Blithe Spirit (2020)


Won’t you look sweet upon a seat…

(2020) Comedy (IFCDan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Judi Dench, Isla Fisher, Aimee Ffion-Edwards, Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James Fleet, Michele Dotrice, Simon Kunz, Dave Johns, Adil Ray, Calie Cooke, Peter Rogers, Delroy Atkinson, James Fleet, Issy van Randwyck, Tam Williams, Colin Stinton, Stella Stocker, James Sygrove, Georgina Rich.  Directed by Edward Hall

 

Noel Coward was one of the most brilliant wits of the 20th century. He plied his trade at the height of one of the most creative literary periods in history, rubbing elbows figuratively if not literally with such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Wofe. While most of his works were pithy and lightweight, they helped set the standard for British humor that endures to this day. I find it absolutely incredible that his work isn’t filmed more often.

Charles Condomine (Stevens) is a feckless crime novel writer who has found great success, but hasn’t written a word since his first wife Elvira (Mann) died young. Now commissioned to write a screenplay adapting his first novel by the father – a producer at powerhouse Pinewood Studios in the UK –  of his new wife, Ruth (Fisher). The trouble is, he is apparently beset by a writer’s block that is the size of a small country.

The Condomine couple and some friends take in the performance of Madame Arcati (Dench), a spiritual medium, as a means of distraction, but the performance goes howlingly wrong. Charles is struck by inspiration; he can work a supernatural element into the plot! Elated by the idea, he asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his London home, and while she’s reluctant, after the disaster of that performance she knows she needs the work, so she reluctantly agrees.

To her own amazement, she actually makes contact with the other side and manages to raise the spirit of Elvira, but the trouble is that only Charles can see her. Once she gets over the shock of her own demise, she becomes extremely perturbed that Chares has remarried, and sets out to win back Charles for her own – even if it kills him.

The bare bones of Coward’s original work remains, but the writing team of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth have made some pasing strange updates to the work, demoting the showstopper Arcati to a much reduced role and giving her a backstory that is meant to inspire pathos. Dench, ever the trooper, pulls it off with aplomb and manages to remain the highlight of the show, but the movie needed a lot more zing and the writers fail to deliver any.

Coward is known for his often barbed and acerbic dialogue that might seem a bit dated now. The decision to keep this a period piece might have rendered that less of a problem, but instead the writers chose to make the dialogue more updated – this feels more like a sitcom, with far more slapstick than Coward would ever have tolerated, and a few dick jokes which in 1945 would have been unconscionable but Coward himself might have arched an eyebrow, deftly flicked an ash from his ever-present cigarette holder and said “Well, one must admire a man who doesn’t mind displaying his shortcomings for all to see.” One really needs to understand the source material in order to properly adapt it, and I don’t get the sense that the writers – or the director – could really claim that distinction.

Admittedly, the cast is marvelous and most of them do pretty well with what they’re given, particularly Dench (as previously mentioned) and Stevens, the Downton Abbey vet who shows a flair for drawing room comedies here. Unfortunately, those aren’t particularly in vogue and this effort is unlikely to bring them back. The production looks sumptuous, and the costumes are Oscar-worthy. However, the score sounds like something you’d hear in a Looney Toon cartoon and often distracts from what is going on in the fim which might not necessariy be a bad thing.

I do really admire the work of Noel Coward and I heartily recommend that you see David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Blithe Spirit along with other Coward gems like Private Lives and By Which We Serve. Unfortunately, this won’t go down as a masterful interpretation of his genius, but hope lives on that we shall one day see a new version of one of his plays  that does.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench is magnificent in this droll period piece.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unaccountably diverges from the source material in senseless ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Hall’s first motion picture feature, he has had a long career as a theatrical and television director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Topper
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Me to Tarzana

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Gun and a Hotel Bible


It’s never a good thing when your Gideon Bible starts telling you fish stories.

(2019) Drama (Freestyle) Bradley Gosnell, Daniel Floren, Mia Marcon, David Shoffner, George Christopher, Delaney Milbourn, John A. McKenna, Wes Selby, Mark Laird, Zachary Fancey, Jimmy McCammon, Grace Fae. Directed by Raja Gosnell and Alicia Joy LeBlanc

Faith isn’t an easy thing to pin down. We don’t always know how strong it is; faith can come and go on a dime. We think we recognize it, but it is only when we are truly tested that we know whether or not our faith is real.

Pete (B. Gosnell) is facing just such a test. He’d met his wife Cindy (Marcon) in a seedy hotel bar. For him anyway, it was love at first sight. She was one of those women who just lights up a room; so full of life, so full of oy, every eye was on her. So he was surprised as hell when she sat down at his table and in the space of a night extracted his life story. Six months later, they were married. Should have been a happily ever after, right?

But life rarely offers us a happily ever after. The magic went out of the relationship and now Pete has discovered that his Cindy has been coming back to the same hotel every Friday night to meet Leo (Christopher) for an evening of passion. So, Pete has come to the hoteland gotten himself a room for Friday night. He packed light; a backpack, and in the backpack, a gun.

Gideon (Floren), or “Gid” as he likes to be called, has a pretty stationary life. He likes to do things by the book, which is understandable since he is a book – or perhaps more to the point, THE book – the Gideon Bible that is left free in hotel rooms for travellers to read. This particular Bible has been sitting in the same hotel room for six decades. He’s seen his share of tragedies and passions; one of his pages has been torn out by a stoner to use as a rolling paper “Judges. Ironic, huh?”) and on the back a child has drawn her own Picasso-esque masterpiece.

When Pete comes in, Gic strikes up a conversation, being an outgoing, people-loving sort. Gid quickly discovers what Pete’s intentions are and holds a conversation with Pete on the nature of faith, the inequities of translation and interpretation, and navigating right and wrong as he tries to guide Pete in a different direction than the one he’s planning on.

This movie had its beginning as a stage play, and sadly, hasn’t really risen past its beginnings. Most of the action takes place in the confines of a hotel room, and there is a stage-y feeling to the production and to be honest, to the dialogue as well. The rhythms here all scream “stage play” much more than they do “film”. Considering that the two co-stars co-wrote and starred in the sgtage version and co-director LeBlanc directed the original stage version, it isn’t so surprising. Raja Gosnell (Brad’s dad) is a veteran director of feature films; you’d think that he would have added a more cinematic quality to the production, but alas, no.

That’s not to say that this doesn’t have things going for it. The concept is imaginative and the opening sequence when Pete narrates how he and Cindy got together is pretty nifty and the movie tackles some pretty deep subjects. It is one of those rare movies that discusses faith from a rational standpoint, never feels like it’s preaching. I know a few theologians who are going to have some pretty stirring conversations based on this if they ever get to see it.

Gosnell the younger and Floren have a good chemistry and each does a pretty good job with their roles,Pete being scruffy and down on just about everything (as you might imagine) while Gid is a bit of a huckster, optimistic in an “Up With People” kind of vibe, and a little bit too into the Cubs. While the film is a brisk 60 minutes long, your tolerance for watching what is essentially an extended conversation will determine how much you’ll end up enjoying this movie. For me, it was thought-provoking enough to sustain my interest.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of imagination here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very stage-y; other than the opening scene, lacks a sense of being a film rather than a stage play.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play that debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTub]e
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Museum Town

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

Beasts of the Southern Wild


The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

(2012) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway, Kendra Harris, Windle Bourg, Jay Oliver, Roxanna Francis, Marilyn Barbarin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin

2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin
Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
WINS – 0

Oscar Gold 2016

There is something precious about a child’s imagination. It is untamed, full of beasties and monsters but also full of beauty and innocence. Our worldview as adults is well-informed by our daydreams as children. I, for one, wish I could have held on more to those dreams.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a resolute 6-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a (fictional) part of the Louisiana bayou that rests on the “other” side of the levee. Whenever it rains, the Bathtub floods. The people who live there are rough and tumble, really recognizing no authority but their own. Their lives are hardscrabble and they eke by on whatever they can manage.

Hushpuppy has a daddy named Wink (Henry) who is prone to disappearing. After one such disappearance, he returns home with a hospital gown and ID bracelet. He has a rare blood disease and it is slowly killing him. He means to make his daughter as self-sufficient as he can in what time he has left.

Her somewhat prescient teacher Miss Bathsheba (Montana) tells her and her classmates about global warming and the polar ice caps melting, adding that this would release prehistoric beasts called aurochs that would rampage across North America, devouring everything in their path. She also warns that a gigantic storm is coming. When it hits, Wink and Hushpuppy try to ride it out but when all is said and done the devastation is catastrophic. Worse still, the aurochs are on the loose.

First-time feature director Zeitlin has crafted an impressive debut that takes its visual cues from Terrance Malick. He co-wrote the movie along with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play. This feels far from the average stage adaptation because those often feel like you’re seeing a filmed version of a stage play with little depth of field so to speak. Almost all of this is outdoors and not just any outdoors but the somewhat wide and endless bayous of south Louisiana where the Gulf and the land are almost one entity.

Wallis won her Oscar nomination deservedly and it is a performance that will startle anyone who has seen juvenile actors “act.” Most of them are fairly unbearable with occasional exceptions but Wallis blows all of them out of the water here. Her Hushpuppy is primordial and wise at the same time, seeing the world with innocent eyes yet with a certain amount of world weariness that comes from living a difficult life. It’s a deep and layered role that would hopelessly stump even veteran actors but Wallis is so natural it’s like it was written for her, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

Most of the rest of the cast are locals; that makes for predictably varying performances although for the most part they are adequate enough. The aurochs are nicely rendered, considering the tiny budget the movie had and there are some moments of real beauty. Zeitlin doesn’t always connect things together real well but it can’t be denied that he has a really uncanny eye. This is a beautiful film.

The movie does move slowly in the middle as the residents of the Bathtub prepare for the storm. And like many movies that dry to depict the imagination of a child, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Overall though this is a gorgeous movie, somewhat bittersweet about the process of growing up and how sometimes, the fantasies of youth are preferable to the realities of adulthood.

WHY RENT THIS: Wallis is a force of nature here. An imaginative story imaginatively told.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of children in peril, brief profanity, disturbing images, some sensuality and adult themes are the order of the day.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At nine years old, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, a record that still stands through 2016.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are audition tapes, a featurette on the Aurochs, and a short film that Zeitlin previously made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.1M on a $1.8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold continues!

Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II

What If (2014)


Indie cute OD.

Indie cute OD.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Lucius Hoyos, Jemima Rooper, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Meghan Heffern, Jonathan Cherry, Rebecca Northan, Jordan Hayes, Oona Chaplin, Adam Fergus, Sam Moses, Ennis Esmer, Mike Wilmot, George Tchortov, Tamara Duarte, Vanessa Matsui. Directed by Michael Dowse

Finding The One is a matter not only of chemistry but of timing. Both of you have to be in the right place to be able to accept someone into that kind of intimacy. Both of you have to be available. It would help a lot if you’re both as attractive, cool and hip as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who has had his heart broken one too many times. He lives in his sister’s (Rooper) attic as a kind of live-in babysitter to her son (Hoyos) and spends a lot of time sitting on the roof of his sister’s house gazing soulfully at the Toronto skyline.

His cynical friend Allan (Driver) gets him to go to a party where he meets Chantry (Kazan). The two hit it off right away and spend much of the evening talking. To Wallace’s surprise (and perhaps disgust) Allan has hooked up with Nicole (Davis) and those two are going at it like sailors on a 24 hour pass in a brothel. Not much chance of that happening with Wallace and Chantry though – she has a boyfriend named Ben (Spall) who is a pretty decent fellow who works for the U.N. Kind of a rough challenge for an unemployed medical school dropout to take on, y’know.

 

Nonetheless Wallace and Chantry become the best of friends and when Ben’s work takes him to Dublin for six months, the opportunity is there although Wallace – something of a wimp – shies away from it even though it is clear to everyone who knows him that he’s hopelessly smitten by the comely young Chantry. And for her part, Chantry’s friends suspect she likes Wallace a lot more than she’s letting on, although she lets her somewhat slutty sister Dalia (Park) take a crack at Wallace which ends up pretty disastrously. However as Chantry begins to question her relationship with Ben and a major opportunity knocks for her which might send her halfway around the world. Wallace has the choice of doing the right thing, or…but what is the right thing in this situation, anyway?

This Canadian-made rom com based on a stage play has the advantage of having some attractive leads but the disadvantage of fairly bland personalities for the both of them. Sure, Chantry is an animator whose scribblings occasionally come to life but this contributes to a cuter-than-thou vibe that over-sweetens this concoction like someone dumping a whole jar of refined sugar into a glass of tea. The animations really add nothing to the movie other than to be a distraction reflecting Chantry’s occasional melancholy. Sure Wallace comes off as cooler than the average bear but with a sweet sensitive side that is apt to get all the indie gals in their vintage dresses and fuchsia hair misty-eyed.

Radcliffe, now a grown-up after we watched him grow up in the Harry Potter movies, is an engaging romantic lead, not conventionally handsome like a Hugh Grant but having the same tripping-over-his-own-feet awkwardness that Grant made into a trademark in the 90s. His character here has little in the way of backbone and tries so hard to do the right thing that he ends up making everybody around him miserable. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing.

Like a few other critics, I found the relationship between Allan and Nicole far more interesting and would have appreciated much more insight into their relationship, even though they do pull a few dick moves during the movie. Their characters seemed more realistic and more alive than the sometimes walking cliches that are Wallace and Chantry.

That’s not to say that the relationship between the two leads doesn’t have its moments. There’s the slapstick sequence that sends Ben out of a window during a disastrous dinner party but sadly there isn’t enough of that. When late in the movie the two of them “break up” as friends due to an issue that could have been resolved simply with a phone call and seems blown way out of proportion in order to manufacture conflict, I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. This is one of the most egregious of rom-com cliches of the 21st century.

This is basically a movie that has a lot of potential but tries too hard to be charming in a Bohemian way, sort of like Toronto doing the East Village and realizing far too late that they’re far too polite and less pretentious to make that work effectively. I liked Radcliffe and Driver, with a hint of Davis and Spall but after that there is much less to love.

REASONS TO GO: Daniel Radcliffe is awfully engaging.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too cute. A surfeit of indie rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sexual references including some brief partial nudity and not an inconsequential amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Casey Affleck and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were originally cast as the leads but the producers decided they wanted to go with younger actors instead which is ironic since Zoe Kazan is in fact older than Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Bellflower

Good


Good

Viggo Mortensen has to keep telling himself he's not in Mordor anymore...it's worse!

(2008) Drama (THINKfilm) Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Mark Strong, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones, Anastasia Hille, Ruth Gemmell, Ralph Riach, Steven Elder, Kevin Doyle, David de Keyser, Guy Henry, Adrian Schiller, Tallulah Boote Bond. Directed by Vicente Amorim

 

We like to think we know the difference between right and wrong and given the choice between the two, will choose the former. That is the definition of a good person, isn’t it? Someone who always chooses the right thing over the wrong thing? Sometimes, the definitions aren’t so clear-cut.

John Halder (Mortensen) is a literature professor in Berlin in the late 1930s as the Nazi party is rising to power. He has written a book in which euthanasia was a theme and the higher-ups in the Party have taken it as a means of excusing the Final Solution, not that John knows any of this. What he dos know is that joining the Party – whose politics he objects to and disagrees with – can mean comfort and safety for his family. So he joins.

His best friend, Maurice Gluckstein (Isaacs) who happens to be Jewish, sees the inherent evil in Nazism that his friend John (shouldn’t it be Johann if this is in Germany?) obviously has turned a blind eye to. And John isn’t a bad man, he’s just doing right by his family?

But when you take one step down the rotten path, sometimes it becomes easier to take other steps. He leaves his neurotic brunette wife (Hille) for a blonde, Aryan student (Whittaker) who the party approves of. She is much more in tune with Party politics than his wife, who like her parents and his, see the transformation Germany is undergoing with horror. It isn’t until it is much too late that John realizes the evil he has bought into and for that kind of mistake the price is very high indeed.

This is based on a 1982 play by John Wrathall which I understand was staged in a very stream-of-consciousness, minimalist way. The storytelling is a little more conventional here (with a subplot about John’s abominable treatment of his mother (Jones) thrown in for good measure) but there are still holes in it. Part of what should make this an excellent subject for a movie is that there really isn’t much exploration as to why John turned such a blind eye to what his country was becoming. It seemed to be out of almost convenience – it was simply easier to go with the flow. It seems to be an over-simplified explanation from what I know of Germany from that era.

Also, the characters (other than Gluckstein, who is portrayed with marvelous zest by Isaacs) are mostly bland and somewhat  without much personality. John is supposed to be a brilliant man who is motivated out of expedience to care for his family, but what we get is a man who doesn’t much care about what is going on around him – neither do we, then.

To be honest, I’m probably a little bit harsher on the film than I might ordinarily be. If I am, it’s because the potential here is so wasted – this is a wonderful and important idea for a movie. It’s just not executed very well. There are parallels to what went on in Nazi Germany to how America responded after 9-11, so this is certainly something worth exploring, especially now. I just wish they’d explored it a little more thoroughly.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting discussion about good and evil and how sometimes the line between the two can be very thin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Underdeveloped characterization and some shoddy plot development.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and some adult themes which smaller children might not yet be prepared for.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romola Garai was originally cast as Anne but withdrew in order to concentrate on her university studies. Jodie Whittaker took the part instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rather than having a commentary track, there is an interview segment that is nearly an hour long and includes many of the film’s cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unreported production budget; at best I think the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: For the Love of the Game

Jack Goes Boating


Jack Goes Boating

Amy Ryan tries to be polite but can't hide her confusion when Phillip Seymour Hoffman launches into a Kenneth Mars impression.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Overture) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Thomas McCarthy, Lola Glaudini, Richard Petrocelli, Salvatore Inzerillo, Harry L. Seddon, Shawna Barmender.  Directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Who can say why two people that shouldn’t be together end up that way, while two people who should be together don’t. The mysteries of human interrelationships would baffle Steven Hawking (and probably does) since so much of it is inexplicable. There are no scientific formulas to explain the human heart.

Jack (Hoffman) is a mild-mannered limo driver for his uncle’s (Petrocelli) company. His best friend is Clyde (Ortiz) whom he’s known since they were kids. Jack has ambitions to work for the MTA in New York City (where they live) but nobody really believes he can pass the test needed to become an MTA driver. Jack lives alone, has no girlfriend and most of his social life revolves around Clyde and his girlfriend Lucy (Rubin-Vega). Lucy, while fond of Jack, doesn’t want him around quite so much and thinks a girlfriend would be just the ticket to give him a life of her own.

Lucy works at a funeral home with Connie (Ryan), a woman who might just be as shy as Jack is. Like Jack, she is alone (although not nearly as dependent on others as Jack is). Clyde and Lucy decide to get the two together.

Surprisingly they get on very nicely and Connie remarks to Jack that she wants to go boating in Central Park. Since it’s the beginning of winter, that indicates an interest in a long term relationship. However Jack doesn’t particularly want to go boating – he can’t swim. Clyde offers to teach Jack how to swim, since Jack is eager to continue seeing Connie.

Jack also wants to cook Connie a meal in the meantime, which is quite an undertaking for a guy who doesn’t know how to microwave popcorn. He gets some lessons but when the big dinner date arrive (Clyde and Lucy are also invited), things go horribly awry. Still, Jack and Connie seem to get closer and closer – and as they do, Clyde and Lucy begin to drift farther and farther apart.

Not only does Hoffman appear in this as the lead actor, but he also directed the movie (based on Robert Glaudini’s stage play of the same name – Glaudini also wrote the screenplay) which is difficult enough. He is in nearly every scene and is the center of the action. That can be good and bad; while Jack is out to improve himself and improve the quality of his life, he is taking baby steps for the most part; for the audience viewing this it can be downright irritating.

I’m not saying watching a shy man change his life is inherently boring – it’s not – but as depicted here the more interesting characters tend to be the ones on the periphery. Clyde, Lucy and Connie all held my attention more readily than Jack did, a bad sign.

Still, the movie has a sweet charm to it that helps offset the lack of inertia. Hoffman does shy and awkward as well as anyone, and he does it here nicely. Jack isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he has a good heart. Connie is much smarter than he is but just as socially awkward. Ryan gives her a sweet and sexy quality that is self-conscious but totally believable.

Ortiz for me was the most interesting performance. A little bit smarmy, totally 100% New York, Clyde has the best of intentions but is derailed by his own failings. His heart is in the right place but he can’t get past his weakness for marijuana, nor his jealousy of Lucy’s past infidelities.

There is a scene near the end of the movie when the two couples are at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment which is as awkward as any I’ve ever seen in a movie (awkward in a good way). It is the most powerful scene in the movie and as Connie tries desperately to pull Jack away from the train wreck that is occurring, you are right there with her. It is in this moment where Hoffman shows the potential of being a really good director.

This isn’t a movie that’s going to reveal a lot of new insights into love or life; it’s just a look inside two relationships and four lives. It does give a sense of how it is to live and work in New York, which is always welcome. It also is charming and sweet at times, awkward and irritating at others. Just like real life.

WHY RENT THIS: The relationships are believable and the one between Jack and Connie is sweet.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie lacks inertia.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of cursing, a smidgeon of drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman originated the role of Jack in the stage production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on how the process of adapting the movie from a stage play into a film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $619,570 on an unreported production budget; the movie was most likely a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 30 Minutes or Less

Incendies


Incendies

Lubna Azabal wants a bigger percentage of the gross - and she's not going to take no for an answer!

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Our relationships with our parents can be complicated to say the least. Often we forget that they too are flesh and blood people who lived lives before we were even a gleam in their eyes – that they were once young and passionate, and lived through times both good and bad. Sometimes, we just don’t know our parents at all.

Twins Simon (Gaudette) and Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulim) are summoned to the office of their late mother’s employer Jean Lebel (Girard), who happens to be a notary. He has, he informs them, been named executor of their mother’s will. She has asked to be buried naked and face down without a headstone or a name plate. Instead, the twins are given two envelopes – one addressed to the father they thought was dead, the other addressed to the brother they didn’t know they had. Once those envelopes are delivered, then she could be properly buried.

Simon, who obviously has some issues with his mommy, refuses to play her games but Jeanne, who is a graduate student in mathematics and deals with insolvable problems, has to fill in the blanks that have suddenly appeared in her life. She decides to retrace her mother’s steps, back to the unnamed and fictional Middle Eastern country (that is most likely based on Lebanon) where her mother was born.

There we find that her mother, Nawal Marwan (Azabal), was born a Christian in a country where Muslims and Christians don’t really play together well. She falls in love with a Muslim who gets her pregnant which is a no-no. After giving birth, she is forced to leave her village and stay with her uncle in the city of Daresh, where he is a newspaper editor and she attends university while her newborn is left in an orphanage. Years later when civil war breaks out between the Christians and the Muslims, she goes on a journey to find her son, one that will take her through as much suffering as it is possible for a human being to witness.

This may sound like a very dark tale and certainly it is grim in places, but it is also very uplifting. The movie is driven by the things that divide us, but the powerful element of forgiveness is also very much present.

Villeneuve proves himself to be not only an adept director, but potentially an elite one with his marvelous storycrafting here. The movie begins with a somewhat scattered feeling and as the movie continues, the threads begin to emerge into a pattern until at last the big picture comes into focus. The twist that brings it all together is a doozy; there were audible gasps at the screening I attended.

Azabal is a tremendous actress who starts out very emotional, wearing her feelings openly but becoming more guarded as the movie progresses (it’s a defense mechanism). That’s the opposite of how movie characters usually progress, and kudos to her and Villeneuve for pulling it off. Nawal is a complex women, one who has been through a great deal of trauma, who has seen men at their worst (Christian militiamen with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the butts of their guns massacring a busload of Muslim women) and yet manages to find a way through to grace, which she achieves near the end of her life and by sending her children on this journey, allows them to achieve it as well.

There are certainly socio-political elements to the movie as well, with a good hard look at the prejudices and hatreds of a region that seems doomed to wallow in it forever. Yet, there is great beauty there, and the warmth of family and hospitality that makes watching the country descend into the madness of religious civil war all the more heartbreaking.

This is one of the most provocative movies you’ll see this year. It was the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it wound up losing to In a Better World – both movies are about equally as good, to my mind and both deserved it. This movie, however, gets a bit of an edge when it comes to the issues raised and the character of Nawal, who is as extraordinary a woman as you’re likely to meet in the theater this year.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and terrific images.

REASONS TO STAY: It takes a bit of patience to get on board.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some pretty intense violence not to mention a good deal of foul language and a twist with an extremely adult theme.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stage play that the movie is based on premiered in France on March 14, 2003 in France and the title translates to “Scorched.”

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this on a big screen if you can find it.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: An Education