Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Disaster Artist

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What is it about bad movies that we like so much? While watching The Disaster Artist, which is about the making of supposedly the worst movie ever made, I of course thought of Ed Wood, which was about the worst director ever. Bad films are used for fodder for what’s called “riffing,” whether it’s on MST3K or in your own living room.

But it takes a special bad film to be celebrated. Just another Hollywood clunker won’t do. They have to be cheap, and here’s the important thing–they have to be made by people who think they are creating greatness.

That’s the case of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious creepy guy who made The Room, which I’ve never seen but now I don’t think I need to. It plays midnight shows and by all accounts is terrible, but the passion involved in its production shows through, and people can’t help but love it.

James Franco directs and plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, and while it’s not as good as Ed Wood it has its pleasures, most of them involving Franco’s performance as a genuinely weird guy.

The film also starts Franco’s brother, David, who gets to play the thankless role of the bland guy, Greg, who is our entry into the film and Wiseau’s world. He is in an acting class in San Francisco and is impressed by Wiseau’s completely over the top rendering of the “Stella” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite Wiseau’s inherent weirdness (he has some sort of accent, a kind of Eastern European/brain damage kind), plus a mysterious source of money, and it seems no other friends but Greg. They room together in L.A. and try to become stars. One of the film’s faults is that it can’t convince me why a normal guy like Greg would ever room with this guy, because I certainly wouldn’t.

They both struggle, although Greg’s good looks get him an agent. Wiseau has a hilariously vicious encounter with Judd Apatow, who in no uncertain terms tell him he’ll never make it. So they decide to make their own money. Wiseau writes a script about a man betrayed by his girl. They hire a crew, including Seth Rogen as script supervisor, who has no idea what he’s getting into.

The “making of” part of the film is very funny, but, like Ed Wood, you appreciate the effort Wiseau. Things do get ugly–people quit, and when Greg moves in with his girlfriend, Allison Brie, Wiseau acts like a jealous lover.

I think, although Franco as a director doesn’t quite nail it, that the spine of the film is Wiseau’s essential loneliness. The cast wonders whether the script is from his own life, and clearly he is coming from a place of deep pain. He is also wounded whenever it is suggested he has the look for villain roles. “I am not villain,” he wails.

The film has to rest on James Franco’s performance. With Ed Wood, there were hardly any normal people, with terrific performances by Martin Landau and Jeffrey Jones and Bill Murray. But The Disaster Artist is just Franco, and is basically like the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers, with comic shots of people looking slack-jawed at what is going on. Rogen, playing his standard part, has a lot of good sarcastic lines, but it’s Franco who makes the movie worth seeing. He deserves an Oscar nomination.

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Review: Wonder

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It occurs to me that a film like Wonder is one of the most difficult type of films to make. Crappy comedies and action films can succeed because of explosions and people who are amused by semen jokes, but family dramas, especially about sick or disabled children, usually are sunk by sentimentality, and end up in the old “Afterschool Special” category.

So I have to give props to director Stephen Chbosky and his co-writers, Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, for making a family film that actually appeals to everyone in the family. I went with an adult and two teenagers, and we all enjoyed it.

I was eager to see Wonder because not only have I read the book, I taught it (it is a popular choice in fifth and sixth grade classrooms–perhaps that is one reason why it has overperformed at the box office). It is the story of a little boy with facial deformities who is leaving the cocoon of homeschooling and venturing into the dark jungle of public school. Middle school is difficult for any child, let alone one who has frightened other children with his face.

The film is structured around his first year in school, fifth grade. His parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) figure it’s time, but Augie (played by Jacob Tremblay) is reluctant. He wears his omnipresent space helmet on his first day, but does take it off. He is tolerated, if not befriended, by most, except for an Eddie Haskell-type named Julian. But he does end up making a couple of friends, notably Jack Will, who realizes he isn’t liking him out of pity–Augie is really a funny and interesting fellow.

The film, like the book, uses multiple points of view. We also get the perspective of Augie’s older sister (Izabela Vidovic). Take a look at the poster and you’ll see her problem–she’s been pushed almost out of the picture. She says that Augie is the sun, and everyone else in the family revolves around him, but she loves him and puts up with it. But she’s dealing with her own problems, such as the sudden coldness of her old friend, and a budding romance with a theater geek (a production of Our Town will figure in all this).

Wonder is remarkably faithful to the book, but there is one problem–in the book, we never truly know what Augie looks like. He says it’s worse than you can imagine. Later, we get the technical term mandibulofacial dysostosis,which isn’t going to help much unless you Google it. So all through the book, we imagine what Augie looks like. In the film, there is little attempt to hide it. We know what he looks like in the first few minutes, and it’s not as horrifying as I imagined reading the book. Of course, he’s had twenty-seven surgeries, leaving scars on his face, his eyes pulled downward, and ears that are like rosettes. It’s enough to get you ostracized, but I don’t think it would scare small children.

The performances are all excellent. Julia Roberts actually sets aside her star power. We do get one of her trademark laughs, but otherwise there is not much flash and it’s good to see her play something other than herself. Owen Wilson plays a cool dad (we never find out what he does, but he gets to wear suits with sneakers). Tremblay, who follows his great work in Room, turns out not to be a one-film wonder. Despite the disruption that Augie creates, one might actually want to be in this family.

Wonder has a simple message: be kind. I can’t think of a lot of movies that carry that message (I say it to students leaving my room). It’s a well made film, and I’m glad it’s making a lot of money, and I hope it gets people to read the book.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Playwright Martin McDonagh has brought his caustic wit to America. This is his second feature to be featured in the States (Seven Psychopaths was the first) but this film is rooted in the heartland, a fictional town called Ebbing, Missouri.

In The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (an unwieldy title) McDonagh writes about the conflict between the mother of a murder victim and the local police department. In trailers, it appears as if the argument is favored toward the woman (played by Frances McDormand). But as the film goes on, we realize that defining the protagonist is not easy, since she is definitely in the wrong and her combatant, so to speak, Woody Harrelson, the chief of police, is blameless, and then leaves the picture halfway through.

As the title suggests, this film is about three billboards that are in disrepair on a largely unused road. McDormand, still seething after months of futile investigation into her daughter’s murder, decides to rent the billboards and put up antagonistic, yet perfectly legal, messages to Harrelson and his department. Harrelson explains that he did everything he could, but the DNA has not matched anyone and there were no witnesses. McDormand doesn’t care.

The person she riles up most is Sam Rockwell, playing a racist and dim-witted member of the force. He’s angrier than Harrelson is, and plots with his mother (a wonderful Sandy Martin) about how to get at McDormand. McDormand is basically fighting her battle alone, as even her son (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband (John Hawkes) are against her.

I thought the first half or so of the film was brilliant, as it shifted from comedy to tragedy, and sometimes in the same scene–just like life. But, especially when Harrelson leaves the film, it starts to unravel. Rockwell becomes the emotional heart of the film, and his character, though given a redemptive arc, is too cliched. And it does seem to be the worst police department ever–Rockwell beats a man senseless and throws him out a window, but does not seemed to be charged, and McDormand firebombs the police station with Molotov cocktails and despite a flimsy alibi is also not charged. Criminals, here’s your place–this town can’t solve anything.

McDonagh is a great playwright, especially his trilogy set in the Western Islands of Ireland. I’m not sure he has the Missouri thing down. Eventually the characters seem to talking at each other instead of too each other. The Hawkes character is a bad guy because he has a nineteen-year-old girlfriend. Peter Dinklage is thrown in as an admirer of McDormand’s for some midget jokes. The one scene that really works is a flashback to the last words McDormand has with her daughter. That scene really stings.

With some rewrites this could be a great movie, as it is it’s just okay. McDormand, despite playing a character who needs therapy badly, has locked down an Oscar nomination. Rockwell is getting buzz, but I think the better work is turned in by Harrelson, who actually seems like a real human being and not a cartoon character.

Review: Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s first solo directorial effort, and it covers some familiar ground. It is essentially a teen movie, much like Sixteen Candles and others, but Gerwig is smart enough to avoid some of the pitfalls that those movies fall into. The film is sentimental but not too much, and nostalgic but happily so, and has a great performance by Saorsie Ronan.

Gerwig is from Sacramento, California, and apparently has mixed feelings about it. There’s a title card at the beginning from Joan Didion: “Those who halk about the hedonism of California have never been to Sacramento,” and later Ronan will call it “the Midwest of California.” Gerwig has said this is not a straight autobiography, but she clearly knows of what she films, and we can assume that the title character, a free spirited high school senior, is the stand-in for the writer and director.

Lady Bird covers senior year of high school, 2002-2003. The film begins with the end of a college tour with Ronan and her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), and to escape her mother’s hectoring Ronan jumps out of  a moving car. She wants to go to the East Coast for college, somewhere like Yale but not Yale, because she couldn’t get in there. She has a best friend (Beanie Feldstein) and attends Catholic school because she has a scholarship and her older brother once saw a guy get knifed at the public high school. Her father (Tracy Letts) is of fragile employment, and has more of soft spot for her idiosyncratic ways (to start with, her actual name is Christine, but she changed her name informally to Lady Bird).

Anyone who has ever gone to high school will recognize the arcs. She joins the theater group and gets a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) who turns out to be gay (assume all theater boys are gay until proven otherwise). She then takes up with a cooler kid, who’s in a band (Timotheee Chalamet) and gives him her virginity, but she is upset that he is not also a virgin. She will drift away from Feldstein and hang out with the popular girl (Odeya Rush) but will lie about where she lives, as she calls it, “on the wrong side of tracks.”)

I think every intelligent, creative student has a story like this in them, and I’m glad to have watched it, but it doesn’t really push the envelope. Lady Bird is enjoyable and authentic (I like the way it doesn’t sugar coat the family’s financial struggles) and there are some very funny lines. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it is better than most of them. There are a few missteps–a subplot involving a priest (Stephen McKinley Henderson) creates questions that are never fully answered.

Ronan, who will probably get an Oscar nomination, is terrific. She is one of only three performers who have been nominated as a minor and an adult (the other two? Mickey Rooney and Jodie Foster) and is clearly a major star in the making, if she already isn’t one. Gerwig, for her part, is a wonderful actress but now a multiple threat, and I look forward to future films from her.

Review: The Florida Project

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In the three Sean Baker films I’ve seen, he’s dealt with people on the margins. In Starlet, it was an adult film actress, in Tangerine (famously shot with an iPhone) it was drag queen streetwalkers, and now in The Florida Project it is the occupants of welfare motels within spitting distance of Disney World. All of them have been empathetic–as I stated before, Baker loves his characters, roots for them, and you will, too, even though they may not be the people you think about every day.

The Florida Project centers around Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Haley (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a child herself. They are on some sort of public assistance, as the only work Vinaite does is buy wholesale perfume and sell it outside the swankier resorts. She also occasionally will turn a trick, which risks both her residency at the motel (ironically name The Magic Castle) and the descending of child services upon her.

The manager of the motel is Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully subtle performance. We’re used to seeing Dafoe in intense roles, but this one, as a man who is doing his job but also looking out for his tenants, is one of great skill. He may get angry at Prince and her friends for shutting off the power, but he also chases away a pedophile and has paternal feelings about them.

Prince, who must be about six or seven, is also terrific. I wonder at children this age if they are really acting or just behaving–at the end of the film she breaks into tears and I hope it wasn’t because someone told her dog died or something. But then again, all acting is really just behaving, isn’t it? No matter, because she appears perfectly natural as a scamp who gets into trouble because there really isn’t anything better to do. When she and her friend Scootie burn down an abandoned house (they don’t get caught, but Scootie’s mother can see the guilt in his face) she breaks things off with Vinaite. She works, and even among the residents there can be a social strata.

The location, of course, is ironic in and of itself. The motels are candy-colored, and the kids are around gifts shops and ice cream stands. When Vinaite and Prince walk to the better hotels they go by Seven Dwarves Lane. But all of this Magic Kingdom stuff is meaningless to these kids, who could never hope to go there.

My only complaint about the film is the very ending, which takes the film out of the realistic and plunges it into magic realism (I won’t give it away, but there are a couple of “wait a minutes” in this scene). Otherwise, The Florida Project is one of the best movies of the year.

Review: Mudbound

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Mudbound is an odd word, but a perfect title for the film directed by Dee Rees and based on a novel by Hillary Jordan. The landscape, farmland in Mississippi, is frequently muddy, the characters, until a dramatic ending, are metaphorically stuck in mud, and the opening scene has two brothers digging their father’s grave in mud, one of them almost buried in it. They find the skull of a slave, and one brother notes that their father would hate it if he knew he’d end up in a slave’s grave.

Set right before, during, and after World War II, Mudbound deals with race. It is a bit like The Best Years of Our Lives as written by William Faulkner. Two families, one white, one black, will intersect. The black family are sharecroppers who have worked a farm for years and not gotten any closer to owning their own land. Their patriarch is Hap (Rob Morgan), a decent man who knows his place in society, and his dutiful wife (Mary J. Blige). He has a passel of children, the oldest being Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who goes off to war and becomes a tank commander under Patton.

The white family are the McAllans. Henry (Jason Clarke) has purchased the farm that Hap and family work. He has dragged his cultured wife (Carey Mulligan), who was well into spinsterhood when married, to rustic surroundings. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garret Hedlund) goes off to war and becomes a bomber pilot. The boys’ father (Jonathan Banks) is an unrepentant bigot and all around horrible human being.

Mudbound is good in fits and starts, but suffers from some failings. One is the excessive narration. I’m not like Robert McKee, who believes there should be no voice-over narration in a film, but Mudbound’s is far too much, and you can tell it comes from a novel. At one point, Mulligan pays for a doctor for Hap, and Blige, in a voice-over says something to the effect that she had never realized all white folks aren’t the same. This is totally unnecessary, as Blige’s face says everything we need to know. In most cases, if the acting, directing, and editing are good enough, voice-over isn’t needed.

Secondly, this is well-trod ground. Does this film say anything new about racism and pre-civil rights America? Except for a post-war friendship between Hedlund and Mitchell (which gets them both in serious danger) not really. Mitchell finds that he is treated better in Europe than America, but we’ve seen that before in many forms. The last act, which is gripping, is nonetheless familiar, as the Klan hoods and noose come out of storage.

The acting is wonderful here, especially Mitchell, who I didn’t recognize as the same man who played Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton, and Morgan. Banks is a superb villain, if one-note. Interestingly, I found Clarke and Mulligan’s characters to be underwritten and therefore their performances wasted.

Mudbound was produced by Netflix. It will be interesting to see how much attention the Academy pays to it.

Review: Wonderstruck

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I was a bit wonderstruck watching Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ latest film. One will immediately make comparisons to Hugo, which is only right, since they are both based on books by Brian Selznick, who writes the screenplay here. They are both films that approach magic realism without quite getting there, and romanticize places–in Hugo it is the Paris train station, in Wonderstruck it is The American Museum of Natural History, or more precisely, museums in general.

Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories about deaf children on the loose in New York City. The earlier is about Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who lives in Hoboken in 1927. She idolizes a movie star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and sees that she is going to be appearing live so she hops on the ferry for her first visit across the Hudson. She finds Moore, and a bit of a twist is revealed, but then leaves and looks for her brother Walter, who works in the Natural History Museum and has authored a book, called Wonderstruck, about the history of museums.

The later story is of Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977, who has been orphaned by his mother’s death in a car accident (she is played briefly and luminously by Michelle Williams). She has never told him about his father, which seems cruel. Nevertheless, after he loses his hearing while being on the phone in an electric storm (the rumors are true!) runs away to New York based on a clue that he finds tucked inside a book–you guessed it, the book written by Walter.

The momentum of the story is finding out how these stories will connect, which is the weakest part of the film–the story is predictable and very thin. Also, having two deaf characters requires a lot of writing, which I suppose works fine in a book but is awkward in a film.

On the plus side, and it’s a big plus, is the look of the picture. The 1927 portion is especially fantastic, with costumes by Sandy Powell and stunning black and white photography by Ed Lachman. Watching Simmonds explore the city creates an almost vicarious feel (Simmonds is actually deaf, but has a face that would launch a thousand ships). Often scenes of her looking at something in the museum are cut with Fegley looking at the same thing, still there after fifty years. His segment, in which New York was in not such a great shape (although I still think the Port Authority looks like that now) are in a kind of uncompromising color, but he finds a friend whose father works for the museum, and they hide out there in the night (sadly, nothing comes to life).

The ending, which winds up at the site of the World’s Fair in Queens, isn’t as poignant as it thinks it is (it involves a true life event that I won’t spoil here, but if you know your New York history you’ll figure it out). When Moore appears as another character in Ben’s segment, it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

See Wonderstruck for the visuals, or for the nostalgia for old New York. Try to overlook the simplicity of the story.

Review: Suburbicon

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suburbiconGeorge Clooney’s second film as director in 2005 – ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ – was one of my favourite films of the 2000s. Concise, sharp, riveting and intelligently done; it was fully deserving of the critical praise and Academy Award nominations it got. At this time it seemed certain that Clooney would be a director of note for decades.

Alas the films he’s directed since have largely been critical disappointments and his latest film – ‘Suburbicon’ – is such a woeful misfire that one can only conclude that ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’ was a fluke exception to the rule.

Set in 1959 American suburbia, the home of middle-class Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is invaded by two thugs whose actions lead to the death of his wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Everyone in town is shocked by the event and supports Gardner and his family. But when Gardner’s young son Nicky (Noah Jupe) sees his dad & Rose’s sister Margaret (also Moore) fail to ID the two culprits in a police lineup it’s clear there’s much more to this than meets the eye.

Suburbicon fails on multiple levels. One reason is that it seems to treat the fact that seemingly affluent and content 1950s Middle America was – gasp! – in fact full of hypocrisy, contradictions and complacency as something fresh and insightful. Somehow Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov (working off an old Coen brothers screenplay) seem to have ignored the endless TV shows and films documenting this in recent decades that have made that assumption a well-worn cliché by now.

And in anycase, the film does virtually nothing interesting with this assumption as it’s all lazy surface-detail observations; apparently mentioning the central family is Episcopalian numerous times is as far as it goes for insight. The central character of Gardner is a total void as we never begin to understand his motivations as to why he behaves the way he does. Dealt with such an empty vessel of a character, Damon struggles haplessly.

As well, Clooney’s is aiming for the skewered crime-noir that original writers and his regular collaborators the Coen brothers are famous for but he’s simply not up to the task. Especially in the early segments, his direction is telegraphed and heavy-handed and what should be an intense and compelling crime mystery feels tedious and dreary. The home invasion scene early in the film is one of the least-interesting types of those scenes I can recall and feels twice as long as it should be.

But the film’s biggest error is a subplot awkwardly inserted in (which has no real connection to the main plot and could’ve easily been excised from the film) is about the arrival of a black family in the all-white neighbourhood. Reactions go from initial bemusement and shock (the local postman presumes the wife is the house maid) to outrage and a violent and vicious mob.

This subplot is so cartoonish and relentless that its impact is zero. An early scene of a town meeting where local residents voice their disapproval at non-whites being part of their town feels like a meeting of overt virulent racists from the KKK as opposed to what many 50s white suburbanites would be like. The film’s racial commentary is so heavy-handed that it makes ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’ seem like a subtle take on race relations.

There are a few positive aspects to the film. A scene where in response to Nicky’s displeasure Margaret turns from a sweet and sunny persona to someone full of deviousness and manipulation is well done and acted. Also the scene where an insurance investigator (well played by Oscar Issac) interrogates Margaret is atypically riveting. And the 1950s style and visuals are pleasing on the eye. But in truth this film has very few pleasures or satisfaction to offer.

There has been talk in social media that the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and Damon & Clooney’s associations with the disgraced producer ensured this film was doing to be DOA at the box office when it opened and perhaps that’s true to an extent. But even if that scandal hadn’t occurred ‘Suburbicon’ would’ve sunk anyway as it doesn’t succeed on any level.

Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Okay, a few things to get out of the way: I have seen the original Blade Runner, but it was a long time ago and I don’t remember much of it. That might have helped some while watching Blade Runner 2049, the long-simmering sequel, which is all about replicants, bio-engineered beings that resemble humans in almost all ways but are not, though in what ways we really don’t know.

There’s a title card that tells us that replicants in the year 2049 are new and improved, and always obey (this is sort of like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot). The older models, the ones who did not obey, are hunted down by blade runners. One of them is Ryan Gosling, and he’s a replicant. The opening scene has him “retiring” an old model, then finding another one buried on the property.

It turns out this replicant had a baby. In the world of this film, it is earth-shaking news that replicants might be able to breed. The head of the company that makes them, a weird cat played by Jared Leto, wants this baby, who would now be about 28 years old, found, so he can figure out how it was done. Gosling, working for the police, is also assigned to find it. So we get a classic noir tale, as Gosling follows clues wearing a knee-length trench coat and a day’s stubble (replicants can grow facial hair, I guess) to figure out who that baby is grown up to be.

Though the film is structured as a noir, of course it is also science fiction. Turns out we have flying cars in 2049, and I hope I live long enough to get one. Of course, the world is a bleak place. The cities are still like the original film, with huge advertisements and holograms (one of them is for prostitution and is naked about fifty feet tall). For companionship you can have a hologram for a partner, as Gosling does (Ana de Armas), who he can talk to, but physical contact is tough.

Leto’s assistant (Sylvia Hoeks), also a replicant, is the bad-ass who is chasing down the baby and creating mayhem wherever she goes. We also meet a woman who is responsible for creating the memories that are implanted into replicants, and a human prostitute who fills in for de Armas to make sex possible (this reminded me of the scene in Her where this attempted). The future is not so bright.

The trailer gives away an important plot point that is used as a surprise in the film–the return of Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, who was the original Blade Runner. If you’ve been arguing about whether Deckard was a replicant or not, the film answers it definitively. We also get a brief return of Sean Young, who is really nothing but CGI.

I’m kind of avoiding saying whether I liked the film or not. I did, but I’m not sure why. The look is tremendous. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer–will be finally get his Oscar? The sets are beautiful in their bleakness, while Leto’s inner chamber is awash with reflected light off of a pool that is mesmerizing. But a few things bother me–the rules of what replicants can and can’t do bother me. They are created, without souls, but little seems to separate them from humans. They can bleed, feel pain and emotion (some are always crying). I would have liked more specificity.

Also, since the lead character is basically an android, what does he want? The first thing you learn in writing drama is that a character must want something, and must be always trying to get it. Gosling, because he plays a non-human who is programmed to do his job, is simply following orders through most of the film. At a certain point he takes on the ability to do his own thing–how did that happen? Replicants can also clearly love–he loves his hologram, for instance. How does that interfere with their obedience?

This film creates a lot of interesting questions and doesn’t answer all of them, which is okay. The lack of box office (the first film didn’t do great business, either, not in its first release) would suggest that any further sequels are unlikely, even though they are set up. I suppose fans will just have to argue about this one for thirty years until Blade Runner 2082 is released.

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories

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This may seem odd but when I watched The Meyerowitz Stories, which has no opening credits, I had no idea who wrote or directed it. Turns out it’s Noah Baumbach, and it fits firmly in his oeuvre, although more like While We Were Young, Greenberg, and The Squid and the Whale than the films he has co-made with Greta Gerwig. In looking at his resume, I’m interested to see that he co-wrote a film with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), because The Meyerowitz Stories plays like The Royal Tenenbaums, as re-imagined by Woody Allen.

I guess any movie about neurotic New York art types can be traced to Allen, but there are a lot of similarities. The movie centers around the relationship of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who never got as famous as he wanted to be, and his three children. They are Adam Sandler, who gave up a musical career to be a house-husband for his daughter, now going off to college; a dowdy typical middle child (Elizabeth Marvel), who has grown used to and weary of being ignored, and Ben Stiller as a successful estate manager in Los Angeles, who had a different mother than the other two.

Hoffman is on his fourth wife (Emma Thompson), a lush, and Stiller is planning on selling all his artwork and his New York house, which Sandler is against. Hoffman is a buttoned-down man who is nevertheless full of rage and envy. He can’t tolerate the slightest bit of rudeness, and simmers with resentment that his old friend, Judd Hirsch, is getting a show at MoMa while he can only get in a group show at the school where he taught, Bard. Each child has their own problems with him–Sandler and Marvel were ignored by him, while Stiller was smothered. Yet Hoffman is largely oblivious to any of this and for an artist has no real self-reflection.

The first half of the film is much better than the second, when the plot takes a turn for the cliched. The dialogue is sparkling, and Allenesque–Hoffman at one point says, “Maugham was skillful, but not an artist,” which reminded me of the line Jeff Daniels had in The Squid and the Whale–“It’s minor Dickens.” Hoffman’s character is very much like Daniels’s in that film–intellectuals who have no real emotional connection to those around them.

The film has a number of sub-plots and surprise cameos. Sandler’s daughter is a film major at Bard who makes semi-pornographic films, featuring herself (that Sandler can watch them is a bit of a joke, I guess). She is played by Grace Van Patten, who I just saw in Tramps, and I wrote that she had a Shailene Woodley vibe. In this film, not knowing who she was, for a moment I thought she was Shailene Woodley. Someone should get them together in a sister movie. Adam Driver has one scene with Stiller that is very much like the scene with Michael Caine and Daniel Stern in Hannah and Her Sisters, Candice Bergen shows up for one scene as Stiller’s mother, and Sigourney Weaver plays herself. Hoffman can’t get over meeting her. “She said, ‘I’m Sigourney,’ and I said, ‘I’m Harold,'” he keeps repeating.

While I liked the movie a lot, it is very brittle. Part of this is Hoffman’s performance, which is not one-note but the man is one-note. His presence, though humorous, kind of set my teeth on edge. When he leaves the picture for a while, the film takes on a different tone. A scene in which Sandler and Stiller start by apologizing to each other but end up in a hapless fight is both funny and heartbreaking.

Sandler, devoid of any of his annoying tics from his low-brow comedies, is terrific, perhaps best in the opening scene, when he is trying to find a parking space in Manhattan (I’ve been through that). Stiller has the same neurotic anger he’s had in other Baumbach pictures, such as Greenberg and When We Were Young (where Charles Grodin basically plays the Hoffman character) and all the way back to Reality Bites. If I were giving career advice to Stiller I’d advise to play someone isn’t so pent up with stress. He should play a guru, or something.

The film was made by Netflix, and got a brief but necessary run for Oscar consideration. What remains to be seen is if the Motion Picture Academy, which was created and maintained by people in the film business, will embrace the streaming business. It will have to happen sooner or later, maybe it will here, but I’m guessing except for a writing nomination, it won’t happen this year.

Review: Battle Of The Sexes

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BOTSGoing by the title, one would think the prime focus of the Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris directed film ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ would be the bizarre only-in-the-70s tennis match between top women’s player Billie Jean King and 55 year-old former tennis champ Bobby Riggs that caught the public’s imagination and became seen as a defining event in feminism of that era.

And yet over the course of the film it’s clear the filmmakers are more interested in other issues and the match itself almost feels like a subplot as opposed to the central narrative it’s treated as. It’s one of the reasons the film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve.

The film begins with King (Emma Stone) acclaimed as the best tennis player in the world and winning another Grand Slam title, but major challenges are on the horizon. Firstly, the blatant sexism of tennis authorities who almost gleefully pay women considerably less than men sees King spearhead the daunting challenge of launching a separate women’s tour. As well, a chance meeting with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forces King to confront her lesbianism and the difficulties that entails for her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell) and as a public figure in 1970s America.

With the pressures amounting rapidly, an offer from openly chauvinist long-retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to play a match as a literal battle of the sexes seems like the last thing that would interest her; but instead she accepts and it becomes one of the triumphant events in her life.

The only time BOTS really comes alive is when it covers the romantic relationship King has with Marilyn as the contradictions in her personal life become untenable. It would’ve been much easier for her due to her public profile, career and happy marriage to deny her true self, but the sheer magnetism she feels for Marilyn makes it impossible. BOTS effectively conveys how all the conventions one is supposed to adhere to in life can become irrelevant when you meet the right person and the romanticism that takes hold.

Apart from these segments, BOTS feels disappointingly rote and by-the-numbers. This is especially so for the plot involving the breakaway women’s tour which King led which could’ve been a fascinating topic but the treatment here is dispiritingly superficial, as if they just did a summary of the key points from a Wikipedia page on it.

Also, the film seems merely happy just to recreate the 1970s gaudiness of the actual ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ tennis match itself without even delving into any of the issues surrounding it. For example, we constantly see how seriously King takes her tennis and wants the sport to be taken serious (and women playing it as being respected). Yet she is taking part in a match that feels like something PT Barnum dreamt up (King arrives in on a float) that almost feels like its mocking tennis in more ways than one. Also, why did an event so corny and gaudy become one of the defining cultural events of its era? Alas, the film doesn’t event attempt to look into these issues.

The film is a bit more interesting when focussing on Bobby Riggs whom it portrays surprisingly sympathetically. They don’t really portray him as a genuine sexist pig, but as a rather sad middle-aged man playing up that angle knowing that will get the maximum attention and publicity from someone who desperately misses the adulation and spotlight he had in his tennis career.

In truth, it feels like the filmmakers really wanted to make a biopic of King but that would’ve been a harder sell than the more box office concept of making a film about an iconic 1970s event.

As it is, BOTS feels limited by the sheer clunkiness of its script. There’s an early scene where King (meeting sexist tennis authorities) just blurts out they’ll start their own women’s tour; it comes across as inauthentic and heavy-handed because the film wants a lazy, shorthand way of telling the audience what will happen in the film next. There’s also a family dinner scene with a bored Riggs where his son wonders how many peppercorns there are in the salt shaker. Knowing before watching the film that Riggs was a notorious gambler, I knew that this was put in solely so Riggs could react and eventually ask his son whether he wanted to bet on it with his disapproving wife looking on (an ongoing theme throughout the film). Again, it just felt like a script too heavy-handed and lazy in pushing the film’s themes.

I don’t want to be too negative on BOTS. It’s a relatively easy film to watch with a few nice scenes and Stone and Carrell are fine in their performances (although I doubt they’ll be awards-worthy). And from a technical perspective, the film looks convincing in the finale as you really believe it’s them playing the tennis match.

But overall, BOTS could’ve and should’ve been a better film than it is.

Review: mother!

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The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn’t rate an F (I’d give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn’t marketed properly–when people hate a movie, it’s often because they didn’t get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there’s an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I’d say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn’t get it.

I’m not sitting here saying I’m superior, because I didn’t get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don’t leave, or Rosemary’s Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I’m reluctant to spoil anyone’s encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise–Garden of Eden?) He’s a poet, so we know immediately this isn’t reality because I don’t think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He’s got writer’s block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She’s even more so when Harris’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on–Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don’t play in Peoria.

Even though I didn’t understand it, I didn’t have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it’s not ghosts, it’s something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are “Baby?”

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there’s a constant, “Why are you doing this?” and “I can’t put them out” vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it’s sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don’t think they’ll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it’s a great conversation piece.

Review: It

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I read Stephen King’s It about thirty years ago, and I forgot a lot of it (I read the summary on Wikipedia and was aghast at how much was gone from my brain). I don’t even remember if I saw the mini-series from 1990, although Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown is now a ubiquitous example of coulrophobia. Therefore, I’m not sure if I realized just what It is until I saw the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti. It is a metaphor for puberty.

The decision to break this into two films, the first featuring only the children (the book divides into alternating viewpoints of the kids and their adult selves) streamlines things and makes the metaphor pop more. The children, all at about that age, deal with an evil entity that more often than not takes the form of a devilish clown. This clown feeds on the fear of children (much like Freddy Krueger) and what do children fear? Turning into adults.

The book was more detailed about the children’s fears–it included mummies and werewolves, and there are none here, but I’m particularly struck about how the film treats the one girl, Beverly Marsh, played excellently by Sophia Lillis. In one scene she is in a drugstore, buying Tampax, so nervously it seems like the first time (she also swipes a pack of cigarettes). Her father, who is clearly molesting her, discovers her feminine hygiene product and asks her if she is still his little girl. Later, It will manifest itself as blood spewing out of her bathroom sink.

Becoming an adult also means turning on one’s parents, and here three kids do so (we don’t meet all the parents), two of them killing their own fathers, which seems very Joseph Campbell. The other, the hypochondriac Eddie, finds out his drugs are placebos and rebels against his Munchhausen Syndrome mother.

That being said, It is only an okay movie. There’s a lot to chew on, psychologically speaking, but the direction is simple and repetitive. We get a scene, then a scare, a scene and a scare, a scene and a scare. Believe it or not, there is a limit to how many times a clown popping out of nowhere can scare you. But some scenes are absolutely top-notch, including the first one, when Georgie’s boat goes down the sewer and we first meet Pennywise, as played by Bill Skarsgaard. He is terrifying, with his malevolent giggles, and the only problem I had was even a kid as young as Georgie would run like fucking mad, boat or no boat.

It is in the tradition of kids’ adventures movies that are constructed like World War II platoons–the stutterer (and leader), the funny kid, the hypochondriac, the fat kid, the black kid, the Jewish kid, and the girl, who is falsely rumored to be a slut. There is comfort in this, as it reminds us of better outings, such as Stranger Things (the excellently named Finn Wolfhard is in both casts). To me it hearkens back to teen lit like the Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators, where kids are smarter than adults and solve the problem with teamwork.

The children are all very good, particularly Lillis, who looks so much like Amy Adams that they will have to get Adams to play Beverly in the next film (Lillis has already played a young Adams in an HBO series). I also liked Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, the chubby kid, who writes a romantic poem to Beverly, is precocious enough to have researched and figured out that It comes out of hiding every 27 years, but is also enough of a kid to haplessly try to take his project home from school on his bike. The kid actors here convince you they’re are kids, not miniature adults.

The art direction on the house where It is hiding is also well done. It seems in every neighborhood there is that abandoned house that every kid is fascinated by. This one looks like every house I ever had a nightmare about. Skarsgaard’s make-up is great, and the special effects are great but don’t over do it.

There are some logistical problems, such as if It is so omnipotent (he can make a slide carousel go berserk) than how can he be defeated by physical means (it seems to me that you can’t beat up a demon with a baseball bat). But at least they don’t include all of King’s fooforall about the macroverse and the giant turtle that created the universe. They also, thank god, don’t include the head-scratchingly wrong scene he wrote in which Beverly has sex with all the boys. Instead, this is reduced to a simple Sleeping Beauty-style kiss.

It is a pretty good horror flick, nothing more, but in this day and age when horror movies are as disposable as Kleenex that’s no small feat. I will be very interested to see Chapter Two, and given the box office, there may be more chapters after that.

Review: Ingrid Goes West

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Black humor is hard, because walking the thin line between funny and mordant is precarious. Some films end up being too silly, and others tilt the way of mawkish. Ingrid Goes West almost falls off on the side of mawkishness, but manages to be a poignant commentary on the role of social media in the lives of the lonely.

Aubrey Plaza stars as someone we don’t know too much about, other than that she is prone to stalking. The film opens with her crashing the wedding of an acquaintance and getting institutionalized. Her mother has recently died, and we get the impression she was her only companion. But then she discovers one of those new breeds of celebrity I have a hard time understanding–the social media celebrity, who gathers followers and then gets paid by companies to praise their brands.

This is Elizabeth Olsen (the second film I’ve seen with her in a week) and she impresses Plaza with her exquisite taste, whether it’s food, clothing, decorating, or books. With the money her mother left her, she decides to move to Venice Beach, California and befriend Olsen.

She starts with the dubious plan of kidnapping her dog and returning it, which works. Plaza and Olsen strike up a friendship (also with Olsen’s husband, a hipster with a man-bun played well by Wyatt Russell), and she also develops an attraction with her neighbor, O’Shea Jackson Jr. What’s interesting about Plaza’s character is that when she feels as if she’s liked and appreciated she behaves perfectly normally. It’s only when her friendship is threatened, as it is by the arrival of Olsen’s loutish brother, than she starts getting crazy.

The film was directed by Matt Spicer and co-written by Spicer and David Branson Smith. I found the script’s insight into social media and our nation’s craze for our phones to be spot-on. “Where’s my phone?” is the first thing that Plaza says upon awakening in a hospital bed. She spends her days and nights going through Instagram, robotically clicking “heart” on all the pictures. She appears to have no inner life, only a need to be attached to those she sees on her phone. She’s like the technologically advanced Eleanor Rigby.

One is left with questions. Was she employed? Was she able to function in society? The script could have rounded her out a tad more. Otherwise, this film is as sharp about social media addiction as The Lost Weekend was about alcoholism. It’s just another way to fill our lonely lives.

Review: Wind River

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Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut, is a solid crime drama, not as expansive as the films of his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water. He doesn’t seem to be aiming as high, and that’s fine. This is the kind of movie that when you’re struggling to agree to something on VOD everyone should be okay with.

The film is set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Jeremy Renner, a worker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (he hunts predators, hint) finds a young woman, dead. She was a friend of his teenage daughter, who died three years earlier. The young woman ran several miles, barefoot, through the snow.

Since an Indian reservation is federal land, the FBI must be brought in. That’s in the person of Elizabeth Olsen, who is not very experienced (she arrives in frigid Wyoming wearing only a windbreaker). She, the tribal police chief (a very good Graham Greene) and Renner investigate (Renner, who is not law enforcement, ends up involved because of his tracking ability).

It really isn’t much of a mystery. The law visits the trailer of three stoners and there’s some violence. Renner, tracking some mountain lions, finds a clue that isn’t even fully explained, and we see what happened to the young woman and her boyfriend before there’s a final gunfight. The film is not really a whodunit, it seems more an excuse to show the way of life of rez Indians (it’s not a pretty sight). At the end of the film, there is a P.S.A. tacked on that seems out of place, as the film didn’t seem like a polemic.

But I can’t be hard on this film. It’s not great, but there’s nothing wrong with it. In addition to Greene, there’s another good performance by Gil Birmingham as the murdered girl’s father.

Sheridan has proved himself as a screenwriter, but I need to see more from him as a director to see if he’s got the right stuff.