left with a culture clash flick, with Fey repeatedly doing things most people in Afghanistan would not like, such as walking around without headcover, and holding hands publicly with Freeman, and filming things surreptitiously under her Islamic garb. Also not very good.

Although it does have the value of being surprisingly politically incorrect – the indigenous folk are primarily used as pratfall props while the Westerners are amused and snide, and in what has become the cardinal sin of Hollywood, non Afghanis are (gasp!) cast as locals – none of it rings true, which is a particular problem with a film based on a true story.

The film closes with a violent lurch to a Bin Laden type rescue of Freeman, orchestrated by the plucky Fey, to “Can’t Live” by Badfinger (or Harry Nilsson) and a treacly visit to a maimed Marine for whom she feels responsible but whose aplomb helps her become more grounded.  It’s just godawful.

The film has two directors, neither of whom knows what he is doing, which they demonstrate repeatedly over the picture’s excruciating two hours.

Billy Bob Thornton is the only saving grace as a gruff Marine officer who shepherds Fey around, but his screen time is limited.

 

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There’s not one thing in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing rise-and-fall epic that even nears original, but cliche’ does not always have to be hackneyed, and through inventive camera work, all-in performances by Jake Gyllenhaal (as the Hell’s Kitchen boxer who loses it all) and Forrest Whittaker (playing the wise and world weary trainer), a captivating turn by the child actress playing Gyllenhaal’s daughter (Clare Foley) and expert pacing, assisted by a jumped up soundtrack, the thing works and works well.  There are problems. Gyllenhaal’s fall is a bit too protracted, and as hard as she tries to be working class, Rachel McAdams simply lacks the necessary grit.  They tried to dirty Amy Adams up in another boxing movie, The Fighter, and that too was a bridge too far.  These actresses don’t evoke the street, unless that street has a cul-de-sac.

David O. Russell’s American Hustle was an over-heralded, stream-of-consciousness mess, but it was nominated for Best Picture, and I was a huge fan of Silver Linings Playbook, so the watching of Joy was obligatory. It was not an altogether unpleasant experience given Russell’s command of the camera and his early sense of pace. Russell briskly lntroduces us to Joy Mangano, a little girl and then a young woman destined for great things, if only she weren’t consistently thwarted by her lunatic family, a coterie of misfits and weirdos so peculiar they veer into Tim Burton territory. Still, with her one big idea – a self-wringing mop – she perseveres to become queen of The Home Shopping Network, though her journey is an exhausting “one step forward, two steps back” ordeal so arduous, even Jennifer Lawrence’s pluck and a kick ass Rolling Stones song (“Stray Cat Blues”) can’t make the resolution tolerable. One gets the sense Russell knows his audience is bored, because he appears to get bored, veering off into a resolution so off-kilter (Lawrence faces down her business foe in Texas, cutting her hair and donning leather, after reviewing some documents in a “Voila!” moment) it is laugh out loud funny.

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Screenwriter Diablo Cody made a big splash with the clever Juno, and showed real growth with the acid Young Adult. But that was a while ago.  This trite stinker, in the mold of so many dramadies about the travails of rich families as they negotiate the perilous path of monied suburbia, is a massive step backwards.

Cody offers Ricki, a talentless front woman for a cover band who has come home to her estranged, affluent ex-husband and adult children after a long hiatus.  She chews with her mouth open, says dirty words, and attends a family wedding.

But hey, it’s Meryl Streep, so we’re okay, right?

Right?

Wrong.  Streep is just terrible, whether slumming as the hip cast-off or leading the worst bar band ever. She’s in-authentically grungy and gratuitously down-to-earth and when she visits her erstwhile family, led by the kind ex-husband (Kevin Kline), it is cringe-inducing, not because of the fish-out-of-water stuff (this is the kind of movie where the denizens of the tony enclave practically say, “Well, I never!”), but because there’s not a word of it that feels real.  There is no way Streep’s character would even be a distant cousin to these people, much less the former matriarch.

Kline has, of course, remarried a protective earth mother type who raised the abandoned children while Ricki honed her craft covering Tom Petty.  Others who Ricki abandoned include a nice son about to get married to the most stuck-up bitch imaginable; a fragile daughter who has had a breakdown because her marriage of three seconds failed (you’d think she’d been a captive of Boko Haram, so extreme is her distress); and a son straight out of gay central casting (he is furious because Ricki called his gayness a phase and voted for W . . . twice!)

All of which would be humdrum but bearable twaddle save for the fact that Ricki and her shit band play about 7 numbers in this picture, including a version of Wooly Boolie so bad we could have won the war on terror years ago had it been utilized at Guantanamo.

Worse, Ricki’s version of Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down starts more like a Quarterflash tune and ends with your head in a bucket.

After August: Osage County and this, I am not saying Streep is at that Pacino point, where she thinks she can just fart in a bottle and call it potpourri.

But she’s veering to the off ramp.

Least likely sentence I ever expected to write?  Rick Springfield, who plays the lead guitarist for the Flash and Ricki’s love interest, deserved better.

 

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In the hullabaloo about the dearth of people of color represented as Oscar nominees, Creed was identified by some as a glaring omission, not only for director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) but actor Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, The Fantastic Four). Sylvester Stallone was also awarded a nomination for best supporting actor and the critics scored the film a 94% on rottentomatoes.

Everyone appears to have lost their fool mind. The movie – which chronicles the son of Apollo Creed as he vies for the title – veers between the deathly dull and the ludicrous. There are four – count ‘em, four! – montage scenes of Jordan training, one of which has him being chased down a Philly street in slo-mo by kids on dirt bikes and trikes, howling outside the window of Rocky, who looks embarrassed by the spectacle.  It’s one of the most bizarre images I’ve seen in a mainstream movie. You really have to see it to believe it. There are also some dizzying fight scenes. That’s all of the recommendations.

Jordan is given the thankless role of the young up-and-comer, plagued by the relationship he never had with his father. Except, he’s a rich kid, plucked from a group home by his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and well-ensconced at Smith Barney or some such firm. It is on the weekend he laces up and goes to Tijuana to box. Why? Who the hell knows? As played by Jordan, Adonis Creed is a medium cool dullard, drawn to Philadelphia to train with Rocky by sheer ennui. He doesn’t seem to care much, so why should we?

When he gets there, he finds ole’ Rock shambling about a restaurant. Rocky won’t train him, but then relents, and then Rocky doesn’t want Adonis to take the big fight prematurely, but then relents, and then Rocky gets cancer and won’t get treatment, but then relents. All this relenting is done in that same barely articulable monotone Stallone has honed over the years. I guess I can see how the protestors at the Oscars felt. If you’re gonna’ award Stallone for this phone in performance, how about all of us for the larger piece of shit?

Along the way, we get such gems as Rocky putting Adonis in front of a mirror, counseling, “That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face.” There’s also a unpersuasive love story between Adonis and a Lisa Bonet look-alike – they emit as much spark as siblings.

Stinkeroo.

It says a lot that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin can hold your attention to a picture consisting solely of conversation. Yes, Sorkin and David Fincher did the same thing in The Social Network, but there, the characters were developing before your very eyes, and things were happening – a revolutionary product was being developed, friendships and rivalries were being established, complaints were being lodged, people were being screwed, and litigation was ongoing. Here, we meet Steve Jobs pretty much fully formed, at the peak of his first rise, as he launches the product that will result in his first fall, and he has already established the defining templates and themes for most of his relationships. He converses with his early collaborator and colleague (a surprisingly forceful Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak), another colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg), his loyal lieutenant (Kate Winslet) his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child (Katherine Waterston), his CEO (Jeff Daniels) and his daughter (various actresses). With the exception of a few short flashbacks, we repeat these conversations at different points in Jobs’ life, and while the effect is pronounced with regard to the relationship between Jobs and his daughter, the rest is pretty much the same conversation (certainly, with Wozniak, Waterston and Winslet), and it takes all of the gifts Boyle and Sorkin can muster to maintain interest. That’s said, mine was maintained, and as Jobs, a man so driven and disconnected that he can freely renounce his paternity of a little girl to her face, Fassbender is in total control. There is a wonderfully written scene with Jobs and longtime friend and co-worker Stuhlbarg that demonstrates the wit of Sorkin while exhibiting the unique remove and iciness of Jobs. Jobs says “I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me”, Stuhlbarg tells Jobs he’s always disliked him, and Jobs responds “Really? I’ve always liked you a lot. That’s too bad.”

As with The Social Network, Sorkin has also shorn his dialogue of the cutesy, easy patter that often plagues his work (I counted one Sorkinism – where Fassbender smarmily asks Winslet why they haven’t slept together – and that was it). The film clicks and moves, but it does not pause to celebrate its own cleverness. Still, there is not a lot of meat on this bone.  I didn’t learn a great deal more about Jobs from conversation to conversation, nor was I made privy to his genius, unless that genius is solely derived from drive and calculation.