The Trip to Spain


Tilting at windmills is hard work.

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio, Claire Keelan, Justin Edwards, Rebecca Johnson, Timothy Leach, Kerry Shale, Kyle Soller, Margo Stilley. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

The Trip movies – first to the North of England, then to Italy – have relied on a formula in which real life actors Coogan and Brydon, bringing only slightly fictionalized versions of themselves to bear, travel for a week in a beautiful, scenic location to tour some of the best restaurants and inns locally after which one of them (Brydon in the first two, Coogan here) write an article about it.

Things have changed somewhat since the first movie. Coogan is now Oscar-nominated actor (and writer) Steve Coogan and the success has most definitely gone to his head as he slips references to Philomena into the conversation whenever humanly possible – and occasionally when it isn’t. Rob has a new child in the family and the squalling baby is enough to get him hastily out of the house and back on the road with Steve.

Other than that, it’s basically business as usual; car drives through lovely countryside, stops at lesser known points of interest (to us Americans anyway) stopping at amazing restaurants where a multi-course meal awaits The two men banter at table, breaking into dueling celebrity impressions with Winterbottom denoting the end of the conversation by breaking away to chefs hard at work in the kitchen followed by a waiter bringing out a magnificent looking gourmet dish at which point the two begin a new conversation

Hey, the formula has worked for the first two movies and I’m generally an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of guy, but a little more variation might have been nice. While it’s true there is a more melancholy, autumnal air in that both men are into their 50s and have begun to suspect that their career aspirations may be passing by the reality of their accomplishments, the basic layout of the film is the same as the other two. It’s like listening to an album with exactly the same cover and layout as two other albums, only the songs are slightly sadder than the first two albums but strikingly similar in melody and lyrics.

The draw for these movies continues to be the byplay between Coogan and Brydon, much of which (I suspect) is improvised. The two snipe at each other in a passive-aggressive manner, but hurl bon mots at one another like grenades. The two have an easy, companionable camaraderie that makes it feel like you’ve dropped by to hang out with a couple of old friends, only they’re eating way better than you are. Suddenly that movie popcorn doesn’t feel quite so gourmet, even with the Parmesan-Garlic powder that has been sprinkled on it.

This is distinctly British and like the other two films is actually a condensed version of a miniseries that was broadcast on British television. Sadly, the complete versions of the shows are not yet available so far as I know in the States; I suspect there are a ton of references ignorant Americans like me will not get. Still, It’s always a good thing when you want more of something rather than less.

The movie leaves open-ended (despite one of the more surprising endings of the series) the possibility that another chapter will be headed our way. The filmmakers are certainly missing The Trip to France and The Trip to Greece, among other places although I wouldn’t mind seeing them in The Trip to America somewhere down the road. Even so these movies, one part comedy, one part travelogue and lots of parts food porn, continue to not overstay their welcome. This is the weakest of the three but it’s still strong enough to make me see where the road takes these two comics next.

REASONS TO GO: The easy camaraderie between Brydon and Coogan continues to be a highlight for the films. The Bowie and Roger Moore sequences are hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest of the three so far as it feels somewhat formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a hint of sexuality, some adult themes and plenty of food porn.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Noel Harrison figures in the movie and is played over the end credits; a different version of the song by The King’s Singers was played at the end of the final episode of Coogan’s popular TV series I’m Alan Partridge.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Only Living Boy in New York

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Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

Paris Can Wait (Bonjour Anne)


Diane Lane by the river.

(2016) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin, Élodie Navarre, Elise Tielrooy, Linda Gegusch (voice), Cédric Monnet. Directed by Eleanor Coppola

Sometimes when one is feeling like life isn’t working out, a road trip is just what’s needed to clear out the doldrums. Of course when that road trip takes you through the south of France so much the better.

Anne (Lane) is the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-powered Hollywood producer. They are in Cannes for the film festival and she has developed a nagging earache. Fresh off of plugging his last project to distributors and, well, whatever it is that producers do in Cannes, Michael is headed for Budapest and bringing Anne along in the private jet. The pilot however recommends that Anne not fly given that the earache would make it excruciatingly painful. Michael’s French partner Jacques (Viard) offers to drive Anne to Paris rather than having her take the train by herself. She cheerfully agrees.

Jacques is not one to take the direct route; he must stop hourly for smoke breaks and to fill the radiator in his classic Peugeot Cabriolet. He also must stop to show her the Best Roman aqueduct, the best little bistro in Provence, the best inn in Burgundy, the best Museum of Cinema in Lyon (which, to be fair, was where the Lumiére brothers were based) and so on and so forth.

Jacques is also a bit of an epicure, and every meal becomes an event. For Anne who has been somewhat sheltered in her enjoyment of life, this is a bit of a revelation. She wouldn’t characterize her marriage as bad exactly, but she is at a critical time in her life. Her daughter is off at college and has elected to spend Christmas break with her friends. Her husband essentially ignores her and her career as a dress shop owner has been given up. She is lost in her own life.

Jacques is also a bit of a lost soul. Single at an age when most men are enjoying their grandchildren, he seems to know everyone but how well they know him is another story. He is flirtatious and there is maybe a bit of a spark between the two of them – Jacques knows the way to her heart is through chocolate – but where that spark might take them before they arrive at Paris days after they were supposed to arrive there is uncertain.

Coppola, the wife of director Francis Ford Coppola, has a keen understanding of the rhythms of life in the south of France. The movie unfolds at an unhurried pace which some critics found infuriating oddly enough, since most European films are similarly paced. With picnics set at the side of bucolic rivers and amazing meals in quaint bistros and fine dining establishments, one shouldn’t watch this movie while hungry.

Lane is an actress who has always spoken to me. Even in her mid-50s, she remains as sexy as she has ever been, albeit in a less obvious manner than what many starlets exude. Lately she seems to be cast most often as the forgotten wife and it seems difficult to understand why any husband would ignore her; she’s smart, funny and did I mention she’s sexy as all get out? In any case, she excels at playing women in the process of rediscovering themselves and that is what this particular movie is all about.

Viard, a well-known actor/director in France, underplays this maybe a bit too much. He’s charming sure but the role needed someone a bit more rogue-ish. The romantic sparks between Jacques and Anne are tepid at best and even though the ending, which has Lane winking at the camera, promises something more, it’s hard to believe that Anne would send Michael packing that way. One gets the sense that Anne is the type of woman who would end her marriage before she’d consider taking on a romantic partner. Of course, we could be talking road trip buddies here; that aspect is left for the viewer to decide.

I will say that the movie does meander quite a bit particularly in the middle. Coppola, who also wrote the film, doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind or at least if she does no clear way to get there. We end up with a lot of conversation that tries to be revelatory but doesn’t really tell us anything about the characters. If you’ve ever tried to have a deep, meaningful personal conversation with a person who doesn’t want to tell you anything about themselves, you’ll understand how frustrating the movie can be.

Overall, I was left with a warm pleasant feeling leaving the theater after the movie. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny although there are some moments that brought a smile to my face. It’s not really high drama, although it is about a woman who is unsatisfied with where she is in life beginning to reassess what she wants out of it. Watching Lane’s Anne start to reignite her love for life is the best part about the movie – that and the food porn that pervades it. One has to love French gastronomy.

REASONS TO GO: Who wouldn’t want to take a trip like this one? Diane Lane is still as sexy as hell.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, Jacques smokes like a chimney and some mild profanity in certain places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coppola was 80 years old when she made this, her narrative feature debut (she released a documentary feature more than 25 years ago). She is not the oldest person to direct their first narrative feature – Takeo Kimura directed his first narrative feature Dreaming Awake at age 90 in 2008.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trip to Italy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

20th Century Women


Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

Annette Bening examines Lucas Jade Zumann.

(2016) Drama (A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott, Thea Gill, Vitaly A. Lebeau, Olivia Hone, Waleed Zuaiter, Curran Walters, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Nathalie Love, Cameron Protzman, Victoria Bruno, John Billingsley, Finnegan Bell, Zoe Nanos, Laura Foley, Finn Roberts, Laura Wiggins. Directed by Mike Mills

 

Sometimes we take for granted the women in our lives; our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our friends. We are shaped inexorably by them, our development as people strengthened by them, sometimes in ways we don’t even know. That’s doubly true to those of us who have had single moms.

Dorothea (Bening) is a daughter of the Depression who got a late start on motherhood; she was 40 when she had her son Jamie (Zumann). She’s 55 now, and living in Santa Barbara (and now is 1979). Jamie’s dad is out of the picture and Dorothea helps make ends meet by hosting boarders in her fixer upper of a house – William (Crudup) who is doing most of the fixer upping and Abbie (Gerwig), a Bohemian photographer with maroon hair who is recovering from cervical cancer. Into this mix add Julie (Fanning), a childhood friend of Jamie’s whose home life has become so tense that she regularly spends the night in Jamie’s bed although she refuses to allow anything sexual to happen, much to Jamie’s chagrin. In fact, Julie is fairly promiscuous and has no compunction telling Jamie about her sexual experiences which makes Jamie feel even worse.

Jamie is at an age where he is growing more distant from his mother whose every action seems to piss Jamie off (if he realized how much freedom she gave him compared to what the rest of us were getting in 1979 he might not have been quite so prickly) and he’s beginning to push back in an effort to leave the nest at least spiritually, leaving without permission to join friends at punk rock concerts in L.A. or to go skateboarding with friends.

Realizing that she’s no longer able to get through to Jamie, Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to help instruct her son in how to be a man. Abbie engages Jamie in discussions about female orgasms and gives him hardcore feminist manifestos to read. Julie’s assistance is a little more subtle but she seems to be warming up to the idea of a more romantic stand with Jamie.

But as most things do, things fall apart as Jamie, incensed that his mother seems to be giving up on him, grows more and more irritable – getting into fights with friends and with his mom. Something’s got to give.

Director Mike Mills based Dorothea on his own mother albeit with Bening’s own stamp put on the character. Much of what transpires in the film also transpired in Mills’ own life. Dorothea is a bit eccentric to be sure but no more than most moms of the day, or any other day for that matter. Mills realizes that quirky doesn’t have to be done in the indie film sense where people do outrageous things just for the sake of being outrageous; here the quirkiness is part of their DNA, an expression of who they are and they make sense; Dorothea chain smokes and invites people she barely knows to her home for dinner. William talks about energies and karma and is a 70s hippie with a mechanical bent. Julie  reads Judy Bloom and has lots of sex and wants to keep Jamie at arms length so they can remain friends seemingly without seeing what it is doing to him. Abbie dances like a fiend to the Talking Heads, takes pictures of everything (presaging the millennial obsession with taking pictures of even the most mundane elements of their lives) and generally being the 21st century avatar in this little family.

Jamie appears to be the most normal of the lot but ostensibly he’s the stand-in for Mills himself so it’s understandable if Mills gives Jamie a bit less of an edge, although he isn’t lacking in teen angst. Zumann actually does a pretty great job here; he’s never annoyingly precocious but seems pretty much like most teens I know – wears their hearts on their sleeves but much smarter and much worldlier than we adults tend to give them credit for. Zumann is a name to remember.

Bening delivers a performance that is strong without being flashy. Her character smokes incessantly and frets as mothers do but she’s generally calm even when there’s chaos around her. She can be a little quirky but at the core of the character are the things most of us have in common; love for our children and an overwhelming desire for them to be happy and safe. Bening portrays the character’s inherent dignity ably and allows her individuality to shine through. She missed out on a Best Actress nomination this year but she certainly was in the running for it.

This is the Southern California from the late 70s that I remember. Mills does a great job of recreating it, not just in fashion, cars and set design but in atmosphere as well. There are times when it feels like the characters are pontificating a bit much more than normal humans do, but other than that there’s not really a lot to quibble about here. It’s a good, solid slice of life movie that illustrates the difficulty of growing up into manhood and what a treacherous path it can be. It also shows that the gulf between men and women doesn’t have to be as necessarily wide as we think it is so long as we’re willing to listen to each other. It’s a lesson that was valid in 1979 and it’s a lesson that’s valid now.

REASONS TO GO: Annette Bening just kills it. The era is captured beautifully.
REASONS TO STAY: It gets a little pretentious at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of sexual material and some nudity, a fair amount of profanity some mild violence and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Crudup and Gerwig also appeared in the film Jackie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Fantastic
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House