The Sunlit Night


Onward to Norway and adventure! Or whatever…

(2019) Romance (QuiverJenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridjov Såheim, Gillian Anderson, Zach Galifianakis, David Paymer, Jessica Hecht, Elise Kibler, Justus von Dohnányl, Olek Krupa, Dan Puck, Ginna Le Vine, Malachy Cleary, Anne Carney, Chris Carfizzi, David Corenswet, Stephanie Mareen, Seth Barrish, Michael Kostroff, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Daniel Wnendt

We are often under a microscope that family and friends peer through. They have their expectations and sometimes we work to meet them; others, we defy them in an effort to be our own person. But being under that microscope can be traumatic and depressing. Sometimes, the only way to find ourselves is to run away.

Frances (Slate) is a budding artist in New York City that is struggling to find her voice. Her instructors harshly critique her work as derivative. She lives in an incredibly cramped apartment with her father (Paymer), a well-known artist of anatomical drawings who has a penchant for speaking his mind and is, to put it bluntly, a bit of an asshole. Her mother (Hecht) is a textile artist whose success has been overshadowed by her husband. Her sister Gaby (Kibler) has gotten engaged to her boyfriend whom her father hates with a passion. Frances’ own boyfriend has just unceremoniously dumped her. And her parents are splitting up.

Frances, with these compounded issues, is reeling. She decides to take an internship in Norway with Nils (Såheim) a notoriously reclusive artist. He is working on a project on an island above the arctic circle where the sun never fully sets in the summer. The project – which involves painting an old barn a variety of shades of yellow – is, Nils hopes, going to be included on a map of art-related tourist spots that the Norwegian National Museum is compiling. He doesn’t handle people very well, and expects Frances to work like a mule, leaving her little time for her own art, which she was hoping to work on during her internship.=

She spends time at a local Viking village recreation whose chieftain (Galifianakis) is actually an American from Cincinnati. Also visiting the island is Sasha (Sharp) whose father just passed away and requested a Viking funeral on this island where he had chosen to live out the remainder of his days. Sasha is a New Yorker whose parents were Russian immigrants, and his estranged mother (Anderson) is there to throw a monkey wrench into things. For Frances’ part, she finds the vulnerable New Yorker fascinating. Is there a romance blooming in the land of reindeer and snow?

Most of the movie reference sites online list this as a Romance, so I have done the same, but it isn’t really accurate. This isn’t about the relationship between Frances and Sasha; it’s more about the romance between Frances and herself. In a lot of ways, this is more of  coming of age film than a romance. We see Frances growing from someone lost and adrift into someone who has something meaningful to contribute.

There’s a bit of the manic pixie dream girl to Frances, although one could never use the term “manic” when it comes to Jenny Slate. She is not everybody’s cup of tea, with a voice that sounds like Jennifer Tilly voicing a toddler, but she is a capable actress and tends to shine in these indie films when she’s given the right material. She also gets to do the voiceover narration (which isn’t intrusive, thank the Great Gahoo) but she gets to say things like describing her New York apartment as “A Mondrian of claustrophobia” and referring to her internship as “Arctic detention.”

Also worthy of note is the cinematography which is borderline breathtaking. What isn’t is the infestation of indie tropes and clichés that make me wonder at times if this wasn’t filmmaking by check box. That gives the movie what I believe to be an unintentionally retro feel. There’s also an over-reliance on the use of masterwork paintings to explain the action or various characters in it.

Still, it’s solid enough to check out. Slate should already be on the radar of a number of indie film aficionados and the lovely Norwegian countryside as well as the strong dialogue make this worthy of notice. Still, if indie films of the last 15 years have gotten you wary of the same old thing, this might not be the film for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty snappy. Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of indie film tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rebecca Dinerstein Knight wrote the screenplay, adapting her own novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady Bird
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Wandering Earth

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Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

High Strung


Girl just wanna have fun.

Girl just wanna have fun.

(2016) Urban Musical (Paladin) Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Jane Seymour, Sonoya Mizuno, Richard Southgate, Paul Freeman, Maia Morgenstern, Ian Eastwood, Anabel Kutay, Marcus Emanuel Mitchell, Comfort Fedoke, Simon A. Mendoza, Miranda Wilson, Dave Scott, Andrew Pleavin, Tomi May, David Lipper, Nigel Barber, Giulia Nahmany. Directed by Michael Damian

 

One is a fresh-faced wanna-be ballerina from the Midwest who is in danger of losing her scholarship to a prestigious arts academy in Manhattan. The other is a brooding, angry subway busker whose violin playing shows tons of ability and tons of passion but little restraint; he’s about to be deported. Is this a match made in heaven or the odd couple?

This is the latest entry into a genre that really began in 1980 with Fame but has really picked up steam in the last decade with the Step Up movie franchise, the Glee TV series and Pitch Perfect, to name a few, plus other assorted one-offs. Star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, one into classical performance art, the other an innovator, face enormous challenges, enter a dance competition usually revolving around hip-hop, then after a temporary setback nearly tears them apart, reunites in the last frame to grab the gold, the glory and the fluttering hearts of tweens everywhere. Roll credits.

It’s not a bad formula per se, but this is the type of movie that has not been among my favorite genres and this one is a fairly weak representative of it. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the plot preposterous. The saving grace for the couple – ballet dancer Ruby (Kampa) and hip-hop violinist Johnny (Galitzine) – is (get this) a string and dance competition with a $25,000 grand prize. Have you heard of a string and dance competition, much less one that is giving away that much cash? I didn’t think so.

There are also hard hats who break out into a dance-off on a subway platform and a (fictional) conservatory that seems to only employ Russians, including a feisty and nearly unrecognizable Jane Seymour as the headmistress, and Paul Freeman as a dancer whose hips were shattered by the Nazis who has become a pre-eminent ballet teacher. Ironic, since Freeman played a Nazi ally in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The dance sequences are energetic, spirited and actually a lot of fun to watch. That figures, since Dave Scott, one of the best hip hop choreographers in the business, is involved as a producer (although he is not listed as a choreographer here). They’re most certainly the best aspects of the film and make it marginally watchable. The cast is fresh-faced and at least good watching; Kampa has a kind of ingénue appeal, while Galitzine has cheekbones that can cut glass and a brooding pout sure to set tween girls to sighing in their Corn Flakes for months after seeing this.

But too much of this movie is simply “been there, done that” and the most amazing dance sequences in the world can’t save a movie that borrows so heavily from other movies, many of which are frankly not that good. I will give it props for having a gee-whiz can-do vibe and a certain innocent sweetness to it, but there isn’t enough here to hold the interest of any but the most non-discerning for the entire hour and a half run time.

REASONS TO GO: High energy. Winsome leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Cliches abound. Adds nothing to the genre. Stretches credulity. Predictable throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A little foul language and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Bucharest, standing in for Manhattan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Up
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: To Keep the Light

No Reservations


Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

Sparks can fly in the kitchen.

(2007) Romance (Warner Brothers) Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Jenny Wade, Bob Balaban, Brian F. O’Byrne, Lily Rabe, Eric Silver, Arija Bareikis, John McMartin, Celia Weston, Zoe Kravitz, Matthew Rauch, Dearbhla Molloy, Stephanie Berry, Matt Servitto, Fulvio Cecere, Ako, Monica Trombetta  Directed by Scott Hicks

Films For Foodies

The great chefs are control freaks; they set high standards and expect all those who work for them to meet them. Some of them are laid-back about it, others are martinets who can rage, scream and bully their way to get what they want.

Kate Armstrong (Zeta-Jones) is among the latter sorts. The celebrity head chef at 22 Bleecker Street, one of New York’s trendiest and most outstanding restaurants, her prickly demeanor is tolerated by Paula (Clarkson), the owner, because Kate’s creations regularly win awards, coverage in foodie magazines and attract the hoi polloi to her restaurant. Kate’s personal life, what little she has of one, is strictly ordered as well, just the way she likes things in her restaurant.

Life has a way of bringing mess into the lives of even those who are meticulous about their circumstances; when her sister (Wade) dies suddenly, her niece Zoe (Breslin) is orphaned and Kate is named guardian to the little girl. Zoe is understandably distraught about her situation and acts out towards Kate who is thrust into a situation she is woefully unprepared for and never wanted in the first place.

Secondly, Paula has hired a new sous chef behind Kate’s back, which is irritating enough to the head chef, but that sous chef happens to be Nick Palmer (Eckhart), as boisterous and full of life as all get out. He loves to belt out opera in the kitchen and has a much more chaotic approach to cuisine. The two couldn’t be more oil and water. Naturally, they fall for each other.

In fact, just about everything about this movie is predictable, from the romance to the relationship between Kate and Zoe. We’ve seen both of those situations before; the can’t stand you/can’t live without you kind of love that grows via painful separations that force both parties to realize that they are better off together, and the sudden presence of a child in a driven career woman’s life that forces her to learn how to love and how to live. That’s a lot of cliches to pack in to a single movie, but they’re  all here.

Fortunately, the film is in the hands of the capable director Scott Hicks who has helmed some pretty sophisticated and acclaimed films (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedar). He also has some capable actors to work with. Balaban, who plays Kate’s shrink, has some of the best comic moments, listening to Kate’s remarks while sampling her sauces with a look of heavenly bliss on his face; some foodies just can’t hide their passion. Also Clarkson plays Paula with a delicate hand, never getting too hard or too soft. She is the ultimate Goldilocks here.

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Zeta-Jones. I couldn’t tell you why; some of her performances can be a little bit hard-edged but when she allows herself to be a little vulnerable, she can act with the best of them. This is one of her finer performances, taking a character who is driven and obsessive and rather than making her bitchy, ends up making her worthy of admiration. That’s a tricky feat that even the great Meryl Streep had trouble with but Zeta-Jones pulls it off nicely here.

Hicks must really love food himself, or at least cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh must because the shots of the food being prepared and the presentation of said food is lovingly depicted and captured. You’ll never look at a plate of spaghetti the same way again after viewing this.

While I found Breslin’s performance to be a bit shrill, even she had moments that hooked me in, reminding me that she was one of the pre-eminent child actresses of all time, and continues to be a marvelous actress today as an adult. There is an oddball subplot concerning one of Kate’s neighbors, Sean, who babysits Zoe and appears to have a thing for Kate but nothing is done with it; the filmmakers could have easily had an offscreen neighbor do the child minding but for some reason chose to go this way. Methinks more of Sean was left on the cutting room floor than in the film.

This is based on a German film, Mostly Martha which I haven’t seen, although I understand it is much loved by many who have seen it and those who have seen both films typically state emphatically that the German version is much superior. I can’t speak to that, but if that film is better than this, then maybe I should make a point of finding it.. Despite the cliches and the flaws, the movie has a lot of heart and a lot of passion. It works as a dinner and a movie option, but also as a romantic evening option. Imagine that; a film that multitasks.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice work by Clarkson and Balaban.  Lovely food porn. Zeta-Jones takes a bitchy role and gives it some vulnerability.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chock full of cliches. Sean subplot goes nowhere..
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First feature film appearance by Kravitz.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An episode of the Food Network’s Unwrapped centered around the film is included. Some of the Blu-Ray editions (those carrying the BD-Live feature) also includes an episode of Emeril Live on which Eckhart and Zeta-Jones both guested, with some of the food they are depicted cooking in the film made by Emeril Lagasse on the show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $92.6M on a $28M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

The Wolfpack


Tougher than the rest.

Tougher than the rest.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krisna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Naryana Angulo, Visnu Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Susanne Angulo. Directed by Crystal Moselle

Sometimes we all want to shut the world out. Just let it go on doing what it does outside the safety and security of our homes; we just need a little break. What would you do, though, if you were forced to live that way – isolated from the world, limited in contact to a few outings a year and from what you see from movies?

That’s just how the seven kids of the Angulo family were raised. In a government housing complex in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Oscar and Susanne Angulo chose to keep their children inside the apartment day in and day out, refusing to allow them to venture outdoors other than on special occasions. Sometimes the boys get to leave their apartment three or four times a year; some years, they don’t make it out at all. Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna, was unrealistically paranoid about the outside world and wanted to protect his children from it. His wife went along, at first because she too was concerned but later because she was intimidated by her husband.

That leaves the boys to figure things out on their own. Against all odds, they turn out to be articulate, congenial and intelligent boys, much of which is a testament to the homeschooling they received from their mom. All of them have been given names from Sanskrit legends and mythology and none of them have been allowed to cut their hair when we first meet them, their locks cascading down to their waists. They have the distinctive Andean features of their father, but none of them seem disposed to like him very much.

And with good reason; he’s not really a likable guy. For much of the movie he sits in his room, isolating himself from his family and only coming out on occasion, rarely seeing much of the family initially. He’s often compared to a jailer and the home to a prison which seems accurate enough. Somewhat unbelievably, as part of his world view, he refuses to work because doing so plays into the hands of the industrialist elite, so he and his seven children live off of government aid programs and the stipend they get for Susanne’s homeschooling.

Yet they have a library of (they claim) 5,000 films on VHS and DVD which I suspect is an exaggeration; I didn’t see any sort of storage in the small four-bedroom apartment that would begin to hold that many films. Moselle chooses not to delve into harder questions about how the family subsists; this isn’t that kind of documentary.

What is obvious is that the boys (and their mom, who’s as much a victim as they are) love each other fiercely and look out for each other. When Mukunda, then 15, starts venturing out on his own without permission, it begins a chain of events in the household as the boys start to question the wisdom of their father’s decisions and stand up to his edicts. By the end of the film, Mukunda has moved out, the others have also started going out on their own and one has even found himself a girlfriend. In short, they’re acting like adolescent boys moving into manhood and even Oscar seems disposed to letting nature take its course.

This is a story that is likely to keep the audience engaged throughout; the boys are terrific subjects and while one is prone to continue asking oneself “How could this happen?” Unfortunately, the filmmakers sabotage their own story in the editing process. The interviews by the filmmakers are interwoven with home video from the family; for recreation, the boys recreate their favorite movies on video, allowing them to enter the worlds that the movies have created for them, so with home-made props they make startlingly clever and inventive recreations and at the film’s end, an original movie of their own.

The problem is that there is no context here; we just get the family’s viewpoint and really don’t get anything else to support or oppose it. We are told that some of the boys are seeing therapists; we don’t get an interview with any sort of expert to talk about what sorts of issues the boys could be facing. That kind of testimony would have only augmented the film.

Not only that and even more egregiously, the interviews bounce around in time; we are never really sure when in the process the interviews are taking place and only near the end when some of the boys defiantly get their hair cut do we realize we are looking at more recent footage. It’s frustrating for the viewer in that a story that should be fairly linear jumps around; there are references to somewhat important events but only one (an incident in which the police broke down the door on suspicion that there were weapons in the apartment when it was just the boys making a movie that involved prop guns) is ever explained or discussed.

The Angulo boys (their sister is developmentally disabled) are slowly integrating themselves into the world and reportedly five of the six are no longer on speaking terms with their father. We don’t hear much from Oscar, other than a kind of half-handed shrug that he made a few mistakes. There are intimations that he is alcoholic and physically abusive, although nothing is really discussed overtly; the boys refer to it, but there is no follow-up.

The movie is meant to be inspiring and it is. We see the boys on a trip to a rural apple orchard and pumpkin patch and their wonder at seeing the countryside firsthand is joyful. We also see the dynamics have changed within the family; Oscar is walking hand in hand with Visnu and Susanne who want to see what her boys are up to. Oscar isn’t interested; finally Susanne breaks her hands free of Oscar and walks alone to find her boys, which she does. Visnu and Oscar are alone.

This is an interesting documentary that could have been a powerful, important documentary with some judicious editing and a little more focus. Moselle didn’t really delve into the more difficult subjects having to do with the imprisonment; how did child protective services not intervene on this case? And quite frankly, it’s likely they did and found that the children were well adjusted and normal in every respect, but with their own peculiar and creative view of the world outside their walls and concluded there was no need to change anything but we are left only with speculation. I can recommend it, but not as much as I would have liked to.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing story. The brothers are engaging, creative and charismatic.
REASONS TO STAY: Poorly edited. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moselle met Mukunda on one of his unauthorized jaunts outside and persuaded the family to let her have access so she could tell their story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cub

Trainwreck


Tea for two.

Tea for two.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson, Dave Attell, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Ezra Miller, Evan Brinkman, Mike Birbiglia, Norman Lloyd, LeBron James, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Method Man, Tim Meadows, Nikki Glaser, Matthew Broderick, Marv Albert, Chris Evert, Rachel Feinstein. Directed by Judd Apatow

Romantic comedies are beginning to get a terrible reputation among both critics and filmgoers alike. For the past decade or so, Hollywood has churned out mass-produced paint-by-numbers rom-coms that are as predictable as Republicans opposing whatever the President proposes. After a while, people get tired of the same, stale old thing.

Apatow has been one of the most successful directors, writers and producers of comedies in roughly the same period. He has done coming-of-age comedies as well as yes, romantic comedies and has become a money-making machine for the studios to a certain extent. He has specialized in outrageous humor with a somewhat over-the-top attitude towards comedy, with a regular stable of actors including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, his wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

&None of them appear in his latest, which in an unusual move for Apatow is not written by him but by star Amy Schumer. Schumer is a somewhat controversial comic who went from Last Comic Standing to the hit Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer. Her humor is somewhat raunchy and is unashamed of the comic’s own sexuality, which is in-your-face. If a guy comic did that, it would be taken in stride but when a woman does that people just lose their minds but Schumer has become something of a poster child for being her own woman and not really giving a rat’s fig about what other people think.

Here, she plays Amy, a writer for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff which specializes in stories like “Are you gay or is she just bored?” and take a fairly cynical look at modern man-dom. When her dad (Quinn), a serial philanderer, divorced her mom, he drove home the point that monogamy is unrealistic. Young Amy took that to heart and has kept relationships to a minimum. She’s kinda seeing Steven (Cena), a cross-fit guy but when she’s not going to the movies with him she’s getting drunk and having sex with a parade of guys whom she wants nothing else from and there certainly are plenty of those sorts of guys in Manhattan for her to choose from.

She banters with her sister Kim (Larson) who is married to a sweet but somewhat vanilla guy (Birbiglia) who has a demonically polite son (Brinkman) from a previous relationship. She also has a homeless friend (Attell) who hangs out near her apartment. Her boss (Swinton) is a Brit with an attitude who is sort of a low-rent Ricky Gervais; she assigns Amy to do a piece on Dr. Aaron Conners (Hader), a sports medicine specialist who is getting ready to try a radical new surgery for knee injuries that cuts the recovery time in half.

Amy isn’t really the right person for this particular job; she doesn’t know anything about sports and doesn’t really want to, but she and the Doc hit it off and before too long his best buddy LeBron James (himself) is urging Dr. Conners to call her back. They couldn’t be more of an odd couple; she’s an uptight party girl, he’s a laidback stay-at-home guy; she is cynical and occasionally cruel; he’s optimistic and wants to help people; she’s a loose cannon, he’s a little too tightly wound. Of course they’re going to fall in love.

To the movie’s detriment, it follows the typical rom-com formula pretty much from there; one of them has to overcome a personal tragedy. The two eventually split up because they can’t communicate. They both mope around, missing each other horribly (one of the best scenes in the movie is LeBron James organizing an intervention for Dr. Conners with Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert providing the play-by-play) and eventually, one of them making a grand gesture to bring them back together again.

The difference here is that the gender roles are switched; Amy is the one who needs to grow up and it will take the love of a great sensitive guy to help her do it, rather than the guy being the one who is tamed by a beautiful, patient girl. I suppose that’s considered thinking outside the box in some circles, but for me, this is merely the same running back in a different jersey.

Fortunately there are some fine performances around her, particularly Colin Quinn as her douchebag of a dad, Cena as her musclebound but sensitive boyfriend, and James who shows impressive comic timing in his first feature film. And quite frankly, there are some really good laughs here, and Schumer is often at the center of them.

I didn’t fall in love with this movie like a lot of my friends and colleagues have. That’s not to say I didn’t like it – I did – but only up to a point. It’s more a matter of personal taste for me and your opinion is likely to differ. Schumer is not really my cup of tea as a standup comic so that’s something that you’ll need to take into account. There are plenty of people who find her funny as all get out and that’s cool by me; I’m more of a Ron Funches kind of guy these days. If you like her humor, you’re going to love this. If you don’t, you’re less likely to. If you’re not sure, Google her and find a video of her stand-up performances or an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. If you find either of these funny, then head out and buy your ticket at the multiplex. I’ll go on record as saying it’s funny enough to see, but not the funniest summer comedy of the past few years by any stretch.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny in some places. Supporting cast superb.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally uncomfortable. If Schumer is not your cup of tea, you may find this unpalatable.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality galore, some nudity, crude language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lloyd, who plays a friend of Amy’s dad at the assisted living facility, is 100 years old – he was once a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What’s Your Number?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wolfpack

Infamous (2006)


Capote's flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

Capote’s flamboyant tastes are reflected in his sumptuous Manhattan apartment.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Warner Independent) Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Lee Pace, Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, John Benjamin Hickey, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Panes, Frank Curcio, Terri Bennett, Marco Perella, Libby Vellari, Terri Zee. Directed by Douglas McGrath

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” but sometimes the truth is the good story. In the hands of a master storyteller, the truth can be the most powerful weapon of all.

Novelist and raconteur Truman Capote (Jones) is the toast of New York. Effeminate, flamboyant and the man everyone wanted at their parties,  he lived and moved effortlessly among the social elite of Manhattan in the 1950s,, counting Babe Paley (Weaver), wife of CBS chairman William and fashion icon Diana Vreeland (Stevenson) among his very best friends and confidantes. It was an endless parade of cocktail parties, power lunches and acclaim for his essays and novels. He was one of the few openly homosexual men able to live pretty much as he chose, with a lover (Hickey) who essentially allowed him to have sex with whomever he chose. He lived at the center of the world and knew it.

One morning a story nearly buried in the newspaper caught his attention; Family of Four Slain in Home. The Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas had been brutally murdered, apparently without struggle and without anything taken from the home. The police were baffled and the town was deeply disturbed by so horrible a crime occurring in their midst. On impulse, Capote decides to go to Kansas to cover the murder but moreover its effect on the town. To aid him, he brings his childhood friend Harper Lee (Bullock) whose own novel To Kill a Mockingbird had just been published.

Once he gets there, the outrageous Capote fits in like a clown at a funeral. The dour district attorney Dewey (Daniels) isn’t inclined to grant the diminutive Capote special access and most of the other reporters make him the butt of their jokes. To his chagrin, Capote is mistaken for a woman on more than one occasion. Finally, with the charm of Southern belle Lee, he begins to make some headway among the suspicious Midwesterners, with tales of his dealings with Hollywood celebrities. That’s when the murderers are caught.

At first, they seem an odd pair. Richard Hickock (Pace) is loud and boisterous, young and terribly over his head. Perry Smith (Craig) is taciturn and sullen, almost paranoid. He knows what the future holds for him, and it is not rosy. The only control he has is whether or not he is exploited for the ends of others, and he thinks Capote smells of it. Capote, on the other hand, has astutely seen that the focus of the book has to change; from the effect of the murders on the townspeople, to something completely new and revolutionary; a true crime story told with the tools of a novel. In order to make it work, he needs the co-operation of the accused killers. While Hickock, with the promise of money, is eager to oblige, Smith refuses. Capote tries to woo them with porn and later, with literature. Slowly, grudgingly, Capote gets Smith to soften. Eventually the two are confiding in each other, but with the gallows looming over the two killers, Capote finds himself in an awful position as he writes what will be a classic novel – In Cold Blood.

Jones, who at the time was best known as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter series is truly a revelation here. He doesn’t just portray Capote, he inhabits the role as closely as an actor can. He is utterly believable from the moment he steps on-camera, and while Phillip Seymour Hoffman may have gotten the Oscar for essentially the same part, Jones may have actually delivered the superior performance. It doesn’t hurt that he physically resembles the late author.

Craig plays a decidedly un-Bond-like character. His Perry Smith is prone to fits of rage but is full of genuine remorse. He is the kind of man that can slip a pillow under a frightened boy’s head to make him comfortable, then shoot him in the head with a shotgun at point blank range moments later. Craig brings the role to life, making the notorious convicted killer as human as someone capable of that kind of horror can be. Bullock, who has been doing some of the best acting of her career in recent years (Crash and The Blind Side for example) is again excellent here as the shy, reclusive Lee who is capable of warmth and charm but seems more comfortable in Capote’s shadow, even though she was certainly his equal as a writer. Daniels, Pace, Weaver and Stevenson deliver strong performances in small roles.

The bleakness of small-town Kansas in winter contrasts with the bright sophistication of New York City, and the production design team does an excellent job bringing both locations to life. Director McGrath doesn’t resort to gimmicks to tell his story as recent movies set in this time period often do, but rather prefers to allow the story to tell itself, feeling that the story is sufficient. That’s a wise choice.

The movie had the great misfortune to be released after Capote. It unfortunately suffers from the comparison and while in many ways it’s a better movie, in many ways it isn’t as good – the Hoffman film has a bit more depth to it as Infamous essentially concentrates on a short period in Capote’s life whereas Capote gives us more perspective of who the author was as a person.

The recreation of the murders is a bit intense and there is a sexual encounter between Capote and another man that may be a bit much for the impressionable. Otherwise, you should absolutely see this movie, I say. Yes, some will say it covers the same ground as Capote – and it does – but let’s face it, this takes a far different approach to the subject than Capote did, and Jones’ performance is so authentic that you should see the film just for that. This is one of those hidden gems that got almost no notice during its initial theatrical release, overshadowed by a bigger star and better promotion; I can’t recommend this enough.

WHY RENT THIS: A career-defining performance by Jones. Strong supporting cast. McGrath wisely allows the story to stand on its own.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks context.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a fair amount of foul language, some violence and brief sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sigourney Weaver’s first film role was in Annie Hall which also featured the real Truman Capote.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.6M on a $13M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capote
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Into the Grizzly Maze