Greetings again from the darkness. A couple of months ago I reviewed Tim Federle’s new movie, BETTER NATE THAN EVER, and described it as a real treat for young theater students. Now, just a few weeks later, comes the first feature film from writer-director Noam Tomaschoff and co-writer Chelsea Frei … one for the grown-ups still trying to make a go of it on the live theater scene. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes motivational, and sometimes painful to watch. While the film really boils down to finding one’s place in life and staying true to your own dreams, it takes quite an unusual path with oddball characters.
Sandrene St Jean (Tara Holt) and Tucker Charlemagne (Stephen Friedrich) lead a group of avant-garde performers in a display of rooftop immersive art. Things go swimmingly right up until a tragedy that results in the couple being booted from the company by their mentor, Burford Slezinger (ChristopherLloyd), and blacklisted from the NYC theater scene. Making things seem more hopeless for Sandrene and Tucker, a dinner with her parents (Andy Buckley from “The Office” and Joey Lauren Adams and her distinctive voice) leaves their free-wheeling artistic lifestyle lacking further funding.
The pretentious Sandrene and the brash Tucker admit they can’t possibly get “real jobs”, so they head to her hometown of Fargo, where a contest will decide which performance group will win the rights to takeover the historic downtown theater. The competition boils down to an established group led by Morten (Richard Kind), Sandrene’s former high school drama teacher, or the quickly assembled troupe of oddball locals she and Tucker cobble together from the local pub. Recruits are drawn in by Tucker’s proclamation of a “theatrical revolution” … one of his many articulate statements that carry no significant heft.
Most of the story takes place in Fargo, with the rivalry between the two theater groups driving things forward. There is a terrific parody of the WEST SIDE STORY gang face-off that involves high-speed dueling “Modern Major General Song” (from Pirates of the Penzance) versions – accompanied by finger-snapping! What we witness is how one person’s passion and commitment can both unite and divide, and how individual dreams should be pursued when the opportunity presents. Richard Kind’s Morten is a fine example of how bitterness can leech in when someone doesn’t achieve their goals and struggles, and still find happiness with the hand dealt. All of these life lessons are wrapped in a comedy with oddball characters that will likely appeal most to those who have chosen the theater life. In fact, the story is semi-autobiographical for writers Tomaschoff and Frei. While we would have liked more development for the supporting characters, this ‘personal’ aspect for the writers explains a great deal. Whether you view this as a parody or cautionary tale, it does remind us that each person must seek their lot in life.
Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson’s name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, “Rent”, but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”).
Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson’s “30/90” song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It’s important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene – people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical “Superbia”, which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.
Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon’s writer’s block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren’t sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it’s the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it’s clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.
Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon’s dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against ‘selling out’ that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write “Rent”, but this film doesn’t cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.
Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon’s agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda … with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It’s an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.
Greetings again from the darkness. It might have been quite enjoyable had we just continued to eavesdrop on Kate Mulgrew and Barbara Barrie as they strolled through the park talking about life – past, present, and future. Their segment is easily the highlight of the film, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to put a positive spin on any other piece of this project from writer-director Evan Oppenheimer. Okay, some of the drone shots of New York City are lovely, however, it’s important to know when enough is enough.
The film opens by introducing the titular Meyersons. Ian Kahn plays eldest son Roland, a grumpy, uptight dude who seems to care only about 3 things: his young daughter, his success in business, and his strength in holding the family together during tough times. Relative newcomer Jackie Burns plays eldest daughter Daphne, who is married to nice guy Alan (Greg Keller), and she’s the type who holds grudges against him for what she dreamt, and keeps secrets that shouldn’t be kept. Shoshannah Stern plays Susie, the deaf daughter with an unscrupulous business plan and a luminescent also-deaf girlfriend Tammy (Lauren Ridloff, “The Walking Dead”). Youngest son Daniel (Daniel Eric Gold, a Josh Groban lookalike) is a Rabbi-in-training, while questioning all aspects of religion.
Most of the Meyersons are not very adept at being decent human beings. Their mother is played by the aforementioned Ms. Mulgrew (“Orange is the New Black”, Star Trek: Voyager”), and she’s a pediatric Oncologist, who questions her career choice since she has to regularly deliver such horrific news. Ms. Barrie plays her mother Celeste, who seems to be the only one with any real perspective on life or the family. Also appearing is terrific character actor Richard Kind as father Morty Meyerson, who is seen mostly through flashbacks prior to abandoning his family some twenty years prior.
It’s quite possible this would work better as a stage play, but that would mean the loss of the multiple street shots of the city, which are far more interesting than most of the conversations we are forced to hear. If a filmmaker chooses to fill the screen with a bunch of whiny New Yorkers, the whining should at least be interesting and/or entertaining. And while it’s understandable for a director to want to give his own child some screen time, all objectivity cannot be surrendered. This is quite simply a painful and laborious film to sit through. I don’t say that easily or often, as I inevitably find something or someone to latch onto in the 250+ movies I watch each year. This time I failed.
Limited theatrical release in NYC on August 20, and Los Angeles August 27
Greetings again from the darkness. Once upon a time … in 1995 to be exact … Pixar revitalized and revolutionized the world of animated movies with the release of the first Toy Story. In the process, they sent our expectations soaring for each of their subsequent movies. Despite the pressure of such high standards, the creative geniuses at the studio have regularly thrilled and delighted us over the years with classics such as Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and Brave (2012). And beyond these, there have been a few true cinematic masterpieces – transcendent films: Finding Nemo(2003), The Incredibles(2004), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010). This most recent release unquestionably belongs in the latter group … it’s one for the ages (and all ages).
Genius and brilliance could be used to describe all aspects of this movie. It’s a technical marvel, a visual kaleidoscope of bright colors across the full screen, and most amazingly, it packs an emotional wallop with real life moments for adolescents and parents alike.
My comments will be brief because this is one you should experience for yourself – and probably more than once. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is an 11 year old girl who lives in Minnesota and loves her parents, her friends, and hockey. She is happy and well-adjusted. When the family relocates to San Francisco, broccoli on the pizza is only one of the challenges Riley must face. This change affects everything for her – no more friends, no more hockey, and a strained relationship with her parents. At this point, you are probably saying “So what? That’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” And you are correct, except we have never seen it explained the way Pixar does.
We literally go behind-the-scenes of Riley’s brain and see the control panel of her emotions. There is a constant battle between Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and the ring-leader Joy (Amy Poehler). This is an exploration of emotions and memories, and the explanation has some scientific merit. Memories are depicted as marbles, and Riley’s favorite things are shown as islands (Sports Island, Friendship Island, etc). How emotions affect memories is the key point here, and especially how sadness is necessary and vital to our joy. Have you wondered why we forget our imaginary childhood friends (Riley’s is Bing Bong, voiced by Richard Kind)? Have you wondered why our memories change over time, and are impacted by our emotional state in any given moment? This animated gem will help you understand.
Director Pete Docter (the genius behind Up) has a daughter of his own, and he clearly “gets” the emotional changes brought on during the pre-teen years. His research, and that of co-director Ronaldo Del Carmen, takes us on an adventure that should inspire much conversation between parents and kids. And even if it somehow doesn’t break the ice in every family, it will at a minimum help youngsters and parents better understand the link between emotions and memories … plus, they will probably share a good cry and a bunch of laughs along the way. Hats off (again) to the Pixar geniuses. I dare you to top this one!
***NOTE: you should also look forward to another Pixar tradition – the pre-movie short film. This one is a very unique short entitled Lava.
Greetings again from the darkness. One of my movie review rules is about to be broken. Typically I don’t judge movies based on the filmmaker’s gender, but there is a good reason to do so this time. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre delivers an extraordinary film that avoids the extremes we have come to expect: the “shock for shock’s sake” of HBO’s “Girls” and the fantasy world of glamour and shoes of Sex and the City. Instead we get an authentic look at a lead character that seems like a woman we might actually know.
Based on Ms. Robespierre’s popular 2009 short film of the same name, this one features a brilliant collaboration with Jenny Slate whom many will recognize from “Saturday Night Live“. Ms. Slate brings a grounded, believable quality to both the stand-up sequences and the struggling Brooklyn 30-ish woman’s clunky transition into adulthood. This story works because we like Donna (Slate’s character), we empathize with Donna, and we root for Donna.
You may have heard this referred to as “the abortion comedy”. While it’s common to apply simple labels to movies, this seems to be a case of mistaken identity. Absolutely there is humor present – Donna’s hobby is stand-up comedy. And yes, the decision to have an abortion is a key element in the script … but there is also a strong Rom-Com element, a study in friendship, a look at relationships, a peek at the bond between adult kids and their parents, and the ever-present struggle between independence and the hope for true love. Much is happening here, and most of it is handled exceptionally well.
The film kicks off with an uncomfortable foul-mouthed stand-up segment from Donna. While I have never been a fan of fart-poop-pee humor, it’s our introduction to her thought process and how she uses her own life as subject matter, creating a kind of self-therapy. Soon thereafter, we witness a most unorthodox break-up between Donna and her boyfriend. This is followed by lots of wine consumption, blind support from her friend Nellie (played by Gaby Hoffmann – all grown up since her time as the young daughter in Field of Dreams), and a drunken fling with ultra nice guy Max (Jake Lacy from TV’s “The Office“). Their “date” includes pretty much everything except a condom, which leads to the abortion story line.
Handled with dignity and frankness, Donna’s decision is one faced by many women. It’s a part of life and receives straightforward treatment (save one questionable joke). The real joy here is not just how the story focuses on a female character, but that it’s told from the female perspective … two rarely seen approaches from Hollywood. The dialogue rings true and the clichés are minimal. There is even a nice guy to offset the big jerk!
The closest comparison I can come up with is Knocked Up, which was much more concerned with generating laughs, and treated abortion as a taboo topic, rather than a real life decision. Donna’s parents are played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper, and both add an element of realism and love that rings true. David Cross and Gabe Liedman have interesting and funny support roles as well. But understand that this movie belongs to Jenny Slate and especially director Gillian Robespierre, two very strong and talented women who just upped the standard for filmmaking … not just female filmmaking.
**NOTE: yes that is Paul Simon‘s 1991 song “The Obvious Child” that plays during the Donna and Max “date”
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need proof that a women’s perspective on screen can be interesting and ring true OR you want to see the works of two up-and-coming voices in Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some massive political diatribe on the abortion topic
Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.
The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.
This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Warsrip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.
This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condoror Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.
The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and TateDonovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.
There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy. However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.
Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly. Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies. Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.
Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh