Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

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Snatched (2017)


Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn get a look at the reviews.

(2017) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Randall Park, Oscar Jaenada, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Al Madrigal, Bashir Salahuddin, Arturo Castro, Raven Goodwin, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Dippold, Moani Hara, Nicholas J. Lockwood, Pedro Haro, Tom Choi, Modesto Cordero, Linda Molina, Kim Caramele. Directed by Jonathan Levine

 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; comedy is a highly personal thing. Everyone’s taste is different. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s meh and vice versa. We all react differently to different stimuli and what tickles our funny bones can’t necessarily be predicted. I know there are things I find funny one day that I wonder what on earth I was thinking the next. Still, there are things that we can universally agree on are not as funny as others.

Take this Mothers Day comedy. Emily Middleton (Schumer) is failing at life. Fired from her retail job, dumped by her musician boyfriend and left holding the bag on a non-refundable vacation to Ecuador – Ecuador? – she searches desperately for someone to go with on the “trip of a lifetime” (Ecuador?) but none of her friends are particularly interested in going or more to the point, interested in going with her. Judging on the behavior we observe in the first ten minutes of the film, one can scarcely blame them.

With almost no options available, she turns to her mother Linda (Hawn), an adventure-challenged cat lady of a mom who is happiest staying at home with a glass of wine and a book. One has to wonder why, particularly since Emily’s agoraphobic and passive-aggressively spoiled younger brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz) lives with mom, whom he addresses as “Ma-mah” and complains loudly if his bread isn’t warm enough. Millennials *eyeroll*!

Emily manages to convince Linda to go but it promises to be as awkward as you can imagine. Linda bundles up like a mummy by the pool and slathers Emily with enough SPF-1000 to deflect a flamethrower. Linda also shows no interest in going out partying so Emily goes by herself and is picked up by the handsome and charming James (Bateman). One simply can’t fathom what he could possibly see in her until of course it turns out his interest is strictly financial.

He arranges for Linda and Emily to be kidnapped by a ponytailed drug lord named Morgado (Jaenada) for white slavery purposes. However, the two intrepid women escape from Morgado’s essentially brain-dead  thugs and hook up with an Indiana Jones wannabe named Roger Simmons (Meloni) whose wilderness experience is limited to being the former manager at a Best Buy. With Jeffrey trying to get the U.S. Embassy to mount a rescue and the women trying to make their way back to civilization with an enraged Morgado in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta, the jungle might not be the safest place to be.

On paper, this should have worked. A strong cast led by the redoubtable Hawn who reminds us here why she was one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and a director who has some pretty quality films on his resume with a writer who co-wrote some of Melissa McCarthy’s best movies all lead to the assumption that this should have been a high quality film. Sadly, it Is not.

Hawn is one of the bright spots here although Schumer acquits herself reasonably well in a thankless role that mainly consists of the actress going from one onscreen embarrassment to the next. Schumer is one of the most talented comedic actresses working today but this feels like the character was cobbled together from dozens of other characters Schumer has played over the years. There’s nothing really original for her to sink her teeth into.

Poor Barinholtz, generally a pretty reliable character actor, gives his all to a character who you just want to punch in the throat at nearly every opportunity but the character is so inherently unlikable that you don’t care if he improves himself or not. Likewise the Emily character starts off basically as a self-involved bitch but as she spends more time with her mom becomes softer and more humble. Schumer is likable enough that even in an unlikable role we end up rooting for her but the transformation is fairly cliché.

The major sin here is that the comic set pieces – and the movie literally one set piece after another after another – are mostly unfunny. You don’t expect everything to work but you would hope at least 50% worked. That’s not the case here. Most of the gags here left me completely flat. There are some that work – and a lot of them are in the trailer – but there are fewer that work than don’t.

Hawn is really the reason to see this movie, particularly if you’re of a certain age. She’s not the Cactus Flower at this stage of her career but she still has deft comic timing and a screen persona that is both ditzy and charming. Schumer and her have a pretty comfortable chemistry that makes one wonder/hope that there might be further collaborations for the two in the future. If there is, one hopes they get better material to work with than this.

REASONS TO GO: It is wonderful to see Hawn onscreen again who remains an engaging screen personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is dreadfully unfunny in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity, plenty of profanity and some sexual content of the crude variety.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hawn’s first movie since 2002 when she made The Banger Sisters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grandma
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (about 4 of which is Hawn)
NEXT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

All We Had


Have a Coke and a smile.

Have a Coke and a smile.

(2016) Drama (Gravitas) Katie Holmes, Stefania Owen, Richard Kind, Luke Wilson, Mark Consuelos, Eve Lindley, Siobhan Fallon, Katherine Reis, Judy Greer, Richard Petrocelli, Odiseas Georgiadis, Michael Cavadias, Lolita Foster, Tim Markham, Osh Ghanimah, Randy Gonzalez, Milly Guzman, Rahmel Long, John McLaughlin, Amelie McKendry, Aly Brier. Directed by Katie Holmes

 

Statistically speaking, women make up the majority of the poverty class. Statistics however do not tell us the entire story. Each number on that sheet is a person, a person with a story and a person who has been under unimaginable stress. Unimaginable…unless you’ve lived it.

Rita (Holmes) hasn’t exactly had a sterling track record when it comes to men. She’s made a lot of bad choices and now, in 2008, she is fleeing her latest boyfriend disaster along with her 15-year-old daughter Ruthie (Owen). She sells her TV set and hits the road, hoping to make it to Boston where she and her daughter dream of having a two-story house with a pool. Given that the economy is about to crash and burn, it isn’t a very realistic dream but it is a dream nonetheless.

The two shoplift when they need to until the car finally gives out in a small town. A kind-hearted diner owner named Marty (Kind) goes the compassionate route when Rita and Ruthie fail at the dine and dash scam and gives Rita a job waitressing along with his transgender niece Peter Pam (Lindley).

Ruthie turns out to be quite the smart cookie and shows signs of doing really well in school, but tries to fit in with the wrong crowd. Rita hooks up with an unscrupulous realtor (Consuelos) who puts her in a foreclosure house; Rita doesn’t realize the terms of her mortgage are predatory and as business begins to dry up at the diner as the town is hit by unemployment and foreclosures, Rita and Ruthie realize they are about to lose their home.

Still, there is Lee (Wilson), an alcoholic widower who is also the town dentist who has taken a shine to Rita, whose former beau has since hit the road. Rita, who has a history of running away at the first sign of trouble, wants to stay in town. Ironically it is Ruthie, who has been the more mature one in the relationship, who wants to leave. Rita is finally getting her act together and recognizing her own issues, but is it enough and in time to salvage her relationship with Ruthie?

This is Katie Holmes directing debut and while it isn’t particularly an auspicious one she doesn’t disgrace herself either. The movie is pretty much shot by the numbers which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The mistake a lot of first-time directors make is trying too hard to make a mark by using unusual shot setups or narratives. While the narration by Owen is occasionally off-putting, the story is told in a straightforward manner which is at least from this quarter well-received.

There is more than a passing physical resemblance between Holmes and Owen; they look very much like mother and daughter (although the running joke in the movie is that they are mistaken for sisters) which does a lot to add to the realism. One of the things I like about the script is that Ruthie isn’t as worldly as she thinks she is, which again is somewhat realistic when looking at teens, particularly teen girls. The roles of the two women move towards each other; as the movie begins, Ruthie is the mature one. As the movie ends, it is Rita who has that mark.

You’re not used to seeing Holmes in this kind of role; it is gritty and often unpleasant. She wears too-short skirts on dates and blue eyeliner without a whole lot of other make-up; it’s kind of a white trash look. It isn’t the most attractive you’ll see Ms. Holmes, but it is a challenging role for her and I for one am glad to see her stretching a bit, even if she had to direct herself in order to do it.

Kind is one of those actors we tend to take for granted; he always seems to reflect a real honest humanity that genuinely makes me like him. It’s nice to see him have a meatier role than he usually gets. Wilson also is one of those genuinely nice-guy actors who when he gets a chance to play one seems to hit it out of the ballpark and he does so here. In a movie in which Rita starts off a cynic “trust nobody” sort, it’s a smart move for Holmes to pepper her cast with actors who reflect genuine warmth and goodness.

It should also be noticed that the film deals with the transgender issue pretty honestly if a bit over-the-top. There’s a fairly shocking scene in which some of Peter Pam’s tormentors go to the next level. It is a situation all too many transgenders have to face in reality, a situation that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon particularly now.

One of the big problems with the movie is that the pacing is uneven. Some scenes feel rushed and seem to fly by; others seem to stretch out for uncomfortably long periods. A surer hand in the editing bay might have helped here. Also, the script doesn’t benefit by seeing all the major issues that Rita and Ruthie face getting neatly solved one after the other. Anyone who has lived hand to mouth as these ladies do will tell you that it really doesn’t work that way in real life. Some problems don’t have neat solutions.

I don’t know that Holmes has a bright future as a director, but I think she might. Certainly she made a movie that is entirely watchable and while it isn’t perfect, she acquits herself pretty well as a first-timer. I do like the point of view that she takes as a filmmaker and I like that she’s willing to take risks as an actress. I hope that she plays it a little less safe next time as a director.

REASONS TO GO: An unflinching look at women in poverty. This is a very different role for Holmes.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is somewhat erratic. Problems are too easily solved here which isn’t very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Anne Weatherwax novel this is based on was endorsed by no less than Oprah Winfrey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mermaids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Stevie D

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)


Rocking out, Tunisian style.

Rocking out, Tunisian style.

(2015) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Baya Medhaffar, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Lassad Jamoussi, Aymen Omrani, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana, Najoua Malhouthi, Younes Ferhi, Fathi Akkeri, Saloua Mohamed, Kais Klaia, Touafik Hammami, Wajdi Cherif, Jamil Najjar, Walid Ben Khlifa, Mourad Garsali, Mhadheb Rmili, Nacib Barhoumi, Habib Ghzel. Directed by Leyla Bouzid

 

In the fire of youth we sometimes find the seeds of change. In 2010, Tunisia was ruled by the despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who controlled the citizenry through fear; secret police regularly seized citizens and police informants meant you never knew who to trust. Any sort of criticism of the regime was unthinkable.

Farah (Medhaffar) is an 18-year-old girl with a bright future. She had been accepted into medical school, which made her mother Hayet (Benali) extraordinarily proud as well as her father (Jamoussi) who works in the mines in Gafsa where those seeds of revolution are beginning to bloom.

But Farah has a voice and she’s a member of a band along with her boyfriend Borhéne (Ayari), a sensitive hipster sort who writes most of the lyrics and plays the lute – a Tunisian guitar. He encourages her to do her own thing, which in a repressive conservative culture like that of Tunisia is unheard of for women.

As Farah grows more independent, she and her mother become more at odds. Hayet is concerned that her daughter is throwing away her future for transitory pleasures, plus she hears from an ex-lover who now is a sleazy government functionary that her daughter is drinking in men-only bars and has been seen making out with her boyfriend. Hayet reacts as most mothers would, forbidding her daughter from continuing her music career. Like most daughters, Farah ignores her mother.

Borhéne has written some pretty subversive lyrics for Farah to sing and she sings them passionately; the music attracts the attention of the police who begin following the members of the band and engaging in subtle intimidation. The pressures begin to take their toll on Farah whose relationship with Borhéne begins to fray. As Tunisia inches closer to revolution, Farah treads on dangerous grounds but like a dancer on thin ice continues to pirouette even as the ice cracks beneath her.

Taking place a few months before the Jasmine Revolution would oust Ben Ali from power Bouzid has crafted an energetic, life-filled movie that carries with it the passions of the young and perhaps the naiveté of the young as well. Farah is willful, sometimes to a fault and her idealism clashes with the conservatism of her mother. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that Farah and Hayet are much more alike than not and it is their relationship that is surprisingly at the center of the film, not that of Borhéne and Farah.

There is some misogyny present here and Bouzid approaches it directly and without rancor; it is part of the culture that women don’t have the same rights and the same dreams as men. There is one point where at a party that Farah is dancing joyously with the male members of the band that Borhéne takes exception to; “You’re embarrassing me,” he growls before stalking off to flirt with another woman, perhaps to infuriate his girlfriend – which it does. These are the games of the young, are they not?

And yet Bouzid is not unsympathetic; the men here are mainly victims of their own upbringing but still, she doesn’t sugarcoat the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards women. She remembers well the fear-ridden society that was Tunisia in those days and recreates the furtive looks, the fearful glances, the body language of a population rigid with worry. It is something most of us can’t really understand because there is no understanding it if you haven’t lived it for yourself; consequently some of the actions of the characters here may seem confusing or difficult to understand to American viewers.

The music is important and I have to admit I dug it. It combines Arab Mezwed with rock, propelling the seductive sounds with a rock beat and a kind of club attitude. There are also the lyrics which while flowery in the style of Arab poetry but describe the frustration of those living under the boot of a tyrant. The one complaint I have is that there are too many musical interludes; the film might have benefitted from cutting one or two of them (the songs are largely played through to completion which might be a bit of a shock to impatient American audiences who are generally given just snippets of performances in movies).

However, it must also be said that Medhaffar lights up in the stage sequences. Her smile is energetic and contagious. Her curly hair flies up from her head like a grenade going off and her body writhes sensually onstage. She is pretty enough an actress; in these sequences she’s beautiful. Benali is better known in Tunisia as a singer but she delivers an emotionally charged performance that in many ways is more resonant than that of Medhaffar. There’s a sequence when Benali is distraught and looking for her daughter in a bus station; it captures the love and the despair of parenthood that is universal to anyone who has a kid.

The movie takes place in places that aren’t found in the guidebooks of Tunis. It is seedy at times but in an unapologetic way, much like American movies that take place in bars and taverns. It is not a part of our culture that we’re proud of but it is part of our culture nonetheless. Bouzid is most certainly an appealing voice and while her debut feature film isn’t perfect, it is striking and leads me to look forward to her upcoming films. This is a director to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO GO: The film is full of life and energy. Medhaffar really sparkles on stage. It is gratifying to see a movie set in the day to day of Tunisia.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is on the slow side. Some of the subtleties of Tunisian culture are lost on American audiences which may lead to some confusion. Too many musical numbers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and brief partial nudity, a bit of profanity, some drug use and a ton of smoking and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was inspired by actual events in the life of Bouzid, who founded a cinema club during the Ben Ali era and discovered that one of her closest friends in it was a police informer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Juno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Imperium

Mad (2016)


Madness is often preceded by a smile.

Madness is often preceded by a smile.

(2016) Dramedy (Caterpillar Event) Jennifer Lafleur, Maryann Plunkett, Eilis Cahill, Mark Reeb, Conor Casey, Chris Doubek, Nathan Harlan, Shaun Weiss, Robert G. Putka, Claire McNulty, David Sullivan, Ty Gebler, Avery Gebler, Ern Gerardo, Spencer Tuckerman, Lyndon Casey, Lori Allen, Debbie Scarletta. Directed by Robert G. Putka

Florida Film Festival 2016

A lot of us, at one time or another, are convinced that our parents are crazy. Once in awhile, it turns out to be true.

Mel (Plunkett) has lost it a little. Freshly divorced, she has become more than a handful that her adult daughters Connie (Lafleur) and Casey (Cahill) just can’t handle. Connie is the “responsible” one, an executive for a financial firm with a husband and child, not to mention a kind of shrewish demeanor. She interrogates her mother more than converses with her. Casey, on the other hand, is the “artistic” one, who has floated through life without really settling on a career or a relationship. She’s sweet natured but she is often bullied by her older sister.

So the two daughters, basically unable or unwilling to take care of their mother who has some emotional issues, have her committed to a care facility where she can get the help she needs but before you think “right thing to do,” their motivations might not necessarily be pure; it may be the right thing to do in many ways but it’s also the convenient thing to do for both of them.

So the two daughters go on their merry while mom goes through bouts of intense loneliness and feelings of abandonment while enduring group therapy and living among people who are in far more dire straits emotionally/mentally speaking than she is. While this is going on, both girls are undergoing radical changes in their lives; one is becoming much more level-headed and mature, the other ready to face the music for her own indiscretions. How does mom fit into their equations now?

This isn’t one of those movies that are a comfortable viewing. It pushes you and challenges you. Connie is a flat-out bitch at times while Casey will drive you crazy with her mousy behaviors. Even Mel, who sometimes seems befuddled, isn’t always the nicest and most identifiable character ever. How much you like this movie is going to depend a lot on your tolerance for spending time with people who aren’t always likable.

Now that’s not something I mind per se; I’ve had wonderful experiences with plenty of movies whose characters were people I wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes interacting with in real life. I don’t mind imperfect. What I do mind is predictable. The movie’s plot twists aren’t all that much of a stretch and the big one involving Connie is the only one I really didn’t see coming, but even that one was, once it hit, fairly pedestrian in its outcome. For movies like this to work, I need an element of surprise.

Another bone to pick is that I don’t think the writers did their research very well. The crime they described, for one thing, is not called trade rigging; it is called insider trading and it is not an anti-trust issue, which it is depicted as in the film. Any financial professional could have told them that insider trading is a securities fraud issue.

While a few scenes (particularly those showing Connie at home with her family) seemed a bit padded, overall the pacing is handled well and the transitions from one portion of the film to the next are handled with some finesse. What stands out about the movie is that it really drills down into the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships and creates some real, organic ties between Mel and her two daughters. Unfortunately the situations seem a little bit contrived and I would have preferred the characters to be a bit more realistic.

There are people I respect who found this to be one of the better films presented at this year’s Florida Film Festival and I can kind of see where they’re coming from, but the flaws I perceived were too much for the movie’s strengths to overcome. I think that there are some good films in Putka, but for me, this one will act more as a stepping stone to better movies in his career.

REASONS TO GO: Really captures the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships. The transitions from scene to scene work nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes of domestic bliss are a bit long. A bit on the predictable side and occasionally seems a bit emotionally flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality including sexual references as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of Putka whose prior seven short films had all been rejected by Slamdance before the feature was accepted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Babushkas of Chernobyl

Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

Wild


Reese Witherspoon thinks she's found a place without paparazzi but she's keeping an eye out anyway.

Reese Witherspoon thinks she’s found a place without paparazzi but she’s keeping an eye out anyway.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.

Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.

The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.

There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?

Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.

Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.

Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.

The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.

While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.

REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies