17 October 2017

New to the Queue

Chill ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 October 2017

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's how it was done back then.
 

08 October 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 October 2017

Fussy Boys

A couple of tortured souls ...

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

02 October 2017

New to the Queue

Cooler by the lake ...

Sean Baker ("Tangerine," "Starlet") follows a bunch of 6-year-olds who antagonize the gruff manager, played by Willem Dafoe, in "The Florida Project."

We're fans of Mike White ("The Good Girl," HBO's "Enlightened"), though we're wary that he may be going to the well once too often with his latest, starring Ben Stiller, "Brad's Status."

This documentary about vermin in Baltimore has as much to say about class and economic distinctions than about pest infestations: "Rat Film."

The latest from New Wave legend Agnes Varda is a collaboration with a 33-year-old photographer, a travelogue through France, "Faces Places."

A strong cast and filmmakers with a decent track record are drawing us to the cheesy time-warp nostalgia-fest about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, "Battle of the Sexes."

Strangers make passing acquaintances on a train ride through South Korea in "Autumn, Autumn."

  

30 September 2017

Guided by Voices

Two that don't need much analysis:

THE TRIP TO SPAIN (B+) - What can we say about those waggish middle-aged cads now on their third go-round of cuisine and banter, wrapped by Michael Winterbottom in a shroud of ennui? It still works somehow.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon first did this shtick in "The Trip" in 2010 and returned for an encore for "The Trip to Italy" in 2014. Here they reunite for a scamper around Spain, indulging in fine dining and quip-offs featuring their patented impressions -- Michael Caine, Roger Moore, etal. There are some inspired moments and some belly laughs.

Coogan, the alpha celeb (he merits the better hotel suites), is often in a cranky mood, gruffly coasting on his recent acclaim for "Philomena," not above putting Brydon in his C-list place. Brydon gets in his digs in between the mimicry that often goes on just a bit too long. (Though his devotion to an extended Roger Moore bit -- riffing off a story about the Moors -- is admirable.) This is civilized male one-upmanship, gentlemanly frat behavior.

In a telling scene, Coogan chats up a street busker and invites him to have a beer with them at an outdoor bistro. After some friendly chit-chat, Coogan takes offense at the young man's superior knowledge of Spain's tourist haunts and goes off sulking. It's left to Brydon to sum up Coogan to the street musician: "He doesn't like to be told things he thinks he already knows."

Winterbottom has gradually tempered his interest in photographing the food being prepared, and he seems intrigued by these faux back stories that he sketches for each man. Coogan, 51, comes off as introspective and perpetually self-analyzing, if not borderline self-loathing. Brydon, 52, just seems content to have escaped family life. Both men are seen jogging through picturesque streets, staving off physical decline.

I was reminded of Michael Apted's "7-Up" series, which checks in every seven years with a core group of British baby boomers. Winterbottom, cheating with fiction, explores similar territory with Gen X elders. If you're in that cohort, you might not mind the same old apings and the broodings of privileged men -- rather, you might enjoy tagging along with these guys every few years to see how things turn out.

MARJORIE PRIME (B) - An elderly woman is kept company by the holographic image of her deceased husband, a version of him in his prime, his early 40s and as handsome as Jon Hamm.

Marjorie (character actor Lois Smith) is losing her grip on her memory, and her beloved Walter is dreamed up to keep her company and bathe her in golden memories. The twist is that hologram Walter (Hamm) comes programmed with only the most basic of information (such as you would have found in his obit), and the rest of his knowledge is inputted by either Marjorie or her daughter and son-in-law -- Tess (Geena Davis) and Jon (Tim Robbins) -- which leads to experiments in revisionist history.

It's difficult to discuss the plot without revealing too much. Jon wallows in his cocktails, and he also takes perverse joy in hanging out with Walter one-on-one. He slyly implants some tidbits into Walter's brain, perhaps Jon's way of making life with his mother-in-law a little more palatable.

Tess is a miserable depressive, still weirded out by having to deal with her dad again, especially now that he's younger than she is. Some dark family history -- her older brother committed suicide as a teen -- still pains her.

This is an intriguing sci-fi experiment from Michael Almereyda, who helped Jordan Harrison (a writer for Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") adapt Harrison's play. The big ideas here are apparent: Is it cruel or merciful to play God? How reliable are our memories, and how do they define us? Can computers lull us to the grave? Can they eventually allow us to live forever? Would we even want that?

The simple staging -- with long conversations, almost all of them in the house -- comes off like a glorified play but fits the subject matter. The ensemble is mostly solid. You normally wouldn't turn to Davis and Robbins for dramatic heavy lifting, but their understated performances win out in the end. Davis conveys the layers of resentment that have calloused over and deadened her inside. Robbins is a convincing rascal. Hamm is just robotic enough to be both creepy and believable.

The ending is thoughtful, hinting at the future ramifications of the technological tricks, and perhaps even suggesting that this whole human experiment is and always has been one big simulation.

BONUS TRACKS
The trailers:





"The Trip's" theme song, "The Windmills of Your Mind," this version from Noel Harrison:


28 September 2017

So I Don't Have To


In an occasional feature, we present capsule reviews from correspondents who go see the movies that we don't have an interest in seeing.  Today, certified nurse-midwife Catherine Ruhl-Blanchard brings an elevated critical expertise to the French film "The Midwife." 

If you are expecting a few birth scenes in a movie called “The Midwife,” you won't be disappointed. But freshly birthed babies are mere context for this tale about the messy intricacies of relationships. Catherine Deneuve is Beatrice, an aging free spirit with a newly diagnosed brain tumor. She searches out Claire (Catherine Frot), the daughter of Beatrice's late former lover and a seasoned midwife. 

The women's reconnection is often rocky -- Claire is tightly wound and we are drawn into an almost too quick and tidy conclusion. The film's real accomplishment is painting a picture of Claire's tender strength, whether caring for a lost pregnant woman at the clinic or for her dying friend.

Guest grade: B

BONUS TRACK
The trailer: 



22 September 2017

Before the Fall

A few titles from the Toronto International Film Festival and beyond that give us a glimmer of hope for pulling out of the 2017 tailspin:

Sean Baker ("Tangerine," "Starlet") brings his vivid sense of style to a rundown motel, where he follows a bunch of 6-year-olds who antagonize the gruff manager, played by Willem Dafoe, "The Florida Project."

American auteur Alexander Payne ("Nebraska," "Election," "About Schmidt") gets playful with "Downsizing," a comedy about groups of miniaturized humans who live in tiny villages, a setup designed to save overpopulated Earth. Pairing Kristen Wiig (!) with Matt Damon (?).


Greta Gerwig (above right), perhaps frustrated with dead-end roles that waste her talent, goes behind the camera to re-create her senior year of high school.  The spare "Lady Bird" stars Saoirse Ronan (above left) and Laurie Metcalf.

Let's see if Gerwig's boyfriend Noah Baumbach ("Greenberg," "Frances Ha") is back on the horse after struggling in 2015 with "Mistress America" and "While We're Young." He now teams favorite Ben Stiller with Adam Sandler for "The Meyerowitz Stories."

Dee Rees ("Pariah," our 4th favorite film of 2011) returns with "Mudbound," an epic post-war drama about two families -- one white, one black -- struggling to succeed on a farm. With Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige.

In the awkwardly titled "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) guides Frances McDormand as a local mother who bullies the local police department into reopening the search for her daughter’s attacker by posting three accusatory billboards on the outskirts of town.

The Coen brothers cede the director's chair to George Clooney for "Suburbicon," their wacky take on a '50s suburban dad dodging some mobsters. With Julianne Moore and, you guessed it, Matt Damon (!). 

"The Work" is a documentary that follows prison inmates and volunteers who engage in intense group therapy sessions.

James Franco adapts Greg Sestero's memoir of his role in the filming of the notoriously bad cult classic "The Room" by Tommy Wiseau (Franco, co-starring with his brother James): "The Disaster Artist."

Joachim Trier ("Oslo, August 31st," "Louder Than Bombs") leans toward the supernatural with "Thelma," the tale of a young woman who suffers seizures and develops an intense attraction to a fellow female student at their university in Oslo, Norway.

BONUS TRACK
The trailer for "The Disaster Artist":


 

19 September 2017

Our Better Half


At the halfway mark of 2017, we lamented the fact that we had handed out exactly one grade higher than a B+. Right after that, the dam burst.

Since July 1, we have handed out 9 more A-minus grades to 2017 releases. (We are still awaiting the year's first straight A.) Here is a list of the A-Team so far, including some of the films that will be contenders for our favorite of the year.


16 September 2017

Pulp Fiction, Part 2: The Comeback Special


LOGAN LUCKY (B) - Stephen Soderbergh ends his premature retirement with a bang, a loose-limbed heist movie with an inspired ensemble cast of top-notch actors.

In a heist film that bookends with his mainstream work in the "Ocean's Eleven" series, Soderbergh slums with the rubes, ginning up a story of some West Virginia ne'er-do-wells who cross state lines to clean out a stadium's vault on the day of the biggest NASCAR race of the year. What could go wrong for them or for our fearless director?

For the most part, this is entertaining as hell, with a sterling cast. Channing Tatum stars as the ringleader, Jimmy Logan, conspiring with his siblings Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keough). Clyde is a monosyllabic war veteran who tends bar with a prosthetic left hand. Mellie is a hairdresser and the favorite aunt of Jimmy's cute daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), a JonBenet Ramsey-type of pageant queen, stage-mom'd by Jimmy's ex, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). The women take a back seat to the men, including Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, a munitions expert who needs to be sprung from prison for a day in order to participate in the lark. Small roles can barely contain Dwight Yoakam as the prison warden and Hilary Swank as a Joe Friday-like FBI agent. (The less said about Seth MacFarlane as a cartoonish British (!) racecar driver the better.)

A crack crew, indeed, to execute a clever script by rookie screenwriter Rebecca Blunt, a narrative that only occasionally strains credulity, a decent percentage for a film like this. And Soderbergh sells it all with a swagger that stops short of showing off. He owes more than a little debt to the Coen brothers and their rural slapstick throwdowns.

The only nag here is the whiff of condescension that swirls around the entire production. These are Hollywood elites getting dirt under their fingernails portraying Appalachian-Americans with a wink and abandon. Isn't it just a bit insulting? (And people of color here tend to be human props in service to the story.)

Tatum (born in Alabama) and Keough (granddaughter of the King from Tupelo, Miss.) are the most credible at pulling off their characterizations. (They are also two actors in the zone lately.) Driver, as usual, is a beat off from the rest of the cast, and you don't know if Clyde's mental challenges come from birth or from the war. Yoakam is a hoot as the delusional warden who refuses to admit to the outside world that his prisoners are in full rebellion (a diversion to keep Clyde and Joe Bang from being noticed as AWOL). We also get just two tantalizing glimpses of a barely recognizable Katherine Waterston in short black hair as a potential love interest for Jimmy.

At a rotund two hours, this one could have been nipped and tucked by at least 15 minutes. A post-heist coda feels mismatched. But the script is smart, with its share of zingers, and it's hard not to get caught up in all the fun.

BONUS TRACK
SIDE EFFECTS* (2013) (A-minus) - Before his retirement from the big screen, Soderbergh bid farewell with this smoldering suspense film about a meek woman suffering from depression who kills her husband during a prescription-drug-induced stupor.

Soderbergh teams again with writer Scott Z. Burns (they scored with "Contagion" in 2010) to unspool a tight thriller that has Hitchcock bona fides and an '80s Brian De Palma sheen. Gripping from beginning to end, "Side Effects" boasts four actors bouncing off each other nicely. Rooney Mara (who would grow even more confident with "Carol") plays Emily, a sluggish housewife welcoming her insider-trader husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), home from prison. Their reunion does nothing to jerk her out of her chronic depression.

She seeks help from psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who is in the pocket of Big Pharma and eventually pushes on Emily a new drug, Ablixa. One of the side-effects is sleepwalking, and one day Emily awakes to a blood-soaked apartment and a dead husband. Did she kill him?

That's just the start of the twists and turns. It soon turns into a game of one-upmanship that draws in Emily's previous shrink, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The cat-and-mouse antics among Emily and the two doctors makes for delicious, old-fashioned fun. You can never be sure which way this one is going, and Soderbergh unravels things expertly.


* - We saw this movie upon its release but it fell through the cracks and never was reviewed. We right that wrong today.

14 September 2017

RIP, Grant Hart


The drummer for the legendary Minneapolis hardcore band Husker Du lived a rough life, dogged by addiction, and he died earlier today of cancer at age 56.  Variety and Rolling Stone have surprisingly detailed appreciations.

Hart was the poppier, quirky yin to Bob Mould's darker, brooding yang in the influential power trio. They and bassist Greg Norton would lead the SST brigade to a major label, Warner Bros., tossing out the great double-album "Warehouse: Songs and Stories" in 1987 and then abruptly breaking up when Mould and Hart couldn't stand each other anymore. They would never play together again as a band.

TRACK LISTING
Start at the top, with Hart's intense pop masterpiece "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" from "Candy Apple Grey":



From his solo career, the surf-inflected ear candy "Run Run Run to the Centre Pompidou":



From the same solo album, 1999's "Good News for Modern Man," comes this ominous wail, "In a Cold House":



Here, from a 2013 performance on KEXP in Seattle, is his solo version of the howling, haunting "You Are the Moon's Reflection." (Here is the full performance, with a lot of chatting.)  (Here is Bob Mould's KEXP appearance that same year.)



The studio version of the same song has a great organ riff throughout, a reminder that Hart was a keyboardist before taking over the drumkit for Husker Du by default:


  

13 September 2017

Pulp Fiction, Part 1: Oh, Baby


BABY DRIVER (A-minus) - The rock star of summer films, this propulsive pulp fiction from Edgar Wright hums from beginning to end, a dazzle of visual and aural delights.

It wouldn't be half-wrong to call this tale of a baby-faced getaway driver a musical. Wright -- the mastermind behind zombie and alien spoofs "Shaun of the Dead" and "The World's End" and the cult classic "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" -- must have lived and breathed this script and the soundtrack for years, marinating his brain in it until he splashed this spectacle (seemingly effortlessly) onto the big screen. The percussive sounds of the movie -- the riffling of a packet of money, the chk-chk of an automatic weapon -- are frequently synced with the beat of the songs, culminating in a shootout and its rat-a-tat-tats that pulse along with the guitar and synthesizer bursts in "Hocus Pocus" by Focus.

Ansel Elgort (the dreamboat from "The Fault in Our Stars" and the "Divergent" series) shows some acting chops as Baby, the super-driver who lives with earbuds pumping rhythms into his brain to cover up the tinnitus in his ears, the result of a childhood auto accident that killed his quarreling parents. He works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), who shuffles various teams of criminals for his carefully planned heists. He also lives with a foster parent who is deaf and just heart-broken over Baby's indentured servitude that resulted from Baby's earlier attempt to rip off Doc. Now Baby is close to paying off that debt.

Baby falls for an old-timey waitress, Debora (Lily James, "Cinderella"), who has the wide face and imploring eyes of, well, a Disney princess. They not only meet-cute but they stay cute together amid all the ugliness and violence. They share their love of music, mined from their parents' record collections. And they dream of a "getaway," a romantic, nostalgic escape from Atlanta with no particular place to go. Baby is as wholesome as they come; there is no way he will let the bad guys take down Debora or the old man.


But he can't shake Doc, who coerces Baby into another job. This one involves the colorful trio of the menacing Bats (Jamie Foxx), the haggard coke-head hunk Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Buddy's luscious sexpot moll Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). They all mock Baby as some kind of handicapped idiot-savant but there's no denying his prolific skills behind the wheel.

This could have devolved into your typical parade of heists, but "Baby Driver" is so much more than that. And more than the sum of its parts. It is a heady mix of musical cues (many of them catchy R&B nuggets), flashes of color, choreographed traipses  (a simple errand for coffee becomes an homage to "Footloose"), parkour-inspired foot chases, jump cuts, and intricate wordplay. The brash storytelling is giddy fun, as Wright, now in his early '40s, exhibits a confidence that you see in movies by Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino.

Wright flirts with a masterpiece, but his exuberance trips him up a few times. Spacey is fine as a crime boss, but his staccato delivery gets wearying and borders on parody whenever he threatens Baby and his loved ones. The pulp climax strains credulity, including the tired trope of the Villain Who Won't Die. Even the opening scene, featuring Baby lip-syncing and slapping the side of his cherry red Subaru while he awaits the fleeing bank robbers, might make you worried out of the gate -- would a getaway driver really mindlessly draw that much attention to himself?


But any worries are tossed aside almost immediately, as the first chase careers along to a funky Jon Spencer workout ("Bellbottoms"). And the cast is all-in. Foxx just doesn't fuck around, and Hamm can still toss out a chilling wolf leer. They are complemented by a few cameos by the likes of Flea (bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) as Eddie (formerly Eddie the Nose, now Eddie No-Nose); Paul Williams as a pimped-out weapons dealer; and Lanny Joon as JD who alters the HATE tattoo on his neck to read HAT -- with a lopsided heart replacing the E -- a pathetic sop to the job-interview process. ("How's that working out for you?" Baby asks him. "Who doesn't like hats," JD spits back.)

And did I mention the music? The soundtrack crackles and snaps, jolts and jumps. It's as if the music came first and Wright just tossed off a script to accompany it. Baby's love of music involves a hobby of creating electronic remixes of snippets of conversations that he records on a handheld analog cassette machine. One, labeled "MOM," is his most prized possession. (Mom was an aspiring singer.) Baby is addicted to his old iPods that he juggles in a rotation depending on his mood. Music kickstarts his brain. In a memorable scene, he hijacks a car but is paralyzed momentarily until he can scan the radio stations to find just the right getaway music. Cue "Radar Love" as the tires squeal.

Meanwhile, the visuals are dizzying. Cameras whirl and whirr, neon signs blaze at night, and primary colors tumble playfully in the background of a laundromat. It is all so intoxicating and propulsive. You want to jump into the screen and play along.

This is the new cool. Same as the old cool. An extended groove. It's the magic of movie-making.

BONUS TRACKS
The soundtrack is a killer mix of old-, older- and oldest-school. Just a few samples, starting with "Neat Neat Neat" by the Damned:



Carla Thomas with "Baby":



And El-P, Killer Mike and Big Boi with "Chase Me":



11 September 2017

One-Liners: Underdogs


PATTI CAKES (B+) - This tale of a chubby New Jersey white girl who wants to be a rap star has a lot of heart and a good feel for the rhythms of working class lives.

You can quibble with the paint-by-numbers narrative arc and a few corny characterizations, but this labor of love from debut writer-director Geremy Jasper is smart, funny and touching, mostly in all the right places. TV actress Danielle Macdonald ("The East"), an Australian, nails the Jersey patois and attitude as Patti, the ringleader of a trio of misfits who long for human contact as much as they crave superstardom. She is joined by Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri (the smooth T Pain wannabe) and Mamoudou Athie as the mystical anarchist Basterd, who creates sonic soundscapes in his shack in the park.

Patti, or Killer P (nee Patricia Dombrowski, or Dumbo to her fat-shaming detractors), must compete with her mother, a middle-aged hot mess trying to reclaim her glory as a young diva who almost broke big. Barb (Bridget Everett, one of the hilarious pals to Maria Bamford on Netflix's "Lady Dynamite) hooks up with a cop and fronts his blues band -- but her pipes are long destroyed by cigarettes and booze. And Barb does not approve of her daughter's dabblings in black culture.

The movie often seems on the brink of descending into a pity party, but the three young actors ooze confidence in their portrayal of a nerdy trio of musketeers who refuse to give up on their ambitions. Jasper scores a Springsteen track to lend cred to the production. And most important, the raps that Jasper pens for Patti are perfect -- clever but not too intricate such that a 20-something product of New Jersey's public schools couldn't knock them out with some effort.

When the inevitable rap battle kicks in at the climax, the outcome feels about right, even if the flourish at the end of Patti's performance is just a bit too precious. And the scenes with Patti's ailing grandmother, played by Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull"), occasionally teeter on the mawkish. But Jasper knows these characters inside and out, and he would never let them go forward without being true to their roots.

COLD IN JULY (C) - Too long, too confusing, too cluttered and too much of Texas noir porn, this one is more of a curiosity for performances by grizzled old cowboys Sam Shepard and Don Johnson.

This stem-winder has a long, dull setup that leads to a midpoint twist. Dane (Michael C. Hall from TV's "Dexter") shoots an intruder in his home, and he and his family are soon being stalked by the man's father (Shepard) -- or so it all seems. None of the characters are particularly compelling, and the detective story that ensues in the second half lacks true intrigue.

We're left with admiring those two old coots, Shepard (in one of his last roles) and Johnson, as big a hoot as he was in HBO's "Eastbound and Down." But even Johnson can't spit out all the clever Texasisms with a straight face consistently. "I need a drink," his character spits. "And I haven't even had my goddamned coffee yet."

Bloated at 109 minutes, "Cold in July" tries to get by on mood and crude. By the time the bloody climax hits, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (C-minus) - This is a great idea, and must have been a pretty good book, but the film version of this zombie romp with a twist sits flat on the screen and descends into tedium during a sloppy middle third.

Newcomer Sennia Nanua plays Melanie, a tween housed among other children who are afflicted with a zombie fungus but who still function fairly normally as long as they don't get a whiff of human, while being immune to attacks from other "hungries." Looking not unlike an old British boarding school, the remote military facility is also used as research conducted by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who sacrifices the children one at a time as she zeroes in on a cure.

When it's Melanie's turn to be euthanized, kindly teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) interrupts the experiment, causing a breach at the facility and an infiltration by zombies. Melanie and a handful of adults survive and hit the road like a post-apocalyptic A-Team. Once they are mobile, the film descends into a series of zombie movie cliches, including pointless violence, an odd twist involving fungus-laden spores, and a few idiot-plot devices.

Nanua is wonderful as the young girl who clings to her humanity and forms a real bond with Miss Justineau. But poor, poor Glenn Close is reduced to a screaming hysteric by the final reel, a sad turn of affairs for one of the great actresses of her generation.

Rarely does this rise above the level of a decent AMC TV serial. What veteran TV director Colm McCarthy does have is a riveting opening 20 minutes and a killer ending. What he doesn't have is a movie.

BONUS TRACK
The "Patti Cakes" trailer:


 

07 September 2017

New to the Queue

Same old, same old ...

An elderly woman enjoys the company of a hologram version of her dead husband, who is as handsome as Jon Hamm, in "Marjorie Prime."

Eliza Hittman had a knockout debut with "It Felt Like Love," and she's back infiltrating the lives of teenagers in "Beach Rats."

A nearly three-hour chat-fest about a family reunion, from Romanian director Cristi Puiu (the landmark opus "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu"), the character study "Sieranevada."

Teen hormones rage as women are getting killed in a Brazilian city in a stylish debut thriller, "Kill Me Please."

The great Frederick Wiseman ("Boxing Gym") checks in with another three-hour stem-winder in the vein of "At Berkeley" and "In Jackson Heights," this one for book rats, "Ex Libris: New York Public Library."

An Argentine actor looking to disappear for a while finds himself adrift in New York City in Julia Solomonoff's "Nobody's Watching."
  

05 September 2017

Life Is Short: Loudmouth


Life Is Short is an as-needed series documenting the films we just couldn't make it through. We like to refer to these movies as "Damsels in Distress." Previous entries can be found here. 

Title: WE WON'T GROW OLD TOGETHER
Running Time: 106 MIN
Elapsed Time at Plug Pull:  23MIN
Portion Watched: 22%
My Age at Time of Viewing: 54 YRS, 9 MOS.
Average Male American Lifespan: 76.7 YRS.
Watched/Did Instead: Watched some classic Kubrick (watch this space)
Odds of Re-viewing This Title: 100-1

The first few scenes of this 1972 French film by Maurice Pialat feature Jean (Jean Yanne) repeatedly belittling his young working-class girlfriend, Catherine (Marlene Jobert), her leaving him, but at the last minute returning to him. Jean also treats his wife, who has returned from a trip to Russia, like trash. This apparently is the entire plot of the film. Jean and Catherine are doomed. The blurb on the DVD jacket says that the film "is hard to look at but even harder to look away." (Time Out N.Y.)

Not really. It was really easy to turn off. After watching the boorish Jean go on yet another rant, making it clear to Catherine that she's a common bitch, I pulled the plug. There is little redeeming value here. Just the dregs of '70s French cinema.