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2 stars

How Jennifer Lopez's fashion inspired the real-life 'Hustlers ...

Jennifer Lopez is a revelation, but what she reveals is what we already knew from the Super Bowl; she has a super-human ability to keep a middle-aged body toned, flexible and sexy.  Bravo, but as Demi Moore proved in her stripper film, solid moves on the pole can only take you so far.  Lopez is cunning, and commanding, but she is little more, and she cannot make up for the amateurish performances of her cohorts, a bunch of dancers-with-hearts-of-tin who sign on to her scheme.

When the movie focuses on the crime, it is light, watchable, brisk entertainment.  The strippers engineer a lucrative con outside the club, where they butter a mark up, slip him a roofie, max out his credit card, and when he wakes up, he assumes he had the night of his life (and if he is shocked at the price, what is he going to say?)  There is real humor and juice in these scenes.

Unfortunately, they are interrupted by the dull story of our protagonist Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a girl who just needs a Mommy (Lopez) to show her the tricks of the trade.  Wu is not a very good actor, and her little girl lost routine seems silly (strippers are many things; guileless ain’t one of them).  Wu’s naivete, however, is a necessary predicate to the lamest part of the film, because first time feature writer-director Lorene Scafaria is set on saying something about family and loyalty and the rest. When the gals are all together, their essential goodness and mutual support flows freely as they bestow gifts upon each other and extol the virtues of famil . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Scafaria also uses the interview/flashback technique to tell the story, so we get the prim, white journalist (Julia Stiles) interviewing Wu after it has all gone to shit.  I suppose Scafaria wanted to juxtapose Wu’s hard-bitten travail with that of a privileged, educated writer, but the exchanges are clunky.  An example:

DESTINY What’s your name again?

YOUNG WOMAN Elizabeth.

DESTINY Did you grow up with money, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH We were…comfortable.

DESTINY Right. What’d your parents do?

ELIZABETH My dad was a journalist. And my mom’s a psychiatrist.

DESTINY Where’d you go to school?

ELIZABETH Brown. For undergrad.

DESTINY What would you do for a thousand dollars? Of course the answer depends on what you already have and what you need.

This might have worked if Wu herself didn’t seem like she was rejected from Brown but got in to Bryn Mawr instead, and if Scafaria fleshed the conversation out a little bit (ELIZABETH:  “I need it.”  That sounds like want any criminal would say, no?).

Instead, it just lays there, flat, interrupting the caper and making both characters even more tedious, if possible.

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Jakob Dylan’s enterprise (re-recording a lot of Laurel Canyon, jangly folk rock and putting on a show) is the heart of this documentary, which also features Dylan quietly listening to the usual suspects (David Crosby, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Brown and many more) go on about what made the Laurel Canyon sound and scene what they were.  For the most part, the interviewees seem to have no idea, but man, they sure dug the vibe.

The documentary is pretty pedestrian, Dylan being a particularly inapt choice for interviewer (there are times he looks like he fell asleep, which is hard to do in front of the Gary Busey-esque Stephen Stills).  The narrative is also a bit of a mess – is this about the sound, the place or why The Byrds broke up?  is it the film of a tribute record/show?  or is it about Dylan’s seemingly excellent directional skills as he drives around LA?

The picture follows no line very long and when “old friends” like Michelle Phillips or Brian Wilson drop by the studio as Dylan works on their tunes, well . . . “awkward” would be understatement.  Wilson’s snippet in particular underscores the problem.  Hailed as a master of a golden age, when he comes in to see how Dylan is faring with one of his tunes, the only usable footage is Wilson asking what key they’re playing the song in.  Hoo boy.

It’s as if the musicians have been asked so often about “their time” that the answers are rote. All the pulp has been squeezed out, they realize it, and so they compensate with content-less emotion.  Such is their banality, the film uses up footage of Dylan driving in LA, or we get the obligatory Petty and Dylan walking into a guitar store, or Dylan strolling into a record store and appearing like a man looking for directions.

