Call Me By Your Name


The sexual tension between Hammer and Chalamet is palpable.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Under the languid heat of the summer sun in Tuscany, sexuality can be awakened, bestirred or even changed. All things are possible in an idyllic location like that.

Elio (Chalamet) is the 17-year-old prodigal son of an archaeologist/professor dad (Stuhlbarg) living and working in Tuscany with Elio’s German mother (Casar). Into the household comes Oliver (Hammer), a grad student interning with Elio’s dad. At first Elio is a bit testy to the new arrival; after all, Oliver is staying in Elio’s bedroom while Elio is exiled to the adjoining bedroom with a bathroom shared between them.

Elio is a talented pianist and composer with quite a future ahead of him. He is a bit standoffish as talented teens who know they are talented can be. There is a neighboring French girl (Garrel) who would dearly like to be Elio’s girlfriend and Elio isn’t particularly averse to the idea as he is dealing with raging hormones and desires.

As the summer wears on, it becomes clear that Elio is heavily attracted to Oliver – and Oliver is attracted right back. Eventually as the two circle each other warily their orbits eventually intersect and Elio’s sexual urges – gratified first by a ripe peach (don’t ask) and then by Marzia his French girlfriend, find explosive root in this newcomer. The two have a hard time (no pun intended) keeping their hands off each other (as well as other appendages). For Elio, this is truly first love with all the joy and heartache that it entails. Every summer, after all, eventually comes to an end.

A lot of critics have been singing the praises for this film and for some very good reasons but I must caution readers that while there are a lot of things to like about this movie, there are plenty of flaws as well. I like how evocative of time and place the movie is; you can almost feel the heat steaming from the screen on a hot summer’s day in Tuscany. You can feel the 80s vibe in a realistic way – many films set during this era seem to be of the idea that everyone sported Flock of Seagulls hair. Guadagnino got the fashions right without going overboard with the excesses of the era.

>He also did a masterful job of casting. In all the main roles exactly the right actor inhabits them. Chalamet delivers a performance that deservedly got an Oscar nomination and while he didn’t win, had he not been nominated in a year of Gary Oldman’s superlative performance in Darkest Hour I think he might have had a shot at it.

The reason Chalamet’s performance is so praise-worthy is that it is so layered. Elio has the arrogance of youth and the uncertainty of the inexperienced; he can be stand-offish but he deeply desires love. He has a high sex drive but he wants affection, both received and given. If this performance is any indication, he could be the next Daniel Day-Lewis but a note of caution; he has been anointed a once-in-a-generation performer by certain hysterical magazine writers basically off of one or two outstanding performers; let’s see how he does for consistency over the next five years or so before we begin throwing those sorts of superlatives around shall we?

Chalamet has some wonderful actors to play off of. Hammer is of course ruggedly handsome and has that preppy accent which stands him in good stead here. He has the right combination of worldliness and naiveté that makes the character such a perfect foil for Elio. The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet is blazing hot and the relationship is never anything but genuine for a single moment.

Stuhlbarg who has acted in a number of prestige films this year outdoes himself in the almost too-good-to-be-true father. He has one scene with Chalamet in which he surprisingly gives his son his tacit approval and explains his own regret for not following his own feelings in a similar situation. It’s a terrific scene and if it is more of a fantasy coming out for a lot of gay men whose own experiences are/were somewhat different it can be at least understood.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom turns in a lovely print with colors that pop off the screen and capturing perfectly the season (also in the coda which takes place on a snowy day) and the place. It’s a beautiful film to watch. Iconic screenwriter James Ivory who back in the day was one of the great art film directors of his time, shows that even at 89 he still has a great ear for dialogue.

As I said, though, the film is flawed. It runs almost two and a quarter hours and towards the end of the movie one gets the sense that Guadagnino didn’t quite know how to end th film, although the ending itself is beautiful and bittersweet – it comes after a series of false stops. Also, while I’m not squeamish about sex scenes – even explicit ones – it just seemed that there were too many of them. After awhile it came off as almost gratuitous. We get the sense that there is sexual heat between the two and that Elio is nearly insatiable sexually; it’s just ramming us over the head with it after awhile. A good twenty minutes of film time could have been cut with excessive sex scenes as well as a few extraneous scenes as well.

Some have said that this is this decade’s Brokeback Mountain and there is some truth to that. Certainly a gay romance has rarely been portrayed so beautifully and so naturally onscreen, particularly in a film of this importance. Gay or straight, we’ve all been through first loves (let’s hope) in our lives and there’s no doubt this film evokes the feelings of that bittersweet experience for all of us. I wish the director had been a little bit less lenient at the editing bay but regardless of that this is an important and beautiful movie.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Chalamet, Hammer and Stuhlbarg are all exceptional. The cinematography Is beautiful, evoking lazy summer days in northern Italy. The ending is lovely albeit bittersweet.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie went on way too long. The sex scenes became gratuitous after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content, some nudity and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sufjan Stevens was asked to write one new song for the film but was inspired to write two. He was also asked to re-record “Futile Devices” from his mostly electronic The Age of Adz album with a piano and vocals arrangement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killing Jesus

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A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)


Daniela Vega delivers an intense performance in A Fantastic Woman.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Catellana, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Roberto Farias, Christian Chaparro, Diana Cassis, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

It is hard enough to mourn the loss of a loved one. When we lose someone close to us, we want to be surrounded by others grieving that person. We need the comfort of the company of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to reach out and comfort us in our time of need.

Marina Vidal (Vega) finds herself in that situation. She has just moved into her boyfriend’s house. Orlando Ortillo (Reyes) owns a textile mill in Santiago. He left his wife Sonia (Kuppenheim) to be with Marina who is a waitress and a part-time lounge singer who specializes in salsa and other Latin dance music. After Orlando takes Marina out for a night on the town, he wakes up in the middle of the night complaining of a headache and feeling ill. Concerned, she means to take him to the hospital but he falls down a flight of stairs on the way to the car. The doctors determine he has suffered an aneurysm but he dies on the operating table.

But that’s just the beginning of the pain. Suspicious of the bruises and wounds on his body, the police question Marina about the incident. Eventually they assign a sex crimes detective (Noguera) to investigate, forcing Marina to submit to a humiliating interview and medical exam. Worse yet is Orlando’s family.

Sophia’s initial civility is quickly stripped away as she becomes a vicious, vengeful harpy who forbids Marina from attending the funeral and services for Orlando. Worse yet is her son Bruno (Saavedra) who sneers at and degrades Marina and wants her out of the apartment so he can move in. Marina doesn’t have any legal standing, but to make matters worse, she’s a transgender. In Latin America, that is no easy thing to live with. Through all the humiliations both petty and major, Marina tries to keep her calm, cool demeanor and if she plays things close to the vest, who can blame her?

Finally enough is enough – all she wants to do is mourn her dead lover so she can move on. She sees him, a kindly ghost haunting her wherever she goes. The more she is discriminated against however, the more her blood boils. The time is coming when she will stand up for herself against those who persecute her. What form will that take though?

This is a movie that tackles what is a controversial subject even here in the States – transgenders. Although our legislators seem to take a great interest in which bathrooms they use, there is little interest in dealing with the treatment they receive and the way they are perceived. They are often confused with cross-dressers and are often the targets of violence. It is especially more brutal in Latin America where the culture of machismo flourishes. That Lelio would even take on the subject is to be seriously commended.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the performance of Vega. At times she seems pensive, like all her thoughts are turned inward. She seems brittle and fragile and even a little bit intellectual. Then she is hot and passionate, her anger manifesting in a propensity for punching inanimate objects. Her frustration and grief are mostly kept to herself, even when her tormentors take her beloved dog Diabla from her. It’s only when she gets tired of being treated as a non-person that she finally shows her defiance and yes, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There are elements of fantasy here – sightings of the ghost of Orlando, strange winds that force Marina to bend nearly parallel to the ground, a trip to a disco in which individuals dancing turns into a choreographed chorus line with Marina in an amazing glittery outfit. Is this all in Marina’s imagination or are they hallucinations? Lelio doesn’t explain, leaving it up to the audience to decide which.

The disco scene actually went on for way too long unfortunately – because I liked what Lelio was trying to do. However the strobe lights became so intrusive, so overwhelming that my vertigo was triggered. Anyone who has epilepsy should be well-advised to take a bathroom break once the disco scene begins. I do like the color palate that Lelio uses; every scene is full of bright greens, reds and blues that suffuse the film in a kind of neon glow.

Da Queen and I checked this out the night before it would win the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Given the subject matter, this isn’t a movie that is going to pull in crowds of people at the box office; I suspect that we as a nation are still too intolerant for that to happen although one lives in hope that we will grow up eventually and realize that love is love, no matter what the genders are of the two people involved. This is a movie that is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring and while it makes its case for the drum it is beating, it doesn’t necessarily hit you in the face with bromides and broadsides. Strictly put, this is a film that is deceptively quiet and small-budgeted but it nonetheless packs an emotional wallop and gives voice to those who rarely get to use theirs. Definitely one to see when you get the chance.

REASONS TO GO: The film confronts dead-on the issues faced by transgenders not only in Latin America but globally. Vega gives an intense performance that should make her an instant international star.
REASONS TO STAY: The disco scene with the strobe light went on way too long and actually provoked a vertigo attack in this viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some violence, plenty of profanity and lots of adult thematic material
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vega was the first transgender to present at the Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laurence Anyways
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Mom and Dad

Brigsby Bear


Luke Skywalker trains a young Jedi in the ways of children’s television programming.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Christopher Sullivan, Alexa Demie, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Chris Provost, Claire Danes, Chance Crimin, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg, Kate Lyn Shell, Kiera Milan Hendricks, Ellery Davidson, Ashlyn Brooke Anderson, Marilee Crockett. Directed by Dave McCary

 

We are a product of our upbringing and so much of what we experience as children makes us into the adults we become. Those of us who grew up with certain children’s television shows bear the marks of the lessons they taught us, even if we only got them subconsciously.

James (Mooney) has grown up in an unusual situation. He has been isolated by loving parents (Hamill, Adams) who have encouraged him to watch Brigsby Bear, a sci-fi television show in which the titular character fights alongside the Smiley Sisters against the nefarious Sunstealer. While the lessons are a little unorthodox, James is completely enchanted by the world of Brigsby Bear and has every episode on tape. That is, until his world comes crashing down on him.

He finds himself in a different situation with the knowledge that the world he previously inhabited was not what he was led to believe it was. Even his beloved Brigsby Bear was fake – the show didn’t exist. Alone, rudderless, without any sort of anchor, James remains obsessed with Brigsby Bear. He decides that he alone can finish the show properly and he endeavors to do just that.

There is a lot going on in this movie. Part of it is a commentary on the obsessive fandom that dominates our pop culture at present. Some of it is about the power of imagination to change one’s circumstances. Some of it is a pure nostalgia rush. All of it works.

Mooney, a current cast member on SNL, has an off-beat charm that allows the character of James to be childlike without descending into mawkishness. Mooney manages to surround himself with a terrific cast; Hamill is at his very best in a brief but important role and then there’s Kinnear who plays a sympathetic policeman. Kinnear is one of the very best actors working today especially when it comes to being likable onscreen. I think Hollywood takes him a bit for granted; he hasn’t gotten the role yet that will take him to the next level but he has the capability of getting there.

The bargain basement SFX may look a bit primitive to most viewers but they work in the context of the story. Some critics found that the movie descended into sweetness but I have to disagree; it needed that sweetness, otherwise it becomes just another cynical stab at fandom. I suspect that most critics don’t understand the whole concept behind fandom simply because critics are supposed to be objective. Fans are most assuredly not. Yes, there can be a negative side to obsessive fanboy-ism but there is also a positive side as well. There is nothing wrong with believing in something when there is so little to believe in these days.

This is one of my favorite films of the year. Not everyone will agree with me – it may be a little too out there for some. Others, like the critics I referred to, think it might be a little too light and sweet for their tastes. Me though, this works to perfection. It hits every emotional note dead on. This is one of three films that I think is the best of 2017. Whether it will finish first, second or third will likely depend on my mood when I go to assemble my list. If I’m thinking about this movie however, you can bet my mood will be getting better by the moment.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of those rare movies that hit all the right notes. Those who grew up with 80s children shows will certainly get the warm fuzzies. Mooney has a real offbeat charm. Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a little too obscure.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug usage and teen partying, brief sexuality and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCary is a writer on Saturday Night Live who is making his feature directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death to Smoochy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

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

The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium