Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

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Joy


Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

(2015) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Ken Howard, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers, Ray De La Paz, John Enos III, Marianne Leone, Drena De Niro. Directed by David O. Russell

The world isn’t designed so that the little guy achieves success. It is even less designed so that the little gal achieves it.

Joy (Lawrence) is not your ordinary housewife. For one, she is surrounded by a family that seems tailor-made to bring her down. Her father Rudy (De Niro) owns a body shop and after being tossed out on his ass by his girlfriend, moves into the basement of Joy’s house where Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Ramirez), a budding Latin singer, is living. Also in the house is Joy’s mother Terry (Madsen) who has withdrawn from everything, staying in her bedroom and watching her soap operas. Only Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Ladd) – who is narrating – believes in Joy other than maybe her daughter and her son. Also in the mix is Joy’s super-critical and bitter half-sister Peggy (Röhm).

Joy has always had an imagination and a willingness to make things but has been held back by circumstances; she is basically the one who cooks and cleans in her household; she also is the breadwinner, although her Dad helps with the mortgage. Then, after an outing in which she is required to mop a mess of broken glass and ends up cutting her hands when she wrings the mop – regularly – she comes up with an idea for a mop that not only is more absorbent and requires less wringing, but also wrings itself. She calls it the Miracle Mop.

But a good idea requires money to become reality and she is forced to convince her Dad’s new girlfriend Trudy (Rossellini) to invest. Attempting to market and sell the mop on her own turns into dismal failure but it’s okay because that’s what everyone expects out of Joy. Heck, that’s what she expects of herself. But with the unflagging support of her best friend Jackie (Polanco), she takes her product to something new – a home shopping network on cable called QVC and an executive there named Neil Walker (Cooper) and a legend is born, not to mention a whole new way to market and sell new products.

Loosely (make it very loosely) based on the life of the real Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, the movie has a lot of David O. Russell trademarks; a dysfunctional family that seems hell-bent on destroying the dreams of the lead character, resolve in the face of insurmountable odds and an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

Say what you want about Russell (and there are critics who make no secret of the fact that they think him overrated) but he seems to be a muse for Lawrence. Perhaps the most gifted actress of her generation, Lawrence has received most of her Oscar attention (and she’s pretty much a lock for a nomination here after winning the Golden Globe last weekend) in films she has been directed in by Russell, including her win. Some have criticized the film for a variety of reasons, but you can’t fault Lawrence. She has given yet another outstanding performance as Joy, going from a nearly abusive lifestyle that seems bound to keep her down to becoming a wealthy, self-confident self-made entrepreneur whose success is like a protective shield. In the latter part of the movie, there is an almost emotionless feel to Joy who has erected barriers even when expressing warmth to women who were in similar circumstances to herself. I found Lawrence’s range inspiring, and even though her character keeps a lot in, it’s there if you know where to look for it.

In fact, most of the cast does a terrific job here, with De Niro once again showing he can do comedy just as well as anybody, and the trio of Rossellini, Ladd and Madsen all wonderful as older women with at least some sort of quirky characteristics to them although Ladd is more of a traditional grandmother as Hollywood tends to imagine them. Madsen in particular impressed me; she has been to my mind underutilized throughout her career which is a shame; she has given some terrific performances in films like Creator.

Where the movie goes wrong is in a couple of places. For one, the middle third is tough sledding for the viewer as the pace slows to a crawl. The ending is a little bit off-kilter and I left the screening curiously unsatisfied, sort of like craving good Chinese food and eating at Panda Express. One of the complaints I’ve noticed about the film is that most of the characters in the film are really not characters as much as caricatures. I understand the beef; there are actions taken by some of them that for sure don’t feel like things real people would do. However, I think this was a conscious decision by Russell and although at the end of the day I don’t think it worked as well as he envisioned, I understood that this was part of the comic element of the film in which Joy’s family was somewhat ogre-ish, particularly towards her dreams.

I blow hot and cold when it comes to Russell; I think he has an excellent eye for good cinematic material but other than The Fighter there really hasn’t been a film of his that has blown me out of the water. Joy is in many ways the most meh of his movies, neither hot nor cold, good nor bad. It hasn’t lit the box office on fire and quite frankly I’m siding with the moviegoers on this one; it’s certainly one worth seeing on home video but there are plenty of other movies out there in the theaters that I would recommend you see before this one.

