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Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

(2016) Comedy (Amazon) Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Ali Ahn, Marquis Rodriguez, Jordan Carlos, Finn Wittrock, India Menuez, Charlotte Ubben, Roger Peffley, Raffaella Meloni, Eric Tabach, Noah Tully Sanderson, Amy Carlson, Ezra Barnes, Megan Byrne, Adam Enright, Ian Jarvis, Christine Sherrill. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

 

Some movies seem to be more gender-specific than others. That doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by both sexes but one is going to find it more relatable than the other. So it is with the sophomore effort by Gillian (Obvious Child) Robespierre.

The year is 1995 and it promises to be a banner one for one particular Upper West Side family. Mother Pat (Falco) is a bigwig for the EPA and is the main breadwinner for the family although wannabe playwright ad copywriter Alan (Turturro) does okay. Their daughter Dana (Slate) is working as a graphic artist and engaged to Ben (Duplass) with whom she lives. Ali (Quinn), their younger daughter, is a senior in high school and has a bright future ahead of her.

But things are only wonderful on the surface. Dana is frustrated at her relationship with Ben which has turned somewhat vanilla. Pat is frustrated that she is taken for granted in the household. Ali is frustrated with everything, acting out and hanging out with all the wrong friends, snorting heroin at raves and having sex with all the wrong guys. The worst is yet to come though; Ali accidentally discovers a floppy disc (it is 1995 after all) with erotic poetry that her father wrote. That’s cringeworthy enough but it turns out that he may have written them for another woman who isn’t her mom.

Ali and Dana have been like gasoline and matches for some time but when Dana, needing a break from Ben, moves back into the house, the two begin to bond over their dad’s potential infidelity. They go on a mission to find out who the mysterious woman is and whether the poems were in fact written for her. In the process, they discover their own skeletons are just waiting to leap out of their own closets.

I can understand why Da Queen loved this movie more than I did. Being a sister herself, she related to the movie more deeply than I did. It’s not that I can’t relate to female characters mind you but certain situations are going to speak to women more than men and vice versa. There’s no shame in that – that’s just life. And I think women are going to relate to this in a big way. The movie gives a lot of exploration to how infidelity can absolutely crush not just the partner being cheated on but everyone around them. The movie also spends a lot of time exploring the bonds between sisters – and between mothers and daughters.

Slate and Quinn both look like they could be sisters, which helps further the illusion. Da Queen was insistent that the relationship between the two felt authentic to her and I’m not one to argue with her, particularly on such matters. To the credit of both actresses, they play people who have a lot of baggage; Dana also is unfaithful to Ben while Ali is right on the cusp of being a poster child for teen overindulgence which could lead to being a statistic. The snorting of heroin is disturbing but I get the impression that the filmmakers don’t think it’s as big a deal as I do. I’ve seen what heroin can do so perhaps my triggers are a little bit more sensitive in that regard.

I thought Turturro and Falco were absolutely great here. Turturro is one of those actors who can elevate mediocre movies and when he gets a good part in a good part (a la O Brother Where Art Thou) can absolutely kill it and that is what happens here. Even better is Falco, an Emmy-winning actress who has consistently shown through two major TV shows that she is one of the finest actresses working today; personally I think her performance here is worthy of Best Supporting Actress consideration and it’s not inconceivable that Amazon might have the wherewithal to promote her for it. I sure hope they do – it would be well-deserved.

While the movie doesn’t wallow in nostalgia like other period movies this summer have done, it does boast a killer soundtrack – as other period movies this summer have done. There are some subtle moments however – as when a television is tuned to former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s landmark speech in Beijing on September 5, 1995 when she proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” a point that seems to need re-making in an era where her victorious opponent for the Presidency has allowed those human rights to be threatened with erosion. I do think that the point is intentional.

There is definitely some “first world problems” issues here and some moments when I thought the movie seemed a bit too self-involved for my tastes. Again, I think women are going to “get” this movie a lot more readily and appreciate it more than I did, so take my complaints with a grain of salt. Nevertheless there is plenty here for men to digest as relationships, never a simple subject, are particularly convoluted here. Robespierre is certainly a major talent whose future output I will be absolutely keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is terrific. Turturro and Falco deliver the goods, particularly Falco whose performance is Oscar-worthy.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a little bit self-involved. Quinn and Slate look like sisters and act like sisters but were less compelling than I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, drug use and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Turturro is the cousin of Aida Turturro who was a cast member on The Sopranos along with Edie Falco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronically Metropolitan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

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La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

The Big Short


Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

(2015) True Life Drama (Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Jeffry Griffin, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Margot Robbie, Stanley Wong, Rajeev Jacob, Vanessa Cloke, Leslie Castay. Directed by Adam McKay

The financial meltdown of 2008 was the worst economic event since the Great Depression. Millions lost their jobs and their homes. The repercussions of that event continue to be felt, but many don’t understand how it happened – and how it could happen again.

Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) is a one-eyed manager of a small hedge fund in San Jose, California who discovers that securities based on mortgages – once thought to be nearly recession-proof as the going wisdom is that most people pay their mortgages on time – are actually filled with mortgages that are much riskier, with balloon payments that will commence in 2007 that the homeowners will never be able to pay and create an economic meltdown. He wants to essentially bet against these securities as he knows they are doomed to fail; such securities don’t exist so he goes to Wall Street to places like Goldman Sachs to have them create those securities. He is nearly laughed out of the building but they are happy to take his money – in fact, nearly all of his fund’s cash which doesn’t sit too well with some of the investors.

Mark Baum (Carell) is also a hedge fund manager based at Morgan Stanley who has an anger management issue (Baum, not Morgan Stanley). His team discovers from investment banker Jared Vennett (Gosling) – who also serves as the film’s narrator – that these securities exist and that there’s a good chance that investing in these securities will result in runaway wealth. Baum, who has a hate on for the industry he works in, after talking to a number of bankers and securities industry insiders, becomes certain that Vennett is on to something and risks a good deal of his fund’s capital to buy these securities.

Two ambitious young Colorado-based hedge fund managers – Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) also discover these securities through happenstance but their fund is too small and too unknown to be able to get a seat at the table to bid on securities like that. They enlist Ben Rickert (Pitt), a disillusioned former Wall Street titan who has become something of a paranoid recluse, out of the game until Geller and Shipley manage to reel him back in.

All of these players discover first-hand the venal stupidity of the banking industry whose blindness led to the near-collapse of the world economy; the corruption and absolute greed that was behind that blindness staggered even these members of the same financial industry.

Based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film takes some real-life people involved in the market (Burry) as well as creates fictional ones – some out of whole cloth and some based on others (Baum, based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman), McKay does a credible job in taking some fairly esoteric financial market concepts like CDOs and credit default swaps.

He has gathered an eclectic but solid cast that brings to life the arrogance and testosterone-infused world of finance. It is definitely a boys club with an aggressive attitude with an absolute focus on money. Carell gives Baum a moral compass – maybe more of one than the other characters in the film – but also an angry streak that comes from a family tragedy. In many ways, Baum is the most compelling character in the movie because while all of the characters have an agenda, Baum’s is more than just making money.

I also like Bale as the real-life Dr. Burry, who prefers to be barefoot, rarely wears a suit and tie, and blasts metal in his office when he’s stressing out. His characters is a little bit more complex than the others and we don’t really get a decent grasp on him, which something tells me is true of the real guy. Pitt brings a little bit of New Age gravitas here as well.

McKay is known for his comedies and there is a kind of black humor here. His tongue is often planted firmly in cheek as he uses various celebrities in incongruous situations to explain various things in the script (like a naked Margo Robbie in a bathtub explaining the subprime mortgage market, or singer Serena Gomez in a casino talking about CDOs) and we are told that certain things actually happened but more interestingly, that some things actually didn’t as depicted in the film. You have to give him points for honesty.

I imagine your political outlook will drive how much you enjoy the film to a certain extent; those who are fairly left-wing in nature and distrustful of industry will no doubt find this film much more to their liking than those who are right-wing and who might look at this as tarring an entire industry with the same brush because of the actions of a relative few. The Big Short takes the point of view that the stupidity, shortsightedness and corruption was industry-wide and implies to a large extent that the culture of the financial industry of the bro-tastic almighty dollar have a big hand in driving that corruption.

The Big Short does a credible job of explaining a fairly complicated and often confusing situation that brought the economy to its knees, and warns that many of the same factors remain in place that may yet again take the economy down for another plunge. It reminds us that despite the blatant fraud that took place, only one person – and he relatively low on the totem pole – ever was tried and jailed for his role in an event that created so much human misery. This is an outstanding movie that may disturb some because the “heroes” of the story made enormous profits from that misery (a fact pointed out by Pitt’s Ben Rickert) and that the tone overall is somewhat snarky. I found that the tone made the events somewhat easier to bear and while I don’t condone profiting from the pain of others, I can say that at least none of the protagonists broke any laws, which is a fairly low bar for cinematic heroism but given the industry depicted here, probably about as high a bar as can be expected.

REASONS TO GO: Really explains some of the very confusing information about the 2008 crisis well. Extremely solid performances from the cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, some nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Adam McKay in which Will Ferrell doesn’t star.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Point Break (2015)

New Releases for the Week of November 13, 2015


The 33THE 33

(Warner Brothers) Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Bob Gunton, Gabriel Byrne. Directed by Patricia Riggen

In 2010, the eyes of the world were on Chile when 33 miners were trapped in a copper mine by a catastrophic explosion and collapse of the mine. For 69 days, an international team of mine experts frantically tried to rescue the men who survived underground. With barely enough food and water, with air running out and oppressive heat wearing them down, the race against time to bring the miners home became a desperate one. While we all know how the story ended, we don’t know the real story. This is apparently it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for a disaster sequence and some language)

Love the Coopers

(CBS) Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Marisa Tomei. The Cooper family has made an annual tradition of gathering at Christmas. Four generations of Coopers have grown up with this tradition. This year however, their celebration will be thrown askew by unexpected visitors, unlikely events and a renewal of family bonds that withstand the test of just about any calamity.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some sexuality)

My All-American

(Clarius) Aaron Eckhart, Finn Wittrock, Sarah Bolger, Robin Tunney. Freddie Steinmark has been an underdog all his life. Considered too small to play football, he perseveres and becomes a champion in high school. His fight and determination attracts the attention of legendary University of Texas coach Darryl Royal who awards Freddie a scholarship. His determination and leadership turn around a losing team, but it was only after a devastating injury leads to a shocking discovery that the heart of a champion truly surfaces.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, language and brief partial nudity)

Noah


Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

(2014) Biblical Epic (Paramount) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Finn Wittrock, Madison Davenport, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Dakota Goyo, Ariane Reinhart, Adam Marshall Griffith, Don Harvey, Sami Gayle. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Most everyone in the Western world – and a good part of the Eastern – are familiar with the story of Noah and the Great Flood. How God, in his wrath, wiped out all life on Earth – except for Noah, his family and all the innocent creatures of the Earth…well, two of each species of them, anyway.

The story of Noah actually takes up only four chapters in Genesis however and is lacking in any sort of detail except for those important to the writers of the Bible and/or those they were writing it for. You have to wonder what the real story was.

Darren Aronofsky did. Intrigued by the tale of Noah since the age of 14, he set out to film his own interpretation of the events that led up to the flood and what happened during and after it. He and co-screenwriter Ari Handel did extensive Biblical research and while they did interpret some of it fairly loosely, this is what they came up with.

Noah (Crowe), a descendant of Adam’s son Seth and grandson of Methuselah (Hopkins) lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and his sons from oldest to youngest Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman) and Japheth (Carroll) in the wastelands. They take from the Earth only that which they can use, eat the flesh of no animals and stay away from the civilizations of the time which are the works of the descendants of Cain. Noah had watched his own father (Csokas) slain for no real reason by some of those descendants.

Noah receives visions from the Creator – never referred to at any time as God in the film – that He is displeased with the wickedness of the world and intends to wipe everything out and start over. He will use a great flood to accomplish this. Troubled by his vision, Noah decides to visit his grandfather to see what this all means which makes sense since as part of the vision he saw the mountain his grandfather lives a hermit-like existence on. Along the way they pick up Ila (Watson) whose family was butchered by Cain’s descendants and whose own horrible injuries have left her unable to bear children.

Methuselah gives Noah a tea to drink which brings on another vision – this time of a great ark that must be built to survive the storm. Methuselah gives Noah a seed – the last seed from the Garden of Eden. This creates a forest and convinces the stone Guardians – fallen angels whose light has been sheathed in mud – to help Noah and his family to build the massive structure.

Years pass and word passes to Tubal-cain (Winstone) the King of the local city who recognizes that Noah is serious. He means to possess the Ark for his own and start a new world in his own image while Noah is just as sure that men are a plague upon the Earth that need to be eradicated. Neither outcome sounds particularly palatable to Naameh and her children.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the film even before it came out. Evangelical Christians were damning the film based on remarks made by Aronofsky who is an atheist and said in an interview that it is the least Biblical epic made about a Bible story and characterized Noah as the first environmentalist. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that is sure to make an extreme right-wing Christian get their panties in a bunch.

However, in many ways I can’t blame them. They take a good deal of liberty with the story – six-armed fallen angels made of rock, Tubal-cain who barely appears in the Bible and then as essentially a blacksmith being elevated to King and nemesis. The core elements are all there though and the scenes of the flood are spectacular.

Sadly, not all the CGI lives up to that. There isn’t a single animal in this film that is alive – every animal is CGI and many of them are beasts that are no longer around or never were around. They don’t walk like animals do and there are so many that they all kind of run together. I know the story inherently calls for spectacle but the grand scale is too much; we need something as an audience to latch onto.

Fortunately there is Crowe who makes a mighty badass Noah. Noah is a bit pigheaded during a certain stretch of the movie and you can see in him the tenacity that would make a project like the Ark even possible. There is also a tender side to Noah that allows him to sing a gentle lullaby to an injured and frightened little girl. Noah is portrayed in the Bible as someone who follows God’s directives unquestioningly and we get the sense of that here.

Unfortunately, there is also Connelly who is a terrific actress but has one of the least satisfying performances of her career. She has one scene where she has a confrontation with her husband over his increasingly vile point of view, particularly when they receive some startling news involving Shem and Ila. The normally reliable Connelly is shrill and overacts within an inch of her life. I was kind of saddened by it. Watson, likewise, is misused and her character – who is apparently made up for the purpose of testing Noah since she doesn’t appear in the Bible – never really syncs up.

There is a message for our modern day squandering of our resources and our inhumanity to one another. Once again there has been some grousing from the right over these leftist messages, but I have to say that the Biblical parables were meant to be timeless and relatable to all people no matter the era. If Aronofsky is attempting that here, I would think that he’s in line with the intention of these stories if not their execution.

At the end of the day the clumsy CGI and occasional bouts of overacting make this two and a half hour film squirm-inducing particularly near the end. There are some beautiful moments – a dove appearing with an olive branch in its beak signifying that land exists and their ordeal is nearly over, or the rainbow at the film’s conclusion that signifies God’s covenant to never use the waters to destroy all life ever again. I wish I could recommend this more because of them, but the flaws overwhelm the strengths of the film too much that even a miracle couldn’t save it.

REASONS TO GO: Crowe is strong. Draws modern parallels on the story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on spectacle. Some of the CGI is woeful. Misuse of Connelly and Watson.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE prior to release because it would contradict the teachings of Islam, which forbids the depiction of prophets cinematically. Islam considers Noah to be one of the prophets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fountain

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Florida Film Festival Begins!