14 August 2017

New to the Queue

Turn, turn, turn ...

A renowned architect falls ill and gets trapped in a small Indiana town where he befriends a young woman, an architecture enthusiast who works at the local library, in "Columbus."

Destin Daniel Cretton and Brie Larson follow up "Short Term 12" with an adaptation of the memoir about a dysfunctional family, "The Glass Castle."

Aubrey Plaza ("The To-Do List," "Safety Not Guaranteed") looks like she's having fun as an internet stalker in "Ingrid Goes West."

The boys are back -- director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon -- for another round of fooding, brooding, and Michael Caine-offs, "The Trip to Spain."

Steven Soderbergh is back, and he's got Riley Keough and Katherine Waterston with him in the pulpy "Logan Lucky."

A chubby white girl aspires to be a big-time rap star in "Patti Cakes."
 

12 August 2017

Monogamy in Mono


THE LOVERS (C+) - It's difficult to pin down what this is or what it wanted to be. The previews make it look like a screwball comedy -- a middle-aged couple, cheating on each other, rediscovery their attraction to each other -- but it's dour and downbeat, and in the end it unravels unconvincingly.

Debra Winger and Tracey Letts are refreshingly frumpy as the aging spouses, Mary and Michael, getting their kicks elsewhere while sleepwalking through their domestic routines. He has a kittenish dancer on the side, Lucy (Melora Walters), and she found a hunk with an accent and a full head of hair, Robert (Aiden Gillen).

Hectored by their respective lovers, Mary and Michael -- after too much throat clearing in the plot -- dive back into their own passionate affair. Now it is they who are exchanging cheeky texts and lying their way out of trysts with Lucy and Robert. It's a cute set-up. But it doesn't have a logical place to go.

So enter the final piece of the puzzle: their son Joel (Tyler Ross), who is coming home for a visit with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), even though he openly despises his parents and is disgusted by their sham of a marriage. Joel is the apparent stand-in for writer-director Azazel Jacobs, because Jacobs thinks the Joel angle is so fascinating that it dominates the film's final reel. But why would most of us care what their son thinks about their marriage? Why is that interesting?

Jacobs, the son of an experimental filmmaker, appears to be tiptoeing into the mainstream after a pair of arch dark comedies the past decade, "Momma's Man" (2008) and "Terri" (2011). Here he is aiming for dramatic heft, and he has Winger and Letts approach the material in a lethargic, low-key mode, as if he filmed them at normal speed and then slowed it down in post-production. They pause before they speak, which probably isn't that unusual in real life, but on the big screen you suspect that the lead characters might be having a mild stroke.

It's an apparent stab at profundity, but it misses the mark. Lucy and Robert are barely fleshed out, and even Mary and Michael have endless amounts of free time, even during the work week.

Everything is surprisingly sedate. Letts has a nice moment toward the end with young Erin, reminiscing about the man he was when he met Mary, but by that point, with the son having inexplicable hissy fits about his parents' various degrees of fidelity, that you just want this wrapped up.

When it does end, after 97 minutes, the tidiness of the resolution -- with a bit of a twist on a twist -- is too convenient, as if the studio ordered it pinned onto the final cut. It's fun to see Winger and Letts, a couple of aging boomers, sink their teeth into their respective roles. Unfortunately, Jacobs doesn't offer them, or the viewers, much meat to feast on.

BONUS TRACK
The climactic song is from Labi Siffre, a British singer-songwriter and poet, his 1972 tune "It Must Be Love," which sounds like a Brian Wilson composition when it starts out:



Madness had a Top 40 hit with it a decade later; Siffre showed up for a cameo in the video:


 

09 August 2017

The Noir Chronicles

It's the annual Film Noir festival at the Guild Cinema, always a cool, dark refuge from the heat of the dog days of summer. Here's a sampling:

THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955) (B) - The first half of a Humphrey Bogart double feature was this William Wyler treatise on class divisions in Eisenhower-era America, as Bogey leads a three-man gang who takes a nuclear family hostage in its neat suburban home, lying low after a robbery.

Too long by at least 20 minutes (it pushes the two-hour mark), this one nonetheless holds your attention with a crisp, modern look and a haggard late-era Bogey, finding some depth in the role of ring-leader Glenn Griffith bossing around his brother, Hal (Dewey Martin), and frumpy Sam (Robert Middleton) while terrorizing Dan Hilliard (Frederic March), wife Ellie (Martha Scott) and their two kids, cute teenage daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and Beav-like scamp Ralphie (Richard Eyer).

The film is essentially one big idiot plot -- Glenn and the boys are waiting for his moll to bring them some money to grease their escape, but there's no reason for them to tolerate her delays in arriving. Wyler (coming off "Roman Holiday") is always in control, attacking the creature comforts of '50s suburbia and the fragility of the "Father Knows Best" facade. Middleton, especially, brings a quiet menace, especially around Cindy, who is still testing out her newfound feminine powers.

Leave it to Bogart, though, in his penultimate performance, to keep it anchored and real.

CONFLICT (1945) (B) - Bogey covets his wife's sister, to the point of murdering his spouse in order to clear the way for the new romance. This is classic noir, with the leading man in the middle of a run of '40s hits between earlier fare like "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon" and later roles in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" and "The Big Sleep."

Here he is surrounded by statuesque Rose Hobart as his wife Kathryn and smoldering Alexis Smith as the lingering sister, Evelyn. Also on hand is the great Sydney Greenstreet, the conscience of the film who seems to pop up at convenient times.

Architect Richard Mason (Bogart) milks a leg injury to lull Kathryn into a false sense of security. He ambushes her on a winding road and conveniently covers up the crash site. Free to pursue Evelyn, he comes across as a creep, but he's got a shot.

But suspicions grow, Bogie begins to lose his cool, and the clues begin to slowly add up. Hollywood code won't let him get away with it, but it's fun watching him twist while the heat closes in.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960) (B) - We caught only half of the Francois Truffaut double feature. We wished it had been the other half ("The Bride Wore Black").

This is the epitome of French drollery, with the suave Charles Aznavour portraying Charlie Kohler, a former piano prodigy toiling in obscurity in a dive bar, where he gets caught up in the nefarious doings of gangsters, involving his young brother. Lovely Lena (Marie Dubois) is a waitress who is attracted to Charlie, who is haunted by the death of his wife. Other beautiful women come and go, including Nicole Berger and Michele Mercier.

Rough-and-tumble alternates with quintessential New Wave larks. The black-and-white cinematography is arresting. But the story drags and meanders. Aznavour is slight and brooding, and he can carry a story. At a brisk 81 minutes, this is more of a curiosity than a classic.

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950) (C+) - Barbara Stanwyck is a legend of noir. But even she can't save this sloppy potboiler about a scheming woman and a philandering assistant district attorney who get caught up in each other's troubled lives.

Director Robert Siodmak ("Criss Cross" and "The Killers" from last year's fest) just can't wrangle this incoherent story, and his leading man doesn't do him any favors. Thelma (Stanwyck) gets mixed up with an assistant prosecutor, Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), who is vulnerable while he drinks away thoughts of his wife and family at home (and his meddling father-in-law). Thelma lures him into a scheme involving Thelma's designs on the estate of her ailing aunt.

This one is more confusing than intriguing, and there never seems to be anything of significance on the line. The middle drags, and Siodmak doesn't need a full 100 minutes to unravel this plot, as convoluted as it gets. Corey is a big dud as a leading man, and the compelling Stanwyck has little to work with. She is stuck with a weak story and a lame co-star.

(You can find this one online, here on YouTube.)

BONUS TRACK
Bobby LaPointe with "Framboise," a diversion in "Shoot the Piano Player":


 

06 August 2017

Los Lobos


A WOLF AT THE DOOR (A-minus) - This potboiler takes a harrowing view of a love triangle, with a child victimized by the poor behavior of adults.

The debut from Brazilian writer-director Fernando Coimbra thrums with tension and sexual intrigue from beginning to end. A little girl goes missing, and it doesn't take long for police to suspect a woman who has inserted herself into the marriage between Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) and Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento). Told in scattered flashback style and partly under the guise of a police procedural, "A Wolf at the Door" has a gritty feel and a lurid camera style.

Coimbra captures the loveless nature of the marriage around the middle of the film in a bedroom scene of bitterness and resentment. But throughout, he manages to mine the sexual frisson between Bernardo and the younger Rosa (Leandra Leal, at 33 a veteran of Brazilian TV). Red-headed Rosa possesses the sultriness of Melanie Griffith and the cutesy innocence of Molly Ringwald.

But she not only seduces the oafish Bernardo, but, when feeling betrayed by him, she takes on an alter-ego to befriend Sylvia and their daughter. Rosa assures the police that little Clarinha is fine and was merely the pawn in a petty act of revenge. Toss in the scene-chewing Thalita Carauta as Betty, who either is using Rosa to get at the couple herself or is another unwitting pawn of Rosa's, and this has the delightful mix of a sweaty soap opera.

Coimbra jumps around in time and shifts perspectives to alter the narrative from the view of different characters, and soon you're not sure if anyone is really telling the truth. Is Sylvia also cheating on Bernardo? Is Rosa a confused victim herself or a cold-blooded kidnapper? The three leads are convincing, as is Juliano Cazare as a world-weary police detective squeezing the truth out of them.

The twists and turns are gripping, and Coimbra has a visual style that is voyeuristic, shooting through window framings and doorways, and steaming up the screen with a couple of raw sex scenes. It all leads to a shocking ending that is as powerful as it is disturbing.

BONUS TRACK
The trailer:


 

03 August 2017

A Little Whirl


Tobin Sprout made a stop in Albuquerque on his latest tour far from the spotlight of Guided By Voices, the band he helped found but which chugs along without him as a cult favorite under the thumb of the prolific and flamboyant Robert Pollard.

Sprout (above left), in his 60s now, resembles a Supreme Court justice* more than he does a rock star. But he  always was the thinking man's counter-point to Bob Pollard's drunken**, needy, microphone-twirling front-man of the various incarnations of GBV who shamelessly plays to fans' craving for nostalgia. I explained to a friend at the show last night that Sprout was either the Lennon to Pollard's McCartney or the McCartney to Pollard's Lennon. Make up your mind, my friend responded, because Lennon and McCartney are pretty different; it can't be both.

Can't it, though? Conventional wisdom considers McCartney the pop alternative to the brooding Lennon, but then how do you square "And Your Bird Can Sing" followed by "For No One" on "Revolver"? No, like the legendary Beatles that Pollard-Sprout warrants a comparison to, the boys from Dayton, Ohio, each showed a broad range of Beatleseque chops, though Sprout was more inclined to wallow in a minor key.***

Last night, Sprout proudly performed for a crowd of about 50 people, backed by bandmates roughly half his age, pushing his latest disc, "The Universe and Me" (his first in seven years). The band seems like it hasn't quite gelled yet. The drummer threw a stick during the first song and the bass player knocked over his own microphone during the second song. The lead guitarist knew his way around the familiar mosquito whine of a mid-'90s GBV song but he occasionally ran too far afield on his own. Sprout's solos were tighter and meatier.

The hour-plus set covered a range of time and melodies. Here's the pleasantly swirling GBV nugget "Jabberstroker":



The problem with Sprout fronting a rock band like this -- besides the comparisons to the arena-rock marathons that Pollard still leads to this day -- is that his music is so much more nuanced and subtle than you would expect to find being performed at a club in downtown Albuquerque on a Wednesday night in August. He is thoughtful and introspective, and his songs have a spider-web intricacy and a wistful tone. That stuff doesn't always blow the doors off a joint.

In fact, Sprout seems ambivalent about his place in the indie-music pantheon. About half of his set consists of his GBV songs and the other half solo material****, but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. The GBV tunes -- from both the classic era of the 1980s and '90s and the current decade's revival -- definitely got a rise out of the fanboys and -girls in attendance. We waltzed to "Awful Bliss," blissed out to the oldie "Gleemer," and pogo'd and shouted along to "It's Like Soul Man." He was a sport about doing requests on the spot, such as "To Remake the Young Flyer," from "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars," his and GBV's apex. A fan's request***** for an Airport 5 song was met with a knowing but dismissive side glance. Here is "Soul Man":



And here's another enthusiastic GBV two-fer, the show-ending "Little Whirl" ("I don't care anymore!") teamed with "A Good Flying Bird" ("Yeah! Yeah!)



Sprout gave the band a break and started his encore set with a chilling reading of a powerful Civil War lament, the beautifully written and haunting "Antietam":



There's always been a sadness to Sprout -- or at least his tunes -- that seemed appropriate at this thinly attended midweek venue in a mid-level city. But he seemed energized by the chance to tour behind his vast catalog and to be a rock star and a front man of a pop juggernaut. He doesn't crave the spotlight but he doesn't feel undeserving of it either.

Footnotes
* - Breyer, specifically.

** - Sprout nursed one Miller Lite throughout the show.

*** - Then again, maybe Sprout, whose output was always dwarfed by Pollard's, was the Harrison to Pollard's Lennon-McCartney. We could go on.

**** - Including such two-minute treats as "All Used Up" and his tribute to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, "The Last Man Well Known to Kingpin."

*****- OK, that was me making the request. He explained after the show that Bob sang all of the songs from those two turn-of-the-millennium collaborations in which they corresponded by mail, with Tobin providing music tracks and Pollard adding lyrics and vocals, though Tobin admitted having performed "War and Wedding" in the past. 

BONUS TRACKS
Veterans Elf Power opened for Sprout and made workmanlike progress through their XTC-inspired power pop, churning through "Everlasting Scream" for their finale (here live in their hometown of Athens, Ga.):



Airport 5, "War and Wedding":


 

01 August 2017

Spam Poetry, No. 4




College Boy
 
Plates and
Dominique mottos
claim this,
obtained a restraining order.

Resolutely refused
the many academic
world wars
the memorial day
memorial.

Rest, relaxation
and gave an activity desk
to that company
as luck.

Comments would swan,
the star of albireo
fills these books
with hypertension.

I engage in such
scholarly activities.    
       

31 July 2017

New to the Queue

Our better half ...

A documentary highlighting the random reminiscences of 1960s-70s B-list actor Hampton Fancher, "Escapes."

The narratively bereft visual collage from Argentinean director Gastón Solnicki, "Kekszakallu."

 Gillian Robespierre again casts Jenny Slate from "Obvious Child," for this '90s-era family dramedy, "Landline."

God help us, but we're drawn to the Charlize Theron spectacle, at least for a rental down the line, "Atomic Blonde." 

SNL's offbeat Kyle Mooney and his pals made a bizarre movie about a 20-something who was held captive as a child, and we're in: "Brigsby Bear."

A tribute to pioneering Native American performers, including the trailblazing Link Wray, "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World." 

29 July 2017

Soundtrack of Your Life: Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets

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

Date: 29 July 2017, 9:05 a.m.
Place: Walking past the Broken Arrow Tap Room, Inn of the Mountain Gods near Ruidoso, N.M.
Song:  "Feel Like a Number"
Artist: Bob Seger
Irony Matrix: 3.7 out of 10

Comment: I was big into Bob Seger as a teen. It was his potent mix of muscular Detroit rock 'n' roll and his earnest, confessional lyrics that spoke to a young male still forming an emotional self and a worldview. He was a cruder, cred'er Springsteen -- maybe it was the long hair and beard. It started with Night Moves, the album and the song, released in 1976 -- alongside the other hits, the cheesy "Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets" and the wistful "Mainstreet," and the rougher workout "The Fire Down Below"

"Live Bullet," released the same year, allowed us to experience the band live and work backward into the catalog --- the blistering Side 3 culminating in "Katmandu," the most perfect rock song I could image at that time. There were the R&B covers, "Nutbush City Limits," the epic "Let It Rock." The howling saxophones on "Turn the Page" still pierce deep to this day.

Bob hit it big by '78 with the album "Stranger in Town," barreling out of the gates with "Hollywood Nights" and including my favorite song of his, "Still the Same," and my mom's favorite wedding reception song, "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," not to mention the prom-theme standard "We've Got Tonight."

It's that album where you'll find "Feel Like a Number" closing out Side 1. It's a working-man song that rivals anything Springsteen or Merle Haggard could crank out on their assembly lines.
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out to the ocean
"Hey, it's me!"
And I feel like a number ...
Fed up with being just a statistic, a "spoke in a great big wheel," just another folder in a bureaucrat's file, he implores: "Dammit, I'm a man!" When I heard it earlier today, I was taking a break from an attorneys bar conference just outside Ruidoso, N.M., at a majestic golf resort that burrows into the earth as well as puffing its chest out into nature via two-story window panels that gawk out onto a view that truly looks unreal, like a massive, meticulous painting. There's an elegantly rippling man-made lake, a sea of unnatural green, a forest that you wouldn't expect to see in a desert, its furry trees crowding hills and climbing mountains in the distance.  This human-engineered spectacle was created by the Mescalero Apache Tribe on their land and dubbed, immodestly, the Inn of the Mountain Gods. Nice ring.

Bob Seger's music had a majesty to it. But by 1980, his tank was nearing empty. He was running up "Against the Wind," and his feel for middle-class angst was slowly abandoning him. The earnestness was morphing into mawkishmess. He and the Silver Bullet Band struck live gold one more time with "Nine Tonight" in 1981, but by the mid-'80s he was churning out harmless adult-contemporary fare like "You'll Accomp'ny Me" and covering John Fogerty. And what the hell does "Like a Rock" mean? Was he truly feeling like that emotionally hollow post-WWII male? And what does it mean in the context of a commercial for a Chevy pickup truck? "Yessir, she drives like a rock!" No thanks. "Like a Rock" is rote, mechanical songwriting -- the same affliction that often doomed the likes of Billy Joel and Paul McCartney in the '80s -- stone cold proficiency.

But back in the '70s, there was a raw power to Seger's music that shared DNA with the rest of the Michigan crew -- the MC5, the Stooges, even Ted Nugent ("Stranglehold"!). It must have sounded corny at the time of punk and new wave, but it never felt like a guilty pleasure, either then or now.

With "Feel Like a Number" stuck in my head, I returned to the frigid Grand Ballroom for the remainder of the plenary session covering the various pitfalls leading to legal malpractice, including Pac-Man defense-attorney insurance policies (whatever those are) and proposed changes to Rule 16-101 regarding the use of social media. I earned 1.5 professional ethics credits toward my quota of continuing legal education (CLE) credits for the calendar year. I wanted to stand before that man-made lake and shout out to the world, "Dammit, I'm not a number!"

I wrote this up during a break between sessions and then met a new acquaintance at the Gathering of Nations Buffet for lunch.



Bonus track: "Still the Same":



Go on and "Let It Rock" ("We're reCORdin' tonight!"):


26 July 2017

Love Story: Part II


LOVESONG (A-minus) - Riley Keough cements her status as a serious player in independent films in this story of an unhappily married mom who renews a crush on her best friend from college only to be frustrated by the timing of their interactions.

Keough, the best thing about last year's "American Honey," brings new life to the familiar role of the unsatisfied spouse. Years ago, we were convinced that Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis' daughter) was going to break big on the entertainment scene; she just had a look. She married Michael Jackson instead. But she also married a guy named Keough and begat young Riley, who makes you want to believe that talent skips a generation as she fulfills the promise of her mother.

Here she is as Sarah, a put-upon mom of a precocious toddler named Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray), who annoyingly dominates the first 20 minutes of the film. (We know that she's a plot device as a handful and a drain on Sarah, but damn, it is no fun in any context to watch some chubby-cheeked kid of one of the filmmakers (here, the co-writer, Bradley Rust Gray); it's an indie-film phenomenon that has sunk more than one Joe Swanberg project.) Sarah's husband is frequently off on lengthy business trips, so he is both literally and figuratively distant, while she bears the burden of this brat.

Sarah gets a surprise visit from college pal Mindy (Jena Malone from the "Hunger Games" series), a free-spirit and a positive-thinking pixie. You sense an old spark between these two from the start and a stirring of what might have been 15 years or so ago. The two grab Jessie and hit the road for a random adventure, smoothly reverting to their former carefree selves.

Some motel drinking leads to a bit of intimacy -- mostly hinted at -- but the trip ends abruptly after a spat, and Mindy grabs a bus back to New York City. Flash forward three years, and Sarah is on a road trip with the now 6-year-old Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray's much more tolerable sister, Sky), headed to Nashville to attend the wedding of Mindy to a charming guy named Leif (Ryan Eggold).

Sarah stands on the periphery of Mindy's surprising new life (with airhead bridesmaids played by Amy Seimetz and Brooklyn Decker), but as the weekend progresses she finds opportunities to get Mindy's attention, culminating in an attention-getting scene at a bachelorette party. The clock is ticking on Sarah's desires, a subtle nod to Benjamin and Elaine in "The Graduate," or any other rom-com with a race to the altar.

Writer-director So Yong Kim (sharing the script with Gray, who explored similar themes with Keough in 2012's "Jack and Diane") brings a documentary frisson to the proceedings, sharing in the intimacy between the two women.  She is happy to linger, for instance, on a shot of one friend laying her head on the shoulder of the other while smiling off into the distance, or dallying with Sarah and Mindy at a rodeo for no apparent reason.

Malone (who has that look high school girls did in the '70s) is strong as the enigmatic Mindy, particularly in a one-off scene with Rosanna Arquette, in a cameo as Mindy's disapproving mother. Malone has a powerful, natural chemistry with Keough, who expresses yearning in profound ways. Keough resembles Kristen Stewart but exhibits so much more depth. Sarah is deeply unhappy and indecisive, and she aches for real love. Keough's grasp of all of the nuances associated with that is impressive.

Is Sarah's crush on Mindy genuine and feasible or just the manifestation of her loneliness? The movie never really answers that question. Suffice it to say that on the weekend of Mindy's wedding, vows are exchanged and passion is expressed. Who ends up with whom is almost beside the point.

BONUS TRACKS
The pretty song over the closing credits, "Broken Hearted Love Song" by The Shoe:



And look for compelling Marshall Chapman in a tiny role as the mother of the groom. We first spotted her in "Mississippi Grind." Here's her version of "The Nearness of You," which isn't in the movie, but is perfectly appropriate. You can skip to the 2-minute mark for the start of the song.


25 July 2017

Holy Crap!* A.M. 880

More road-trip radio ...

KHAC-AM (880) emits a powerful signal from Tse Bonito, N.M., along the state border with Arizona, across from Window Rock, Ariz., along Route 264 in Navajo territory. It was our latest road-trip discovery on the AM dial, as we returned from an arbitration hearing in Farmington up in the Four Corners down Highway 550.

And oh, my god, the station was pumping out some fascinating Christian music. No commercials, no voiceovers, a product, perhaps, of Moody Bible Radio. We stopped on 880 when we heard some wicked guitar distortion that would have made Neil Young and Crazy Horse blanch. Like Scott Biram on Adderall. No clue who the artist is or what the song was called. It sounded like it was coming from another universe. The sound quality was pretty awful. An internet search for a playlist proved fruitless.

That segued into a lovely song with much friendlier guitar picking (with slight echoes of Mark Knopfler's '80s soundtracks), from Anthony Quails, "Acres of Faith":



We were the 65th person to view that one on YouTube. Good luck, Tony.

There was power pop from a band called Foreverlin, sort of a neutered Buffalo Tom or a defeated U2, with the generic "You Remain":



As we approached Cuba, mesmerized by the striated rock formations, a dreamy song played. Shazam captured it and identified it as "New" by Headman, but now that we've traced it down online, that doesn't seem right. Well, anyway, here is the title track on the Headman EP (almost certainly not Christian techno) that also features "New," which we couldn't find, "Running Into Time." (First, the rocks.)




Did we have a religious experience during the 5 o'clock hour? Is there any way we could find that first song, the sonic guitar blast? Was that an illusion? A bleed from a nearby station?

Is there anybody out there?

* - Holy Crap is an occasional series about unique films, cutting a wide swath from brilliant to awful. This is our first foray into radio. Check out previous entries here.
 

23 July 2017

Love Story

It's the feel-bad feel-good movie of the summer ...

THE BIG SICK (A-minus) - What so bad about cute? This heartwarming, touching, laugh-out-loud-funny biography tells the story of Kumail and Emily -- charming young people from vastly different ethnic backgrounds -- and the illness that brought them closer.

Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, wrote this script based on the early days of their relationship after meeting in Chicago while he was struggling as a standup comic. Nanjiani (a standout amid the stellar cast of HBO's "Silicon Valley") stars as his younger self, and the adorable Zoe Kazan steps in as Emily, who has a meet-cute with Kumail after heckling him during one of his sets at a local club.

The two have a warm rapport, each with the right level of Gen X sarcasm, but things fall apart after only a matter of months because Kumail refuses to reveal the relationship to his super-traditionalist Pakistani parents. His parents relentlessly try to set him up at family dinners with young Pakistani women who just happen to drop by while in the neighborhood. Kumail keeps a cigar box full of their head shots, but an arranged marriage is just one of the cultural shackles he wants no part of.

Emily finally walks out on Kumail, dooming him to those family dinners and unsatisfying one-night stands. One day he gets a call from a friend of Emily's who asks Kumail to look in on Emily at the ER after she had a fainting spell. Emily takes a turn for the worse, and doctor's pressure him into giving consent to place her in a medical-induced coma.

Emily will spend most of the rest of the movie in that coma. Her parents drive up from the South to be with their daughter, and they want nothing to do with the man who broke their daughter's heart. Beth and Terry are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who have a fine chemistry with Nanjiani; a few scenes between the men provide nuanced comedy that is rare. Hunter is always welcome whenever she pops up to take on a role. Here she sinks her teeth into the bitter Beth, who billets both men in the same doghouse; it turns out that Terry is in the process of making amends for a vague indiscretion that slowly reveals itself.

This being a charming film about comedians (in the mode of last year's "Don't Think Twice"), Kumail has pithy interactions with his fellow struggling standups, including a sharp Aidy Bryant as Mary, plus a few interchangeable mildly funny guys. (Kurt Braunohler as the hacky Chris is the best of the rest.) They really are just comic set pieces, mere narrative necessities in support of Nanjiani and Kazan (a stand out in "Some Girl(s)" and HBO's "Bored to Death"), who is a crucial bookend to the film, right down to the beautiful echo that closes out the movie.


A running plot line involves a comedy competition that builds toward a showdown in which Kumail must take the spotlight immediately after receiving dire news about Emily taking a turn for the worse. He bombs in epic fashion because he can't focus on anything but his love for Emily.

By this point, Beth and Terry are softening toward Kumail. Meantime, his relationship with his family is disintegrating.He floats in a bizarre purgatory where he finds himself distraught over a woman who wanted nothing to do with him, even in the ER.

This illness is not destined to end in a tragic death -- not in a Sundance darling with Judd Apatow's fingerprints on it. (And if you have heard anything remotely to do with the origins of the film and pay attention to the opening credits, you'll know what to expect at the end.) And speaking of Apatow, his influence is almost certainly connected to the main flaw -- the movie, at two full hours, is about 20 minutes too long, with a third half hour that drags so much you just want to pull the plug on poor Emily.

But Nanjiani and his director, Michael Showalter ("Hello, My Name Is Doris," "Wet Hot American Summer"), strike a perfect balance among the comic voice, the deep romance and the movie-of-the-week medical weeper. You forgive some of the sappier moments, mainly because this all feels grounded in real life, and in real life, sap happens. What Nanjiani and the real Emily have created is not just the feel-good movie of the season but also, arguably, the best film of the year so far.
 

22 July 2017

Amor Apasionado


Los Lobo charmed Albuquerque on a drizzly Saturday night at the outdoor Summerfest with a perfect mix of hits, Tex-Mex rhythms, blues workouts, cumbias and heritage songs. The triple-guitar assault from Louie Perez and the lead singers, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, provide truly an all-ages show to the crowd savoring the free show on Route 66 at the start of monsoon season.

There was some tube-snake boogie from Rosas, which kicked off the East L.A. band's breakthrough album of 1984. Here's a clip of "Don't Worry Baby" from Farm Aid back in the day:



A little before 10 o'clock, after the rain had passed, a cool breeze kicked in about midway through a highlight of the night, the Hidalgo heartbreaker "A Matter of Time," also from "How Will the Wolf Survive?":



Hidalgo took up the bandoneon for a stretch of songs in the middle of the set. The band knows its way around the region's traditional music. Rosas crooned what is essentially the New Mexico state anthem, "Volver, Volver":



The band did not forget its Ritchie Valens covers, including "La Bamba" (a medley with the '60s nugget "Good Lovin'"), and "Come On Let's Go":



The boys burned up the end of their set with one of their best songs, the psych-blues romp "Mas y Mas" from 1996's under-appreciated "Colossal Head," as the drizzle doubled back for an encore:



One time, one night in America ...

17 July 2017

One-Liners: Odd Couples


BEATRIZ AT DINNER (B) - Writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta re-team for another of their stories about a flawed, determined woman battling her own demons as well as the powers that be.

Here, Salma Hayek is the earnest striver, Beatriz, a physical therapist and new-age healer who falls into the orbit of the well-to-do by virtue of helping treat a couple's daughter who suffered from cancer. When we meet Beatriz, she is massaging Cathy (Connie Britton from TV's "Nashville"), and afterward, when Beatriz's beater won't start, Cathy invites her to dinner, which is a snooty business affair with two other couples.

The center of attention is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a Trump-like developer who has no guilt about his ravaging of the environment and local economies. Beatriz, as the fish out of water, becomes the truth-teller at this gathering of boorish elites. Lithgow digs his fangs into the role without playing it broad or farcical. He and Hayek perform a fascinating pas de deux, as actors and through their characters.

White and Arteta first teamed for "Chuck & Buck" (2002) and followed it two years later with "The Good Girl," with Jennifer Aniston in the familiar role of snakebit striver. The pair reunited a few years ago for one of the best TV shows of the past decade, HBO's "Enlightened" (starring Laura Dern as a bumbling force of nature). Here, Hayek digs deep into the soul of Beatriz, creating layers that keep this from descending into a Stooges-like pie fight between the snobs and the hoi polloi.

The supporting cast, corralled by Britton's subtle effort, lights up the edges of the screen. Chloe Sevigny and Jay Duplass are a delight as an airhead couple who have stumbled into riches. (Her entrance -- scoffing at the gravel in the driveway -- sets a snippy tone early.) Amy Landecker ("Enough Said," "A Serious Man") lags a bit as Doug's tolerably middle-aged trophy wife.

A narrative trick near the movie's climax feels like a bit of a cheat, but by that point the film has earned respect, and the point of this polemic has already been made. Enjoy Hayek and the gang as they toss around White's intellectual football.

HATESHIP LOVESHIP (2014) (C+) - Kristen Wiig is a bizarre curiosity in this trifle about a wallflower striving to make something of her life, despite the obviously poor choices she has made over the years and the obstacles others create for her.

Wiig is sad sack Johanna Parry, a home health-care aide who dutifully sees to the final moments of her longtime elderly ward in the opening scene. Her next assignment is to take care of snotty teen Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives with her gruff grandfather (Nick Nolte, particularly gruff) after her mother dies and her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), struggles with a drug addiction back in Chicago. Sabitha and her androgynous pal, Edith (Sami Gayle, TV's "Blue Bloods"), think it would be a hoot to trick Johanna into thinking that Ken has a crush on Johanna and is wooing her via email.

Johanna falls for the ruse and lands on the doorstep of Ken, who is supposed to be rehabbing a motel but is merely flopping in it and whoring around with the despicable enabler Chloe (a nicely understated Jennifer Jason Leigh). Johanna, embarrassed and appalled, is determined to try to make a go of things anyway. She dutifully tends to Ken and the rundown digs, with a simplistic obsequiousness somewhere in the range of Rain Man and Forrest Gump.

You might not make it that far in this undercooked drama from director Liza Johnson, based on an Alice Munro short story. Wiig shows little range in a zombie-like performance. She was delightfully quirky in "Welcome to Me," pointedly dour in "The Skeleton Twins," and sharp and complex in "Nasty Baby" and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." But here she struggles to find a compelling voice, and Johnson seems to be of no assistance. The tone seems off throughout.

Nolte and Pearce are workmanlike, and Christine Lahti is a sight for sore eyes in a minor role. Steinfeld and Gayle bring little to the proceedings, fumbling the tension between the teens that feels forced. This one has a payoff at the end, but it's a chore to sit through its 104-minute length.

BONUS TRACKS
"Hateship Loveship" boasts a fine classic-country soundtrack, including nuggets old (George Jones' "Why Baby Why") and more recent ("I'm Getting Known (For All the Wrong Reasons" by Larry Dean), blaring from a rattle-trap radio. The best of the lot comes at the end, from Tammy Wynette, "Til I Get It Right":


 

14 July 2017

Now & Then

For our occasional series, we change it up a bit and consider "The Beguiled" -- Sofia Coppola's latest -- and the 1971 original from Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. Previous "Now & Then" entries may be found here.

THE BEGUILED (B-minus) - A surprisingly un-suspenseful and undercooked Civil War period piece about a prim school for girls in the South that takes in a handsome injured Yankee soldier for some psycho-sexual intrigue.

A fine cast can't really lift Sofia Coppola's limp script and direction. Nicole Kidman is the stern headmistress, Kirsten Dunst is the aging spinster (she must be over 30!), and Elle Fanning plays a willing young seductress -- all vying for the attention of Cpl. McBurney (the too handsome and polite Colin Farrell).

Coppola, one of the best modern storytellers of the new millennium (see our list below), has grown less adventurous in recent outings. "The Bling Ring" was exciting but felt a bit shallow; other efforts, such as "Somewhere," have depth but can drag. You could make an argument that, with maybe an exception here or there, that each film has been slightly weaker than the previous one.

Here, there just isn't enough intrigue, suspense or sexual tension to make for a riveting story. The women and girls underplay their roles to the point of sleepwalking through the movie. A great storyteller is getting lost in the mist.

THE BEGUILED (1971) (B+) - From the '70s male perspective, we give you a much pulpier version that delivers more on its era's calling cards -- sex, gore, and psychological games.

Clint Eastwood's Cpl. McBurney is much more wolfish and direct than poor Colin Ferrell's; here, McBurney makes no bones about his ardor for each woman, overtly seducing the headmistress (Geraldine Page), the virginal wallflower (Elizabeth Hartman, playing 22 here, much younger than Dunst), and the randy teenager (a spicy Jo Ann Harris). It's clear that he's a player when, in the opening scene, he kisses 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, familiar to '70s TV watchers). Everyone here is better than in the remake. It is much clearer that all of the women, even little Amy -- and, in the background quiet Doris (Darleen Carr, another TV regular of the time) -- are crushing on Cpl. McDreamy, and the sexual sparks are readily apparent. Page, as the matron (in this version, with a saucy family secret), is a much more believable dowager type than Kidman, who comes with that modern, sculpted age-defying beauty.

Director Don Siegel forgoes oblique mood-setting for more in-your-face drama and intrigue. Some of his choices are cheesy and outdated -- an omnipresent black crow offering foreshadowing; voice-overs to convey characters' thoughts and motivations; unnecessary camera flourishes -- but he remembers to do what Coppola chose not to: sell the story. Sure, Siegel is crude where Coppola is subtle, stylish and tasteful, but this ain't beanbag here. It's intended as a riveting tale of loneliness, Southern traditions, war & slavery, human compassion and carnal desire. Siegel, faults and all, gets that. Coppola wanted to make a different film (one that makes the Civil War an afterthought and eliminates the one slave character at the school), and that's her choice. Her product is prim and moody; Siegel's gets its fingernails dirty.

Pick your poison, so to speak.

BONUS TRACK
A cataloging of our favorite Sofia Coppola movies, from our favorite to the least liked. Others might make a list that more clearly shows diminishing returns with each release, putting her debut film first and her most recent one last.

  • Lost in Translation (2003)
  • The Virgin Suicides (1999)
  • Somewhere (2010)
  • The Bling Ring (2013)
  • The Beguiled (2017)
  • Marie Antoinette (2006)
And we would drop her 2015 TV special "A Very Murray Christmas" smack dab in the middle of that list.
  

11 July 2017

Seriously?!


GET OUT (C) - Neither funny nor suspenseful, this genre mashup must have seemed like a great idea on paper. But in the hands of a first-time director, and with a dull cast, this morality play about how blacks are treated in a white world is just slow-paced and confounding.

Maybe I missed the wink to black viewers and to sensitive liberals about how Important this film is. And it certainly has a worthwhile message to convey -- everyday life inside the white power structure can seem like a literal horror story for even the most mild and acquiescent of black men. In the end, they are deemed less than human.

Got it. But "Get Out" is not the vehicle for successfully conveying that message. Here, very funny Jordan Peele ("Keanu," TV's "Key & Peele") debuts as writer-director, with clunky results. He follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (a tedious Allison Williams from HBO's "Girls") as they head upstate to meet her parents and brother. Leave it to Peele to misuse Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose's parents. Most of the actors here are either miscast or wasted, with little sense of an ensemble effort. No one expects Williams to bring much to the show, but Keener is an alchemist, and she looks almost embarrassed to be a part of this.

The gimmick here is Peele's use of horror and zombie tropes to turn Chris' experience into a hellish nightmare. Seemingly innocuous or familiar standard-issue-polite racism, delivered by a smiling Obama voter, turns horrific. The problem is that Peele has the white actors deliver all of their lines in a way that is ham-handed and clunky. I know he is going for an automaton effect at some point, but it doesn't work. He is a rookie trying to produce a modern "Rosemary's Baby," building dread minute by minute, but he ends up in "Scary Movie" territory. He wants to be an auteur, but he doesn't have the voice or the chops yet.

You see, all is not as it seems at first. Or maybe it is. The first half hour of set up is dreadfully slow. An opening scene involves a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield from "Short Term 12") being plucked from the streets for Walking While Black; he'll turn up later. Cut to the cozy urban apartment of Chris and Rose, two people devoid of chemistry, which makes you wonder why Chris would agree to visit her parents or put up with them and her overtly racist brother for more than an hour before exiting gracefully back to the city.

But this is a movie, so we go along with it. At a party, each of the family's white friends is issued a preciously awkward line to throw at Chris, in order to exhibit their obvious latent racism. We won't spoil the rest of the gimmicky plot, but rest assured that inherent evil lurks in the hearts of Chris' jovial tormentors. When true torment eventually ensues, it comes out of left field and has a B-movie gore that would make Vincent Price roll his eyes.

The saving grace here is LilRel Howery (TV's "The Carmichael Show") as Chris' pal Rod, an uber-proud TSA apparatchik who is constantly warning his buddy by phone about the obvious trap that has been set up. Howery brings actual energy and genuine comedic skills to a surprisingly underwhelming farce, playing the ironic role of the black observer yelling at the hero to "Get Out." It's the only clever bit in the film. (As a whole, there is a shocking dearth of funny lines.)

Not as lucky are Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel as the family's servants, seemingly lobotomized, docile domestics whose characterizations are more odd and confusing than, as intended, ominous. Like Chris, they are victims here of an errant production and a poorly thought-out polemic.