RBG


The Notorious R.B.G.

(2017) Documentary (CNN Films/Magnolia) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Arthur Miller, Clara Spera, James Ginsburg, Brenda Felsen, Jane Ginsburg, Lisa Frey Inghausen, Martin Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, Aryeh Neier, Wendy Williams, Sharon Frontiero, Ted Olsen, Amina Sow, Eugene Scalia, Kelly Sullivan, Frank Chi, Helen Alvarez, Lilly Ledbetter. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

For the American left, Supreme Court Justice is an icon approaching rock star (or more correctly, rap star) status. In the last few years she has become something of a pop culture touchstone, with her beaded/lace justice robes (in place of ties) and her nickname “The Notorious RBG” taken from the name of a rap star.

The bookish and somewhat reserved Ginsburg is an unlikely pop icon but the truth is she has been a tireless crusader for gender equality her entire career, starting when she attended Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of just nine women in a class of over 500. Since then she’s argued as a lawyer six cases before the then-all male Supreme Court, winning five of them.

She might never have been a Supreme Court justice (the oldest sitting on the court currently) had it not been for her husband Marty. As gregarious and outgoing as she was quiet, he was the yin to her yang. Although he sadly passed away in 2010, he used his contacts in the Bill Clinton administration to get his wife an interview for the vacant bench position. Clinton later realized in the first few moments of the interview that he knew he had his candidate. Marty and Ruth made a formidable team.

Since then she’s been one of the few liberal voices on a largely conservative court and has mostly penned minority opinions but those opinions have been some of the most thoughtful and well-researched legal papers of the last thirty years. Say what you want to about her politics; Ginsburg has a first class legal mind. The filmmakers do a particularly stellar job in presenting some of these opinions in an easy-to-digest manner, making sense of her legal arguments for laymen.

There is definitely more than a little lionizing going which is understandable – she has long been a hero to feminists and liberals – on here and much of the focus is on her gender equality work. While Ginsburg doesn’t really consider herself a radical feminist, she certainly believes very strongly that women should have the same opportunities as men and should be paid commensurately for their skills.

If I have a complaint about this film it’s that it makes Ginsburg out to be something of a one-trick pony, really glossing over other subjects she has also weighed in on in favor for her stances on women’s issues. The filmmakers do show her to have a bit of an impish sense of humor as she is bemused by her current status. We also get a sense of the closeness of her family who address her fondly as bubbe and take great delight in teasing her about her terrible cooking which she herself admits to. Everyone needs a flaw to be human, right?

While Cohen and West aren’t going to win any awards for outside the box documentary filmmaking with RBG, they did do something even the best documentarians sometimes fail to do; they gave us insight into their subject. That’s not necessarily an easy task especially given that their subject is notoriously reticent and fiercely private. I would have liked to get a bit more about how her progressive viewpoints came to be but essentially they came from her parents so I suppose that there isn’t a lot that Cohen and West could have done to elaborate further.

I suspect most readers who tend towards the right side of the political spectrum will want nothing to do with this movie and I can sympathize with that that. I tend to give the films of Dinesh D’Souza a miss since I disagree with his politics vehemently so I can’t condemn conservative viewers for doing the same thing I myself do. I can only say that one of the more charming sequences portrays Ginsburg’s long-time friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, her very conservative colleague on the bench. Some liberals do grouse about this sequence but I think it illustrates her willingness to understand all sides of an argument. If Ginsburg and Scalia could find a way to mutual respect and admiration (both were opera devotees) perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the country.

REASONS TO GO: The explanations of her legal decisions are superbly handled. While there is some hero worship going on, the subject comes off as very human. Certainly those of a leftist persuasion will enjoy this film.
REASONS TO STAY: There really isn’t a lot of explanation as to how she arrived at her progressive beliefs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some content discussing controversial subjects.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ginsburg was one of nine women to graduate in the Harvard Law School class of 1956 with over 500 men.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best of Enemies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Lean on Pete

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The Post


“Thanks for the coffee but my Oscar is still shinier than YOUR Oscar!”

(2017) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemmons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healey, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deidre Lovejoy. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In these troubled times, the veracity of the Free Press has been assaulted by the President. If that feels familiar to older readers, it’s because it was tried once before – by Richard Nixon. It is somewhat comforting to know it didn’t end well for him but before the Watergate scandal took him down there was the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers were documents leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg (Rhys), a security consultant than employed by the RAND Corporation but previously an analyst for the Pentagon. At RAND he worked on the Pentagon papers, documents commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) about the decisions made during the war. After a crisis of conscience caused him to rethink his position as a defense analyst, he chose to surreptitiously remove the thousand pages of documents a little at a time to make copies of them at the ad agency of his then-girlfriend. Eventually he got the papers into the hands of the New York Times.

When the Times published portions of the Papers it was as if a bomb went off in the American consciousness. The Papers clearly showed that the war in Vietnam was not winnable – and moreover that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all knew it. The Papers also established that the government had been lying to the American public all that time. Although the Papers all concerned the tenures of those Presidents, the current President of the time, Nixon, was absolutely furious that the documents were leaked and the U.S. Government filed an injunction against the Times to suppress any further publication of the Papers. Nixon and his advisers felt that the Papers would erode American confidence in their own government which of course is what came to pass.

That’s where the Washington Post came in. Incensed at being scooped on the Papers, crusty editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) orders his team of reporters to see if any copies of the Papers can be found. Despite the court order banning the publication of the Papers, one of the reporters – Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) – got in touch with Ellsberg, leading to a quandary for Bradlee and his publisher Katherine Graham (Streep) whether or not to defy the court order or do their duty to the American people.

It was a particularly quandary in that the Post was about to go public; were there to be a government action against the newspaper and the Publisher individually the badly needed infusion of cash could dry up and the Post might actually go under.

Graham was a woman of her era; in her 50s at the time that this took place, her husband had been publisher of the paper (inheriting the title from Graham’s father) she was a woman in a man’s world. When she entered the board room of her own newspaper, she was the lone woman. She was often condescended to and she herself felt more comfortable at social gatherings hanging out with the wives than with the policy makers. She did have a close personal relationship with McNamara which was a further complication.

The Post is a celebration of the free press, make no mistake about it. It also illustrates how important that a free and objective press is to the functioning of our nation. Besides that there is also a push for feminism and how the roles of women have changed as women have become more empowered. Obviously, those issues have become extremely timely in the wake of the current administration’s attacks on the press which is roundly proclaimed “fake news” if it in any way disagrees with the world view of the President, as well as the advent of the Me Too movement.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie has three of the most important names in movies over the last three decades participating. Spielberg is considered by some to be the greatest director in the history of movies and while devotees of Hitchcock, Ford, Capra and Scorsese might give that some healthy debate, none can deny that he is one of the greatest ever. Here, he’s at his very best; not a single scene is wasted and every shot not only advances the story but captures an emotional mood. There are plenty who consider Spielberg “the great manipulator” and there is some truth to that. His longtime collaborator John Williams writes a score that might be proof of that.

Hanks is not usually a name one associates with a Bradlee-like character but he has some personal connection to the former Post editor; the two were neighbors on Long Island and knew each other socially. He captures Bradlee’s accent note-perfectly as well as his dogged determination. This doesn’t compare to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning performance as the legendary editor in All the President’s Men but it is a terrific performance nonetheless.

Streep, however, is absolutely amazing in the movie. It has garnered her yet another Oscar nomination and while she is in no way guaranteed a win, it wouldn’t be a crime if she did. Graham was a complex person who became something of an unlikely icon for the feminist movement and perhaps reluctantly so. As time went by she would become more self-confidence and assured; the events depicted here helped with that, but she was truly a woman who reinvented herself in middle age at a time when women were largely still shackled to the kitchen.

I will admit that the Linotype machines and printing presses depicted here brought me some nostalgia; as someone who worked at the San Jose Mercury News in the 80s and 90s I was familiar with the machinery and seeing them in action here did give me the warm fuzzies. So too did seeing the press at the height of its power and significance; in the years before being purchased by corporate entities who largely stifled their search for truth in favor of a search for advertising dollars. Newspapers remain relevant today (the Post continues to do excellent reporting on the Russian voting interference scandal as well as other important news stories of our day) but they have changed quite a bit. People tend not to get their news from newspapers so much but from social media sites, a dangerous practice. It is the responsibility of the citizen to be vigilant in order to keep our own government in check. When we remain firmly ensconced in echo chambers that do little more than validate our own point of view, we lose sight of what is actually happening. That’s how democracies fail.

REASONS TO GO: This is the work of one of the best directors ever at the top of his game; there’s not a single wasted scene. Streep delivers an incredible performance. The film manages to tackle both freedom of the press and the inequality of the treatment of women. Despite being set more than 40 years ago, the events are just as timely as ever
REASONS TO STAY: Those who are blind supporters of the President will see this as a slap in the face.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as a scene of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stuhlbarg appears in three of the films nominated for a 2018 Best Picture Oscar (this, Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water) but was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for any of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Cassidy Red

Wonder Woman


Gal Gadot takes aim at stardom.

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey, James Cosmo, Wolf Kahler, Alexander Mercury, Martin Bishop, Flora Nicholson. Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

In a world where superheroes are nearly all men, the superhero movie reigns supreme at the moment. Audiences of superhero fans – also mostly male – have been streaming to these films for more than a decade, buoyed by advances in CGI technology which enable the deeds and superpowers to be rendered to live action. It’s a great time to be a fanboy.

But what about the women? While it’s true there are not very many female superheroes at either of the two major comic book houses – DC and Marvel – compared to male ones, there definitely are some and there have been few female-centric superhero movies, the not-well-remembered Elektra being the last one back in 2005. The most iconic distaff super heroine – DC’s Wonder Woman – hasn’t had a movie of her own, until now. Although her TV series starring Lynda Carter in the title role is fondly remembered from back in the 70s, there was a certain element of camp to it that gave it less serious consideration – which in many ways was true of all superhero TV shows until recently. Now it’s different for this is the age of the super heroine.

Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) lives on an island of all female Amazon warriors. Her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) is reluctant for her daughter to be trained in the arts of war, although her aunt Antiope (Wright) trains her in secret, recognizing that Diana is destined for greatness. When Hippolyta finds out, she is furious and Diana becomes frustrated, chafing at the bit to learn how to fight from her aunt who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all Amazon warriors.

The world of Themyscira has been hidden from the world of Men and for good reason but all this comes to an end when a biplane carrying an American spy, Steve Trevor (Pine), splashes into the lagoon of Themyscira. The First World War is raging in Europe and when a German flotilla of ships chasing Trevor manages to find Themyscira, an all-out battle rages on the sands of their beach. They manage to defeat the Germans but at great cost.

Diana finds out more about the conflict and immediately recognizes the hand of Ares, God of War, in the insanity. Bound and determined to go and kill Ares and thus save the world, she gets reluctant but tacit approval from her mother to go. Diana reaches the London of 1919 and it is a confusing place to her. However, Trevor reports to the war council that Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) is planning on unleashing a new poison gas perfected by the mad Dr. Maru (Anaya) – who is known among the rank and file as Doctor Poison – that could turn the tide of the war. Sir Patrick (Thewlis), a Parliamentarian who alone seems to take Diana seriously, sends Trevor and Diana deep into Germany to find and destroy the factory manufacturing the poison gas.

Trevor and Diana are accompanied by three of Trevor’s operatives; Chief (Brave Rock), Sameer (Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Bremner). The five of them pass beyond enemy lines to witness the horrors of war and of the world of men firsthand. Diana’s sensibilities are thrown into disarray but she must put that all aside if she is going to save millions of lives. In order to do that however she is going to have to confront a god.

There has been much critical praise here with some critics stumbling all over themselves to label this a feminist superhero movie. I don’t really know how to react to that; part of me doesn’t think that the term “feminist” has a very strict definition to be honest. There are all sorts of feminists believing in all sorts of ideals. I imagine you could shoehorn Wonder Woman into a category that believes that women can be superheroes and just as badass as men can and I would be okay with defining this as a feminist film from that standpoint.

One thing positive I think the movie will do is dispel the Hollywood myth that women directors can’t do big budget action CGI films, James Cameron’s criticisms notwithstanding. Clearly Jenkins proves here that she can handle the many facets that go into a production of this magnitude and in some ways comes out with a product better than that produced by a number of Hollywood heavyweights. No longer can women directors be ghettoized into smaller more intimate films about love, feelings and empowerment which seemed to be all Hollywood – and indie producers as well – were letting women direct. Who wouldn’t want to see a woman handling a Star Wars film or a war epic after seeing this?

Gal Gadot is one reason the movie succeeds. She has always had screen presence in her supporting roles; here she proves that she has more than enough to tackle a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. She handles the fight scenes convincingly (not true for all A-list Hollywood men) but then again she actually served in the Israeli army, an organization that knows a thing or two about kicking butt. She also does well with the comic overtones during her fish out of water scenes in London. In fact, I wish there would have been more of this element to the film – Gadot is that good.

There is a lot to be said about the set design here. Everything is terrific, from the imaginative Themyscira sets (shot on the Amalfi coast in Italy) to the note-perfect London of the Great War era. The world we see may be fantastic but it is always believable and there is much to be said for that. The action sequences are also imaginatively staged with one exception and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie falls down on two fronts; first, that irritating theme music first introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. We hear it again and again in this film and quite frankly it makes me want to stick a power drill in my ear. Secondly, the climactic battle is a nighttime set everything but the kitchen sink battle royal between Diana, Ares, the German army and Team Trevor. There is a lot of flying debris and dimly lit action sequences. It’s overwhelming considering the CGI overkill and I thought it almost came from a different movie, although there is a distinctly femme point of view to how the scene is resolved and that, I must admit, was much appreciated.

There was much buzz surrounding this film, which was heralded as a different take on superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters in the DC Comics pantheon was finally getting her own live action big screen extravaganza and the film was to be directed by – *gasp* – a woman. Never mind that eight out of the ten producers are men as well as all five credited screenwriters; the glass ceiling has been shattered at last.

As any woman will tell you – well, not really. Certainly strides are made here and there is hope for the future as Marvel has a female superhero film (directed by a woman) in the pipeline and given its impressive box office receipts there is definitely going to be a sequel to this film and Jenkins is in line to direct it, although if she passes it will likely give another female director a chance to shine. This is to my mind the best DC comic book film not directed by Richard Donner, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan and certainly a huge step for the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to establish itself as a contender to Marvel.

This isn’t the greatest comic book superhero film ever. It isn’t even the best one being released this summer. However, it’s plenty good enough to be a worthy addition to one’s home movie library whether you are a feminist or a fanboy – or both. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive.

REASONS TO GO: Gadot is absolutely sensational in the title role. There’s enough action to make the film palatable to superhero fans but the different point of view will be attractive to those tired of the same old thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The climactic battle is a bit of sensory overload.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some superhero and war-related violence, some sexually suggestive content and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first female-directed film to have a budget over $100 million, the first female-directed film to have a $100 million plus opening weekend and currently holds the title as the female-directed film to earn the most box office revenue ever.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: The First Avenger
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Baywatch

 

Lipstick Under My Burkha


lipstick-under-my-burkha(2016) Dramedy (M-Appeal) Shshank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha, Aahana Kumra, Vikrant Massey, Ratna Pathak, Korkona Sen Sharma, Jagat Singh, Sushant Singh, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi. Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava

miami-film-festival-2017

India is a modern democracy but in many ways they are still catching up. Women are certainly starting to demand freedoms and consideration they’d never dream of asking for even a decade ago. Indian women have always been considered to only aspire to happy homemaking. That’s not quite true anymore.

Four women leading separate lives in the rural city of Bhopal (yes, the same Bhopal where Union Carbide’s gas leak killed so many – it is referenced only briefly that the husband of one of the characters died in that tragedy) are all looking to break out of the molds they’ve been placed into. First there’s Usha (Pathak), known to everyone as Auntie; she’s a canny businesswoman who’s been a widow for most of her adult life. She spends most of her time with the children but she has a secret obsession nobody knows about; erotic romance novels, in particular one called Lipstick Dreams.

Leela (Kumra) is a beautician who is unwillingly engaged to an earnest but essentially colorless guy in an arranged marriage. She has a thing for her Muslim photographer whom she is having sex with at nearly every opportunity and wants to run away with him to the big city where they can start on their own fresh. Then there’s Shirin (Sharma) who is a married mother of three whose husband travels a lot for work. When he’s at home, the sex is almost painful for her and he seems to be utterly incapable of pleasing her or caring to. She has managed to build a sales career without his knowledge because she knows if he knew about it he would forbid it but there’s a promotion on the horizon and there would be no way to hide it from him then. Finally, there’s Rehana (Borthakur), the teenage daughter of strict Muslims who attends college, changing from her Burkha into Western clothes on her way to school and back into the Burkha on her way home where she works in the family business – ironically sewing Burkhas. However she wants to be a more typical teenage girl, hanging out in discos, flirting with boys and doing all the things forbidden her by her conservative parents. And of course, they find out all about it.

Usha gets involved with a swimming instructor who brings out her inner sensuality and she does something unthinkable for a woman her age – heck, for any Indian woman, while Leela is caught between the lover she wants and the wealthy young man who wants her. Shirin makes a discovery about her husband that could change everything and when Rehana gets arrested at a demonstration, the wheels get rolling on an arranged marriage for her. Will these women ever be free to lead the life they want?

Feminism is very nascent in India but it is slowly beginning to take hold. This isn’t the first feminist film to come out of the Sub-Continent, but it just might be the most potent. Shaking up societal norms is part of cinema’s function and this film fulfills that in about every way possible. Some in India have objected at the eroticism displayed in the film. While by American standards it’s fairly tame, it is surprising to see something from India that is this forthright about sex.

I’m not trying to condescend Indian society – certainly our own culture has plenty of problems, particularly now. It is somehow comforting to see Indian women – artists and ordinary women – rising up and demanding fair treatment. It reminds me a little bit of the years that NOW was a political force. I hope that this kind of movie is just a taste of things to come.

REASONS TO GO: A gutsy examination of the role of women in modern Indian society. There is a frank scene of female sexual desire in a 55 year old actress which some may find shocking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit more erotic than some might be used to from Indian cinema.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly frank sexual content and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: India’s Film Censor Board refused to certify the film, citing scenes of sexuality and female empowerment, sparking outrage throughout India.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Wolves

To Keep the Light


The loneliness of the lighthouse.

The loneliness of the lighthouse.

(2016) Drama (Quiet Rebellion) Erica Fae, Antti Reini, David Patrick Kelly, Jarlath Conroy, Gabe Fazio, Meagen Fay, Wass Stevens. Directed by Erica Fae

Florida Film Festival 2016

The lighthouse exists to warn sailors away from rocky shores. These days, radar, GPS navigation and other aids have largely relegated lighthouses obsolete but back in the late 19th century, they were a necessity; at night, ships wouldn’t be able to see where the sea ended and the coastline began and without these beacons they would wreck.

Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious and honorable job, a task to be performed by a man. However, there were approximately 300 women known to have performed the duties of a lighthouse keeper, many known only through the logbook entries they made. Abbie Moore (Fae) is taking care of the lighthouse that was entrusted to her husband who has been confined to his bed by some unnamed malady. One day a sailor washes ashore, a Swede named Johan (Reini).

At first he is more of a nuisance than anything else. There are no reports of any wrecks, although he claims that his ship went down. Brackett (Kelly), a local official, asks if ne’er do well named Eaton (Fazio) can help out around the lighthouse but Abbie is adamant that she needs no help. Her husband will recover shortly and she is handling the duties capably on her own. It doesn’t take long however for secrets to unravel not only Abbie’s tenuous hold on her position, but also Johan’s story as well. With a pair of inspectors (Conroy, Stevens) soon to come out to make sure that the lighthouse is in tip top condition and that the logs have been adequately kept, Abbie must find the strength to not only keep the house, the light and her husband’s health but to head off challenges from the drunken Eaton.

Fae puts on a clinic of camera composition. Every shot here is literally a work of art; this movie is like strolling through a museum where one great painting after another hangs on the wall. The lighting is also amazing; Fae utilized the light of the lighthouse itself in brilliant fashion, making a changing palate of light and shadows during one sensual scene in the film. While this is her first feature film (she’s also done short films) she is primarily known for her stage plays. With work like this, I sincerely hope Ms. Fae continues her work in the cinematic arts.

Fae has tended to write about women who, as the press notes put it, have been written out of the pages of history. While Abbie is not based on a specific lighthouse keeper, she is a composite character whose personality was created from the diaries, journals and letters of actual women lighthouse keepers of the period. Abbie’s strength and work ethic are admirable but Fae gives the character an inner core that is stronger than steel and grabs the viewer’s attention and admiration. She may be one of the most memorable female characters you’ll see in any movie this year and you certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon after the credits roll.

The movie does amble along at a fairly deliberate pace which might not be suitable for a 21st century ADHD audience but the pacing serves the atmosphere nicely. The time and place – 1876 Maine – is nicely recreated here, although I can’t really testify to its authenticity much, taking place more than 80 years before I was born. The ending isn’t clever or cute, but its sensible and welcome, putting a grace note on a movie that has plenty of them. If there is one movie you see at the 2016 Florida Film Festival, this one is the one I’d recommend in a year that the offerings are particularly strong. It also has a feminist tone which seems to be a theme at the FFF this year, which I also find pleasing. For those who think women aren’t suited temperamentally for the director’s chair (and hopefully none of those read this blog) I would point them in the direction in this film, which is an early candidate for my top films of 2016.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and composition. Strong character performance by Fae. Wonderful use of color and light.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and a gruesome image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Erica Fae’s birth name is Erica Stuart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score found. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Piano
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Other Kids

Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled

Mad Max: Fury Road


You don't want to make Max mad.

You don’t want to make Max mad.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Iota, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Merita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellermann, Christina Koch. Directed by George Miller

The future famously isn’t what it used to be. However, in the minds of some visionaries, it’s exactly what it used to be – only more of it.

Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is a loner living in a post-Apocalyptic world where petroleum has become scarce, clean water even more scarce and chaos reigns. Governments have fallen in the nuclear fallout of the last desperate grasp of nations trying to assert control where none was possible. Max is haunted by visions of a daughter and wife he couldn’t save.

Captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), his fate is to be used as a human blood bag for War Boy Nux (Hoult), who like most of the inhabitants of Joe’s Citadel, is poisoned by radioactivity. Joe asserts control in two ways; by controlling the only clean water in the area, and by asserting an almost messianic mythology over the War Boys, who believe fervently that if they die in battle for their Immortan that they will enter Valhalla and live once again in paradise. Sounds a little bit like a jihadist, no?

Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a one-armed exceptional warrior who has earned Joe’s trust, is sent on a supply run to get gas and armaments in a world of dwindling resources. She is driving an 18-wheel war wagon, a tricked out tractor trailer that is bristling with armaments and carries water for the masters of the Bullet Farm and Gastown.

However, Furiosa has plans of her own and it means deviating off course into a dangerous world beyond the Citadel and their allies. When Joe discovers that she is carrying stolen goods – his wives, women who haven’t fallen prey to radiation poisoning – he gathers the troops to get his precious cargo back. Through a violent set of circumstances, a suspicious Max ends up throwing in his lot with the women and the chase is truly underway.

Some critics have sniffed that the movie is essentially one two hour chase sequence and they aren’t wrong. However, there isn’t a moment in the movie where you’ll be bored unless of course you don’t like action movies to begin with (and some people don’t). This is innovative, tense stuff here and the testosterone will flow.

Hardy took his cues from original Mad Max Mel Gibson and broods pretty much non-stop, clearly ill-at-ease with people in general and suspicious of them in particular. He’s taciturn and doesn’t speak much unless necessary. However, deep down he has a good heart and can’t turn away from good people in trouble. He is well aware that there are precious few good people left since the crazies have already slaughtered most of them.

Theron, an Oscar-winning actress, does a bang-up job here. Although reportedly she had difficulties getting along with both Hardy and Miller, she delivers a performance as good as any she’s ever given. You can see the pain of her hard and brutal life in her eyes but she hasn’t quite lost hope yet. She’s fighting to make a future that isn’t as ugly as her past, and she’s inspired the various brides, who are clad in diaphanous white garments that leave little to the imagination.

The post-Armageddon landscape that George Miller has imagined is not over-exposed and oversaturated but vivid and colorful. Thank cinematographer John Seale for making a dusty, lifeless desert still appear to be anything but beautiful. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it has to look ugly.

The vehicles and characters here are all wonderful and innovative. The vehicles all bristle with spikes or men on long poles dropping bombs, or gigantic drums or a dude with an electric guitar that spits flames. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be fun. As for the characters, they are powder-white, or covered with pustules, or chrome lips or bullets instead of teeth. This isn’t the Mad Max milieu of Beyond Thunderdome or The Road Warrior; it clearly is evolved from them however.

The non-stop violence may turn some off but for my tastes, this is purely unadulterated summer entertainment. The stunt work here is amazing and that Miller has chosen to use practical effects as much as possible (save for an impressive CGI sandstorm) is admirable.

There has been a lot of discussion whether this movie is pro-feminist or anti-feminist. I will say this; if civilization ends, feminism will be trumped by Darwinism. I don’t think Miller is making a comment on feminism here at all; sometimes we need to turn off our sensitivities and just enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts. Imaginative vehicles and characters. Absolutely made for summer viewing.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentless violence..
FAMILY VALUES: Intense violence throughout, some disturbing images and a scene of mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hardy had lunch with Mel Gibson to discuss taking over what many consider his signature role; Gibson was not only fine with it, he apparently was enthusiastic that the role was being taken over by an actor of Hardy’s stature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Furious 7
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Body