At the Video Store


When VHS was king.

(2019) Documentary (ArgotBill Hader, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Ross Perry, Thelma Schoonmaker, Gus Van Sant, Penelope Spheeris, Ondi Timoner, Todd Haynes, Lance Bangs, Ehren McGhehey, Charles Mudede, Danny Peary, Milos Stehlik, Ted Hope, John Sloss, Aaron Hillis, Marty Arno, Zach Clark, Dana Harris, Catherine Tchen. Directed by James Westby

Film critics and film bloggers are also inherently film geeks; we love all things cinematic, whether it be genre films, foreign films, art house mainstays, classic movies, big mindless blockbusters or niche films. For many of us, that love begn in the video store.

Those of a certain age group will remember trips to the video store in the 80s and 90s, which started out largely as mom and pop operations until megachains such as Hollywood Video or, more to the point, Blockbuster Video, took over and put a stranglehold on the industry. Ironically speaking, there is but one Blockbuster store left; there are many more mom and pop stores that remain. That’s what karma is all about.

This documentary is a love letter to those mom and pop stores, where the clerks knew the tastes of their customers well enough that they could confidently recommend esoteric or rare movies. They were places where friendships (and sometimes romances) formed, lively debates ensued (“Was Godard better than Truffaut? Discuss!”) and memories were made.

The movie has lots of talking heads, from those who owned the stores that are fondly remembered or better yet, still in business, to those who went on to make an impact in the film industry themselves. There is a bit of the bittersweet in the overall attitude of the movie as Westby engenders a wistful quality to his nostalgia. They were simpler days indeed, before streaming (and to a lesser extent, Redbox) took over. Not that there is anything wrong with streaming, mind you – it’s the next logical step in home video evolution, but it lacks the personal touch of a video store. A computer recommendation isn’t the same as one coming from a teen kid in a Herschell Gordon Lewis t-shirt who knows the difference between Bloodsucking Freaks and Blood Feast and will tell you that the remake of 2,000 Maniacs is crap. An algorithm can only look at your rental habits and make a recommendation based on subject matter; it doesn’t distinguish between a hidden gem and a piece of trash.

The movie does tend to ramble a bit, and there are some curious choices; a musical interlude, for example. There are some original songs that nicely capture the feel for the old video stores, but they do get distracting after a while. Still, everyone who has ever debated the merits of Todd Solondz versus Paul Thomas Anderson will likely find this delightful. Those who could care less about those sorts of movies will likely feel like they are at a party where they don’t know anybody.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for film nerds.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical number was unnecessary and the music was intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took six years to make; several of the stores depicted went out of business in the meantime.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving Supercon
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Apocalypse ’45

Enough Said


Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

Seinfeld meets the Sopranos.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener, Ben Falcone, Tracey Fairaway, Michaela Watkins, Phillip Brock, Chris Smith, Jessica St. Clair, Lennie Loftin, Tavi Gevinson, Nick Williams, Ivy Strohmaier, Alina Adams, Amy Landecker, Natasha Sky Lipson, Eve Hewson, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

The way Hollywood tells it, the only people who fall in love are young and beautiful. They have the issues of young people, the problems that are part and parcel with just starting out in your life. I guess that actually makes some sense; after all when you’re young you’re supposed to be falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean that the middle aged and the elderly don’t fall in love as well. Into the former category belongs Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) who is an L.A. masseuse who is a divorced mother of one. She lugs her massage table up flights of stairs and dreads the day her daughter Ellen (Fairaway) leaves for college, all the way to New York. Her nest is looking empty indeed.

At a party she meets Albert (Gandolfini), also a single dad who is going through much the same thing she is. At first, he’s not the kind of guy she’d be attracted to normally. He is, as Gilbert Iglesias might put it, a bit fluffy. Still, he has a sweet personality and a good sense of humor. She agrees to go out on a date with him and it goes surprisingly well. Pretty soon they’re doing more than just going out.

At the same party Eva met Marianne (Keener), a poet who she contracted as a client initially. Marianne is in the same boat in many ways as Eva is; a college-age daughter getting ready to leave for the Parsons School of Design. Marianne, like Eva, is divorced but in Marianne’s case she doesn’t have very many pleasant things to say about her ex. He’s a slob, not very good at sex on those occasions Marianne would give in to his whining and give him some. He’s contentious, petulant and neurotic. It doesn’t take too long before Eva figures out that Marianne’s ex is her current beau. However, this is a golden opportunity to find out more about this guy from someone who knows everything there is to know about him so she keeps quiet about her new relationships to both Albert and Marianne. That’s never a good idea.

Holofcener has directed some pretty cool films up to now including Please Give, Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. She has a good sense of making her characters realistic and grounded. Sure Eva can be a little bit flighty and sure, Marianne is a bit of a bitch and absolutely Albert is a lazy disorganized slob (by his own admission) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting characters and more importantly – they aren’t defined by their personality quirks as so many other indie characters are. It’s nice to see so well-rounded personalities in a movie.

Louis-Dreyfus, familiar to most from her stint as Elaine on the legendary Seinfeld show, is still a beauty although it is tempered by her age now. Like many women on just either side of 50, there is a fragility to her body that she hasn’t taken the best care of over the years. She also is quick to smile and quick to frown – she doesn’t have the energy to hide her feelings.

Gandolfini in his last leading role (he played supporting roles in two more films that will see release in the coming months) reaffirms what a treasure he was as an actor. He is the center of the film in many ways – the victim of Eva’s mistrust and untruthfulness and it is he whose heart gets broken. While Albert’s weight excess is a central point of the film (he is relentless chided about it by both Marianne and Eva) for me it’s not THE central point.

There are a couple of subplots that seemed unnecessary – the movie really is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Albert and Eva. I also have to say it is one of those movie that Gene Siskel used to pull his hair over – those conflicts that could be easily resolved by a line of dialogue (“I think your ex is one of my friends”). Then again, I think it’s only human nature to want to find out as much as you can about the person you’re falling for so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that someone in that situation would see the situation as a golden opportunity rather than as a disaster in the making.

These are damaged human beings. They’ve given the heart to someone only to find it wasn’t the right someone. They’re both lonely and afraid and that’s pretty much how all of us go into relationships. I am fortunate in that I haven’t been divorced but I can imagine how much harder it would be to find love once you’ve been burned by it already.

REASONS TO GO: Gandolfini gives you the warm fuzzies. Really good cast allowed to be really good.  Well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: One of those situations that could easily be resolved with a sentence or two. Strays dangerously close to formula.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations, a bit of bad language, partial nudity and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toby Huss, who plays Eva’s ex, also played a man who dated Elaine (also played by Louis-Dreyfus) on the Seinfeld show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Year of the Dog

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Extra Man

Please Give


Please Give

Catherine Keener is amused at one of Oliver Platt's bon mots.

(2010) Black Comedy (Sony Classics) Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Josh Pais, Elise Ivy, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nichols, Scott Cohen, Lois Smith, Amy Wright, Romy Rosemont, Kathleen Doyle, Kevin Corrigan. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Guilt works on us in funny ways. Some of us feel compelled to assuage our guilt by doing things for others, while others simply hide that guilt away and ignore it, much like listening to a long-winded preacher on Sundays. Few of us confront it head-on.

Alex (Platt) and Kate (Keener) own an antique furniture place which is primarily stocked by finds at estate sales, or having Kate find grieving children to buy large amounts of furniture for as little as she can get away with and having Alex sell the pieces for as much as he can get away with. Pretty much typical capitalism.

However, the circumstances work on Kate’s conscience and she tends to give cash and food to the local homeless in her trendy Chelsea neighborhood in New York City much to the irritation of daughter Abby (Steele) who sees little generosity from her mother.

Alex and Kate, eager to expand their small apartment, have managed to purchase the apartment next door which they will eventually knock down the walls to in order to make a larger living space for themselves. The problem is that Audra (Guilbert, who was once Millie the neighbor on The Dick van Dyke show) lives in that apartment currently, so Alex and Kate must wait for her to die in order to start construction. The fact that Audra is a bitch of epic proportions makes this an easier proposition. This also makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Audra’s grandchildren, who have issues of their own.

Rebecca (Hall) is a mammogram technician who is kind enough on the surface, but wishy washy and indecisive deep down. She has been guilt-tripped into caring for Audra who uses her for a verbal punching bag. Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist who appears to be confident and strong but has some anger issues and a sharp tongue that occasionally rears its ugly head.

That’s really it in terms of plot. Holofcener, one of the better American independent directors out there, prefers to deliver slices of life and character studies more than telling a story from beginning through middle to end. There is a resolution of sorts, but the payoff is somewhat low-key and doesn’t really signal any sort of growth or change on the part of any of the people in the cast.

Holofcener, unlike other directors, tends to put more attention on the women of the cast which isn’t to say that Platt doesn’t get much screen time; only that Holofcener tends to pay more attention to the main female parts of Kate, Rebecca, Mary, Audra and Abby. Platt does get some of the better lines in the movie and makes a fine foil for Kate.

Keener, who has worked with Holofcener before, is the main focus here. She talks a good game about compassion and community involvement but she mostly uses these things as a means of making herself feel better because she’s well aware that while she is doing nothing illegal she is clearly in a moral grey area. That calls into question the genuineness of her actions and Abby’s caustic remarks about charity beginning at home at first seem self-centered and teen-centric but as you come to understand Kate’s motivations, Abby’s charges seem to be more right on the money.

Most of the characters aren’t always easy to get along with and Holofcener likes it that way; her characters are presented as being flawed and occasionally stepping over the line of decency (Mary stalks the girlfriends of an ex-boyfriend she can’t get over; Alex has an affair). The relationships are complicated and often muddied by the human frailties of those in them, which is pretty much what real life is all about.

This isn’t strictly speaking 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment but it is the kind of movie that you should find fascinating from beginning to end. Parts of it are painful to watch and others will make you smile in spite of yourself. If you are still thinking about a movie several weeks after you’ve seen it then the director has done his or her job and in my case Holofcener did her job well.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written and well-acted, particularly by Keener, Platt and Peet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not always easy to watch, particularly since most of the character have some sort of hang-up that makes them unlikable for long stretches, particularly in Steele’s case.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, as well as some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spa scenes were shot at Skintology, a chic spa in the Chelsea area of New York City where most of the movie was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel and a director Q&A from a preview screening.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.3M on $3M production budget; it’s unlikely this was profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Micmacs