Chronically Metropolitan


Writing and hangovers go hand in hand.

(2016) Dramedy (Paladin) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Benson, Addison Timlin, Josh Peck, Chris Noth, Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Lowell, Sosie Bacon, Nasser Faris, Norm Golden, Rhys Coiro, Max Curnin, Craig Newman, Luca Surguladze, Whitney Vance, Al Thompson, Victor Cruz, Andres Arellano, Antoinette Kalaj, Alex Oliver, Meredith Travers, Ana Valdes. Directed by Xavier Manrique

 

Writers are an odd lot. We have wonderful powers of observation, very often able to discern truths about those we observe that they might not expect. We are also self-centered; writing is by its nature a solitary endeavor. All of us, every one, is ruled by the tyranny of the blank page.

Fenton (Fernandez) is the son of one such writer and professor who has been a leading light in the New York City literary world and a fixture on the Upper East Side. When Fenton’s dad (Noth) is involved in a car accident in which drugs and extramarital sex played a role, his whole family is put under an enormous microscope – the accident winds up front page material in the New York Post (“They never paid this much attention when I won my National Book Award” he grouses).

Fenton had been living in San Francisco the past year. A talented writer in his own right, he had gotten a story published in The New Yorker which his then-girlfriend Jessie (Benson) had assumed was about her and her family. It led to a nasty break-up and to Fenton’s exile, as he puts it. Now he’s back, trying to mend fences with Jessie who is on the eve of her wedding to Victor (Lowell), an art gallery owner whose family is stupid rich. Fenton’s dad assumes that’s why the nuptials are impending.

Fenton’s mom (Parker) has retreated into a marijuana-scented haze trying to dull the edges of her pain and embarrassment. His sister Layla (Addison Timlin) is basically angry at everybody and carrying on a hidden relationship with Fenton’s best buddy (and mom’s pot supplier) John (Peck). Fenton has a deal for a novel based on the success of his New Yorker story but when he sits down to write it that blank page stares back at him accusingly. He hasn’t been able to move on from all the upheaval and with his parents essentially on the verge of divorce, he is getting overwhelmed and acting out. Can he put his life back together under the microscope of New York literary society?

This is the kind of movie that plays to the prejudices of non-New Yorkers, characterizing them as pretentious self-centered spoiled rich pricks. Everyone in the movie and I do mean everyone has some sort of neuroses going on. As for actual New Yorkers, this is the kind of movie that sets their teeth on edge. Certainly there are people who behave this way – those prejudices had to start from somewhere – but it isn’t really true to life anymore.

For one thing, a story in the New Yorker isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect on families that it once did. In this day and age of social media, a family’s skeletons are likely to be aired on Facebook long before the dirty laundry is made into a short story or a novel. Regards to the New Yorker, a publication that is worthy of respect but while it continues to carry a lot of clout, I don’t think that it can cause that kind of personal chaos any longer. At least, that’s what I hear.

This feels like a movie cobbled together from a lot of different movies; Fenton wanting to stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, a family at each other’s throats due to a work of fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography, a philandering father who is a writer, a mother who is self-medicating, an angry sibling – I could go on but why bother? This is all fairly safe, fairly familiar territory and most of you who have watched more than a few indie films set in Manhattan are going to recognize it.

Noth channels Rip Torn here and does a fairly stellar job in a role of an utter S.O.B. which Torn used to essentially own. Noth, who generally plays nice guys, does an admirable job here. Parker, a terrific actress who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is wasted in a generic role. In fact, most of the women here have very little depth to their parts. This is certainly a case where the script could have used a woman’s touch.

Cinematographer Scott Miller does a bang-up job of using the city as a character; one gets the sense of the ebb and flow of New York. Despite the shallowness of most of the characters, one senses a genuine love for the city from all of the filmmakers. That does go a long way.

Sadly this is far too generic and far too cliché to really attract much notice. There are some good ideas here but for the most part the writing takes safe, established routes rather than blazing new trails. There’s nothing here that seems to have much of a voice – and that’s essential to a film like this. It’s okay as far as it goes, but I would have liked a lot more than okay.

REASONS TO GO: The film is skillfully shot and features New York City nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Indie clichés abound here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of drug and alcohol use and some sex and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker, whose character here has developed a marijuana habit, also played a pot smoker in the TV series Weeds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Landline

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Barry


Even reading a Ralph Ellison book in a Harlem schoolyard as a 20-year-old, the future President can’t get away from Joe Biden!

(2016) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Devon Terrell, Anya Taylor-Jay, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane Jenna Elfman, Linus Roache, Avi Nash, John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Judd, Sawyer Pierce, Eric Berryman, Ralph Rodriguez, Danny Henriquez, Tessa Albertson, Tommy Nelson, Annabelle Attanasio, Matt Ball, Markita Prescott. Directed by Vikram Gandhi

 

Barack Obama is a President who has provoked very extreme reactions. To the left he is a hero, a model of decorum and grace, whose intelligence and class has carried him through one of the roughest most vitriolic attacks from the opposition in the history of the Presidency. To the right he is nothing short of a terrorist, a Muslim whose mission was to destroy our country from within. There are some who take the middle ground between the two of course but largely those two extremes have been the popular conception from each political point of view.

But there was a time before that when he was just an ordinary college student. Back then, everyone called him Barry (Terrell) and he had about as much confidence in his future as any college student, maybe even less so. I suspect if anyone had told Barry that he was going to be the 44th President of the United States he’d probably want some of what you’ve been smoking – Barry after all is not above occasionally partaking in the wacky weed.

He has just transferred to Columbia University in New York City looking for a degree in political science. The product of a white mother and an African father, his parents are divorced; his mom is in Hawaii where he grew up, his dad has returned to Kenya. Barry is trying to write a letter to his dad to express what he feels but can’t find the words. Barry also feels like an outside in both the white and African-American spheres.

He meets Charlotte (Joy), the daughter of wealthy parents and the two begin dating but as always Barry isn’t sure where he fits in. He plays street ball with local guys from the neighborhood like PJ (Mitchell) with whom he strikes up a friendship, but he feels like an outsider. Similarly he doesn’t belong in the world of country clubs and pricey restaurants that his girlfriend is used to. His roommate Will (Coltrane) tries to help but mostly the two get high together.

To my way of thinking this isn’t so much a biography of the President as it is an exploration of how young men can be lost in not knowing who they are. Of course, it’s especially true for someone in Barry’s situation but it should ring true for just about everybody. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a biography in any case (Charlotte, for one thing, is a composite character) but it supposedly reflects Obama’s inner turmoil and his personality pretty well at that time of his life.

The overall tone is pretty laid-back which flirts with actual boredom from time to time. There is a whole lot of philosophizing going on and not a ton of conflict. Most of the conflict is pretty much internal; while Obama struggles with finding a place he’s truly comfortable with in both the white world and the African-American and there are moments in which he feels discrimination from both sides, it isn’t as if he is overly oppressed here. There are times he is hassled by a University Security guard for likely the color of his skin. He also is targeted by angry African-Americans who resent the opportunities he is getting because of his Caucasian blood.

Terrell does a pretty good job of playing Obama, capturing his very recognizable cadence of speech. This isn’t always a flattering portrait but then again, think of yourself as a 20-year-old and see if a film biography of you at that age will be one you’re particularly proud of. It’s a pretty layered performance and Terrell captures the essence of the man. How close it is to the real man is best left answered by those who know the ex-President well (which certainly doesn’t describe me) but I think that there are at least elements of the real Barack Obama here, or at least the real Barack Obama at 20.

As I’ve said with similar movies about public figures of recent years, I don’t know that this gives us any real insight into the heart and mind of our 44th president who is a notoriously private individual. It isn’t scintillating material but those who admire President Obama will find this interesting. Those who feel the opposite aren’t going to watch this anyway.

REASONS TO GO: It seems to be an attempt to humanize the 44th President by portraying him as a young college student trying to find himself.
REASONS TO STAY: I thought it went a little too low-key.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find a little bit of violence, some drug use, a smidgen of sensuality and a small amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film of both director Vikram Gandhi and star Devon Terrell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Southside With You

Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon