15 January 2017

La La Land

No, not that movie. We already reviewed it.

ALWAYS SHINE (C+) - Wherein the cool indie kids are indulged with enough money to make yet another movie about the fascinating world of actors and filmmakers, with their favorite twist: hipster horror-flick undertones.

Our gal Sophia Takal ("Wild Canaries," "Gabi on the Roof in July," "Supporting Characters") goes behind the camera for the second time (we still haven't seen her obscure debut "Green") with car-wreck results. She collaborates here with her partner, Lawrence Michael Levine (who made "Canaries" and "Gabi"), interpreting his script about two actress friends who spend a contentious weekend at Big Sur.

Not much works here; the first half is rather tedious, and the second half is a mess. Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is a meek, soft-spoken bleach blonde (looking like Sharon Stone with the sexuality liposuctioned out of her) having some success in acting, though it comes in cheap horror films (how meta) that require extensive nudity and a lucrative beer commercial. Anna (Mackenzie Davis, a cross between Jennifer Garner and Elisabeth Moss) is much more assertive, bordering on angry.

The two characters have such little friendship chemistry you have to wonder why they would even want to spend a weekend together. Beth seems to be passive-aggressively sabotaging Anna by not sending to her agent Anna's reel and not telling Anna that a low-budget avant-garde director whom Beth ran into on the street wants to cast Anna in his new short. That last part is problematic for two reasons. First, it later turns out that the director has Anna's number, so you wonder why he even has to ask Beth to ask Anna to contact him. (That's not the only nonsensical scene in the movie.) Second, it is emblematic of the incestuous nature of this story about pampered, privileged indie actors in L.A. You have to work as a waitress?? Boo-hoo.

Takal makes some curious choices here, and her touch behind the camera is clunky. At times she seems to be nodding to Hitchcock and Polanski, but her technique is amateurish, and she traffics in tropes. Cheesy incidental music fails to inspire dread. Her lighting and blocking is antiseptic; we get luscious establishing shots of the ocean, the moon, a massive bridge -- but the bulk of the sets look more like movie sets than actual locations. We get a lot of twinning and call-backs of dialogue and images, a sharp nudge to the viewer's ribs about the Big Theme of duality.

Takal also seems to be making a point about the male gaze and the objectification of women's bodies, but then she likes to linger over their bodies (for example, showering elegantly, one arm sensually raised high, like they do in Dove commercials), going to distracting lengths to make sure she doesn't show any R-rated body parts. It's more meta commentary that doesn't seem to add up with the rest of the story.

The final half hour blurs the identity of the two women (calling to mind such mind-benders as "Mulholland Drive," which does the writer and director here no favors) and finally cops to being a suspense film. Afterward, you might have a good debate about what really happens at the end. If only "Always Shine" had enough logic and depth to warrant such analysis.

The tinkering with the identities also betrays the limited skills of Fitzgerald and Davis, as well as the holes in Levine's script that they struggle with. In the final reel, Jane Adams shows up for one scene, hosting one of the woman and her slightly creepy new beau. Adams previously paired off nicely with Takal on screen in Joe Swanberg's similarly thin gruel, "All the Light in the Sky." Here, Adams' presence provides another distraction from the story by reminding us what a substantive actor can do with such a pockmarked script.

Levine and Takal have shown a lot of promise. What was fresh and clever in the couple's previous efforts now feels precious and derivative. "Always Shine" is like that sophomore album -- a placeholder that makes you wonder if the first one was a fluke and whether this band will step it up to the next level.
 

12 January 2017

Soundtrack of Your Life: Suicide Is Painless

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

Date: 11 January 2016
Place: Smith's grocery store, cat food aisle
Song:  "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
Artist: Joy Division
Irony Matrix: 6.7 out of 10

Comment: There's that jangly opening, which often makes me pause -- the Cure? No, Joy Division. Ian Curtis agonizing through a melody that could have provided the B side to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" theme. Crooned by Perry Como. But there are the eerie dawn-of-the-'80s keyboards. And the pervasive sense of dread that has enshrouded the band's entombed music and videos ever since Curtis hanged himself on the eve of the band's debut tour of America (apparently after spending the evening watching Werner Herzog's "Stroszek"). The dreary details were dramatized in 2007's "Control," the debut motion picture by Anton Corbijn ("The American"). None of that really came flooding back to me consciously, but I noted the absurdity of standing in the store aisle and recognizing that metaphysical teenage dread which floods the zone whenever Joy Division emanates from a speaker. Marketers make sure that it will follow me wherever I go throughout my life, for as long as I consume. Is there no escape? Is my life empty or meaningless on a Wednesday night? Am I just stuffing the void with packaged goods? Should I re-evaluate the choices I've made over the years? 

I went with the Purina Naturals, the big bag. It keeps.


Let's add a bonus track, "Atmosphere":


And one of my favorite guitar drones, "Shadowplay":



Und ... the "Stroszek" trailer:


 

10 January 2017

Socialized Medicine


I, DANIEL BLAKE (B) - Old lefty Ken Loach goes for the heart and the gut, shoving politics in your face with this bleak tale of a senior citizen navigating the UK's safety-net system, with the title character bouncing back and forth mercilessly between the soulless health care bureaucrats and soulless unemployment-benefits counselors.

Loach ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "The Angels' Share," "Kes") knows how to push buttons without being obvious about it. But here (with frequent writing collaborator Paul Laverty), his tone is a bit off, and he spins a riff on Job's suffering that in the end preaches, if not screeches, to the choir.

Daniel Blake (a sodden Dave Johns) is recovering from a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to abstain from work. This parachutes Daniel into both the public health care system of northeast England (Newcastle, near Scotland) as well as its unemployment division.  He is supposed to actively search for employment but he is medically barred from taking a job, though the bureaucrats in Public Health run him ragged through the red-tape wringer. (His struggles with the internet are epic.) He keeps sane and busy through wood-working.

The phone system keeps him on hold for 45 minutes at a time. In person, the government workers give him mostly blank stares and more of the runaround, except for one, Ann, who, on the sly, defies her bosses and expresses human concern and empathy for flabbergasted Daniel.

During one office visit, Daniel stands up for a single mother of two, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is desperate for shelter and enough money for food. She is denied benefits because she was late for her appointment. Daniel helps them get settled and slips Katie a few bucks to cover the next few meals. Squires, with big, expressive eyes, wrings a good amount of healthy pathos from a woman constantly in the throes of desperation. A scene of her being so hungry that she binges on handouts from a food kitchen before leaving the pantry is visceral and heartbreaking.

But Loach caricatures both the noble poor folks and the heartless government drones. Katie gets lured into questionable ways to make money (while retaining that heart of gold). Daniel is an absolute saint, even showing patience with his young slacker neighbors who are defying the capitalist pigs by selling knock-off sneakers on the black market.

At his wits' end, Daniel turns to open defiance of the system and public protest, becoming a local folk hero to the oppressed proletariat. With Daniel deified, Loach then unleashes a brutally bleak ending that would make even the most optimistic movie-goer slump in his chair during the end credits.

If only it were so easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.
 

07 January 2017

One-Liners: Bad Form


BAD MOMS (D+) - Everything is off-key in this vulgar comedy trashing the idea of motherhood.

From the writers-directors of "The Hangover" series, this plays like a Part IV, continuing the epic slide right off the edge. It's another entry into the genre of Women Behaving Badly, and no one has been able to capture the balance achieved by "Bridesmaids," which goes back to 2011.

It's not easy to make Kathryn Hahn unfunny. She is a clever, subtle comedian and actress. Here she is cranked to 11 from the start, spewing profanities as if that's enough to get a laugh. Mila Kunis is the star of this show, and she simply doesn't have the chops to carry a movie, let alone a comedy. She comes off as an average actor giving it a go in wacky skits on the "Sonny & Cher Show."

Christina Applegate does her thing as the nasty super-mom who makes everyone else look bad while scheming to retain control of the local PTA. It's another one-note performance. Kristen Bell is the only bright spot, playing delightfully against type as the uptight mom with a bullying spouse. She exhibits a fine sense of timing. Little Oona Laurence stands out as the wisecracking daughter, bringing some fresh energy to a cliched role.

Otherwise, this absolute mess relies on crotch hits, boob grabs and ridiculous pratfalls. It rarely rises above amusing, inciting more cringes than cackles.

THE BEST DEMOCRACY MONEY CAN BUY (C-minus) - Greg Palast is a hardcore investigative journalist to be admired. But he comes off as a clown in this cartoonish (literally much of the time) examination of the corrupting influences on America's political process.

Palast and newcomer David Ambrose decided, for some reason, to clutter the production with animation and goofball graphic tricks and to present the material in a bizarrely wacky manner. Palast is presented as a gumshoe traveling the world ferreting out the evil deeds of the Koch brothers, Karl Rove and the rest of the right-wingers who are undermining democracy, mostly through their decades-long attacks on the Voting Rights Act, mainly via the purging of voter rolls.

What could have been a sensible one-hour presentation of the subject becomes a nearly two-hour vaudeville show. The animation is in the style of the opening and closing credits of the '60 "Batman" TV show. A bunch of cameos add to the ludicrous nature of the movie. It boasts a "cast" of B-level celebrities: Rosario Dawson, Richard Belzer & Ice-T, Shailene Woodley, Willie Nelson, Ed Asner and Robert Kennedy Jr.

Palast lays the haughty outrage on thick while mugging his way through a serious topic. It ends in maudlin mush with a visit to Martin Luther King's church and a chorus of "We Shall Overcome." If you make it to the end, you'll feel as if you, too, have survived an undignified onslaught.
 

04 January 2017

One-Liners: Oh, Gods


IXCANUL (VOLCANO) (B) - Juana and Manuel are a hard-working couple in rural Guatemala, and in order to stay within the good graces of not just God but also those who run the plantation that puts food on their table they offer their daughter Maria to the plantation foreman, Ignacio, in an arranged marriage.

Maria (the luminous newcomer Maria Mercedes Coroy) is not pleased. She loves Pepe (Marvin Coroy) and hopes to join him in his plan to escape a life of menial labor and run off to seek the riches of America. These pipe-dream plans are likely to fizzle in the ominous shadow of the belching volcano that towers over the village.

This debut by writer-director Jayro Bustamante is a luscious celebration of a traditional society, in which dinner guests are thoughtful enough to bring a duck for the hosts. Juana (Maria Telon) dotes on her daughter, bathing her and bedecking her hair like a girl playing with a doll. She and Manuel (Manuel Antun) are simple god-fearing folks who don't think twice about sacrificing their daughter, not to the volcano, but to the mortal gods who control their existence.

Alas, Maria is not virginal. She has lain with Pepe. And she soon glows with child, like her biblical namesake. (The scene where Juana discovers this in the baths is gorgeously shot. Mercedes Coroy is a wonder to watch throughout.) Mother and daughter bond in the wake of this affront to Ignacio and his family. In a movie called "Volcano," something is going to blow. Here, all hell breaks loose when Maria goes into labor, setting off a frantic sprint in the back of a pickup truck to a city hospital.

The shift in tone is jarring, as lingering shots of natural beauty give way to jangly hand-held camerawork conveying the fast-paced horrors of urban life. Through the frustrations of language translations -- from Spanish into their native language -- the family members become victims of the slick modern healthcare machine. It's quite a left hook from Bustamante, who pulls out the rug and makes you realize that you were not watching what you think you were and that you are not just an arm's-length viewer observing a quaint culture. Blame, if you want, this family that puts their faith in God and western culture.

BEYOND THE HILLS (2013 (B-minus) - This dreary slog made in Romania tests the faith and endurance of its characters as well as that of its audience.

Cristian Mungiu (the relentlessly bleak abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days") grinds away for two-and-a-half hours in a remote monastery, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has chosen to devote herself to God and God's main servant, a charming guru known only as Priest (Valeriu Andriuta), who keeps the nuns in line. Voichita is visited by Alina (Cristina Flutur), with whom she grew up in an orphanage, having created an intense bond in the face of abuse. They may just be friends or they might have been lovers -- Alina certainly treats Voichita like the latter, jealous of Voichita's relationship with Priest.

Alina continuously tries in vain to pry her soulmate from the clutches of the Lord and the medieval lifestyle Voichita has given herself to, urging Voichita to join her in seeking work in Germany. Well, if you can't beat them, join them. Alina eventually insists on infiltrating the compound and takes up an ascetic residence. But Alina is troubled, unwilling or unable to let go of the material world and to worship God and Priest.

Is she crazy in love or just crazy? The other nuns would vote for the former. Alina ends up in a hospital at one point, and the surreal world of bureaucratic health care seems as ridiculous as the narrow-minded monastery, and Alina is returned to the bumbling care of the nuns. The hospital scene calls to mind a recent landmark of Romanian cinema, the dark comedy "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" by Cristi Piui (who is poised to release a three-hour epic "Sieranevda"). Here we get dark, but it's difficult to discern any comedy.

Eventually a desperate Alina commits to a ritual that will show the ultimate sacrifice. It is here that Mungiu takes a turn toward the sadomasochistic. It's as if he, through Alina, is saying, "You want to devote yourself to God? Well buckle your seat belt, because it's a bumpy ride."

In the end, there are no hosannas, no glorious enlightenment or relief from suffering. In fact, putting your faith in the Lord, Mungiu seems to suggest, is folly. Your move, Big Guy.

01 January 2017

The Test of 2016


We don't charge head-first into our best-of lists. Movies take a while to make it to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, so we normally spend most of January catching up and finalizing our master list.

Until then, here are the 2016 titles that scored either an A or an A-minus so far throughout the year. Expect these to be the front-runners for the best film of 2016, which has been the thinnest crop of movies in quite a while.

Only three of those earned a straight A. There might be a couple more titles to come that could crash that list. Stay tuned.
 

29 December 2016

Planet Hollywood


LA LA LAND (B-minus) - "La La Land" is a perfect title for this movie, because that's where its filmmakers and stars come from. It's an alternate universe where budding starlets (working as baristas, naturally) and humorless white jazz purists somehow represent the American dream.

It is a place where a young director is given the keys to LA, where he can indulge all of his puerile retro fantasies, using the city's landmarks and people of color as props. It is an alt-reality where life bursts with colors; jerks and creeps are irresistible to the opposite sex; people fly through the air when they dance; and casting directors are arrogant pricks unless played by smiling, sensitive women of color. It's a world where John Legend is the hack and the sellout and Ryan Gosling is the tortured traditionalist.

Call it escapist entertainment. Call it delusion. Whatever, the feel-good movie of the Hollywood season makes for a fine kickoff to the Trump years, when both escapism and delusion are high on the list of default settings for anyone left of Reich.

This is a story about that plucky young actress, Mia, played by the expressive Emma Stone, who keeps running into the starving-artist jazz pianist, smug Sebastian (square-jawed Ryan Gosling), until they give in to fate and start dating, serving as support for each other's hopes and dreams. Didn't David Lynch drive a stake through these fantasy pictures with "Mullholand Drive" a generation ago? Have we come back out the other end, desperate to plunge into a virtual reality, flailing for that time when America was great, when Debbie Reynolds (RIP) was singin' in the rain?


Ah, but they don't make 'em like that anymore. Maybe it's not possible to make America great again. Get a refund on that red hat. It struck me while watching this fairly entertaining movie that maybe the reason they don't make musicals anymore is because there aren't enough actors out there who can act and sing and dance well enough to cast a production. (Or was the Greatest Generation just more easily entertained and forgiving back in the good old days?)

Gosling in particular seems lost out on the big soundstage. He gets tossed into the deep end here, and he barely keeps his head above water. He can't sing, fine. He took dance lessons, we can see that. He's always been an OK actor, if you can get past his pasted-on smirk. (We liked him in the silly "The Nice Guys" earlier this year.) He's pretty and he knows it, but he can't rise above that like Brad Pitt can.

Stone acts, if not dances, rings around her partner. (Gosling was similarly TKO'd up against Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine.") Stone manages to wring genuine emotion from this plastic production, without much to bounce off. Those big eyes of hers well up like ponds when Mia tells Sebastian that "maybe I'm not" good enough to make it in the business, and our eyes puddle too. She's the only person worth plunking down 10 bucks for. (Fine supporting players like J.K. Simmons and Rosemarie DeWitt are wasted in throwaway roles.)

And then there is the writer-director, Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind behind 2014's darling "Whiplash," another wank about his beloved jazz scene. He is starting to come across as a junior version of Clint Eastwood, who also likes to fetishize and worship at the altar of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Chazelle, like Eastwood, also has the arrogance of a perfectionist and studio head's pet. They each wield the camera like it's a woman to be made love to, and they make it slither around a set like a smarmy lothario. They are technically proficient, but these jazz aficionados, ironically, lack soul.

What Chazelle creates here is an overly mannered and fussed-over Hollywood spectacle that treats magical realism like a mere camera trick. That said, there are times when it's fun to watch this all pop on the big screen. (It would be sad to watch it on an iPad.) It is bursting with colors, and it smolders with spotlights and shadows. The crane shots (another Eastwood backseat maneuver) make your head reel in delight. An extra violently pikes into an outdoor swimming pool with a splash and panache. An occasional one-liner breaks through for a laugh, even a few of Sebastian's lunkhead lines. A take on '80s synth bands and their poofy outfits and hair hits the mark with snark.

And the ending, finally, lives up to the billing. It's an astonishing "what if" tour de force, whirlwind storytelling at its best. The movie is like an NBA game that way; if you can sit through the first two hours of routine flash and slash, then you can revel in the thrilling final shots. It's the illusion of a full evening of entertainment, a clever Tweet, a short-cut to a sense of satisfaction. It's how we live now, and this exercise suggests that we can't recapture more innocent days.

Forget it, Jake. It's La La Land.

BONUS TRACK
This was our annual Christmas Day Mainstream Movie outing. Here is an updated list from best to worst.

  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. La La Land (2016)
  8. The Wrestler (2008)
  9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
10. Young Adult (2011)
11. This Is 40 (2012)
12. Into the Woods (2014)
 

28 December 2016

Duplassity


BLUE JAY (A-minus) - This spare comic drama -- featuring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as former high school flames meeting 20 years later back in their small California hometown -- is pure grown-up storytelling.

Duplass, whom we analyzed in our previous post, puts forth another convincing portrayal of a rudder-less 30-something (Jim) who has trouble keeping his emotions in check. He weeps easily. He is back in his childhood home going through his mother's things after her recent death.

At the grocery store, Jim runs into Amanda, who is back to lend a hand to her pregnant sister. They go for coffee, which leads to an epic all-night hangout. Amanda is married, with her older boy headed off to college.

This was apparently an 80-minute improvisation drawn from an outline by Duplass (overseen by first-time director Alex Lehmann, a veteran camera operator). The only other character in the film is the liquor store clerk, Waynie (a sweet turn by the veteran Clu Gulager, last glimpsed in "Tangerine"). The old guy recognizes the couple (and their penchant for assembling their own custom six-pack based on random geography). He assumes they are still a couple, and they don't disabuse him of the notion.

Paulson, generally a TV actress (most recently in that O.J. miniseries; she does look like Marcia Clark), imbues Amanda with a mix of playfulness, regret and longing. She is an accomplished physical performer. She melds nicely with Duplass as onetime teen lovers now settled into adulthood. They have a visceral rapport.

As the beers get cracked open and the two loosen up, the '90s references fly and the warmth of nostalgia melts the years. They unearth cassette tapes from Jim's closet, some with classic rap and pop songs, another with a recording of the young lovers play-acting the future as empty-nesters. When Jim isn't looking, Amanda finds a sealed letter and stashes it into her pocket, and she buries her face in one of his shirts, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply.

Small secrets spill out from each of them. Neither one feels fulfilled. One of them is clearly more miserably smitten than the other is. It all builds to a fantastic climax, in which the couple's big secret drops like a bomb and Jim finally detonates.

When the sun comes up, they seem both closer and further apart.

BONUS TRACKS
The pair have a cheesy moment dancing to some classic Annie Lennox, the appropriately themed "No More I Love You's":



And Bill Callahan closes things out with a 2009 track, "Jim Cain" (the movie's inspiration?):


 

26 December 2016

Uncle Junior

Another movie, like "Manchester by the Sea," featuring a guy performing his uncle duties:

TRUE ADOLESCENTS (2011) (B) - A Mark Duplass film is never a waste of time. Here, the valedictorian of the mumblecore class offers yet another variation on the arrested development of a 30-something manchild, this one with dreams of rock stardom.

This is the debut of writer-director Craig Johnson, who would break through in 2014 with the touching sibling story "The Skeleton Twins," with two other significant talents, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. In "True Adolescents," Johnson is in a mind meld with Duplass, the secret ingredient in such films as "The Puffy Chair," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Your Sister's Sister," and "The One I Love" and TV shows high (HBO's "Togetherness") and low ("The League"). He and his brother, Jay (TV's "Transparent"), were also behind the scenes for "Cyrus," "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," and "The Do-Deca Pentathlon."

Here he plays Sam, earnest front-man of the ordinary rock band The Effort, who has gotten on the last nerve of his beautiful girlfriend and gets kicked out of their place. Without a job, he lands a place to stay with an aunt, Sharon (Melissa Leo), a single mom who has her hands full with teenage son Oliver (Bret Loehr) and his constant companion, Jake (dandelion-haired Carr Thompson). When Oliver's dad bails out of weekend plans for a camping trip, Sam steps in. (He's actually Oliver's cousin, but he has the role of uncle or father figure.)

Sam is not much of a grown-up, badgering the boys with schoolyard put-downs and foisting his music tastes on them via the car stereo. He calls everyone "dude," wears Chuck Taylors instead of hiking boots, and likes to parrot the boys' complaints with a mocking tone and childish face. Duplass is in a zone here. Sam is a passive-aggressive jerk of a friend and relative, barely putting up a brave front to hide his deep insecurities. Beer is his best friend.

Sam is such a loser that it's the boys who have luck with the ladies, meeting a pair of hot-tub hotties and making progress before Sam butts in, thinking he's being funny. Oliver shows flashes of maturity and isn't afraid to call Sam on his shit. Oliver emerges as the alpha male, flaunting his dominance over Jake, a sensitive type (he's currently into classic jazz) who takes offense at the homophobic locker-room slurs and roughhousing but wants to fit in. (Loehr and Thompson are strong throughout as hormonal adolescents.)

The trio finally arrives at the camp site in the film's second half, and when one of the boys goes missing, real life smacks Sam in the face. And just when he finally got a call from an indie label, raising his hopes of a possible record deal. Will he rise to the occasion and sober up and grow up? Will all three make it home safely?

Sam does have a final reckoning with his bandmates, in which he suffers yet another indignity. The movie ends with Sam taking a hard look at himself, and Duplass's face flashes hints of a gush of emotions, ranging from fear to hope. It's a chilling cap to a master-class character study from a fascinating actor.

BONUS TRACK
The peppy song over the opening credits, "Where Eagles Fucking Dare" by the Fucking Eagles:


 

25 December 2016

New to the Queue

Bursting with profiles ...

Our man Jim Jarmusch is having a productive phase, culminating with the highly anticipated slice of life about a poetry-writing bus driver, starring Adam Driver, "Paterson."

The nearly three-hour German farce that has been universally praised, "Toni Erdmann."

Ken Loach doesn't let up at 80, still championing the oppressed working class with "I, Daniel Blake."

We've never seen the August Wilson play, so let's add Denzel Washington's "Fences" to the list.

Pablo Larrain ("Tony Manero") has two strikes against him ("No," "The Club"); he gets one more chance with the biography of the postwar Chilean poet, "Neruda."

It's a long-shot, but we're instantly nostalgic for the Obama era, so we might check out the biopic of his college years, "Barry."

Belatedly, word of mouth has us adding the Amy Adams sci-fi think piece, "Arrival."
  

22 December 2016

Lost in Boston


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (A-minus) - This might be one of the funniest movies of the year. I know, you probably heard that it's a downer. And it is sad and bleak and moving. But it also crackles with sharply observed family interactions and engaging banter between a man who has lost his brother and the nephew he reluctantly returns home to take care of.

Casey Affleck wallows in the role of Lee, marking time in the Boston area working as a handyman in the dumpy apartment complex he inhabits (a suffocating basement unit, fittingly for his current station in life) and regularly drowning his sorrows at the local pub. He is trying to forget the horrors of his hometown, Manchester By the Sea, through manual labor and an exiled regimen of penance. Contact from those he interacts rarely land with him. He is alternately flirted with and dressed down by the female residents, and his reaction is similar.

He is snapped out of his stupor by news from back home of the death of his brother, Joe (a pleasantly wistful Kyle Chandler), of a heart attack. It was Joe's testamentary wish that Lee move back home and take care of Joe's 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee resists.

Lee once was married to Randi (Michelle Williams), and they were raising three children. But tragedy struck on a drunken night, and Lee will be forever haunted by it. You can't blame him for needing a permanent change of scenery. Flashbacks show Lee "in happier times" -- all things being relative, though, because he was pretty sour back then, too -- interacting with Randi and the kids and on Joe's boat with him and a young Patrick.

All this is juggled by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who showed himself to be a master of nuance and subtle human interactions in "You Can Count on Me" (2000) and "Margaret" (2011) (he takes his time). Lonergan has an old-fashioned, literary dramatic style, reminiscent of theater chamber dramas on a par with Eugene O'Neill.

The filmmaker leans on his four central actors, and he is rewarded with powerful performances. Affleck and Hedges sizzle together, bickering repeatedly in a charming family dynamic. The twist here is that Patrick generally has his act together -- he is an accomplished athlete and is deftly juggling two girlfriends, one of whom has a single mom (Heather Burns from HBO's "Bored to Death") that Patrick tries to set Lee up with, mainly to distract the mom while he goes in for the big score. The dialogue between uncle and nephew is witty and realistic. When Lee asks Patrick whether he is having sex with his second girlfriend (with just the right mix of avuncular concern and bro curiosity), Patrick says they've done "basement stuff." What's that? Lee wonders. "It means I'm working on it."

Hedges holds his own throughout the film, exhibiting both comedic and dramatic skills, in a performance reminiscent of that of Alex Shaffer as the troubled teen wrestler in another quiet gem, "Win Win," opposite Paul Giamatti. Affleck is solid as the distraught everyman. Here, though, we get to see both the depths of Affleck's talents and, occasionally, its limits. Granted, he is playing a stoic, emotionally paralyzed man, but Affleck's range never threatens to go off the charts. There is little nuance to his reactions, whether it is to Patrick, Joe or Randi.

And we also butt up against the limits of Lonergan's world view. This is yet another Hollywood film set in the Boston area, yet again with an Affleck affecting that patented blue-collar vocal lilt. There isn't much drama left to be mined among the noble Northeasterners. We get not one but two trite scenes of Lee punching out another guy in a bar for no good reason. Lonergan also likes to linger over local landmarks that he is enamored of, as if filming a home movie, and a tighter first half hour would have streamlined the narrative and brought the movie in under two hours.

But there is no denying that Lonergan's is a special voice in cinema. The pathos is profoundly moving. The knowing dialogue is quite endearing. His attention to the hum of working-class life yields authenticity. Like "Captain Fantastic" earlier this year, "Manchester" flips easily between laughter and tears. And it might be the first movie I've seen that pays tribute in such a heartfelt way to the often unheralded duty of the uncle.

And Williams, in a small role, holds much of the movie together. In one scene, a reunion between Randi and Lee at Joe's funeral, she shoots a glance across the room, one of those looks that only Williams can give, communicating so many different messages and emotions that mere humans cannot do the calculation.

When that's your utility player, you know you're in rarefied territory.

BONUS TRACK
One of the touching scenes is scored to the elegant old tune "Beginning to See the Light" by the Ink Spots with Ella Fitzgerald:


 

19 December 2016

The Little Chill


THE INTERVENTION (B) - This acting exercise has its moments, and it carries you along nimbly to a tidy ending with an obvious twist. Before we mention the plot, let's cut to the chase. This small movie -- about four couples gathering at a summer home, "Big Chill" style, to confront one of the couples about their horrid marriage -- flirts with must-see status because of its own gathering of five powerhouse indie actresses:

DuVall plays Jessie, the host, who has been dating Sarah (Lyonne) for three years, even though Jessie likes 'em younger and Sarah likes 'em maler. Lynskey is Annie, engaged to Matt (a wooden Jason Ritter) but who keeps putting off her wedding planning. Annie also is struggling with sobriety. Shawkat plays lively Lola, the 22-year-old kittenish plaything of Jack (an overwrought Ben Schwartz), who is trying to forget a tragic loss. They are all gathered to confront Jessie's sister, Ruby (Smulders) and her husband, Peter (Vincent Piazza), a toxic couple begging for this intervention.

Of course, as the movie unfolds, it's no big secret that each of the other couples have serious issues that they are avoiding or hiding from each other. Lynskey (whose airplane scenes bookend the film) takes the reins early and sets the pace. It is rare that you will find an actor who can play a convincing drunk, but she pulls it off here. As her abiding fiance, Ritter shows the emotional range of a scolded puppy. 

Lola is a lit match just waiting to be tossed into the dry tinder surrounding Jessie and Sarah, with the writer-director the most likely candidate to be seduced. Smulders (still a surprise in her post-sitcom phase) and Piazza (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") develop a sizzling synchronized sniping. The only time husband and wife really click is when kicking ass at charades, doing a mind-meld that blows the others' minds. Meantime, their bumbling pals are too chicken to get to the weekend's main subject. That allows for time for their own couplings to fritter and fray.

DuVall, in her debut, has a decent eye and an ear for dialogue, but her script occasionally lapses into paint-by-numbers screenwriting. Lola is a bit of an idiot savant, and some of her lines have a forced "from the mouths of babes" preciousness. Jack isn't much more than a mope, a pale version of Jay Duplass's conflicted Josh on "Transparent." Also transparent are a few narrative devices. It's one of those movies where all eight of the characters awake and show up in the kitchen at the exact same time -- the better to force the big reckoning. 

Nitpicks aside, DuVall brings a fresh perspective to a cliched set-up, and she is well-served by Lynskey, who rallies her sisters for a memorable ensemble performance.

BONUS TRACKS
The soundtrack also boasts a collection of female indie power players who mostly fly under the radar. First up is Tegan and Sara with the trippy "Fade Out":



We also get a snippet of Alice Boman performing "What Are You Searching For":



And the retro quirk of Hinds, with "Bamboo":


17 December 2016

Doc Watch: Past Sins


13TH (A-minus) - Filmmaker Ava DuVernay ("Selma," "I Will Follow") aims for a great and definitive, but she can't quite put it all together, instead crafting a very good documentary about the prison-industrial complex's devastating impact on black America.

Her springboard is the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery but made an exception for those who have committed a crime. For 150 years, that carve-out has been exploited as a way of enslaving blacks in a legal fashion.

The numbers make you shudder: the U.S. houses one-quarter of all the world's prisoners, more than 2 million incarcerated, 35 percent of them blacks (who make up about 12 percent to 13 percent of the U.S. population. More black men monitored by the criminal justice system than were slaves during the 1850s.

This is a powerful story, and DuVernay is compiling in one place a bunch of treatises, statistics and anecdotes in a way that drives the message home viscerally. The filmmaker is in supreme command of her subject. She assembles an impressive panel of talking heads, including Van Jones, Henry Louis Gates, Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and the legendary Angela Davis.

Yet ... I sometimes had trouble getting in sync with the pace of the narrative. DuVernay likes to flash song lyrics, mostly rap and hip-hop, on the screen in big type, as if she's making a YouTube sing-along video. As if afraid of coming off as too visually conventional, she positions her talking heads in odd configurations -- for instance, placing one interviewee about halfway down a hallway; others sit in front of stylized brick walls.

There's no need to gild the story with distractions. DuVernay connects the dots from the Civil War to the civil rights era and then a modern parade of presidents -- mainly Reagan and Clinton -- who grew the U.S. prison population exponentially with the war on drugs, three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and political opportunism, as Democrats figured out they could get elected by outflanking the Republicans and getting "tough on crime." It puts Clintonism in an unflattering light, perhaps offering insight in the wake of last month's election. (Perhaps summed up in a quick '90s clip of Hillary Clinton's infamous reference to "super-predators.")

This is a compelling issue, and DuVernay, who constantly seems to be on the brink of being a great filmmaker, takes another step toward achieving that goal by presenting an urgent story in a concise way. It's as if she is presenting an entire sequel to Ken Burns' "Civil War" series in 100 minutes. If she had pulled it off perfectly, it would have been quite a feat.

PERVERT PARK (B) - This look at sex offenders going through a transitional reintegration program at a Florida mobile home park pulls off a neat trick -- it humanizes these people who have committed some of the most horrific crimes you can imagine.

The Swedish-Danish filmmaking couple Frida and Lasse Barkfors spent several years hanging out with the residents of the Palace trailer park, where these folks who have served their prison time live in a controlled environment and attend group therapy sessions. None of them are shy about describing both their offenses and their tough upbringings, surprisingly matter-of-fact at times.

William is the de factor host/narrator, the caretaker for the park and a bit of a mother hen to the others. He was fondled by a baby-sitter from the age of 6. As an adult, his wife and infant child were killed in a road accident with a drunken driver, consuming him with guilt and grief. Eventually he remarries and is convicted for acting inappropriately in front of a step-daughter.

James is young, paying the price for falling for a sheriff's internet sting and showing up to what he thought would be the house of a woman who wanted him to have sex with her 14-year-old daughter. Tracy was serially abused by her father, for years. She never properly processed that over-sexualization, and as an adult she resumed a sexual relationship with her father and then started abusing her son, at the urging of a boyfriend. Tracy's story anchors the middle of the film, as she tearfully purports to be telling details of the story for the first time.

A common theme here is the childhood abuse suffered by these offenders, who could not stop that cycle once they became adults. A counselor who leads the group sessions refers to them as victims. And it speaks to the skill of the Barkforses that they take great care with their subject, refusing to sugarcoat anything, and manage to wring true emotion from these "monsters," as William tells us the offenders are called by outsiders.

We see them going about their mundane daily tasks. We see them socializing at depressing potlucks. It is tough not to see them as horrifically distorted versions of ourselves.

BONUS TRACK
The trailer for "13th":


 

14 December 2016

One-Liners: One-Liners

Three docs for the price of one: 

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU (B) - This adoring documentary about the mega-producer who created alt-TV in the 1970s traffics in the maudlin but ends up as a smart examination of the 93-year-old survivor of the culture wars.

"All in the Family" changed the face of television, an assaultive proto-Trumpian guttural screech from a divided America at the turn of a decade. Norman Lear infused that cutting comedy with personal touches from his own hard upbringing. Daddy issues abound -- and nearly drown the proceedings -- and filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ("Detropia") even go so far as to goose the narrative with staged re-enactments of an adolescent parading around in Lear's signature white floppy hat. That's where the sap creeps in.

They pay due homage to Lear's output in the '70, including the "All in the Family" spinoffs (and spinoffs of spinoffs) "The Jeffersons," "Maude," and "Good Times" (where we see Lear on the set with his mostly white staff and mostly black cast, with the tensions of the time evident). There's also a tip of the cap to surreal nighttime soap "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." The movie sags in the final reel as we wander away from the world of network TV into Lear's equally prominent passion, politics, as leader of People for the American Way, his answer to the Moral Majority.

George Clooney shows up for some reason with simplistic analysis. Rob Reiner does belong here, and he's as incisive as he usually is. But it's Lear, with his charisma and wisdom, who carries the show and makes the time with him worthwhile.

WHEN JEWS WERE FUNNY (2013) (B) - Ah, those were the days. Canadian writer-director Alan Zweig is in a mood to reminisce about the 20th century immigrant ancestors who made growing up Jewish something to cherish, and he ropes in a host of Jewish comedians to agree with him.

He mostly succeeds. As a prominent off-camera voice, he exposes his deep neuroses, a 60-year-old man nostalgic for the old folks, fretting over a lost tradition, but newly raising a little gentile. Many of the funny folks call him on it, especially Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne, Marty Funkhauser) over the end credits.

As has been well documented, we love documentaries about comedians, and Zweig loads things up front with the old guard -- Norm Crosby, Shelley Berman, Shecky Greene and Jack Carter. Berman is the feisty one here, refusing to go along with Zweig's thesis that Jews somehow own comedy, or did during the golden era. He prefers to be a comedian who happens to be Jewish. The old guys all sport wonderful wigs and healthy tans. Zweig occasionally drops in '60s clips from the Sullivan era of the likes of Alan King, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman and Jackie Mason.

The next wave then shows up -- Gilbert Gottfried, David Brenner, Mark Schiff (I'd forgotten about him), Marc Maron (still with that chip on his shoulder) -- to carry the rest of the show. Howie Mandel is surprisingly insightful, and naturally funny. The two women -- Judy Gold and Cory Kahaney -- are especially sharp and bright, more empathetic with Zweig's self-absorption. A bunch of classic jokes get tossed around and analyzed a bit, and they are most easily identified by their punch lines -- "He had a hat," "Oy, vas I thirsty!" and "Look who thinks he's nothing." One of my favorite quickies is from Mandel: Two Jewish men sit down on a park bench. The first one sighs and says, "Oy!" The other responds: "I thought we weren't going to talk about the kids."

Mark Breslin, a Canadian comedy club owner, compares postwar Jewish comedy to jazz -- an expression of powerlessness and intelligence at the same time, born from frustration. He also is not sad that his people have transitioned from kvetching to living more in the mainstream; it means that the struggle has diminished and they've been accepted.

Zweig gives Berman the last word before the credits, or more accurately the last lyrics, as Berman, who is still kicking at 91, sums things up with a Yiddish song. During the credits, the director sets off Einstein for the umpteenth time, and here we go again with the bickering ...

LUNCH (2012) (D) - Oy. Don't bother. I'd rather eat a tongue sandwich.

A group of old comedians and comic writers gather once a month at a deli in Los Angeles to kibbutz and crack wise. Donna Kanter hung out with them for years, eventually turning this into a memorial for her father, Hal Kanter (who wrote for Hope and Crosby's films and for Gobel and Berle's TV shows), who is among the casualties of this treacly, often insipid documentary.

The tragedy of this film is that it's not very funny. A few stale jokes ("He had a hat!") pierce the messy production and the ordinary banter. But most of these guys either were never very funny -- Monty Hall and Gary Owens, anyone? -- or are dreadfully over the hill -- Sid Caesar, for example, who can barely keep up with the conversations. (The TV variety legend died in 2014.)

They all treat the filmmakers like she's an old friend's lovely daughter (which she is), and it barely cuts it as a home movie for these old showmen.

BONUS TRACK
The trailer for "When Jews Were Funny":


11 December 2016

Hep Cats, Part II


KEANU (C+) - This one-joke premise does its best to make that joke work for 90 minutes. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele play suburban dweebs who masquerade as drug thugs in order to rescue a cat.

And yes, with that premise, things are going to get silly. And "Keanu" (the name of the cat) is sillier than it is sharp and clever. And the hoary old joke is that black men talk "normal" when they are suburban dads, but they lapse into street talk when shit gets real.

Peele plays Rell, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Hitting rock bottom, an adorable stripey kitten shows up on his doorstep, teaching Rell how to love again. But trouble is inevitable, because Rell lives across from a pot dealer, Hulka (Will Forte, doing that serviceable harried character he does, this time in dreads), and when Rell's house is broken into (apparently by accident), the kitten goes missing.

Cute little Keanu turns up with the local kingpin, Cheddar (an amusing Method Man), who has dubbed the cat New Jack. Rell and his pal Clarence (Key) infiltrate the gang, where they suddenly transform into sort-of believable gangstas, mostly with their vocal inflections, which have a Richard Pryor "We bad, we bad!" level of sophistication. (At one point, in a blatant nod, Rell accuses Clarence of sounding like Richard Pryor trying to sound white.)

Craziness ensues. Rell falls for Cheddar's cute and sassy sidekick, Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), and Clarence schools the rest of the hapless posse. In the funniest sequence, while in Clarence's car, the boys flip on his car stereo, only to blast George Michael. Clarence eventually convinces them that Michael is totally gangsta, hitting a nerve with the inner-city relevance of the message from "Father Figure."

A few cameos enliven the proceedings. Anna Farris plays a version of herself as a coked-out diva (like Michael Cera in "This Is the End"). And Luis Guzman has some funny deadpan moments as Bacon, who is Cheddar's rival and who also covets the cat.

Violence also ensues -- some staged but other stuff real -- but always little Keanu manages to scamper away safely (including in slow-motion to Michael's "Freedom '90"). One recurring gag involves Rell training Keanu to attack by taping a picture of Rell's ex to Keanu's scratching post and urging him to "Get that bitch!" One final meta gag earns a belly laugh by explaining how the cat hasn't changed at all during the "6 months later" coda.

Key and Peele are very funny guys. And just when you expect to roll your eyes at the one-joke premise, they get you with a genuinely clever twist. But in the end, this isn't their best material. If they weren't riffing on YouTube cat videos, there wouldn't be much to watch here.