Ashes (Cenizas)

Sometimes an erupting volcano doesn’t hold a candle to the rage in a human heart.

(2018) Drama (Abaca) Samanta Caicedo, Diego Naranjo, Juana Estrella, Estela Alvarez, Pavel Almeida, Maria José Zapata, Emilio Reyes, Julia Silva, Cristina Muñoz, Eduardo Filippini, Martino Pacheco, Arnoldo Sicles, Pablo Villacis, Myriam Valdivieso, Michel Dreyer, Ignacio Lordugin, Pamela Noboa. Directed by Juan Sebastian Jacome

The things that cause families to implode more often than not come from within. Secrets, held close over months, years, decades – they are incendiary devices on a timer with an unknown setting. The longer that the timer takes, the more destructive the blast becomes.

Caridad (Caicedo) lives in a small Ecuadoran town near the base of a long-dormant volcano. When the volcano begins to erupt, she knows she has to get her belongings out of town. Reluctantly, she asks her father Galo (Naranjo) from whom she has been long estranged if he can come help her assemble her things and store them until it is safe for her to come back home.

Galo is only too happy to oblige. The estrangement of his daughters has been very painful to him and he is eager to reconcile with both of them, including his older daughter (Silva) who is a shadowy presence who will only speak to Caridad. Despite Galo’s attempts to try and bridge the gap between Caridad and himself, Caridad is cold to his attempts. Galo’s new wife Julia (Estrella) tries to mediate but is met with similar frost.

It turns out that Galo was accused by his ex-wife and mother of the two girls of horrible acts. Galo swears that the whole incident was the invention of a vengeful wife who was furious at her husband for cheating on her, so he pleads his case and tries to show Caridad tenderness and compassion although his temper gets the best of him at one point when her boyfriend (Almeida) gets a little too aggressive. Caridad now has doubts about the veracity of the rumors that surrounded the accusations that were made against her father. Was he really the monster she believed him to be all her life, or was he a innocent man who faced with terrible accusations sacrificed his own feelings to do what was best for his children?

The slow eruption of the volcano is a metaphor for the slow build towards the climax. The film feels unsteady early on as the story seems to ramble quite a bit but as the film unspools eventually things do come together for patient viewers. Still the story is somewhat difficult to follow early on particularly the first 20 minutes or so. Be patient; it does get better.

It doesn’t hurt to have two extremely proficient actors handling the two main roles. Caicedo is absolutely luminous, a true star in the making whereas veteran actor Naranjo uses an unusually expressive face to get across a whole lot of anguish without saying a word. The two work extremely well off each other and the tension between them is palpable, making the strained relationship believable which is crucial in a film like this.

The erupting volcano covers everything in a soft grey ash which gives the film a kind of winter-like feel, as well as a feeling that an explosion is not very far away. The ash makes things feel cold even though clearly there is heat and humidity going on; it’s an interesting dichotomy. Even the scenes in Quito (where Galo lives) are slightly overlit giving the movie a kind of soft unfocused look, mirroring the confusion that Caridad feels as her long-held beliefs about her dad are called into question.

There are some very powerful emotions at work throughout the film and there are several scenes that will provoke tears, revulsion or frustration. At times Caridad feels unnecessarily cruel and callous to her dad but as you discover the nature of his alleged indiscretions you realize she has good reason. I’m not sure that keeping that particular revelation was necessarily a good thing; it makes it harder to relate to Caridad as for a good half hour the audience is led to believe that she’s just a gold medal-winning bitch. As Jacome manipulates our perceptions of Caridad, we feel a bit cheated. Perhaps others may disagree but I think it would have been better to allow the audience to know what the nature of the accusations against Galo was from the start.

This is the kind of movie that makes going to film festivals so rewarding. It is hard not to come out of this with some feeling of catharsis as we discover the truth behind the rumors that kept Caridad and Galo apart The climactic scene is perfectly played and shows a director, in only his second feature, growing confident in his own skill. Undoubtedly Jacome is going to be an important figure in Latin American cinema for decades to come

While the film doesn’t have an American distributor as of yet it should be appearing on the festival circuit once it makes its world premiere in Miami on the 14th so keep an eye out for it. Their Facebook page (which is mostly in Spanish) promises a theatrical release down the line so hopefully that will happen. This is a movie not to miss. If you don’t want to miss it, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes are raw, emotional and explosive. Caicedo does an amazing job in her role.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is often hard to follow, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Hevia, one of the producers on the film, has an Oscar for being one of the producers for 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Amelia
Brawl in Cell Block 99


The Family I Had

An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin


Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
Atomic Blonde

Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride

People are people; what’s on the outside is just gift wrapping.

(2017) Documentary (XLRator/Seventh  Art) Gloria Stein, Butch Rosichan, Dan Friedman, Steven Shulman, Susan Schaffel, Natalie Chasen, Larry Sands, Dawn Heber, RB Perlman, Ricki Perlman, Arlene Shaffer. Directed by Robyn Symon


Everyone has their own journey in life to take. Sometimes it seems to follow a set path but some journeys take us in unexpected ways to unexpected places. All we can really do is enjoy the ride; and it is a helluva ride.

She started out life as Butch Rosichan. A short, stocky man who made a living as an auto wrecker in Broward County (South Florida), he was a bulldog of a man who would get in your face at any perceived slight. He was not above getting into fistfights if he was provoked Homophobic and crude, he was something of a ladies’ man who had two sons from a failed marriage but that was nothing like his second marriage.

His divorce from that marriage turned into a bitter, knock-down drag-out thing. His ex and her pit bull of a lawyer hounded Butch into losing everything and then put him in jail for non-payment of alimony. When he finished serving his 120 days in the hoosegow, he found his business was finished and shortly thereafter another warrant for non-payment of alimony was issued. Not wanting to return to jail, he went into hiding instead – as a woman. Thus Gloria Stein was born.

As it turned out, she liked being a woman and decided that it wasn’t just a disguise. In 2003 she underwent surgery to change his gender. As Gloria, she met a man, Dan Friedman who as it turned out had been born a woman; Dan helped Gloria mellow out and smoothed out some of her rougher edges. She began reaching out to family members that she had alienated as Butch and began reconciling with them, although her two sons as of the filming of this documentary had yet to accept her or even return her calls. This is clearly very painful for her.

Butch became Gloria at the fairly advanced age of 67 (she’s pushing 80 now) and became the subject of a documentary by then-PBS documentary director Symon. The project, which was initially intended just to cover her transition from male to female became a decade-long endeavor.

Gloria is an engaging sort, an interesting subject matter who still refuses to take crap from anyone, although she’s less in-your-face about it these days. She’s an outspoken advocate for transgenders who does speaking engagements throughout the country. Along the way she has been a sex worker – a professional dominatrix – and oh yes, continues to have an interest in classic cars.

There are a lot of empty spaces in the film however and in many ways Gloria isn’t very forthcoming. When asked why she decided to undergo the sex change, she blurts out ‘I don’t know” and that feels a bit disingenuous. I suspect she knows but either can’t or won’t articulate it. Some of the more negative aspects of her life are glossed over somewhat; why she was unable to pay her alimony is never discussed although it is hinted at.

Apparently as Butch she was also involved in a stolen car ring but we don’t hear a lot about that other than a couple of moments discussing how she and her first wife used to take a cab to a restaurant then steal cars from the valet lot. Beyond that, we learn nothing about how she got involved with stealing cars and why. We’re also told that as Butch she was a homophobe but we get nothing else; I for one would love to have heard her feelings on her homophobia now that she has become a transgender. Considering that the documentary is only 76 minutes long, it seems incomprehensible that Symon had ten years to film and could only come up with 76 minutes of footage for her final product.

Symon utilizes home movie footage, re-enactments of certain events but primarily interviews with friends and family of Gloria, all of whom knew her as Butch. I’m wondering if the film couldn’t have used at least a couple of people who only knew Gloria and not Butch. The movie overall has a wry sense of humor about it that I liked very much.

It’s a fascinating documentary but maddeningly incomplete. I suppose it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than wanting less, but it’s still not a good feeling to leave a documentary wanting to know more about the subject and knowing that there was plenty of room to give us more. This feels more like a work in progress than a completed film, but at least it’s a quality work in progress.

REASONS TO GO: Stein is an engaging subject. The movie has a wry tone that is delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could use much more fleshing out. Gloria needed to be a lot more forthcoming about her past.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Symon during her time at PBS won two Emmys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
Blood Stripe

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.
NEXT: Landline

Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police

It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47

Mistress America

Just two broke girls talkin'.

Just two broke girls talkin’.

(2015) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Shelby Rebecca Wong, Joel Marsh Garland, Andrea Chen, Seth Barrish, Shana Dowdeswell, Dean Wareham, Amy Warren, Shoba Narayanan, Morgan Lynch, Adrea Teasdale. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There is New York, and then there is everywhere else. I suppose that those who live there have every right to feel a kind of smug superiority about where they live; after all, they have world class museums, world class concert halls, world class nightclubs, world class restaurants…hell, anyone who is bored in New York isn’t trying very hard.

Tracy (Kirke) is becoming a New Yorker. Well, she’s becoming a college student at Barnard. Keen to be a writer, she’s not the sort that fits in easily. That’s especially true lately, as her mom (Henderson) is getting ready to re-marry. Tracy yearns to become a member of the literary society at Barnard, who celebrate publication of a new author by sneaking into their room at night and throwing a pie in their face while they sleep. Rad, eh? However, she meets rejection even here. Tracy realizes to get in with the literary crowd she’s going to need something special to write about.

As part of her mom’s new marriage, she is going to have a new stepsister, so upon her mom’s insistence she arranges to meet her soon-to-be-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy takes an immediate liking to Brooke. She’s almost ten years older and established in the city; she’s getting ready to open a fabulous new restaurant and has some really cool ideas. She hangs out with cool people and lives in a loft that’s zoned for commercial use. She’s full of energy and life and talks a mile a minute, sometimes about deep things but sometimes just idle chatter.

When one of the investors in her restaurant – the one who happens to be her boyfriend – pulls out, Brooke is left dangling in the wind. She has no choice but to go to the home of her arch-nemesis Mamie-Claire (Lind) in the Godforsaken wilderness of Greenwich, Connecticut and demand her due. You see, years ago, Mamie-Claire stole an idea of Brooke’s and made a fortune out of it. That wasn’t the only thing she stole though – she took two of Brooke’s cats and her boyfriend at the time Dylan (Chernus) who was himself independently wealthy but is now Mamie-Claire’s somewhat henpecked husband. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But things go from bad to worse as the discovery is made that Tracy has been writing a story with Brooke as the lead character – and not everything is complimentary. Brooke is feeling betrayed and everybody around her – even Mamie-Claire – think that was a dick move. But was it?

I do think Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote this thing, were out to make a modern screwball comedy. The rhythms of the dialogue are very similar and the patter is snappy, although not in a retro way. I’m thinking that this is a brilliant move on their part because in many ways Gerwig is a modern Carole Lombard.

But as smart an idea it is, the ambitions here are a bit more than the pair can chew. The trouble with screwball comedies is that they are a bitch to pull off right, and there are so many examples of great films in that genre out there that unless you’re damn near perfect from screenplay to final film, your movie is just going to suffer by comparison.

The movie here isn’t perfect. It starts out with a couple of very annoying characters whose dialogue is so unrealistic, whose attitudes are just so smug and self-important that it’s incredibly hard to do anything but despise them. If I ran into Brooke and Tracy at a cocktail party, I’d quickly find other people to chat with – they’re way too pretentious for my taste. When I think of indie films that Baumbach and Gerwig have collaborated on previously, the first half of the movie has the worst characteristics of their worst efforts. I really was ready to write this one off before I was halfway through the movie.

Fortunately it gets better. In fact, it improves a hell of a lot and the scenes set in Greenwich are inspired. Gerwig always seems to do better in large ensembles than in smaller groups; when it’s essentially just her and Tracy with Tracy being a shadowy image of Brooke, the movie is just annoying. When Brooke has a lot of people to bounce off of, the movie is enjoyable. I think that Gerwig is one of those actresses who needs to be diluted a little bit and the more people she has to interact with, the better she is. Da Queen has said that she can only take Gerwig in small doses and I can see why she has that effect on her; there is a bit of a narcissistic quality to the characters Gerwig plays in Baumbach films and those types of characters tend to rub Da Queen the wrong way.

I was very torn with this movie. The first part is excruciating but the second part I really liked. So how does one rate a movie like this? Straight down the middle; a zero for the first half of the film, a ten for the second for a cumulative score of five. Be warned that the first part of the movie is hard to sit through but the second half makes the first half almost worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Gets better as it goes along. Gerwig is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: Horrible first half. Characters act and speak like they’re in a 21st century screwball comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Lola Versus Gerwig played a character named Lola. In Gone Girl Kirke played a character named Greta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
NEXT: Digging for Fire

Taken 3

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

(2015) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston, Andrew Borba, Judi Beecher, Andrew Howard, Cedric Cirotteau, Catherine Dyer, Jimmy Palumbo, Nazareth Dairian, Stefanie Kleine. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Sequels essentially come in two varieties; cash grabs made to capitalize on the popularity of the original film, or story extensions which continue the story from the first. Often the second kind can be an effective money maker for the studios, while the first kind can occasionally be surprisingly resonant with audiences. Generally speaking, however, all sequels are made – without exception – because the studios or the producers believe that there is a market demand for them.

The first two Taken films were very successful. In them Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former special ops military sort, sees his daughter Kim (Grace) kidnapped in the first film by sex traffickers and goes to Paris to kill everyone who looks at him cross-eyed and rescue his daughter; the second film has the ex-wife (Janssen) kidnapped in a revenge scenario by the dad of the kidnappers in the first film which leads to much of Istanbul being depopulated.

In this one nobody gets kidnapped. Ex-wifey is murdered and Bryan framed for it. No exotic locations, no family vacations, just Bryan tearing through Los Angeles looking to find out who done it and who is going to get his ass kicked all over Southern California. With a persistent detective (Whitaker) chasing him, ex-wifey’s husband (Scott, taking over for Xander Berkeley) trying to assist him, Russian mobsters led by the sadistic Oleg Malenkov (Spruill) slithering about, his buddies Garcia (Harvey), Smith (Bruno) and Sam (Orser) lending their own particular sets of skills when needed and Kim generally getting in the way, it’s going to be a very bad day in SoCal until Bryan gets to the person responsible for all his woes.

Now, before you wonder about the size of the rating I gave this, keep in mind that you don’t go and see an action movie for deep personal insights, innovative storytelling techniques or snappy dialogue; while sometimes any or all of those occur in an action film, it’s icing on the cake when they do. Mainly what we go to see action films for is to turn off our brains, sit back with our ice cold soda and buttered popcorn and bliss out to car crashes, flying bullets and villainous asses being properly kicked. We want to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and leave the theater feeling that all is right with the world.

It’s a fairly low bar to set from a certain perspective but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours in the multiplex and this is the kind of tonic you’re looking for if that’s what you’re after. Neeson is the most personable action star working at the moment with perhaps the sole exception of Dwayne Johnson and he certainly gives us everything we’re looking for in an action hero in all three of the Taken movies, this one included. Bryan is kind of a sweetheart most of the time, showing up at his college-aged daughters apartment a few days before her birthday with a gigantic teddy bear in an effort to be unpredictable. His effort fails miserably but throughout the movie he seems like a genuinely affable guy you’d want to shoot pool with.

You’d also want him at your back cracking skulls with the pool cue if necessary and while Neeson is in his 60s and moves like he’s in his 60s during a foot chase early on in the movie, he gets all the other stuff dialed in perfectly. He doesn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the fighting techniques of a Jet Li or even the hangdog smartass attitude of a Bruce Willis but he sort of fits in the mold of a nice guy with skills who has been pushed where you should never push him.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is all right. Whitaker, a fine actor in his own right, is full of idiosyncrasies and tics and business that occasionally distracts from the matters at hand but he is a very smart performer who knows that he is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes here and Whitaker would make a crackin’ Sherlock in my opinion.

What every action film has to nail are the action sequences – the car chases, the fights, the gun battles. Even if everything else doesn’t work a movie of this genre can be redeemed by its action sequences. For the most part, the sequences here are well put together, particularly the assault on the Russian mobster’s fortress-like apartment near the end of the movie. However, it also must be said that there’s nothing in the action sequences that particularly stands out.

While I admire producer/writer Luc Besson for leaving the mold of the first two movies and going in another direction, the one he took was a path too well-traveled by Hollywood. We’ve seen the hero framed for a murder he didn’t commit and then have to battle bad guys and cops alike to clear his name how many thousands of times, and frankly this doesn’t add anything to that tired old genre. However, it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

This is the weakest of the trilogy if only by a little bit but it still has enough going for it to be worth seeing if you’re into action movies and particularly the sort that Neeson tends to do. While so many of the twists here are horribly telegraphed and if you are unable to figure out who’s behind all this you really need a year or two of remedial movie watching, it still bears a bit of attention although chances are you won’t remember much of it twenty minutes after the credits start rolling.

REASONS TO GO: Nice action sequences. Neeson is a charismatic performer.
REASONS TO STAY: Very cliche story. Neeson beginning to show his age in some of the more physical aspects of the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of strong language but mostly, lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking and general mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Neeson uses a number of different firearms in the movie, he is a staunch advocate for gun control in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!