TONI ERDMANN (2016, Germany)

February 8, 2017

toni-erdmann Greetings again from the darkness. A list of the best German movies of all time would likely feature very few comedies. It’s not a country or culture that tends to laugh much at its history (for good reason) or itself. A case could be made that this latest little gem from writer/director Maren Ade belongs on such a list, and although it features several laugh out loud moments, whether it should be labeled a comedy is certainly worthy of debate.

Winfried (Peter Simonischeck) has been a mostly absentee dad, but now he is deservedly concerned about his daughter’s well being. He is intent on trying to get Ines (Sandra Huller) to let go of her uptight, high stress corporate persona and enjoy life a bit. It’s the kind of advice only those who have really lived can rightfully offer up … though you’ve likely never seen advice administered in such a creative and cringe-inducing manner.

Winfried’s alter-ego is Toni Erdman, a shaggy wig and false teeth wearing goofball who manages to insert himself into the most inconvenient and awkward moments for Ines and her business. His pranks are designed to illustrate just how ridiculous the workaholic treadmill is and how little joy accompanies such a work-a-day life.

Having been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, it’s easy to crown this as the frontrunner in the category. Ines’ birthday party shines a new light on the phrase “birthday suit”, and that sequence alone might have generated more laughter than I heard in a theatre all year. Yet despite the laughs and Toni’s shenanigans (and there are many), at its core, this is a film about loneliness and the emptiness of life without happiness. Perhaps you could call it a philosophical comedy, but it’s downright chilling to see the raw emotion of Ines as she belts out Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, or finally strips herself (literally) of all pretense.

NOTE: it was recently announced that Jack Nicholson will come out of retirement and join Kristen Wiig in an American remake. As exciting as that seems, don’t let it stop you from seeing this original.

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THE COMEDIAN (2017)

February 2, 2017

the-comedian Greetings again from the darkness. It’s often seemed as if Robert DeNiro existed in two unrelated cinematic worlds. He’s a 7 time Oscar nominee and 2 time winner (The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull) renowned for his dramatic work, while also seemingly intent on proving he’s as funny as he thinks he is. His work in Analyze This, Analyze That, and the Fockers franchise takes “playing against type” to an extreme. This latest is his return, 35 years after The King of Comedy, to playing a stand-up comedian.

Of course Jackie Burke (DeNiro) is no regular comedian. He’s pushing 70 years old, has anger issues, no close friends, a strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and agent (Edie Falco), and fights his popular legacy as “Eddie” from a decades-ago popular sitcom. He strives to be recognized not as Eddie, but as Jackie Burke, the king of insult comics.

That anger lands him in community service where he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also serving her time. It’s kind of creepy to watch the 30 years older dude hit on her, but it’s explained away by her ‘daddy issues’ with Harvey Keitel. Of course, DeNiro and Keitel have a natural rhythm (that spans 5 decades of working together), but it’s really DeNiro and Mann who have the best scenes (outside of the unnecessary romantic interlude). Ms. Mann is especially fun to watch and brings a sense of realism to a film that’s mostly lacking.

Taylor Hackford directs a script written by a blend of 4 writers: a Producer of Fight Club, a standup comedian, an Oscar nominee for The Fisher King, and a writer best known for the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a weird mix that explains the periodic flashes of genius and the overall mismatched parts.

There are no shortage of familiar faces that pop up, including Billy Crystal, Lois Smith, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, and Gilbert Gottfried. Patti LuPone is enjoyable in her role as DeVito’s wife and Jackie Burke-hater. It’s nice to see Charles Grodin in a Midnight Run reunion with DeNiro, and Cloris Leachman proves that comedy kills in her brief time on screen.

Although there is a more cutesy humor segment at a retirement center when Burke leads the residents through a make-shift version of “Makin’ Poopie” set to the rhythm of “Makin’ Whoopie”, anyone seeing this should be braced for raunchy humor. Lots of raunchy humor. Jackie Burke is an insult comedian in the vein of Don Rickles, only he adds a dash of Jim Norton and Amy Schumer. With all the uncomfortable laughs, it might best be described as that rare film genre – blue humor for the blue hairs.

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GOLD (2017)

January 26, 2017

gold Greetings again from the darkness. What is your dream worth? Would you sell it? How much would it take? Kenny Wells is a dreamer. Sure, he is a third generation mining prospector, but he’d rather tell you the story of his grandfather and those mules than actually dig in the dirt himself. In fact, talking is what he does best (and most often). It’s the first film from director Stephen Gaghan since his 2005 Syriana, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. This time he collaborates with writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to deliver a blend of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with a dash of The Big Short and American Hustle.

Matthew McConaughey is nearly over-the-top in his portrayal of Kenny Wells, a prospector with the spirit of a wildcatter. This isn’t ‘sexiest man alive’ McConaughey, but rather ghastly Matthew. Balding dome, protruding gut, and hillbilly teeth … it’s all there wrapped in a sweaty cheap suit and accessorized with booze and cigarettes. The actor seems to relish the role.

The story kicks off in 1981 Reno, showing Kenny as an eager to please son to his distinguished father played by Craig T Nelson. Flash forward to 1988 and Kenny’s struggling through the recession in an effort to keep his dad’s company alive. His loyal employees work the phones from the musty cocktail lounge where Kenny’s girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) waits tables.

Billed as “inspired by true events”, Kenny goes to great extremes to meet up with legendary geologist and miner Mike Acosta (played by Edgar Ramirez). These two need each other and team up to sniff out a gold mine down the river in Indonesia. What follows is despair, desperation, malaria, elation, big investment bankers, a hostile takeover attempt, political maneuverings, heartbreak, pride, and a surprising twist. It’s a wild ride and doesn’t always take you where you assume it’s headed.

The supporting cast includes Corey Stoll and Bill Camp as part of the Wall Street investment group, Stacy Keach as a supporter and investor of Wells, Toby Kebbell as an FBI agent, and Rachael Taylor as a contrast to Bryce Dallas Howard’s working class character. Also appearing is Bruce Greenwood as the king of the prospector hill and featuring an awful accent that adds to the borderline cartoon feel of some scenes.

Hope and greed could be viewed as a disease, but for Kenny Wells, we are urged to believe it’s all about the dream. What’s left if you sell off that dream? Instead, if you aren’t part of the fraud, maybe you live for that moment on stage when they present you the Golden Pick Axe award, and you finally believe your father would respect you. Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse collaborate on an included song, which somehow fit in with the string of 1980’s music that plays throughout. The rapid and numerous changes of direction will keep you entertained, though we do wonder how much truth from the Bre-X scandal was actually used, and how much was just a chance for McConaughey to go all out.

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NERUDA (Chile, 2016)

January 19, 2017

neruda Greetings again from the darkness. There is little offered by the history of the country of Chile that would lead you to believe that some laughs, giggles and chuckles are in store if you watch director Pablo Larrain’s film about Pablo Neruda. But that’s exactly what happens as we watch a police inspector hunt down the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet and Senator. While you would probably not describe it as an outright comedy, it’s a serio-comedy that will educate (a little) and entertain (a lot).

The opening scene takes place in the men’s room as a most serious Senate debate has flowed into an inappropriate locale. Apparently there is no relief during this time of relieving. It’s here that Neruda’s spoken words are as important as those he writes, and those spoken words lead directly to his need to go on the run. The poet/senator and his artist wife Delia del Carril become fugitives in their own country, and most of the film has them negotiating the Chilean underground.

Set in 1948, three years after the end of WWII, a fascinating game of cat and mouse between hunter and hunted evolves. Director Larrain and writer Guillermo Calderon employ a generously creative license, and play quite fast and loose with facts resulting in a delightfully complex quasi-detective story.

Luis Gnecco plays Pablo Neruda, and actually looks very much like the Chilean icon who was influential, but also a bit prickly and burdened with his own sense of entitlement. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Inspector Peluchonneau, who is charged by the President to hunt down and capture the now enemy of the state. It’s a wild chase that involves up to 300 policemen in support of the Inspector who romanticizes the chase. The filmmakers have more fun with traditional story structure as the Inspector’s internal dialogue questions whether he is the lead character … an idea that would never be considered by the man he is chasing.

The film has a retro look and feel, and borders on farcical at times – the shots inside a moving car appear right out of the old 1940’s detective movies. But the harsh realities of the times are never far removed. It could be a Picasso speech or a concentration camp director named Pinochet (soon to play a more important role in Chile). Neither the Inspector nor the fugitive make for a trustworthy narrator, but their different perspectives constantly provide us with more bits to consider.

Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal and Mercedes Moran (as Delia del Carril) are all excellent in their roles, and the use of music is spot on … especially the score from Federico Justid (whose work I noted in Magallanes and The Secret in Their Eyes). Director Larrain also released the high profile Jackie (with Natalie Portman) over the holidays, and deserves to be discussed as one of the more creative filmmakers working today. It’s pretty tough to name another contemporary film that blends an oddball inspector, a tough woman losing touch, and a narcissistic fugitive – all with bases in reality, while never settling for something as mundane as the truth.

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20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

January 12, 2017

20th-century Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Mike Mills has found a niche, and a form of therapy, by exploring and exposing his life in a most public manner … on the silver screen. Beginners (2010) brought us the story of his father’s (an Oscar winner for Christopher Plummer) late life pronouncement of homosexuality. This time, Mr. Mills turns his lens and his pen towards his mother, and he seems to understand her much better in retrospect than in the summer of 1979 when the film is set.

This can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world. One of her tenants is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who is now battling cervical cancer. The third female is the seemingly always present Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive 18 year old who values the platonic friendship she has with Dorothea’s 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman).

Factor in another tenant in the form of laid-back handyman and former hippie William (Billy Crudup), and we have a makeshift family in a communal setting that seems almost normal for 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea enlists the other two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie.

Ms. Bening finds her groove as the story progresses and we feel her struggling to connect to each of the characters. When William plays a Black Flag song, her reaction is priceless: “They know they’re not good, right?” She doesn’t mean it as a put down, but rather her attempt to understand why her son is drawn to this. An even more emotionally naked moment occurs when Jamie is reading a passage from “The Feminine Mystique” to his mother. It’s a passage that captures what he thinks of her, as well as what she thinks of herself … a mostly invisible woman finding it difficult to be a parent while also maintaining a self.

Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The movie can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. The film is what Running with Scissors should have been. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me).

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HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monea). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

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LA LA LAND (2016)

December 10, 2016

la-la-land Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.

While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.

As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).

Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.

Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.

Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Cause viewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.

The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.

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