REASONS TO GO: Another fine performance by Lawrence. She gets plenty of support from the rest of the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Lags in the middle. The ending is ludicrous.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joy Mangano, one of the main sources for the Joy character, developed the Miracle Mop (as seen on TV) in 1990 – the same year Jennifer Lawrence was born.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jobs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Carol

Desire for Beauty


The things we go through to look good.

The things we go through to look good.

(2013) Documentary (Green Box) Agata Kulesza, Maria Czubaszek, Lew Starowicz, Mikolaj Lizut, Katazyna Miller, Piotr Najsztub, Julia Pietrucha, Maria Rotkiel, Marzena Sienkiewicz, Agnieszka Szulim. Directed by Miguel Gaudencio

There is no doubt that our society in general is overly obsessed with physical beauty. We place a great deal of stock in it; We choose our mates largely due to it; we buy products because of it. Sex sells, so we all want to be sexy.

This unusual Polish documentary looks at the obsession with beauty as four individuals begin the road to plastic surgery. Kasia, a wife and mother, is going for a breast augmentation. She has always wanted larger breasts and although her husband insists that this isn’t something that he desires, she quite candidly tells interviewer Agata Kulesza (an acclaimed Polish actress, perhaps best known to American audiences for her role as the aunt and judge Wanda in Ida) that she is doing this for herself alone.

Kuba is an aspiring actor who seems handsome enough already; he thinks a little Botox here and there might get him roles that he wasn’t being considered for until now. Monika is having a few nips and tucks done; she wants to remain young and beautiful for as long as she can. However, she is denied the procedures she wants done; the doctors believe she is too young for it.

And finally there’s Kamilla, whose nose has been the cause of much bullying (we see a re-enactment of her school days when a bitchy young girl, after borrowing some smokes in the bathroom, proclaims haughtily “If I were you, I’d get plastic surgery.” Fed up with the teasing and the bullying, she resolves to get rhinoplasty which she sees as the key to finding peace and happiness for herself.

We follow all four of these subjects through the various stages of surgery, with Kulesza conducting periodic interviews while in Kamilla’s case, we see re-enactments of the teasing she has to endure. In fact, this is an odd mixture of documentary and drama; one reviewer characterized it as “reality TV” and she isn’t far off the mark. This isn’t scripted all that much but there are segments which certainly are. How much of it is scripted however is not very easily discernible; some of the situations seem rather contrived and/or convenient if indeed they are real.

The cinematography is exquisite here; some of the images are downright cinematic paintings. Subjects look pensively into the horizon, the light of the setting sun creating an angelic corona around their heads. Mothers play with children, chasing after them in the park. Friends hang out in clubs, dancing to the mechanized beat of modern music. While not all of the footage is germane to what is happening in the storylines, the movie would be less beautiful without it.

The subject of beauty and our attitudes towards it has an inherent problem; the subject itself is shallow. Beauty is, indeed, only skin deep and the societal obsession with it is something that would make a great documentary. At times there is some depth to the conversation here but it is incomplete; the director, who has done a couple of features as well as a passel of award-winning music videos, seems more focused on beautiful images than in depth of thought. Perhaps that is his point in a nutshell.

Nonetheless, I would have liked to see more on why society is so wrapped up in physical beauty and why it is such a driving force. This much is universal; it’s the same in Asia as it is in Europe and the Americas. Why is beauty so important to us? Why aren’t we more focused on, say, intelligence, or character? Alas, these questions aren’t even asked and perhaps this isn’t the right venue for it. The people who are focused on here are fairly simple and even though they are all already beautiful, they are not satisfied with it. That is, perhaps, the point after all.

The movie received a brief theatrical release in Europe but is hitting VOD here and can also be seen on Vimeo. While this is certainly not the last word on the subject, Desire for Beauty serves as an excellent starting point to begin a discussion on how this obsession with looks is impacting society – and ourselves.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating subject. Interesting blend of drama and documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: Not always easy to tell where dramatic recreations begin and documentary ends. Unavoidably shallow in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity and harsh language as well as some graphic surgery footage not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kulesza accepted her role in the film after meeting with the director despite the fact that there was no script written.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Roar

Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy