Landline


Even at a teppanyaki restaurant family dinners can get awkward.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chronically Metropolitan


Writing and hangovers go hand in hand.

(2016) Dramedy (Paladin) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Benson, Addison Timlin, Josh Peck, Chris Noth, Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Lowell, Sosie Bacon, Nasser Faris, Norm Golden, Rhys Coiro, Max Curnin, Craig Newman, Luca Surguladze, Whitney Vance, Al Thompson, Victor Cruz, Andres Arellano, Antoinette Kalaj, Alex Oliver, Meredith Travers, Ana Valdes. Directed by Xavier Manrique

 

Writers are an odd lot. We have wonderful powers of observation, very often able to discern truths about those we observe that they might not expect. We are also self-centered; writing is by its nature a solitary endeavor. All of us, every one, is ruled by the tyranny of the blank page.

Fenton (Fernandez) is the son of one such writer and professor who has been a leading light in the New York City literary world and a fixture on the Upper East Side. When Fenton’s dad (Noth) is involved in a car accident in which drugs and extramarital sex played a role, his whole family is put under an enormous microscope – the accident winds up front page material in the New York Post (“They never paid this much attention when I won my National Book Award” he grouses).

Fenton had been living in San Francisco the past year. A talented writer in his own right, he had gotten a story published in The New Yorker which his then-girlfriend Jessie (Benson) had assumed was about her and her family. It led to a nasty break-up and to Fenton’s exile, as he puts it. Now he’s back, trying to mend fences with Jessie who is on the eve of her wedding to Victor (Lowell), an art gallery owner whose family is stupid rich. Fenton’s dad assumes that’s why the nuptials are impending.

Fenton’s mom (Parker) has retreated into a marijuana-scented haze trying to dull the edges of her pain and embarrassment. His sister Layla (Addison Timlin) is basically angry at everybody and carrying on a hidden relationship with Fenton’s best buddy (and mom’s pot supplier) John (Peck). Fenton has a deal for a novel based on the success of his New Yorker story but when he sits down to write it that blank page stares back at him accusingly. He hasn’t been able to move on from all the upheaval and with his parents essentially on the verge of divorce, he is getting overwhelmed and acting out. Can he put his life back together under the microscope of New York literary society?

This is the kind of movie that plays to the prejudices of non-New Yorkers, characterizing them as pretentious self-centered spoiled rich pricks. Everyone in the movie and I do mean everyone has some sort of neuroses going on. As for actual New Yorkers, this is the kind of movie that sets their teeth on edge. Certainly there are people who behave this way – those prejudices had to start from somewhere – but it isn’t really true to life anymore.

For one thing, a story in the New Yorker isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect on families that it once did. In this day and age of social media, a family’s skeletons are likely to be aired on Facebook long before the dirty laundry is made into a short story or a novel. Regards to the New Yorker, a publication that is worthy of respect but while it continues to carry a lot of clout, I don’t think that it can cause that kind of personal chaos any longer. At least, that’s what I hear.

This feels like a movie cobbled together from a lot of different movies; Fenton wanting to stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, a family at each other’s throats due to a work of fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography, a philandering father who is a writer, a mother who is self-medicating, an angry sibling – I could go on but why bother? This is all fairly safe, fairly familiar territory and most of you who have watched more than a few indie films set in Manhattan are going to recognize it.

Noth channels Rip Torn here and does a fairly stellar job in a role of an utter S.O.B. which Torn used to essentially own. Noth, who generally plays nice guys, does an admirable job here. Parker, a terrific actress who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is wasted in a generic role. In fact, most of the women here have very little depth to their parts. This is certainly a case where the script could have used a woman’s touch.

Cinematographer Scott Miller does a bang-up job of using the city as a character; one gets the sense of the ebb and flow of New York. Despite the shallowness of most of the characters, one senses a genuine love for the city from all of the filmmakers. That does go a long way.

Sadly this is far too generic and far too cliché to really attract much notice. There are some good ideas here but for the most part the writing takes safe, established routes rather than blazing new trails. There’s nothing here that seems to have much of a voice – and that’s essential to a film like this. It’s okay as far as it goes, but I would have liked a lot more than okay.

REASONS TO GO: The film is skillfully shot and features New York City nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Indie clichés abound here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of drug and alcohol use and some sex and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker, whose character here has developed a marijuana habit, also played a pot smoker in the TV series Weeds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Landline

Double Life (Nijû seikatsu)


It always feels like somebody’s watching.

(2016) Drama (Star Sands) Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Franky, Aoba Kawai, Yukiko Shinihara, Shohel Uno, Yukino Kishii, Naomi Nishida, Setsuko Karasuma, Ryuju Kobayashi. Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi

 

There is a certain thrill to observing other people unseen. There is an implied intimacy, seeing people as they truly are when they are sure nobody else is watching. That is how they reveal what makes us human – or at least so goes the theory as voiced by noted French photographer and writer Sophie Calle.

Tama Shiraishi (Kadowaki) is a grad student working on her master’s thesis. She lives with her boyfriend videogame designer Takuya (Suda) in a modest apartment in suburban Tokyo. They do have morning sex from time to time but they are distant from one another, showing little affection for each other. It can be chalked up to the business of their lives; Takuya is up against some looming deadlines for his upcoming game, Tama is consumed with her thesis on the meaning of being human which isn’t going very well.

Her professor, Shinohara (Franky) is a feared presence around the philosophy department of the university but he is soft-spoken and surprisingly helpful to Tama. When she proves to be too shy to distribute a questionnaire to 100 people, Shinohara – seeing the Calle book on his desk – is inspired to suggest that Tama observe a single person without their knowledge and use her observations as the basis of her thesis.

Tama chooses Ishizaka (Hasegawa), a neighbor who seems to be perfectly happy. A successful book publisher, he lives with his gorgeous wife and adorable daughter across the street from Tama – she can watch them playing together from her balcony. However, as she tails her subject, she discovers to her surprise that he is having a torrid affair which includes some rather public lovemaking.

The more she tails her subject the more emotionally involved that she gets. As she later describes it, she feels an empty part in herself beginning to get filled up. Her late nights and exhaustion lead Takuya to suspect that it is she having an affair and when Ishizaka’s wife discovers his infidelity, the fallout will not only affect his family but Tama and her boyfriend as well.

This is a film that takes a while to get rolling but once it does the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the interest of the audience. There is a certain cultural element to this – Japanese eroticism is somewhat different than Western eroticism – that makes even ordinary, normal activities seem sexual. The fact that the exterior shots take place in an overcast wintry gloom tends to heighten the feeling of repression as the characters bundle up against the cold.

Kadowaki does a stellar job here playing a character who has difficulty relating to people and prefers not to be the center of attention. Her oversize glasses and frumpy dress make the actress look somewhat plain although she is far from that in reality. However, it suits the character well here as few people give her a second glance including the people she is tailing.

The movie feels a bit long and while it is based on a novel by Mariko Kolke there is an almost soap opera vibe at times. There is a subplot about Professor Shinohara coping with his mother’s final days in the hospital with a new girlfriend (Kawai) which is a complicated situation in itself that tends to convolute the film and pull attention from the main story.

Kishi utilizes handheld camera work during most of the stalking sequences and it does wear on the viewer after awhile since the bulk of the movie is spent watching Tama stalk her academic prey. It is only when the two finally confront each other and Tama admits to some of her own inner demons that the movie gets a real emotional spice to it.

Hamlet’s famous line “To be or not to be” is utilized in several different ways, including in a Japanese play that Tama attends. The point of her thesis is what it means to be human and the idea is that Tama hasn’t really figured that out yet and with the movie opening with a suicide attempt – even though it is dark and chaotic you should be able to figure out who is trying to do themselves in – the “not to be” gets its share of attention as well.

Like many of the films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, there seems to be an infusion of new blood and exciting young directors coming out of Asia right now and Kishi is one of them. While the elements of soap opera and extraneous plot devices do hold the movie back, there is at least enough substance here to make this a worthwhile film to seek out to perhaps give some insight into your own humanity – and how well it would stand up to the scrutiny of constant observation.

REASONS TO GO: There is the allure of voyeurism. The wintry tone of the cinematography enhances the feeling of the film. The theme of being or not being is utilized here better than in most films.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overstays its welcome and is a little bit too close to a soap opera. The stalking scenes contain a little too much handheld camera work for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Kishi and the first lead role in a feature for Kadowaki.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seduction
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: With Prisoners

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight

Pariah (2011)


Adepero Oduye considers her options.

Adepero Oduye considers her options.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis, Charles Parnell, Sahra Mellesse, Kim Wayans, Shamika Cotton, Ray Anthony Thomas, Afton Williamson, Zabryna Guevara, Kim Sykes, Rob Morgan, Nina Daniels, Jeremie Harris, Chanté Lewis, Olithéa Anglin, Joey Auzenne, Jason Dyer, Loren Hankin, Ozzie Stewart. Directed by Dee Rees

Woman Power

Discovering your own identity as a 17-year-old is difficult enough, but throw in that you’re an African-American lesbian into the mix and the obstacles are mind-boggling. Even in a relatively stable middle-class environment, becoming who you are can take the kind of courage that makes Kayla Jenner pale in comparison.

=Alike (Oduye), whose name is pronounced Ah-LEE-kay but is a misnomer because she’s anything but alike the rest of her circle, lives a dual life. The daughter of Arthur (Parnell), a police detective with a somewhat easygoing nature, and Audrey (Wayans), an extremely religious high-strung sort, she is by day a poet, a straight-A student who has earned a scholarship to a college on the West Coast (the family lives in Brooklyn). By night, she’s a budding lesbian who hangs out in a lesbian club with her openly gay friend Laura (Walker), and dresses in the uniform of a butch – loose baggy clothing, men’s underwear, doo-rag and ball cap. She only switches clothes on the bus ride home to avoid confrontation with her parents. She is also seeking to explore her sexual identity; she’s a virgin who really doesn’t want to be one anymore.

Audrey has a suspicion that her daughter might not be arrow-straight and disapproves of her relationship with Laura. Instead, she insists that she spend time with Bina (Davis), who is a devout church-going young woman. At first Alike hangs out with Bina just to placate her mother but soon begins to develop a crush on the young girl. When that leads to an unexpected physical encounter, the results are devastating.

While Audrey has suspicions, Arthur is more sanguine about his daughter’s sexual identity, although he is in complete denial about it. He believes her to be undergoing a phase and doesn’t imagine the depth of her true nature. While Alike has a better relationship with her father than her mother, she is realizing that she can’t live the life she’s leading for much longer. She needs to be who she is – only she’s not sure who that is quite yet.

Rees, who also wrote the film, based it largely on her own experiences as an African-American lesbian growing up in Brooklyn. She shows incredible promise as a filmmaker; the first ten minutes alone, in which she compactly sets up all the narrative you need to know about Akile’s background and circumstances, shows Rees’ background in short films have served her well. She is a bona fide storyteller.

She does occasionally devolve into cliches (particularly in the relationship between Arthur and Audrey) but for the most part she shows a singular voice. And while she sometimes is a bit leaden with her points about acceptance and homophobia within the African-American community, she can hardly be blamed for it in many respects although those who are less accepting of the LGBT community may find it overbearing in places.

That said, Rees gets a wondrous performance from most of her cast but particularly from Oduye on whose young shoulders most of this film rests. Oduye plays her role with immense dignity but also with incredible vulnerability. Alike is a poet with a sure voice but she is far from sure in her relationships even with those closest to her. Like most 17-year-olds, she is just trying to navigate her way through without the experience to help her avoid the rocks hidden under the water and so she occasionally wrecks her boat. Oduye portrays this without the excessive dramatics that other actresses have utilized in similar roles; to my mind she plays it more like an actual 17-year-old. Sure, there are tears but there’s also laughter and joy. This is a fully realized 17-year-old, complete with insecurities and angst galore but not so that’s all there is to her. She has a more difficult road than most but she handles it with such grace that at the end of the day you’d be proud to have her as your own daughter (or sister as the case may be).

This is a wonderfully authentic work of art that will take the viewer on an emotional ride through the life of a 17-year-old girl trying to discover what sort of woman she will be. It is not always easy and yes there are some moments that will be awkward. Not all of us will be able to relate to Alike but most of us should be able to admire her and if not understand her, at least sympathize with her. Hers is a viewpoint that should be experienced and isn’t that why some of us love movies in the first place?

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances from a mostly unknown cast. Powerful and emotional story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally hits the audience over the head with a lead pipe when a feather would have done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is pervasive sexuality and rough language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was first made as an award-winning short with much of the same cast; the original short included Wendell Pierce from The Wire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Featurettes about the importance of wardrobe to the film and to Alike’s self-identity, and a walk through the streets of Brooklyn; also interviews with the cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $769,562 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue is the Warmest Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Woman Power concludes!