Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

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Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled

Obvious Child


Life can be cold even for the very cute.

Life can be cold even for the very cute.

(2014) Comedy (A24) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gabe Liedman, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung, Stephen Singer, Cyrus McQueen, Emily Tremaine, Ramses Alexandre, Julie Zimmer, Ernest Mingione, Stacey Sargeant, Amy Novando, Crystal Lonneberg, Suzanne Lenz. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

One of the results of unprotected sex can be a pregnancy that is unplanned for and unwanted. Women have several options open to them, although not everyone wants it that way.

Donna Stern (Slate) is a budding standup comic who works in a used bookstore by day. She is a classic New York underachiever, one who has vague goals but is in no particular hurry to get to them. She’s been seeing Ryan (Briganti) for years now and is somewhat ambivalent towards marriage or at least, it’s not a subject that comes up.

Her standup routine is full of the juices of life. Lots of farting, the state of women’s panties at the end of the day, skid marks and the fluids of sex. It isn’t for the squeamish which might explain why she’s still in a somewhat rough and tumble Brooklyn bar providing free entertainment for Williamsburg hipsters who are too cheap to pay for it. When she talks about the sex life with her boyfriend as being somewhat routine and predictable while he watches her set, that’s the last straw. That and, oh, him having been sleeping with her friend Lacey (Tremaine) for several months. He dumps her in the unisex graffiti-covered bathroom that looks like something that veteran CDC doctors would run screaming into the night from which I suppose is as appropriate a place to get dumped as any – considering her act, getting dumped in a bathroom has no irony whatsoever.

She also finds out that the bookstore she has been working for has lost its lease and is going to close its doors forever in about six weeks. No job, no money, no boyfriend – things couldn’t be worse for Donna. She takes solace in her support system – her close friends Nellie (Hoffmann) and fellow comedian Joey (Liedman), as well as her Dad (Kind) who works as a Henson-like puppeteer for a successful TV show. Her cold fish Mom (Draper), divorced from her Dad and a very successful business school instructor, tries to motivate her daughter to find new work without much success.

Donna’s next standup gig is an utter train wreck as she ascends the stage completely off-her-ass drunk and proceeds to go into a drunken rant about her break-up that is as unfunny as it is awkward. The only plus of the evening is that she meets nice-guy Max (Lacy) at the bar, continues to get drunker and ends up at his apartment for a night of mindless, meaningless sex. She leaves the next morning without leaving a note.

Not long afterwards she discovers that mindless, meaningless sex can get you pregnant too, even though she was pretty sure they’d used protection in the form of a condom. She’s not really 100% sure on that point – not that it matters because a condom really isn’t 100% protection against pregnancy either. The thing is, she is preggers and the one thing she’s sure about is that she’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to be pregnant either considering her uncertain future, her lack of funds and job and without a partner to help her out. An abortion seems to be the best choice for her given the circumstances.

Once this decision is made, she’s unsure that she wants to tell her mother about it, sure that her mom will see this as yet another failure in life by her disappointment of a daughter. Also, she keeps running into Max unexpectedly and he clearly likes her. A lot and she thinks she might like him too, even though he’s as gentile as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller plaza and she’s the menorah at the top that burns the whole damn tree down.

Some will see this as a movie about abortion but as film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the better movie would be about the woman having that abortion and Robespierre wisely realizes that. The decision for Donna is a simple one from a practical standpoint but emotionally she’s unsure of what to do, how to feel and she asks Nellie, who’s had one, whether she thinks about it (she does but she doesn’t think she made the wrong choice).

Slate, who was on Saturday Night Live for a season and famously dropped an F bomb in her first episode, does a star turn here in the role of Donna. Donna uses her sense of humor as something of a shield against her own vulnerability and has no filter whatsoever. That endears her to those willing to put the effort in to get to know her. She is far from perfect although she is cute as a button. To my mind, Slate has far more upside than a lot of actresses who have come from standpoint and should easily join the ranks of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as graduates of SNL to stardom, although I think the big screen would be far more appropriate than television as a medium for her talents.

She gets some good support from Liedman (her sketch partner in real life) and Hoffmann and Lacy, who was a regular on The Office makes a fine straight man. I like that Robespierre chose not to give us the glamorized indie version of New York where people work in creative jobs, live in amazing lofts they couldn’t possibly afford and eat out and hang out at hipster clubs every night while showing up to work fresh as a daisy the next day. The places Donna and her friends can afford to hang out in are mostly pretty dingy and Donna’s apartment is tiny and far from glitzy. This is the life someone in her situation would be leading for real.

Inevitably there is going to be some politicization of the film’s subject matter but be assured there’s none in the film whatsoever. The conservative religious right tend to portray abortions as something done by sluts without any sort of care or consequence but that’s not what happens here. Donna while vulnerable and impaired has unprotected sex which might be characterized as a foolish mistake but she is not someone who seems inclined to sleep around – in fact, she has a scene with veteran comic David Cross in which she turns him down for sex.

What really makes this film worth seeing are a pair of scene near the movie’s end. The first is when Donna is having her abortion and has been given a sedative to relax her. As the procedure begins, we see a tear rolling down from her eye. Even more powerful is the scene that follows when Donna and the other women who have just undergone the procedure sitting in the recovery room and exchanging glances. No dialogue is said but the looks on their faces say it all – this was not a decision entered into lightly and the consequences are absolutely on all of their minds.

In an era when a woman’s right to choose is under concerted attack from Tea Party politicians and where choices to have abortions are becoming much more scarce in Red States, a movie like this becomes much more necessary and meaningful. While I’m not sure this will change any Right to Lifers minds on the subject, it serves as a vivid reminder that for all the hysteria and noise generated by that group, women in general are not ignorant of the consequences of their ability to make that choice – and that it is a hard choice even if the practical side is easy. From that standpoint, this is an essential film and while I found the nature of Donna’s comedy unappealing, I loved the character in a big way because of her flaws and imperfections. Donna is the kind of woman you probably know already. If you don’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to find this movie either at your local art house or soon when it comes to home video and get to know her.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the effects of unwanted pregnancies on real women and the choices they must face. Slate shows that she is ready to be the next great film comedienne.

REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessarily scatological. Too many awkward moments.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of rough language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title comes from the first track on the 1990 Paul Simon album The Rhythm of the Saints.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Inside Llewyn Davis


The Greenwich Village People.

The Greenwich Village People.

(2013) Drama (CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, Michael Rosner, Bonnie Rose, Sylvia Cauders, Amelia McClain. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Some places and times held a sort of magic that created oodles of great music that has stood the test of time – places like Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s, San Francisco in the late 60s, Manchester, England in the 90s and Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s. In the last of these, beatniks and folk musicians were thrown together to begin a phase of rock and roll exemplified by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, among others.

In this milieu toils Llewyn Davis (Isaac), once a member of the duo Timlin and Davis – until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in a fit of melancholy that was as counterculture as a suicide can get (“You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge,” grouses one character. “The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?!?”) and now Davis is trying to go it alone. It is winter in the Village and he has no money, existing from gig to gig and without a winter coat. He relies on the generosity of his friends to give him a couch to sleep on during the night and maybe a cup of coffee or some food.

When he accidentally lets out the cat of his Upper West Side buddies the Gorfeins (Phillips, Bartlett) who essentially show off Llewyn as their bohemian folk singer friend, he embarks on an odyssey of his own that takes him into the life of Jean (Mulligan), a fellow folk singer and a member of the duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean who has gotten pregnant. Who is the father? Could be Jim, whom she is married to and wants to have a baby with…or it might be Llewyn whom she slept with in an inadvisable night of drunken regret. She doesn’t want to have the baby if it’s at all possible that the baby could be his. Fortunately for her, he has an abortionist on call for what seems to be a string of brief flings.

He ends up on a road trip to Chicago with a taciturn driver (Hedlund) and a garrulous jazz musician (Goodman) who when he’s not sleeping is regaling Llewyn with highly mannered stories about jazz hipsters he has known. He goes to meet an impresario (Abraham) his agent (Grayson) was supposed to have sent a copy of his album to…but didn’t. In tow is this cat who is the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

The Coens specialize in taking ancient stories and modernizing them and there are elements of this here, not just in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also in their old standard Odyssey as well as maybe a few newer tales. While there is a good deal of humor here, it is less in the dry, deadpan style they’re known for and a bit more subtle and a lot darker.

Oscar Isaac kills here. Not only does he sing and play guitar, he also acts. Llewyn Davis is a bit of a prick; he uses his friends and when they’re usefulness has been exhausted, he moves on. He is frustrated and is known to lash out without provocation and he is a bit on the arrogant side, Starving Artist division. Yet even despite Llewyn Davis’ many faults, Isaac imbues him with a kind of empathy that allows him to see through the pain. While he doesn’t necessarily like people all that much, he relates to them real well. Isaac, who has been one great role away from stardom, has found that role. Expect him to be an A-lister from here on in.

There are some fine supporting performances here as well, from the shrewish folk singer by Mulligan to the mannered jazz musician by Goodman which is a good deal out of both their comfort zones I think. Timberlake also does some good work that is a bit out of his own comfort zone, playing the terminally nice and terminally clueless Jim.

The music here is absolutely amazing. My mom used to love Peter, Paul and Mary and had an album of Vanguard folk singers that included the Weavers, Odetta and Cisco Houston and I listened to that album often. While the folk singers on that album weren’t the well-scrubbed WASPs that several of the singers are here (and which the dark-haired Llewyn is not), the vibe is at least approachable. Most of the music was recorded live and the actors mainly sang and played their instruments for real.

What happened though was that I felt disconnected from the movie to a large extent. I normally love what the Coen Brothers do and even their less successful movies (Burn After Reading) have at least something of interest about them. Frankly I admired the craft of the movie in re-creating the era; as I said, I loved the music and the performances as well. The movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood but I left the movie feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it is the circular nature of the story which begins and ends with essentially the same incident although you’re never sure when the flashback actually begins.

Still, the Coens’ worst is better than the best of most directors. They take chances and at the end of the day, their movies aren’t made to please anybody but themselves which is the proper way to go about making movies. Try to please too many people and you end up pleasing nobody.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous music. Isaac is a star.

REASONS TO STAY: Much more mainstream than we’re used to from the Coens.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language including some sexual references as well as some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The photograph of Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the Punch Brothers (a real folk band who contributed heavily to the music) is seen on the Timlin and Davis album cover; Eldridge is identified as Mike Timlin, the partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Mighty Wind

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Godfather Part II


A picture of corruption.

A picture of corruption.

(1974) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Gaston Moschin, Tom Rosqui, Bruno Kirby, Frank Sivero, Morgana King, Francesca de Sapio, Mariana Hill, Dominic Chianese, Troy Donahue, James Caan, Abe Vigoda. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It is rare enough that a movie with the quality and the impact of The Godfather gets made. It is rarer still that a movie that prestigious has a sequel made. And for that sequel to be as good if not better than the precursor, well that’s a very lonely group.

But that’s exactly what Francis Ford Coppola did when he made the second installment of what would turn out to be a trilogy. The story is told in two distinct segments that are alternated in the original cut of the film between young Vito Corleone fleeing from Sicily from a corrupt Mafia don who’d murdered his father over an imagined slight. Young Vito (De Niro) marries and tries a life of the straight and narrow but poverty and corruption conspire to draw him into a life of crime at which he excels. The other segment is that of Michael, now head of the family, brokering a deal with Jewish gangster Hymen Roth (Strasberg) in Cuba while dealing with betrayal from a source unexpectedly close to him.

Coppola deftly weaves the two stories together and although they are essentially unrelated, the flow of the movie is never interrupted. It’s a masterful job of directing and editing and a tribute that we as the audience are never disappointed when one segment ends and the next one begins. We are equally drawn to young Vito and the older Michael.

Pacino, reprising his role as Michael Corleone and without Marlon Brando to upstage him, turns in what is largely considered the defining performance of his career. The corruption of Michael is growing as his desire for power and to retain it at all costs slowly warps his soul. It’s absolutely masterful as we see Michael turn from soft-spoken war hero to cold, calculating monster in the course of two films.

There are some powerful scenes, such as one before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime in which one of Michael’s capos are due to testify against him. The mute confrontation between Frankie Pentangeli (Gazzo) and his brother is as powerful a moment as has ever been recorded in cinema.

The question of whether the sequel is better than the original is one that rages fairly passionately within the film buff community. There are plenty who argue that the first is the best; there are just as many who argue just as vehemently that the sequel outdoes the original. For my own part, I think that both movies are nearly equal in cinematic excellence. My own personal preference leans towards the first Godfather however – by just a hair.

So do you need both of these films? Absolutely. Separately they are both magnificent films that should be in every film lover’s collection. Together they constitute one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the movies. They remain today as they were 40 years ago enormously influential not only on the gangster genre but on cinema in general. This, like the first film, is one you’ll want to see many, many times and will pick up something new that you didn’t notice before each time you see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Another must-see for everyone who loves movies. A rare sequel that is as good as the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language. There is also some sensuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first sequel to win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.0M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Out of the Furnace

Greenberg


Greenberg

Greta Gerwig is surprised that Ben Stiller knows his way to the kitchen.

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever, Blair Tefkin, Mina Badie, Mark Duplass, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Max Hoffman. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There are those among us who are just harder to get along with than others. They, for whatever reason, seem bound and determined to alienate everyone around them, pushing them away with the firm hand of someone who has no intention of letting anyone near, but terrified that they will spend their lives alone.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is like that. After a stint in a mental hospital, he has returned to his old L.A. stomping grounds (he used to be in a band) to housesit for his successful older brother (Messina) who is opening a new hotel in Vietnam.

His job is to care for the dog and the home while the family is gone. His brother’s assistant Florence (Gerwig) is left to hold the bag and inevitably become Greenberg’s assistant, not by choice but by necessity. Greenberg is prickly and socially awkward. He lashes out the people around him, writing letters to express his deep disappointment to various institutions and corporations. He holds people to standards he himself refuses to meet.

He hooks up with old friend Ivan (Ifans), a former member of his band and has trouble understanding why Ivan and the other bandmates were hurt by his actions, abandoning them just as it seemed they were about to achieve success, moving to New York City to become a carpenter. In the meantime, he is building a doghouse for his brother and entering a tentative, somewhat strange relationship with Florence. It is borderline abusive – Greenberg is often cruel in his remarks, sometimes purposefully so. He does things often without thinking. In short, he’s not a very nice guy. He himself doesn’t realize it – in many ways, he is the least self-aware character you will find in the movies.

Baumbach is one of the most interesting indie directors out there, with such movies as The Squid and the Whale in his credits. He has a flair for taking an unlikable character, as Greenberg is, and making them front and center and without resorting to cutesy Hollywood clichés gives the audience a way to if not relate to them at least understand them somewhat.

Stiller does perhaps the best work of his career as Roger Greenberg. Stiller’s work in comedies often puts him in the persona of a poor man’s Seinfeld – handsome, charming and quirky – but here he really comes into his own. A role like this is a bit of a chance – stars often feel the need to protect their persona as zealously as they trademark their images – but this certainly is a far cry from Stiller’s usual roles.

Gerwig has gotten a lot of positive reviews for her performance and that’s no accident; she has a very different role to tread, portraying a vulnerable and sweet girl without getting too cloying. Florence is one of those kinds of girls who you run into in bookstores from time to time, who flash that sweet but self-conscious smile for a millisecond that lights up an entire room like a flashbulb, then reverts to that mysterious half-smile that girls seem to learn from birth to bewitch guys. Her character has a shy, un-self-confident air about her and its rather sweet, but again, not cloyingly so.

Ifans is also charming, playing a bit of a sad sack, long-suffering friend who puts up with the slings and arrows Greenberg sends his way until he finally can take no more. He has a scene near the end where he has it out with Greenberg that is one of the movie’s highlights. It’s a tribute to him as an actor that you rarely notice how good he is in his role, until you think about it afterwards and realize that he was as good if not better than anyone else in it.

This is the kind of movie that defies conventions and typical Hollywood stereotypes. It’s not an easy move to watch at times – Greenberg can be an absolute rotten bastard. However, it is rewarding in that you find perhaps parts of yourself that up to now have not held up to self-examination. There’s a little bit of Greenberg in all of us; just hopefully, not a lot of him.

WHY RENT THIS: Exceedingly well-acted character study that is as fascinating as it is at times repellent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Roger Greenberg isn’t the most likable protagonist ever; you may find yourself rooting for him to get his just deserts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was composed and arranged by James Murphy of the electronic band LCD Soundsystem.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last King of Scotland

English as a Second Language


English as a Second Language

Maria Conchita Alonso chainsmokes and lectures her daughter.

(Inferno Filmworks) Kuno Becker, Danielle Camastra, John Michael Higgins, Maria Conchita Alonso, Efrain Figueroa, Harold Gould, Sal Lopez, Treva Etienne. Directed by Youssef Delara

America can be a really hard place to live, particularly for Latin American immigrants. While they can survive on a day-to-day basis without learning to speak English, in order to succeed and thrive here they must speak it fluently, or at least enough to get by.

Bolivar de la Cruz (Becker) has come to the United States illegally, crossing the border in order to make enough money to feed his family back home. He arrives starry-eyed, expecting the wealth and riches of America to fall at his feet. Instead, he encounters suspicion, prejudice and indifference in his quest to find work.

Lola Sara (Camastra) is the child of legal immigrants to the United States, living with one foot in each world. Her parents (Figueroa and Alonso) want the best for her and push her to attain a law degree, which would mean a comfortable life for herself and her family. She is less sure of what she wants and rebels in whichever way she can, partying with her friends and sleeping with men she picks up in the discos.

The worlds of these two people collide briefly when the car Bolivar is riding in is involved in an accident late one night with the car Lola is driving. Lola is clearly impaired and while Bolivar is eager to stay and make sure the young woman is all right, the others in the car, worried that they will be caught and returned to Mexico, flee the scene. Lola winds up being arrested for driving under the influence and is ordered to do community service.

Bolivar is having a terrible time finding work. He goes day after day to a local hardware store where people come to hire illegal aliens and while many of the people waiting there are hired, Bolivar is not. He meets Pepe (Lopez), who tells him that the secret to finding work is learning English. He tells him about free English as a second language classes at the local community college.

As it turns out, Lola’s community service assignment is at that very class, serving as a teacher’s aide. Bolivar is pleased to see that she is all right although she barely remembers him. Still, he feels drawn to her and asks if she can tutor him which she turns down.

Bolivar learns enough English to get hired as a day laborer at the house of a club owner (Higgins) who has difficulty keeping his hands to himself. He offers Bolivar a job dancing at his club but Bolivar, disturbed at his advances, refuses. Eventually, broke and with nowhere to stay, he relents and begins dancing as a male stripper at the club, making more cash than he ever could have imagined. This leads to work in the “back rooms” as a club, giving private dances away to middle-aged women which is a euphemism for male prostitution.

Lola becomes one of his clients one night, which leads to further interaction between the two. She has gotten pregnant from one of her one-night stands and needs to go get an abortion, but doesn’t want to go alone – and there’s nobody else to take her. Desperate, she turns to the gold-hearted Bolivar who takes her for her abortion. Even though he is married, there is some attraction between the two which leads her mother to mistake him for the father of the baby when she accidentally finds out about her daughter’s pregnancy.

In the meantime, Lola has found that she has a flair for teaching and that she rather enjoys it. Bolivar is making money but his life is falling apart. Can these two worlds truly co-exist?

This is a movie that got little notice other than some awards in smaller film festivals, mainly those catering to Latin cinema. Despite the presence of rising star Becker and studio interest, it was deemed unmarketable and wound up going quickly to video and cable television. That’s a shame because this is a solid, well-acted movie that gives insight into the Latin immigrant experience that we rarely get to see in the movies, certainly not as authentically as we see it here.

Alonso, who had some high-profile roles in the 80s and 90s, is still an attractive woman playing a matronly role unusual for the former beauty queen. She handles the role admirably and is one of the best things about the movie as the bitter, chain-smoking mom. Her relationship with her daughter is strained, and some of their confrontational scenes ring oh so true. Higgins also does some fine work in a fairly negative role.

Becker, the Mexican soap star who has found mainstream stardom in the Goal movies, fares less well. Playing the naïve Bolivar, his character goes from sunny to embittered during the course of the movie, finding little about America to love. Although he clearly has the physique for the role, he seemed lost at times, and I got the clear impression that he was unsure of his own abilities to carry the role. There are plenty of fine Mexican and Latin actors who might have done better in the role, but Becker certainly has star power in the Latin community.

Director Delara has a fine eye for color and composition, which serves the movie well. It is an excellent-looking film that captures the flair and atmosphere of the Latino community in Los Angeles, from the discos to the taquerias to the workplaces and finally to the homes. It is a compelling work that would have benefited from better casting in the lead, but still in all worth seeing as a different viewpoint on the immigrant experience. Considering the Bush Administration’s efforts to demonize the Latin immigrant community (particularly those who arrived illegally), it is a timely message to humanize what is often painted with a prejudiced brush.

WHY RENT THIS: A compelling look at the Latin experience in the United States. Fine supporting performances from Alonso and Higgins

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat sudsy at times. Becker seems lost in his role.

FAMILY VALUES: While the movie is rated “R” and there are scenes depicting violence, sexuality and drug use, this really is quite suitable for older and more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Delara also worked as a visual effects coordinator on several Star Trek movies and television shows.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: King of California