(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw
Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).
His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.
The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.
However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?
There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.
What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.
My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.
The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.
REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: After Antarctica
(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron
Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.
Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.
Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.
While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.
The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.
Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.
While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.
There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.
REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: All is True
(2017) Music Documentary (Paladin) Lee Aronsohn, George “Tode” Cahill, Lynn “Flatbush” Poyer, Kevin “CW” Millburn, Will “Wilbur” Luckey, Rob “Poonah” Galloway, Chris “Cemeto” Doyle, Bill “Das” Makepeace, Greg “Sloth” Sparre, Chris “Spoons” Daniel, Tamara Lester, Chuck Morris, Sam Bush, Julie Luckey, Steve “Spike” Clark, Olivia “Speedy” Luckey, Mary Jane Makepeace, Bill Payne, Scarlett Rivers. Directed by Lee Aronsohn
There is a time in our lives which we inevitably link with certain musical styles and sounds. It might be the psychedelic noise of the 60s, the arena rock of the 70s, the new wave of the 80s, the grunge of the 90s or…well, you get the idea. We identify with the music and the era.
In Boulder, Colorado in the early to mid-70s, particularly around the University of Colorado campus, the sound was heavily folk influenced with a kind of hippie aesthetic. Most symbolic of these bands was a group called Magic Music, who had enough facial hair to make a Muslim smile in satisfaction and an affinity for flannel shirts which would make the grunge generation scratch their heads and say “I thought that was our thing.”
Spoiler alert: the band never made it big, despite being hugely popular in Colorado and coming close on several occasions. Their unwillingness to bend on artistic matters as well as some self-torpedoing due to drugs, attitude or a distinct lack of business sense kept them from going to the next step. They broke up in 1975 with no records to their name.
One of their biggest fans was TV producer/writer/creator Lee Aronsohn who was attending CU as a sex and drugs major. He went on to success in his field but over the years the music he heard as a young man stayed in his head. He wondered what happened to the band that so inspired him in his youth. Only one of them remained in the Boulder era; Chris Daniels who continued to play music there with a new band. Through him, Aronsohn was put in contact with the remaining members of the band (Lynn Poyer tragically passed away in 2011) and soon a new idea germinated; to get the band to reunite onstage, playing a one night stand at the 800 seat Boulder Theater. To everyone’s surprise, the show sold out.
These are mostly interviews with the band members, former managers, girlfriends, wives, exes and fans. There isn’t any video footage of the band actually playing extant but there are quite a few still photos around and to Aronsohn’s delight some unreleased demos of the band in their heyday were found and used on the soundtrack. The demos accompany the stills, several of which have been animated into motion. That was a pretty nifty effect but as the story moves from the band’s past to the band’s present, those sorts of animations disappear from the film and I for one missed them.
The band utilized some sweet harmonies (think America and Pure Prairie League) with some fairly standard but lovely folk rock (along the lines of Buffalo Springfield and James Taylor). The music is extremely dated largely due to the lyrics which were of the tree-hugging variety (the band at one time lived in school buses in the Rocky Mountain wilderness) with a generous helping of hippie “love is everything” type sweetness. Maybe a better secondary title for the film would be Smell the Patchouli!!
Which reminds me: why do non-fiction book authors and documentary filmmakers find it necessary to title their works with unnecessary and often unwieldy secondary titles? Every time I see a colon in a title I feel a sense of rage. Do these authors and filmmakers think that this kind of titling makes their work sound more academic? Knock it off, y’all. It just makes you sound pretentious.
Mini-rant aside, the filmmaking is pretty solid here. Yes, there are plenty of talking heads but for the most part the band members are charming and sweet-natured. While there were some rifts within the band, for the most part a lot of water has gone under the bridge; after all, there were more than forty years between live concert appearances. 40 years an bring an awful lot of perspective even to the most angry and bitter of feelings.
This is very much a niche film. Most people outside of Colorado and not of a certain age group will have never heard of the band and even those that do, not all of them are going to be all that interested in taking a stroll down memory lane. Still, the band’s reunion does have a pretty good emotional punch and if seeing retired hippie chicks undulating in time to the music is your thing, then there’s reason enough to go catch this in and of itself.
REASONS TO GO: The reunion scenes are pretty sweet. Early on I like what Aronsohn did with the motion stills.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really intended for a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aronsohn has been responsible for such hit TV shows as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Andre the Giant
(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders
Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.
Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”
Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.
Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.
The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”
The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.
There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.
The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. For those with morbid curiosity, the film will be available on DVD on August 4th, 2020.
REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk
(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon). Life is pretty sweet.
Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.
I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).
In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.
Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.
The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.
Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.
We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.
I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.
I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.
REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip
(2002) Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small, Nicholas Hutchison, Nat Gastiain Tena, Ben Ridgeway, Isabel Brook, Tessa Vale, Paulette Williams, Jonathan Franklin, John Kamal, Victoria Smurfit, Augustus Prew, Peter Roy, Alex Kew, Roger Brierley, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz
We all grow up at different rates. Some of us mature early; others are late bloomers. Then there are those of us who never grow up at all.
Take Will Freeman (Grant) for example. 38 years old, confirmed bachelor who has never worked a day in his life. He’s lived off of the royalties of a song he didn’t even write – his father’s hit Christmas tune “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It keeps him in a comfortable flat with all the latest gadgets, able to eat out nearly every night, keep him in reasonably fashionable attire and pretty much do whatever he wants – or nothing at all. “Every man is an island,” he intones early in the film. “I happen to be Ibiza.”
He takes the same attitude towards human relationships. “I am the star of the Will Show,” he says about his life. “and the Will Show is not an ensemble drama.” He dates women, sure, and shags his fair share – Will Freeman is an incredibly handsome and charming guy. However few of his relationships last more than a few weeks, months at most. He values his solitude and the thing that terrify most of us in the night – that we’ll end up unwanted and alone – is just his cup of tea.
This kind of attitude can lead people to do unsavory things. In Will’s case, he discovers that single mums are a treasure trove for a guy like him. They have gone without sex for a long while so they are appreciative when he gives it to them and they shag like absolute fiends when he does. Then instead of Will having to break up with them, they actually break up with him. It’s an absolute dream. He discovers a support group – Single Parents Alone Together, or SPAT and goes prowling at their meetings, inventing a child – young Ned – who doesn’t exist. Ned’s mum left them both, breaking Will’s heart and of course bringing out the nurturing nature of his prey in the process.
This doesn’t fool everyone. Marcus (Hoult) is the son of SPAT member Fiona Brewer (Collette) who is the mate of the girl that Will is interested in dating…er, shagging. He figures out that Ned doesn’t exist and lacking any sort of father figure, he kind of latches on to Will. The two become somewhat connected when Marcus goes out with Will and his prospective shagmate and when they return home, find Fiona unconscious having attempted suicide. They get her to the hospital in time fortunately.
Fiona is kind of a 21st century hippie who doesn’t realize it isn’t 1972 and worse still insures her son is a laughing stock and a target for bullying. She is also bipolar (at least so it seems from an amateur’s perspective) and prone to bouts of really deep depression. Marcus is terrified that one day she’ll succeed in killing herself and with no backup, nobody else to look after him, he’ll be royally screwed. He winds up spending time with Will because at first he wouldn’t mind Will marrying his mom (which he quickly realizes will never happen) but later because he is scared of going home and dealing with his mom.
For Will’s part, young Marcus is socially awkward and a bit of a bother but there’s something about Marcus that is perpetually endearing and despite everything he grows to actually care about Marcus. In other words, Will is beginning to grow up. And when he meets Rachel (Weisz), another single mum, Will is actually beginning to want something more than a one-night stand. Maybe there’s hope for the boy after all.
This is based on the book by Nick Hornby and is one of a string of great British romantic comedies that came out during the last decade, including Love, Actually and Notting Hill both of which involved Hugh Grant. This had the thankless task of opening against the first episode of the Star Wars saga so it largely fell by the wayside yet still managed to do impressive box office business in spite of it.
Hoult, who has gone on to become a solid actor and potential star as a young man, made his debut here and pulled off a difficult role with amazing deftness for someone who was just 12 years old at the time the film was made. I do believe that most child actors would have made Marcus too sympathetic; Marcus is definitely the author of some of his own misery but is basically a good kid. He can be annoying and he can be pig-headed but he is also capable of great shining moments of sheer gold. His relationship with his crush Ellie (Tena) is also wholly believable.
While Collette gets the thankless job of making Fiona relatively sympathetic, it is Grant who pulls this off with one of the finest performances of his career. Shallow and selfish and occasionally downright mean, he is also another one who is a decent chap at heart who just needed the right boy to pull his decency out of him.
There is no doubt that the Weitz brothers who were previously best known for the first two American Pie movies make this occasionally manipulative and once in awhile a bit cliché. In their defense, we need those bellwether points of reference to let us know what to feel from time to time and there is a certain comfort in them – no shame in that at all. The movie is likable with a soundtrack (courtesy of the indie rock act Badly Drawn Boy) that is indelible as one of the best of the century’s first decade. And yes, likable is sometimes used as criticism but who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who is likable for a couple of hours? Sometimes that’s all we need to feel good about ourselves.
WHY RENT THIS: Hugh Grant at his best. Charming story that is rather moving in places.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally manipulative and cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong language here and there as well as some fairly adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a couple of Badly Drawn Boy music videos, an “English-to-English” dictionary and the complete lyrics to “Santa’s Super Sleigh” which should have been a holiday classic but isn’t…thank the Great Gazoo!
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $130.6M on a $30M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love, Actually
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Day 2 of Our Film Library!
(2010) Romantic Comedy (Music Box) Jacques Gamblin, Sara Forestier, Zinedine Soualem, Carole Franck, Jacques Boudet, Michele Moretti, Zakariya Gouram, Nabil Massad, Cyrille Andrieu-Lacu, Cristina Palma De Figueiredo, Lydie Muller. Directed by Michel Leclerc
Back in the day the counterculture sorts used to proclaim “Make love, not war.” This is a film that takes it to new heights.
Arthur Martin (Gamblin) has a dull, common name – the French equivalent to Bob Jones. He is an ornithologist working for the French government doing autopsies on dead birds to determine how they died and whether or not a disease is involved that might cause problems for the French meat industry.
His mother (Moretti) was a survivor of the Holocaust whose parents were deported to Greece. These twin events served to traumatize her deeply; Arthur’s dad (Boudet) has made a series of taboo subjects that are not to be discussed in order not to upset mom. Although Arthur’s parents have their quirks (they seem to latch on to every failed technology that comes along, from the Betamax to the Laser Disc – I’m sure the HD DVD is in there somewhere too), Arthur grows up in a fairly repressed environment which makes him a kind of weird boy who is absolutely anathema to the ladies. This makes it incredibly hard for him to get laid.
Baya Benhmamoud (Forestier) is a free spirit whose father (Soualem) was a refugee from Algeria (which at the time was a French colony) in France illegally. Her mom (Franck) was a hippie who advocated France’s withdrawal from Algeria and overall, peace and love in general. Mom helped Dad get his French citizenship. Dad is one of those people who loves to help other people fix things; his happiness always seems to be secondary to everyone else’s and Baya yearns to make her daddy happy.
When Baya is molested by a piano teacher, it drives her to express her sexuality more openly than she might have. Inheriting her mother’s political outlook, she basically categorizes everyone into two categories; good people and fascists. It is her goal to have sex with fascists and convert them to her way of thinking.
Baya is a bit scatter-brained, forgetting in one unforgettable scene to put on clothes before leaving the house. You know that she and Arthur are going to meet (she storms into a radio interview he is doing as she is working at the station answering phones and proclaims him a fascist for scaring people with fears of bird flu) and when they do, both of their views about life, love and sex are going to change forever.
The movie is based on some actual experiences the director-writer had with his partner which I suppose could only happen in France. Can you imagine some hippie chick bedding Rush Limbaugh in order to change his allegiance? Forgive me while I throw up a little in my mouth – feel free to join me if you wish.
Forestier won a French Cleo (their equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance here and I have to admit, she is very natural and uninhibited in this role which might make an American actress run screaming for her trailer and locking the door behind her. Baya is very aware of her ethnic background but also aware of her own sexuality and what she can do with it. One wonders if the inspiration for her read the Lysistrata, a play by Aristophanes in which the wives and girlfriends of a Greek army withhold sex from their husbands until they come home from war. I suppose it can work both ways, men being such sex-driven animals.
Gamblin has to play as white-bread a character as you’re likely to find in French cinema. He is all rules and repression, rarely letting what is bubbling below his surface be revealed. Once Baya works her magic on him, he discovers the joys of sex and attraction which turns him into a bit of a maniac. Gamblin has to insure that Arthur treads the line between lust and love, a line the French understand very well (in general) and that Arthur be one of the exceptions to that rule. One of the fine things about French cinema is that Gamblin wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as romantic leading man material in Hollywood, but he fits this role very nicely in a physical sense.
The movie brings sexual politics into actual politics and the line blurs as to which is which at times. There is a lot of poking fun at stereotypes of both the left and right, and while I’m fairly ill-informed as to how the French political system works and some of the jokes no doubt went sailing above my head like an Independence Day rocket, nonetheless there’s enough here that is universal enough that non-French speaking audiences will get a kick out of it too.
REASONS TO GO: A low-key comedy with gentle humor that brings sexual politics to real politics. Forestier is easy on the eyes.
REASONS TO STAY: The central conceit of the script might be too much for the more puritanical.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of nudity (most provided by Ms. Forestier) and some accompanying sexuality; there’s also a bit of swearing (in French).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After an actress initially cast as Baya demanded a nude scene be removed from the script, Forestier requested it be put back in the script as she felt it was central to the character’s identity.
HOME OR THEATER: This film is near the end of its release run and might be much easier to find on DVD/Blu-Ray when it’s released to home video October 18th.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Real Steel
(2011) Avant Action (Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke, Michelle Dockery, Tim Beckmann, Vicky Krieps, Mohamed Majd, Christian Malcolm. Directed by Joe Wright
Nature versus nurture, an age-old debate about the power of parenting. In some cases, a little bit of both can go a long way.
Hanna (Ronan) is a young girl who lives in Finland above the Arctic Circle with her father Erik (Bana), a former CIA operative who has a beard and talks with a German accent. He has taught her how to survive in nearly any situation – and how to kill in nearly every situation. She is an efficient little killing machine, whether out hunting for dinner or being hunted, which in fact is happening.
She needs to be efficient because there are some really bad, bad people after her. Chief among them is Marissa Viegler (Blanchett), a CIA operative slash ice queen who has a past with Erik. She is canny and paranoid – after capturing Hanna she sends in a look-alike (Dockery) whom Hanna proceeds to dispatch with almost comical ease. Once that’s done, Hanna goes on the run in Morocco and Europe.
She is also being chased by some outside contractors that Viegler has hired, led by the effeminate Isaacs (Hollander) who likes to whistle while he works. She also runs into a family of British hippies, whose father (Flemyng) is a bit of a curmudgeon and whose mother (Williams) has a case of terminal political correctness. The daughter Sophie (Barden) becomes Hanna’s friend, perhaps the first she’s ever had who didn’t have a beard and talk with a German accent. Not realizing Viegler isn’t dead, she heads for a rendezvous in Germany with her dad, unaware that those who want her dead are closing in on her.
There is a really good story in here. It’s a shame that the director, whose resume includes Atonement which netted Ronan an Oscar nomination, chose to do it like Baz Luhrmann might have. While it looks great visually, endless music video-style conceits constantly remind us that this is a movie being directed rather than a story being told. When that happens, it’s hard to get too involved in the story and the movie just becomes a collection of images. There are some nicely done sequences, such as a chase scene in a shipyard; however the climactic scenes, set in an abandoned Grimm’s Fairy Tales theme park, seems rubbing our faces in the allegory a little bit.
Ronan is actually very strong in the title role; she has to be very physical here and she looks quite lethal which is difficult enough for an adult actor to do let alone a teenage one. She can spout off facts memorized from her father about all kinds of esoterica but she has trouble negotiating even a basic conversation with ordinary people. It’s a winning performance, one that is sympathetic and kicks ass at once.
Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, an Oscar winner who can be forceful and who can also be subtle. Here she plays Viegler wound so tight you half expect for her eyes to pop out of her head and her breasts to shoot out like missiles to detonate on target at the slightest touch of her red hair. There’s not a lot of humanity in the role – she’s ambitious and paranoid, someone well versed in both the high tension of field work as well as the politics of the agency bureaucracy. I’m still debating internally whether this was the right approach to the role and due to Miss Blanchett’s credentials, electing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Bana is a leading man who is on the verge of being “A” list material. He has the charm and charisma to do it; what’s keeping him out of that rarefied air is the right role. He needs a blockbuster to cement his reputation and this is just frankly not it – and in any case his role is a supporting one to Ronan.
Something has to be said about the score by the British trip-hop band the Chemical Brothers. It’s intrusive, it’s abrasive and at the end of the day it detracts from the movie rather than enhance it. I’m fairly open-minded about alternative types of scores but I’m a bit old-fashioned in this regard – if you’re noticing the score to the point where you’re taken out of the movie by it, then it’s not a good score. This happens time and time again throughout the movie.
Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise this movie, including several that I respect a great deal. This is a case where the public actually gets one more correct than the critics; the box office has been tepid at best and quite frankly, deservedly so. I really wanted to like this movie too – the trailers were compelling and the story idea solid. Sadly, this is the type of film that belongs more projected on the wall of a European disco than on the screen of a multiplex.
REASONS TO GO: A fresh take on the cold war-style action espionage thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: Wright takes viewers out of the film far too often by reminding them he’s there. Worst. Score. Ever.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of sometimes intense violence, not to mention a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seth Lockhead wrote the original script on spec back in 2006. It appeared on the Black List (the annual list of bet unproduced Hollywood screenplays) that year and again in 2009.
HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by seeing this at home.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Conspirator
(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee
From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.
Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.
He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.
None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.
When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.
The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.
Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.
Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.
Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.
Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.
The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.
Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.
WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi