HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2017)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell exploded onto the scene in 2001 with his instant cult favorite HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and in 2010 he delivered the expertly crafted and somber marital drama RABBIT HOLE. In his first feature film since the latter, Mitchell revisits the punk world in what has been described as Romeo and Juliet with punks and aliens.

Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett adapted the screenplay from a short story by Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”). It’s set in 1977 Croydon (outside London) and though music plays a vital role, it’s not really a musical. And even with some funny moments, it’s not really a comedy. And while there are aliens, one wouldn’t label this as science fiction. There is a budding romance at the core, and maybe the romance description fits best … although, any unwitting group of film goers heading to the theatre expecting a typical romantic drama will likely walk out in the first 15 minutes.

Zan (Elle Fanning) and Enn (Alex Sharp) are star-crossed (or is it intergalactic-crossed?) lovers – she being an alien, he a young punk rocker. This is less about two worlds colliding than two worlds exploring each other: the freedom of punk vs the conformity of the alien colony. We cross paths with the local Queen of punk known as Boadicea (one of the most extreme Nicole Kidman roles of her career), the alien Stella (Ruth Wilson), and Enn’s punk mates Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence).

Far and away the most interesting puzzle piece here is the connection between Enn and Zan. Mr. Sharp (a Bob Geldof lookalike) and Ms. Fanning are terrific together and the film suffers when they aren’t on screen. Their live duet onstage is a true highlight and her wide-eyed curiosity combined with his zany punk persona provide most of the film’s energy.

Punk … the best thing to happen to ugly people” is likely the best line in the film, although Zan requesting “Do some more punk to me” isn’t far behind. There are messages here about parenting, diversity and globalization, but mostly it’s a creative and wild ride that’s not likely to please everyone … especially those looking for a Nicholas Sparks romance or anyone who might take the title literally.

The film is scheduled to show at the Texas Theatre in Dallas beginning June 1, 2018.

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A KID LIKE JAKE (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hot societal topics often become fodder for new movies, and this usually results in a slew of similar stories – some good, others not so good. Currently, discussions of gender identity is second only to Trump-bashing in terms of media attention, and so we can expect Hollywood to rush-to-production in order to capitalize. This latest from director Silas Howard had a timing advantage as it was adapted by writer Daniel Pearle from his own play.

The titular Jake is a 4 year old (his 5th birthday party plays a role) who enjoys fairy tales and dressing like a princess. His stay-at-home mom (Claire Danes as Alex Wheeler) and psychologist father (Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler) are aware of Jake’s preferences, but as with most things in their marriage, what minimal conversation occurs is of the over-the-top arguing type. The “issue” is painfully and awkwardly brought to the forefront as the parenting couple subject themselves to the Private Pre-School application process.

The challenges of parenthood, including judgmental friends and relatives, and the competitive nature of comparisons, are beyond obvious in most every scene of Act 1. Even Alex’s (probably not coincidental that her name is gender-neutral) mother (Ann Dowd) is passive-aggressive in her judgments of Alex quitting her job as a lawyer to stay home with her son. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Jake’s teacher and counselor to the Wheelers during the application process, and even her role has a twist designed to elicit more judgment and discrimination.

There is really nothing convincing throughout the film. It’s barely Lifetime Channel material, with a simplified emphasis on the difficulties of raising a non-conforming child. The incessant arguing amongst parents, family members, and friends makes each successive scene more annoying than the previous. The film should have been entitled “Parents Like Jake’s” because Jake has almost no screen time, while Ms. Danes flashes her “Carrie cry-face” (for “Homeland” fans) incessantly.

Certainly the topic of gender identity and non-conformity is worthy of discussion and analysis, as it has entered mainstream conscience in less than one generation. Anxiety and confusion exists, and even well-meaning conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. We just need – and deserve – better guidance than this film provides.

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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

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OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015)

October 29, 2015

our brand is crisis Greetings again from the darkness. The world of political campaigns and elections is a never-ending treasure trove of material for movies. It’s a subject ripe for parody, satire, comedy, suspense and documentaries.  Need proof?  How about this widely varied list: The Manchurian Candidate, Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog, Bulworth, Welcome to Mooseport, and The Ides of March.  Director David Gordon Green has a resume equally as varied, ranging from Pineapple Express (2008) to Manglehorn (2014).

This wide spectrum of possibilities seems to have confused screenwriter Peter Straughan (the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who used Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name as inspiration. It seems to be both a comedy that’s not too funny and a drama that not very dramatic. Casting Sandra Bullock in the lead probably created a certain feeling of security with the filmmakers, as they assumed audiences would laugh along at such creative moments as her predictable pratfall from a private jet, the sunglasses-on-the-nose look of consternation, and the rah-rah speech given to a group of campaign volunteers who don’t speak English. Even fans of Ms. Bullock will recognize the laziness.

Alvin Lee and Ten Years After delivered the anthem “I’d Love to Change the World”, and never before this movie had I placed it in such a negative manner … how the United States sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong in international elections. Ms. Bullock’s character Jane is a political strategist brought out of self-imposed exile to run the campaign of Bolivia’s former President (played by Joaquim de Almeida). See he is far behind the leader in the polls – a progressive candidate whose campaign is being run by Bullock’s long-time rival Pat Candy (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Let the juicy rivalry games begin!

The only problem is … it’s a wasted rivalry filled with mostly lame games and it’s often quite plodding (just like real politics!). The character of Jane is based on the real life efforts of James Carville to influence South American elections, and yet it’s Pat Candy who sports the look of Carville. The supporting cast is filled with talent: Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, and Zoe Kazan, yet none are given much to do other than play second fiddle to Bullock.

While the script offers no real surprises or twists, and the forced “message” at the end could be guessed by most any viewer 10 minutes in, it’s the amateurish ploys that make this one score high on the annoyance scale. Having Ms. Bullock sport the only blonde follicles in Bolivia, the over-use of super slow-motion to create some unnecessary effect, and using the word “crisis” the way Tarantino uses the f-word, all combine to give the film a very cheesy look and feel … and we aren’t even rewarded with a single memorable exchange between Bullock and Billy Bob. One thing for sure … this is not the garden spot of Bolivia.

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ST. VINCENT (2014)

October 19, 2014

st vincent Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray’s Vincent cracks a rare on screen “Chico and the Man” reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray’s Vincent – a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts). Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver’s mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It’s here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role straight – none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver’s principal and teacher (a standout Chris O’Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the “bad” likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don’t mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O’Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have missed the fully-engaged Bill Murray last seen in Lost in Translation (2003)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: unpredictable endings are why you see movies

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THE DROP (2014)

September 13, 2014

drop Greetings again from the darkness. Much of what I write here contradicts my long maintained stance that a strong story/script is the basis for any movie worth it’s proverbial weight. This neighborhood crime drama does not spin a twisty plot. Nor does it flash fascinating and colorful mobsters. Instead, it’s the acting that elevates the film to the point of neo-noir must see.

By now you have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s final movie. He passed away while director Michael Roskam (Bullhead) was in editing mode. Gandolfini plays Cousin Marv, a would-be wise-guy who never-really-was.  Now he is bitter and desperate, in a beaten down kind of way. As a farewell, Gandolfini leaves us a final reminder of what a powerful screen presence he was, and what a terrific feel for character and scene he possessed.

Beyond Gandolfini, the real attraction and the main reason to see the film is the outstanding and mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy. In many ways, his bartender Bob is the polar opposite of his infamous Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Quasi-effeminate in his vocal deliverings, and moving with a slow, stilted shuffle, Bob is one of the least imposing guys.  The kind that you would likely look right through. At least that’s the first impression. Hardy is so nuanced, we aren’t even certain when his character transitions and exposes his true make-up. When he does, it’s the highlight of the film.

Noomi Rapace, in yet another intriguing turn, plays local waitress Nadia, who befriends Bob after he rescues an abused puppy. Since the movie is based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue”, it’s no surprise that the main characters each share a need to be rescued. Nadia’s ex-boyfriend is played to full psycho and creepy effect by Matthias Schoenaerts (so great in Rust and Bone, 2012). The scenes between Schoenaerts and Hardy show the movie at its tension-filled best.

As with most neighborhood crime dramas, there are many secrets, local legends, and allegiances in doubt. The players are weary and dream of either better times or ending the misery. Mr. Lehane wrote the novels that led to some other fine films: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. He has a feel for ultra-realistic characters, and his material depends on extraordinary acting for fulfillment. This slow boil benefits from some of the best acting we could ask for.

**NOTE: all due respect to the late, great James Gandolfini … we get a glimpse of him “running” from a crime scene, and his athletic prowess does detract from his otherwise imposing screen presence.

**NOTE: how good must this be if I went the entire review without mentioning Ann Dowd or John Ortiz … two excellent actors who play small, vital roles?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need further proof that Tom Hardy is one of the more talented actors working today OR you bask in the atmospheric neighborhood crime drama genre (this is a good one) OR you just want to see a really cute pit bull puppy.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you find it impossible to “unsee” a glimpse of James Gandolfini running on screen, in spite of his towering presence and acting ability.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


LITTLE ROCK FILM FESTIVAL 2013

May 21, 2013

LRFF In a manner quite typical of our history, my college buddy Lawrence and I avoided an actual plan for attending the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) until just a couple of weeks prior to its start date.  He made the drive from Norman, Oklahoma where he pursues his lifelong profession of higher-education for future teachers.  My Southwest Airlines flight arrived from Dallas in time for us to jump right in to the festival schedule midway through Day 2.  Neither of us are the Opening Night “gala” types, but we are sorry to have missed the festival opening film Short Term 12 on Wednesday evening.  Our 3 days were spent juggling start times and venues throughout downtown Little Rock, so as to maximize our movie watching.

The key components of a Film Festival are: the selection of films (obviously), the venues, the crowds, transportation, special guests (writers, directors, actors, etc), the festival volunteers, the local flavor, and any perks (the always awkward abbreviation for perquisites) for attendees.  Here is my breakdown of each of these categories:

  1. SELECTION OF FILMS LRFF categories include: Narratives (traditional features with scripts and actors), Spotlight (usually with a special guest or discussion), Documentaries, Made in Arkansas, and World Shorts. There were also special categories such as Youth Films for young aspiring filmmakers, and Film Talks (seminars).  With much of the audience being local types, the emphasis on “Made in Arkansas” films made sense.  Providing screening for these productions brings attention to the state’s film industry and talent base.  Since neither Lawrence nor I have ties to Arkansas (insert punchline here), we focused our time on Narratives and Documentaries. We never once used our “safety net” of World Shorts.  This speaks highly of the quality and variety offered during all time slots.
  2. VENUES.  While the program lists 15 different event locations, which includes special discussions, parties and other non-movie screening spots, our movie viewings took place in 5 different venues of widely varying quality and comfort.  One of these was a modern lecture hall in the beautiful new (and highly green) Heritage Center, while another was simply unoccupied retail space with a black curtain marking the screening area. You can imagine the corresponding picture and sound quality.  A community stage theater had a wonderful look, but offered leg room seemingly designed for the Munchkins from the Land of Oz.  Its balcony offered little improvement. The soon to be completed Arcade Theater will serve as the main venue and central hub for LRFF 2014. This will allow for more continuity and a true gathering spot for festival attendees.
  3. THE CROWDS. In a pleasant contrast to many festivals, the crowds were minimal and easily spread out among the various venues. Made in Arkansas films were shown to audiences comprised of friends and family, while the Narratives and Documentaries had mostly sparse crowds made up of the few out-of-towners (like us). Since the festival overlaps with the world famous Cannes Film Festival, there is a noticeable absence of big-name filmmakers, highly-anticipated movies, and snooty Frenchmen. Cinephiles find much joy in “discovering” quality work in an entertaining or informative movie that offered little more than an upfront 2-3 sentence synopsis. LRFF is that type of opportunity, while Cannes offers a chance to stand in line for hours hoping for admission and to see Johnny Depp or Cameron Diaz posing for paparazzi. To each his own.
  4. TRANSPORTATION. The venues were spread out all over downtown Little Rock.  If you have never been there, the Arkansas River divides the city, and we spent time on both sides. A car was a basic necessity to navigate the schedule and various venues. Maybe next year’s opening of The Arcade will minimize the need to drive so often. Luckily, cheap parking was readily available.
  5. SPECIAL GUESTS. A high percentage of the films had writers, directors, producers and/or actors in attendance. Post-screening Q&A’s can be very enlightening, but the staggered screening schedule usually had us rushing off to catch “the next one”, rather than learning more about the last one.  When we did have time, we certainly enjoyed the filmmakers’ insight into their work. This was especially true for Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer director Maxim Pozdorovkin, and Marc Menchaca, writer/director/actor for This is Where We Live.  I would have liked to have spent some time with Dawn Porter, who directed TWO of the better documentaries we saw: Gideon’s Army and Spies of Mississippi.  Film Producer and famous Bill Clinton friend Harry Thomason was there filling in for his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who directed the award-winning Bridegroom (which we did not see).
  6. FESTIVAL VOLUNTEERS. There was certainly no shortage of volunteers working the festival. The presence of these people allows for a smooth-running operation and prevents mis-communication in regards to delays, etc. Larger crowds might have impacted the effectiveness, but there were no issues during our visit.
  7. LOCAL FLAVOR.  This category delivered the biggest surprises. Downtown Little Rock is clean and offers city parks and many pleasant views of the Arkansas River.  There are numerous locally owned mom-and-pop diners, cafes, pubs, etc. The service people were extremely friendly and the food was all tasty and reasonably priced. Friday evening’s LRFF party was held on the Junction Bridge … a walking bridge that crosses the river. That was an unusual experience and a creative party place.
  8. PERKS FOR FESTIVAL ATTENDEES. This is one area where the LRFF could take lessons from others. The price of a pass bought you a program and … umm … well … oh yeah … a pass.  No gift bag. No swag. No special offers or details on sponsors. One of the venues offered a community cheese and grapes tray that was quickly picked over.  Our Silver passes did allow us the privilege of paying a $10 entry fee for the bridge party, along with the opportunity to purchase beer or wine … our wine pour was approximately 2 oz.  The reason to attend a festival is to take in the movies, but some sort of appreciation shown to sponsors and attendees is not without merit and precedence.

LRFF2 On a personal note, I enjoyed meeting Stuart Margolin at one of the screenings.  Over the years, Mr. Margolin has been a favorite character actor. He is probably best known for his time as Angel, James Garner’s frustrating co-hort in “The Rockford Files”.

There were of course a few movies that really made an impression.  The most entertaining documentary for me was titled Muscle Shoals. Despite my love of music from the 1960’s, I was oblivious to the real impact that FAME Studios owner and record producer Rick Hall had on the era.  This was incredible fun and filled a gap in my music knowledge.  Gideon’s Army provided insight into the absurdly difficult work environment of public defenders.  Spies of Mississippi showed us rare photos and video footage, and took an unusual angle on the Civil Rights movement … espionage from the Mississippi government.  Our Nixon showed us archival footage from the Watergate period and provided specifics on Nixon, Dean, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin.  Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer took us inside the Russian judicial system, while The LRFF4Kill Team detailed the Military judicial system as it relates to Army infantry soldiers who went too far in killing Afghan civilians. We Always Lie to Strangers gave us a peek behind the curtain of the secondary performers in Branson, Missouri while breaking down the façade of the Branson bible-belt image.

The documentary that really kicked me in the gut was called 12 O’Clock Boys, and showed us the stunning images of illegal dirt bike riders wreaking havoc in west Baltimore. These inner-city riders create dangerous situations on the roads while knowing that the police have an anti-chase policy (for public safety).   All of that is difficult enough to watch, but the truly stunning moments come courtesy of young Pug and his mother. I have no words to describe these people … especially the mother. To give you some insight, she showed up for the screening and promptly sat front row and recorded the movie on her smart phone. I did not have the nerve (or stomach) to stick around for that Q&A.

The staggered start times and multiple venues and small crowds allowed us to skip out early if a particular movie was not capturing our interest in the first half hour. We only did this a few times, but in each case, it led to a more fulfilling cinema experience. While LRFF5the abundance of quality documentaries would have made the festival worthwhile, there were also three Narratives that caught our eyes. The Discoverers is a dysfunctional family dramedy featuring one of Griffin Dunne’s best ever performances, as well as strong supporting work from Madeleine Martin (“Californication”), Carla Buono (“Mad Men”), Dreama Walker (“Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23”), Ann Dowd, John C McGinley and Stuart Margolin.  It has some funny, cryptic dialogue as well as a message about the bonds of family.  Written and directed by Texas born Menchaca, This is Where We Live introduces us to a rural family that just can’t seem to catch a break … other than heart-break. It has strong performances from CK McFarland, Tobias Segal, Ron Hayden, Frances Shaw and the great Barry Corbin.  Finally, we saw an interesting little film called The Girl, which features Abbie Cornish and Will Patton. This is a tough story of a struggling single mom, only we get the rare script that doesn’t make her overly likeable for the audience.

Should you ever have an interest in taking part in a film festival, I would not hesitate to recommend Little Rock Film Festival.  You better love documentaries and independents, and be able to maximize your time over a few days. Of course, if your budget and personality and love of all things French allows … there’s always Cannes!