The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (Le grand méchant Renard et autres contes…)


On a moonlit night you could see such a sight that you won’t believe your eyes…

(2017) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Kamel Abdessadok, Jules Bienvenu, Guillaume Bouchede, Guillaume Darnault, Jean-Loup Horwitz, Augustin Jahn-Sani, Christophe Lemoine, Elise Noiraud, Boris Rehlinger, Céline Ronté, Magali Rosenzweig, Violette Samama, Antoine Schoumsky, Damien Witecka. Directed by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert

The thing about animation is that it is truly universal. Once dominated by one country – and essentially one studio – these days, great animation is coming from all around the globe. While Disney continues to be the 1,000 pound gorilla when it comes to animated features, there have nonetheless been some terrific films coming from elsewhere.

This new French animated feature from Benjamin Renner, the guy who gave us Ernest and Celestine, is definitely on the terrific side – for the most part. Three tales are presented here, all involving animals who don’t act like you might expect them to. The first involves a stork tasked with delivering babies, but the stork is a lazy sort and fakes an injury to get a passing duck, rabbit and a pig. The three try their best but they aren’t really cut out for that kind of work. The second involves a fox who is trying to steal some eggs to eat from a rather violent hen. The fox takes too long to eat them and they hatch. Rather than eat the chicks, he becomes their caregiver – which isn’t easy to do with an angry hen and a murderous wolf on the loose. Finally the third tale involves the rabbit, the duck and the pig who believe they’ve accidentally killed Santa Claus and determine to make sure that the presents are delivered. As in the first tale, that doesn’t go well either. Personally, I liked the second tale the most of the three but all three of them are good. They use a stage show framing device which is reasonably clever.

The animation is kind of a throwback, hand-drawn and 2D rather than computer generated 3D. It looks vivid and minimalist and is gorgeous and fun. The humor has a Chuck Jones/Tex  Avery influence that is delightful; adults may appreciate it a little more than the kids do, although I think kids will love it too. What is also worth looking out for is the warm, sweet charm that infuses the whole movie; it’s perfect rainy day viewing and if you’re not already a kid, it may bring you back to your own childhood.

There are a few things on the negative side to consider as well; The subtitles, which are in white, are hard to read whenever the background is white or a lighter color which is a problem. There’s been no word as of yet whether GKIDS will release a dubbed version as they did with Ernest & Celestine; I’m betting that they will. The film is clearly meant for younger viewers and some of them may be less proficient at reading and may not do well with subtitles. If a dubbed version had been available, I likely would have given this at least a full point higher rating, maybe even two.

Also unlike E&C the story feels a bit dumbed down in places. I got the sense of being talked down to by the filmmakers, a sense I never got in the previous film’s case. That was a bit disconcerting. However, those cases were fairly rare; most of the time I just let the craziness wash over me like a comfortable afternoon in my PJs watching Looney Tunes on the television with a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs in front of me. Now, that is what true happiness is.

Please note that this film is still on the Festival circuit and although it does have a distribution deal with GKIDS, no release date is currently scheduled. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for it at your local film festival or animation festival. Also while I did discuss an English dubbed version, no such version currently exists to my knowledge and GKIDS hasn’t confirmed that there will ever be one. Just so you know. P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to GKIDS who have put together an impressive roster of animated features from around the globe that will appeal to adults as well as kids. If you see their logo on anything, you know it’s going to be extremely high quality.

REASONS TO GO: There is a Looney Tunes quality particularly in the first vignette. There is a quality of sweetness throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles can be hard to read. The story is on the dumb side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The middle tale was made up by Renner when he was a child; he eventually turned it into a graphic novel from which the film is adapted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zootopia
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guilty

Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

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

The Feels


Girls just want to have fun…and talk about their feelings.

(2017) Dramedy (Provenance) Constance Wu, Angela Trimbur, Jenée LaMarque, Ever Mainard, Josh Fadem, Lauren Parks, Kárin Tatoyan, Doug Purdy, Frankie Wass, Luna Wass. Directed by Jenée LaMarque

Ah, the orgasm. One of life’s few pleasures we don’t have to pay through the nose for. Perhaps for that reason, men chase orgasms like they get a sizable gift card at Bass Pro Shops if they catch them. As for women..Well, read on dear reader.

A group of old friends are gathering at a rented home in California’s Wine Country to celebrate the upcoming marriage between Andi (Wu) and Lu (Trimbur). Gathered there ar Andi’s best friend and sole male Josh (Fadem), filterless chef Regular Helen (Mainard), Lu’s sister Nikki (LaMarque) who is straight and enduring marital issues that her sister doesn’t know about, YouTube singing sensation Karin (Tatoyan) and Vivien (Parks) for a weekend of drinking and partying in general.

As it sometimes happens when old friends get plastered things bubble up to the surface. It turns out, Lu has never experienced an orgasm, something that sends Andi’s confidence plummeting. Andi wonders if there’s something wrong with her, if Lu doesn’t find her attractive, if she is truly making Lu happy. As the weekend continues, all of the women will find their own issues coming to the fore but surrounded by friends, what could go wrong? Welllllll…

Very often Hollywood tends to give the lesbian community short shrift, relegating them to supporting roles or comedy relief. Very rarely are any films told from a lesbian point of view even in independent films as this one is. While it may seem to be aimed at the Lesbian filmgoer market at first glance, The Feels actually can and should be assimilated by any audience. This is a very accessible film.

The problem here is that the premise turns into a soap opera by the middle of the film and drama is manufactured rather than earned. While early on there is legitimate conversation going on, characters get to speechifying as the movie progresses. I understand that much of the dialogue was improvised; that may not necessarily be a bad thing but things feel forced in places. I think the film would have benefited from more established dialogue.

Also to the negative side, the movie is interrupted periodically with bizarre interview/confessional sequences as the characters talk about their first orgasms and other milestones in their sexual past. One of them drops the bomb of sexual assault in her confessional but the movie just glosses over it as if it didn’t matter. Now I understand these sequences were completely improvised but ignoring something like sexual assault is the wrong thing to do, particularly given the current atmosphere. Maybe the filmmakers are trying to get across the point that the sexual assaults of women are generally turned a blind eye on by society but I don’t think this is the way to do it. Either it shouldn’t have been mentioned or it should have been discussed. The one thing a film mainly by women shouldn’t do is ignore a mention of sexual assault. Of course, I might be overreacting a tad but I think it’s important.

To the positive side, the cinematography is beautiful and the actresses here seem genuine particularly stand-up comic Mainard who brings most of the comedy here. Her character is so likable and refreshing that I wanted to spend more time with her than any of the other ladies which isn’t to say that the actresses aren’t interesting but their characters don’t feel all that well-developed. One gets the sense that the cast was working with the outline of an idea rather than anything fleshed out. I have some pretty interesting friends and we’ve had some amazing discussions but gathering them for a weekend to talk about life and sex and turning the camera on them wouldn’t make a very good movie. Sadly, this one didn’t either although there were some things worth checking out – just not enough for me to recommend it much.

REASONS TO GO: It’s refreshing to see lesbians given the front and center of a film.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite their best intentions the story turns into a soap opera in the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ensemble of actresses are close friends in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Florida Film Festival coverage continues