And the movie is only 1 hour 22 minutes.

The best parts are the snippets of song for the show, which includes Beck, Fiona Apple, Nora Jones, Jade Castrinos, Cat Power and others.   But, to be even more of a curmudgeon, Dylan is such a musical barbiturate, even those numbers feel a little lackluster.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

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From Lauren Greenfield, the writer/director of The Queen of Versailles, this documentary tries to be both an anthropological study and photo-journalistic essay of wealth. We are introduced to rich people in LA who get cosmetic surgery for their dogs, rappers in Atlanta who litter strip clubs with currency, porn stars who hope to emulate Kim Kardashian, escorts and limo company execs who sell the veneer of being rich for an evening or an assignation, and a whole host of ostentatious sellers and buyers.

The stories aren’t necessarily new. Excess is a strong component of who we are and coupled with the desire to judge, the sneering at folks who are the most brazen and gosh while we engage in miniaturized versions of their sins is damn near a national past time.

The director’s own revelation of being a small part of it, a gawky teen at a tony LA high school dropped off a block from school so her peers wouldn’t see the car her father drove (and he’s a doctor!), suggests we should trust her as a narrator.  But Greenfield can’t hold a line. She eventually muddles the message, at one point, confusing excess with being a workaholic, a cheap and errant way to shoehorn her own story into the feature.  It’s a bad fit, and her interrogation of her ambitious mother and bright son in the service of the subject is off-putting.

Still, the film eventually crashes when it morphs from a broad review of wealth culture to wild individual stories followed by a “where are they now?” coda that feels every bit as exploitative as the society the director is attempting to depict.

The documentary is also peppered by lofty, laughable socio-political commentary from Chris Hedges, a dummy extraordinaire whose platitudes are in stark contrast to the film’s more understated tenor. The picture is best in presentation, not catechism.

Hedges, however, does scratch an itch: “It’s kind of like the end of Rome . . . Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the time of their death.”

We shall see!  On Amazon.

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The first half is a blast. Following the model of Across the Universe, director Dexter Fletcher incorporates Elton John’s music into boffo biographical song and dance numbers (the movie takes the current model and reverses it; it is ready made for Broadway), and Taron Egerton is winning as our shy, brilliant, budding rock star. The depiction of his rise is light, whimsical and fun.

But the second half of the movie, much like the middle third of John’s life, is a bummer. The choreographed song and dance numbers give way to trippy, psychedelics that are not only a drag, but repetitive and tiring.  John drinks, drugs, orgies, wears more and more ridiculous outfits and goes lower and lower, much like your eyelids.

It ends precocious, as John confronts his annoyingly minor demons (overbearing mother, distant father, not-as-advertised first lover)  in a rehab group therapy.

Not quite where a film-goer wants to end up, even if it worked out for John.

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I love these movies.  Almost as much as Denzel Washington’s Equalizer movies.  More so than the John Wick flicks.  The structure appeals to me.  Somebody does something awful to the family or friends of our hero, and he goes injudiciously, satisfyingly nuts.  Better, there is no nuance.  The bad people are awful.  Unequivocally grotesque.  In the latest Equalizer II, a group of entitled rich boys, in a swank apartment, just drugged, date raped, and filmed an intern.  Lucky for me, the Lyft driver they called to pick her up was. . .

Awesome, right?

In John Wick, the bad guys didn’t even kill Keanu’s family member.  They killed his puppy!  But not just any puppy.  It was a puppy delivered to him by his wife, who had just died of cancer.

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Death toll for one puppy?  Seventy-seven.

Unlike Wick, Liam Neeson isn’t a numbers junkie.  But he’s still pretty lethal, as we found out in Taken, when Serbs or Croats or whoever it is from Eastern Europe you can still use as bad guys without the Anti-Defamation League up your ass took his daughter to sell her to sex traffickers.  So, Neeson, a former Special Forces, CIA, Green Beret, SEAL type (I dunno), uses his “very particular set of skills” to get her back.

In this flick, Neeson is a dude who plows the roads of snow.  That’s it.  That’s his “particular set of skills.”

No matter.  His son is offed by the Denver syndicate within, oh, six minutes.  Neeson has it sussed out in about 13 minutes, and then, he works his way up the chain, killing dudes, until he gets to the top (his wife, Laura Dern, leaves him somewhere early, which gets her out of the way for more killing).

The flick is occasionally satisfying, but as directed by Hans Petter Moland, it has some delusions of being arty.  The retribution-fest is interrupted by falderol about a local Indian syndicate who got crossed by our bad guy, with sadness expressed at the rape of the land by ski resort.

Boring!  More bodies, please.

So, this is meh.  A few decent lines, an okay villain, but not enough corpses and a little too much chatter.

Available at Redbox and soon to cable.

 

 

A bit of a critic’s darling, I can see what impressed: the raw feel of the characters, and the film’s unstinting portrayal of loss to a mother (Andie MacDowell) and her two adult sons (Chris O’Dowd and James Adomium) after their husband and father succumbs to a long term illness.  We see the family at different intervals before, during and after the disease, and there are moments of real tenderness and pain that affect each of them.  In particular, MacDowell, an acting teacher, has a wonderfully realized moment where she cruelly unleashes on a student during a read, and Adomium references larger issues of death in a stand-up routine that starts uncomfortable and then rights itself.

What’s bad?

O’Dowd.  He’s way too overt as the weak son, the charmer who resents his mother for any number of reasons, but perhaps mostly, because she is strong.  O’Dowd plays it much too Oedipally, and he oozes rather than acts.

The segmentation of the story into pieces is also problematic, a double-edged sword.  A few scenes seem like well-presented one-acts.  But more often, the characters are doing things that are not supported by what we have seen before.  We are left to fill in the gaps.  One such rather unforgivable one is the absence of the relationship of the characters with the deceased.

Finally, if you take all the high-stress, histrionic and embarrassing scenes of a family’s life for a few years, and make a movie of them, they will not come off as relatable, but rather, alien and masochistic.

Another sweeping war epic from my past, along with Waterloo and Zulu, this one introduced me to the “stiff upper lip” Brit.  Unlike those films, this picture just doesn’t hold up at all.  Directed by Guy Hamilton (who had a much better time of it with four Bond films), the film is overly reliant on air battles that perhaps seemed impressive at the time, but now, are flat, difficult to comprehend (you rarely know which character is in which plane) and without drama.   Worse, what happens on the ground is remarkably staid and uninvolving.

It is, however, loaded with the cream of British actors (Michael Caine, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox and Robert Shaw, to name a few), and of particular note, it features a strikingly handsome Ian McShane, who aged into the craggy, rough Al Swearengen of Deadwood.  You can see what Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristal saw in him.

 

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Chris Weitz’s (About a Boy) largely faithful recreation of the capture of Adolph Eichmann is sober, competent and a little dull.  Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) is the focus of a several member Israeli infiltration team sent to grab Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) from Argentina and covertly spirit him away to Israel for trial.  All well and good, even if the film drags until they actually get to South America.  When on the ground, the film picks up, but there really isn’t much to the operation.  They jump Eichmann at night as he gets off his bus and keep him in a safe house, where his removal is delayed for several days, thus allowing Isaac (whose sister, niece and nephew were killed in the Holocaust, which we see in flashback) to engage the monster in an effort to get his signed consent to extradition.  The best part of the picture is Kingsley, who conveys Eichmann’s urbane precision and amorality in equal parts.  But there isn’t much to the exchange.   Isaac seems too much the professional to be flustered by the engagement, and Weitz is too cautious in the opportunity.

Perhaps sensing the film’s lethargy, Weitz adds a fictional Argo-like race to the airport, but it lacks any real punch.

A perfectly inoffensive picture.  Wait until it’s free and you have little in the way of alternative entertainment options

In post-WWII Poland, a pianist and an ingénue he has selected for the national cultural ensemble fall in love.  He escapes through Berlin on a concert tour, but she is hesitant, and they are separated.  They see each other every few years, and eventually, they are reunited in Paris, free.  But they cannot make a go of it, she retreats back to Poland, and in what is supposed to be a grand gesture of everlasting devotion, he admits his sin against the state, returns to his native country and does 15 years hard labor, which, coupled with torture, destroys his fingers.

I suppose this was supposed to connect as a moody, timeless, passionate yet doomed romance.  But the two leads, who alternately smolder and pout, are so childish and impetuous, it’s hard to gin up much sympathy.  Indeed, when she makes it to Paris, they bicker like children, she constantly kvetching about his prior lover and Western ambition, he inexplicably distant (in fact, he often looks as if he knows he made a very big mistake in working so hard to be with her but can’t bring himself to admit it).

Neither character acts in a manner showing any deference to their good fortune.  These aren’t lovers separated by culture or prior marriages or obligation, but rather, an iron curtain where, to be on the wrong side of it, you lose your freedom and you can get your delicate pianist fingers mangled by 15 years of forced labor and torture.  And they surmount that curtain!  So, when they chuck it for seemingly pedestrian reasons, and he insists on his grotesque punishment, you don’t care.  Well, maybe you will.  The movie is very well regarded.  But I didn’t.

On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot and blessedly short at under an hour-and-a-half.

Nominated for Best Director, Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography and available on Amazon.

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We always loved Baby Boom because the toddler reminded us so much of our daughter, in that she was adorable. I concede, one’s own daughter is always adorable. But our daughter was and is, objectively, adorable.

I digress.

Baby Boom is currently on the Showtime rotation and in watching to see the facsimile of our daughter, we caught the entire picture. The little girl is still cute. The 1987 film, however, does not travel as well as the kid.

Diane Keaton is the go-go Manhattan executive on an upward trajectory when a long lost and recently deceased relative delivers her a beautiful little girl via will.

It’s a broad comedy.  I can accept that a baby would be delivered at the airport at the mere stroke of a pen. I can accept that the cutest baby in the world would almost be transferred from a Manhattan agency to a cold, poor, backward Iowa couple. I can accept that James Spader in a suit is a villain. Well, that last one is a requirement for 1980s films.

But after Keaton keeps the baby, she is so inept – as demonstrated by numerous silly vignettes of a Weekend at Bernie’s stripe –  it becomes unfunny.  She deposits the baby at a coat check. She can’t negotiate a disposable diaper. She feeds the doll pasta and red sauce.  Hilarity does not ensue

It’s just easy, schlocky and weak. And when she is jettisoned by her company, you don’t have the sympathy for her that you should.

After getting demoted, Keaton takes the baby to Vermont, buys a dream house that is actually falling apart, meets rustic veterinarian Sam Shepard, fights with him until he forcibly kisses her, then has rewarding and fulfilling sex with him, and then starts her own successful baby food chain, all to the standard twinkly saxophone and Kimball organ score of the time. Whereupon, the corporate heels call her back to offer her the moon for her little company.

She declines, delivering a confused declaration of independence, a stemwinder announcing that 1) she should not have to choose between family and work; 2) she should not have to move operations from quaint Vermont to Cleveland; 3) James Spader is a rat; 4) she may just take her baby food company national herself; and 5) oh, she’s having rewarding sex with Sam Shepherd.

Except 1) they offered her $3 million and a COO job at nearly $1 million per, but it was the opening offer and she could have asked double, while getting a ceremonial board seat or do-nothing exec slot with an ample salary; 2) they said at the outset the move to Cleveland was negotiable; 3) she could have insisted Spader work the account and tormented him unmercifully, or she could have asked for his head to seal the deal; 4) there is no way she could take this company national; she can’t operate a pair of Pampers; and 5) swooning, with an actual sigh, about Sam Shepherd in a business meeting reinforces a lot of the stereotypes the stemwinder was supposed to rebut.

But the baby is adorable.