19 August 2016

Blame the Man

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (A) - I think this is what Steven Spielberg movies must seem like to the masses. I was a puddle by the end of this comic drama about a man living off the grid with his six children in the immediate wake of his wife's death and leading them back to civilization to deal with the in-laws who want to take the children from him.

Viggo Mortensen seizes the red-meat role of Ben with gusto but also a decent amount of nuance, and he is surrounded by impossibly appealing and talented children who help him create a believable alternative world, one with heft and consequences. Ben's wife left the practice of law when their oldest son was young and followed her man to the wilderness, where they home-schooled their children to brilliance and taught them survival skills, such as killing and gutting an animal for food and clothing or setting a broken bone. Ben talks to them like they are little adults, at one point explaining the mundanities of intercourse to the youngest (about 5 years old) as matter-of-factly as a high school teacher would to his students.

The children, indoctrinated by Ben in far-left political theory, subscribe ardently to a radical worldview.  "Power to the People," they chant. "Stick it to the Man!" The youngest, Nai, likes to push the boundaries of the no-nudity-during-meals rule. The group takes a break from their road trip to get a cake from a local grocery store to celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. (It wasn't easy for me to keep all of the kids straight, particularly the two teenage girls. And I thought the youngest one was a girl and the second-youngest was a boy -- they both had long blond hair -- but IMDb suggests that it's the other way around. Either way, Charlie Shotwell as adorable little Nai nearly steals scenes from Mortensen.)

The kids' mother was bipolar and struggled with her health, to the point where she went back to civilization for treatment, only to take her own life. Ben is summarily informed by his rich father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella, exquisitely measured), that he is not welcome at the funeral services. Rising to the challenge, Ben packs the kids in their kitted-out school bus and heads to the foothills of New Mexico, intent on bidding a proper farewell to his wife. (When informed of Jack's threat, one kid spouts, "Grandpa can't oppress us!")

Out in the "civilized" world, the children come off as little freaks, particularly the oldest, Bo (George MacKay), who is confronted by a love interest for the first time. They stop in at the home of Bo's sister, Harper, and her husband, Dave, and their two lumps of adolescent boys, whose minds are rendered into mush by their phones and video games. The couple is played by the delightful pairing of Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn (casting in rhyme!), exuding quiet exasperation, especially when Ben, accused by Harper of damaging his children by denying them proper schooling, proceeds to call in his youngest child to embarrass her sons -- imbecilic victims of an American public school -- by reciting the Bill of Rights and placing it in a political context. (Among the reading materials for the children on display are The Brothers Karamazov and Guns, Germs & Steel.)

The rest of the children manage to carve out their own identities. (It helps that they have been given genuinely unique names like Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai.) One sharp scene finds Ben pressing one of the older girls on her interpretation of Lolita, pushing her to analyze beyond plot; the girl's response is thoughtful and insightful, with just the right tone for a teenager. It is in moments like this that Matt Ross's script resonates. Ross, who also directed, is a noted actor (he plays the nefarious head of the Google-like empire in HBO's "Silicon Valley") whose last outing behind the camera was the devastating relationship film "28 Hotel Rooms" in 2012. 

Ross weaves together several strands of a compelling plot. Bo, the eldest, secretly harbors a mainstream ambition. One of the teen girls spills some secrets of Ben's questionable parenting decisions to Jack, sparking an anti-rebellion. Ben starts questioning his whole philosophy of child-rearing and is consumed with doubt and guilt. Did he drag his wife out to the jungle against her will? Were they a team or was he brutalizing a mentally unstable woman? Few actors could juggle such character angst better than Mortensen. The closing credits feature a new version of the Bob Dylan song (popularized by the Band) "I Shall Be Released" with its acutely appropriate lyric about "a man who swears he's not to blame." Is Ben deluding himself?

Some might see the resolution of that dilemma as overly simplistic in a too-tidy ending. But, again, Mortensen -- perhaps sensing a career-defining role -- welds everything together with integrity. I was not only brought to tears more than once, but by the end I was choked with emotion. Often the proceedings border on precious, but each time Ross survives the tightrope walk. A memorial sing-along of Guns 'N Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" is way more touching than it deserves to be.  It shouldn't work, but in context it does.

"Captain Fantastic" has a lot to say about a wide range of topics, from geopolitics to family dynamics to a man questioning everything in life he has ever stood for. Perhaps the loose ends of this story tie up just a tad too neatly in the end, but neither Ross nor his lead character should be blamed. Those of us who seek to disturb the universe and take down the Man deserve a marginally satisfying outcome, at least once in a while.

That Dylan classic: 


17 August 2016

Soundtrack of Your Life: Outlaw Yoga

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

Date: 13 August 2016, 9:40 a.m.
Place: Del Norte Sports & Wellness
Song:  "What a Wonderful World"
Artist: Willie Nelson
Irony Matrix: 7.8 out of 10
Comment: During the last five minutes of a yoga session, the participants lie in corpse pose -- savasana -- to relax, incorporate all the movement, and ground with the earth. Peaceful music is sometimes played. On this occasion, the instructor -- who is partial to sensitive-dude music -- blessed us with Willie Nelson, of all people, covering the Louis Armstrong classic. While it's a pleasant tune, the cloying standard trilled by Shotgun Willie proved to be a distraction, a felled tree across the road to enlightenment.

I've been a fan of Willie's since high school, but this version of "What a Wonderful World" didn't work for me. It is suffused with strings and generic backing vocals that recall his pre-outlaw RCA days, and it sounds like a corny Christmas song. Let's spin Joey Ramone's version instead:


14 August 2016

... And Then You Die

WIENER-DOG (B+) - Todd Solondz has never cared about happy endings. Life is crap and then you die.

The dour director has lately been rediscovering his voice from the '90s, that period when he reeled off "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." He drifted in the next decade, but he has recovered of late with "Life During Wartime" and "Dark Horse." With "Wiener-Dog" he literally calls back to his early masterpiece, "Dollhouse," bringing back an adult Dawn Wiener as one of a series of owners of a hapless dog who can't seem to find a good home.

The vignettes don't hold together very well (though they each share a similarly flat affect), but each one is quietly effective, powered by strong performances. In the first sequence, Julie Delpy is Dina, a jaded mother who has no filter when talking to her child, especially about the horrors of life, including the cruel fate some dogs face, including the marquee mutt, who spends almost all of his time confined to a cage in the basement. Her son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), home alone, frees the pup and feeds breakfast bars to the poor thing, which proceeds to strafe the house and yard with explosive diarrhea. Solondz, wrings a few laughs and head-scratches by choreographing vast quantities of puddles of dog excrement to "Clare de Lune."

The parents take the dog to the vet and plan to have it put to sleep. But it's rescued by Dawn Wiener -- played with loose-limbed jerkiness and nerd glasses by the fine physical actress Greta Gerwig. Dawn runs into an old high school mate, Brandon (a charming Kieran Culkin) at a convenience score, and he revives her old nickname: Wiener-Dog. Against everyone's better judgment she desperately tags along with this junkie on a visit to his brother and sister-in-law in the suburbs. The couple have Down syndrome and are portrayed as clear-eyed innocents. The dog is bequeathed to them and their spacious yard.

The third segment is anchored by sad-sack film professor Dave Schmerz, played with elegant melancholy by Danny DeVito. Dave once had a screenplay produced, but he's been waiting years for lightning to strike again, struggling to get phone calls to his agent returned. Stoop-shouldered Schmerz is treated like a pathetic anachronism; he is mocked by snotty millennials for his old-fashioned screenwriting shorthand technique of "What-if/Then-what." Schmerz seeks revenge by using Wiener-Dog in a provocative and disturbing manner to exact revenge.

Cut to the haunting final act in which a acerbic old woman (Ellen Burstyn), living in her museum-like apartment with a caretaker and Wiener-Dog. She is visited by her hipster granddaughter, Zoe (an artful Zosia Mamet from HBO's "Girls"), and her flamboyant artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), who is working on a maudlin new project. The young woman is ostensibly visiting to catch up with her beloved Nana after a long estrangement. But it's just a matter of time before Zoe hits the old lady up for a cash infusion. After they leave, we see the old woman on a park bench, in a dizzying reverie, interacting with herself as a child. She loses track of Wiener-Dog, and you might want to avert your gaze at that point. Solondz is nothing if not a shock-meister who likes a twist ending.

But the filmmaker is also morbidly funny. (Enjoy the halftime interstitial set to the jaunty original tune "Ballad of a Wiener-Dog.") And while his vision is dark, he ferrets out quiet moments of humanity in the far reaches of the abyss. When a couple holds hands, it is moving and powerful. And the actors are game: Delpy plays against type as the mean mom; Gerwig disappears into her lonely loser aching for a connection; DeVito holds his resentment in his jowls and his dead eyes; Mamet and Burstyn crackle during their generational clash.

This is Solondz's most satisfying storytelling since his breakthrough study of childhood bullying, back when he was picking on a different Wiener-Dog.

12 August 2016

New to the Queue

Brighter every day ...

Women in high-finance, led by Anna Gunn (TV's "Breaking Bad"), "Equity."

A documentary about the soulful leader of the throwback R&B group the Dap-Kings, "Miss Sharon Jones."

Another trashy ensemble chick flick, this one from the creators of "The Hangover," and starring Mila Kunis and Kathryn Hahn, "Bad Moms."

We wade trepidatiously into the war in Afghanistan with a debut feature from France about vanishing troop members, "Neither Heaven Nor Earth."

We also step lightly into the western genre, with a slow burn from writer Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario," which we skipped) and director David Mackenzie ("Young Adam," "Perfect Sense"), "Hell or High Water."

The latest from Argentina's Daniel Burman ("Family Law," "Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven"), a drama about a man connecting with his Jewish roots, "The Tenth Man."

What the New York Times calls "a time capsule curio," footage of a London disco in 1984 from Derek Jarman ("Caravaggio"), "Will You Dance With Me?"

It looks like a Mumblecore circle jerk, but we're drawn to Thomas Middleditch (HBO's "Silicon Valley") and Jenny Slate ("Obvious Child") in the weekend bro gathering, "Joshy."

From the director of "Polisse" (our best of 2012) a stormy relationship between Vincent Cassell and Emmanuelle Bercot, "My King."

09 August 2016

The Noir Chronicles

The Guild Cinema blessed us again this summer with its annual festival of noir. Here's a sampling, in reverse chronological order:

PRIVATE PROPERTY (1960) (A-minus) - This unsettling suspense film -- recently restored at UCLA -- is a classic creep-out.

A pair of drifters -- Duke (Corey Allen) and Boots (Warren Oates) -- bum a ride to the hills of L.A. where they find an empty house next door to a housewife they have targeted for a sexual conquest. Duke either feels sorry for his virginal partner or suspects he is a homosexual.

Duke takes the lead, ringing the door Ann Carlyle (the lapine Kate Manx) posing as a handyman/gardener looking for work. It takes a few tries, but he eventually gets his foot in the door, and before you know it, he's worked up a sweat, doffed his shit and jumped in the backyard swimming pool, as Boots spies from next door. Turns out Ann's husband is a stuffy businessman who is uninterested in satisfying his wife's carnal needs, leaving her craving a man's touch.

You can tell Ann is under-served, because we see her at various times suckling on an ice cube or fondling a candlestick to signal to the audience (if not her clueless husband) that she's horny. And Manx is a total '60s minx. Here's her come-hither look as she curls up like a kitten on the plush carpet in front of the TV:

Writer/director Leslie Stevens -- notably Manx's husband at the time -- was a veteran of the TV thriller anthology series "The Outer Limits," and he knows how to craft a simple yet compelling plot and how to ratchet up the tension. He creates a fascinating dichotomy and quite the conundrum for the viewer -- how can we watch this story of the unfulfilled housewife begging to get laid while two drifters are essentially plotting to rape her? Dare we watch this?

What follows is an unnerving pas de deux between Duke and Ann, with Boots wondering when his turn is going to come. The actors in this menacing menage a trois carry it off beautifully. Allen (who would continue in TV, mostly directing dramas and such TV telepics as "The Ann Jillian Story") has boyish good looks and a broad chest. Manx (who died four years later at age 34 of an overdose of sleeping pills) captures the dilemma of the happy housewife flirting with danger. Oates, in one of his earliest roles, oozes angst and desperation; you don't know what he might be capable of.

The final reel doesn't disappoint as Stevens builds it all to a shattering climax. It's tough to watch, but you can't take your eyes off of it.

CRISS CROSS (1949) (B-minus) - The proceedings drag a bit too often in this tale of a man trying to win back his ex by scheming with her husband to pull off a Brinks heist and then out-maneuvering him for the gal.

Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo are the criss-crossed lovers in brightly lit downtown Los Angeles, rekindling a romance that should have been left in the past. De Carlo (in her heyday as a dark-eyed screen siren before settling into the infamous role of Lily Munster 15 years later) smolders as Anna, toying with frustrated Steve (Lancaster) while taking the arm of ringleader Slim (Dan Duryea, a fixture of westerns).

Lancaster is fine as the sweaty double-crosser who will allow his cash-delivery truck to be robbed. Director Robert Siodmak ("The Killers," below) keeps a swift pace to deliver 88 minutes of suspense.

THE KILLERS (1946) (B-minus) - This landmark noir tale -- based on an Ernest Hemingway short story -- is incredibly convoluted, to the point of being drained of real drama or intrigue. It is a chore to get through. (Just try to follow the plot in this Wikipedia summary.)

Burt Lancaster, in his screen debut, is the Swede, a former boxer who falls in with mobsters and pays for it with his life. He dies in a hit job early on, so that's not the mystery. Instead, we follow an insurance adjuster trying to piece together the why of it all, through numerous confusing flashbacks.

This is classic noir, right in the wheelhouse, but it fails to hold together as a compelling narrative. Luckily, Ava Gardner shows up, oozing catnip from every pore. She becomes the Swede's femme fatale after he dumps a gal-next-door type (who ends up married to a cop who sends the Swede away for a petty crime that precedes the big heist. Gardner belts out a tune, leaving Lancaster moon-eyed, and has a way of coiling up on a bed while the boys plot their big score.

The director (Siodmak again) can't help himself with the twisty flashbacks, and cliches abound, including a fevered deathbed confession that conveniently ties up narrative loose ends. The extended opening scene (really the only aspect taken from Hemingway) sizzles with dread as two killers terrorize a diner owner and his staff, snapping off Tarantino-like dialogue before heading over to bump off the Swede and get the plot rolling. The rest of the movie is just tacked-on clutter.

We love watching the opening credits of these old movies, because invariably a name pops up among the cast members of a bit actor who will go on to some level of acclaim, often during the TV era of our youth. And it's usually deep into the cast list. In "The Killers," it's William Conrad, later TV detective "Cannon." In "Criss-Cross," it's Alan Napier, aka Alfred the butler in "Batman."

And here's the theme music from "The Killers," from the esteemed Miklos Rozsa. The strains would be adapted for TV's "Dragnet" two decades later.

And bandleader Esy Morales gets top-tier billing in "Criss Cross," which features him and his band pounding out "Jungle Fever" as De Carlo dances with a young Tony Curtis (in his uncredited screen debut). Morales, too, would die young -- a year after the film was released at age 33.


07 August 2016

When We Was Fab

ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS (B+) - Edina and Patsy crack me up. And Bubble! Don't get me started.

If you've missed these debauched middle-aged hedonists from the '90s (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley), they are back in a 90-minute romp, with an actual plot, a bevy of cameos, and their patented perfect timing as comedians. Along for the ride are Eddy's dour daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha), and her irreverent old mum (90-year-old June Whitfield).

There's a thin whiff of a plot -- Eddy, big-footing her way through a fashion event, accidentally knocks Kate Moss into the Thames, where she is presumed to have drowned -- but it's only a lame excuse to send our gals on the lam (in Cannes) so that they can get in trouble while Saffy frets as only she can. The one-liners fly, and the characters quickly fit snugly again, like a pair of old Nikes. Like Laurel and Hardy, except funny.

The soundtrack thrums, and the number of celebrity sightings is ridiculous -- Lulu, Emma Bunton, Joan Collins, Graham Norton, Jon Hamm (cringing at the sight of Patsy and the recollection of what they once did together), Stella McCartney, Jerry Hall, Perez Hilton, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and a bunch of others I've never seen or heard of before. Mo Gaffney reprises her role as Bo, and Barry Humphries is a hoot as the Bob Guccione-like ancient playboy, an ex-lover of Patsy's who is the main hope of extricating them from this mess. (And Humphries' Dame Edna is glimpsed, as well.)

But at the heart it is Saunders and Lumley, executing comedy at a rarefied level. Saunders wrote the screenplay, and Lumley steals every scene with a sneer (and occasionally with a fake mustache, too). As always, they are worth the price of admission. Toss in Horrocks and her silly outfits and deadpan delivery, and we're wallowing in it. And the beauty of this exercise is that such a nostalgia trip can't possible come off as sad and desperate; the gals have always been pathetic. Why should they ever stop shoveling their shtick?

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (C-minus) - A complete misstep by Richard Linklater, who might be on an epic slide that may be tough to correct. This is yet another nostalgic trip to the writer/director's hallowed youth, this time to the beginning of college, where we follow a bunch of baseball players getting to know each other.

The thump of "My Sharona" from a car stereo in the opening scene raises hopes and the pulse from the start, but as soon as our white-bread hero, Jake (the beyond-bland Blake Jenner, apparently a refugee from TV's "Glee"), is established, the movie descends into a rut and never recovers. This fond remembrance of the 72 hours before the first day of classes for these freshman jocks never feels authentic. Linklater obsesses over details of the year 1980 (the porn 'staches, the knee-high tube socks, the oppressive hits of the day) in a creepy, fetishistic manner. He shoots in bright lighting, and his cast seems almost intentionally wooden.

The boys (all white dudes except for the jovial token black player) romp with each other at clubs, make moves on coeds, play practical jokes on each other, and spout the filmmaker's patented faux bullshit philosophy as if they were reading from textbooks. The actors playing the jocks come with names such as Juston, Ryan, Tyler, Wyatt, Temple and J. Quinton Johnson, and they have about as much charisma and screen magnetism as those preppy monikers suggest.

Eventually Jake makes cute with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), who has the ordinary girl-next-door beauty of Mary Ann on "Gilligan's Island." The two of them moon over each other like Dobie and Gidget. The dopey love story completely crashes the final third of the movie.

In fact, the movie plays like a movie that was made in 1980, a weird Pat Boone version of "Animal House." It is antiseptic to a fault. The soundtrack is quite predictable, with a few safe punk or new-wave songs tossed into to give the appearance of a little edginess. A caucasian rap-fest by the actors over the end credits is just the final embarrassment.

Linklater may require an intervention. "Boyhood" -- a similarly vanilla attempt at whitewashing the past -- was an admirable experiment. This one is a tin-eared clank of a movie. Let's hope he isn't thinking of completing some sort of retro trilogy.

Our  title track:

And a consolation prize to Linklater for unearthing this early Dire Straits gem, "Hand in Hand":


03 August 2016

Doc Watch: Quick hits

A pair clocking in at under 90 minutes:

REMOTE AREA MEDICAL (B) - Welcome to the Third World, USA.

You don't have to go halfway across the world to find poor people in need of free health care. This documentary follows a crew of medical personnel, led by British philanthropist Stan Brock, as they venture to rural America for a weekend of serving throngs of folks lining up for health services.

The cameras keep a respectable distance, with little to no voiceover, among the residents of Bristol, Tenn. In stereotypical fashion, the event is held at a NASCAR stadium.

Brock's group used to travel all over the globe tending to dirt-poor people in far-flung lands. But now, rather than spend most of their time in Central America or remote regions of Africa, the team now spends 60 percent of its time in the United States because of the dramatic need.

Some of the stories are uplifting, others heartbreaking. One woman is treated to an x-ray, and physicians find a spot on her lung. As she contentedly heads to her car in the parking lot, she lights up a Pall Mall. One man is happy with his free teeth-pulling, but now he has to figure out how to afford painkillers. His plan is to score some hydrocodone on the street; we watch him back home as he crushes a pill and snorts it.

The staff is dedicated. A lensmaker tears up as he talks about the gratitude of the patients he assists, such as the teenager who never knew what a leaf looked like until he got his first set of glasses. (That actually happened to a friend of mine when he was in high school.)

Brock runs everything with military precision.  He patrols the grounds on his bicycle. He brags about always opening the gates on time.

The filmmakers -- the couple Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman -- like to meander away from the stadium's grounds to contrast it with the lush scenery of the hillside around Bristol. Meantime, the staff hustles to control the crowd and serve their mission. A technician chats idly to the filmmakers as he grinds away on a set of dentures. 

This is efficient filmmaking, lulling the viewer with a subtle take on an urgent message about the state of the union.

TICKLED (B) - This is a bit of a conundrum. A New Zealand journalist is curious about online videos that depict tickling as some sort of kinky sport. When he submits an innocent inquiry, he is sucked into a shadowy world of internet ghosts and extortionists.

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve are intent on spinning an elaborate mystery, with narrative dead-ends and plot twist after plot twist, leading the viewer into some dark places. The real story is too juicy to ruin here, and Farrier (who stars) is an entertaining host. The problem: this documentary sometimes feels as manipulative as the scam being perpetrated by "Jane O'Brien Media," the entity bankrolling the strapping young men who allow themselves to be strapped down and tickled on video.

Farrier takes his time with the set-up. He's fond of touting his own work as a chronicler of oddballs. By the one-third mark you might be anxious for him to start getting to the point. When he finally kicks it into gear, the result is part "60 Minutes," part "Catfish" and part "The Jinx." Farrier, while tracking down this mystery person, is a bit of a Barnum himself.

I went in with low expectations, but by the midway point, as the quirks began to pile up, I started digging in for the big reveal. While that unveiling is interesting, it is a disappointing anti-climax. I was reminded of The Thing, touted on billboards along I-10, a roadside attraction in Arizona. At first you chuckle at the silliness of the billboards, but as you drive on, something inside you feels compelled to check it out, even if it's a scam. (And it pretty much is. But the admission fee is cheap.)

Here, too, I watched the credits feeling like the movie itself was the scam. The lights went up. This way to the egress.

31 July 2016

That '70s Drift: Three Yards

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) (A-minus) - This landmark film is a time capsule of an era of hippies and gear-heads embarking on a cross-country trip, one that would set the template for a decade of American road movies.

With mostly non-actors in key roles and a shambolic, improvisational narrative, director Monte Hellman creates a documentary-like chronicle of a specific time and place. With real-life sights, sounds, and extras swirling all around, the film has a kinship with "David Holzman's Diary" from four years earlier, when the counter-culture was just emerging. It's a land of gas-station attendants, analog crowd gatherings, 10-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola, and tinny sounds emanating from car stereos.

Here, the dirty hippies have taken over, and with a new decade dawning, they are adrift. Pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play a driver and his mechanic, respectively, who tinker with their souped-up Chevy and seek out road rallies and drag races to earn enough money to drift to the next day. The long hairs mix cockiness with carelessness, revealing no particular inner world or outer world view. They just want to find the next mark and kick his ass.

Approached by a straight-looking punk, the driver works a quick hustle. When a $50 bet is suggested, Taylor, in his monotone, raises the stakes in memorable fashion: "Make it three yards, motherfucker, and we'll have an automobile race."

The pair drifts east, parallelling the old Route 66, passing through Santa Fe, where they enlist a teenage girl (Laurie Bird) to help them scrounge money from tourists on the plaza. At gas stations and roadside diners they occasionally run across an older hot-rodder (Warren Oates) who drives a snazzy GTO. Soon the big gamble is on: A cross-country contest to Washington, D.C, with the winner claiming the title of the other's car.

But rather than engage in an all-out tilt of speed and endurance, the rivals sort of galumph along, finding distractions along the way, the Driver and Mechanic bailing GTO out when his car is on the brink of breaking down. At one breakfast diner the pair mingle with some small-town crew-cuts who marvel at the sight of real-life hippies with a menacing inquisitiveness. The girl zigs in an out of the picture, finding other rides to hitch, a honeybee landing on different flowers.

And while Taylor and Wilson either will not or simply can't offer a glimpse into their characters underneath the axle grease, Oates creates a fascinating character, not so much a drifter as a free agent, longing for some human interaction. He resists the homosexual come-on from a hitchhiker (Harry Dean Stanton, transitioning from TV to film); he lures the Girl into his car for a while, showing off his fancy cassette deck; and he almost begs a salesman to stay with him further on up the road. He spins tall tales, folding them into one another, until even he seems confused about where he has come from and where he is headed. Oates knows sad sacks, and he imbues GTO (no characters are named) with a little-boy melancholy that is genuine.

As time goes on, it's obvious that the finish line is not the goal of any of the men or Hellman himself. Fans of "Smokey and the Bandit" will be disappointed in the plot arc and the dearth of crash-'em-ups. Hellman has positioned himself at a crossroads in American culture, and he doesn't have much interest in what your name is or what your game is. He throws these men together into macho combat that cuts across the American heartland, and it's more about the journey rather than the destination.

29 July 2016

L.A. Report: Fake Empire

Took a road trip. Needed to be in Southern California this summer, to check on the Pacific Ocean (still quite pacific despite the choppy waves today), and used a show by The National at the outdoor Greek Theater as a rallying point for a long weekend. The boys played to a rather laid-back crowd, leaning heavily on 2010's "High Violet." They also workshopped about a dozen new songs that sound like they can continue the band's 11-year streak of great albums.

It's always been hard for me to describe the band. Moody pop, I say. They write songs like REM did, and there's a fine, sophisticated melodic thread through both bands. Maybe a cross between REM and Radiohead. Lead singer Matt Berninger was the master of ceremonies, rescuing a beetle from the stage and handing it to a front-row fan for safekeeping and referring to it regularly. (The band missed an opportunity for a Beatles cover; instead we got a slack Grateful Dead cover, "Morning Dew," from some compilation.)

The old stuff mostly held up. They thoroughly trashed "Squalor Victoria," but they seemed a little bored with "Mr. November," which just wasn't anthemic like I'd hoped. Berninger dedicated a song to America during its election throes (not, as I expected, "Fake Empire") -- "I'm afraid of everyone ... But I don't have the drugs to sort it out." Nice. Toward the end Annie "St. Vincent" Clark came out for a duet, a trippy song apparently called "Prom Song 13th Century," a title Berninger seemed to make up on the spot, with the refrain, "I'm gonna keep you in love with me for a while." Spin Mag was there to capture it on video. At first, hearing the opening lines, I thought they were covering Bob Dylan's "Threw It All Away" ("She said she would always ... stayyy").

It was all mellow like the Seventies.

The now-traditional song to close the encore, an acoustic sing-along version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," and it went pretty much like this:


25 July 2016

So Beautiful or So What

L'ATTESA (THE WAIT) (B+) - A middle-aged man can be so easily manipulated. An instant corrective by a friend immediately after watching this luscious drama snapped me back from the clutches of this male fantasy.

One of the more gorgeous and beautifully acted movies you'll see, "L'Attesa" is the story of a wealthy woman whose young son has died and who can't bring herself to tell his visiting fiancee the truth. And so the girl waits and the mother spins an elaborate deception, and the two circle around a central truth, using the dead man as a prized possession like a bowling pin in the middle of a gym during a game of Steal the Bacon.

Juliette Binoche is impeccable as the simmering, grieving Anna, a French ex-pat adrift in her mansion, under the eye of gruff Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli), who reprimands her for toying with Jeanne (Lou de Laage from "Breathe"), who keeps leaving voicemails on the dead man's phone, expecting him to arrive at any time, and struggles to get along with her would-be mother-in-law. The pas de deux between the older predator and her innocent prey is gripping and surprisingly compelling to watch.

The scenery is stunning. The music -- a mix of pop and classical -- is rapturous. An opening visual of travelers silhouetted as they lazily glide along an airport's moving walkway is seared into my brain. The dialogue is spare, the mood leaden. Much is communicated through longing glances. This artful presentation comes to us from the fussy producers of "The Great Beauty" and "Youth."

Binoche is aging into a lovely, inscrutable mask like Isabelle Huppert's, a face that can elevate any scene from standard drama into a swirl of foreboding and longing and heartbreak. Her raw beauty and de Laage's raw sexuality create a jangling inter-generational frisson. Is Anna jealous of the young woman's youth and fertility? Does she harbor an Oedipal resentment toward Jeanne or blame Jeanne somehow for her son's death?

I know. This debut from Pierro Messina is the ultimate kaleidoscope of the male gaze and ego stroke -- a young virile man, even in death, has women fighting over him, and not just any women but his mother and his boy-hipped, full-lipped lover. Jeanne must be espied taking her top off in front of a mirror early in the movie to establish her as a sex object. She has virtually no inner life. She frolics in a lake and befriends two strange young men, one of them gay, and invites them back to the house to dance provocatively with them, drawing one of those icy glares from Anna and later begging forgiveness by claiming it was all just innocent fun.

In addition, if you think too much about the plot, you'll roll your eyes halfway through, wondering just how stupid and gullible Jeanne must be to not figure this out. But it's not implausible. And it's a surprisingly sturdy narrative for such a flimsy plot. Like no other film I've seen this year, I savored every inch of the screen, and I was literally on the edge of my seat at times. When a big reveal comes it's with a clever twist, and my jaw dropped.

Despite the film's shortcomings -- and, maybe more important, mine -- I was profoundly moved. As a piece of art, I just couldn't avert my male gaze.

AFERIM (B) - This meandering western -- set in Romania in the early 19th century -- is probably best appreciated on the big screen.

We follow a constable and his son who have been hired by a nobleman to track down a runaway gypsy slave who had an affair with the lord's wife. Gruff old Costandin (Teodor Corban) and young Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) set out on horseback, bantering endlessly as they follow the trail of the missing man.

Radu Jude, with just a few features under his belt, is assured behind the camera, shooting in brightly lit black-and-white, reveling in the beauty of the Romanian countryside (with the help of cinematographer Marius Panduru, "12:08 East of Bucharest"). Blinding sheets of sunlight rain through tall trees. Frequent long shots convey the breadth and slow pace of the pair's journey.

The film alternates from crude comic moments to harsh reminders of the clash of interests between the rich landed gentry and the dark-skinned immigrants (repeatedly called "crows" derogatorily). The dialogue is unrelentingly dark and disparaging toward the less fortunate of society. Slaves are hawked in the marketplace, and prostitutes are passed around casually. The men rescue a priest whose wagon has broken down, and after getting him back on the road they accompany him as he spews venom toward just about every race or ethnicity you can think of.

Jude and his co-writer, newcomer Florin Lazarescu, reportedly culled through historical texts from the time borrowing snippets of sayings and stitching them together for dialogue, not unlike a Nirvana song. The result seems choppy at first but then settles into a rhythm, recalling Jim Jarmusch's western epic "Dead Man," or a classic samurai film. Some examples:

"May he live only three more days, including yesterday!"
"A starving dog dreams of nothing but bones."
"The rich look in the mirror, the poor -- in their plate."
"In the ass of the humble, the devil sits cross-legged."
The narrative winds toward a showdown that is both low-key and violent. Life then was eminently disposable, and this film, with a jaundiced eye and a shrug, knows it doesn't have the words to explain the randomness of it all.

The XX takes care of "L'Attesa's" final credits with "Missing":

A clip featuring Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for the Miracle":

Our title track, from Paul Simon:


23 July 2016

Soundtrack of Your Life

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

Date: 17 July 2016, 1:17 p.m.
Place: Lake Nighthorse, just outside Durango, Colo.
Song:  "Hey, Ladies"
Artist: Beastie Boys
Irony Matrix: 6.1 out of 10
Comment: On a road trip with my 20-year-old nephew. He insisted that we take a quick side-trip to see this lake a few miles outside of Durango. The problem was, the lake -- created just a few years ago -- is not open to the public. We tried bushwhacking a bit, but it wasn't looking good. We went back to the main road where there was a fairly straightforward -- though still forbidden -- trail. We decided I would hang back in the car while he explored. I passed the time reading Roberto Bolano's "The Skating Rink" for about 20 minutes, alone in the parking lot. At some point, a guy pulled up in some open-air jeep with a dog in the back. He sat for a minute, perhaps also contemplating the idea of breaking the law and trespassing down to the lake. Instead, he cranked his stereo, and I heard the opening strains of "Hey, Ladies," the 1989 romp from the Beastie Boys. The faux-funk blared as he drove off. A few minutes later, my nephew came trotting back up the trail. He showed me a few snaps of the hidden body of water, and we headed toward the main road back to New Mexico. 


22 July 2016

New to the Queue

Unrelenting ...

Viggo Mortensen should be able to hold our interest through a drama about a family living off the grid, "Captain Fantastic." 

The girls are back -- Eddy and Patsy return to their debauched ways in "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie."

Mike Birbiglia ("Sleepwalk With Me") brings his sharp comic eye to the world of improv with his ensemble piece, "Don't Think Twice."

The man who defined edgy sitcoms in the 1970s is a more than worthy documentary subject, "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You."

What can we say? The trailer won us over. Time for some mindless summer entertainment, "The Secret Life of Pets."

A documentary about a treasurer hunter, "Garnet's Gold."

An overview of the life and art of one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, "Don't Blink: Robert Frank."

From France, a lesbian May-December love story set in 1971, "Summertime."

20 July 2016

RIP, Garry Marshall

The man who brought us some thoughtful sitcoms in the '70s and a lot of treacly movie since died at age 81. He is embedded in my mind as the casino manager who resists giving back to Albert Brooks the nest-egg that his wife gambled away in "Lost in America." In his Bronx accent, Marshall's character explains the difference between a casino and "Santy Claus":

And this is a good excuse to revisit the "nest-egg" principle:

(Note that Brooks' films, including "Lost in America," started streaming this month on Netflix.)

17 July 2016

So I Don't Have To: Pet Party

In an occasional feature, we present capsule reviews from correspondents who go see the movies that we don't have an interest in seeing (or haven't found the time to).  Today, up-and-comer Ally Jones, age 10, raves about the box-office hit "The Secret Life of Pets": 

"The Secret Life of Pets" is a great movie. It’s just the right length of time. The little white  bunny is so funny and cute. So if you have a night off go see "The Secret Life of Pets." It’s a great little kid and family movie. I give it a 5-star review. Thumbs up!!!!!!!!


10 July 2016

Family Values

THE WITNESS (B-minus) - The killing of Kitty Genovese outside a New York apartment building in 1964, as residents purportedly turned a deaf ear, spawned a cottage industry of sociological studies about bystanders and the psychology of crowds. She became a symbol. This documentary seeks to make her a person again.

Her brother Bill Genovese embarks on a mission to interview friends, colleagues, witnesses and the journalists who created and perpetuated the legend of 38 witnesses turning away from a long, brutal attack against a young woman in the big city. At the time, the shocking reports were a sure sign that postwar neighborliness was giving way to Vietnam-era selfishness.

This film does a good job of picking away at the myth and instead peeling some layers away from the woman herself. The director is newcomer James Solomon, but the driving force is Bill Genovese, who is bullheaded in his determination to unlock the mysteries surrounding his sister and her life more than 50 years ago.

Genovese goes straight to the source and tracks down a frail Abe Rosenthal (who died in 2006, giving you an idea of the breadth of this project), who continues to defend the original reporting on the front page of the New York Times, a story that starts to fall apart by the time you've made it through its opening paragraph. We also hear from the killer himself, Winston Moseley (who died in prison earlier this year), including a bizarre letter to Bill Genovese putting forth a conspiracy theory involving the mob.

But the most effective interviews are with the scattered New Yorkers who knew Kitty Genovese -- customers at the pub where she tended bar; former classmates; neighbors (including the woman who belatedly tried to save her); cops; and her lesbian lover, who modestly declines to be photographed on camera. These folks connect the dots and fill in the backstory to that iconic photo above. Rare film footage captures a dynamic, joyous young woman frolicking as if she had a long life ahead of her.

Bill Genovese is generally an interesting narrator. He himself was hit by tragedy in the '60s -- he lost his legs in Vietnam, an explanation that is held back till late in the movie. Too often, the story here is too much about Bill and his surviving siblings, and how they have been affected by the death of their sister. You get the feeling that the other siblings don't want much part of this project, and their group scenes feel like forced drama. And a climactic scene in which Bill arranges for an actress to re-create Kitty's screams at the very spot she was attacked -- while Bill writhes helplessly in his wheelchair. That indulgence is really for him only, and it adds nothing to our understanding of the case.

In some ways, "The Witness" shares a kinship with another dig into family archives, "51 Birch Street," in which one of the folks whose secrets were uprooted, tells the camera, "What a relief for someone to really know us." After 52 years of that face staring out at us from what is literally a mugshot, we know have the chance to see behind those soulful eyes and that Mona Lisa smirk and get to know Kitty Genovese as more than a pop-culture touchstone or a paragraph in a textbook, as a human being, faults and all, who was a friend, a neighbor, a lover -- a woman whose life was cut short at a moment when nobody seemed to care whether she lived or died.

GOING AWAY (B) - This is shaping up to be a year for promising debut features. Here, veteran actor Nicole Garcia settles behind the camera for the story (which she co-wrote) of a vagabond grade-school teacher who gets stuck minding one of his students (abandoned by his playboy father) and takes the boy on a road trip where they run across the kid's down-on-her-luck mother.

Garcia and co-writer Jacques Fieschi (last year's "Yves Saint Laurent") cleverly let the narrative ramble and roam like their characters do. You expect the story to be about the boy, Mathias, and you brace for some male bonding. But, as if this were a relay race, the focus shifts to his mother, Sandra (Louise Bourgoin), who is slumming at a beach restaurant near Montpellier, barely keeping her head above water financially. Just as we settle in with Sandra, the story tilts toward the teacher, Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort), and a journey through his past.

It's a fascinating device in a tale that unfolds over the course of a weekend, even if the script sometimes wilts under the weight of the heavy drama of these lost souls. Sandra has some thuggish investors after her, from a failed restaurant launch the year before. Baptiste has a disturbing reaction to a night of drinking,  flash of foreshadowing that gets explained at the very end.

Bourgoin and Rochefort make for a winning couple, a pair tossed together unexpectedly. He is moody, with a shock of hair and a three-day beard. Peering out of expressive eyes, she is lanky, with an exotic tattoo snaking around the right side of her neck. They exude loneliness and fall together naturally and tragically.

This holds up more to a general scrutiny of its overall structure than to a close analysis of each scene. Some dialogue clunks. ("I love you because you are sad.") The final twist from Baptiste's past feels forced and antiseptic.

But overall, this is a quietly effective debut film, with winning lead characters and that winding narrative, which provides a series of satisfying turns that toy with your expectations.