06 December 2016

Hep Cats, Part I

The first of two comedies with one thing in common: kittens!

FORT TILDEN (2015) (A-minus) - "This is tediously adorable." That's the final line delivered by one of the two aimless 25-year-old women, acidicly passive-aggressive roommates who decide to take a day off from doing nothing in order to trek through Brooklyn on their way to a beach in Roackaway.

Their adventure becomes a hellish odyssey -- well, relatively so, to these pampered Williamsburg brats. The alpha female, Harper (Bridey Elliott), holds herself out as an artist, even though she has no discernible talent or work ethic to support her claim. Allie (Clare McNulty) is the neurotic sidekick who is blowing off the final preparations for her Peace Corps mission in order to spend a day at the beach (or trying to get there). In the privileged world these gals circulate in, everyone reacts in horror at the news that Allie is headed to (gasp) Liberia, believed to be the home of human-flesh traffickers.

These two peddle snark 24/7, encased in a bubble big enough for them to bump into the gang from HBO's "Girls." Not that the dynamic overlaps that much with Lena Dunham's smart but precious show. This buddy road-trip movie has more of a stoner vibe (or Molly, to be precise), and the banter between Harper and Allie, with its putdowns and dick references, has echoes of Beavis and Butt-head, a couple of hapless dopes oblivious to the real world zipping all around them. Their frustrating expedition also borrows a bit from "The Out of Towners," a couple stymied at every turn while trying to navigate New York City.

Elliott (another comic daughter of Letterman sidekick Chris Elliott) is bitter and droll as Harper, cajoling another cash infusion out of her globe-trotting dad during a speakerphone conversation while she shaves her pubes for bikini purposes. She pays for everything with personal checks, as if handing out Monopoly money. McNulty, also a relative newcomer, holds this all together with a brilliant turn as a pent-up ball of emotions -- boy crazy, resentful of her "friend," confused about her future. McNulty comes off like a funnier Jane Krakowski with Gene Wilder's sensibilities and gravitas. She's a revelation.

As the day progresses, the gals wander off the beaten path, further and further out of their element. They are as unprepared for the outside world as baby birds newly kicked out of the nest. Or abandoned kittens. Lost trying to finding the beach, the girls find three kittens and instantly recognize the responsibility to make the precious lives safe. But the kittens soon become props, after-thoughts during an epic argument between Harper and Allie, who finally leave the kittens in a garbage can, cushioned by those thrift-store throwaways fashioned as a bed on the bottom. Will the cats survive? Will Harper and Allie?

They are so easily distracted. "Oh, my god," Harper blurts out as she veers from the bike lane. "That top!" They gawk at the outrageously cut-rate prices at a "ghetto" thrift store and hold up ugly clothes for the other's opinion. Allie waves a blouse and asks, "Is this Southwest hipster or meth head?" Before leaving Brooklyn they must stop in the park to score drugs from Benji, who has slept with Harper (and gifts her with dick pics) but also surrounds himself with a trio of fawning gay admirers, whose chatter is painfully funny. Among the many strong supporting actors are Desiree Nash and Becky Yamamoto as the prissy roommates Marin and Amanda,

Our heroines are on a mission to meet up with a couple of dudes they met at a rooftop party where a cloying pair of twins entertained with their twee folkie ditties (which bookend the movie). The gals' cluelessness will manifest itself in the final reel when they find out the true reason the boys are so available.

By the end of the film it gets tougher and tougher for Harper and Allie to keep pretending that they're not failures. That final 20 minutes gets a bit sloppy, but Elliott and McNulty (who must have worked hard workshopping these characters and scenarios) have the depth to conjure some real emotions without careering into pathos.

Writer-directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers keep this all believable and under control. They have a fine sense of pace and an ear for pretentious dialogue. Their digital images feature bright, sharp tones and a documentary feel for New York's nooks and crannies. When they finally arrive at the beach, you can taste the salt water.

This is a hidden gem. More of my favorite moments:
* Harper and Allie skip the morning bagels so they'll be able to "roll up" to the beach later in their "morning tummies."
* Allie calls up a child's YouTube to learn how to pump air into a bike tire.
* Harper checks with Allie: "People don't cash checks the same time they get them, right? That's not a thing."
* Getting the apartment "sex ready" (in case they bring home dates at the end of the day) involves spraying air freshener and laying out a copy of Infinite Jest.
* The suffer a quick false start on their trip, because down the street from their apartment sits a wooden barrel that they just must have (for, you know, plants, or umbrellas). After rolling it into their foyer, they express worry about bed bugs and a need to buy more umbrellas.
* Riding their bikes the wrong way down a one-way street, they dink a baby carriage, and the Gen X parents dissolve into hysterics over their precious offspring, as the girls flee the scene.
* Snooty Marin warns her guests that her calendar is a bit full: "We have to go get butter ... before it gets dark."
* Calling a car service from the "ghetto" Allie pinpoints their location as "Flatbush and some street that was renamed in honor of a few fallen firefighters whose names I can't pronounce."
* Unable to flag down a cap in "deep Brooklyn," Harper wonders, "Isn't this, like, where cabdrivers live?!"
Your mileage may vary. But "Fort Tilden" (that's the beach they are heading for) revels in the sarcasm of an entitled, throwaway generation with sharp humor and insight. This is a group to watch.

04 December 2016

Slow Train Coming

LOVING (B-minus) - We might need to sit down with Jeff Nichols and have a long talk. There is a sense of indulgence emanating from his two releases this year -- spring's "Midnight Special" and now "Loving," a biography of the interracial couple who took their case against the state of Virginia to the U.S. Supreme Court and changed history.

Nichols wowed us with his intense trio of debut films: "Shotgun Stories" in 2007, "Take Shelter" in 2011, and "Mud" in 2012. After a four-year break, he returned with his go-to leading man, Michael Shannon, for "Midnight Special," about a father and son on the run from the military who covet the boy's extra-sensory secrets. That one dragged under its two-hour running town and unraveled in the last reel.

Here, again clocking in around two hours, Nichols gets as downright lethargic as the rural Virginia drawls of the low-key lead characters, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, "The Gift") and his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), turning a tender love story into a bit of an endurance contest. Nichols was determined to avoid the classic hero-lawyer angle, and he is to be commended for that. He was intent on making a narrowly focused movie that gets in bed with a couple and tells the story of their simple, easily identifiable relationship.

If only that was enough to rivet you to the big screen for two hours. "Loving" is a beautiful movie that tells a powerful story. But it takes its damn sweet time getting the narrative rolling. There is very little legal drama in the first half of the film. Instead, we nestle in with the Lovings and the day-to-day rhythms of their lives, much of it in unhappy exile in the urban setting of Washington, D.C., where they flee after agreeing to a suspended sentence in their native Virginia, and where they raise their children.

Negga is captivating as the quiet but forceful wife and mother who won't take this lying down. Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who refers them to the ACLU, whose lawyers stumble out of the gate trying to get their case moving again. Edgerton's Richard comes off as a monosyllabic grump from start to finish. Little nuance there. We watch their daily routines, but we never really connect with them. They don't raise their voices or nag each other; instead, they come off as artificially saintly, and a little boring. Their secret forays sneaking back into Virginia to live for periods of time lack tension.

My movie companion pointed out that the film fails to show us how the Lovings met. We dive right into a scene in which Mildred tells Richard that she is pregnant. So off they go to D.C. to get legally married (though it will still be criminalized in Virginia). From there on, it's domestic drudgery and bland bliss. The children come off as props. Despite strong performances, we don't get sucked into the deep bond between husband and wife.

The legal angle is understated and effective. Nick Kroll (from TV's "The League") is particularly compelling as the humble lawyer, Bernie Cohen. The Supreme Court's decision in June 1967 is conveyed via one side of a phone conversation.

A lot of scenes involve telephone calls and car rides, which don't make for scintillating cinema. (Richard was a weekend racing aficionado, but even those scenes lack much zip.) If Nichols had been a presidential candidate in 2016, he would have been derided as "low energy." He has shown himself to be a powerful filmmaker in the past. But lately his worst instincts have been exaggerated. Here he seems intent on creating an anti-drama.

A quiet slice of life can make for a great film, and we don't need car chases or Kevin Costner arguing heroically before the Supreme Court to make a satisfying drama. But is a little passion -- especially in a love story -- too much to ask for?

THE LOVING STORY (2011) (B+) - At the other end of the spectrum, this HBO documentary skews away from the quiet love story and shifts the focus equally to the legal battle and the two lawyers from the ACLU. As such, it suffers from the opposite problem of "Loving" -- the couple is more of a vehicle for the young white lawyers to play the heroes and change history.

The archival footage is amazingly extensive. The Lovings were documented extensively at the time. (In Nichols' drama, the Life photographer who snapped the classic photo of the couple on their couch, is played by Michael Shannon, keeping alive his streak of appearing in all of the director's films.) And we hang out with the Lovings and their children in their home and at their court hearings.

The lawyers, Bernie Cohen and Phil Hirschkop, are still around to give their side of the story. The couple's children fill in some family history. (Mildred died in 2008; Richard in a car crash in 1975.)

The story is an epic one. When the lawyers pushed to get the couple's conviction overturned, they lost in state court but succeeded in getting an appealable decision that they could take to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the memorable opinion from the Virginia trial judge, we get this infamous quote:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
The judge did not explain why the white man was living on the red man's continent -- and running that continent's judicial system. But I digress.

"The Loving Story," directed by Nancy Buirski ("Afternoon of a Faun"), is a solid by-the-numbers telling of an incredible American story (how did Nichols manage to drain all that drama?), and she benefits greatly from that archival footage from two sets of documentaries from the 1960s and from advisers like the legendary D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

Nothing fancy here; just getting out of the way from a mesmerizing story.

The song over the closing credits of the documentary, the gorgeous "Slow Train" by the Staples Singers:

And our title track:

You have to love this idiot-savant uber-comment about Dylan under the video: 

The lyrics are good but he sounds strange when he sings :(

30 November 2016

Now and Then: Extreme Herzog

Heaven (and hell) on Earth as explored by Germany's eccentric filmmaker.

INTO THE INFERNO (B-minus) - Genius or a victim of attention deficit disorder?

After famously spelunking into a cave in France (see below), Werner Herzog takes to the air to fly over and peer into raging volcanoes. He creates awesome images. Bright orange rivers of fire. Roiling magma that takes on the qualities of a living being. The huffing and puffing of middle earth and its maladies, belching smoke and ash.

After a while, though, those images start to lose their impact. Herzog meanders all over the Earth, exploring different cultures but too often losing his way and, it seems, his train of thought during a frustrating 107 minutes. He ends up in North Korea during the second half of the film and, perhaps startled by his good fortune, goes on an extended riff about life under the world's craziest dictator. This footage from North Korea is quite interesting at times, but what does this have to do with volcanoes?

You could ask the same question about the eccentric archaeologist from the Bay Area whom Herzog spends the middle of the film with, brushing the sand in some far-off land (Ethiopia?) picking out the shards of bones of the humans who perished tens of thousands of years ago, collecting the fossils in his Crocodile Dundee cap. Where in the world are we going with this?

Herzog is known for his own eccentricities -- non sequiturs, off-beat questions, philosophical ramblings. Here he uses an amiable host, Clive Oppenheimer, whose book is the basis for the film. Cheery Clive brings some legitimacy to the reporting, which balances with Herzog's penchant for voodoo, mysticism and cult worship.

The film begins and ends in Indonesia and Vanuatu, indulging the local magic men and staging a few war dances that might make descendants of colonialists cringe a bit. Some of what Herzog has captured is downright beautiful and mind-blowing. But he could use an editor who could boil this down to an hour and give it more structure.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2011) (B) - Five years ago Herzog presented this haunting, dreamlike tribute to the Chauvet Cave in southern France that only recently was discovered to hold the oldest known drawings and paintings, believed to date back about 32,000 years.

Herzog was honored to present these images to the wide world, and he lingers over them, shooting with his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (who also shot "Inferno") in the murky depths. The images can be stunning. Stalactites full of crystals shimmer like chandeliers. The lines of the cave drawings thrum as if, any second, they will come to life.

But Herzog can't help overplaying his hand. He imagines a stillness so quiet that you can hear the crew's heartbeats; and then he drums a heartbeat on the soundtrack. Got it. Over and over, Herzog returns to the drawings until, like with the volcanoes, they start to lose their power and allure. He strains to make this experience appear to be profound. By the end, though, his obsession makes the paintings downright hypnotic.

Herzog can't help lobbing those grandiloquent questions at his subjects. He asks a patient archaeologist, who has laser-mapped the cave using millions of spatial pinpoints, to compare those dots to the millions of people listed in the Manhattan phone book: "Do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their hopes? What are their families? We'll never know from the phone directory." The archaeologist, to his credit, takes the question in stride and offers a sensible answer. At one point, he wonders aloud, "What constitutes humanness?"

As he wanders off the path and explores beyond the cave, Herzog loses his train of thought. At one point, we are treated to a spear-throwing demonstration. He trails after a ridiculous "master perfumer," who sniffs around the caves. OK. When some mentions shadows dancing, it reminds Herzog of Fred Astaire dancing with giant shadows, and so he splices in that 20-second clip. Heaven knows, anything goes.
The piece de resistance is the film's coda. Herzog ambles over to a nuclear power plant along the Rhone river 20 miles from the cave. Excess warm water used to cool the reactor is channeled to a bio zone that is home to flora, fauna and crocodiles. Among them are freakish albino crocodiles who slither and splash around in a pond, inspiring ponderous final commentary from Herzog, the filmmaker who has traversed the eons and found himself enthralled with the dreams and the hubris of mankind.

Put it all together, and it has the rapturous vibe of an epic poem.

28 November 2016

Touch and Go: Part II

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (B+) - Here's another kid who feels like an outcast among his fellow high school students. Morris, at least, has a pretty good excuse. He's living in Germany with his widowed father (a soccer coach), and he's a black child coping with an Aryan paradise.

Markees Christmas -- like Royalty Hightower earlier this year in "The Fits" -- carries the film while making a powerful screen debut as 13-year-old Morris Gentry, a frustrated wannabe rap star and horny little adolescent. He's on the chubby side and has trouble blending in socially, showing no confidence in his German-language skills.

He has a caring but awkward relationship with his father, Curtis (comedian Craig Robinson), and he is not above stretching the truth with his dad, especially if it means he can hang out with the beautiful older teen Katrin (another newcomer, Lina Keller, bringing to mind a young Julie Delpy). Katrina strings him along but genuinely seems to like Morris' company. Katrin is blond and skinny, and she looks cool smoking and wearing aviator sunglasses. She has a charming accent and knows how to make her little friend swoon, preferring to refer to him in casual conversation the way he first introduced himself to her, as "Morris From America."

But Katrin has an older boyfriend who rides a motorcycle and spins records as a DJ, which is tough for any boy to compete with, especially an inexperienced one who gets picked on incessantly at the youth center, especially by a little prick who likes to call him Kobe. (The daily indignities of Morris having to serve as the lone repository of stereotypes and curiosities is handled well here.) Katrin invites him to a cool-people party but then embarrasses him in front of his peers. She lets him tag along on the DJ's road tour but then abandons him in Frankfurt after the first stop. But she's such a cute and alluring tease that you can't blame Morris for allowing himself to be cruelly strung along.

Morris does most of his bonding (and flirting) with his 20-something German tutor, Inka, played by the vibrant Carla Juri from 2014's "Wetlands." Juri, a true force of nature, tamps down her energy and broods behind oversized eyeglasses. She lures Christmas onto a couple of dramatic ledges, and their connection serves as the core of the film. When he finds himself in a bind, you can guess whom he'll call.

And while Robinson is fine -- like most comedians, dramatic acting comes relatively easy to him -- there's not much depth to Curtis, who also must work hard to connect with his German colleagues. Robinson's best scenes show a frustrated Curtis trying to bond with his son but coming off as a geezer and a goof. The boy just doesn't appreciate a slow-jam rap from 20 years ago, and instead would rather emulate more modern artists bragging about bitches and ho's.

The narrative also stutters at times. A few idiot-plot devices are needed to goose things along. (No parent in the modern era of texting would ever have to wonder if a child who stays out all night is safe; and for convenience sake, Morris improbably loses his cell phone, merely to ratchet up the tension. But writer-director has a good ear for dialogue and an eye for cultural sensitivities, and he draws solid performances from four pretty raw actors, allowing them to create a believable world where it's never easy for a hormone-raging kid to find his voice and his passions.

The opening track, Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear" from 1994:

And from the closing credits, Jeru the Damaja with "Come Clean":

26 November 2016

Doc Watch: Punk and Jazz

DANNY SAYS (B) - This enlightening documentary hangs out with the stealthily charming Danny Fields, the Zelig of rock and punk in the '60s and '70s who figured in the histories of the Beatles, Doors, Stooges and Ramones, among other famous acts.

A bit slapdash, with crude but entertaining animations, "Danny Says" relies heavily on a series of interviews with Fields over several years as he looks back on his career in the orbit of Jim Morrison, Andy Warhol and others. (He once tried setting up Morrison with Nico, but Morrison was obsessed with his next score more than the German chanteuse.) Fields comes off as a bit whiny and incoherent, but if you have the patience for his blase personality, his rambling stories are funny and insightful.

Fields was a buttoned-up Jewish boy at Harvard Law at the dawn of the '60s when he dropped out and eventually fell in with the counter-culture. He ran a fanzine in the mid-'60s that publicized the famous John Lennon quote about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus, and he helped launch the legend of Morrison. He hosted a radio show during the heyday of WFMU in New York. After wearing out his welcome at Elektra Records, he burned through the Lou Reed / Andy Warhol / Iggy Pop scene and made his mark on Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers and the Ramones, who hired him as their manager after Fields agreed to buy them some new equipment (he borrowed the money from his mother).

Fields was best pals with Linda Eastman McCartney, so there are plenty of photographs to stock the documentary about the man who gained entree to classic rock royalty. After his fall from the punk scene, Fields helmed the teeny-bop rag 16 magazine, injecting his own aesthetic by placing Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper alongside Shawn Cassidy and Leif Garrett.

Fields is a real character, and director Brendan Toller (who in 2008 chronicled the decline of record stores) captures the allure of a unique figure in modern music. As a crusty old man with tales to tell, he is welcome company for an hour and a half.

THE GIRLS IN THE BAND (2011) (C) - The horn section of the feminist movement chimes in.

This flat documentary stretches back to before World War II to give props to the women who toiled in the jazz scene dominated by men. Director Judy Chaiken takes a rather chaste approach and tries to do too much, leaving the viewer overwhelmed and under-informed.

Chaiken brings in a couple of dozen women, cycling them through repeatedly, making it difficult to keep track of any of them. She also burns through decade after decade, insisting on bringing us up to date on the present day, and she drowns under nearly a century of material.

Many of the reminiscences by these musical pioneers are fun and insightful. But too often, Chaiken relies on trite era footage (VJ Day, bra burnings) for the historical road markers that she speeds through. It is both dizzying and numbing at times.

The theme song for "Danny Says" by the Ramones:

25 November 2016

RIP: Florence Henderson

The Brady mom died yesterday at age 82. We like to remember her as the single mom pathetically waking up from a one-night stand with an alcoholic clown in Bobcat Goldthwait's epic directorial debut "Shakes the Clown."

Here's that opening scene:

And the trailer:


22 November 2016

Sountrack of Your Life: Nostalgia for the Girls

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

Date: 22 November 2016
Place: "Gilmore Girls" Season 6 season finale
Song:  "Taking Pictures"
Artist: Sam Phillips
Irony Matrix: 1.9 out of 10

Comment: We sampled a few episodes from the last two seasons of "Gilmore Girls" to get ready for the reunion shows debuting on Netflix this weekend. Despite misty eyes, we flagged Sam Phillips -- along with Grant Lee Buffalo an official troubadour for the turn-of-millennium show -- uttering the line "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be." Oof. Take that, Soundtrack of Your Life! Phillips emerged in the late '80s and early '90s during the Heyday of the Planet of Sound after hooking up (romantically and musically) with T. Bone Burnett, who produced her most memorable albums, including "Cruel Inventions" in 1991 and "Martinis and Bikinis" in 1994. The cassette of the latter died out on me a while back. Nostalgic recording formats ain't what they used to be. Phillips has the voice of an angel recovering from vocal-cord surgery, and she knew how to turn a phrase in a minor key. We don't dwell on television here, so we won't go on about one of our favorite shows ever, but we are looking forward to Amy Sherman-Palladino getting the opportunity that was denied her during the seventh and final season of the series a decade ago -- giving Lorelei and Rory the ending she had envisioned all along when she created the unique world of Stars Hollow and brought my long-lost little sisters to life. Let's hope Netflix doesn't screw it up.

Here is the song, with bonus Luke-and-Lorelei footage:

(Here's a backup version, in case that first link doesn't play from the embed:)

Here's Phillips' "Love and Kisses," the opening track to her fine 1994 album "Martinis and Bikinis": 

Then there's the Beatlesque "hit" from the album, "I Need Love":

And her breakthrough, "Lying," from 1991's "Cruel Inventions":

19 November 2016

Touch and Go

MOONLIGHT (B+) - Chiron is growing up black and gay in Miami, with a single drug-addicted mother -- more than a couple of strikes against him -- and we will follow him to adulthood and find out in the present day whether or how he overcomes such obstacles.

When we first meet him (as played by Alex Hibbert), Chiron (rhymes with Tyrone) is tagged with the nickname Little and is chased by bullies into an abandoned motel. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali, "Free State of Jones," "House of Cards"), a crack dealer who, perhaps out of guilt for keeping Chiron's mom hooked, informally adopts the boy, inviting him home for dinners and sleepovers in the warm domesticity created by Juan and his angelic girlfriend, Teresa (the riveting Jonelle Monae).

Chiron's other connection is with his best pal Kevin (played as child and teen by Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome). As a teen, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders, channeling a bit of Keith Stanfield in "Short Term 12") is gangly and socially awkward. He and Kevin eventually share a moment of intimacy at the beach, but Kevin later betrays his friend on the playground by carrying out the orders of a bully and slugging Chiron rather than lose face in front of the whole school. When Chiron exacts revenge on the bully, he is hauled off to juvenile detention.

Cut to the present, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a muscular, hardened ex-con who goes by the nickname Black, wears a gold grille over his teeth and deals drugs in the Atlanta area. A phone message out of the blue from Kevin (Andre Holland) lures Chiron back to Miami and to the diner that Kevin runs. It is here that "Moonlight" finally coheres, with the first true, in-depth interaction between two characters.

Until that point, the triptych structure of the film -- with different actors portraying Chiron and Kevin -- disrupts the rhythm of the narrative and gets in the way of the viewer's connection to the characters. Writer-director Barry Jenkins (in his second film since 2008's "Medicine for Melancholy") mostly overcomes those logistical hurdles, although one major drawback is the lack of attention paid to Chiron's mother and to Teresa, who come off as two-dimensional representations of the neglectful and comforting nurturers that have shaped the boy into the man. Juan is a benighted street hood who disappears by the middle of the film.

If you have the patience for the long set-up, the payoff between Rhodes and Holland as old childhood friends reconnecting on a mature level is worth the wait. Kevin is assured and jaded -- he knocked up a high school classmate back in the day but is on his own now -- and he seems to have some direction to his life. Chiron is all bulk and empty swagger, a calloused shell protecting the frightened, feral little boy inside.

When Kevin sits him down, feeds him and smiles across the table, it feels like the first act of true tenderness that Chiron has ever experienced. When Chiron returns the kindness with a deeply personal confession, the humanity of this movie finally flourishes, and it's glorious.

A key scene, involving the reunion of two characters, plays out to this dusty from Barbara Lewis, "Hello, Stranger":

16 November 2016

As Good as It Gets

CERTAIN WOMEN (A) - I can't imagine a better filmmaker working today than Kelly Reichardt. She creates opaque narratives that plod and meander organically, with a visual style that slings you into the eyes, ears and the aching bones of her wandering characters.

Here she takes her cameras to Montana and surrounds herself with towering talents to tell three short stories -- tenuously linked -- about frustrated women searching for connections and purpose. Laura Dern stars in the first story as Laura, a lawyer struggling to cope with a difficult client. Reichardt regular Michelle Williams is Gina, a woman with a husband and daughter who is trying to plan her dream home outside of the city. And Kristen Stewart is another lawyer, Elizabeth, who drives three hours twice a week to teach an evening class about the law to a handful of teachers. (The script is compiled from the short stories of Maile Meloy.)

Elizabeth is worn out by the long drive, and she is frustrated by her students, who don't seem to appreciate the case law on education matters but would rather pepper her with pedantic questions related to their own workplace gripes. A lonely ranch hand, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), stumbles on the class and becomes smitten with Elizabeth, accompanying her to a local diner for a bite to eat before Elizabeth faces the dark drive home. Gladstone, a relatively newcomer, is a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, and she grounds the film in an authentic setting. Her profound hunger for a human connection is palpable and expressed viscerally through Gladstone's big eyes and smile. When Jamie impulsively takes extraordinary action to reach out to Elizabeth -- in a burst of drama that shatters the measured pace of the previous two hours -- the result is raw and eviscerating, yet crushingly run-of-the-mill. Stewart, cocooned in Elizabeth's frumpy clothes and dull personality, mopes with the best of them, and she thrums with a Millennial ennui.

Dern's Laura opens the movie in bed with a married man who has a connection to one of the other women. She drags herself up the stairs of her downtown office building to her second-floor law office to meet with Fuller (Jared Harris from TV's "Mad Men"), the victim of a workplace injury who refuses to accept the fact that he no longer has a case. Later, Fuller creates a hostage situation at his former place of employment, and Laura nonchalantly dons a bullet-proof vest and ventures inside to try to placate him. The scenes between Dern and Harris mix deadpan humor with danger and dread. A later coda carries that combination over, with a sweetness undercut by a dull fear.

Michelle Williams, who carried "Wendy & Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff" for Reichardt, anchors the middle of the film in a seemingly innocuous meditation on domestic dysfunction. Gina and her husband, Ryan (a perfectly reserved James Le Gros), and their teenage daughter are camping out in the sticks at the site of their future house. We don't know why, but Gina is just not happy, and she bickers with Ryan and their daughter in small but unsettling ways. Gina and Ryan visit an elderly acquaintance, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), to inquire about some authentic sandstone that is piled on his nearby property. Albert is not all there, and the couple are guarded about seeming to take advantage of the old guy. As they are leaving with a handshake deal, Gina and Albert marvel at the beauty of their surroundings, presuming to interpret the words of the birds' subtly different calls and responses. "Where are you?" Albert suggests the birds are calling out. The response, with a slightly different inflection, Gina suggests, is "Here I am!" It's a pivotal moment that might warm or break your heart.

Reichardt is a master of detail, and here she wanders from her familiar turf in the Northwest and immerses herself in both the physical wonders of Montana and the provincial pinch of the suffocating small town of Livingston. In this static environment, she explores the hopes and dreams -- or lack thereof -- of four women who seems to continue to exist outside of the frames of this film. As the credits roll, you wish you could keep checking in with them long after the house lights come up.

13 November 2016

New to the Queue

An early holiday funk ...

Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter," "Mud," "Midnight Special") turns to a biopic for the story of the couple who took their case for interracial marriage all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, "Loving."

Kenneth Lonergan ("Margaret," "You Can Count on Me") looks to be back on his game, with star Casey Affleck as a man dealing with the death of his brother, "Manchester by the Sea."

Isabelle Huppert teams up with Paul Verhoeven ("Showgirls"(!)) for an urgent story about a woman sublimating her sexual assault, "Elle."

Our gal Amy Landecker might be enough to draw us to another Coppola family effort, Robert Schwartzman's debut, "Dreamland."

A documentary about an eccentric longtime agrarian in Vermon, "Peter and the Farm."

A documentary about Japan's insanely popular glam-rock band, "We Are X."

A man gets out of prison and goes through the daily slog of getting back on his feet in "Hunter Gatherer."

10 November 2016

Close to Home

AQUARIUS (A-minus) - The veteran Sonia Braga is mesmerizing as the aging beauty who is the last holdout in an apartment complex that heartless owners are eager to convert to more valuable property. For two-and-a-half hours, she drifts through this somber, deeply nostalgic movie.

Braga plays Dona Clara, the regal denizen of a sprawling apartment in the retro complex known as Aquarius, which sits a block away from the ocean. She bonds with her housekeeper Ladjane and feuds with an old man and his grandson, the owners of the building who feed her envelopes filled with offers to sell; she rips them up unread.

This is the sophomore effort of writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho, who debut "Neighboring Sounds" (also about apartment dwellers) plodded and clunked. Here, again clocking in well over two hours, Filho takes a leisurely pace, but he is blessed with Braga, the femme fatale from "Kiss of the Spider Woman" 30 years ago, who is now an elegant and still vibrant 65-year-old, with a face you can't resist.

Braga carries the film effortlessly as a strong woman standing up for herself and serving as a guiding example for her adult children. Clara still brims with emotion and even lust. When the owners try to smoke her out by allowing young adults to throw wild parties directly above her place, Clara merely cranks her vinyl records but also snoops upstairs, cracking a door and keenly observing an orgy.

The film starts with an extended flashback, with Clara as a young mom, newly recovering from breast cancer, at a family gathering. The event is a 70th birthday party in 1980 for Clara's Aunt Lucia. As Lucia's grand-nieces and -nephews read tributes to her -- consisting mostly of recitations of the favorite boring pastimes of the elderly matriarch -- Lucia's mind wanders. We get a flashback from within the flashback, circling back another 40 or 50 years to when Lucia was enmeshed in a passionate love affair. The elderly Lucia looks over at a chest of drawers and loses herself in the reverie of the memory of having sex atop the piece of furniture.

That dresser ends up in Clara's apartment as we return to the modern day. Filho pauses for static shots of the dresser several times, using it as a symbol of fond memories, the ties of family, and the unquenched passions of a senior citizen who is not ready to yield to old age. One night, as the party upstairs rages, she lights up a joint and puts in a booty call to her friend's gigolo, who gets put through his paces.

In the end, when Clara discovers a particularly nefarious secret method the owners have used to smoke her out of the building, her revenge is spirited and swift. That ending feels both a little tacked on and too perfunctory, but by that time, "Aquarius" has cast its spell, and Braga has sealed a performance for the ages.

In the middle of the film, Clara tries to drown out the party upstairs by dropping a needle on this Queen song:

Taiguara, a singer who ran afoul of Brazilian authorities in the 1970s, handles the final scene and closing credits with "Hoje (Today)":


05 November 2016

The Musical Question

LANDFILL HARMONIC (B+) - What a joyful noise. This heartwarming documentary tells the story of children in Paraguay learning to play musical instruments made from trash-heap scraps.

The backwater town of Cateura is built around a garbage dump, where many folks scavenge to make a living. Nicolas "Cola" Gomez started making violins, cellos and other instruments from the scraps. Favio Chavez showed up as an inspirational music instructor. And the children fell under his wing, eventually traveling the world, becoming media darlings, and jamming with rock stars.

Three relatively new filmmakers -- Brad Allgood, Graham Townsley and Juliana Penaranda Loftus -- meticulously curate the ultimate culture study of how art and music can transform the lives of children, wildly expanding their world. They quickly focus on the star of the movie, adorable Ada, who bravely survives about four years of filming during the peak of her adolescence.

Ada is articulate and charming. She's also a major fan of '80s metal gods Megadeth, and she and her pals get the attention of the aging hair band. Leader Dave Mustaine pays a surprise visit, and Ada nearly faints as if in the throes of Beatlemania. Eventually, the kids share a stage with the big boys.

The other children flesh out the story. Tania is painfully shy, scarred by her parents' breakup, and through this improbable little orchestra, she discovers a way to express herself. Awkward Esteban plays drums on skins made from medical X-rays. (Another kid plays the cello, which is created mainly from an oil drum.) Astute Maria joins Ada and Tania on violin, and she has the drive to slide into a junior instructor's role.

For 84 minutes, you lose yourself in this happy world where anything seems possible. When the town is hit by major flooding, the movie effortlessly weaves in this narrative hook. We watch the children turn into young adults. They seem happy, and we're happy for them. Their version of "Ode to Joy" makes for a perfect theme song.

EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS (B-minus) - This clip job is passable as an overview of the life and career of Frank Zappa, the foul-mouthed avant-garde alt-rock darling.

German director Thorsten Schutte lets Zappa tell his own story through extended archival footage -- no talking heads, no narration.  The clips range from his early TV appearance (clean-cut and wearing a suit) on Steve Allen's variety show (Zappa played a bicycle wheel, to Steverino's consternation) to a surprisingly insightful interview by a "Today" show correspondent while Zappa was in the final stages of cancer. We also see him hang with a bunch of squares on an early incarnation of "Crossfire" on CNN. And his appearance on "What's My Line?" in 1971 -- he is busted by Soupy Sales (!) -- is a good example of Schutte letting a clip play out; Zappa starts to ramble about the movie he has just directed, and host Wally Bruner (!) has to cut the guest off, reminding us that the mainstream considered Zappa to be a mere curiosity not to be taken seriously.

All the career highlights are here -- from the man's '60s and '70s sonic experiments to his fleeting novelty hits, from his fight against Tipper Gore and the censors in the 1980s to his later acclaim as a classical composer. The main frustration is the choice of songs plucked by Schutte. He almost goes out of his way to inflict some of Zappa's worst musical offerings on the viewer.

I was never much of a fan. To me, Zappa had a penchant for trying too hard to be cutting edge and anti-authority, hailed as a genius, but far less clever and much more annoying than anyone would really let on. It was nice to have him in the world, and his shtick seems fine in theory, but too often, in practice, he came across as annoying and juvenile. (Although I do appreciate being set straight on a botched lyric that I've had in my head for years; it's not Dinah-Moe Humm who squeaks when she cums but rather the Jewish Princess.)

Some moments are quite moving. Zappa is treated like a rock star in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, bonding with fans while hobnobbing with Vaclev Havel. The final scene -- shot shortly before his death at 52 of prostate cancer -- captures Zappa in pure reverie as he conducts an orchestra on a run through one of his pieces.

It is a kick to have Zappa brought back to life. He was an ardent defender of free speech (though smugly non-PC). He heroically blew raspberries at the establishment (though his rather conservative philosophy seems taken chapter and verse from the writings of Ayn Rand). He was talented and he knew it. While testifying before Congress about song lyrics, a senator wonders about the toys he has bought his four children and Zappa invites her over to the house to see for herself -- and he seems to genuinely mean it.

He was curmudgeonly to the end. In that final interview, he insists that he doesn't want or need to be remembered -- he'll leave that to the Reagans and Bushes of the world. Schutte, a bit clunkily, reminds us that we have some fond memories of Zappa, and we remember what the world used to be like when he was in it.

The "Landfill Harmonic" story is best experienced through the movie, especially if you haven't been exposed to the tale previously. (The orchestra apparently was quite the YouTube sensation.) Here is the trailer:

03 November 2016

Word Salads

CITY OF GOLD (B) - Food critic Jonathan Gold is driving around his hometown when, unprompted, he tells the camera, "I can't tell you how much I love Los Angeles."

Gold is a thoughtful writer who a decade ago won the Pulitzer for his food writing for L.A. Weekly in the improbable way that Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer for film criticism in the 1970s. And, like Ebert, Gold is passionate about his subject and blessed with the ability to take a niche subject and connect it to broader themes about culture and life. He also is a bit of a renaissance man, raised on classical music, conversant on the cello, and an early aficionado of gangsta rap from earlier in his journalism career.

This documentary is a little too in love with its subject and its seemingly endless opportunities to fetishize L.A. and its neighborhoods. Writer-director Laura Gabbert (2009's "No Impact Man") follows the frumpy -- and, frankly, unhealthy-looking -- Gold to the numerous little restaurants that the writer has discovered over the years, mostly family-run eateries, holes in the wall and strip-mall survivors. Gabbert takes a dreamlike tone and tries a little to hard to find the perfect mix of gritty and gorgeous on the streets of L.A. It is yet another valentine to the City of Angels.

Her final product comes off as too slick. Like Gold, she endeavors to take a deep dive into obscure neighborhood nooks, but comes off as an interloper with her borderline exploitative depictions of minority cultures. Gold has been nurturing his relationships with these people of color for decades; Gabbert's project is by necessity more hit-and-run; at worst you get a whiff of colonialism from the final product. Her lens is impossibly narrow; her color palette a bit too crisp.

For the first hour, "City of Gold" makes you wonder if this wouldn't be better suited to a 20-minute segment on "CBS Sunday Morning" with Charles Osgood or Harry Smith. The aerial shots of L.A. traffic get redundant. You wonder whether it's wise to encourage Gold to stuff himself toward an early grave.

But the final half hour turns pensive and somber, focusing more on his relationship with his wife and children. His teenage kids' affection for Gold as they wander through a museum feels genuine. We learn a little more about his upbringing, as small boy during the upheaval of the 1960s, with its riots and its racial and ethnic tensions.

Gold comes off as an earnest soul, a nimble writer and a true explorer of a hidden, neglected world. When he reads from one of his most memorable essays in the final scene of the film, the depth of emotion is powerful. In the end, this thoughtful man is, himself, an underappreciated treasure worth discovering.

You might want to skip this. It's from the essay he reads at the end of the film. It beautifully captures Gold style and his knack for using his beat to plumb deeper themes:

MAY 7, 1992 -- IT IS 8 O'CLOCK, AND THE light has started to fade as I sit on the floor of my apartment staring at the spot where the rain not so much dripped as oozed from the doorjamb a couple of months ago, swelling the wood and leaving a rust-yellow stain on the wall. Downstairs, a baby cries out in Spanish; in the distance, the Geto Boys boom from a passing truck. For the fifth time in about an hour, I think about the other parts of town, the ones with croissant shops on the street corners and air-conditioned shopping malls and neighbors who look like me. I slap in the new DJ Quik tape and crank up the juice.

For the last 10 years, I have lived in a small apartment building, probably nice in its day, that is located where Koreatown thrusts into the Central American community, and where Salvadoran children startle their grandmothers by leaping out of shadows with toy Uzis and Mac-10s. Nobody has really bothered to give this area a name, though in the news reports that have dominated local television for the last week, the anchors have been calling it "just west of downtown."

Half a mile north, the neighborhood consolidates, takes on weight and a Latin flair, and is clearly part of Hollywood. A couple of blocks south begin the stucco condominium complexes of Wilshire Center -- brand-new but already peeling around the edges -- that provide underground parking and security codes for pink-collar office workers who cannot yet afford Encino or Baldwin Hills. The last time I bothered to count, there were restaurants of 14 ethnicities within a five-minute walk of my front door. The local supermarkets, big as soccer fields, are famous for their selection of multinational goods. Guatemalan women walk home from the Ralphs with bags of groceries balanced expertly on their heads.

My neighborhood has always been transient, a brief stopping place for Thais and Nicaraguans and pale, gaunt poets before they move on to single-family homes in greener parts of town. But to my Korean landlords, this neighborhood is home. When they came into my apartment a couple of years ago to inspect the building they had just bought, they removed their shoes on the landing in the polite Korean manner and promptly drenched their socks on the freshly mopped kitchen floor. I have been awakened before dawn by the rhythmic thud of garlic being pounded into paste on the back porch. I have stumbled out the door with an armful of wet laundry, only to find most of the clothesline taken up by drying fish. I have also come home from work to find the backstairs spread with leaves of cabbage curing in the hot sun. Even when their son was murdered a half-mile south of here, there was no questioning that they belonged. The landlords keep to themselves and so do I, but I sometimes wish that they would invite me over for dinner.

31 October 2016

PTSD Runs in the Family

LOUDER THAN BOMBS (A-minus) - A strong cast brings home a quietly effective drama about dysfunctional family whose emotions and shortcomings are exposed by the death of the woman who shaped them.

Norwegian director Joachim Trier, five years after his punch in the gut about the day in the life about a drug addict, "Oslo, August 31st," once again teams up with writer Eskil Vogt for a well observed character study of wounded souls. Here he follows a father dealing with his two sons after the death of their mother, who was a superstar war photographer and, by extension, a distant wife and mother, literally and figuratively.

Isabelle Huppert appears in sporadic flashbacks as Isabelle, who is addicted to the adrenaline rush of her globetrotting and is more devoted to her award-winning career than she is to her husband, Gene (a somber Gabriel Byrne). In a tender scene, she taunts him with a recitation of a sexual dream she had, and he playfully accuses her of trying to pick a fight with him. Gene suspects that Isabelle is closer with her correspondent colleague (and the couple's friend) Richard (David Straithairn, powerfully understated) than she has let on.

The couple's grown son, Jonah (a somewhat wooden Jesse Eisenberg), a fledgling professor, is escaping from the suffocating trap that is his beautiful wife and newborn and finds sanctuary with Gene, belatedly sifting through Isabelle's archives a year or two after her death. Still living at home is teenaged Conrad (Devin Druid), a tortured soul struggling to process his mother's death and his painful awkwardness with classmates.  Conrad longs to make a connection with a cute girl-next-door type, and he nurtures a significant writing talent that seems to be his only form of self-expression. Meantime, he berates his father, lies to him, and seems to resent him for letting Isabelle abandon them through the years. Her death, ironically, in a local car crash gnaws at him. Gene has neglected to tell Conrad the truth that everyone else knows -- Isabelle's death was likely a suicide. Richard's impending profile of Isabelle in the New York Times will reveal that uncomfortable truth, and the question here is whether Gene will be able to step up and have the decency to catch Conrad up to speed before the Times casually reports it on Page 1.

Trier effortlessly plays with the story's chronology, jumping back and forth in time, repeating scenes from a different character's perspective. But instead of that being confusing, it almost feels natural, mimicking the way we pass through our days, cycling from the past to the present constantly. Trier eases us into the disjointed rhythms, like an expert jazz musician, and it deepens the viewing experience.

Huppert, with that intimidating blank stare of hers, haunts these men and boys like a ghost floating through a horror film, just like the images of suffering that she captured haunted her to an early grave. While Byrne and Eisenberg mope a bit too much, Druid strikes just the right tone of teen angst and confusion. He's earnest and sensitive but angry and sullen. Trier is both compassionate and critical with Conrad as well as with Gene and Jonah.

When Jonah meets up with an old girlfriend, who is visiting her ailing mother in the hospital, he lets her think that his wife also is ill, rather than recovering in the maternity ward. Jonah uses this misdirection as a way of flirting anew with the girlfriend, and when Conrad overhears Jonah on the phone lying to his wife about his activities, Conrad is indignant. He tells his brother that if he had a girlfriend he would never lie to her. "Good luck with that," a bitter Jonah snaps back.

"Louder Than Bombs" feels acutely real, settling into the grooves of the classic dysfunctional family. There is a hint of "Ordinary People" and its suburban shiver to this production. It makes you smile and it makes you squirm. Trier is tuned into the hum of human existence, and he makes subversively insightful films to remind us of how we live.

29 October 2016

Soundtrack of Your Life: Selling out

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

Date: 22 October 2016
Place: TV commercials
Song:  "Default"
Artist: Django Django
Song: "If You Want to Sing Out (Sing Out)"
Artist: Cat Stevens
Irony Matrix: 3.3 out of 10

Comment: Back in the 1990s, I was enamored of my cohorts who were crafting Target commercials, and I'll never forget my amazement at hearing Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" in an ad for the frisky department store. The troubled outsider artist's childlike recordings had finally gone from the mailing of handmade cassettes to the American mainstream. Sort of. Popular music gets co-opted much faster and across a wider spectrum these days. During the baseball playoffs this year, two songs have jumped out at me. The British art-rock band Django Django in 2012 released a self-titled debut album full of retro electronic pop, a tame mix of Devo and Kraftwerk, with some irresistibly catchy tunes. Their frantic song "Default" has found a home in a commercial for Google Pixel. Meantime, Jeep Grand Cherokee reached into the archives for an orphan from Cat Stevens, the gem "If You Want to Sing Out (Sing Out)," which was originally featured in many folks' favorite film, "Harold and Maude" in 1971. When ballgames last 3-and-a-half or 4 hours, it is small joys such as these songs that make the down time a bit more tolerable. Here's today's starting lineup:

Django Django:

Cat Stevens:

The inimitable Daniel Johnston with his original:

And Mary Lou Lord with the mature cover version: