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4 stars

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What to make of this film?  It starts off medium cool, with Vince Vaughn playing a rigid, introverted ex-addict and drug dealer trying to stay on the straight-and-arrow.  His temper is volcanic yet weirdly controlled – when he wants to kill his cheating wife (Jennifer Carpenter), he distances himself from her, maintaining an almost chivalric honoring of her being, and then dismantles her car with his bare hands.  He then comes into the house and they have a believably fruitful and mature discussion about where their relationship is headed.

When circumstances force him back into dealing, things go south, and he has to do a stretch in prison, leaving the pregnant Carpenter and their unborn daughter behind.  And then shit gets nuts, as the film shifts from sober prison fare to gonzo 70s grindhouse slaughter-fest.  Vaughn is transferred from a medium security facility, where he meets his mentor and  counselor in what threatens to be a film about his therapeutic journey from there on out, to a maximum security haunted house run by Don Johnson, a cheroot chewing warden straight out of the most lurid of comic books.

The dissonance is jarring, but it doesn’t turn you off.  You stay on the ride, happily, as it gets crazier and crazier.

Vaughn is really quite good, but people forget that before he took on the comic galoot character, he was trotted out as a believable villain (Psycho, Domestic Disturbance).  He has done mainly straight drama of late, from the execrably written Season 2 of True Detective to the stock sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge to the recent Dragged Across Concrete (written and directed by the writer-director of this picture,  S. Craig Zahler).  Here, he’s in total command and damn chilling.

Zahler knows what he’s doing behind the camera, but one wonders – to what end? I hope he rises above his pulpy material before he gets lost in it.

Currently on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

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Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) story of a driven couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) struggling to have a child of their own is alternately heartbreaking and frustrating.  We see the two put through the wringer of in-vitro fertilization and surrogate scams, poked and prodded in clinics while investigated as to suitability for placement, and all of it voluntary,  a critical focus of the film, because rather than a “poor us” weeper, we see them as in many ways masochistic.

The couple is often unsympathetic, as their singular desire creates a fair amount of collateral damage.   They also suffer bouts of self-loathing as the fabric of their relationship is torn (a scene where Giamatti broaches whether he even wants a baby is piercing).  But when it gets bad for the two, Jenkins gives us a glimpse of who they were – and perhaps still can be – before their primal quest.

Eventually, the intercession of a sweet and guileless niece (Kayli Carter, who has the same commanding presence as Shailene Woodley in The Descendants and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) helps to remind them of the wages of their desperation.

Sometimes a tad talky and quaint, but for the most part, very strong.  On Netflix.

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Captain Fantastic was about a father who raised his kids in the woods because he did not trust modernity. It was a terrible movie, mainly because the grown man (Viggo Mortensen) wouldn’t shut up about his philosophy and how superior it was. This movie is about another father (Ben Foster) who insists on living off the grid with his teenage daughter. This is a better film, and the relationship between Foster and Thomason McKenzie is well developed.  But their circumstances suffer from too little explication.  Why are they off the grid? What brought them to this extremist situation? All we really know is that Mom is dead, Foster is introverted and plagued and that as much as he appears to love his daughter, he is really just making her share his demons.

McKenzie is accomplished as the girl torn between loyalty to her Dad and a need to connect with and be in the wider world.  Her desire to commune, to be a part of, is heart-rending.  Writer-director Deborah Granik’s Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map and I can see this film doing the same for McKenzie.  Foster, as always, is stellar as the troubled father, economical and precise.  There is a scene where he is required to answer a computerized voice asking him true or false questions to determine his mental health that he handles beautifully.

There is also a thematic bright spot.  The duo are consistently helped by people who are outgoing, caring and supportive, and yet, Foster rejects all their assistance, underscoring just how near impossible it is to deal with many mentally ill people. The system and surrounding community are, for a change, not the villains. They’re the heroes. And for the most part, it ain’t enough.

On Amazon.

 

 

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was the best film of 2016, and his latest picture is of the same high quality, with the same dreamy, contemplative finish.  Told in flashback and forward, Jenkins’ script is based on a James Baldwin novel set in 1970s Harlem.  We meet childhood friends Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) as young adults who have become lovers.  Fonny is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and a pregnant Tish, with her family and Fonny’s father, work to pay the legal fees and perform the legwork to free Fonny from prison.

While this film is about many things, at its core, it is a love story, and Baldwin lovingly melds the city and the courtship with great care.  There are scenes that seem almost like portraits, sensuous and evocative, such is the care he takes with his actors and the setting.

The film is also about race, and in this regard, it is subdued in its expression but forthright in its message.  Baldwin is not interested in a political discussion, but instead, a demonstration of how racism pervades the lives of his characters in the seams, adding just another weight to an already heavy institutional burden.  In the wrong hands, the theme would be overwritten and perhaps worse, overacted.  Not here.  The drag of the inequity is not sugarcoated but rather, presented as an open, inescapable legacy for the characters, which leaves a deep impression.

I have two criticisms.  First, Tish often speaks in voice over, which I am not opposed to in all circumstances, but which also suggests a little distrust in the narrative.  Given the ethereal nature of the picture, Jenkins likely felt it necessary to have Tish’s voice explicitly draw us back to the story, but I found it obtrusive and unnecessary.  Second, a racist cop sends Fonny away, and when we meet him, he is so gruesome, so cartoonishly evil, it almost felt as if he would twirl his mustache.  Perhaps that is what Jenkins was going for, to show the cop as the bogeyman the characters see, but I have to say, it was discordant.

Finally, all of the performance are impressive, but as Tish’s mother, Regina King is understated, yet commanding.  She is a veteran of many movies (Ray, Enemy of the State) and even more TV series where she’s mostly powerful and overt, but here, she transcends anything she has done before with a subtle, restrained, nuanced performance.

 

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The film is conceptually ingenious, spooky, nerve wracking, terrifying and meticulously paced and acted. This tale of a family’s descent into madness and the occult scared the bejeezus out of me. Only slightly gory, the horror is all psychological. It is, however, very cruel to its characters, sometimes too cruel even for me.

I’m getting too old for this shit.

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Imagine HBO’s Veep, but instead of the made-up travails of a narcissistic, ambitious politician in the form of Julia Louis Dreyfus, you have Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov, Zhukov and Malenkov, all jockeying for power and survival after Stalin has passed.  Like Veep, writer-director Armando Iannucci’s movie is undeniably hilarious, providing the entire swath of the comedic, from slapstick (the scene where each central committee member arrives at Stalin’s unconscious body on the floor, only to engage poorly with his urine, is gut-busting) to sharp wit delivered so fast, you catch it 30 seconds later.  Steve Buscemi’s scheming Khrushchev is inspired, as is Jeffrey Tambor’s vain toady Malenkov (good to see him again since his banishment for his own crimes against the state).

The only aspect that drops this a half point is the milieu.  It is undeniably funny, but we are dealing not with the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selena Meyer, which are ultimately trivial, but the terror and horror of the Soviet state, which sometimes tempers the laughs.

But only a little (at least, for me).  It is, after all, a very black comedy.  The film is currently on the Showtime schedule and was also one of The New York Times top 10 for 2018.  It’s also one of mine, thus far.

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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.