15 February 2018

New to the Queue

The other side ...

Sally Potter ("Yes," "Orlando") returns with another chi-chi chamber piece, this time with Patricia Clarkson leading a solid cast, "The Party."

We liked Ryan Coogler's "Creed" so much that we're willing to gamble on a super-hero movie, "Black Panther."

The inimitable Francois Ozon ("Frantz," "Young & Beautiful") whips up another juicy plot, a love triangle this time, in "Double Lover."

Guy Maddin's preternaturally odd tribute to Hitchcock, an homage to the San Francisco of "Vertigo," the hourlong fever dream "The Green Fog."

12 February 2018

Join the Club

I'm not the only one who is grumpy about the quality of movies these days.  Here's a snapshot of the grades given to the nine most recent movies on the review site of the Onion's AV Club (no relation):

  • C ("Looking Glass" with Nicolas Cage)
  • C-minus (Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris")
  • D+ ("50 Shades Freed")
  • C-minus ("Golden Exits" from Alex Ross Perry)
  • C ("The Ritual")
  • C ("Basmati Blues" with Brie Larson)
  • C+ ("Peter Rabbit," with its insensitive allergy joke)
  • C+ (Netflix's surprise sci-fi release "The Cloverfield Paradox")
  • C ("Winchester")

06 February 2018

The Best of 2017

This is the danger zone
This is where I came in
They know not what they do
Forgive them all their sins

    -- The brothers Gibb

I knew, just a few days into this new year, that it was time to reboot. After a hugely disappointing 2017 for movies -- and the movie industry -- I'd been feeling a significant shift coming on.

On January 3rd, at the end of a long day, I craved mindless entertainment. I settled on the revived version of the TV game show "Match Game." And there, in the seat once reserved for Charles Nelson Reilly -- top row, right -- was Mark Duplass. A lot of people don't know his name. He is a Mumblecore legend, and, with his brother, Jay, the face of independent filmmaking. He is a great actor and producer. And now he has achieved the level of amiably yukking it up on game shows.

Seeing him cavorting on network TV presented the perfect dichotomy: It upends notions of me as a film snob and elitist -- because I was, you know, wallowing in "Match Game" -- yet it reaffirms my old-school Mumblecore gangsta cred, going back a decade or so. It's a neat bow to tie on the end of an era.

It's difficult to recall a worse year for films -- and for moviegoing -- than 2017. Besides the unmasking of the Hollywood machine, there simply were not very many good films released last year. I had to stretch things to get a respectable Top Ten list (below). Worse, the string of disappointments from favorite filmmakers of the past runs even longer. That list (also below) includes less than sterling films from the likes of Sofia Coppola, Noah Baumbach, Asghar Farhadi, Jim Jarmusch, Greta Gerwig, Luca Guadagnino, Steven Soderbergh, Mike White, and Francois Ozon. Francois Ozon, alors! And I didn't even bother to go see movies offered up by old favorites: the Coen brothers, George Clooney, Alexander Payne, Darren Aronofsky, Yorgos Lanthimos or Paul Thomas Anderson. I've pretty much given up on Christopher Nolan.

There is one filmmaker out there who can consistently knock me out, and he made the only great film of 2017: Sean Baker, who followed up "Starlet" and "Tangerine" with another profound character study of the underclass, "The Florida Project." Nothing else was close to that gem, with a cast full of newcomers. All is not lost, but that's a lot of responsibility to place on one filmmaker.

There were plenty of disappointments to fill up a C-list. Rehashed stories, trite set-ups, played-out plots. Maybe I'm just an out-of-touch middle-aged white heterosexual male who just didn't understand the subtle brilliance of darlings like "Get Out" and "Call Me by Your Name," but I couldn't wait for either one to be over.

Too often in 2017, I was shut out while searching for a decent Sunday matinee. The arsty multiplexes clinged longer to middling indie releases, and a ripple effect seemed to starve the rest of the food chain, including the next option for distributors, our beloved Guild Cinema. Last month, I picked up the new two-month schedule for the Guild, turned to February, my Sharpie at the ready -- and I didn't find one title worth circling.

I do think think the Weinstein scandal is a symptom of many ills, beyond the sexual predation of some men. We've never nurtured a hotbed of mainstream fare here, but why did we give even scant attention to the extended "Ocean's Eleven" fraternity and their good ol' boy enablers? Even the indie crowd is turning insular and indulgent. And archly mainstream. (Damn you, Duplass.)

Why am I so cranky? Am I getting burned out? That could be a part of it. Or maybe it is just the nature of the grinding cycle of cultural consumption. I believe in turning new chapters and evolving. Weeding out old standbys. Meantime, I feel called to other duties. My long-running feature "Life Is Short" has taken on an extra yip of resonance. I've even been distracted from completing this essay in recent days.

I plan to continue this blog, but in abbreviated form. For the past five years, I've posted about three times a week, often writing full reviews. I will scale that back in frequency and quantity; there will be more capsule reviews than extended essays. It should, however, continue to fulfill its primary function: providing a guide to worthwhile films that you might otherwise overlook or never hear about. (Click away at the links below.) We might dip more often into the archives, searching out the gems we ourselves overlooked.

Maybe this will be a temporary lull, a way to wait out this rain delay, so to speak, like when WGN used to turn away from shots of the Wrigley Field grounds crew dragging the tarp onto the field to air highlights of Oakland A's World Series wins from the early '70s. Maybe it's just the way things are these days, now that my boyhood team, the Cubs, ended their World Series drought and exorcised decades-old angst. Maybe I just miss Charles Nelson Reilly.

Pardon me as I shuffle along the row of seats toward the aisle and the exit. This is the part where I came in.



  1. The Florida Project - Master storytelling with a mostly rookie cast. A true feel for the human condition. Including, for the second year in a row, the best director, Sean Baker.
  2. Baby Driver - I know it's flawed, but I saw it on the big screen twice and fell for it each time. The most fun I can imagine having in a cineplex. Thank you, Edgar Wright, for the music and the mania.
  3. Dawson City: Frozen Time - A mesmerizing, meandering trip to the turn of the 20th century, to a gold-rush era and the origins of Hollywood.
  4. Donald Cried - Kris Avedisian's manic title character is riveting from beginning to end, as he makes life miserable for an old high school buddy who is back in town for a visit. Featuring the year's best screenplay by Avedisian.
  5. Lovesong - The wonderful Riley Keough drives this moody road movie about an unhappily married young mother rekindling a crush on her college pal.
  6. Suntan - From Greece, a harrowing depiction of a middle-age basket case going off the rails as he tries to recapture his youth while fixating on a beautiful young woman. This depressing exercise is somehow sexy and intoxicating.
  7. The Big Sick - An old-fashioned feel-good movie about defying family traditions and pursuing true love.
  8. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World - An impeccable documentary about unsung musicians of the modern music era.
  9. Brigsby Bear - This seems like it is too weird to work, but goofy Kyle Mooney pulls off one of the sweetest films of the year.
10. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail - Another meticulous documentary, from Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), with a compelling story to tell about our nation's priorities.


     It took us a while to get to some leftovers from 2016. "Toni Erdmann" would have ended up in the top five on the 2016 list, if I'd seen it in time. Such a powerful father-daughter story -- quirky and uplifting, heartbreaking and soulful. And Daniel Burman, a true storyteller with heart, exploited the father-son dynamic for another of his charming little movies, "The Tenth Man." Meantime, Emmanuelle Bercot tore things up in "My King" as a woman paralyzed by rage in a frustrating marriage. And Denzel Washington was fantastic in "Fences."


(Honorables mentioned)





  • Kris Avedisian, bonkers in "Donald Cried."
  • Young Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."
  • Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell going mano-a-mano in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
  • Timothee Chalamet, mostly rising above the corniness in "Call Me by Your Name."
  • Cynthia Nixon, fascinating as Emily Dickinson in "A Quiet Passion."
  • Woody Harrelson with the hat trick in "Wilson," "The Glass Castle" and "Three Billboards."
  • Fred Armisen, fiercely funny in "The Little Hours" and "Band Aid."
  • Riley Keough, following up "American Honey" with a sorrowful turn in "Lovesong." 
  • Emmanuelle Devos as a mother obsessed with vengeance in "Moka."


(Some of our favorite directors didn't thrill us this time around)


(Haven't caught these yet)

  • Columbus
  • Sieranevada
  • Ex Libris: New York Public Library
  • Brad's Status
  • Rat Film
Stay tuned for reviews of those five titles and plenty more, albeit in condensed form, as we hold out hope for 2018.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, our title track:


03 February 2018

One-Liners: Wild Rides

THE ROAD MOVIE (B) - This delightful distraction compiles dash-cam videos from cars on Russia's roads. It can be both amusing and harrowing. Because the audio is recorded, you listen in on mundane conversations and various radio broadcasts as you brace for impact. You also hear many variations on the Russian words for "Oh, god" and "Oh, fuck!"

A truck driver spills nimbly out of the front of his cab after a serious crash, and a kid falls out of the back of a van. Vehicles navigate icy roads, race past forest fires and plunge into a river. Weirdos and freaks besiege windshields; fights break out, sometimes involving guns or a sledgehammer. (And you thought your town has demented drivers.) Two people narrate the scene of a multi-car pile-up as they count their blessings that barely avoided the crash. We watch a tank pull up to a carwash for a wild scrubbing.

It's all random and riveting. It puts you in the driver seat and makes you wonder why people could pull such stupid maneuvers while reminding you that you've done the same and worse but survived to tell about it.

We get no narration, just ambient sounds. It skips by in 67 minutes. It is a torrent of sights and sounds capturing nature and human nature. It's a roller-coaster of a YouTube jag.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) (A) - Danny Boyle, at the top of his game, slaps life and color across the big screen to tell the irresistible tale of a kid from the slums of Mumbai hoping to win riches on a game show.

Dev Patel ("Lion") stars as the young man held for questioning by authorities suspicious of his ability to nail ever answer, pressing to the brink of the top prize. The reason he knows the answers: Each question triggers memories from his past, which are explored in flashbacks. It becomes an old-fashioned fable in which a boy grows up destined to reconnect with the girl he has always loved (Freida Pinto).

Boyle -- combining the grittiness of "Trainspotting" with the heartwarming glow and childhood scrappiness from "Millions" --  makes no false moves over an even two hours, directing the narrative like a chess master. Mumbai jump-starts the viewer's senses, and the soundtrack sizzles with snippets of memorable songs, including, famously, M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes."

Indelible characters slice through the scenes, including Anil Kapoor as the oily game-show host ("Who wants to be a mill-a-naire?!") and Irrfan Khan as the bemused police inspector. Patel and Pinto are the cute couple next door you cheer for. It's a giddy ride.

"Paper Planes":

And the "Road Movie" trailer:


31 January 2018

New to the Queue

A new view of review ...

Alex Ross Perry ("The Color Wheel," "Listen Up Philip") looks to bounce back from "Queen of Earth" with the tale of a young woman shaking up the lives of a bunch of Brooklynites, "Golden Exits."

A documentary made entirely from Russian dash-cam videos, "The Road Movie."

A documentary about the origins of the modern skyscraper, "Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan."

From Poland, a biography of the life of painter Zdzislaw Beksinski and his clan, "The Last Family."

A posthumous release from Abbas Kiarostami ("Like Someone in Love"), the contemplative offering "24 Frames."

Thomas Middleditch (HBO's "Silicon Valley") and Jess Weixler (TV's "The Good Wife") might be enough to lure us to this romantic tale of interconnectedness and coincidence, "Entanglement."

27 January 2018

Doc Watch: Bright and Dark

JANE (B+) - This is a bright, upbeat found-footage piece that reveals Jane Goodall's pioneering field studies of chimpanzees in Africa starting in the early 1960s. The archival video, in tactile color, plays like a real-life Disney nature movie from that era. It was an era in which headline writers routinely referred to her looks, not above calling her "comely" in headlines.

The talented Brett Morgen ("Cobain: Montage of Heck," "The Kid Stays in the Picture") curates this found footage like a pro, crafting a fascinating narrative and building drama. The chimps become real characters, as we come to know them across generations through this groundbreaking study of their social interactions. We also watch, in wonder, as the chimps reveal the skill to use crude tools.

Goodall is calm and poised throughout her experience, raising her own child with famed wildlife documentary cinematographer Hugo Van Lawick, whom she met at the start of the project at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She tutors research assistants. She interacts naturally with her hosts. We see her own life unfold before our eyes. We are transported to that place and that time, the camera close over her shoulder as she traipses through nature, and we are close enough that it seems we can reach out and touch that familiar ponytail. At other times, she just sits and observes, and we're lucky enough to do so too.

I CALLED HIM MORGAN (C+) - A surprisingly boring recounting of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and the woman implicated in his fatal shooting in February 1972. Talking heads -- mostly fellow musicians -- tell a sluggish tale of a junkie who seemed destined to meet a premature, messy end.

Helen Morgan, as one of Lee's old pals says, literally dragged Lee out of the gutter and rescued his career -- saved his life. But her jealousy over another woman sent her into a rage, and she shot him dead at a club. She served some time but was released on probation after pleading to second-degree manslaughter.

The shooting itself doesn't happen until about 20 minutes before the end of the movie. Before that point, the movie wallows in Lee Morgan's woes as a deadbeat drug addict wasting his talent away. We never see Helen -- she died in the mid-'90s -- but we hear her voice on cassette tape, from an interview recorded shortly before she died.

The problem here is that she rambles along telling stories that are just not that compelling. It may be that there just isn't a profound message to convey from the life of the jazz man. This is the second jazz documentary from Swedish director Kasper Collin; maybe it's time for him to move on to another subject.

Lee Morgan with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers performing "Dat Dere":


22 January 2018

This Year's Model

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (C) - Luca Guadagnino returns to the Italian countryside but he crashes and burns with his follow-up to "A Bigger Splash" -- ponderous James Ivory mush about a summer gay romance in 1983.

Armie Hammer plays Oliver, a bland preppy hunk invited to spend the summer as this year's research assistant to an art professor who spends the season in paradise with his wife and their pouty, brooding 17-year-old son, Elio (Timothee Chalomet from "Lady Bird"). Oliver sends a few signals Elio's way in the gay code of the unenlightened times and, after a few false starts, soon the bright young teen is tossing aside his girlfriend and chasing after Oliver.

Thus begins an endless string of flirtations, moody glances, horseplay and sappy cooings that would make tween girls roll their eyes. In fact, each guy has a woman on the side, but they treat the gals like the filmmakers do, as props. (One of the girls (Esther Garrel) is French, for no apparent reason.)

Michael Stuhlbarg, as the father-professor, does little more than read lines to advance the plot and pore over the daily Corriere della Sera with his espresso. His wife (Amira Casar) apparently inherited the mansion, where the couple also spends winter holidays. (The movie tries to make something of the family and Oliver being Jewish but it's not clear why it should even matter.)

Stuhlbarg does pull off a touching (if overly mannered) monologue at the climax of the film, but he also suffers through a critical scene at the halfway mark of the movie, the point where things quickly go downhill. Stuhlbarg is hanging with Oliver, pontificating as they catalog slides of classic statutes of male nudes (subtle, eh?). "Hence their ageless ambiguity," Stuhlbarg intones, perhaps stifling a Groucho waggle of his eyebrows (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), "as if they're daring you to desire them." Green light engaged.

Chalomet is fairly riveting throughout, his soft features and gaunt sensuality undercut by a biker's sneer and a jock's gait. Elio is a brilliant boy -- he reads voraciously and transcribes classical music into sheet music. Who wouldn't find him appealing? But he spends too much of the movie moping, and a final extended shot of him expressing his emotions as the credits role is intended to be one for the ages, but it goes on so long that it verges on the silliness of a "Police Squad" spoof.

In fact, the tone is off the whole film, which lasts an interminable 2 hours 12 minutes. It's as if Guadagnino reshuffled some scenes from "A Bigger Splash" -- like courtyard dinners with friends, full of snappy high-brow conversation and sexual innuendo -- but he misplaced his ability to craft a coherent, compelling narrative. Storylines here seem like they are caught in a loop. Elio likes to touch Oliver and then smell his own fingers, or he huffs Oliver's clothes, to dramatically savor what he knows is likely only a six-week romance. There is an inordinate number of glimpses of feet. Elio also has a solo moment with a piece of fruit, in a scene that nods to "American Pie," except here it's laughable instead of funny. In another inadvertent parody, when we finally get around to a sex scene between Elio and Oliver, just as things heat up in bed, Guadagnino does a slow pan out the bedroom window and settles solemnly on a big leafy tree, as if he were modestly directing soft-core porn for HBO. ("Blue Is the Warmest Color" this ain't.) The Ivory of the screenplay is, of course, the man from the famed Merchant-Ivory movies of the '80s, a time when it was dignified to adapt E.M. Forster novels, so the shadings here are not much of a surprise.

As things drag on, the men play cat and mouse, but once they finally go all in, they sneak around -- it's the early '80s after all -- though you get the sense that no one besides their girlfriends would care much about the homo-erotic happenings, not even Elio's apparently enlightened and supportive (indulgent?) parents. The men romp through the gorgeous countryside -- Oliver dapper in his crisp shirts, short shorts and white socks, a uniform of the era -- gamboling about while a couple of smarmy Sufjan Stevens songs bleat in the background. Hammer's Jon Hamm impersonation gets stale quickly, and you wonder what a dynamo like Elio sees in such an empty vessel, a discarded statue.

"Call Me by Your Name" might have been a heartfelt novel, but it's a jumble of bad ideas on the big screen, a serious misstep following the best film of 2016.

Our title track, sort of -- Elvis Costello with the appropriately descriptive opening track from "This Year's Model":


18 January 2018

Waist Deep

MUDBOUND (C-minus) - I doubt the filmmakers would be offended if I pointed out that this is wretched storytelling. Dee Rees, who told a compelling rough tale with "Pariah" in 2011, gets downright vicious in this depiction of race relations in Mississippi around World War II.

But it's all wrapped in a trite package -- a well-meaning white family (with a virulently racist patriarch) running a farm with a noble black family. Each family sends a man off to war, and those who stay behind to work the soil interact at arm's length. Upon their return, the two men miraculously flout the rules of segregation to bond over their psychological hellscapes. You know one of them will pay for that.

Very little works here. The relentless rain makes everything bleak and, yes, muddy. The cast is dull. Carey Mulligan, surprisingly, lacks a certain depth to pull off that depleted, defeated southern wife and mother. Mary J. Blige is a mere prop as one of the numb narrators. Jason Clarke is a cipher as Mulligan's lunkish husband. Garrett Hedlund isn't much more than a pretty boy as his brother, who goes off as a bomber pilot. Jason Mitchell seems a little too green and fresh-faced as the returning war hero who dares challenge the white establishment upon his re-entry.

Rees fumbles flashbacks and bumbles through scenes of war. She shows no nuance in planting a seed of desire between Mulligan's Laura and Hedlund as her brother-in-law. The overall level of quality is that of an old soap opera. The accents are so thick and the dialogue so fleeting that I had to watch this with the subtitles on.

When the reckoning comes for the two proud but damaged war veterans, Rees unleashes a truly horrific scene in which clownish Klan hoodlums bind and torture Mitchell's character, forcing Hedlund to watch in agony. It is reminiscent of the savage scenes in "12 Years a Slave," which I walked out of four years ago. Yes, it is important to remember the past so as not to repeat it and we must deal with our nation's original sin, but society really needs to stop fetishizing World War II, the segregated South and the horrors of racism. There have to be other ways to tell these stories besides the play-acting of the lashing of black flesh.

The worst part of this exercise is that nothing much is revealed or freshly conveyed about that time in American history. There is no vision (it's based on a novel), no leadership of production, and no standout performances. It's a rehash. It has pretensions of epic storytelling, but it is cliched and hollow.

15 January 2018

From the Vaults: The Deadline Dash

DEADLINE USA (1952) (B) - Humphrey Bogart is fantastic as a beta version of Ben Bradlee, a gruff editor rallying his news staff in the face of an uphill challenge. Bogart is Ed Hutcheson, a hard-nosed newsman whose paper, the Day, is chasing a big story about corruption while the staff has been informed by the family owning the paper that the operation will close in three days.

Hutcheson's first thought is that he will finally be free from the journalistic rat race and will have time to win back his estranged wife, Nora (Kim Hunter). But he's got ink in his veins, and when one of his reporters gets beat up by mobsters, he is determined to nail down the story before the Day calls it a night.

Legendary writer Richard Brooks ("Key Largo," "Elmer Gantry," "In Cold Blood," "Blackboard Jungle") pens a zippy script that captures the jangly repartee of a classic newsroom. It is almost heartbreaking, well into the 21st century's decline of newspapers, to hear an editor back then lament the decay of the news game. Bogie gets to sink his choppers into this speech ripping on the readers:

It's not enough any more to give 'em just news. They want comics, contests, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends, and influence the future. Ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lottery. And, if they accidentally stumble on the first page... news!
He is surrounded by a strong cast, which also includes Ethel Barrymore as the out-voted family matriarch who has a winning rapport with Hutcheson; Hunter as the conflicted news widow; and Audrey Christie as a scrappy gal reporter. Ah, those good ol' days of the newspaper game.

LE NOTTI BLANCHE (1957) (B) - Marcello Mastroianni flashes an awkward charm as Mario, a man new to the town of Livorno who meets a shy young woman looking forlorn on a bridge. Natalia (Maria Schell) is yearning for another man, whom she met a year ago and with whom she hopes to reunite.

Luchino Visconti mixes new wave realism with claustrophobic sets to create a suffocating world of longing and heartache. Natalia is kept under nun-like conditions, with her skirt literally pinned to that of one of the old ladies she lives with. She resists Mario's advances because she pines for a man who is unlikely to return. (We see their courtship in flashbacks.)

Mastroianni and Schell dance a tender pas de deux. Mario rejects the advances of another woman, snubbing the sure thing in favor of the fantasy of rescuing the weepy wounded bird.

Visconti, a neorealist auteur, adapted the story from Fyodor Dostoyevski's "White Nights." (His other adaptations include "The Stranger" and "Death in Venice.") The centerpiece here -- and presumably the reason the film ranks high in the canon -- is a jaunt to a bohemian dance club where the couple join the hipsters in a modern jig to a classic American blues-rock song. What the movie lacks in enduring drama it makes up for in archival treasures.

The dance scene featuring Bill Haley and the Comets' "Thirteen Women":

And how about a cover version by the Fuzztones?


12 January 2018

Life Is Short: Of Biblical Proportions

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

Running Time: 113 MIN
Elapsed Time at Plug Pull: 40 MIN
Portion Watched: 35%
My Age at Time of Viewing: 55 YRS, 1 MO.
Average Male American Lifespan: 76.7 YRS.
Watched/Did Instead: Went to bed and read from Elvis Costello's memoirs.
Odds of Re-viewing This Title: 100-1

My first foray into the work of Eugene Green did not go well. I meant to see "La Sapienza" a few years ago, and that might have softened me up for this arch, oblique morality play about a high school boy hunting down his biological father.

Actors robotically exchange lines made up of unnaturally simple declarative sentences. Characters pile up -- for example at an antiseptic cocktail party -- without a way to discern which ones we need to care about. Mathieu Amalric ("Chicken With Plums") and Maria de Medeiros ("Pulp Fiction") seem wasted.

An example of clunky dialogue includes the boy, Vincent, interacting with a hotel clerk. When Vincent tells the man that he arrived early because he wanted to make sure he wasn't late for his appointment, the clerk turns oracular: "If you're on time for your appointments, young man, you'll never succeed in life." OK. This one shares too many annoying qualities (French quirk) with the films of Bruno Dumont, the king of trying one's patience. For reasons that presumably become clear eventually, chapter headings are borrowed from books of the Bible.

This supposedly has a killer ending. Maybe I should have made this our third entry in Fast Forward Theater. I just didn't have what it takes.

08 January 2018

Odd-Couple Buddy Road Movie

FOLK HERO & FUNNY GUY (B+) - This surprisingly authentic and effective buddy movie pits everyman Alex Karpovsky as a neurotic struggling comedian against gruffy pretty boy Wyatt Russell, playing a successful pop star.

The incongruous pair are believable as longtime friends whose fortunes have diverged. This is the inspired writing-directing debut of character actor Jeff Grace, and he's got a touching story to tell and a winning touch with his cast.

Russell's Jason is guarding against burnout by doing a low-key acoustic tour of the East Coast, and he invites Karpovsky's Paul to come along as his opening act, urging him to ditch his boring freelance life and finally pursue his stand-up dream. Things get complicated on the eve of the tour when they spot Bryn (Meredith Hagner) at an open-mic and Jason invites her to open, as well.

Grace avoids love-triangle tropes with this traditional set-up, and he keeps things loose with some apparent improv, including a winning exchange between the guys in the car listing their all-time favorite dude solo acts. (Karpovsky's parody of an imaginary Springsteen tale is particularly charming.)

Karpovsky (HBO's "Girls," "Supporting Characters") finds depth in this irascible loser, still reeling from getting dumped by his fiancee. ("That's why I don't date hot girls," a comedy-club pal (Michael Ian Black) tells him.) Paul stubbornly sticks with his dud of an amateur set, drawing crickets every time he tries his riff on e-vites. Russell ("Ingrid Goes West") brings playboy Jason down to earth, particularly with his own pathetic lovelorn maneuver that brings things to a climax. Hagner is wildly appealing as a three-dimensional character whose future does not depend on either of these two goofballs.

Melanie Lynskey and David Cross are perfect in second-half cameos, the latter as the passive-aggressive host of a community radio station morning show. Unlike Paul's shtick, the lines land cleanly here, and there is heart to spare. This one could sneak up on anyone.

The soundtrack is rife with songs by Adam Ezra, as well as originals from Russell and Hagner. But as the credits hit, we're treated to this 1967 nugget from Brenton Wood, "The Oogum Boogum Song":


04 January 2018

The Sword of Damocles

UNDER THE SHADOW (B-minus) - During the last days of the Iran-Iraq war, a woman in  Tehran strives to protect her young daughter during an exodus from the capital amid a bombing campaign. This debut feature from Babak Anvari devolves into a horror story about maternal instincts and the unremitting power of the militaristic patriarchy.

Then again, this could be just another scary movie about a little girl and her missing doll. Narges Rashidi stars as Shideh, a frustrated wife and mother who has been driven from medical school because of her activism in the wake of Iran's 1979 revolution. After her doctor husband goes off to war and her neighbors start fleeing the city (especially after an unexploded bomb crashes through the roof of the apartment building), Shideh is left alone with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who has developed a serious fever that coincides with the girl's hysteria over losing her beloved rag doll.

Shideh's husband occasional checks in from the front lines by phone, a disembodied voice that sounds like it's coming from the afterlife. Dorsa insists that her mother has tossed away the doll, though there are ghost-like figures that swirl about the building who might have had something to do with the doll-napping. A creepy neighbor boy, too.

Shideh is a modern woman who prefers not to wrap herself in scarves to hide the body that she sculpts with the help of forbidden Jane Fonda workout VHS tapes. At one point, mother and daughter flee their building in fright and run into a couple of patrolmen who haul Shideh in for being scandalously uncovered. ("What are we, in Europe now?" one of them scolds.) Her detention at the hands of the theocrats is brief, and it's back to the haunted house.

Too much here is scattered, by-the-numbers spookiness and terror, somewhat reminiscent of a much tauter and scarier motherhood freakout, "The Babadook." There's not a plainly rational reason why Shideh won't take Dorsa to a safe place, besides the fact that she apparently doesn't want to hang out with her in-laws.

Rashidi is a compelling presence, and the jumps and jips will keep you on your toes. If only it didn't feel as dated as the Iran-Iraq war during the videotape era.

The trailer:


02 January 2018

Beauty of the Beast

THE SHAPE OF WATER (B) - Sally Hawkins is a wonder as a love-starved woman during space-race America in this beautiful, lyrical fantasy from Guillermo del Toro. For a standard love story and cheeky period piece, it hits the right notes.

With a heavy does of cartoon villainry and a dash of idiot plotting, del Toro -- drafting the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor ("Divergent," HBO's "Game of Thrones") -- sculpts an epic ball of cheese that is surprisingly effective at times. Hawkins portrays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady at a military installation that is housing a top-secret project -- a South American fish-man that might be of use on Apollo missions.

Michael Shannon (who else?) is the big awful meanie who runs the program and gets a kick out of torturing the rough beast. Elisa can't bear the brutality, and she finds ways to get some alone time with the mute lunk and learn to communicate with him. (The most egregious of the plot devices that require the suspension of disbelief (besides the premise itself) is the fact that a key turn of events revolves around security cameras on the loading dock; yet no one pays attention as Elisa lugs a hi-fi into the secret room to play pop standards for her new beau while feeding him hard-boiled eggs and teaching him sign language.)

There's nothing deep about this romantic ideal or the notion of heartless super-powers exploiting the body of a less-than-human to gain an edge in world domination. It's all a big cartoon, but it is often an enchanting one. And del Toro knows how to churn a story along. He stuffs it too much with classic movie clips and swelling old 78-rpm standards, but he can't help himself, deep-diving into the derivative, it seems.

This being the early '60s, we get the requisite oppressed pals -- her lonely gay neighbor, Giles (a spry Richard Jenkins), and black co-worker Zelda (a sassy Octavia Spencer) -- a pair of borderline stereotypes who help her plot the rescue of the creature identified in the credits as Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). (Speaking of stereotypes, a disturbing choice around the climax of the film features a black man too meek, lazy or cowardly to defend his wife; it's a bizarre, if perhaps unintentional, slap at a culture.) Jenkins and Spencer are fine, and they know how to spit out a wry one-liner, but these characterizations are nothing new.

Del Toro doesn't tiptoe around the daintiness of the era or just dally in poodle skirts and Cadillacs. Elisa is a woman with a soul and a full range of desires. A worker on the overnight shift, she starts her work day with a furious bout of masturbation in the bathtub, racing against that pesky egg timer. (And she and Amphibian Man even get intimate at one point, with Elisa later filling in Zelda on the biological mechanics of the coupling.)

Shannon's character, Strickland, is quite the brute -- but one with some serious insecurities. Shannon gets a lot of mileage out of chomping on candy treats, and he really milks a running gag about the sketchy reattachment of two fingers (lopped off by the monster). Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") does what he can with his role as a Russian spy with a conscience, but nothing here would give the cardboard cutouts of "The Americans" a serious challenge. Del Toro does manage to hit a few notes that echo in the Trump era. At one point, Stuhlbarg's character urges his handlers to steal and maintain the specimen rather than destroy it, so that Russia can study the creature and learn what makes it tick. "We don't need to learn," a military superior spits at him. "We need the Americans to not learn." Give it time, comrade.

As the clock ticks toward the two-hour mark, there is a race to save Amphibian Man by this rag-tag gang of society's outcasts. Give del Toro credit -- he's having fun with this mash-up. It's all a cartoon fairy tale, complete with a "happy" ending that provides one more brilliant visual flourish. If only we, too, could live happily ever after so easily.

"The Shape of Water" was our annual Christmas Day Mainstream Movie. It falls smack in the middle of the rankings of our longtime tradition:

  1. Up in the Air (2009)
  2. Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
  3. Dreamgirls (2006)
  4. Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
  5. The Fighter (2010)
  6. American Hustle (2013)
  7. The Shape of Water (2017)
  8. La La Land (2016)
  9. The Wrestler (2008)
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
11. Young Adult (2011)
12. This Is 40 (2012)
13. Into the Woods (2014)

31 December 2017

New to the Queue

The thin blue line ...

Errol Morris mixes fact and fiction in studying a 60-year-old mystery over the course of four hours, "Wormwood."

A documentary about a horrific crime that examines the intersection of gender, race and class, "The Rape of Recy Taylor."

We've been fans of Turkish-German director Fatih Akin ("Head On," "The Edge of Heaven"), but we're wary of his new revenge flick, "In the Fade."

Annette Bening might be enough to get us to sit through the biopic of golden-age screen siren Gloria Grahame, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."

30 December 2017

Unhappy Families Are All Alike

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (B+) - If this were the first Noah Baumbach film we had ever seen, we might think it was brilliant. But this deep into his career, Baumbach is trading on his reputation and merely updating previous themes, in particular his wonderful family piece "The Squid and the Whale" from 2005, making this feel like a warmed-over sequel at times.

He also leans on Dustin Hoffman in the patriarch role (handled in "Squid" by a wonderfully neurotic Jeff Daniels), and Hoffman -- dimmed in our regard by tales of decades of piggishness on movie sets -- never finds the right pitch as the haughty artist who has twisted his adult children into knots of doubt and anger. Baumbach does coordinate these offspring -- played by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel -- with expert timing. It's a shame they spend so much of the movie trying to bounce off Hoffman's broad caricature as Harold Meyerowitz, spurned sculptor and largely forgotten instructor at Bard College in the Hudson Valley.

Anger issues are established early on as a Meyerowitz tradition. Scenes often end abruptly in the middle of a tirade, starting in the opening moments with the parking adventures of Danny (Sandler), a failed musician, at the end of a failed marriage, shepherding his teenage daughter off to college. Eliza (Grace Van Patten, a "Sopranos" alum) is the great family hope, heading to Bard to study filmmaking and revive the creative juju of the clan. She makes raunchy short films in which she is often nude and in "sexual situations," to Danny's shock and chagrin. The family rallies around her art, which apparently is another jab at familial delusion, because, from what we get to see, Eliza's films seem pretty crappy. Danny, a pathetic, limping 50-ish shlub, is more directionless than his poised daughter. His claim to fame consists of hokey Tin Pan Alley novelty tunes that only his loved ones know and abide.

Matthew (Stiller), the product of Harold's second marriage (and thus Harold's obvious favorite child), has escaped this dysfunction by moving to the west coast and quashing any pretension of an artistic life by working as a successful financial planner. Despite his exulted status, he has a hair-trigger when dealing with his father, not above shouting grievances at the old man in the middle of the street. Jean (Marvel), meanwhile, is a beaten-down wallflower with a drone-like job who hacks out spoof videos for co-workers. Jean, like Danny a product of the first marriage, wallows in resignation, barely registering a personality, going along with the family shenanigans in a monotone delivery.

Baumbach gets a lot of the details right. Stiller, as the successful financial planner Matthew, is the alpha sibling who is inclined to refer to Danny as his father's other son rather than as his own half-brother. And an awkward conversation between Matthew and Danny -- struggling to bond but having no clue about the fundamental aspects of each others' lives -- stings if you've ever tried that with an estranged sibling. A running gag about the kids' boxes of childhood belongings features an amusing dispute over whether a pair of sunglasses belong to Matthew or Danny. Other lines echo nicely throughout the script, bouncing among the family members (if not wearing out their welcome) as pet phrases are wont to do. (For example, the men are fond of staging nominal "McEnroe protests"; yet more anger issues.) Characters talk past each other as often as they talk to each other.

Conflict arrives in the form of Matthew's plan to convince Harold and his latest mate, a wine-soaked aging hippie named Maureen (a delightfully ditzy Emma Thompson), to cash out their Manhattan apartment as well as his artwork and retire to the countryside. Danny, even though he lived there for only a short time as a teenager, resents Matthew's power play. When Harold ends up in the hospital, with a bleak prognosis, the siblings are tossed together, for better and for worse. They feed off each others' insecurities, especially in the way they all cling to a charge nurse and doctor, both of whom get called away to other duties, thus abandoning Danny, Jean and Matthew like a certain someone they know did long ago.

The cast, aside from Hoffman, settles into a tight rhythm. A few cameos click, too, including Judd Hirsch as Harold's much more successful (and well adjusted) contemporary, L.J.; Rebecca Miller as L.J.'s daughter and a potential love interest (savior) for Danny; and Candice Bergen as Matthew's mother, the aging trophy wife Julia. It's an entertaining world that is created here, albeit an insular east coast one.

The result is a movie that is often merely amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, but that's not really a criticism; Baumbach is wise to keep the humor low-key. You either know a clan like this -- egotistic, faux creative, delusional, passive-aggressive -- and you get it, or you don't. In the latter case, you might be more annoyed than entertained. Baumbach here is returning to the grievance-based character studies of "Squid," "Margot at the Wedding" and "Greenberg" (where he really clicked with Stiller) and thankfully emerging from the skid that produced the sloppier recent efforts "Mistress America" and "While We're Young."

You get the feeling, though, that this brand is played out, finally. "The Meyerowitz Stories" comes off like a nice little career capper for a director pushing 50. Assuming he's emptied out his notebooks from his family histories, he's poised to begin a new phase of storytelling.