Six LA Love Stories


Love can be exhausting.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Random Media) Beth Grant, Matthew Lillard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carrie Preston, Alicia Witt, Peter Bogdanovich, Ashley Williams, Michael Dunaway, Ross Partridge, Marshall Allman, David Claassen, Jennifer Lafleur, Michael Milford, Davie-Blue, Hayley Polak, Mitch Swan, Don Most, Savannah Remington, Kayla Swift, Ogy Dunham, Summer Rose Ly, Jamie Anne Allman. Directed by Michael Dunaway

 

The rest of the country has a kind of love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Some admire the beautiful beaches and the energy that has made it one of the world’s great cities. Others decry the shallowness that comes from essentially being a Hollywood company town. Still, like every town, city, megalopolis and village around the globe, love occurs on a daily basis.

This film takes place on a single day in sunny Southern California and follows six different couples, all at varying stages in their relationship. None of the stories are interconnected and all have just one thing in common; a couple either falling in love, deeply in love, or falling out of love.

At a pool party at a Hollywood producer’s mansion, Robin (Williams) bitches on her phone about her air-headed sister while Wes (Partridge) overhears. The two strike up a conversation and although Robin initially reacts with distaste, she soon finds that she and Wes have a lot more in common than she thought.

Alan (Lillard) arrives home early from work to discover his wife Diane (Preston) having sex with another man. Infuriated, then deeply wounded, Alan struggles to find out why she betrayed him like that; Diane’s answers aren’t what he expects nor are they necessarily what he really wants to hear.

Amanda (Lafleur) is the stage manager at a self-help convention event where multiple speakers are given a limited amount of time to address the audience. As Duane (Bogdanovich) goes up, Amanda is confronted with her ex-lover Camille (Dunham) who is getting ready to speak. As Amanda seems to be okay with things the way they are, Camille has something she specifically wants to say to her.

Mara (J.A. Allman) meets up for a drink with her ex-boyfriend Pete (M. Allman) whose acting career has stalled and has decided to take a stab at screenwriting instead. As Pete describes a recent meeting with a studio exec, Mara is reminded of all the things that led to their break-up but can’t quite deny that there isn’t a spark there.

Terry (Witt) visits her ex-husband Nick (Dunaway) to discuss the schooling options for their daughter. Nick appears to have moved on from their amicable divorce but Terry clearly hasn’t. Her feelings of anger towards her ex hide something much deeper and much less unpleasant inside her.

Finally, John (Tobolowsky) is the only tourist on the tour of the Will Rogers estate with Meg (Grant), a guide there. While they are initially at odds with each other – John is a college professor who also writes books for a think tank on Rogers and is a bit of an insufferable know-it-all – Meg senses that she can supply something that John may need even more.

The moods on the various vignettes vary from overtly humorous (Meg-John) to bittersweet and dark (Alan-Diane) to surprising (Terry-Nick). Like most ensemble pieces, the quality varies between the stories, ranging from authentic (Alan-Diane) to goofy (Meg-John) to downright unrealistic (Meg-John). The cast is pretty solid though and the performances are generally reflective of that, although Lillard and Preston essentially steal the show in their vignette which is very much the best of the six. While I liked both the Meg and John characters and the performances by Grant and Tobolowsky, I just didn’t connect with their story which seemed tonally at odds with the other five. The one that the director appears in as an actor oddly enough was for me ironically the weakest vignette of the six.

This was originally released on home video back in 2016 but was re-released last month by Random Media who apparently cleaned up some sound issues (reviews from the original release complained about the sound but I didn’t notice any problems with it). While it is reminiscent of Love Actually in terms of subject matter, this movie first of all doesn’t have the interconnection between the stories that film has which while totally not a bad thing, I found myself wondering why they needed a full length movie (albeit one only an hour and 20 minutes long) for this movie when six individual short films might have worked better. Besides, London at Christmastime trumps L.A. in the summer anytime.

The Alan and Diane story is the one worth seeing but because the six stories are intercut together, you have to watch the other five as well and while none of them are painful to watch, none of them approach the quality of the Alan-Diane saga so keep that in mind. Otherwise a solid effort by a first time narrative feature writer-director.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue is generally pretty well-written.
REASONS TO STAY: The quality between vignettes varies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bogdanovich appears at the behest of his daughter Antonia who is a producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Actually
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hearts Beat Loud

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La Familia


Father and son are on the run.

(2017) Drama (Celluloid Dreams) Giovanni Garcia, Reggie Reyes, Kirvin Barrios, Indira Jimenez, Ninoska Silva, Vincente Quintero, Mariû Favaro, Dixon Dacosta, Tatiano Mabo, Alberto Gonzalez, Morris Merentes, Natacha Pérez, Luis Domingo Gonzalez, Sahara Alvarez, Jesus Rivas, Andy Duque, Miguel Angel Suárez, Franlys Diaz. Directed by Gustavo Rondón Córdova

The economic woes in Venezuela have brought that nation to the brink of collapse. What does that mean to those that live there however? For the wealthy, it’s pretty much business as usual. For the poor of Venezuela, the effects are devastating.

Pedro (Reyes) is poor. He’s a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t attend school which doesn’t seem to alarm anyone. He lives in one of the more impoverished districts in Caracas, the capital. His father Andreas (Garcia) is a day laborer, working whatever odd jobs he can find to squeak by. His mother is nowhere to be found; whether she is dead, deserted or divorced the movie never quite elaborates.

Pedro, essentially growing up without any supervision, runs around the streets with a group of kids, each trying to prove how much tougher they are than the rest. Pedro mostly pals around with Jonny, his best friend. One afternoon they are accosted by a kid with a gun who attempts to rob them of the cheap cell phone they found. Pedro, never one to take anything lying down, gets into a fight with the would-be robber. It ends badly for the young kid.

When Andreas finds out, he knows what he has to do; get the heck out of dodge. He knows that the kid that Pedro hurt has relatives who are in the gangs that run the ghetto, and they are going to make an example of both Pedro and his dad. Andreas takes a reluctant Pedro to a different part of the city and tries to earn as much money as he can so that they can get out of Caracas forever.

But that isn’t going to be easy. Pedro is headstrong and has zero respect for the work ethic of Andreas. For his part, Andreas is not above stealing some bottles of booze from the catered parties he works as a waiter at from time to time when his mostly construction work is done for the day to resell for a little extra cash but otherwise prefers to walk the straight and narrow, preferably crouched down under the radar. Pedro prefers to stand up straight and tall and take on all comers, bowing and scraping to nobody.

The two get along about as well as two brood bulls in a paddock full of cows. Pedro wants to go back to where he belongs; Andreas wants something better and knows he will never find it for himself. Something’s got to give.

This is a terrific character study in that both Andreas and Pedro are given richly developed personalities of the kind we rarely see in the movies anymore. Neither one is cliché and neither one is easily summed up. Neither Andreas nor Pedro can be put into a specific box; they are both complex and imperfect. Much of the realism of the film – which was filmed in some of the worst crime-ridden areas of Caracas – is owed to how well the two main characters are shaped.

Garcia, a celebrated stage actor in Venezuela who has done some memorable film roles as well, owns the screen. His gaze is that of a frightened lamb who knows the slaughterhouse is nearby. His eyes dart from place to place, but he seems to find peace and satisfaction in working hard. Eventually the joys of receiving a paycheck begin to affect Pedro who starts out as a tough guy but shows layers of depth as the film wears on.

.The tone here is pretty bleak, not just for Pedro and Andreas but for Venezuela as well. While Córdova isn’t pointing specific fingers here, there is no escaping that this is a parable for his country from the corruption to the crime to the hopelessness. The realism inherent in this film is sobering and smacks of truth. I can’t speak directly to the situation in Venezuela but I know poverty and how it affects of the souls of those afflicted by it and that’s where this film soars. That this is a first feature for Córdova is impressive; no doubt so long as he doesn’t get into hot water in his native land he is going to be a major talent coming out of Latin America. This movie is a triumph from beginning to end.

REASONS TO GO: The father-son dynamic is caught perfectly. The life lessons here are hard-earned – as they are in real life.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this film to be too bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity as well as sexual content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reyes was discovered by casting personnel for the film while playing soccer in a middle class neighborhood in Caracas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running Scared
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Mechanic: Resurrection


Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

(2016) Action (Summit) Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Hazeldine, Michelle Yeoh, John Cenatiempo, Toby Eddington, Femi Elufowoju Jr., Anteo Quintavalle, Rhatha Phongam, Bonnie Zellerbach, Francis Tonkala Tamouya, Tais Rodrigues Dias, Allan Poppleton, Soji Ikai, Vithaya Pansringam, Lynnette Emond. Directed by Dennis Gansel

 

Jason Statham is my favorite action hero at the moment. He’s smart, he’s tough and he’s talented. He has his own unique voice and has the chops to hang with the legendary action stars of the 80s and 90s; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, van Damme…Statham if nothing else can proudly put his name in that pantheon, even if most of the films he makes in the genre are more of the B variety.

So he’s back, now in his 50s, in a sequel to his 2011 hit. Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a world class assassin who specializes in making his hits look like accidents but after faking his own death has been living under the radar in Brazil. However, in this day and age nobody can slip notice for long and he is found by Crain (Hazeldine), an old “friend” of his who needs his special talents. In order to obtain them, Crain needs to have some leverage on his old buddy and what better way than to set him up to fall in love with the altruistic and somewhat naïve Gina (Alba) who happens to fall into his radar.

He takes refuge at the Thai resort run by his friend Mei (Yeoh) but Crain finds him there and kidnaps Gina. Now Bishop must perform three nearly impossible assassinations of three very dangerous, evil gentlemen in a short amount of time or Gina is going to get dead, which Bishop is anxious to prevent. He knows that Crain will likely kill them both anyway so he needs to have a plan. Here’s your word of wisdom for the day; never force a world class assassin to work for you unless you intend to die yourself.

The film this is a sequel to was itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson flick which was darker in tone than this. There is more of a 90s action vibe, a cross between the Mission: Impossible series and the action films of Schwarzenegger. One of my issues of the 2011 film was that Bishop was almost too good; there was never a sense that he was in any jeopardy. They’ve rectified that here, but there are other issues unfortunately.

The main one is that it doesn’t really add anything to the franchise. Bishop was, as Statham put it, a “thinking man’s killer” who has the ability to plan three or four steps ahead and improvising on the fly when he needs to. It’s mostly the latter here and we lose some of the more thoughtful aspects of Bishop which is what made him unique. Worse though, this is pretty much action film making 101; it is interchangeable with all sorts of recent action films (many of which were made for the Lionsgate/Summit banner) and we can pretty much predict what happens next – and it does.

Statham is the main reason to see this. He has settled into being one of the premiere action heroes of the 21st century and while he could use a shave pretty much throughout the movie, he continues to be one of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighters in action films ever. He’s capable of being over-the-top in the Crank films or more subtle as he is here. The man can actually act, as he showed in his Guy Ritchie films as well as The Bank Job, still to date his best performance.

The movie is at its best when the dialogue stops i.e. the action and stunt sequences. The trailer hinted at a stunt in which Statham climbs up the side of a glass building and sets a charge in the glass bottom of a pool hanging over the side, waving goodbye to the victim as the glass shatters and he plummets to his doom below. It is as good a sequence as you’ll find in any action movie this year and fortunately, the trailer omits some of the best parts of the sequence. There are others that are also in the elite class as far as stunt and fight sequences in 2016 are concerned.

But the movie’s main sin is that it simply isn’t interesting. The stunt sequences are great but the romance between Gina and Bishop is not and Yeoh, one of the greatest action heroines ever is held to a largely lifeless cameo. If you’re going to go to the trouble of casting someone the caliber of Michelle Yeoh, the least you can do is give her something to do. It’s a shame that she never got Hollywood’s interest in her prime; she’s not only an extraordinary action star but an extraordinary actress as well, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved and its sequel reiterated earlier this year.

Jones fares better as a jocular arms dealer but he really is the only one who looks like he’s having a good time here. Unfortunately, the audience for the most part will side with the rest of the cast and not have much of a good time either. This is a blah entry into what could have been an interesting action franchise.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really nifty action sequences and stunts. Statham has become a dependable lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is predictable and dull. They took an interesting character and converted him into just another action figure.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the American film debut of Gansel, who has directed a number of films in his native Germany.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Wick
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Kubo and the Two Strings

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight