HAM ON RYE (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Should I stay or should I go? Only it’s not really your choice. Some bizarre ritual, or rite of passage (or no passage), is held to determine whether one is selected to venture into the world, or instead resigned to remaining a local forever.

We first see the teens clumped in their cliques, nervous energy palpable on the screen. Anxiety is prevalent but we aren’t exactly sure why. Slowly each of the young folks makes their way to Monty’s Deli – only, contrary to the title, it’s not for the ham on rye. The typical awkward teenage social event is underway, only there is more at stake here than who will dance with who.

Director and writer Tyler Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger have delivered a scathing commentary not just on the suburbs, but of the realities faced by high schoolers all over. In every home town, some kids head off to college or off into the world in some other manner, while another group gets “left behind”. What follows is a gap or void between those who leave and those who remain. In the film, the void even exists within families.

The film opens and closes with sequences in the community park. Young kids are quite normal – running, jumping and laughing. The older adults seem to be merely existing. There is an almost supernatural approach here by the filmmaker, but it does beg the question … how much control do we have over our fate at that age, and are we accepting of our lot?  Pretty interesting fodder for discussion.

watch the trailer:

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GREENER GRASS (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Opening Night at the Oak Cliff Film Festival … a time to hold your breath while preparing for a unique movie experience. Yep, it happens every year – and this year, the festival’s 8th, may be the most fun yet. Our Thursday night offbeat treat for 2019 comes courtesy of co-writers, co-directors, co-producers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. These two highly creative filmmakers have expanded their award-winning 2015 short film (same title) to feature length instant indie comedic classic … and one surely to garner a cult following (just follow the laughter).

Ms. DeBoer stars as Jill and Ms. Luebbe is Lisa. They are best friends, neighbors, and passive-aggressive competitors in a manner only seen in today’s suburban settings. Think of THE STEPFORD WIVES or Seaside in THE TRUMAN SHOW, and then toss in color-coordinated family attire, golf carts for transportation, and braces on the teeth of every adult. More warped than idyllic, the wacky level of politeness is a source of comedy, and there are some gems during many of the segments. Consistent laughter in the nearly full Texas Theatre meant concentration was required to avoid missing the next killer line.

Oh yes … the killer. A stalker/possible serial killer is a menace that hovers in the background through most of the film. The threat is mostly teased as our locals go about unwittingly poking fun at soccer, baseball, yoga, accelerated classes, layered dips and music lessons. The self-imposed pressures of this existence are evident in both parents and kids – especially kids who watch unapproved TV shows like “Kids with Knives”.

Lest you think all of the comedy is derived from the two leads, know that Beck Bennett (“Saturday Night Live”) plays Jill’s husband, and Neil Casey plays Lisa’s significant other. Both are hilarious in contrasting styles, and Mary Holland is a hoot as the recent red-haired divorcee Kim Ann, and it’s D’Arcy Carden (“The Good Place”) who is the real scene stealer as Miss Human, the slightly-off second grade teacher. Julian Hilliard is immediately recognizable as young Luke from “The Haunting of Hill House”, and here he plays Julian, who is likely to make your own adolescent child’s transformation pale in comparison.

Is there an easier target for satire than suburbia … other than the current political climate, of course? Where do we look for happiness?  A friend’s husband? The neighbor’s house? Someone else’s baby? While fake flowers abound and represent the dream of exterior perfection, it should be noted that I only counted 2 f-bombs in the whole movie. The humor, though quite absurd and sometimes teasing the line with horror, is basically squeaky clean – an approach that helps it stand out in an era of today’s raunchy comedies trying to out-raunch each other. After playing Sundance, it’s likely to join the best comedies in the love-hate category. If you enjoy slightly demented social commentary, there is a good chance you’ll find humor here … though I keep drawing a blank trying to come up with a movie comparison. Perhaps that’s the best compliment that can be offered.

watch the trailer:


BOOKSMART (2019)

May 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every generation tends to get the high school movie (the movie about high school life) they deserve. Going back to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Sidney Poitier in TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), what followed were such memorable films as CARRIE (1976), GREASE (1978), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), most every John Hughes movie from the 80’s, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986), SAY ANYTHING (1989), DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), CLUELESS (1995), 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999), MEAN GIRLS (2004), HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (2006), JUNO (2007), and SUPERBAD (2007). It’s that last one on the list that this directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is likely to draw the most comparisons to.

Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) and Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD, and sister of Jonah Hill) star as Amy and Molly, two best friends and high school seniors who have sacrificed a social life (i.e. partying) for academics in order to position themselves for the best colleges. Amy has decided to take a gap year doing charity work in Botswana, while Molly wears her intelligence and class ranking on her sleeve and sits in judgement of her less disciplined classmates. She is headed to Yale with her ultimate life goal being an appointment to the Supreme Court (she has an RBG poster up in her room).

Imagine their shock when, the day before graduation, Amy and Molly discover that many of their less-disciplined (i.e. hard partying) classmates will also be attending elite schools. The besties immediately scheme to make up for 4 years of nose-to-the-grindstone by attending the biggest party of the year … and showing others how much fun they can be. Plus, the party affords each the opportunity to pursue their crush: skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for Amy, and athlete Nick (Mason Gooding) for Molly.

Although (full disclosure) I was never a high school girl, the one thing that stands out about the film is how the kids seem like real kids. That’s not to say most every aspect isn’t slightly exaggerated, because it is. The level of gayness in the Drama club is a bit difficult to take, and the teenage body is objectified in more than one shot; however, director Wilde has a knack for making high school look cinematic. Two sequences are particular standouts for the way they are filmed: the swimming pool scene with Amy underwater, and the house party as the characters weave in and out of rooms in the large house

Supporting roles add depth to the comedy thanks to Jason Sudeikis as the school Principal/Lyft driver; Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, who is always popping up and stealing scenes; Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents; Molly Gordon (“Animal Kingdom”) as the misunderstood ‘Triple A’; the aforementioned Victoria Ruesga and Mason Gooding; and star-in-the-making Diana Silvers as Hope – the aptly named rebel who clicks with Amy.

Co-written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the film presents a realistic friendship between two teenage girls, and mines some common and recognizable personalities for comedy gold. Smart and funny female characters are interesting at any age, and “no one knows me” is the anthem of most every high school student since caveman days. The inevitable comparisons to SUPERBAD will likely be favorable to this film, and it will probably be the perfect fit for this generation – even if we hope most students avoid many of the happenings. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers, you should prepare for the harsh language high school kids are known for, as well as that ‘brazen, yet insecure’ blend so common to the age. Of course, we can’t help but find the timing of release quite interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal. It won’t replace AMERICAN GRAFFITI for me, but with Olivia Wilde having been known as an actress, we now recognize her as a legitimate director.

watch the trailer:


THE PROFESSOR (2019)

May 16, 2019

(aka RICHARD SAYS GOODBYE)

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cancer comedies are few and far between, and that’s understandable since the often deadly disease brings with it so much suffering and sadness. Writer-Director Wayne Roberts pulls no punches. The opening scene finds a doctor breaking the dreaded diagnosis to a patient … lung cancer. The patient, a college professor named Richard, is told he has 6 months to live.

The cold opening has us questioning if this is truly a comedy – even though the opening scene professor-patient is played by Johnny Depp. The news hits him hard of course, and we can see his mind spinning as he works out his approach and acceptance. What follows are some quite awkward and uncomfortable scenes with both his class and his family – a wife Veronica (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). Both of the women in his life usurp is announcement with those of their own: Veronica is having an affair with the Chancellor of the college where Richard works, and Olivia discloses that she is a lesbian. The two dinner time announcements and Richard’s still held secret are integral to every scene that follows.

Six title chapters clue us in on each subsequent phase in Richard’s life, and the key is that he tosses conventions aside and tries to find meaning in life … all while facing his own mortality. On one hand, Richard does what a professor does – he teaches. His small group of students are privy to such insight into life as “it ends in death for everyone”. On the other hand, he experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experiences, including a couple of episodes with students – something that should never happen.

Ron Livingston is perfectly cast as the somewhat slimy Chancellor who is sleeping with Richard’s wife, but it’s Zoey Deutch and Danny Huston whose characters generate a bit more substance in Richard’s life. Ms. Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson and a star in the making) plays Claire, a student who seems to quickly “get” what her professor is going through. And Mr. Huston gives one of his best performances in years as Richard’s long-time friend Peter who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.

With all of the fantastical characters he has played (often masked in make-up and costumes), we sometimes forget what terrific dramatic acting ability Johnny Depp possesses when he’s engaged. For those who only know him as Captain Jack Sparrow (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies), or as Grindewald (the “Fantastic Beasts” films), or as the Mad Hatter, Tonto, or Willy Wonka, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with his turn here (or in BLACK MASS, FINDING NEVERLAND, or BLOW).  Filmmaker Wayne Roberts offered up an excellent debut in 2017 with KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, and he follows that with this unusual look at mortality – including a “celebrate life” soliloquy.

watch the trailer:


NON-FICTION (Doubles vies, France, 2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it’s only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce … and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard’s latest manuscript. Alain claims it’s too easy to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it’s “auto-fiction”, meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON – or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard’s sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife, and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain’s publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character worries about infidelities, while it’s a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as “very French” in that it consists of ‘4 very witty lines’. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes “feel-bad books” rather than the usual “feel good” ones. And Alain refers to Leonard’s last book as “a worst seller”.

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keep the film from ever feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can’t help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the vibrant dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to “Double Lives” which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the ‘Martian Martian’ song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained … in a mostly French manner.

initially screened at 2019 Dallas International Film Festival

watch the trailer:

 


LONG SHOT (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN (1990).

We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.

When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.

Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.

Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.

Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.

watch the trailer:


DIFF 2019 Day 8

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. And now, the end is near … well, it’s actually over … at least as it pertains to the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival. I watched 22 feature films over the 7 days I attended (I missed opening night), and though bleary-eyed, I certainly recommend every movie lover experience the film festival life at least once. If you happen to be travel-averse, there is assuredly one held not too far from home. Of course, the quality of festivals varies greatly, as do the themes and approach to programming.

The final three movies on the final day delivered a very pleasant surprise, a second French comedy in as many days, and a cultish-thriller that was also a mini-reunion for a couple of “Justified” actors.

 

Here is my recap of Day 8 movies:

JUMPSHOT: THE KENNY SAILORS STORY (doc)

 Having played high school basketball, I can honestly say that I never once gave thought to who, when or how the jump shot might have been “invented”. It was ubiquitous to the game … the same as blocking out on defense or coaches yelling from the sideline. Having read the synopsis for this film, I felt a twinge of guilt in not giving any previous thought to the origins of the jump shot. However, since director Jacob Hamilton includes interviews with such hoops luminaries as Stephen Curry (also a producer on the film), Kevin Durant, Bobby Knight, and Dirk Nowitzki, each equally clueless on jump shot history, my ignorance doesn’t seem quite so burdensome.

Of course I had seen the clips of how the game was once played, and director Hamilton includes a fair amount here. Other than the ball, the hoops, and the floor, the old game from the 30’s and 40’s bears little resemblance to what is played today. Although the rules haven’t changed much, the pace of the game and the techniques certainly have.

We are introduced to Kenny Sailors, the man who many credit with originating the modern day jump shot. Mr. Sailors talks of playing his older, much taller brother in games of one-on-one and rarely being able to even get off a shot … at least until that one day when, off the dribble, he rose up and released the ball at the height of his jump – and the ball swished through the basket. A turning point in the sport occurred in Sailors’ front yard.

Included are some photos and clips of Sailors’ high school and college teams – including his having (future Hall of Fame sports announcer) Curt Gowdy as a teammate. There is a bit of Wyoming basketball history detailed, including Sailors’ University of Wyoming national collegiate basketball championship in 1943 at Madison Square Garden. It’s noted that Sailors’ jump shot was nearly indefensible at the time, but he was also an expert ball-handler, tough defender, and above all, a respected team leader.

So yes, this is a basketball story; but it’s even more the story of a very interesting and downright cool gentleman. After college, Sailors left Wyoming as part of the Marines and served in the war. He married and his wife was pregnant when he set out to serve his country – admitting that he assumed he wouldn’t be coming back. Director Hamilton includes interviews with Sailors’ 3 grandchildren and his son, but the most engaging segments of the film allow us to hear directly from the man himself – at the time, well into his 90’s.

Humble, yet proud, Mr. Sailors recounts moving to Alaska as a precaution against his wife’s severe asthma. They lived there 35 years, and he served as both a big game hunting scout and a high school basketball coach. Having two daughters, Sailors worked diligently to develop girls basketball, and he did it not for personal glory (they won a lot of games), but rather for the life lessons the games teaches. He was intent on his daughters having access to the discipline, teamwork and dedication required for a successful team.

We see the iconic Life Magazine photo of Sailors shooting his jump shot, as 9 other players on the court had both feet on the ground, and we understand the impact he had on the game. But it’s the passion he speaks of in regards to life that sticks with us after the film. A very fine athlete who left his mark on the sport, but an even better man who lived a humble and respected life. Director Hamilton’s film uses animation to fill the gaps where no clips or photos are available, and he’s wise enough to know that the greatest impact comes from allowing Mr. Sailors’ smile to light up the screen and our lives. Anyone for a game of H-O-R-S-E?

 

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

 French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003), and has a very loyal group of followers for his films. It should be noted that, despite the title, this is not a sequel to Arcand’s 1986 film THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. This one is a comedy-crime drama that is as cynical as it is witty, and perhaps as much social commentary as satire. It’s yet another rip on capitalism while showing that idealism can work wonders (at least if it’s well funded).

“Intelligence is a handicap.” That’s what Pierre-Paul Daoust (played by Alexandre Landry) tells his girlfriend as he breaks up with her in a café. When she points out that he’s a delivery driver (similar to UPS), Pierre-Paul riffs on a number of famous writers and philosophers who he claims were dumb as rocks. Her inquiry into Trump being elected President leads to his conclusion, “imbeciles worship cretins”. He is the kind of guy that has an answer for everything, and possesses a type of oratory expertise that makes his excuses sound like scientific explanations.

One day while on his route, he stumbles into a robbery gone way wrong. Two thieves were in the process of stealing gang/mob money (and lots of it) when a shooting broke out. In the immediate aftermath, Pierre-Paul makes the snap decision to toss the two huge bags of cash into the back of his truck and take off. This kicks off a chain of events that includes his crossing paths with Aspasie/Camille (Maripier Morin) a high dollar escort whose website features a quote from “Racine”. Pierre-Paul is a Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he takes this as a sign.

Shortly after, Pierre-Paul is meeting with Sylvain “the brain” (Arcand regular Remy Girard), a recently released from prison biker who has become an expert on money laundering. The three form an odd partnership and are followed wherever they go by a couple of police detectives. Camille introduces Sylvain and Pierre-Paul to Mr. Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), her dapper former lover who also happens to be the foremost authority on international tax evasion and high finance.

The running joke here is that Pierre-Paul is an upright citizen who has never done anything remotely illegal in his life. In fact, he regularly doles out money to Quebec’s homeless and those down on their luck. He also volunteers regularly at a shelter that feeds those in need. The obvious statement here is pointing out the great divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Arcand’s film is close to being very good, but falls short in too many areas to reach the height it desires. There is a torture scene that seems totally out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the film, and I refuse to make the link to PRETTY WOMAN – another film where the rich guy wins over the good-hearted sex worker. This film talks about “providence” and just rewards that rarely happen. Is it acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does doing good correct a wrong? Heck, is it even wrong to steal from criminals? What the film actually does is serve up obvious targets with no real solutions offered. The self-congratulatory ending with close-up shots of Quebec’s homeless doesn’t help.

 

THEM THAT FOLLOW

 My final film of the festival was listed as a “thriller”, but is realistically more of a drama set in the harshness of Appalachia. A small community of people are devoted followers of the Pastor Lemuel played by Walton Goggins, and snake-handling is key to their interpretative Pentecostal religion. Co-directors and co-writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage offer up a too-familiar story that tries to walk the line between cult and religious fanaticism. It’s always fascinating to see folks who have somehow become entrenched in such an environment.

Alice Englert is the daughter of Oscar winning director Jane Campion and she stars as Mara, the Pastor’s daughter who tries to fall in line with her father’s preachings, but an independent streak and an attraction to Augie (Thomas Mann) really complicate things for her. Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) co-stars as Augie’s mother, Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) is Dilly, local girl and friend to Mara, Jim Gaffigan plays Ms. Colman’s true-believer husband and Augie’s dad, and Lewis Pullman is Garrett, the boy selected as Mara’s husband-to-be.

Those of us on the outside always look on bewildered at how any person ever builds a following such as this Pastor or any other cult leader. How does any parent lose the inherent protective gene they have for their child, and have it overridden by a Pastor who uses serpents to cleanse sin from the believers … some of which make life decisions based on a quilting group. The movie looks great and has terrific performances, but for whatever reason, we are never really drawn into this world – left instead to observe from a distance (which is fine by me as long as snakes are present).