Archive

Genre

Prime Video: Shiva Baby

Writer-director Emma Seligman’s first feature is close to unbearably long, and it runs a mere 77 minutes. I can’t say the film isn’t good or well-acted (it is), or that Seligman does not have an assured hand and a bright future (she does). But this story of a college age girl forced to endure almost every imaginable humiliation while sitting shiva with parents and other family members who take their stereotypical Jewishness “to 11” will not be everyone’s cup of Manischewitz.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a destabilized Columbia college student who makes money on the side as a prostitute, hurriedly arrives from the bachelor pad of a trick to a post funeral gathering of a distant family member. There, she runs in to just about every person in her life capable of making her uncomfortable, with her mother the Torquemada of Brooklyn. unknowingly orchestrating her serial agonies.

Mostly cringe inducing, occasionally funny, the ingredients in Seligman’s film are off. It’s too unpleasant and abrasive, bordering on the sadistic (forget the indignities wrought by attendees, the house lacerates and nearly scalds Danielle, who spends a good portion of the film cleaning it or retreating to the bathroom). I suspect the gulf between critical acclaim and audience enjoyment is wide.

Sennott, however, is very adept at portraying young woman as leaf in the wind. We get to see Danielle in all of her insecure, self-destructive, harried glory. If that’s your thing.

On a lot “best of 2021” lists (it’s not, but it is promising). On HBO.

Nicholas Braun as Derrek, Riley Keough as Stefani, Taylour Paige as Zola and Colman Domingo as X in director Janicza Bravo’s “Zola.” Cr: Anna Kooris/A24

In 2016, Janicza Bravo wrote and directed one of the better entries for the TV series Atlanta, where the two black protagonists must negotiate their fraught relationship while enduring a bizarre Juneteenth party thrown by a wealthy couple, he, white and cluelessly solicitous, she black and protective of her status.

The party is unsurprisingly surreal.

The episode is bitterly funny and arch, but Bravo is hemmed in by the room, one that gets more claustrophobic as the tenuous couple try to hold it together.

With Zola, Bravo is unrestrained, and the result is a dizzying, frenetic, trippy After Hours-esque black comedy nightmare, one based on a real life 148-tweet thread about a trip a Detroit stripper took to Florida with another stripper named Jessica.

Opening line” “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

The film is about feel, specifically, the texture of an ill-advised road trip that has gone horribly wrong.  The characters are hilarious, but they are as much pinballs as people (one of the few weaknesses; it’s easier not to care about their plight). In Bravo’s hands, the curves and jolts just keep coming, though she occasionally slows the action so the main stripper and poorest of the decision makers (Taylour Paige) can almost get her bearings. Bravo is so technically adept, these parts of the film play exactly like the part of a rollercoaster where the car deaccelerates on a curve, and then, zoom. You’re off again.

The film sports an innovative montage sequence, strange local rituals (her Florida is the land of “Florida Man” without even mentioning him), and the cellphone as arteries, veins and lungs to modern dimwits. I feel like I missed half of it and want to take the ride again. But what I saw was totally engrossing and I often laughed out loud for as long as I had time.

Bravo’s talent is undeniable and will likely be expended on the next Marvel franchise, Dr. WeirdButt of the Multiverse.

On Hulu.

The Last Duel | 20th Century Studios

Ridley Scott makes damn fun pictures, and his historical films are some of his most enjoyable. However, when he gets too wrapped up in the visuals, he often loses the thread of story, as with Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven, sumptuous, beautiful, and utterly uninvolving period pieces.

Of course, his triumph is Gladiator, a CGI-infused, sweaty swashbuckling Roman sausage fest, and to answer Russell Crowe, yes, we were entertained.

I declare that I have been entertained yet again. The Last Duel is stunning to look at, standard for Scott (it almost feels like a Rick Steves French castle fantasy tour), but it’s also a heck of a lot of pleasure, tiptoeing the line of serious and playful perfectly.

The story is simple. We are in France, Normandy, in the Middle Ages. Two knights (stolid, humorless and blunt Matt Damon and dashing, conniving Lothario Adam Driver) spend a great deal of those Ages bringing heavy swords down on the heads of their enemies, intriguing at court, and eventually, becoming bitter enemies over property disputes and Driver’s influence with a more powerful knight (Ben Affleck). Their enmity reaches boiling point when Driver is accused of raping Damon’s wife (Jodie Comer). One of the nifty aspects of the film, based on a non-fiction book, is that it is told through three vantage points: that of Damon, Driver, and Comer.

You may want to stop reading here, as this has just recently been released on HBO, and spoilers will follow.

We live every scene through the eyes of each protagonist. Sometimes, they match up, sometimes there are minor variations, and other times, the recollections are night and day. But the devil is in the details, and some of the differences are quite revealing. The play and import of comparison is one of the niftier aspects of the film.

There is also a relatively notable feminist bent here, not surprising, given the subservient nature of women at the time and the #MeToo influence during its making. But screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Can You Ever Forgive Me), Damon and Affleck, if not always subtle, are not heavy-handed and don’t become too dour or instructive. In fact, the societal inquiry as to whether Comer could become pregnant via unpleasurable sex/rape is an intriguing line (if memory serves me, some time ago, a Missouri Senate candidate torpedoed his own bid because he suggested that one could not become pregnant through rape).

Regardless, the entire endeavor is alternatively fun, nail-biting, and then, because Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott, muscular, bloody and satisfactory.

Damon, who I have raved about for years as the industry’s most underrated actor (criminally ignored in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and Contagion), again delivers. After his performance in Stillwater, when, oh when, will he be properly rewarded for his performances? Driver is also impressive, and as he showed in Marriage Story, there is a dark pit just underneath his easy bonhomie. Comer is often beautifully vulnerable and you feel for her right off.

But, and hear me out, Affleck near steals the picture as Driver’s sybarite patron, a man who enjoys needling Damon no end, almost as much as his wine and his orgies. Seriousness is tedium to him, and while you are supposed to sympathize with Damon, Affleck is so delicious that at times, you are swayed by his pinpoint cruelty (“He’s no fucking fun!” he kvetches to Driver). But it’s more than a foppish turn; Affleck’s prince knows the kind of harm Damon, with his unyielding sense of honor, can pose to Driver, and he does his best to ward him off.

After a little too long for my taste, the film ends in a brutal battle to the death, gripping and by no means telegraphed in terms of the victor. And while, given its feminist inclinations, it could’ve ended with some kind of solemn tut tut message for all of us (the “Medieval Epic About Believing All Women” reviews were as plentiful as predictable), instead, Scott gives us a weepy and happy Huzzah!

The Tragedy of Macbeth' Apple TV+ Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Joel Coen’s stark, bleak, black-and-white world of Scotland is discomfiting, eerie and arresting, immediately drawing your eye to it. As the characters emerge from the shadows, their agendas become apparent, that of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) being the foulest. Washington is capable, and as his descent into suspicion and madness progresses, he fully occupies the role. When revenge comes for him, he is lost and distracted, fending off portents and omens and a clever and novel rendition of one witch as three (a terrifying, freakishly limber Kathryn Hunter). Yet, he is still ferocious. I very much enjoyed how Washington played Macbeth, tortured and brooding but still lethal, even as his conversation becomes one largely with himself.

Better, Coen never lets the language become turgid in the mouths of the actors nor an obstacle to the story. You are carried along with genuine feeling for the fates of the protagonists, even though you know them in advance.

However, there are issues, the primary one being pace. Coen is almost too expeditious and the film zips along at 1:45 minutes. As my daughter rightly pointed out, more time should have been devoted to the persuasion and seduction of Macbeth. As it is, his objections feel perfunctory, and it is here Washington is weakest. Similarly, I thought Lady Macbeth’s descent into guilt-ridden madness was also rushed.  She is the progenitor of the conspiracy, and her frustrations at Macbeth’s missteps and then mental breakdown still reflect a woman who is totally in command, or at least, strategically keeping it together for her increasingly unstable husband. And then, next time we see her, she’s a total wackadoodle. Given Coen’s nifty expansion of Ross (Alex Hassell) from mere messenger to sociopathic near-puppet master, there is no reason he could not have given us more of Macbeth cajoled and Lady Macbeth degenerating.

Also, while I liked Stephen Root’s brief scene as Porter, it’s one of those Shakespeare adaptation conceits where someone cameos and really lets us have it, which is discordant.

Very good. Currently streaming on Apple.

The Way We Were (Columbia, 1973). Half Sheet (22" X 28"). Romance.. | Lot  #51476 | Heritage Auctions

Redford: “I don’t think we’re going to make it, Katie.”
Close up on the incandescent Katie (Barbra Streisand).

23 Reasons "The Way We Were" Featured The Best Romance Of All Time | Barbra  streisand, Barbra, Love movie

So, I caught this the other day and at 57 years of age, I know I have seen parts, but can’t remember if I ever saw the entire picture. There’s something nifty about a competent, charming old Hollywood love story with two big beautiful stars. I forgot how vibrant and carnal Streisand is and what a huge imprint she makes. Robert Redford mostly stays out of her way (as she says of his book, Hubbell “stands back”) and looks magnificent in a Navy uniform or a tennis outfit.

You know these two cannot exist outside of her apartment, but watching them try to cram their dissonant personalities into Hubbell’s pre-existing society life is excruciating, as is Katy’s need to control him. Streisand is so destructive whenever she is with Hubbell’s WASPy friends, her insecurity can’t be masked. But you root for her. Knowing. As if you’re rooting for the Hindenburg.

After they come out together as a couple, the Protestant golden boy and the radical Jew, Redford upbraids her after a public tantrum at a cocktail party: “Whenever something happens, it doesn’t happen to you personally!” He is met immediately by her desire to be alone with him, to get him out of there. Because Katie feels she is undeserving of someone like Hubbell, she can only feel equal and worthy as his sole companion, lover and tutor. She knows she’s the oddball, and she’ll always be the oddball, and her hurt resonates.

The film gets a little contrived when they leave college and their love nest in World War II-era New York City and move to Hollywood, and then, slow and clunky.  They jam in a baby that is quickly dispensed with and then, the final scene, where the divorced Redford and Streisand reunite on the streets of New York (talk of their daughter is short; one suspects Hubbell may have gotten out of paying child support).

But it’s a sweet movie.

Side note: my oldest friend Larry caught me singing the title song and razzed me unmercifully for singing, “Memories, like the corners of my eye.”

The French Dispatch (2021) - IMDb

Wes Anderson has always injected enough feeling and pathos into his films to temper their quirky veneer. In Bottle Rocket, we cheered for the ambitious loser, Dignan. In Rushmore, there were true relationships formed between Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Olivia Williams, and to see them hurt, well . . . it hurt. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson allowed for familial connections, and the payoff was a semi-reconciliation with a bear of father, Gene Hackman. Hell, even in the zany The Life Aquatic, there was something built between Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray.

There is no such emotional draw here. Rather, the film is a series of charming, amusing vignettes, four articles from the last issue of a fictional art and culture magazine.

As stories go, in Anderson’s hands, they are funny and often ingenious.

But untethered to anything other than his novel direction, they are also unengaging. The picture is brilliant to look at but lacks any depth or resonance.

Another fear. Anderson’s style, shorn of any real requirement of character, lends itself to the “Mamet-ization” of his films, where the cadence and form are so unique, the actors become victim to caricature. There is some of that here and it is a harbinger that should be heeded.

Tick, Tick...Boom | Official Website | November 19 2021

Let’s first start with Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which was at its very best, catchy and urgent, and at its worst, cheezy, inbred, bombastic and cloying.  Its’ influence, the greater rock/popification of Broadway, is undeniable, if not universally acclaimed.  But it is what it is, and I always found it to be meh.  

As did the South Park guys.

tick tick  . . . BOOM! is Larson’s solo work just before Rent, as directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells Larson’s story as he tries to get a musical off-the-ground.

The picture is a love letter to theater and theater kids. It is populated by scads of Broadway regulars and icons, in what comes off as a tribute to Larson, who tragically passed away from an aortic aneurysm before his triumph Rent opened.  

The film’s exuberance is near-irresistible. As Larson, Andrew Garfield is so winning, so all-encompassing in his love and enthusiasm for the character and the numbers, that even without Miranda’s clever and engaging staging, he would have carried this thing on his back and across the goal line.      

Of greater moment is the dawning that his one-man musical before Rent was better, in total. The numbers are strong, less gloppy and a little more introspective, and Larson has a better handle on communicating his own artistic struggle than in conveying the plight of the East Village bohemians. For example, this clever, Sondheim-esque ditty is better than most of Rent.

The film suffers from some of the same moral simplicity and noxious casualness that Rent evinced at its worst (who can stand La Vie Boheme when all the self-satisfied, insular riff-raff take up an entire table and “never buy” – Fuck you, waiter! We’re artists!) but it is brief and unobtrusive. In tick tick . . . BOOM!, Larson writes a funny, fantasy piece about escaping the miseries of the City and all of its indignities. In Rent, he has a bunch of pretty, smug faces ennoble the crud.

Great fun. On Netflix.

The Power of the Dog - The Rough Cut

Jane Campion’s The Piano was released 28 years ago and it put her on the map, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director and a statuette for screenplay. It was beautiful but I found it sluggish and, given the stagey performances of Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, even a little tiresome. It screamed gothic arty.

Still, there was no denying Campion’s eye. For the last 12 years, she has directed exactly one project, the television series Top of the Lake. But now she is back, and again, she has produced a film breathtaking in its visual scope. But she has also remedied some of the infirmity of The Piano. Her latest is intensely personal and after perhaps too methodical of a start, weaves a stunning tale of abandonment and devotion.

Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons) run a Montana ranch in the 1920s. The former is a sadistic bully plagued by his own demons and the latter, a sweet, formal character who finally goes his own way to marry a local widow (Kirsten Dunst). In the marrying, he announces his independence from his insecure, brutalizing sibling. But Cumberbatch is not done, because Dunst and her effeminate and quirky son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are soon ensconced in the family manor. Cumberbatch’s domineering brings each to different breaking points. 

This is ultimately a haunted house film, with its secrets strewn about the surrounding property, Cumberbatch the malevolent force of the manor. But Campion is interested in more, and at the moment of the greatest dread, we learn of Cumberbatch’s past pain and longing, which is surprisingly resurrected by Smit-McPhee. The villain is humanized, and redemption seems possible.

I can’t rave enough about the performances. Cumberbatch simmers with frustration as his world is shattered by the disaffection of his brother. Plemmons is poignant in his utter joy at getting out from under Cumberbatch, and his simple resolve to love is almost aching in its insistence. Dunst is affecting as she is worn down, and her feeble attempts to strike back are studies in anguish. And the performance of Smit-McPhee is a revelation. He is the embodiment of sweet sensitivity but it masks a courage and cunning that you don’t quite suspect but then realize was always there.

As for the look, New Zealand is Montana and it matters not a whit. Campion is every bit as accomplished in the dark crevices of the great house, where Cumberbatch is always waiting to deliver psychological punishment, and outdoors in the vistas and valleys of the ranch and mountains.

One of the best of the year. On Netflix.

Peter Jackson Reveals How Paul and Ringo Feel About 'Get Back' - Variety

Peter Jackson’s Get Back on Apple TV is a fastidious, thorough, fascinating look at how the band worked and communicated. Apart from being a monumental technical achievement, this 7+ hour flick is a gift to hard-core Beatles fans and maybe fans of pop music, in terms of seeing how the sausage is made by the greats. For everyone else, I suspect it will be Sominex with a laudanum chaser, but I’m a Beatles fan, so I totally dug it.

There is not much more to be said about the documentary, save for the live-blogging of the first two episodes (third to follow) by Xmastime blogspot, which is the funniest, most engaging thing I’ve read all year.

Licorice Pizza' Review: Blossoms & Waterbeds | We Live Entertainment

When I was in grade school, I had a crush on a girl in my class. I learned that she rode horses down at stables about 3 or 4 miles from my house. Such was my infatuation, and obviously unable to share my feelings in the unforgiving world of Catholic grade school, during the school year on the weekends, I would regularly take my bike down to where the stables were, an area completely unfamiliar to me in Rock Creek Park D.C., on the minor chance that I might see her. As a testament to my persistence, this behavior continued into the summer months. I never did see her, but I never lost hope, and I met scads of other people in my travels and got into many adventures.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic delight, and watching the movie, I felt the feelings of that time. Not only did it touch this old crusty heart and its buried 5th grade crush, but it also evoked the freedom I had in the 1970s. I could do pretty much anything. My parents were tangential to my daily life. I was an unsupervised Huck Finn, floating from place to place and not expected to be seen until dinner time, if then.

I recently got together with a friend of mine (he was one of thirteen kids, I was one of five), someone who I grew up with through grade school and high school, and we were laughing about the stupid stuff that we did as rudderless vagabonds. One thing seems small, but if it occurred today, it would probably involve investigations, the police, and the local news jamming a camera in some guy’s face as he was hustled, handcuffed, to the paddy wagon.

My friend and I would regularly walk the streets and in to schools and buildings and any old place that had an open door (we’d also dig through trash, searching for the Holy Grail of a Playboy magazine or something cooler). As we ambled into one church school, we met a janitor, and we just started to walk around with him. We returned the next day and then most late afternoons to help him clean up, and then he would buy us a Coke or a candy bar from the machine. We didn’t know him and he seemed like a bit of a hippie. He didn’t think to say, “Get out of here, this is my job.” He was a pretty nice guy and there were no shenanigans. And for the life of me, I can’t remember why we stopped, but we probably just moved onto the next thing.

But that was standard. I had other grade school friends who would sing with me in front of the Hamburger Hamlet – and none of us could sing – hoping someone would throw us change. When one of their streets was blocked off for a traffic rerouting, at night, we would drape our bodies over the barricades as if we had been murdered, just to get people out of their cars when they hit the dead end. Stupid stuff, pre-booze. You were on your own and unfettered with no one to evaluate the logic or wisdom of your choices.

Licorice Pizza brought those days back. We are introduced to 15 year old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25 year old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), both of whom live in Southern California in the era of the oil embargo. Valentine is a minor celebrity, but his acting star is waning as he develops into the ungainly teen in all of us. He is, however, nothing if not persistent (he winningly describes himself as a “song and dance man”), and soon, after establishing a connection he believes is true love with Alana, he establishes a waterbed business and then a pinball palace, all with a troupe of young acolytes, including his brother, and mainly with the participation, if not direction, of Alana.

Theirs is a beautiful love story, mostly unrequited, with both protagonists suffering the pain of watching the other flirt or more with others. Gary is a mature 15-year-old, a fiercely independent romantic who loves Alana and at the outset, has no problem saying it. Alana is an immature young woman, constantly beleaguered by her surroundings and her family, who fiercely fights the fact that she is bound to Gary. When you see them hurt each other, and Thomas Anderson subtly places you in the frame, you watch their expressions when they see the other with someone else. Again, I was transported to my youth. I felt the pain when someone you really “loved” in grade school or high school hurt you, almost assuredly unconsciously, but sometimes, with purpose. Your armor wasn’t there, your “cool” undeveloped. It stung. A scene where Gary calls Alana knowing that she has been out on a date with his older friend, where his breathing communicates his anguish, is a beautiful and piercing reminder.

The film is a joy. A breezy, journey through 1973 Southern California, where Alana and Gary come to terms with their attraction, while essentially getting into adventures, including not only the aforementioned businesses, but run-ins with, of all people, Hollywood producer and former Barbra Streisand boyfriend Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper, demolishing his scenes) and who appears to be a very close facsimile to William Holden, Jack Holden (Sean Penn) (the film’s Jack Holden starred in the film The Bridges at Toko-San rather than The Bridges at Toko-Ri).

The look of the film is so spot on your jaw drops. Little things, like the old fancy neighborhood restaurant and pub, The Tale o’ the Cock, feel exactly like the restaurants and bars that populated my old neighborhood growing up, and I did not grow up in the San Fernando Valley. The dark wood, the wine bottle glass windows, the lattice. Perfect.

The performances are relentlessly good. Hoffman, the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, has a presence that you could see in his father as early as Scent of a Woman and Nobody’s Fool. Haim, a member of the band Haim, it’s so raw and natural it may be difficult for her to expand. I’m just having difficulty seeing her in another role.

tt’s almost inconceivable, but this is the first film role for both actors.

The best film of the year and one of the best I’ve seen in some time.