HOW TO BUILD A GIRL (2020)

May 7, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. British writer Caitlin Moran has adapted her own 2014 semi-autobiographical novel-memoir for the screen, because who better to write about the coming-of-age of a talented outcast than that talented outcast herself? Given the profusion of coming-of-age movies that hit the screen every year, it’s a welcome change when one takes a different approach. And this one does just that.

Beanie Feldstein (BOOKSMART, and Jonah Hill’s sister) stars as Johanna Morrigan, replete with British accent. Johanna is a dreamer, and as she sits in her usual spot at the library, she fantasizes about Mr. Darcy riding in to save her from this mundane life. We quickly learn that Johanna is bright, and treated as quite the misfit at school. Even her English teacher asks her to scale back her writing assignments. See, in addition to being a world class dreamer, Johanna is a very talented writer … and she sees that as her only means to escape Wolverhampton.

At home, Johanna has a “Wall of Gods” featuring photographs of her literary and historical heroes, including: Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Bronte sisters, Sig Freud (Michael Sheen), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton). Johanna speaks to these photos, and they answer her. Johanna’s family hustles to stay just above poverty. Her dad’s (Paddy Considine) dream of rock stardom has passed, and now he breeds black market Border Collies while remaining optimistic about life. Her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from post-partem depression after giving birth to twins (kids number 3 and 4).

Johanna shares a small bedroom space (divided by “the Berlin wall”) with her cool brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). We know he’s cool, because he hangs out in the cool room at school – a room to which Johanna has never been invited. After embarrassing herself on a televised poetry reading show (hosted by Chris O’Dowd), Johanna is encouraged by brother Krissi to apply for a music critic job at a local publication. Her heartfelt submission on “Annie” the musical causes guffawing among the ultra-cool writing staff at the magazine; yet her writing skill and persistence land her a shot. It’s at this point that things change for Johanna.

An unusual interview with popular and earnest singer John Kite (Alfie Allen, brother of singer Lily Allen and son of actor Keith Allen) results in a connection and teenage crush, leading to a sappy article rejected by her employer. Given a second chance by the magazine, Johanna’s alter-ego Dolly Wilde does in fact turn wild. Her ‘bad girl’ image and mean spirited critiques of bands gain her a cult following – a type of notoriety. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but when the pen is used as a sword, the damage is severe. What follows, of course, are the inevitable hard (and painful) life lessons.

Director Coky Giedroyc has spent most of her career on TV shows, but she has a feel for this material. However, it’s mostly the no-holds-barred performance of Beanie Feldstein that makes this work – both the comedy and drama. We’ve seen the outsider with talent many times before, and because of that, expectations are a bit low going in. This time, a different twist and passionate filmmakers and actors turn this into quite an entertaining 100 minutes.

IFC Films will release the film on VOD on Friday, May 8, 2020

watch the trailer:


CAKE (2014)

January 30, 2015

cake Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.

Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.

Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).

Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girl as her best.

The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


STAND UP GUYS (2013)

February 3, 2013

stand up Greetings again from the darkness. Any movie lover with a sense of history has to get at least a little excited hearing about a star vehicle featuring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. These three screen legends together prove the adage … worth the price of admission. And that’s a good thing, because there is little else that works for this movie.

The movie unfolds like a tribute to its three stars. That’s not a compliment. First time screenwriter Noah Haidle and character actor-turned director Fisher Stevens simply lack the chops to provide material worthy of the cast. So we get Pacino doing a Tony Montana growl and A Scent of the Woman dance; Walken doing his deadpan delivery and even a quick little soft shoe; and Arkin falls back into his half-crazed,moment-seizing act. What we don’t see is a story line that pushes any of them to a “wow” moment.

Pacino plays Val, and we meet him on the day of his release after 28 years in prison. He’s picked up by Doc, his old partner in crime, or crime partner if you prefer (played by Walken). There are a couple of not so secrets twists that try to keep it interesting, but the best part comes when they spring their old driver Hirsch (Arkin) from his nursing home and oxygen mask.

stand up4 The night on the town allows for plenty of female interactions: a brothel run by Lucy Punch, a nurse played by Julianna Marguiles, another brothel visit, revenge for a female victim played by Vanessa Ferlito, and multiple chats with a young diner waitress (Addison Timlin). Unfortunately, this big night also provides entirely too much consumed alcohol, numerous penis jokes, an extended (so to speak) Viagra sequence and attempts at laughter thanks to hyper-tension and insurance co-pays.

The old guys do their best to uphold the code from the good ol’ days – both as gangsters and actors. It’s just inexcusable that the script wasn’t improved to take advantage of this talent. Despite that, there was a certain sense of nostalgia that proved enjoyable watching these guys on screen together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: for no other reason than the nostalgia of seeing Pacino, Walken and Arkin on screen together.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t share my sense of nostalgia and prefer movies that have a script worthy of the cast and your time

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NApJNjPTqZs


YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

October 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sound and fury signify nothing. The narrator begins the film by reminding us of Shakespeare’s words. I can’t decide whether or not this was a confession by Woody Allen that he realized the movie fits that phrase. I have followed Mr. Allen’s film career since the early 70’s and have learned that sometimes disappointment follows. Of course, there are also times when pure screen magic occurs, making the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, there is no magic here, just sound and faux-fury.

Here is a convoluted recap of the story: Elderly woman Helena (Gemma Jones) is dumped by her doesn’t want to admit he’s aging husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). He tries to be a swinging bachelor and ends up marrying a gold-digging call girl named Charlamaine (Lucy Punch). Helena looks for guidance from Cristal (Pauline Collins),a fortune teller referred by Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). Sally is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a morally bankrupt one-hit wonder in the novel-writing business. She works at a very successful art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas). Sally and Roy yell at each other a lot and Sally has eyes for Greg, who instead has eyes for Iris (Anna Friel), a painter Sally discovered. Roy has peeping eyes for Dia (Freida Pinto), whom he can see from his bedroom window.

So, you get the idea. It is actually a set-up that fits perfectly with a Woody Allen film. A madcat story where no one is happy with their life and they each seek proof of their worth. Interesting that they seem to have some security with their current partner, but it’s just not enough. The cast is stellar, and London makes the perfect setting. However, nothing really clicks. Manly Josh Brolin just doesn’t wear neurosis well. I didn’t enjoy watching Naomi Watts yell at people. Anthony Hopkins’ character is such a pathetic re-tread that it really annoyed me. Mr. Allen obviously finds Freida Pinto appealing because her character gets perfect lighting and comes across as a victim, despite dumping her fiancé.

Despite all the turns in these sub-plots, only one of the stories really has any finality to it. Now I don’t mind endings that leave much to the imagination, but I do get irritated when it appears the filmmaker just lost interest. Even when that filmmaker is Woody Allen. 

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe Woody Allen only makes timeless classics OR listening to Leon Redbone sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” is worth $10 to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are susceptible to the directives of fortune tellers OR you just can’t take one more film about a struggling writer, a lustful senior citizen or a career woman whose biological clock is ticking.