Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

Cafe Society


On the Boardwalk.

On the Boardwalk.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnoy, Stephen Kunken, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Kat Edmonson, Tony Sirico, Paul Schneider, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’Lyn, Taylor Carr. Directed by Woody Allen

 

Finding love and a life you can live with are never easy propositions, even in Hollywood during the Golden Age. There are all sorts of detours and obstacles, not to mention the comfortable ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. There is also a question of timing – being in the right place at the right time. No, finding a place where you fit in and a person you fit in with is no easy task, no matter what the era.

Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) is a good Jewish boy from the Bronx. It is shortly after the war and America is in its ascendancy and Hollywood defines America. His uncle Phil (Carell) is a high-powered agent with such clients as Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou and studio chiefs kiss his butt to curry favor. Bobby heads out for Southern California to see if he can make a career out there; Phil isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but after some dithering finally gives his nephews a job.

He also enlists his personal assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show him around town. The two hit it off but when Bobby is eager to take things further, Vonnie gently rebuffs him. However, his sweet charm wears her down and eventually she gives in and the two become something of an item. However, Vonnie has a secret that she’s been keeping from everybody and when it surfaces, it effectively ends their romance. Disheartened, Bobby returns to New York.

There he is given a job by his brother Ben (Stoll), a gangster, to run his tres chi chi nightclub known as Les Tropique. It becomes the place to be seen in Manhattan, with politicians, Broadway stars, sports heroes and gangsters all rubbing elbows. Bobby also meets Veronica (Lively) who charms him and eventually the two get married and have a child. Everything is going exactly the way Bobby envisioned it – until one night Vonnie walks into his joint…

Woody Allen is in many ways the embodiment of a niche filmmaker. His area of interests is fairly narrow compared to some, and he tends to stick with those subjects pretty much without exception. When he is at his best, there are few better. However in the last couple of decades, it has become evident that his best work is likely behind him and some of his worst much closer to 2016 than his best stuff, much of which was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has had flashes of brilliance since then but perhaps his torrid pace – he generally churns out a new film every year – might well have hurt him quality-wise.

Still, Woody Allen’s worst is far better than most people’s best and this is far from his worst. While I found one of the romances a bit disingenuous, there is also one relationship that you almost root for. The problem I have with the movie is that I really ended up not caring about either Bobby or Vonnie. Bobby’s sweetness could get cloying and after awhile he reminded me of a slingshot that had been pulled back just a hair too far back and I was just waiting for him to snap. On the other hand, Vonnie is crazy shallow and despite all of her apparent aspirations towards depth, at the end of the day she chooses the easy path every time. Bobby and Vonnie are a couple far better together than they are individually so this is really a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Allen has always known how to make his movies look their best and that starts with hiring the best cinematographers in the business, from Gordon Willis to Darius Khondji to now Vittorio Storaro here. Storaro is one of the most gifted cinematographers in the business and he makes the Golden Age look golden, both in Los Angeles and New York. Like all Woody Allen movies, it is beautiful to look at in ways you wouldn’t think of for a film that is mostly set in a big city of one coast or another.

Mostly you’ll want to see this for the supporting cast, who are wonderful, from the luminescent Lively to Carell in one of his meatier roles, to Stoll as the good-natured gangster but especially Stott and Berlin as Bobby and Ben’s long-suffering parents. They are quite the hoot and supply a lot of the best comedic moments here.

The movie ends up being a little bit bittersweet and doesn’t really end the way you’d expect it to, but then again Woody Allen has never been in making the movies people expect him to make. He’s always been a bit of a maverick and done things the way he wanted to rather than the way the studios wanted him to do it. He doesn’t make blockbusters and I don’t think he’s ever really been interested in breaking the bank from that perspective, but he makes movies that as a body of work will be long-remembered when some of the box office hits of the last fifty years are long forgotten.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Woody Allen and you don’t miss an opportunity to see a master. Beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic leads are two people you end up not caring about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexually suggestive content, a little bit of violence and a drug reference or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Allen has shot digitally. It’s also the first time in 29 years that Allen has narrated a film without appearing onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hail, Caesar!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ghost Team