Submission


Stanley Tucci clearly has a position of power over Addison Timlin…or does he?

(2017) Drama (Great Point Media) Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Jessica Hecht, Ritchie Coster, Colby Minifie, Alison Bartlett, David Pittu, Henry Stram, Juan Castano, Matt Ballard, Ashley Trawinski, Stephanie Berry, Devin Norik, Kenneth De Abrew, S.J. Son, Nicole Orth-Palavicini, Malika Samuel, Deaven Brooks, Barbara Spiegel. Directed by Richard Levine

 

In an era which has seen the #MeToo movement grow into a national tidal wave of women standing up to name those who have raped, harassed or committed sexual misconduct against them, movies like this one stand out as a bit of a dinosaur.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) toils at a bucolic college campus in Vermont teaching creative writing courses which mainly consist of students reading their works aloud in class and the other students criticizing them, generally with banal cruelty. Ted is married to Sherrie (Sedgwick) who as a medical doctor is likely responsible for their beautiful split level home, although Ted had a bestselling novel years ago based on his own experiences growing up with a radical father who self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war.

The follow-up however has yet to surface and his agent (Gallagher) has more or less given up on him, so Ted lives in this kind of literary hell in which he listens to badly written purple prose week after week without any let-up. The, one of his students – Angela Argo (Timlin) who has been one of the most vocal and vicious critics – finally after some liberal ego massage gets Ted to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and he realizes at once he is looking at genuine talent.

Her novel is insightful and extremely erotic, a tale of a student who has become sexually obsessed with her teacher. Of course, Ted surmises that the teacher character is based on him and the student on her – Angela makes it perfectly clear that it is the case. However, Ted makes some ill-advised decisions after Angela continues to shamelessly manipulate him and puts everything at risk – his job, his reputation, and his family.

I guess in a way we can see this film as a way the patriarchy thinks about these sexual misconduct cases. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to Ted and yet he puts himself in a position where he can be seduced and doesn’t seem to realize that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Angela as a means of getting Ted to submit her novel to his agent. She seems sweet at first but sweet turns into demanding turns into seduction turns into accusatory. Angela is supposed to be the villain here but quite frankly, cases like this are far more rare than male authority figures using their power to manipulate vulnerable women into situations where they feel forced to have sexual relationships they don’t want.

The movie is based on a novel written back in 2000 by Francine Prose called The Blue Angel which in turn is loosely based on the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name which Angela is watching during the course of this film in a charming meta move. Movies of this sort are not uncommon – anyone remember the Demi Moore/Michael Douglas film Disclosure? – in which women are shown to have the upper hand in sexual politics although clearly that isn’t the case. It is the type of attitude that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to flourish.

While the subject is accidentally topical, the plot is predictable and cliché. The movie is saved by Tucci who gives his usual strong performance, although his voiceover narration particularly in the beginning of the film is particularly grating. The collegiate setting particularly in the beautiful countryside of New England is somehow comforting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s the college I’d want to have tenure at.

Watchable mainly because of the strong cast, Submission fails on a number of levels. From a political correctness standpoint, it comes off as somewhat of an anachronism in an age when we are beginning to stand up and take notice of the treatment that women have had to endure in relative silence for decades. Moreover, the way the story is told is rife with clichés and worse yet doesn’t particularly add anything to the narrative. I’m not against the idea of a story about an amoral seductress manipulating a naïve professional for her own ambition but this is the wrong time for that kind of story to be told. I’d much rather see movies that illustrate the reality of what women in the workplace have endured and continue to endure even today.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci is always a treat to watch. As it turns out the plot is very topical. The collegiate vistas are oddly comforting.
REASONS TO STAY: Viewers may get the sense that they’ve seen this all before. Cliches abound throughout the film. The narration is a bit grating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual content, nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angela watches the classic Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel which gave the source novel its title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elegy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Chasing Great

Arrival (2016)


Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sangita Patel, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowski, Mark O’Brien, Jadyn Malone, Ruth Chiang, Anana Rydvald, Julia Scarlett Dan, Nathaly Thibault, Leisa Reid, Frank Fiola, Russell Yuen, Pat Kiely, Larry Day, Joe Cobden, Julian Casey, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Andrew Shaver, Genevieve Sirois. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

We take language for granted. After all, despite the many languages on the planet, we are basically aware of all the various alphabets and pictographs that make up written language. We are also the same species and can communicate non-verbally if necessary. What happens when we encounter an alien species with whom we have no basis for communication?

Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist teaching at a fairly well-known university. One day her class – already sparsely attended – is interrupted by the students all getting excited texts over the phone. At last Louise, watching her students abandon her classroom, finds a television set and discovers that an alien spaceship has arrived in Montana. As it later turns out, it is one of twelve positioned all over the world.

Of course, the big question is “what do they want?” When the military in the form of Colonel Weber (Whitaker) knocks at her door, she takes the opportunity. What scientist wouldn’t want to be among those making first contact with an alien race? Certainly not Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who is also on the team whom Louise meets on the way to the landing site, although landing is perhaps a misnomer; the alien vessel floats majestically 28 feet above the ground. It’s not as if Louise has anything holding her at home, as she is completely alone. She often thinks about her teenage daughter Hannah who passed away of what appears to be cancer.

As it turns out, the aliens appear every 18 hours like clockwork but nobody has been able to communicate with them yet which is of course why Louise was brought in. The team enters the spaceship via a scissor lift which gets them to a certain point; after that the aliens thoughtfully manipulate gravity so the team can make it comfortably the rest of the way.

They appear behind a glass barrier with swirling white mist. The aliens, gigantic grey beings with seven limbs are dubbed “heptapods” as they somewhat resemble octopi with a missing limb. Louise discovers that the circular shapes that they conjure up in the mist is their written language. With eleven other scientific teams also working to make contact in places like Siberia, China and Venezuela, the scientists work overtime trying to interpret the alien language. Louise begins to make breakthroughs, understanding that the squiggly circles all represent concepts rather than letters of an alphabet.

However, differences in opinion over what the squiggly circles mean begin to raise tensions between the various nations. The Chinese are certain that the aliens are trying to give them a weapon and their leader, General Shang (Ma) has cut off communication with the other teams. The CIA type (Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is inclined to believe the same thing. Now the race is to prove that the aliens are not out to start a war or destroy humanity utterly and it’s a race that Louise is not sure she can win.

This is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” written by scientist and science fiction author Ted Chiang and from what I understand the movie is remarkably faithful to the short story. Villeneuve went to great lengths to insure the scientific accuracy on his production which also deserves kudos. This is most definitely not for those who think sci-fi movies should be full of lasers and space battles and sleek spaceships. The spacecraft used here resembles a contact lens more than anything and is pretty much bare and featureless. Villeneuve purposely made the alien environment foggy and grey with almost no color whatsoever. Some might find that boring.

Those who like their sci-fi cerebral won’t find this boring. The concepts brought up by Chiang and Villeneuve include our perception of time, the importance of language, and of course our perspective on our place in the universe. There are also themes of loss, grief and faith. Villeneuve doesn’t really spoon-feed you anything; he sets you up with an idea and allows you to process it however you choose. Not everyone will like that; my lovely wife felt that she was condescended to although to be truthful I didn’t feel that way at all.

Adams who is already one of the top actresses in Hollywood today moves to another level here. Her Louise is surrounded by an air of sadness and regret. There is already much Oscar buzz around her performance here and she will certainly merit consideration for a nomination. It is a layered performance that is both emotional and smart. Roles that change the way you think about an actor are few and far between; this is one of them.

It is always refreshing to see a movie that really isn’t like any other. Sure, first contact films have been done in many different ways but none quite like this one. Denis Villeneuve has put forth a bold claim to being one of the best filmmakers of this era; his filmography certainly backs it up. Arrival may be the best movie the French-Canadian director has done and given what he has on his resume that’s saying something.

REASONS TO GO: The script is profound and thought-provoking. The filmmakers don’t skimp on the science. Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Arrival shows out of the box thinking on nearly every level of filmmaking.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too cerebral for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity is briefly uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Renner and Adams previously co-starred together in American Hustle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contact
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: All We Had

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

Listen Up Philip


Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

(2014) Dramedy (Tribeca) Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Jess Wexler, Eric Bogosian (voice), Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Yusem Bulos, Maite Alina, Daniel London, Samantha Jacober, Lee Wilkof, Joanne Tucker, Steven Boyer, Teddy Bergman, Rachel Oyama, Babs Olusanmokun. Directed by Alex Ross Perry

Being a writer isn’t as easy as sitting before a word processor and typing away. It involves research and introspection. There are those who find some writers insufferable self-centered boors. There are those who also believe that all writers are insufferable self-centered boors. The reason for that is that some writers give the rest of the ink-stained wretch community a bad name.

Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is on the eve of the publication of his second novel. He has a beautiful girlfriend, photographer Ashley Kane (Moss) and a certain amount of acclaim in the literary community. You would think all of this would make him content; a career on the rise and all the things in place for a brilliant future.

The truth is that Philip Lewis Friedman is an utter prick. The only thing that matters to him is the acknowledgement that he is better than most people, that those who didn’t believe in his eventual success were fools beyond measure and traitors not just to him but society at large. At the very least those people were uncouth boobs.

But he meets his idol, best-selling author Ike Zimmerman (Pryce) who had a great run in the 70s and 80s but has written infrequently since then. He does have at least one genuine classic to his name and while he’s notoriously reclusive, he sees something in Philip’s writing that reminds him of himself. And so Philip goes up to Ike’s upstate New York “country retreat” leaving Ashley to hold the bag. A couple of weeks turns into the summer and then Philip takes a job teaching creative writing at a local college, a job arranged by Ike. A summer turns into a year.

Into Philip’s life comes Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Ritter) as well as a somewhat scheming faculty member at the same college Philip is working at, Yvette (de La Baume) and Holly Kane (Wexler), a student with a heavy crush on Philip. And yet, he views all his relationships by what they can do for him and his career. He can’t stop thinking about Ashley who is moving on. And the mentorship of Ike is turning into a friendship. Can Philip get his act together and be a well-adjusted writer or is he doomed to be an arsehole the rest of his life?

I know there are some critics who found this movie amazing. I can’t help but wonder if they got a different print than the one I saw. I have rarely seen a movie directed so badly. Generally, I’m pretty forgiving about directors who make poor choices in the name of trying something different but there are so many shots that are mis-framed, poorly focused and look for all the world like a home movie. It’s entirely possible that this was the effect that Perry was going for; if so, it doesn’t enhance the movie at all and ends up being annoying and detrimental to the audience’s focus. Of course, some directors may not want audiences being engrossed by their movie. I just wouldn’t want to see their films.

There is narration provided throughout, some of it droll. Bogosian who doesn’t appear onscreen gives that narration a bit more gravitas than it deserves. Which reminds me about the dialogue; it’s the sort of dialogue that people who distrust academics and intellectuals believe that they actually talk this way. I’ve known plenty of both sorts of people; trust me, nobody talks like this and if they do, academics and intellectuals will be right in line with the others making fun of them.

Some of the best parts of the movie are those that concentrate on Ashley. Moss is a pretty decent actress and you can tell she’s really trying to make it work, but at the end of the day her best efforts go for naught; her character is absent from most of the last third and her absence is keenly felt. Schwartzman is talented and has a delivery that could make droll comedy work, but his talents are utterly wasted here. He succeeds only in making us not want to spend another second with Philip, and yet we do. It’s a train wreck of a character.

Usually with indie films I am a little bit more forgiving and maybe it was because I saw it on the heels of watching the really miserable Inherent Vice but I found myself unable to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here. So many of the issues were just basic Filmmaking 101 stuff or Screenwriting 101 stuff that I sat through much of the film incredulous that supposed professionals made this. I kept looking for the YouTube logo in the corner.

I wish the very best for Alex Ross Perry, I really do. I hope his next film appeals to me much more than this one did, truly. But I honestly cannot in good conscience recommend that any reader who places any confidence in my opinion go see this. Watching this was an ordeal, and there are plenty of unpleasant ways to spend an hour and a half as it is that life throws at us whether we want to spend them that way or not to purposely plunk down money to go into a movie theater and be checking your watch every ten minutes and wonder when the ordeal is going to end.

REASONS TO GO: Bogosian’s narration is fun. Moss gives a game try.
REASONS TO STAY: Inept direction. Not funny enough to be a comedy and not deep enough to be a drama. Boring in long patches. Pretentious throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ike Zimmerman character is loosely based on author Philip Roth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robot & Frank
FINAL RATING: 3/19
NEXT: Fur

The Gambler (2014)


Mark Wahlberg's agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

Mark Wahlberg’s agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

(2014) Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larsen, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, George Kennedy, Lauren Weedman, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Griffin Cleveland, Steve Park, Da’Vone McDonald, Amin Joseph, Josiah Blunt, Shakira Ja’Nai Paye, Melanie McComb. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Gambling is part of the human psyche. Not all of us our gamblers but at least once in our lives we all take a chance on something. Some, though, can’t live without the rush. The bigger the gamble, the bigger the thrill. Who doesn’t relish the thrill of hitting 21 at the blackjack table when you’ve put your entire bankroll in, or of hearing that girl whose league you’re so far out of that you’re actually playing a different sport say yes when you ask her out?

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a gambler, a compulsive one. He goes to underground casinos and bets whatever sums of money he can get his hands on – usually borrowed. He’s a college professor by day (of English literature) and by night, he plays blackjack and roulette. He can go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars and then lose it all on one bad hand. He is a smart cookie for sure, but a self-destructive one as well.

He owes money to three very bad people; Lee (Ing) who owns the underground casinos that Jim gambles in (we can assume that most respectable casinos will have banned Bennett from their respective properties), Neville (Williams) who puts the urbane in urban as a gangster who, when the original movie that this is based on came out would have been portrayed in a Superfly hat with a ‘fro from here to waaaaaaaay out there, baby and the third is the most badass of them all – Frank (Goodman) who is fatherly and vicious at the same time. He is the loan shark with a heart of gold, trying to talk Jim out of borrowing money from him which is a little bit odd considering that Frank makes his millions from chumps like Jim borrowing money from him.

Jim’s mom (Lange) is the daughter of the founder of a bank and has wealth oozing from her every pore and dripping from her empty smile. She knows she has been enabling the beast all this time and when Jim comes to her for a loan of well over a quarter of a million dollars, her first instinct is to slap him across the face (which, I might add, he deserves). Like the enabler of any addict, she hopes that this time he will use the money wisely and take care of his debt and start a better life for himself but we know, he knows and she knows that just isn’t going to happen. Not yet. And when Jim tells her essentially to go away and not talk about his problem, she does, weeping for a moment before her mask of iron control slams down on her face and she walks away with what dignity she can muster and Jim (and we) don’t see her again.

Jim has been latched onto by one of his students, Amy (Larsen) whose talent Jim recognizes but in typical Jim fashion he attempts to tell what he conceives as the truth (and may well be – he’s a pretty smart guy) but in such a way that it alienates virtually everyone else in the class. There’s also Lamar (Kelley), a basketball star who is expected to cruise through the class so he can continue to be eligible to score lots and lots of points on his way through to the NBA. These two alone seem able to tolerate Jim who is filled with self-loathing and who time after time when confronted with the opportunity to do the right thing screws it up royally for himself and those around him.

With a deadline looming on Jim’s debt payback and his new girlfriend and his basketball-playing student who may be the only two people left who care about Jim now firmly in the crosshairs, Jim knows it’s going to be all or nothing this time and there will be no walking away if he loses. Not for him. Not for anyone around him.

This is based on a 1974 James Caan film of the same name which in turn is loosely based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel – also of the same name. This is a slick but soulless look at gambling, it’s hold on the psyche and how a smart man can be moved by it to do dumb things.

Jim says on two occasions that he’s not a gambler; the first time you think he’s being ironic. The second, it’s said with flat confidence which is meant to convey you see, I have it all under control and perhaps that’s what the movie means you to feel. It is near to the end of the film and supposedly, he’s getting his life back in order. I find this a disservice to the movie, particularly since throughout the movie we watch and recoil as Jim sinks deeper and deeper into the morass, and yet at the end one magical bet is supposed to be all it takes to lift him out of the pit. In real life, that’s what a lot of gambling addicts say and to a man (or woman) they can’t help but sink back into it and lose everything they’ve gained. That’s the nature of the beast.

I refuse to call the actors out on the carpet for this one – they all do a bang-up job. Wahlberg is making a fine career out of playing heroes who are flawed, as in Pain and Gain. Here he has the unenviable job of taking a smart character who does dumb things and on top of it make him virtually unlikable. Jim’s arrogant, blunt, sometimes cruel – the line between truth and cruelty can be blurry at the best of times and Jim crosses that line regularly, often on purpose. The things he does seem to be a “suicide by gangster” thing. I can’t even begin to even figure out what’s going on with him; suffice to say that few of us ever get as messed up as Jim does and those that do, God’s mercy on ya.

Ing and Williams make credible victims, with Williams getting more of a meaty character to work with; Ing mainly plays it cool and looks (if you’ll forgive the expression) inscrutable which considering he’s Asian I’m not sure is a good idea. Ing’s poker face makes his character more menacing but the filmmakers really don’t follow through on that menace. Williams though gets to and quite frankly, his character is a bit of a throwback to 70s cinema and not in a good way always.

Goodman gets to chew the scenery and few do it as well as he does. He’s a street-smart guy who understands and respects Jim’s intellect and can’t for the life of him understand why he does what he does. He’s got that southern fried Foghorn Leghorn thing going but with a touch of ticking time bomb on the side. You get the sense that Frank is nobody to mess around with, despite the fatherly demeanor which he adopts with Jim from time to time. I love watching Goodman work and he’s in top form here.

This is a movie that doesn’t know when to stop. Wahlberg carries a briefcase with him everywhere but never uses it in a piece of business that’s unnecessarily distracting. Sometimes in attempts to be artistic they have Wahlberg staring off into the sunset with an icy demeanor and sunglasses shading his eyes, switching the background in a series of jump cuts while Wahlberg stays still in exactly the same spot in the frame. It’s a little bit like a Photoshop effect on film.

Worse yet is the ending, which not only jumps the shark, it lands back in the water and gets eaten by the shark. The movie began with the sound of a roulette wheel  spinning, the ball bouncing in the middle of the wheel and landing in its slot. Near the end of the movie, Jim is spinning a roulette wheel on which he’s bet everything; win and he pays everyone off and his girlfriend is left alone. Lose and Jim is a dead man. The movie begins with the sound of a roulette wheel, it should have ended with one. The movie should have faded to black right there without us knowing the result and leaving us to speculate. We never should have found out if the gamble was successful, but we do. And then there is a scene afterwards that is nothing if not gratuitous. By that time I was already gnashing my teeth and wishing that I was getting paid for this. Anyone who sees this movie should get paid for their forbearance.

REASONS TO GO: Goodman is a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Wahlberg’s character is so self-destructive, whiny and rude that it’s very hard to get any sort of human empathy for him or from him. Suffers from a major case of “going-on-too-long-itis.”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, some brief nudity in a strip club and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg dropped 61 pounds for this role, an amount he said he would never lose again for any film. He also sat in on a number of English literature courses at Southern California colleges to get down the mannerisms and techniques of actual professors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Premium Rush
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death