An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

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The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)


Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

(2013) Dramedy (Janus) Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Sonia Gessner, Anna Della Rosa, Luca Marinelli, Serena Grandi, Ivan Franek, Vernon Dobtcheff, Dario Cantarelli, Luciano Virgilio, Aldo Ralli, Giusi Merli, Giovanna Vignola, Anita Kravos, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

There are those who remember the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini with great fondness. Others look back at his films with annoyance. Fellini wasn’t one to inspire insipid emotions; you either loved his work or you couldn’t stand it. There was no middle ground with him. There hasn’t been a filmmaker like him since and although there have been a few films that could be classified as Fellini-esque, there were none that anyone could really say “this could have been made by Fellini” of. Until now.

Like the film considered to be Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, this film is set in the upper class of Roman society, the wealthy who go to parties that border on the surreal. Middle aged men dance with younger women. Older women dance with younger men. In Rome, the Eternal City, the one thing that isn’t eternal is youth. Those who are losing it hold onto it with their fingernails.

Jep Gambardella (Servillo) is celebrating his 65th birthday and has become aware that his time ahead is growing much less than his time behind. At 26, he had written a novel, The Human Apparatus that established his reputation – but hadn’t written a novel since. He contented himself by being the King of the Roman High Life – the man whose appearance at a party would instantly make it a success. He supports himself by interviewing artistic sorts for his editor, a kindly and wise little person with blue hair. Jep is beginning to suspect he’s wasted his life and determines to stop doing things he doesn’t want to do.

He gets involved in a relationship with an aging stripper named Ramona (Ferilli) that to his surprise is more friendship than sexual – he has over the years had plenty of sexual adventures, including one with the melancholy Orietta (Ferrari). Much of this self-reflection is brought on by the revelation that a former lover has passed away. She’d left him unexpectedly and without explanation some 40 years earlier and married another man. After her death, her husband had found her diary and discovered to his shock that it was Jep who was the love of her life and that she considered him, the man she spent her entire life with, a pleasant companion.

That’s really all there is to plot. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I went into this movie expecting to hate it. I’d heard from friends and colleagues that the movie was at best a disappointment and at worst a pretentious mess. In fact, Da Queen did indeed wind up really loathing the movie but that wasn’t the experience that I had. Watching the movie, I was well aware of its faults – the movie is shamelessly pretentious in the sort of way that almost defiantly invites criticism. It is also way too long and the coda not worth the wait.

Still, I found the movie mesmerizing. In many ways, it’s a love letter to Rome itself – full of beauty that is unsurprising but with little hidden gems that only give access to those in the know. Sure the people depicted here are shallow with the delusion of being intellectual. Most of Jep’s circle is passing middle age into old age and they are going there kicking and screaming. They have all lived lives of hedonistic emptiness, going from party to gallery opening to art exhibition to dinner with little else in mind but to see and be seen.

The movie hits you with unexpected insights which caught me by surprise, much of which has to do with understanding how Romans view themselves and their place in the world. There is a world-weary melancholy to the movie which comes from being the heirs to an ancient empire that once stretched across the world but has changed and become secondary to superpowers like America and China. Jep’s self-awareness is critical to understanding the film; he is fully cognizant that he has lived an empty life and continues to live it. He knows that he has spent much of his time observing life rather than taking part in it. He has become insular, a man whose life revolves around the next party and whose reputation as a bon vivant is everything.

Near the end of the movie we are introduced to Santa (Merli), a 104-year-old nun who is while technically not a saint, referred to as such. She appears almost mummified, her jaw open wide in an expression you might find on the entombed but she has a gentle soul. In one of the movies best moments, a flock of migrating flamingos makes a stop on Jep’s portico following a dinner party he has thrown in her honor. Santa whispers with an expression of rapt joy that she knows the Christian names of each one of the birds. Then she blows a little puff of air and off fly the flamingos. Rome is ever a Catholic environment.

This is a movie of contradictions. Crazy pretentious but unexpectedly insightful. Beautifully photographed but with an eye to the ugliness of human nature. Artful yet crass. Serious yet with an absurd sense of humor. Spiritual but also hedonistic. Yes, I will admit that this is a movie that requires a good deal of effort to love. This isn’t a movie to be taken lightly nor is it as frivolous as it appears to be on the surface. It demands to be taken on its own terms and either you will or you won’t – that’s entirely up to you. If you do, however, you may well be rewarded with a glimpse inside the Roman soul that is rarely revealed to outsiders. In that sense, this is a masterpiece and there are those who agree plainly – it did beat out the incredible Danish movie The Hunt for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the recent Academy Awards  Do I think it is a better movie than The Hunt? No, I can’t say that it is in all honesty but it is certainly a very, very good movie if you are willing to allow it to be.

REASONS TO GO: Moments of insight and thoughtfulness that sneak up on you. Gorgeous images and cinematography. If you love Fellini, this is for you.

REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly pretentious. Far too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is graphic nudity and a good deal of sexuality and sensuality. There’s also some drug content and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The performance artist in the film Talia Concept’s head-butting spectacle is a nod to real world performance artist Marina Abramovic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

Boogie Woogie


Boogie Woogie
But is it Art?

 

 

 

 

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gillian Anderson, Alan Cumming, Heather Graham, Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Simon McBurney, Meredith Ostrom, Charlotte Rampling, Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Duncan Ward

Art for art’s sake was the motto at the old MGM studio, and that might well be the battle cry for all artists. There is always a sense that art elevates the soul, but too many take that to mean that it elevates themselves as well.

 

Art Spindle (D. Huston) is a London art dealer with a distinct lack of scruples. He is charming to the max, but lethal if you get in between him and what he wants. What he wants at the moment is the Piet Mondrian painting “Boogie Woogie,” which is owned by an elderly gentleman named Alfred Rhinegold (Lee) who is reluctant to part with it, despite the urgings of his wife (Lumley) who knows that they are in dire financial straits.

 

Art’s assistants Beth Freemantle (Graham) and Paige Oppenheimer (Seyfried) are ambitious and have their own agendas. One of them is to service Bob Macclestone (Skarsgard), a wealthy client who has a roving eye not just for art but for the ladies as well (and in particular for Beth), much to the despair of his wife Jean (Anderson).

 

Meanwhile, up and coming performance artist Elaine (Winstone) has been making a name for herself with her tapes of her lesbian sexual encounters, much to the chagrin of Dewey (Cumming), her manager who has a huge crush on Elaine. For Elaine, Dewey is a means to an end and nothing more. Her cold-heartedness leads to tragedy which sends repercussions throughout the London art scene.

 

This is an ensemble piece along the lines of Robert Altman, albeit set in contemporary London. This is also based on a stage play which was set in 1990s New York. The subject for both is the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the art world. That is much like writing a movie about the corruption of politics. It’s not any great revelation after all.

 

Huston does a serviceable job in the type of role he typically excels at – the smarmy snake oil salesman type. He has as foils Graham and Seyfried, two of the most beautiful women in the world. Lumley, who made her career in “Absolutely Fabulous,” has a bittersweet role here, while veterans Rampling and Lee hold their own.

 

Unfortunately, the cast is given mostly one-dimensional portraits of people who are absolutely rotten to the core, so much so that you may smell decay in your soul for weeks afterwards just for having watched them. They’re the kind of people who operate from the same moral compass as Rupert Murdoch does.

 

The movie bounces from vignette to vignette without any discernable rhyme or reason. The flow of the movie is therefore choppy and at times it feels like you’re watching two or three movies spliced together with duct tape. The pace could have used some tweaking too – they could have easily cut 10-15 minutes out of the script and gotten away with it.

This is as talented a cast as you’re likely to assemble. It is also the biggest waste of talent you’re likely to see. It’s unfortunate too; an ensemble like this deserves better material. Sadly, this is a case of a script that doesn’t have too much to say about a subject that doesn’t require much.

 

WHY RENT THIS: There’s a lot of talent here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A waste of talent. The movie feels like a collection of scenes strung together at random at times. Pacing could have used some tightening up.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a very sexual element here; lots of innuendo, graphic nudity and frank sexual discussions. There’s also foul language throughout as well as a smattering of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Graham and Lee voiced the characters of opposing leaders in the videogame “Everquest 2.” Skarsgard and Seyfried also worked together in Mamma Mia!

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47,527 on an unreported production budget; this didn’t even come close to making its money back.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: My Blueberry Nights

Man on Wire


Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

(Magnolia) Philippe Petit, Jean-Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman, Alan Welner, Mark Lewis, N. Barry Greenhouse, Jim Moore. Directed by James Marsh

Our human nature is to expand the boundaries of our perceptions, whether the physical borders of our environment or the emotional or mental limits of our capabilities. We don’t always know why we must push these limits, but to do so is the heart of our human nature.

Philippe Petit is a French wire-walker and performer. He had run away from home at age 15 to join his own private circus, a street performer expert in magic tricks, juggling and wire walking, for which he was self-taught. After awhile, he grew bored with the feats. It seemed almost ugly to him, and he yearned to transform wire walking into an art.

To be honest, although it isn’t spoken outwardly in the film, he also seems to have a flair for the spotlight. He decided to perform some daring feats of wire-walking whose legality was a bit murky, starting with a wire walk between the twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and one on two towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that captured his imagination however, and on the morning of August 7, 1974 he stepped out onto a special wire he and his team had managed to stretch unnoticed between the north and south towers and made history.

The feat, which Time magazine called “the artistic crime of the century,” was one of the most defining moments of the Twin Towers until 9-11. It captured the imagination of the entire world. This documentary chronicles the planning that went into it, the execution of the event and its aftermath.

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary Film, Man on Wire has some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a documentary. The personalities of the subjects are nicely captured, and everyone’s role is very clear. Petit in particular is a complex man, and many of the aspects of his personality are represented here. His relationship with Allix is important at the time of the walk, but dissolves as soon as the event is concluded.

The planning that went into the event was meticulous in terms of the mechanics of the walk; getting the equipment up the tower to the roof was less so. Still, it’s fascinating to watch and the re-enactments of the event, the descriptions of how close they came to being detected and their scheme stopped before it started is riveting.

Inevitably, the centerpiece is Petit. When explanations are demanded, Petit shrugs them off. “The beauty of it,” he confesses, “is that there is no why.” He did it just to do it. It is the kind of love that is madness, a joy of life in doing the reckless, the non-conformist’s mazurka. The expression on his face as he dances on the wire between the two towers is all the explanation you will ever need, but it cannot be put into words adequately.

The World Trade Center now inhabits an entirely different locale in our psyche, and wisely director Marsh doesn’t explore that aspect of it. Certainly, the destruction of the towers must have had an impact on Petit but it is the one question that goes unasked; it is much better that way, because the only way for this film to work is to put the Towers where they were that August day; fresh, new, a symbol of a hopeful future. The image of the craters at Ground Zero remains in a different compartment of our memories. In many ways that’s a gift.

This is a movie that has all sorts of emotional resonances; with the daredevil that is Petit, with the urge to do something memorable in all of us, and with the sadness of the loss of something so grand and so meaningful in our lives. Man on Wire can be viewed not only as a documentary of how the deed was done, but also of an allegory of the tightrope we all walk.

WHY RENT THIS: The interviews are compelling and give us a wonderful sense of who the subjects are and their role in the events depicted. While ostensibly a documentary about how the deed was done, it lets us examine the event from a different perspective, one born of our experiences and of the history that followed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Perhaps you don’t like documentaries.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and drug/alcohol use but nothing here that would put off parents from showing this to their children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phrase “Man on Wire” is the description of the incident as logged on the police report by the NYPD after the event.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several documentary features but none really spectacular.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Proposal