30 November 2017

Afterlife, Part 1: Wandering


DEAN (B) - Each generation gets the "Garden State" it deserves. Boomers had "The Graduate." Millennials get the mopey but affecting "Dean."

Comedian Demetri Martin (a member of Gen X) plays younger in a story he wrote and directed about a young New Yorker set adrift after the death of his mother. Dean is a comic artist who goes on a jaunt to Los Angeles to change his mood and ostensibly advance his career.

Martin has a deadpan style in the mode of Jason Schwartzman, with a sweep of hair across his forehead and an ironic grin occasionally crashing his blue mood. Dean has a meet-cute with at an LA party with Nicky (a subtly effective Gillian Jacobs), the latest version of the manic pixie dream girl.

To Martins credit, he does not take the relationship between Dean and Nicky on a predictable path. Both actors are quite charming in a classic Mumblecore method. Each delivers sharp lines while staying rooted in character.

In a subplot, Dean's father, Robert (Kevin Kline), is fumbling his way around widowhood, somewhat snapping out of his mourning period (it's been about a year) by making time with a cute real estate agent, Carol (Mary Steenburgen), his own manic pixie dream woman. The geriatric romance feels forced, though Kline expertly delivers a fine twist, another clever plot misdirection.

Martin cranks up the quaint by illustrating the frame often with his own actual comic drawings, which explore themes of alienation and death in respectful New Yorker style. They not only knit scenes together, but they occasionally pack an emotional punch -- or offer droll comic relief.

The filmmaker brings this all to a head with a reckoning over this father-son mourning. But he stumbles a few times -- his timeline doesn't really make sense, and the threatened sale of Dean's childhood home feels rushed and cartoonish. But there is genuine heart in this big-screen debut (as with Zach Braff's 2004 milepost). The male relationships are finely sketched -- especially the plotline devoted to Dean's friend's profound love for a cat. And the banter throughout is winning.

It remains to be seen whether this little labor of love will engender the same backlash its predecessor eventually suffered.

BONUS TRACK
Typical retro gloominess from the soundtrack -- another "Garden State" echo. Here is Rick Hayward with "Find Yourself Sometime":


 

27 November 2017

That '90s Uplift: Fidelity


LANDLINE (B+) - Filmmaker Gillian Robespierre re-teams with her comic star, Jenny Slate, for a follow-up to 2014's winning "Obvious Child."

Here, they flash back to the 1990s for a period piece about a pair of young-adult daughters who find out that their father is cheating on their mother. Fine performances lend a boost to a sometimes flat script by Robespierre.

Slate is Dana, who is stuck in a dull relationship with Ben (Jay Duplass, solid as always) and, in a moment of weakness, cheats on him with an ex. She and her sister, Ali (Abby Quinn) are stunned when a file on a floppy disc popped into the family's Windows 95 setup uncovers a file of their father's mash notes to another woman.

John Turturro is nice and lose as their father, Alan, who gets nothing but putdowns and rebuffs from their mother, Pat (Edie Falco). He's a writer with more aspirations than published works. Their interplay is finely sketched.

Slate is a delightful leading lady, a Gilda Radner for the new millennium, chastely silly and adorably sexual. She feels underused here as she effortless drives the plot across a zippy 97 minutes.

Robespierre is a little too cute and self-aware with her period details -- telephone booths, CD listening stations, dial-up internet. At one point, Pat refers to Ali's app -- meaning her college application. Dana tosses out a random Urkel imitation (perfectly delivered by Slate). The movie's ending is abrupt and off-key.

But the cast makes it all feel lived-in, and Robespierre and Slate are now two-for-two.
 

24 November 2017

Doc Watch: Moving Images


THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY (B+) - This elegant examination of the life and work of large-scale Polaroid portraitist Elsa Dorfman is as much about the process as it is about the person. Documentary legend Errol Morris does his typical deep dive into a topic, and it can be fascinating at times.

Morris ("The Thin Blue Line," "The Fog of War") trains his camera on the elderly Dorfman as she shows off pictures from her flat files, and he delves into the contraptions she uses to produce large-format portraits, such as her standard 20x24 or even bigger pictures. She would always take two photos -- one for the subjects, one for her files -- and had a habit of writing captions on her copy, which helps Morris craft a narrative.

Dorfman, who worked in Boston and Harvard Square, is a simple woman with no deep insights into her process or the subjects she covered, which included Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. (An answering-machine message from Ginsberg on his death bed is chilling.) She is not interested in looking into anyone's soul. She's not searching for deep truths or the very essence of the people sitting for her camera. She's not working on a higher plane, like the Chicago portrait photographer Yvette Dostatni or a celebrity photographer like Annie Liebovitz. She has simply snapped a lot of pictures of many people over the years.

But Morris beautifully captures this dying art. (A detailed explanation of Dorfman's work with Polaroid can be found here.) He is a filmmaker compelled to preserve the history of still pictures with his moving pictures, in several senses of the word.

JOAN DIDION: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD (B-minus) - Joan Didion, one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of life in the second half of the 20th century, gets a sympathetic profile from her nephew, the actor Griffin Dunne. The power of her excerpted writings here rescue this from being a trifling home movie.

Didion, now in her 80s, is an engaging (if seemingly forgetful) subject, though the glamour of her charmed life can get tedious at times. (She and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne hosted many New Hollywood types like Warren Beatty and Steven Spielberg at their Malibu home in the 1970s.) And the filmmaker injects himself into the proceedings too often. He also seems to dwell a bit much on the gloomy side of things -- the deaths of John Gregory Dunne and the couple's adopted daughter, Quintana, which inspired one of her more recent best-sellers, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Talking heads include stalwarts Calvin Trillin and Hilton Als of the New Yorker. Archival footage transports us to the heady '60s and '70s. Dunne uses the Ken Burns scan technique to linger over old photos, including the iconic image of Didion posing in front of a white Corvette Stingray. That talented writer is a fascinating figure, but you get the sense that her nephew came along just a little too late to fully engage her and craft a compelling biography.

THE REAGAN SHOW (C+) - Four filmmakers team up to comb through the footage shot by the Reagan White House, which chronicled the first modern TV presidency. This 74-minute overview feels like a lost opportunity.

We start with the premise that Reagan's team was inordinately obsessed with image and optics. That's not a revelation. Nothing surprising is exposed here.

The filmmakers traipse unimaginatively through the 1980s in chronological order, telling a rather shallow story of a shallow man. While we're reminded about the manipulative nature of the White House during that time, neither Reagan nor his wife and minions come off as nefarious here. If anything, the emphasis on his extended arms talks with Mikhail Gorbachev serve to reinforce the cowboy hagiography of the 41st president.

There are flashes from the past that resonate in the present -- reminding us both how quaint those times were and how devious and depraved the current administration is in the era of 24-hour news and Twitter. It's a depressing reminder of the beast that Reagan's handler birthed and the depths to which we've descended since. This film gets no credit for jogging loose such observations.

BONUS TRACKS
Jonathan Richman, a friend of Elsa Dorfman's, contributes two fine tunes to the soundtrack, starting with "Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild":



And from 2001, "Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eyeshadow":


 

20 November 2017

From the Vaults


THE KILLING (1956) (B) - Stanley Kubrick's first film as writer and director is a classic film noir centered around a racetrack heist. What might have been cutting edge 60 years ago now feels dated and a bit formulaic.

The venerable Sterling Hayden stars as Johnny Clay, the leader of a ring of criminals and insiders hoping for a big payday. Johnny's fresh from prison and itching to get back in the game.

Kubrick's mix of noir and cinema verite and his smooth camera techniques surely seemed ground-breaking at the time. Sixty years on, it can come across as chatty and hokey. The racetrack scenes are intimate and exciting. And the dialogue, credited to Kubrick's co-writer, the novelist Jim Thompson ("The Grifters"), snaps with wisecracks.

Marie Windsor (whose resume includes such titles as "The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend" and "Cat-Women of the Moon") sizzles as sassy Sherry, the bored wife of bit player George (character actor Elisha Cook Jr.). Sherry is two-timing the feckless George with hunky rival Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), who hopes to intercept the big haul. Windsor just tears up the screen as she tears down George and tears into Val, and she knows how to curl up on a bed.

Kubrick has the tools here, but his story is rather run-of-the-mill. The 85 minutes zip by, but it's not the best noir or the best heist film you'll see.

LA NOTTE (1961) (B+) - Sharp and stylish, this gem from Michelangelo Antonioni follows a novelist and his wife as they meander, together and apart, around Milan's social scene.

What must have seemed revolutionary in 1961 -- documentary-like street scenes, a shambling narrative -- doesn't seem so insightful more than half a century later. Marcello Mastroainni is Giovanni Pontano, a hot young novelist who is already jaded by the literary circles he circulates in. Jeanne Moreau is his bored wife, Lidia. Monica Vitti -- Antonioni's muse from his masterpiece of the year before, "L'Avventura" -- pops up in the second half as a melancholy temptress, too subdued to succumb to a fling.

Giovanni and Lidia wander around Milan over the course of 24 hours, beginning in the hotel room of a dying fellow writer and randomly passing through a nightclub featuring a limber dancer who can balance a wine glass like no one you know. The second half lingers at a lush formal garden party, where an industrialist lures Giovanni to a cushy job and the guests struggle with existential angst amid the delicacies and riches.

It's all hip and provocative. These days, though, it's almost a bit quaint.

BONUS TRACKS
Marie Windsor with Elisha Cook Jr. in "The Killing":



Here Hayden catches her snooping:



16 November 2017

Summertime Blues


WATER LILIES (2007) (B+) - Yet another coming-of-age French film, this one infused with heart and soul by Celine Sciamma, a table setter from a decade ago on her road to Tomboy (2011) and her masterpiece, "Girlhood" (2014).

Here we have teenage synchronized swimmers jockeying for friendship and the attention of the generic boys on the other side of the pool. Young Marie (Pauline Acquart) has her sights on the star of the girls squad, Floriane (Adele Haenel). Marie is shy and underdeveloped, while Floriane is beautiful and pouty, constantly swarmed by boys. Marie's best pal Anne (Louise Blachere) is chubby but less shy, gunning for the cutest boy around.

This sets up an odd, fairly chaste love triangle among the girls as they toy with each other's emotions and compete for affection. Acquart is the anchor of the movie. Her Marie isn't so much tomboyish as immature and inexperienced. Acquart has an old-school Kristy McNichol to her demeanor and a puppety jangle to her twiggy limbs.


Floriane may like running off with boys, but she shows little actual interest in them as either friends or love objects. She subtly invites Marie's attention, showing much more affection for Marie than she does for the trail of frustrated boys she leaves in her wake. In a provocative scene, Marie considers agreeing to help deflower Floriane, who needs to tend to her reputation for fear that she'll one day be discovered a virgin.

It's hard to tell if this is genuine lesbian lust or merely puppy-love curiosity, an inevitable outgrowth of summer ennui. Sciamma isn't shy about showing off the coltish frames of her three leads, but she makes it clear -- mainly in the clunky pool scenes -- that these are kids still growing into their skins.

Where Sciamma bathed "Girlhood" in sultry blues, here she flashes her style with a club scene drenched in a menstrual red. It's a summer of exploration for the girls, and sometimes these things get messy.


12 November 2017

The Magic Kingdom


THE FLORIDA PROJECT (A) - There is a thread running through Sean Baker's latest film that injects both giddiness and dread. It's a lot like life itself.

Baker has emerged as perhaps the most talented director of our time by examining the ennui of trashed-out adults in "Starlet" and "Tangerine." Here he mixes in children, romping around southern Florida on the tourist-trap outskirts of "Disney World." It's a technicolor trip, a story with style and heart.

Baker assembles a cast of mostly newcomers, held together by Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the put-upon manager of the two-tone purple motel that will look familiar to anyone who veered a little off the beaten track in search of a cheap night's stay. Bobby has met his match in Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), an utter hellion and ring-leader of her "Little Rascals" gang, running havoc around the motel and taking off on adventures with a "Stand by Me" vibe. Moonee is a scamp, a grifter and a total smart-ass. Little Prince turns in a mesmerizing performance that will thrill you and scare you, in turns. She is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

Moonee's mother, Halley, barely in her 20s, is still a brat herself and totally unqualified to raise a child. Always broke, she sends Moonee off to a restaurant where a friend works and sneaks takeout food to Moonee. Halley and Moonee hawk perfume to tourists, but there also will be underhanded ways to make money, actions that can't help but raise red flags with child-protective services. As Halley, the tattooed Bria Vinaite (discovered on Instagram) has the slacker drawl, heavy lids and acne-scarred complexion of a drug addict, along with the heart-shaped lips of an inexperienced seductress. Baker captures the fraught mother-daughter relationship beautifully, finding unsettling ways to document their respective sociopathic tendencies.

Dafoe brings just the right level of resignation to his role. He is sympathetic and sometimes amused, but he also is an adult who must do the right thing at some point. When he shoos away a likely child predator, his own menace is palpable.

Meantime, Baker's visual flourishes explode all over the big screen. The Florida sky is bright, and scenes are slathered in primary colors -- bursting with blues and reds, purples and tangy orange. In one scene, Moonee and her pals romp through a shaggy field of grass that nearly glows in neon green.

Nearly every scene draws laughs from the antics of both the kids and the adults (including the wrinkled old regular who likes to sunbathe topless), but the humor always crackles with a frisson of foreboding. This is exhilarating filmmaking that embeds itself into an underserved community. It is a thrill ride that almost certainly would be banned at Disney World.

08 November 2017

Doc Watch: Bizarro World


ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (A-minus) - The decorated documentary filmmaker Steve James -- who set the bar in the modern era with "Hoop Dreams" in 1994 -- embeds with the Sung family to tell the story of their battle with the New York District Attorney who prosecuted them for questionable mortgage-lending practices during the housing crisis a decade ago.

As a title card at the end of the movie points out, this dinky bank in New York's Chinatown was the only bank, big or small, to be prosecuted for questionable lending practices -- thus the title, a play on "too big to fail." Some shady things were going on at the bank -- corners were cut, individuals went rogue -- but did it all rise to the level of high crimes?

James -- also known for "The Interrupters" and another all-access portrait, "Life Itself" -- seems a part of the Sung family, for better and for worse. Thomas Sung and his wife and daughters open up for the camera and allow him to film intimate moments as we watch them stuggle against the prosecutor throughout the litigation, up through the verdict and beyond. There is not enough journalistic distance here, but James has no pretensions of objectivity. Which isn't to say that he doesn't give DA Cyrus Vance plenty of opportunities on-screen to deny suggestions that his prosecution is misguided at best, racist at worst. (His adversary, the attorney for the Sungs, runs rings around him.)

Journalist Matt Taibbi sums up the situation perfectly when he notes the power of the Manhattan DA versus a family-owned bank situated "between a couple of noodle shops in Chinatown." James conveys a strong sense of community. He draws sharp portraits of Thomas Sung, a proud man pushing 80, and his three distinct attorney daughters, two of whom worked at the bank and a third who actually worked in Vance's office when the indictments came down -- but who quit her job to devote the next couple of years to defending her family's name. Multiple scenes eavesdrop on their conversations as they gather around the dinner table.

The daughters emerge as the bank's champions, determined to fight this case to the bitter end. It helps the viewer to not cheat and look online to see how the verdict came in. Regardless, this film is not about winners and losers; it's a stinging examination of a family of small-business owners standing up to power. What James lacks in impartiality, he makes up for with heart.

DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE (C+) - Not what you might expect. This documentary consists almost entirely of the avant garde director David Lynch ("Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks," "Mulholland Drive") musing about his art-school days.

It took three filmmakers to produce this thin, obtuse profile, apparently competing with each other to cultivate an artsy aesthetic to go along with the legendary filmmaker's ramblings. Dying to see David Lynch smoke in slow motion, lost in thought in a swirl of clouds? You're in luck here. At one point, Lynch seems to lose his train of thought in the middle of telling a story; the tale goes nowhere and he goes on to another one. Why include that?

The best part of "The Art Life" (Lynch's term for the creative process that has gifted him with a rather charmed existence) involves Lynch's noodlings over his art projects as his disembodied narration drones on and on. He is still an active visual painter working in mixed media. Archival footage from his art school days also provide perspective. Clips from his early films are fun to glimpse.

But don't expect any serious discussion of his films (aside from the seminal "Eraserhead") or any deep insights from a rather ordinary man who has created some extraordinary works of art.
 

03 November 2017

New to the Queue

Fading fast ...

Frances McDormand leads a powerful cast as a grieving mother, in the latest from Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths"), "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

A documentary about one of the great chroniclers of the second half of the 20th century, "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold."

Here comes another comedy doc, this one a profile of the profane former voice of the Aflac duck, "Gilbert" (Gottfried).

Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige star in a postwar drama from Dee Rees ("Pariah") about black and white families struggling to survive on a farm, "Mudbound."

Our gal Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha") directs a semi-autobiographical film, with Saoirse Ronan as her teen-aged avatar, "Lady Bird."

From writer/director/star Ana Asensio, the harrowing tale of a day in the life of an undocumented immigrant, "Most Beautiful Island."

A documentary about a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor closing up her seamstress shop, "Big Sonia."
 

26 October 2017

Alors


IN THE SHADOW OF WOMEN (B-minus) - Another relationship churn from the Garrel squad.

Veteran French filmmaker Philippe Garrel ("Burning Hot Summer," "Jealousy") burrows deep into a love triangle, sticking close to his wheelhouse. We follow glum Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), a struggling filmmaker, who works with the aid of his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau), and uneventfully ends up in the bed of a young intern, Elisabeth (newcomer Lena Paugam).

Pierre is anything but excited by the thrill of the cheat. In fact, he is downright miserable, and outside of the romps with a hot young thing, he shows no emotion or joy. Merhar comes off as a working class Keith Urban with a nasty Kurt Cobain streak. A narrator (Louis Garrel, the director's son) conveys Pierre's thoughts, which skew mostly to whines about the curse of being a stereotypical male.

The women fare a little better. Paugam comes off as a bit of a prop, but Courau, as the bewitched wife, is a perfectly controlled roller-coaster of emotions throughout. It turns out that Manon has a secret of her own. That sparks a hypocritical hissy fit on the part of Pierre, who responds the only way he knows how: by launching stinging putdowns to her and his innocent young lover.

Yet, neither woman wants to quit him. Yes, it's quite French. A subplot about the subject of Pierre's documentary -- a French resistance fighter from WWII -- exists, apparently, to contrast Pierre's petulance with the gravitas of the Greatest Generation.

Garrel shoots in crisp black-and-white, which fits the throwback New Wave mood. He also reels this in at 73 minutes. If you know that going in, you'll have more patience for these brooding agonistes.
 

23 October 2017

Soundtrack of Your Life: See the Light

An occasional feature in which we mark the songs of our relative youth as played over public muzak systems and beyond. 

Date: 14 October 2017, 8:18 p.m.
Place: Lowe's hardware store
Song:  "See the World"
Artist: Gomez
Irony Matrix: 3.3 out of 10

Comment: One of my favorite albums of the new millennium is "How We Operate" by the quirky British popsters Gomez. It's a smooth collection of bittersweet songs. "See the World" is a highlight.

It was a Saturday night, and we were on our way home from a wedding. Me in a jacket and tie, her in a beautiful skirt and top. Best-dressed pair at Lowe's. Seeking out a trip light for the driveway. Bouncing along the aisles as 10-year-old British mope rock bubbled on the store speakers.

Found something that took three D batteries. How analog and retro.

Here is a live version of "See the World" from 2011:



BONUS TRACKS
The best song on that album, "Girl Shaped Love Drug." It's truly addictive:



Their cover of the Beatles' "Getting Better," originally recorded for a Philips electronics commercial and included on the amazing B-side compilation "Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline" in 2000:


 

21 October 2017

That '70s Drift, Part III: Palookaville


CHUCK (C+) - This surprisingly inert biopic struggles to communicate a reason for being. Liev Schreiber disappears into the role of Chuck Wepner, a tomato can from Bayonne, N.J., who is plucked from obscurity to fight the heavyweight champ, Muhammad Ali, thus inspiring Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" story.

Canadian director Philippe Falardeau ("Monsieur Lazhar") never establishes a grip on this shambling script from four writers, including Schreiber, suggesting a labor of love by the actor. Too often this period piece is content to fetishize the sleazy '70s and wallow in the horrid fashions, not unlike recent HBO TV duds like "Vinyl" and "The Deuce."

Schreiber lays the Jersey accent on thick, and Elisabeth Moss, as his wife, Phyliss, goes toe-to-toe with him in striving for lower-class authenticity. It's a draw. Naomi Watts looks lost -- "What accent is this? What era am I in?" -- as a feather-haired bartender, Linda, who catches Chuck's roving eye. Only Ron Pearlman, as Wepner's crude trainer, finds joy and zip in a character. And you would be hard pressed to find an actor with less charisma than Pooch Hall as a bizarrely low-key Ali.

When it comes to the inevitable comparisons to great fight films like "Raging Bull," "Chuck" can run but it can't hide. Much of this ground has been covered ad nauseam, whether in Scorcese's classic biopic, or Stallone's fictionalized masterpiece. "Chuck" revisits an era -- late '70s, early '80s -- and comes off as derivative dress-up.

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) (B-minus) - Back to the actual '70s, when men were men, character actors were character actors, and guns and cars were the tools of the trade. This is the directorial debut of Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter").

Here the buddy road movie meets the heist flick. Clint Eastwood and a young Jeff Bridges meet cute, with Eastwood's Thunderbolt (he's known for blowing open safes) on the lam from some hitmen and hitching a ride with Bridges' Lightfoot in the kid's stolen car. It turns out that the hitmen are old buddies of Thunderbolt, veterans of a bank job that left half a million dollars missing somewhere in a schoolhouse in Montana.

After Thunderbolt and Lightfoot learn that the schoolhouse has apparently been razed and replaced, Red (George Kennedy) and Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis) finally catch up to them, and they eventually believe Thunderbolt when he says he did not double-cross them. The four decide to team up, go back undercover, and rob the same bank.

Cimino flashes a confident, gritty visual style. Eastwood broods like he did throughout the '70s. Bridges is at the pupal stage of his career, still trying to figure out how to really act. Kennedy is the secret weapon here, playing a flustered thug with a short fuse. He and Lewis offer a Laurel & Hardy slapstick tone to the rather ominous proceedings.

This lumbers along leisurely, landing just shy of two hours. It has its moments, but Cimino struggles to mold it into a cohesive work of art. It's more of a time capsule than a classic.
 

17 October 2017

New to the Queue

Chill ...

Let's hope Noah Baumbach is back on his game, teaming up here with Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler for "The Meyerowitz Stories."

A couple of troubled hoarders, twin brothers, give way to a cleaning crew in the documentary "Thy Father's Chair."

A recently divorced Italian documentarian explores the ideas of love, sex and fidelity in "Monogamish."

A documentary, rich in archival footage, about Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, "Jane."

A study of group therapy among a handful of inmates at Folsom Prison, "The Work."

A quirky Austin-based anti-rom-com from "Saturday Night Live" dropout Noel Wells, "Mr. Roosevelt."
  

14 October 2017

That '70s Drift, Part II: Run That Baby


ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) (A) - There is the myth of Woodward and Bernstein -- two young reporters working doggedly to bring down a president -- and the myth is real. It was arguably the height of a profession that is, now, in many ways, a shell of what it was back in the 1970s.

So it is easy for old newspapermen and political junkies to get caught up in the nostalgia of the post-Watergate high, a brief, shining moment of enlightenment. But even without that amber glow, "All the President's Men" is an exceptional suspense movie that bears up to repeated viewings.


Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were at the top of their games as Woodward and Bernstein, the hungry, bickering, poor step-sons in the newsroom hierarchy. The two even have a meet-cute -- near the copy desk, when Woodward finds Bernstein intercepting his draft of one of the first Watergate stories and rewriting it. From then on, they were a team, collaborating like blood brothers and bickering like siblings. (When the chain-smoking Bernstein lights a cigarette in an elevator, Woodward snaps, "Is there any place you don't smoke?")

Alan J. Pakula ("Klute," "The Parallax View," "Sophie's Choice") captures the clutter and clatter of the newsroom, the eeriness of an incestuous Washington, D.C., and the fear of bureaucrats swept up in a scandal. Pakula revels in the miscellaneous duties of a reporter -- the phone calls, the door-knocking, the cajoling, the persistence. A famous scene of Woodward and Bernstein painstakingly poring over individual check-out slips from a stack of thousands of slips at the Library of Congress is the perfect example of diligence and determination that personifies a profession. In another subtle moment, Redford conveys the rush of reporting with one reaction shot when, on the phone, a source utters the words that are music to a newsman's ears: "I know I should tell you this ..."

With heralded screenwriter William Goldman ("Marathon Man" (also starring Hoffman) "The Princess Bride," "Misery"), Pakula crafts a mesmerizing film noir for the ages. There is a buddy-cop snap to the dialogue, recalling the rapport of the outlaws in Goldman's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (also starring Redford) Newsroom story meetings crackle with one-liners. Toward the movie's climax, editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), roused late at night by his cub reporters, calmly informs them that "nothing's riding on this -- except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country." 

It all seemed that important 40-plus years ago, decades before an accidental president could deflect criticism and scrutiny with the mere taunt of "Fake news!" In that sense, returning to the days of telephone books and rotary dials can be a bit depressing. What we did back then mattered, dammit. We saved the country. Please don't tell us it was all in vain.

Historical and psychological torment aside, shoe-leather detective tales don't come any more entertaining. Redford is charming as the preppy, often exasperated Woodward. Hoffman is compelling as the dogged Bernstein, pulling scraps of notes out of every conceivable pocket of his rumpled outfit. And the supporting cast is critical to bringing this home. Jack Warden is delightfully gruff as Woodward and Bernstein's supportive city editor. Hal Holbrook broods from the shadows as the informant Deep Throat. Stephen Collins agonizes over a sense of duty as one of the key sources from inside the Nixon campaign. Jane Alexander is heartbreaking as the reluctant bookkeeper who slowly melts under the pressure of Woodward and Bernstein's quiet interrogations.

But it is Robards, holding together the moral core of the movie, who looms large as the legendary editor in chief, a stern father figure guiding his eager reporters. Bradlee rejects a "thin" draft of a key story. He thumbs his nose at the Nixon White House and stands by his staff. He snarls at his underlings out of doubt and frustration. But when his boys finally nail it, he can hardly control his joy. 

One night, with minutes till deadline, as Bradlee meanders his way toward the exit in a rumpled tuxedo, Woodward and Bernstein work the phones to confirm a final detail of the story that would prove to be the tipping point. With a slam of the receiver they frantically retrieve their boss from in front of the elevators. He returns to examine their copy one more time, double-checking their reporting, as they burst with hope and suspense. Bradlee rises from his chair, hands the copy back to them and growls, "Run that baby." And as he walks back toward the elevators, Bradlee playfully taps an empty desk for emphasis. It's a tiny theatrical flourish, as if by a song-and-dance man. It's the exclamation point we wish we could throw at the end of a headline.

It's how it was done back then.
 

08 October 2017

That '70s Drift, Part I: A Long Way, Maybe


BATTLE OF THE SEXES (B+) - One of the duties of a middle-aged man is to occasionally assure his mother that the world isn't going all to hell. Last November 9th, on the phone to my mom, I was at a loss for words.

We are moving through a phase of exposing, once again, the sexually predatory ways of the unyielding white male authoritarian structure -- in news (Ailes), politics (Trump), and entertainment (Weinstein) -- that seems to thrive and morph like a drug-resistant bug. How could 62 million people, including establishment Republicans and self-professed Christians, look the other way and sneak into the White House the poster child for male-chauvinist pigs? A desperate thirst for power is always the default answer.

But who could not be haunted by the sight of a horrible brute looming behind Hillary Clinton at that debate like a stalker or worse. The bullies have retaken the reins of power.

Reading the recent obituary of Kate Millett, I was reminded of the long slog of sexual politics and was tossed back to the second wave during the turbulent '70s. Was that the beginning of an endless historical loop? In that context, what a lark it was when Billie Jean King played a tennis match against the boorish huckster Bobby Riggs, a made-for-TV "Battle of the Sexes" that is lovingly re-enacted in this quaint but moving nostalgic romp.

I saw this movie with my mom, who was on the last full day of her annual visit, having spent the previous weekend attending the semifinals and finals of the Albuquerque stop on the sparsely attended professional women's tennis tournament. Our respective obsessions -- tennis and movies -- came together on a rainy afternoon. Two hours together in a dark screening room was preferable to trying to explain again how a qualified though deeply flawed woman was destroyed by a relentless media campaign and a wild spasm of the venerable power structure.

Instead, there is Emma Stone, with the talent to not only carry a film these days but to elevate it, donning the wire-rimmed spectacles and the frumpy shag hairdo of the 29-year-old King, as she not only sticks her neck out to prove a cultural point but also challenges the old-boy network by forming a union of female players and helping launch the Virginia Slims tournament. As early as 1967, she was critical of the United States Lawn Tennis Association for its shady dealings, and by 1973, she had convinced her colleagues to break away for their own circuit and had shamed the U.S. Open into awarding equal payouts to the winner of its annual tournament. Here that stuffy old-boy network is personified by the smug Jack Kramer, perfectly oiled by character actor Bill Pullman.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the former music-video directors who splashed in 2006 with "Little Miss Sunshine," take a script from Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty," "Slumdog Millionaire") and dip it in amber and avocado green tones to craft a faithful period piece (down to the retro Fox studio marker at the beginning of the film). The movie looks and feels like it was shot in the shadowy '70s, which at times makes it feel alternatively authentic and like an cutesy conceit.

Stone dives deep into her character, exploring the personal demons of a closeted bisexual and showing enough athletic ability to not embarrass herself. (When the big match finally arrives, Faris and Dayton render it wonderfully.) In this version, King falls for a carefree hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, "Birdman"), whose presence on the tour becomes an open secret for the married King. They have a winning chemistry without letting the weight of the relationship weigh down the movie.

Stone goes up against Steve Carell, whose natural smarm serves him well and makes him tolerable, like he was in "Foxcatcher." Carell's Riggs is a pathetic old man whose shtick has worn thin, both personally and professionally. Carell is always much better when he's not trying to be a cut-up, and here he reveals Riggs in layers, never quite tipping into syrupy pathos.

A secret weapon here is the supporting case. Sarah Silverman hams it up as chain-smoking Gladys Heldman, who secured the Philip Morris sponsorship for the Virginia Slims tour. She slings one-liners all around, the sharpest ones reserved for Pullman, with classic movie-of-the-week cheekiness. Alan Cumming lights up the screen as Ted Tingling, the sassy designer of King's attire. Elisabeth Shue doesn't have much to do as Riggs' frustrated wife, but just a sprinkling of her talent is welcome, especially sporting that tanned Ethel Kennedy glow. Mickey Sumner ("Frances Ha") and Bridey Elliott ("Fort Tilden") pop in the background as regular players on the tour. Fred Armisen ("Band Aid") plays it mostly straight as Riggs' health guru, which I'm convinced is Armisen's subtle in-joke.

This ensemble effort makes the production pleasing and not too full of itself. Faris and Dayton revel, like kids, in the opportunity to re-create the America of their teen years. They seamlessly insert player/commentator Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) into a TV image with the real Howard Cosell's arm draped around her. They revel in Riggs' publicity stunts. They construct ominous wood-paneled sanctums where Kramer and his henchman plot the pompous pronouncements of the patriarchy.

It's all packaged in a slick two-hour window into a seemingly more innocent past. Or were those the good old days?
 

04 October 2017

Fussy Boys

A couple of tortured souls ...

WILSON (B) - A misanthropic luddite with an apparent heart of gold, middle-aged Wilson navigates a mid-life crisis, jolted by the death of his emotionally distant novelist father, and he seeks out an ex who is more messed up than he is.



From the poisoned pen of graphic artist Daniel Clowes ("Ghost World," "Art School Confidential") comes this traipse through our dark and haunted subconscious. Woody Harrelson stars as Wilson, a man unafraid to let his id rule all of his personal and social interactions (uttering unpleasant truths that we all think but don't say). He rails against "the oligarchs" and the suburbs and chides himself for using the word "closure." He is a social provocateur who butts up against others at cafes and on buses (not afraid to nudge them awake, even), even though there's plenty of room to sit elsewhere. He is ardently devoted to a scruffy companion, his dog Pepper.

Wilson tracks down Pippi (a delightfully manic Laura Dern), a messed-up bleach-blond in recovery (with a former pimp's name tattooed on her back). He assumed that Pippi had aborted their child when she left 17 years ago, but it turns out that Pippi put the girl up for adoption.

They then begin stalking Claire (Isabella Amara, channeling Thora Birch's Enid from "Ghost World"), a chubby, nerdy teen who apparently has inherited Wilson's sarcastic ways. With the plot points cued up, skilled director Craig Johnson ("The Skeleton Twins," "True Adolescents") melds "Beavis and Butt-head" comedy with inch-deep indie drama. Engaging their "daughter" without her parents' knowledge is not likely to end well.

This is a hit-and-miss character study, almost a little too tidy.  For contrast early on, we see Wilson visit a childhood friend who's even more bitter and unpleasant than he is (or, in Wilson's estimation, a "toxic, soul-draining vampire"). ("Want some beet juice?" the host offers. "Fuck. No," Wilson responds.) Also early on, as Wilson's father lay comatose in a hospital bed, Wilson begs for a declaration of love. OK, we get it, he's scarred from childhood.

Harrelson does his best to keep this all zipping along, and he succeeds until the narrative runs off the rails in the final half hour, scattering its focus and diluting its message. Some cues are too obvious.  Elsewhere, Judy Greer, as Wilson's dog-sitter, is wasted in a dead-end role. And a sappy ending threatens to undo much of what came before. 

BEACH RATS (B-minus) - This gorgeous, intimate examination of teenagers frolicking around Coney Island digs mostly only skin deep.

The story follows Frankie (Harris Dickinson), an intensely disaffected hunk who dabbles in drugs with his loser friends and secretly trolls older men on a sex-hookup website. Frankie explores a traditional relationship with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), but suffers from performance issues that he blames on the drugs. The pair make for the perfect couple on paper -- they have arresting good looks, full lips and boy/girl-next-door qualities about them.


Frankie, though, is an emotional black hole. He repeatedly states that he doesn't know what he likes, wants or cares about. Twice he proclaims, defensively, that his Guido buddies are not his friends. And why older guys? No particular attraction; it's only because they won't know people in his age group. A rape scenario at the hands of one of the men is seemingly shrugged off by Frankie.

Writer-director Eliza Hittman first explored teenage sensuality and angst (and the beach) from the female perspective in her brilliant debut, "It Felt Like Love." But what felt like a shared intimacy with sharp insights then comes off here as artifice and inscrutability. (It could simply be a fact that young women are more interesting than boys.) Hittman's camera again gets up in the pores of her actors, but she struggles to break through the surface. Boys in bare chests play handball; they don wife-beaters for their jaunts on the boardwalk; the sharing of a cigarette is sexy. But those images can't detract from the fact that Frankie is mostly moping around like a zombie, exchanging monosyllabic grunts with interchangeable fellow teens with zero inner lives.

Most of the narrative heft takes place in the final third of the movie, but by then you might not care whether Frankie snaps out of his funk or not. Hittman makes a questionable plot choice to force a climax. She leans on the growing indie trope of fireworks displays to suggest romantic sparks (albeit ironically) and deeper emotional meaning. It's ever so stylish, but by the end, when we return with Frankie to the beach, there's a hint of an epiphany about him, but we're still clueless about what it is he wants and whether he has the wherewithal to pursue it.