Thursday, July 12, 2018
STARS: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
DIRECTOR: Julie Cohen, Betsy West
She is known as "Notorious RBG," and she's a rock star. She's also as U.S. Supreme Court justice. Vilified by the right, revered by the left (and respected by a good deal of moderates, I imagine, who tend to have more of an open mind on things), Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a champion for equal rights and human decency from the beginning. RBG, the reverential documentary on her life and career, leaves few stones unturned in presenting her story.
The film begins with a montage of right-wing politicians and talk show hosts hurling insults and epithets. It then goes on to show you who she really is. Nice touch, I thought. As documentaries go, RBG is rather austere (could have used a bit more stirring music, I felt), with interviews from the likes of Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, NPR contributor Nina Totenberg, and the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia. Of particular interest is Bader's close friendship with Scalia. They had a fondness for each other that transcended political lines. There is a clip showing them riding an elephant together, one of the numerous humorous touches sprinkled throughout the film.
There is even a romantic element, with archival footage and background on her late husband Marty Ginsburg and their times together. And here's the answer to the question that has been in the back of your mind, so admit it. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a strikingly attractive woman in her youth. (So any subsequent biopic that might be made about Ms. Ginsburg, they can go ahead and put Julia Roberts in there to play her.) Now in her mid eighties, Ruth Ginsburg is a warrior. She does a fitness routine that would shame most younger folks.
Today, with the U. S Supreme Court irretrievably (in our lifetime) skewed to the political right, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will stand, in many cases I suspect, as a lone dissenting opinion--and that is the melancholic undertone that kept haunting me throughout this film. For I don't see how anyone, regardless of political leanings, could come away from RBG without the impression that there is one word that best describes Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And that word is integrity.
Grade: B +
Monday, July 2, 2018
STARS: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Kevin Sable, Isla Fisher
DIRECTOR: Jeff Tomsic
There's a playfully suggestive song that goes back to the early fifties called, "It Ain't The Meat It's The Motion." Turn that little pearl of prurient profundity onto its head and you've got the new comedy, Tag--a wild romp of a film that's 's filled with cartoonish sight gags (they run, they tackle each other, they smash up shit)--lots of motion but no meat, or food for thought. That is, until the last third of the movie, when it redeems itself...at least to where I didn't have to give it a totally crappy rating. More on that in a moment.
Five "adult" men (played by Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, and Kevin Sable) get together each May and continue a long-standing tradition, a game of tag they've been playing since the first grade! But like many of the games people play (politics and the like), it has gotten out of hand, and now nothing else matters but to win the game. The current objective is to take down the one group member, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who incredibly has never been tagged. A plan has been set in motion to get him at his wedding on the last day of the month, figuring he'll be a sitting duck. But Jerry is clever as an elusive Soviet agent--giving Tag the feel of a spy thriller on laughing gas.
Just when you think that the crazy chase is all the substance this movie has--they'll get him or they won't--the group members must suddenly face their own consciences, as in when does the relentless pursuit of an objective (or an ideology, perhaps) come into conflict with one's sense of human decency? And which one wins out? And that, kiddies, is nothing less than the moral dilemma America is faced with at the moment. So there's more to Tag than initially meets the eye.
But it comes too little too late to save this film from the Mediocrity Hall Of Fame. All the slapstick gets tedious after a while, and I was left with a hunger for a little more meat and a lot less motion.
Tag makes Animal House look like Gone With The Wind. Or, for those of you unfamiliar with those two classics, Tag sucks the big one. Unlike Tim, I found no redeeming features in this turkey. The subtitle should have been 'Peter Pans On Steroids.' How actors like Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm (Mad Men) got talked into doing this movie is as unbelievable to me as the movie itself.
I wish I could find something positive to say. I can't. I really wanted to walk out of this one before it ended but someone had said the real men the story was based on were shown at the end. And they were: paunchy, forgettable-looking guys. Playing tag was probably the highlight of their lives. But it certainly wasn't mine!
And Isla Fisher should be ashamed of herself for playing the competitive harpie married to Ed Helms' character. Her foul-mouthed mega-aggressive persona set back the image of a liberated woman by centuries. Yuk!
So my advice? Don't waste your money.
Sunday, June 3, 2018
STARS: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn
DIRECTOR: Michael Pearce
It's in there. That beast. In all of us, I suppose, and could rear its fangs at any moment given the right set of circumstances--or in this case the right person--to bring it to the fore. And as I write this I'm idly channel surfing and happen to land on the cheesy looking monster from An American Werewolf In London wreaking havoc on the rent-a-crowd of movie extras running screaming through the streets.
What we're dealing with in Beast is a subtler kind of demon that inhabits the bodies of Moll (Jessie Buckley), a 27 year-old living at home with her family--a timid girl by outward appearances--and her boyfriend Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a hunter and illegal poacher of small animals who, with his haunted eyes, looks the part from the get-go.
Teenage girls are being murdered on their English Channel island of Jersey, and Pascal becomes a suspect. Maybe it's because serial killers often start with animals. Or that he just seems strange and walks around looking menacing with a rifle for half the movie. But as Beast incrementally reveals more of who Moll is, we start to suspect that yeah, she just might have that in her too. (There was that attack with a pair of scissors on one of her young peers that she claims was in self defense.) They are kindred spirits, these two, and a passionate romance between deeply screwed up people is always fascinating to watch. Moll is like a Hawaiian volcano always on the verge of erupting, and in fact she does literally blow chunks in one of the film's did-we-really-need-to-see-that moments. That and a scene of animal cruelty that is gratuitously graphic might make you question first time writer/director Michael Pierce's judgement.
But the reason to see Beast lies with Jessie Buckley. This is her movie, and she has the acting chops to bring off this controlled burn performance in a way that foreshadows some blazing fireworks at the end. And if that's your thing, you're in for the full 4th Of July treatment.
A couple of reviews ago, I remember writing that I didn't like unclear endings, that too much thinking gave me hives. (Disobedience) Well this who-done-it left me, my movie buddy and the man walking in front of us, as we left the theater, in disagreement about who the killer was. But really, that isn't the point of Beast. Tim summed it up beautifully when he wrote 'a passionate romance between deeply screwed-up people.' For anyone who thinks they're in a dysfunctional relationship, this movie will make you feel much better!
The actress who plays the female lead is breathtakingly good. I looked her up on IMDb and got a kick out of her journey to cinematic stardom. And I quote: "Jessie Buckley is an Irish singer and actress, who came in second place in the BBC talent show-themed television series "I'd Do Anything." It kind of reminded me of Jennifer Hudson's success after coming in seventh in ABC's "American Idol." She went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stunning performance in Dreamgirls. (2007) I'd love the same fate to befall Jessie Buckley.
But Beast isn't a flick for the faint of heart. Lots of violence, lots of tension. And a mother that would drive any sensitive young girl to the brink of madness. Or at least into the arms of an equally unstable boyfriend. For all their scenes of sensuality, nobody took off any clothes. This irked my male companion. And I must admit he has point. After all, nothing else seemed off limits to this demented duo. Why such modesty in the sack?
I'm torn about grading Beast. It was an unsettling film and there were a few slow moments where my eyelids got heavy. I still don't know who the killer was. But the weirdness of the story, the haunting cinematography, the originality of the script deserve high marks.
Monday, May 28, 2018
STARS: Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen
DIRECTOR: Bill Holderman
GENRE: Romantic Comedy
I'm sitting inside a theater that's at least half full for a matinee performance, and having scanned the crowd, I'm quite certain I'm the only one with a member in attendance at this showing of Book Club. (To point out that it's a total chick flick would be like belaboring the obvious about a bear in the woods.) But the chance to see four icons of the silver screen--Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen-- playing off of one another in a never to be repeated event is too good to pass up.
Vivian (Jane Fonda) is a successful hotelier--cynical to the bone, who "never sleeps with anyone she really likes." Sharon (Candice Bergen) is a federal judge who is dabbling judiciously in online dating. Diane (Diane Keaton) is a widow with two condescending daughters who think that mom is ready to join the I've-Fallen-And-I-Can't-Get-Up crowd. She is far from that. And Carol (Mary Steenburgen) is a chef whose longtime marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) is in a real rut--and it's rutting that seems to be the issue.
The tie that binds the four ladies together is their book club, and this time they've selected Fifty Shades Of Grey to be their titillating read. This sets the table for some raunchy one-liners when they get together, none of which I thought were that funny, but it's "cute" because of their ages, right? In real life Steenburgen is 65; Fonda is 80; Keaton and Bergen are 72, but they pass off as contemporaries due to the wonders of cosmetic surgery that have kept Ms. Fonda looking like Barbie (or Barbarella) for all these years.
What works in this romantic comedy is not the comedy, but the romance, and the four separate story lines provide a lot of poignant moments. Richard Dreyfuss, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia, and Craig T. Nelson as the counterparts or potential partners for these ladies would be an impressive list of stars in any other film, were they not yielding the spotlight to these four heavyweights (oh go on...I mean that in a good way!) That and a soundtrack full of uplifting tunes that fit so well and hit all the right notes at the right times to manipulate your emotions. But you won't mind.
One scene that is funny is Richard Dreyfuss and Candice Bergen's characters out on a date--the chemistry between them is awesome. And a sight gag with Craig T. Nelson's character after his wife has slipped Viagra into his drink is particularly pointed.
So here we have a film that would be your run of the mill rom-com in every way, except that it's out to prove that love is ageless. And that's what sets it apart in a you-go-girl way. On the "negative" side, Book Club displays a bit too much of the jaw-dropping beauty of my home state, Arizona. I can hear the sound of folks packing their bags and heading west as we speak. All right then, if you must. I've been thinking of hiring out as a tour guide anyway.
Unlike Tim's movie experience, the AMC theater I attended was packed full of enthusiastic seniors ready to giggle their wrinkles away at four women dealing with the realities of sex after a certain age. Of course, not all over-70 ladies look like these four glamour gals. Nor do they find themselves on a plane, seated next to some ridiculously sexy pilot played to perfection by Andy Garcia (age 62). Nor do they bump into an old beau (Don Johnson, age 68) who, after a 40 year absence, looks like he belongs on the cover of GQ. (I had my own senior giggle, knowing that Johnson's daughter Dakota plays the female lead in the movie versions of Fifty Shades!) As unrelated as this feel-good film is to real life-- especially the online dating scene -- I'll bet my bloomers it'll be a box office biggie.
The dialogue is crisp. The situations, funny. And the ensemble acting is worth the price of admission. (Shockingly high here in southern California, I might add.) But the gal I went to the movie with pointed out how Jane Fonda seems to always be Jane Fonda in every role she plays. I'd have to agree with her. Then again, acting has never been a strong point with this uber in-shape daughter of a Hollywood legend. (The only film where I felt she exhibited some serious acting chops was On Golden Pond.)
There's a line Candice Bergen says that will remain with me long after I forget The Book Club: (and I'm paraphrasing here): "Love is just a word until someone makes it real." To me, that's right up there with "Love means never having to say you're sorry." (Love Story, 1970) "Hate put me in prison. Love's gonna bust me out." (The Hurricane, 1999) And, going way back, "Love is a song that never ends." (Bambi, 1942)
For something escapist with nary a car chase, or a robot taking over the universe, I highly recommend this romantic comedy. "Love never goes out of style." (Jill, 2018)
Monday, May 21, 2018
STARS: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola
DIRECTOR: Sebastian Lelio
Pay close attention to the opening monologue in Disobedience, because the theme of the film is encapsulated there. Rav Krushka, the elderly spiritual leader of an orthodox Jewish congregation in London, is pouring it all out--as if these would be the final words he would ever speak. Immediately afterwards, he croaks. This sets up the return of his estranged daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a New York photographer who was exiled from the community due to her youthful penchant for her own gender--in particular her childhood friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit is not welcomed back with open arms into the closed--and closed-minded--community, but she is invited to stay with Esti and their mutual school days chum, Rabbi David Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who is now Esti's husband.
It doesn't take long before the repressed passions between Ronit and Esti are rekindled, leading them to consummate their love for each other on the sly, which will set up the inevitable conflict for Esti to choose between desire and duty--whether to flee with Ronit to New York or stay and be the good wife for her husband and support him in his ambition to take over the leadership position that Ronit's father has vacated.
What to do. What to do.
Disobedience is about life in a closed conservative religious community, and it feels as real and authentic as you can get, right down to some great singing in Hebrew that even someone like me can appreciate. It's also about lesbian sex, as there's a really hot lovemaking scene between Weisz and McAdams. Oh wait a minute...it's not between the actors, it's between their characters--Ronit and Esti. Because in real life these two have male partners, and so of course they're just acting. Decide for yourself on that one.
But the central theme of the movie is what lies at the heart of existentialism, and it harkens back to Rav Krushka's monologue at the beginning of the film: Free will. The freedom to choose. The main tenet of existentialist philosophy is that with freedom comes responsibility. This plays out beautifully in Disobedience, as Esti has a lot more to consider in making her decision than just her own happiness. It all leads to a climactic scene (no, not that one) that's as touching as any I have seen on film. And while the first half hour or so of Disobedience is as slow as the molasses in January, the story will draw you in with three remarkable turns from Weisz, McAdams, and Nivola, and you'll be hooked in short order.
For me to reveal more than that just wouldn't be kosher.
People who read our joint reviews tell me they much prefer it when our opinions are diametrically opposed. Well, get ready, folks! Maybe it's because I didn't like studying existentialism in college. Or I have an automatic mad-on for stultifying religious communities. But Disobedience left me disappointed and disgruntled.
The film took forever to get started, as director Sebastian Lelio (who also directed A Fantastic Woman) wanted us to understand every little nuance of the plot. I'm a great believer in bookends, i.e. starting and ending a film with the same visual. Disobedience followed this cinematic premise to the letter. But as a romantic (and a fan of Hollywood schmaltz), I believe love should triumph over anything else. Especially when the other choice is so depressing.
When Casablanca first came out, the producers aired two separate endings: one where Bogart and Bergman stayed together; the other where war and duty triumphed. (I didn't like that ending either!)
The acting is superb and that sex scene Tim refers to is tastefully done albeit highly erotic. For you trivia buffs, it might interest you to know that Rachel Weisz (the wife of Daniel Craig aka "007") is having her first child at age 48. Obviously, she's a rebel in real life, too!
Too much thinking gives me a headache. I like my movies to be entertaining. They can be violent. Or scary. Or even sad. But when a philosophical concept drives the storyline it makes me break out in hives.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
STARS: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh
I once read a review by a prominent film critic who was so disgusted by the ending of Pay It Forward that he revealed the ending in the review, reasoning that what happened was a cheap and shitty thing to do to viewers who had invested their money and emotional energy into something that up to that point had been an uplifting experience, and that they were better off knowing. I'm about to do something similar here, though I'm not revealing the ending...just the ending of my caring anything about what happens in this film from that point forward.
Imagine if King Kong were not about a gorilla, but more about one of the Skull islanders who threw bananas at him from afar, and the gorilla was just incidental to the story...a prop, basically. You'd wonder why the hell they named the movie King Kong, now wouldn't you? And you might be pretty pissed at the film makers for the misleading way they advertised the movie to get gorilla lovers to fill the seats. That, in essence, is Lean On Pete, purportedly a story about a boy and his horse. It's not. It's a violent, mean-spirited film masquerading as a lyrical tale about a boy and a horse. The horse is just incidental to the story--expendable not only to the cold-hearted racing industry that uses the animals up and then sends them off to the glue factory when they no longer make money for the owners, but expendable to the plot of this film as well. And I don't consider my revealing this a spoiler so much as a public service for animal lovers and parents with children who love horses. This is not your kind of movie!
Charlie Plummer is Charley Thompson, the Oregon teenager who gets hired on as a stable hand for a grizzled, cynical trainer of the low-rent quarter horse racing circuit, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi). Lean On Pete is the name of the horse Charley takes a shine to. Despite repeated admonitions to not get emotionally involved (good idea for you too), Charley is crestfallen when he learns Del is about to sell Pete and that the horse will end up in Mexico and become dog food. Charley loads Pete into the trailer and takes off, embarking on a cross-country odyssey, roaming through picturesque fields that make for some great cinematography. He's trying to find his estranged aunt, who lives somewhere in Wyoming, and maybe have a place to call home.
It is here where the film breaks the covenant with viewers who are expecting something more than just killing off characters for convenience. (Charley's dad dies earlier in the film as well.) Killing off characters is the easy way out if you don't know what to do with them. What's hard is bringing their screen time--synonymous with their time on this earth--to some sort of existential vista where they, and the viewer, can gaze back from and ponder how it all fits into the what's-it-all-about-Alfie narrative of their life.
In fairness, the film makers were just being faithful to the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, so they're not responsible for the plot elements. What they are responsible for is the graphic, jarring and manipulative way they showed Pete making his "exit," which comes about two-thirds of the way through the film. After which, as stated above, I cared not a whit about what happened the rest of the way--just sat through it because I was going to review it.
Still, this is a hard one for me to grade. Because there are good turns here from the young Plummer, who gives an understated performance that makes him seem real. And Steve Buscemi, demonstrating the versatility of his acting chops as the crusty trainer. And the film should maybe win an award for sound editing, because when those quarter horses come thundering past you, it puts you right there. I'm torn between what I want to give it on a heart level and what I want to give it on a head level. So I'll average the two out.
Well, readers. Get ready for some big disagreements. Lean On Pete is a film about survival. And the title is both the name of a racehorse and a metaphor for Charley's journey. Yes, I assumed when I entered the movie theater, that I'd be seeing a grittier version of My Friend Flicka. But even as the stark opening credits rolled and the unfamiliar production company announced itself, I knew it wasn't going to be a kiddies' film.
There are so many unexpected twists and turns in Lean On Pete that I defy even the most knowledgeable film goer to predict any of them in advance. Because they were so unpredictable, I actually felt like I was experiencing them along with Charley. (Not an altogether pleasant feeling but certainly an engrossing one.) The kid who played Charley was brilliant. Since his last name is Plummer, I wondered if he was any relation to Christopher. No, he isn't. But he did play John Paul Getty's grandson in All The Money In The World. (The other Plummer played Getty Sr.)
The rest of the cast was also excellent. Steve Buscemi...Chloe Sevigny...and especially Steve Zahn, as a homeless psychopath. Reality was rampant in this nugget of a film Whether witnessing PTSD victims at their very worst. Or the smarmy side of horse racing. I was hooked -- like a morbid onlooker at the scene of a car crash.
Another disagreement with Tim? I thought the sound editing sucked. Too loud in places, inaudible in others. But a minor criticism. On the whole, I really liked this movie. My subtitle for Lean On Pete? (It ain't The Kentucky Derby....)
Sunday, April 15, 2018
STARS: Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern
DIRECTOR: John Curran
GENRE: Historical Docudrama
Recalling my youthful impressions of what the Chappaquiddick incident was about: It's 1969 and Senator Ted Kennedy is driving home from a party late at night...possibly drunk...with a young worker from his late brother Bobby's campaign--Mary Jo Kopechne--when he runs off a bridge...the car is submerged...Kennedy escapes...she doesn't...he claims to have made valiant efforts to rescue her...he waits eight or so hours--pondering how to handle the situation--before reporting the incident to the authorities. He may have been boinking her.
As it turns out, my recollections were spot on according to the known facts as they are presented in Chappaquiddick. What remains unknown---and forever so--and the speculation surrounding it to this day is what keeps the film from being a boring documentary style retelling of old news.
But if you're looking for fresh insights to lead you to one conclusion or another as to what really occurred on that fateful night, you won't find them--save for a couple of brief scenes that suggest the senator and Mary Joe may have engaged in some hanky-panky earlier in the evening.
Chappaquiddick cuts Kennedy no slack, portraying him as shallow and more angst-ridden over the political ramifications to his possible presidential bid than he was over the snuffing out of a young life due to his negligence. Jason Clarke, as the senator, brings these qualities out in spades. Kate Mara, as Mary Jo, doesn't get enough screen time (as you might expect) to bring any depth to the character of Ms. Kopechne. Bruce Dern, in what has to be the strangest and most WTF role of his career, plays a grotesque, near mute papa Joseph Kennedy, whose guttural utterances demonstrate his disdain for his only surviving son in scenes that are played to their maximum dramatic potential. Ed Helms, as cousin Joe Gargan--one of the senator's "fixers"--gives the strongest performance of the ensemble crew.
Down the aisle from me, a coterie of older folks tittered away...derisively yukking it up virtually every time Teddy came on screen. In other words, the entire length of this brooding film--revealing themselves as being obviously from the "other side." Reveling gleefully again in the man's misfortune! There's plenty of grist for them here too. Some will even interpret Chappaquiddick as a straight up hit piece on the Kennedy clan, and by implication, the progressive ideology they embraced--the timing of its release no coincidence in this critical election year. Anyway, prepare to be annoyed by such boisterous folk in the theater, depending on the random luck of where you are seated.
If I were them, I'd have piped down and observed and taken a lesson from the master spin doctors who helped to resurrect Ted Kennedy's political career to where he was reelected to the U.S. senate continuously for another forty years until his death in 2009. Because when it comes to the art of the spin, their current heroes are tripping all over themselves.
As someone well acquainted with the environs of Cape Code and Martha's Vineyard, I felt Chappaquiddick portrayed both beach life and the world of the not-so-idle rich to perfection. Kudos to cinematographer Maryse Alberti. In watching the story of young Ted's self-serving neglect, I kept hoping none of the surviving Kennedys would watch this cinematic hatchet job on their uncle. We all make mistakes....Granted, not as horrific as this one was....
I think the screenplay took certain liberties. For example, it is widely known that Joseph Kennedy never spoke another word after his stroke. But the scene -- whether accurate or not -- where two of Ted's closest pals went diving in the water trying desperately to save Mary Jo while Ted lay prostrate on the dock was a definite shocker.
An odd bit of casting was comedian Jim Gaffigan as states attorney Paul F. Marham. A close friend of Teddy's, he willingly bent the truth for his drinking buddy. Be that as it may, I couldn't help watching Gaffigan in the role and recalling many of his comedy bits. ("hot pockets," etc.)
I wasn't the least bit bored by this rehashing of history. I did, however, wonder who Ann (Joseph Kennedy's caretaker) was. A relative? A nurse? Because she wielded quite a bit of power in this family drama, her relationship should have been explained.
Not a film for everyone, especially if you're a Kennedy worshipper. But Jason Clark's performance is worth the price of a ticket.