MISTRESS AMERICA (2015)

August 27, 2015

mistress america Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has quite the track record of human nature commentary with his films: The Squid and the Whale (2005), Greenberg (2010), and Frances Ha (2012). The conversations he writes on the page are somehow at once both realistic and stagey when they reach the big screen. It’s like his characters speak the way we think, rather than the way we actually talk outloud … and this makes for some awkward scenes. Awkward, but no less insightful.

Mr. Baumbach’s real life partner, co-writer and lead actress Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an eternally optimistic just-turned-30 New Yorker who is never without a new idea, but unfortunately lacks the follow-through gene. Prior to meeting Brooke, we are introduced to her soon-to-be step-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke, who was so memorable in Gone Girl). Tracy is a misfit college freshman who quickly latches on to the much more exciting life of Brooke, and sees her as a combination mentor and limitless source of material for her short stories.

The first part of the film allows us to get a real feel for both Tracy and Brooke, but it’s the change of pace that occurs when the setting hits a house in the wealthy area of Connecticut that is most startling. This portion is a modern day screwball comedy in the mold of Hawks and Sturges. The conversation cadence throughout the film is offbeat, but it’s here that the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue pacing really pushes the viewer to keep up. Some of the funniest lines aren’t the dominant ones in a scene, forcing us to juggle overlapping characters and sub-plots. It’s really quite fun … and showcases some nice support work from Michael Chernus, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

Even the “slower” first segment has some stellar writing including an explanation of “X” in Algebra tutoring, and a college freshman coming to grips with what makes a writer (it’s not the looks). Baumbach and Gerwig have a knack for creating whiney people who talk (incessantly) their way through the process of assembling pieces of the universe. Some might call this the painful process of maturity, but it seems to also include learning the difference between acting happy, real happiness, and acceptance of one’s life.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

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NO ESCAPE (2015)

August 25, 2015

no escape Greetings again from the darkness. An effective thriller must either put real people smack dab in the middle of believable peril or facilitate the suspension of disbelief. This latest from writer/director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with his brother Drew Dowdle) takes bits of each of those approaches and provides a pretty intense ride … despite the mostly nonsensical happenings.

We pick up Owen Wilson and his family while on an a transatlantic flight to his new job in some unnamed Asian country that we later learn is just a couple miles down river from the Vietnam border. Not long after their arrival, the generic Prime Minister of this unnamed country is assassinated. The rebel forces responsible for the coup were evidently motivated by the political ploy of Owen’s company, and they aim to kill him.

Lake Bell plays Owen’s wife, and the two of them spend most of the movie on the run together while protecting their two young daughters. Ahh yes, the daughters. While watching this, it made me think that the writers must not be parents, as the kids’ reactions to this extraordinarily dangerous situation involves excessive whimpering combined with whining for food. Anyone without kids will certainly not want any after watching this.

One of the family’s earliest escape sequences involves leaping from one rooftop to another, and all I could think of was how fortunate that this was not a typical American family who, shall we say, struggles with the effects of a fast food diet. In addition to the long jump, Owen Wilson takes over the record for best on screen child toss … an underappreciated cinematic category.

The writers do deserve credit for understanding that Owen and his little family were insufficient to hold our attention for the full run, so they threw in a bizarre super agent played by Pierce Brosnan … or Liam Neeson, or Bruce Willis, or maybe Chuck Norris. No, no – it really was Pierce Brosnan. Action sequences appear spontaneously with Brosnan’s character, as do the funniest lines … and the Kenny Rogers taxi company.

There do seem to be some conflicting story lines. On one hand the big Western corporation is cast as the villain who cares only to capitalize on the local citizens, yet on the other hand, we as viewers are supposed to root for the cute white family as they run from the rebels. Perhaps this is over-thinking … something the filmmakers won’t be accused of.

Most movie lovers enjoy a thriller that creates tension, and there is no shortage of intensity here. Just don’t expect to buy into everything you see.

watch the trailer:

 


QUEEN OF EARTH (2015)

August 25, 2015

queen of earth Greetings again from the darkness. Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires constant maintenance along with give and take from both sides. When a long time friendship between Catherine and Virginia devolves into a passive-aggressive game of emotional “tag, you’re it”, the result is an unusual psychological expose’ on self-indulgence and grieving.

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry follows up his critically acclaimed Listen Up Philip with a glimpse into the complexities of friendship between two women who seem mostly clueless to both their world of privilege, and their not-so-subtle narcissism. Both Catherine and Virginia have experienced personal tragedies at different times, and their friendship has basically crumbled due to the responses of each woman towards the other.

A startling opening scene serves up a very emotional Elisabeth Moss (Catherine) as she and her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) argue their way through an ugly break-up due to his infidelity on the heels of the suicide of Catherine’s dad and mentor. The rest of the movie covers the week (each day marked by a scripted placard) that Catherine spends with her best friend at Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter) family lake house. Flashbacks cover the previous year’s visit under much different circumstances, but it’s the intimate … and often quite uncomfortable … moments between the two women that provides the crux of the film.

Director Perry focuses a great deal of attention on the faces of Catherine and Virginia – many of these are extreme close-ups that leave thoughts unspoken, yet quite clear to the viewer. There are elements of 1970’s schlock horror films … but not in a bad way. The music, atmosphere and camera angles have a certain retro feel, but the tension between the two friends is palpable and timeless.

Perry’s script and the performances of Moss and Waterston tap into that nasty bit of human nature that makes us believe our problems are much worse than anyone else’s. Building on that, the animosity felt when our friends aren’t “there for us” in times of trauma, can lead to a dangerous slope that affects judgment and mental stability. Watching Catherine and Virginia go at it has elements of truth and dread.

Patrick Fugit appears in a few scenes as Virginia’s neighbor, and his sole purpose seems to be to torment Catherine – at least that’s how she sees it. The juxtaposition of the two visits (separated by one year) makes for some very interesting character observations, and helps us understand the delusions and bitterness. It’s an interesting and stylish little film that doesn’t so much entertain as spur introspection.

watch the trailer:

 


GURUKULAM (2015, doc)

August 22, 2015

gurukulam Greetings again from the darkness. We depend on documentaries to teach us things we don’t know, introduce us to interesting people, and take us places we will probably never visit. Co-directors Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalel accomplish all of these by taking us to south India and the jungle setting of Ashra Vidya Gurukaulam.

Filmed as far back as 2010, we go deep into an environment that would normally be off-limits to cameras. We follow students who have come to the ashram to learn from Swami Dayananda Saraswati and study the ancient wisdom of Advaita Vedanta.

The film alternates between following Dayananda and providing us a feel for the students and the overall life of quiet ritual, meditation and spirituality. The Swami is pretty fascinating as he constantly shares the wisdom, philosophy and insight that is not designed to raise funds, but rather to offer the process of discovering one’s self and life meaning.

Not only is this a different approach for a documentary … it’s very quiet (no narrator) and paced to mirror the movements from the ashram … but it is extraordinary to see the contrast versus our usual hectic daily lives in the Western world. A community of solitude may sound incongruent, but watching these folks find peace in their daily rituals while combining self-realization with supporting their neighbors, is something that must be witnessed to fully comprehend.

There are only a few shots that include cell phones or computers … another stark contrast to our daily lives of over-stimulation. Instead, the simplicity of the day and the tranquil setting permit a more open and uncluttered mind, heart and soul. This easily could have been a profile of Swami Dayananda, but the choice of the filmmakers to provide a more complete overview creates quite a unique viewing experience – one that quietly draws you towards introspection.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 22, 2015

man from uncle Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many of us left. I’m referring to fans of the 1960’s TV series who will always think of Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as the real United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – shortened to U.N.C.L.E. Of course, these days, the movie industry is committed to remakes, sequels and re-boots, and it’s not surprising that it takes “Superman” and “The Lone Ranger” to try and fill the shoes of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.

Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin join forces with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Gaby in a mission to thwart the sale of a nuclear warhead built under duress by Gaby’s estranged father. Also joining in the fun are Jared Harris as Sanders, Hugh Grant as Waverly (Mr. Carroll’s old role) and Elizabeth Debicki (she made quite an impression as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), who makes a very intriguing “bad guy” as Victoria.

A one word description of this movie would be pretty. Most EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are pretty. The clothes are pretty. The sets are pretty. The Italian locations are pretty, and Lord knows the people are pretty. Most of the lead actors have spent some time modeling: Cavill, Hammer, Vikander, Grant, Debicki, and Luca Calvana. Heck, David Beckham even has a cameo just to make sure every scene includes someone really pretty.

In the same year with the latest Mission: Impossible (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and James Bond (Spectre) movies, it’s understandable that the Sherlock Holmes writer/director team of Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach. Unfortunately, the comic chops are a bit weak on the leads, so while they look pretty … many of the punchlines come off pretty weak.

For any other surviving loyalists to the original TV series, the best advice would be to accept the movie for what it is, and avoid comparing to those classic memories. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme song only merits a few moments of airtime. Those unfamiliar with the original material will likely accept this as the Pirates of the Caribbean of spy movies, and understand that the current TV show “The Americans” handles the Cold War much more dramatically and intensely. However, if anyone is looking for pretty …

watch the pretty trailer:

 

 


THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015)

August 21, 2015

Diary of Teenage Girl Greetings again from the darkness. It takes some talent – acting, writing, directing – to make a watchable movie that centers on a teenage girl sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend.  Ordinarily that would be considered a (nausea-inducing) spoiler; however, it is disclosed in the trailer and is the focus of the best-selling YA novel from Phoebe Gloeckner. The author claims the story is “semi-autobiographical”, but we are all better off not knowing which parts she actually experienced.

The film begins in 1976 San Francisco with 15 year old Minnie (Bel Powley) celebrating her recent sexual escapades. As we hang with Minnie, we see and hear her dictating her diary entries into a microphone and clunky cassette deck. The thing that immediately jumps out as a difference in this film is the authenticity in its portrayal of teenage girls and the thoughts and perspectives of Minnie.  She lets us in on her desire to be desired and her conscious decision to give up her virginity to Monroe. Ahh yes, Monroe. The biggest issue here (and it’s a major issue – not just legally, but morally) is that Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is the boyfriend of Minnie’s mom (Kristen Wiig).

There are many complex aspects to the story, and you must get past the repeated illegal (no matter how consensual) sexual activity (it’s only a movie) to appreciate the rare insight from a teenage female perspective. Minnie is an artist being raised by what can conservatively be termed a lackluster parent. Her mom Charlotte spends much of her time drinking and drugging, setting a less-than-stellar example for her two daughters. It’s no wonder Minnie works so hard at being noticed and desired … feelings she mistakes for love. Witnessing the teenage brain attempt to transition to adulthood is excruciatingly painful, and a reminder that emotional maturity is a process and not an on/off switch.

Bel Powley is a new screen presence to most of us, and she is shockingly strong in carrying much of the movie. Alexander Skarsgard never once backs off from his thankless role – knowing full well his actions will disgust many viewers. Kristen Wiig brings nuance to her role as crappy parent, while Christopher Meloni, Margarita Levieva and Abby Wait are all strong in support.

Any film that kicks off with Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic” and later shows a clip of “H.R. Puffenstuff” deserves a shot, and first time director Marielle Heller rarely makes a safe choice in the presentation of Minnie’s journey. It’s a rare film that forgoes “teenage cuteness” for emotional growth. The film states that alienation is good for your art, and Ms. Heller and Mr. Gloeckner risk audience alienation for their courageous storytelling.  It’s no wonder the film has been a favorite on the film festival circuit.

watch the trailer:

 


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