BEING THE RICARDOS (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. You don’t have to be one of the 60 million who, between 1951 and 1957, tuned in each week to watch the latest episode of “I Love Lucy” to feel like you know Lucy, Desi, Ethel, and Fred. Most of us have watched the syndicate re-runs over the past 70 years, and that fact added challenges to this project for writer-director Aaron Sorkin – not the least of which was casting the role of Lucille Ball. Everyone had an opinion, and when you go to cast a true icon, it’s a slippery slope.

I’m happy to report (even though it’s not surprising) that Oscar winner Nicole Kidman is truly exceptional as Lucy. Perhaps a better choice could be made if this were a remake of the “I Love Lucy” sitcom, but although the film dips in and out of that show’s production, this is an Aaron Sorkin movie; so the focus is less on comedy and more on the intricacies of social and political issues. Now you might ask, what issues could a beloved star like Lucy have?  How about these: the media is reporting her husband is cheating on her, the sponsors don’t want her appearing on air while pregnant, internal battles over a particular scene with the director and writers, and she’s just been publicly called out for being a communist.

You’ve surely detected by now that this is no comedy about Lucy. Instead, it’s a pretty heavy drama about pressures at the top of a profession, and the eternal difficulties in cultivating a successful marriage. Adding heft is the era in which this occurs. It was rare for a woman to wield Lucy’s power, and the social mores of the time forced big time debate over showing a woman during pregnancy – even if that woman was married! Filmmaker Sorkin utilizes an odd structure for the film. It appears to be happening during the show’s second season, but we are actually looking back years later through the eyes of the show’s writers and producer. And then beyond that, we get flashbacks from the flashbacks to Lucy’s time at RKO, and the early flirtations that led to Lucy and Desi.

Oscar winner Javier Bardem plays Desi Arnaz. Although he bears little physical resemblance to the Cuban bandleader, Bardem expertly captures the essence of Desi as a businessman, actor, musician, lover of Lucy, and lover of life. For me, it was as thrilling to watch Desi’s shrewd negotiations with the network and Philip Morris executives as his energized bongos while performing “Babalu” at Ciro’s. Sorkin makes it clear that both Lucy and Desi were brilliant at what they did. Together they formed Desilu Productions, and he handled much of the business side, while her perfectionism and comedy instincts pushed the show to limits never before reached.

But what would the Ricardos be without their neighbors, landlords, and friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz? Nina Arianda (a Tony winner) plays Ethel/Vivian Vance, while Oscar winner JK Simmons plays Fred/William Frawley. The set is not the warm and fuzzy cocoon one might imagine. Vivian’s well known frustration was with Lucy mandating Ethel’s frumpy and dowdy look, while it’s clear Vivian and Frawley’s bickering carried on after the lights dimmed … due in no small part to Frawley’s alcoholic ways. That said, Ms. Arianda is terrific in the role, and Mr. Simmons epitomizes the grumpy old man we know as Fred.

Due to the flash-forward recollections, we get Tony Hale and John Rubinstein as the younger and older producer Jess Oppenheimer, Jake Lacy and Ronny Cox as the younger and older writer Bob Carroll, while Alia Shawkat and Linda Lavin play the two versions of writer Madelyn Pugh. It’s Ms. Lavin who describes Lucy and Desi’s relationship as, they were either “tearing each other’s heads off, or tearing each other’s clothes off.” It’s debatable whether Sorkin’s choice to structure the multiple time lines adds to the film’s depth, but it does allow for more talking … something Sorkin never shies away from. This is his third directorial effort after MOLLY’S GAME (2017) and THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), and he won his Oscar for the adapted screenplay of THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).

Despite all the other aspects, this is the story of Lucy in crisis mode. She is pregnant with the child of a husband who is likely cheating on her. Her show and company are in jeopardy, and because of something she did many years ago, her status as a beloved American icon could be lost. Her show transcended all other forms of entertainment at the time and was must-watch TV when not every home had a TV (much less 3 or 4). The film mostly covers one week in time, though Sorkin does give us a look back at a time when the industry simply didn’t know what to do with her talent. For the fans, we do get a mention of Vitameatavegin, and a wonderful recreation of the infamous stomping of grapes. It’s a delight to see such fine actors fully engaged in roles they know will be picked apart by many. This is not the Lucy movie we would typically expect, but it’s one that pays tribute to the real person and real people and what they accomplished.

In theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Amazon Prime beginning December 21, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


FIRST COW (2020)

December 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A modern-era woman (Alia Shawkat) is hiking along an Oregon river with her trusty dog. Something catches her eye and she begins tentatively brushing away decades of leaves and soot. Ultimately it turns into an excavation of two human skeletons nestled together. How many years since these two laid down for the last time? Why in this spot?  It’s a terrific way to begin a story, and does justice to what follows … all of which takes place in the early 19th century.

Director Kelly Reichardt has already made her mark with such standouts as CERTAIN WOMEN (2016), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), and WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and this time she adapts the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond from his 2004 novel, “The Half-Life”. Cookie (John Magaro, also seen in this year’s SYLVIE’S LOVE) is initially seen traveling west with a band of trappers. Skirting the law as they make their way in this new world, the men act as bullying brutes towards Cookie, a quiet and sensitive man. During one stop for camp, Cookie is rummaging the brush for food when he stumbles upon a naked Chinese man who is hungry and running from Russians (aren’t we all?). Cookie provides King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) with food and shelter, a Golden Rule act that comes full circle not long thereafter.

Cookie and King-Lu begin establishing something more than a friendship. It’s a life bond (but probably not in the way you might be thinking). It’s more natural instinct – a ‘two heads are better than one’ partnership. Despite the hardships of early frontier days, the two men share their version of the American Dream, and it’s about this time that our titular bovine makes her entry stage left. The cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who is eager to create a more refined life in this untamed wilderness. Cookie views the cow’s milk as the key to creating tasty biscuits (a rare treat), and King-Lu immediately recognizes the possibility of profit. The nightly heist features Cookie’s one-directional conversation with Evie the cow … presumably making her first screen appearance.

Ms. Reichardt’s film is not nearly as simple or slow moving as it appears. She fills it with a slow-build tension, especially in the second half. The film requires patience and attention to detail from viewers. How can something so quiet and peaceful be filled with such danger and difficulty? That’s the brilliance of the film. Supporting work is provided by Scott Shepherd as a military officer Factor tries to impress, the late Rene Auberjonois (whose presence seems a tip of the cap to Altman’s classic MCCABE AND MRS MILLER), Ewan Bremner (whose accent requires subtitles for comprehension), and Lily Gladstone as Factor’s Native American wife.

This is the first film I recall where a clarfoutis plays a key role, and there are sprinkles of dark comedy throughout … which plays well off the rugged characters and environment. William Tyler’s score and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematographer mesh well with the fine performances throughout.  Ms. Reichardt opens the film with a William Black quote, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. We witness the friendship, and by the end, we wonder if it’s also a web.

Available on Showtime and streaming outlets

watch the trailer


BLAZE (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “I don’t want to be a star, I wants to be a legend.” The first quote comes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and the second is drawled by Blaze Foley as he snuggles with his muse and lover in the back of a pickup truck. We can imagine the first quote inspired many stories over the years by those who knew Blaze, and it might also have served as a driving force for writer/director Ethan Hawke as he crafted this graceful tribute to an underappreciated songwriter and his too short life.

Mr. Hawke is a 2-time Oscar nominee as an actor, and his best known previous turn as director was for CHELSEA WALLS (2001). He (a distant relative of Tennessee Williams) has also been twice Oscar nominated as a writer (BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT), and his movies are often music related or influenced. His latest is a biopic of a mostly unrecognized country-folk artist, and Hawke collaborated with Sybil Rosen to adapt her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”. It’s Ms. Rosen who shared the bed of that pickup referenced in the first paragraph above.

Ben Dickey plays Blaze and Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Not only does Dickey capture the spirit and sound of Foley’s music, but the scenes with Blaze and Sybil as a couple are some of the most touching and realistic relationship sequences we’ve seen on screen. We understand their connection … and their disconnection. It’s proof that two people can be both ‘made for each other’ and ‘wrong for each other’. Director Hawke utilizes different time periods, as well as a framing device in the form of a radio interview. None of this works in traditional biopic manner as the interview features the great troubadour and musical poet Townes Van Zandt (played exceptionally well by Charlie Sexton) recollecting the times (both good and bad) he spent with his friend Blaze. He’s joined by another Foley friend and collaborator, Zee (Josh Hamilton) as the two color in the blanks to ensure the legendary status desired by Blaze. The DJ is voiced by Ethan Hawke, who is only seen from behind.

In addition to the radio interview and the relationship with Sybil, we also have multiple scenes of Blaze’s final live show being recorded at the old Austin Outhouse. The nearly two hours of music and philosophizing were turned into a record release that remains (nearly 30 years later) a mesmerizing listen. These 3 very distinct pieces fit together to bring Blaze into focus as both a songwriter and troubled man – one who found himself in too many fights and, ultimately, on the wrong end of a gunshot in 1989.

Philosophy and homespun wisdom and catchphrases flow from Blaze during his songs and even when he’s just hanging with his buddies or Sybil. The real Sybil Rosen plays her own mother in a scene where Blaze meets the parents, and there is a touching moment in the film where Blaze plays for his estranged dad (a wonderful, albeit brief performance from Kris Kristofferson), the founder of The Singing Fuller Family where Blaze got his musical start. It’s these kind of touches that elevate the film into a must see whether you are familiar with Blaze Foley or not.

BLAZE FOLEY: DUCT TAPE MESSIAH is a 2011 documentary that would nicely compliment Mr. Hawke’s film, although this version contains much more humor – including cameos by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell as Zephyr Records executives. With Louis Black (founder of SXSW and a former film class TA of yours truly) as an Executive Producer, and songs by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, this little gem is likely to awaken viewers to a bygone era of music that tends to be remembered only for Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and Merle.

watch the trailer:


THE INTERVENTION (2016)

August 25, 2016

intervention Greetings again from the darkness. Clea DuVall: Actress/Writer/Director/Producer. No one who has followed her outstanding career (especially as a standout in many independent films) can be surprised that she is spreading her creative wings into all aspects of filmmaking. Her directorial debut can best be described as a contemporary version of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) for today’s thirty-somethings.

Casting is key for an ensemble project, and it’s especially difficult for a serio-comedy exploring the insecurities and inherent unhappiness that corresponds to the closest relationships. The premise here is that four couples meet at a beautiful and isolated lake house just outside of Savannah. The motivation for this meet up of old friends is a “marriage intervention” for one of the couples … something that must have seemed better in theory than it plays out in reality.

The couple whose marriage is in the target zone is played by Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, “How I Met Your Mother”) as exhausted mother of three Ruby, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the long-ago-gave-up-trying Peter. The others are played by Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) as Annie, who has continually postponed her wedding to super nice guy fiancé Matt played by Jason Ritter; Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as Sarah, long-time partner to Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall); and Ben Schwartz (“House of Lies”) as Jack, who brings his free-spirited, much younger girlfriend Lola (Alia Shawkat, State of Grace).

We quickly witness the bitterness and lack of caring that has poisoned the marriage of Ruby and Peter, and of course, it doesn’t take long to spot all the cracks in the relationships and personalities of the others. Annie is a control-freak who appears to be a full blown alcoholic, while Matt is such a nice guy, that he refuses to stand up for himself and have some pride. Sarah and Jessie avoid any serious discussion regarding why they aren’t living together yet, while Jessie’s weakness for younger girls plays a role – as does Sarah’s secret. Jack is obviously avoiding dealing with some personal issue (which we later learn) as he plays kissie-face with the no-strings-attached Lola (not Lolita).

The script tries to tackle an enormous number of issues, sub-plots and characters, and while we pretty easily get a feel for each, we never understand how these people ever agreed that a group attack was the best strategy. No amount of charades, barbeque or kickball can hide the messes that define each of these folks … whether married or not.

The actors have tremendous comedy timing and handle these moments much better than the ultra-dramatic moments. Cobie Smulders and Ben Schwartz are real standouts here, which is quite a compliment given the tremendous on screen talents on display. It’s a group that can gracefully pull off a Subaru joke while also playing cut-throat charades and dodging thrown peaches.

Ms. DuVall will undoubtedly go on to make better films than this one, but as a first project it offers some terrific moments. Sara Quinn (of Tegan and Sara) scores the film, and though some excellent tunes are included, the music was at times disruptive to the flow of the story. The film will probably hit home with a great many who fall into the thirty-something age group, though older viewers will likely prefer to re-visit The Big Chill from more than 30 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 


NASTY BABY (2015)

October 29, 2015

nasty baby Greetings again from the darkness. Many indie films receive positive responses during a film festival run because most festival goers are frequent movie watchers, and really appreciate the unique and brave approach taken by the rebellious and up-and-coming filmmakers. Writer/director Sebastian Silva lulls us into the comfort zone of a “friends” story and then stuns us with a third act that could seem out-of-the-blue, if one weren’t paying close attention along the way.

Mr. Silva also stars as Freddy, a media artist who is working on a video project (entitled Nasty Baby) that features himself (and others) imitating infants. He lives in Brooklyn with his boyfriend Mo, played by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe (so good in Rachel Getting Married, 2008). They are part of a trio of friends completed by Polly (Kristen Wiig), who is addressing her biological clock by relentlessly pursuing artificial insemination from her two friends.

While it’s easy as a viewer to get complacent watching the interactions of these three mostly likable people in various elements: together, separately, at work, with other acquaintances, and especially with neighbors; the script offers many subtle hints along the way about the make-up of each.

The supporting cast is excellent and includes Reg E Cathey (“House of Cards”) as a mentally-shaky neighbor, Mark Margolis (“Breaking Bad”) as a more level-headed neighbor, Alia Shawkat (underutilized here, but very talented) as Freddy’s assistant, and Neal Huff as the eccentric gallery owner.

Normal seems like a pretty straightforward term, but the film shows that normal really doesn’t exist, since it’s always changing. The relationship of this trio of friends, their plan for child-rearing, and the family dinner at Mo’s parent’s home … all examples of how normal has shifted. And to top it off, the film’s third act can’t be considered normal by any standard of story-telling, and you will question how you missed the true character of the main players … and maybe even how you would react, if you found yourself in this spot. If nothing else, the film might make you a bit more tolerant of your annoying neighbor that has caused you so many negative thoughts over the years.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)

April 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmakers who see the world in an unusual way often appeal to me. Whit Stillman fits that description as evidenced by his Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. It’s been more than a decade since his last film, and his writing remains strong while his director’s eye may have atrophied a bit. We get a trippy, twisty maze of dialogue that is not double-entendre, but rather double-take.

The film takes place on a fictional campus named Seven Oaks College. We meet a small clique of young ladies led by Violet (Greta Gerwig, Greenberg). She has a noble life mission of “helping” young men who don’t recognize their own potential. She views this as a type of social work. Violet and her troupe are also dedicated to the high causes of perfume and fashion. They volunteer at a Suicide Prevention Center, where they seem to possess no skills other than handing out donuts and teaching tap dancing.

Violet’s followers include Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and transfer-student Lily (Analeigh Tipton). They could be termed caricatures, but I am not sure of what. Their philosophical meanderings could be considered arrogance, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. And it’s difficult to raise much ire towards Violet when her ambition involves inventing the next international dance craze … Sambola. She even provides an oral argument on the importance of dance crazes within society.  She acts like an adviser, almost a guru … but she ends up needing guidance as much as anyone.

To watch this movie, one must be willing to give Mr. Stillman some slack in the rope. To treat suicide with a touch of glib can be dangerous, but watching Aubrey Plaza defend the importance of “clinical” depression is pretty humorous. Analeigh Tipton acts somewhat as the voice of reason for viewers. She was outstanding in Crazy Stupid Love, and seems to be finding herself as an actress. Zach Woods (The Office) has a couple of decent scenes as the campus editor of “The Daily Complainer”, Adam Brody is the boyfriend who may not be what he seems, Alia Shawkat makes a quick angry appearance, and Taylor Nichols keeps his streak alive of appearing in all of Stillman’s films.

This movie may be best viewed and enjoyed as a glimpse into the mind of Whit Stillman. As a visual film, it’s really nothing special. The interesting part is in the dialogue and delivery of those lines … plus the social commentary offered up by the dialogue. Although, please don’t ask me what point that commentary is making.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of Whit Stillman’s previous films OR you are looking for an offbeat filmmaker in the vein of Wes Anderson (minus the visual flair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the story to make a clear point and the characters speak in “normal” thoughts (neither of which happen here)

watch the trailer:


CEDAR RAPIDS

February 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I have said many times that comedies are the most difficult of all film genres since no two people have the same sense of humor, and everyone considers themselves to be funny. While many people laughed til they cried during The Hangover, others walked out of the theatre or simply had no interest at all. The same can be said for just about any Mel Brooks movie, as well as his contemporary, Judd Apatow. What we do know, is that a comedy’s chance for success comes down to its characters, and in this area, Cedar Rapids works like a charm.

Ed Helms (Andy in “The Office”) stars as Tim Lippe, the most sheltered, naive mid-western insurance agent ever captured on film. Lippe lives and works in Brown Valley, Wisconsin … the most sheltered, naive mid-western town ever captured on film. He truly believes insurance salesmen serve a higher cause.  His only real excitement is found through his “pre-engagement” to his 7th grade teacher played  well by Sigourney Weaver (probably the most worldly person in Brown Valley). When an embarrassing accident claims the life of their hot shot agent, the agency owner (Stephen Root) sends Lippe to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids. His mission: to win the coveted 2-Diamond Award presented by industry legend Orin Helgesson (a pious Kurtwood Smith).

 Since a lone character can’t generate many laughs, circumstances at the convention cause Lippe to find himself roommates with a very noble Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr from “The Wire”) and fast-talking poacher Dean Ziegler (John C Reilly). These 3 are joined together by Nebraska agent Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Lippe is quickly introduced to the “real world” (heavy drinking, sexual inneuendo, pranks, etc) by his new friends and after the first 20 minutes of set-up, the lines and settings get funnier and funnier.

As with most comedies these days, the trailer gives away much more than it should; but, unlike most, it leaves plenty of laughs and situations for the film. What really makes this work is that all characters are actually very nice people … they are just a bit exaggerated in their traits. Lippe is a bit too naive. Wilkes is a bit too uptight. Ziegler is a bit too obnoxious, and Fox is just a little too lonely and adventurous. Still, their earnestness is what keeps the film grounded.  One of the best parts of the gag is that somehow Cedar Rapids, Iowa is cast as sin city!  We aren’t talking Vegas, NYC or Paris … but CEDAR RAPIDS!

Mr. Helms is really a comic force. He has the extraordinary ability to never hold back or worry that he might not look cool. Even as the lead character, he knows when scene-stealer John C Reilly should have the spotlight. This is a tremendous asset for a comic.  Mr. Whitlock spouts some funny lines in homage to “The Wire” and Ms. Heche refuses to overplay the lonely wife out for a good time.

I won’t give away much, but will warn that some of the humor is crude … especially most of Riley’s rapid-fire zingers. If you appreciate a balance of outlandish one-liners with humorous real people, then you might want to check this one out. I have only previously known this director, Miguel Arteta, as the guy responsible for Jennifer Aniston‘s best screen performance (The Good Girl). Now I look forward to his next project.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you could use a few good laughs here in the middle of winter

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedies to be a bit more highbrow