Breathe (2017)


Hollywood still knows how to capture romance in a single frame.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Edward Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Miranda Raison, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, David Wilmot, Emily Bevan, Stephen Mangan, Marina Bye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sylvester Groth, Steven O’Donnell, Penny Downie, Camilla Rutherford. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

As a disabled man, I’m keenly interested in depictions of how the disabled were treated in years past. The picture is not a pretty one; often, those who had any sort of deformity or disability were warehoused, shut away from public view as much as possible. Those in extreme situations were often left to await death in depressing, grim hospitals with doctors who felt their job was merely to keep them as comfortable as possible until the end inevitably came.

This is not even on the radar of young Robin Cavendish (Garfield) in the early 1950s however. Young, healthy and exuberant to a fault he is a British Army veteran who is almost ridiculously athletic; he seems to excel at every sport he tries his hand at. Now that the war is over, he works as a tea exporter, travelling around the world.

But he runs into the beautiful Diana Blacker (Foy) at a cricket match and everything changes. He falls deeply, madly in love with her and she with him. He isn’t wealthy (she comes from privilege) but he gets by and it isn’t long before the two get married and she is joining him on his adventurous life, going on safari with him in Kenya while he hunts down tea leaves for English tea drinkers. It isn’t long before she is, as they used to say back then, with child.

But their idyllic life comes to a screeching halt when he gets ill and collapses. He is diagnosed with adult onset polio and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He is unable to even breathe on his own. Kept alive on a respirator, Robin is flown back to England and put into a hospital where he can be properly cared for which in this case means waiting for the Grim Reaper to come knocking. Robin sinks into a deep depression, knowing the prognosis is death after two or three months of waiting. He doesn’t want to wait, in fact.

But Diana will have none of that kind of talk. Keep Calm, and Breathe is essentially her message. Robin wants to die at home; Diana has other ideas. She wants him to live at home. So she purchases a Regency-era home in the country and a respirator and her old nanny (Raison) is there to help nurse her husband.

This is a great improvement and Robin is infinitely more cheerful but he wants more. With the help of a mechanic friend (Bonneville) he helps design a wheelchair with an attached respirator. The world begins to open up a little. Soon he figures a way to outfit a car so that Robin can travel further afield. Slowly, it becomes clear that Robin isn’t about quality of life anymore; he’s about life itself.

This is a somewhat rose-colored version of the real life story of Cavendish and his family. Many innovations that help the disabled be more mobile (like car lifts) have come as a result of innovations that Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall created. I wasn’t familiar with Cavendish before seeing this but the disabled community owes a great deal to his advocacy that even those who are severely disabled as he was could lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Garfield captures both sides of Cavendish beautifully; the dark depressed side and the upbeat, never-say-die side and he does it while spending most of the picture flat on his back and unable to move his limbs. Garfield manages to get a great deal across with just his face; he also manages to stay still which is never an easy task. Considering his performance here is at least the equal to his last one in Hacksaw Ridge which netted him an Oscar nomination, it’s not out of the range of reason that he might get another one here. It’s the kind of role Oscar tends to like.

Foy, so good in the Netflix series The Crown ups the stakes here and shows she has big screen potential as well. Her Diana Cavendish is heroic and if the screenplay makes her a bit more saintly than she likely was, it’s certainly understandable. The real Cavendish lived longer with polio-related total paralysis than anyone in the history of Great Britain and while that is admirable, it can’t have been easy on his wife. Watching over someone who is that disabled is a full-time job and one of the most stressful ones that you can have.

First-time director Andy Serkis (yes, the motion capture king) doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but he does have a good eye for the English countryside, turning it into an almost Bronte sister-like look. The supporting cast isn’t super well-known here in the States but they are all excellent and there isn’t a misstep among any of the performances that I could detect.

The movie does get a little bit maudlin towards the end and the last fifteen minutes seem manipulative enough that I think that a lot of critics who tend to hate that kind of thing probably gave the film a worse review than it deserves because of it. Nonetheless this is an uplifting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that is tonic in a time where we seem to hear nothing but bad news about the negative aspects of the human spirit nonstop.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield could net another Oscar nomination for his work here. Lovely cinematography and Bronte-like vistas elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The film gets somewhat maudlin towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mature thematic subjects including discussions of suicide, some bloody medical images and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s real-life son, went into film production and is one of the producers on this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Florida Project

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Brave New Jersey


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait

When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About Postpartum Depression


Three brave women discuss that which society deems to be a stigma.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Brooke Shields (narrator), Carnie Wilson, Aarti Sequeira, Lindsay Gerszt, Diana Lynn Barnes, Bradley Gerszt, Haiti Harrison, Peggy Tanous, Naomi Knoles, Joy Burkhard, Raul Martinez,, Jenna Liddy, Tanya Neybould, Jane Honikman, David Arredondo, Vivian Burt, Jacqueline Goodman, Angela Burliing, Staci Janisse, Randy Gibbs, Candyce Carpenter. Directed by Jamielyn Lippman

 

For a long time women who felt down after giving birth were dismissed as having “the baby blues” or some such. “You’ll get over it,” was the prevailing logic. “Suck it up and get back to cleaning the house!” It hasn’t been until relatively recently that postpartum depression was seen as something serious – and occasionally lethal.

The first smart decision the filmmakers made was getting Brooke Shields involved as a narrator and producer. She in many ways became the face of postpartum depression when she wrote a book confessing her own issues and how she got through it – and was promptly read the riot act by Tom Cruise for admitting to taking medication for it. Some of you might remember that embarrassing moment in the actor’s career.

The genesis of the project was Lindsay Gerszt who suffered from a severe postpartum depression after the birth of her son Hunter. The filmmakers follow her through six years of a variety of different therapies, including acupuncture and electronic stimulation. We see how her husband Bradley copes (or doesn’t) with her situation, which I think is an excellent move on the part of Lippman – depression doesn’t just affect a single member of the family. Everyone has to deal with it.

There are a lot of talking heads here, mainly of women who have been through one of the various forms of PPD and some who have survived the worst of all – Postpartum Psychosis whose sufferers often have religious-based hallucinations and do bodily harm to themselves or their children including murdering them.

We do get some clinical information from various psychologists and specialists but the fact remains that PPD can strike any woman regardless of family history, social standing or culture. There are some things that can make you more susceptible to it (like a history of depression) but it can literally happen to anyone.

The filmmakers do talk about one of the worst aspects of PPD and that’s the stigma attached to it. There’s basically a stigma attached to any mental issue but in the case of Postpartum it really gets in the way of getting well. A lot of women won’t talk about the feelings they have because they are ashamed and feel that they’re “bad mommies.” Postpartum Depression often affects the bonding between women and their babies; women report feeling like they need to get away from their babies and don’t want to be around them. They cry often and sleep a great deal. Even the sight of women and their children in the mall can set off feelings of inadequacy. In some cases that feeling of alienation extends to their husbands/significant others and family members often bear the brunt of the victim’s frustrations and anger.

Again, with celebrities like Brooke Shields and Carnie Wilson (of Wilson-Phillips) coming out to share their experiences, things are getting a little better in that regard but we’re only starting to catch up now. Still screening for Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis isn’t standard in most states and for some women and their children, that can be fatal.

One of the faults I have with this movie is that it isn’t terribly representative. Most of the women here are well-to-do, live in beautiful homes, drive expensive cars – and most importantly can afford all manners of therapy for as long as they need it. That’s simply not the norm however; towards the end we get the experiences of a couple of families who are less affluent but in both cases it’s sufferers of Postpartum Psychosis whose illness leads to tragic ends. I think the movie would do a whole lot more good if women of less means can relate to the women in the film; I suspect many will look at the movie and say “But I can’t afford any of that” and instead of getting help they do like women have done through the ages and just suck it up, buttercup. It looks like nearly all of the women are from Southern California as well.

I will add this caveat that I saw this immediately after watching HBO’s excellent Cries from Syria which really makes this look a little bit like First World Problems and that’s achingly unfair. Post-Partum Psychosis claims the lives of women and children all over the globe and to put an exclamation point during the end credits, we are informed that two of the women interviewed for the film had taken their own lives since filming had been completed. If you are pregnant, about to be pregnant or know someone who is pregnant or about to be, you owe it to yourself – and them – to give this a watch. It could help you save the life of someone you love.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers make some excellent points about the demonization of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: Dwells too long on the experiences of celebrities and the rich; I would have liked to see more focus on women who don’t have the means to get six years worth of therapy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some frank discussion of violent events and childbirth as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project began when Lindsay Gerszt and Tanya Neybould discussed their postpartum depression with their friend filmmaker Jamielyn Lippman and the three determined to make a documentary about the condition which remains stigmatized.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Founder

Kill Your Friends


Alone in a crowd.

Alone in a crowd.

(2015) Comedy (Well Go USA) Nicholas Hoult, James Corden, Georgia King, Craig Roberts, Jim Piddock, Joseph Mawle, Dustin Demri-Burns, Damien Molony, Bronson Webb, Emma Smith, Rosanna Hoult, Ed Skrein, Tom Riley, Edward Hogg, Kurt Egyiawan, Hugh Skinner, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alex Gillison, Ieva Andrejevaite, Osy Ikhile, David Avery, Alannah Olivia. Directed by Owen Harris

Music is a highly personal thing. It can define you, it can color your world, it can take you back to good memories in an instant. It can also make a lot of money for someone.

In the 1990s, it was the era of Cool Brittania, when music from the UK ruled the airwaves. Blur, Oasis and Radiohead were at the top of the charts and even lesser-known bands had their moments in the sun. That was a really good time to be a record company A&R man in Britain.

Steve Stelfox (Hoult) has that very job, and judging from the tabloids it’s all drugs, sex and concerts and that’s pretty much true, but he actually has to sign some bands and those bands actually have to make some money for the label. His good friend Roger (Corden) wants to sign bands that matter, but Steve thinks that’s silly – except that the head of A&R for the label has essentially had a breakdown and the open job is likely Roger’s because he’s been there the longest – and Steve wants that job.

So Steve takes drastic steps to ensure that he has the longest tenure but a curveball is thrown his way when Parker Hall (Riley) is hired; and Hall is bringing with him a highly coveted indie band, the Lazies, in with him. Steve has in turn signed the Songbirds, a Spice Girls-wannabe act who are temperamental and damn near impossible to work with and look to be a dead end for the label.

Steve is aided by his secretary Rebecca (King) who is blackmailing him for a promotion and there is a detective (Hogg)  investigating what happened to Roger, who after interrogating Steve slips him a demo because, you know, he always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Steve is clever and Steve is ruthless and Steve doesn’t really have much of a conscience; perfect qualifications for the music industry.

Screenwriter John Niven adapted the material from his own novel, and he certainly has some background in the subject – he was actually an A&R guy during the period the novel takes place in. So you figure that some of the goings on had some basis in fact, particularly the back-biting and hustling. That lends an air of authenticity which differentiates this from other films set within the music industry, in which plucky young songwriters who have something to say end up getting a contract. The cynicism here is well-earned.

Hoult is perfectly cast as Stelfox, operating with a furrowed WTF brow alternating with an eye-rolling sneer. The character has been compared to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho but I think that’s a bit of an easy cop-out; Stelfox may be amoral and cynical but he’s not psychotic; he simply has no ethics whatsoever. There’s a very important difference there.

He does the voiceover narration as well, and it’s pretty damn funny. In fact, a lot of the material here is funny to the point I was laughing out loud – possibly because I have an insider’s perspective to the music industry (I was a rock critic for more than a decade) but also because it’s just so damn mean. If you’re in the right mood for this kind of stuff (and I clearly was) there’s a gold mine of laughs here.

I wanted to call attention to the soundtrack. It has a lot of period-accurate and place-accurate music that will instantly bring you back to the era. It’s not all hits either; some of the songs you’ll here were essentially album tracks, but they were not the filler – they were the tracks that could have been singles. There is also some original music and the score is by Junkie XL, who is rapidly becoming one of the best there is.

The movie was a touch too long and there will be plenty who will find it too dark. I will definitely give the caveat that this isn’t the movie for everyone and there are some who won’t take well to the cynical tone. However, as far as it goes, I think the movie accomplishes what it set out to and in fact exceeded my expectations. This is going to be one of those movies you’ve probably never heard of but when you find it on Netflix or some other streaming service you’ll be delighted that you did.

REASONS TO GO: A really great soundtrack. Black comedy that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Nicholas Hoult is spot on in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long and maybe too cynical for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a ton of drug use, as well as some nudity, plenty of violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s protagonist is partly inspired by A&R legend Don Simpson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: High Fidelity
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: London Has Fallen

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2