Tuesday, October 10, 2017

VICTORIA & ABDUL (2017)


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
GENRE: Drama


We live to play dress-up and let's pretend! Pretend that we're better than you, and deserving of the wealth and privilege we've been born into when we've done zilch to earn it. What, pray tell, does the curmudgeonly reviewer have in his gunsights now? Why, the royal family, of course!

Things haven't changed much in that respect from the days of old as evidenced by the obsequious pretense and butt kissing the royal staff maintained on a minute by minute basis--part of the job description--as attendants to Queen Victoria, the monarch who sat upon the British throne for 64 years.  It's all done up with lavish style and great comic effect in Victoria & Abdul, with Dame Judi Dench reprising her role as the widowed queen who seemed to long for some genuine human connection, and found it in the person of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim clerk from India (under British rule at the time) who'd originally been selected to do nothing more than present a ceremonial coin to the queen on the fiftieth anniversary of her reign and then make himself scarce. He wasn't even supposed to look her at her (flashing on Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet...don't look at me...don't look at me!) But he did anyway--cheeky bugger. He caught her eye--had her at hello--and the rest, as they say is history.

Based upon the real story of these unlikely bedfellows (not literally, as she was HUGELY his senior), Victoria & Abdul is a lighthearted romp, for the most part, until it turns sinister. Karim became the queen's companion, confidant and teacher, and Victoria bestowed upon him honors and titles in increasingly disturbing ways--to the royal staff, that is--a bigoted lot, as was the fashion of the day. (You've heard of the Isle of White? Never mind.) They highly resented being upstaged by an Indian, and they plotted against Abdul, trying to turn Victoria against him.

Dame Judi brings to her part a kind of humanity that on the one hand may be unexpected considering the role a queen has to play, but on the other totally necessary to explain her fondness for the "Munshi"--a Persian word for teacher. For his part, Fazal doesn't bring great depth of character to his role, but he has a kind of self-effacing charm that carries him through. But the real delight of this film is the talented supporting cast. They've got few lines, but they make the most of their screen time by being as priggishly British as possible.

The climactic scene is a bit over the top for melodrama, but all in all I found Victoria & Abdul to be the dog's bollocks...the mutt's nuts! And the closing shot is truly majestic!  Now, as a token of my affection for all things UK, here's a few lines from one of my poems (with Queen Lizzie in mind):

...yet some still say "Your Majesty" 
to another human being and
manage it with a straight face.

Kilimanjaro--that's majesty.

An old lady sitting on the crapper
in a funny hat
she never takes off
well... 

Grade:  B +


JILL'S TAKE

Two winners in a row? WOW. (As some of you may already know, Tim is a filmic fussbudget of the first order. Me, I'll go see anything. And usually, when I suggest a movie we should review, he immediately nixes the idea. So what I've taken to doing is seeing the movie anyway and then urging him—if it's a goodie—to go see it. Amazingly, Victoria & Abdul and The Big Sick were both handled in this manner. And both earned high marks from Mister Curmudgeon himself!)

I loved Victoria & Abdul. And a piece of casting trivia that I find interesting and quirky is that, in both her roles as Queen Victoria, Judi Dench's male partners (in the broadest sense of the word) are well-known comedians in Britain. For those of you who saw Mrs. Brown, the fellow who played John Brown was Billy Connelly – a Scotsman whose comic timing is universally appreciated throughout the UK. He's also an accomplished banjo player! As for the actor in Victoria & Abdul who played her wimpy yet cruel son Bertie? He, too, is a famous British comic: Eddie Izzard. As I said, interesting casting....

There's so much I enjoyed about this film – it's attention to detail, the insights it gave us about the loneliness of being a queen, the prejudice that drives people to do unthinkable acts....but if I had to praise just one thing, it would be how Judi Dench was made to look really, really old. (Since there are 22 names associated with The Makeup Department, I won't list them all!) And, as an aside, I so enjoyed how she looked so much younger when her 'Munshi' became her confidant. (Love does that to all of us!)

My only beef with this otherwise perfect film is that the size of the subtitles made them impossible to read. Even with glasses on!


Grade: B +

Friday, September 22, 2017

AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch
DIRECTOR: Michael Cuesta
GENRE: Action/Adventure/Espionage

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) sees his fiance gunned down by terrorists in a bloody massacre. He himself is seriously wounded. Eighteen months later he's doing a Rocky Balboa style training regimen--punishing those punching bags and target shooting...with automatic weapons. He's out for revenge and ready to kick some ass. Next stop, CIA black ops. His crusty, highly skeptical mentor, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) challenges him to prove himself at every turn. Now he's ready to head overseas and stick it to the bad guys. BAM BAM! BOOM BOOM! 

There's a rotating cast of bad guys that need hunting down. They all must be taken out in bloody and grisly fashion. BAM BAM! BOOM BOOM!  One group is trying to get their hands on a nuke.The stakes have been raised exponentially.


The plot, as is often the case with film adaptations of novels, is fast moving and will leave you in the dust if you look away for a moment to retrieve the popcorn you've dropped onto the floor for the purpose of stuffing it right back into your mouth. Like you, American Assassin tries to cram too much into a small space--in this case the just under two hours running time--consequently each plot element is given short-shrift and it's onto the next at breakneck speed.

VROOM VROOM! The cars are chasing each other through the winding streets of Rome and other exotic locations. While all of the surface level stuff is smashingly well done--the cinematography; the editing; the stirring score--in the end American Assassin is your standard revenge-justifies-any-and-all-means movie fare.

The only noteworthy acting turn is Michael Keaton's jaded hard-ass Stan Hurley. Beyond that, I have to ask myself why is it necessary for another film of this nature to exist? The ongoing, ear-piercing rat-a-tat; the cringe-worthy scenes of torture. It blends in with all the other nasty scenes from all the similarly nasty films out there that promote gratuitous violence (which American audiences feast upon like buzzards at a road kill). Which could have been mitigated to a degree had they attempted to place it in the context of a narrative that at least skimmed the surface of the complicated issues of why this tragic and unwinnable clash of ideologies exists in the first place. It's hard to take a film ostensibly about combating evil seriously when it's obvious the primary reason for making it is, in fact, the "root of all evil."

GRADE:  C-
  

JILL'S TAKE

(You're too kind, Tim. BAM, BAM, BOOM, BOOM!) The only thing lacking in the opening beach scene of this ho-hum shoot-em-up was the theme from Jaws. We all knew something baaaad was about to happen. And happen. And happen....

In the beginning, I was hopeful that maybe, just maybe, there'd be a kind of father-son relationship (a la John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River) that would sustain my interest. I was wrong. Still hopeful, I thought maybe the love/hate trainer/trainee plot would make the movie watchable. (Remember Lou Gossett and Richard Geer in An Officer And A Gentleman?) No such luck.

Since a nuclear threat is currently sharing the news with hurricanes and earthquakes, American Assassin is at the very least timely. Perhaps if Kim Jong Un (AKA Rocket Man) was forced to watch it, he'd change his mind about nuking us. After all, despite impressive graphics when a nuclear device does in fact explode under water, nobody dies. And by then I was hoping everybody would!

The torture scene with Michael Keaton is worth a look and a lot of cringing. And some of the one-on-one fights were impressively choreographed. But really, folks. How many gut-punches can one viewer take? By the end, when our anti hero was battling with yet another villain on a moving speed boat, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud. I hope the actors were well paid for this turkey. It ain't worth the price of admission.


Grade: D

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE BIG SICK (2017)


Rated: R

STARS: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano
DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow
GENRE: Romantic Comedy/Drama

There is plenty of irony, even in the title: The Big Sick. A young woman lies in a coma, fighting for her life. But there is another kind of sickness that permeates all of society--in every culture--and it's called prejudice. Here, though, we have a different twist. Instead of white folks being the bigots, it's a Pakistani family living in the USA that absolutely will not accept the idea of their son falling for an American girl--and a blonde, at that! Arranged marriages are their thing, and mom recruits a cadre of comely Pakistani ladies who just happen to "drop by" during dinnertime to meet her sitting duck son, Kumail.

But Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a stand up comedian, is smitten by Emily--an affable, quirky kind of girl--qualities brought out in spades by the delightful Zoe Kazan. Emily is so American that she believes couples should fall in love first, and proceed from there. This sets up a classic clash of cultures, as Kumail is chicken to reveal Emily's presence to his family for fear of the consequences. He's caught in the middle, and now, as Emily lies in a medically induced coma in the hospital fighting a life threatening infection, Kumail has her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) to contend with as well. What's a funny man to do...laugh it off?  Hardly.

It's a bit peculiar to See Ray Romano playing it straight as the concerned dad, though it's not that much of a departure from his normal deadpan style. Just the punchlines are missing. Who knows, maybe he'll morph into the next Steve Carell! And director Judd Apatow surely knew that Holly Hunter was a show stealer when he brought her aboard. Here he looks the other way as she commits grand larceny in a supporting role with a powerful and nuanced performance. 

The only thing that didn't ring true (to me) is that we we watch Kumail blow off all of these beautiful Pakistani women (and I cringed) in favor of his American crush. Hey, I would have found a way to fit some of them in...

But that's me. 

I almost didn't see The Big Sick (based on a true story) due to its highly misleading trailer. They took what comedic punchlines there were and stuck them all into the trailer, making the film appear to be lighthearted romantic fluff. It's MUCH more than that. Serio-comic would be the appropriate term. Thought-provoking would be another.  Damn good would be another. 

Bring tissue.

Grade: A


JILL'S TAKE

How I love to be right! And this time, at my insistence, Tim finally broke down and went to see The Big Sick. I'd seen it in California and knew he'd like it. A lot. Having spent many years in Vancouver, BC, where the Pakistani culture flourishes, I had witnessed a mother who actually pretended to be her own daughter, signing her up on a Pakistani dating site and corresponding with potential husband material. (I kid you not!)The Big Sick uses this arranged marriage business in wonderfully humorous ways. But in real life honor killings are no joke.

The story is based on the real life of stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, whose role as Dinesh on the HBO series "Silicon Valley" made his face a familiar one to TV viewers. His comic timing is impeccable and some of the lines he utters in The Big Sick (I won't ruin it for you by repeating them here) are guffaw-makers. If you want a taste of his understated brilliance check out this YouTube video:


The only criticism I could come up with was too much medical stuff, too many specialists. My west coast movie buddy Hank was quick to point out that some of those actors-turned-doctors were, in reality, fellow comics. (Good for Kumail for casting them in cameos...) I also want to mention that this same movie buddy agreed with Tim. He felt the pack of potential Pakistani wives, especially the last one, were far more appealing than his coma-induced American cutie. The Big Sick is layered, thought-provoking and a cinematic gem. No wonder it's been held over in movie theaters here for six weeks straight.

Grade: B+

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (2017)


Rated: R 

STARS: Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons
DIRECTOR:Marc Webb
GENRE: Drama
Oh, look who's seated at the table...there's Pierce Brosnan...and there's Cynthia Nixon...and there's-there's Wallace Shawn! Looking the same as he has looked for the last fifty years or so. There's no reason for him to do a cameo in The Only Living Boy In New York, except he always seems to show up for dinner. (Maybe he's looking for Andre?)

But let's rewind. In the beginning there was Thomas and Mimi. Thomas (Callum Turner) has just graduated from college and Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) is his hang-around pal. He is smitten by her, but she has consigned him to the dreaded "friend zone." But we needn't feel sorry for nice guy Thomas, because he will find what he is looking for in Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), who just happens to be the mistress of his New York publisher father (Pierce Brosnan). At first Thomas just wants Johanna to stop seeing his still married dad, because he doesn't want his mother (Cynthia Nixon) to get hurt. But he falls under Johanna's spell. And she's the type who goes for the flavor of the day, and figures she can juggle father and son and keep both balls in the air at once (whoops... didn't mean for it to come out quite that way!) To further complicate things, Mimi re-enters the picture, noticing that her friend's affections are being directed somewhere else, so naturally she wants him now. Added to the mix we have Jeff Bridges, looking almost unrecognizable as the mysterious boozy neighbor who acts as a surrogate therapist for Thomas, dispensing worldly advice about women and whatnot. But there's more to that connection than meets the eye, which will lead to the big twist at the end.

This is an interesting, subdued turn for Bridges. For some reason it reminds me of him as the affable alien in Starman.  Kate Beckinsale has tried on numerous  costumes--she played a ninja type in one flick--not believable at all with that willowy body. But here she is perfectly cast as the New York sophisticate...the temptress whose eyes are bigger than her tummy, and manages to bring some depth to the character. Pierce Brosnan has never been taken all that seriously--pretty boy and James Bond and all that--but I imagine the older and uglier he gets (if he ever does get uglier), the more respect he'll receive, and he deserves it. Cynthia Nixon is kind of wasted here, and I can't tell you anything about her performance because all I can think about when she comes onscreen is the one time I saw her full frontal, and I was so surprised...she was a goddess! Of course, that was a while back. Young Brit Callum Turner, as Thomas, has a good face for the movies. Kiersey Clemons, as Mimi, I felt was miscast. There was no underlying romantic tension between Mimi and Thomas, which would have laid the groundwork for her eventual rekindling of interest in him.

Critics are saying harsh things about The Only Living Boy In New York, but all in all, I liked this film. It didn't have me at hello. I was still wavering even in the middle. But it sure had me at the end. It's a sweet movie, and the last truly sweet film I think I saw was Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey, and that goes back to 2009. Strong points: Impressive cast and a great soundtrack. Simon and Garfunkel, of course. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. Herbie Hancock. A musical feast.

Dig in, Wallace Shawn!

Grade:  B +


JILL'S TAKE

My poor, misguided friend. Those three-digit Tucson temperatures must have fried your brains. You actually liked this piece of cinematic merde? Oh dear.

Let me start with the boy called Thomas. Callum Turner, a Brit whose acting credits are scanty at best, has about as much sex appeal as a young Woody Allen minus the self-deprecating humor. How the two women in this implausible drama could be attracted to him in the first place made me queasy. As the film unfolded—at least it was mercifully short—this flaw was replaced by myriad others. I won't reveal the ending in case anyone is foolish enough to want to see this turkey. But as I walked out of the (totally empty) movie theater, I kept shaking my head. I'm sure if Jeff Bridges hadn't been one of the producers, this film would never have been made.

I do, however, want to give credit where credit is due. Rob Simonsen's song choices were terrific, as was his understated score. And as much as I thought I was familiar with all of Paul Simon's songs, The Only Living Boy In New York was new to me. For you trivia buffs, Simon refers to Garfunkel in the song as "Tom", alluding to their early days when they were called 'Tom and Jerry.' And the main character in this movie is called Thomas. Obviously, no coincidence.

I don't usually agree with movie critics but there's always a first time!

Grade: D -

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Max Greenfield
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
GENRE: Drama

He did a lot of shitty things, but he had his moments. If I had to pick one quote from the movie to sum up Woody Harrelson's character in The Glass Castle, it would be that one. Harrelson takes on the persona of Rex Walls, who was either the most free-spirited drunk, or the drunkest free spirit you'd ever be likely to meet.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton takes on a whopper of a challenge in putting together the screen adaptation of Jeanette Walls' best-selling memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family with a capital "D."

The film opens in 1989, where we meet the adult Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson), a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine. Her story is told in flashbacks that jump around a lot and can be confusing, but what film have I ever seen that employs this technique wasn't confusing?  You've gotta be up to the challenge if you're going to be a reviewer, because few films are strictly linear anymore. (You don't play this game in short pants, even though most of the attendees in the theater were wearing them!)

Ms.Walls may be the shining example of survival and triumph in overcoming, along with her three siblings, one of the crappiest childhoods anyone would never ask for. Rex Walls, her dad, could never hold down a job and subjected his family to a nomadic lifestyle in poverty-stricken conditions, as he was usually staying one step ahead of the law. He was a raging alcoholic who would go on benders and leave his family neglected and without food for days at a time. His wife, Rose Marie (NaomiWatts), a self absorbed hippie-flippy type who fancied herself as a talented painter, was his enabler. Where the "he had his moments" part came in was that Rex Walls tried to instill in his children an extraordinary sense of independence and self-reliance. In other words, he gave them what they needed to survive HIM. As you will see in the end, it took.

In one sense, I see The Glass Castle as a series of scenes, taut and dramatic, many of which are nothing short of brilliant--each trying to outdo the other on the wow factor scale. The best of them is when dad challenges the adult Jeanette's fiancee (Max Greenfield) to an arm wrestling match. The players are all in on this one--in sports terminology you would say they left it all on the field. The scene transcends into something truly primal. It's worth the price of admission.

Woody Harrrelson, who in real life is a really good guy with a good heart, has nonetheless never shied away from playing some really scary, even sinister types. In acting your alter-ego gets to take over, and Harrelson has taken good advantage of those opportunities. Naomi Watts may be the most versatile of the actresses we see all the time in seemingly everything. They are buoyed by a fine cast of young thespians, most notably Ella Anderson as the young Jeanette.

The Glass Castle is a tad over two hours long, but don't vault out of your seat the moment the closing credits begin to roll, because you get to meet the real Rex Walls and family. Fascinating. That most of his kids still had a soft spot in their hearts for the guy after his passing is a testament to something.

Stockholm Syndrome is my guess.

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

I know it's early yet, and there are bound to be some great performances coming out of Hollywood this year, but my money's on Woody to win an Oscar. It's a real challenge to play such an unlikable character -- and make him sympathetic. Despite Rex Walls' obvious flaws as a father, his spirit is sometimes infectious. Until it isn't anymore.

Harrelson's acting credits began as a likable drunk on the hit TV series "Cheers" and has certainly progressed dramatically since then. I thought it was a wise choice on the director's part to give Woody a toupee to wear. Not only did it make him more closely resemble the real Rex Walls, it made me forget him as a bald psychopathic murderer in the 1994 classic Natural Born Killers.

The Glass Castle was, for me, a gasp-a-minute film. The twists and unexpected turns kept me on the edge of my seat, eyes riveted on the screen. For a family to live in such squalor and actually survive is impressive. More impressive still is the fact that Jeanette Walls, even as a child (played brilliantly by Ella Anderson), was able not only to escape but to become successful. And I loved the irony that she was the closest child to her broken down dad.

The sets, the costumes, the score (subtle as it was) were all authentic as hell. And I have to really struggle to come up with a negative about this impactful film. But here is my miniscule criticism. As the end credits rolled and we were given cameos of the real cast of characters, I felt it went on too long and interrupted what I wanted to be left with after viewing the movie. A few still photographs would've been just as effective. That being said, run don't walk to the nearest theater where this cinematic gem is being shown....


Grade: A +

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

DUNKIRK (2017)






Rated: PG-13

STARS: Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
GENRE: Action/Drama


Imagine one long scene--an action/battle scene--that runs for nearly two hours nonstop. That's Dunkirk. So if you're expecting a little romance or character development to give you a break to catch your breath...forget it! Dunkirk hits the ground running and never lets up, and for edge-of-your-seat adrenaline junkies, that's a good thing.

A mini history lesson. The Miracle of Dunkirk--as it would come to be called--refers to the evacuation of allied soldiers hemmed in by the Nazis on the beaches of Dunkirk, France in the spring of 1940. Over a period of eight days, more than three hundred thousand troops were rescued by a fleet of over 800 civilian boats and merchant ships of all shapes and sizes. They raced to the rescue as the German Luftwaffe bore down on the trapped men. The Royal Air Force engaged the German fighter planes and bombers, contributing to the success of the operation.

What characterization that exists in Dunkirk follows three main threads: A British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who in the beginning helps a comrade bury a body in the sand. We follow their resourceful fight for survival; a teenage deck hand (Barry Keoghan) who clambers aboard a boat piloted by an older man and his son as they head into harm's way, selflessly hoping to make himself useful; and an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) whose dizzying aerial dogfights with the enemy are perhaps the most riveting sequences in the film. We're right in the cockpit with him, and the emoting is accomplished primarily through facial expression.

RANT ALERT: Dunkirk is loud. I said, DUNKIRK IS LOUD!!!  (Results may vary in your area.) The CRASH-BOOM-BAM of Hans Zimmer's overbearing soundtrack never lets up. That together with bombs going KABOOM and artillery fire going RAT-A-TAT-TAT and torpedoes going...

You get my drift.

It's a literal assault on the senses. (Oh my virgin ears! as we used to say in high school). I suggest earplugs--seriously--especially if you see it in IMAX, and you should, to get the full effect. (Why should I be the only one to suffer?)  In my case, the problem could have been mitigated by theater management who didn't have their heads up their you-know-what. They could have made some adjustments to the decibel levels that are already way too high to begin with for just regular films. But I can now see that most moviegoers of a certain age are already half deaf from being in the front row at concerts by Led Zeppelin and The Who. And the teenagers in the theater are unfazed by anything. So nobody walked out. But after the film I overheard one lady say that somebody should complain to the management. I can see it now. She's standing there trying to tell them about this decibel issue, and they are going,  WHAT? WHAT???

Anyway, as far as battle scene recreations go, Dunkirk is top drawer. Bombs away!

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

To quote tennis legend John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious, Tim!" (I added the last word.) The sound levels in the theater I saw Dunkirk in were manageable. And that's about the ONLY positive thing I can say about this meandering, tedious film. The first fifteen minutes could have easily been cut and nothing of consequence would have happened. We know that thousands of British troops were trapped on the beaches waiting for a miracle because we are told this in a typed message on screen. Not once, not twice, but three damn times. (At first, when this happened, I thought there'd been some technical difficulties, i.e. that the studio had sent a faulty CD.)

Okay. So it's a war movie with the makings of a brilliant plot thanks to history. Only problem? Too many threads and not enough cohesion.Dunkirk was peppered with famous actors with cameo parts, a sure sign for me that a movie is in deep doo-doo. Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance — who at least has a decent part. But like war itself, the cuts are messy, the message muddled, the battles bloody and untidy. Still, I say, "Where's JohnWayne when you need him?" Without anyone to root for—except history—I got bored. I only cared about Rylance's character Mr. Dawson and his tension-filled trawler. The blame for this, I place squarely on Christopler Nolan, who both directed and wrote the script.    

To quote IMDB's bio of Mister Nolan, it reads: "Best known for his cerebral, often nonlinear storytelling...." I couldn't have said it better myself. And after the movie let out, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read: "Go to hell cuz I'm going to Texas!" I figured the guy would certainly have something to say about the movie so I asked him. In typical Texan fashion, he had just three words: "I was bored."

But if you want to see some breathtaking, belly-wrenching spitfires in action, get thee to the nearest screening of Dunkirk. If you're lucky, the deafening noise will make up for all the movie's flaws....

Grade: D






Thursday, July 6, 2017

THE HERO (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon,  Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman
DIRECTOR: Brett Haley
GENRE: Drama

If it weren't for Sam Elliott's voice--the most distinctive in all of showbiz--he wouldn't be who he is today. The same can be said of many of us who have traded upon our dulcet tones to eke out a livelihood. In the opening shot of The Hero, that's exactly what Elliott--as faded western movie star Lee Hayden--is doing. Laying down voice-overs--in his languid cowboy drawl--for "Lone Star Barbecue Sauce...the perfect pardner for yur chicken."

Lee's glory days are behind him. But he's a survivor. In this instance, survivor of a shopworn plot about a man trying to make amends for being AWOL from the lives of his loved ones for far too long. And with a recent cancer diagnosis throwing him for a loop, he will learn what it means to be a literal survivor. 

So it would seem that a May-December romance is the last thing he would need right now. Lee sits around smoking a lot of weed with his buddy-slash- drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). At Jeremy's place Lee meets the comely Charlotte (Laura Prepon) who is dropping by to score some shit (that's stoner talk, for the uninitiated!)  Charlotte is mid-thirties, just a tad older than Lee's daughter, but lucky for him (he's 71) she digs older guys. And he's a celebrity, so no one is going to look askance at the two of them together, as that's the norm in Hollywood anyway.

There is great chemistry and emotion--often conveyed only by the eyes--between Elliott and Prepon, whom you may recognize from That '70s Show and Orange Is The New Black (and though she started out as a blonde, she is more intriguing here with the darker hair).

The most electric scene in The Hero comes when Charlotte--who does stand-up in the mold of Sarah Silverman--goes onstage with a raunchy tell-all bit about herself and her new beau, with Lee in the audience, stunned and appalled.  He hails from an era when folks--especially women--had a bit more class. And there, my friends, is the gap you have to bridge in any modern day romance of this sort. 

Katharine Ross, who was BIG at one time, is in the film, and she has billing in the opening credits, but if you blink you'll miss her. She plays Lee's ex-wife, but has what I would call even less than a cameo--appearing in two very brief scenes, and you won't recognize her as the sweet-faced obsession of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Or from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (It's probably the glasses.) Ross is Sam Elliott's real life spouse, and that accounts for why she is even in this movie. But she is wasted here. Though she may have figured she was just helping him out a little, and no longer feels drawn to the spotlight. 

Krysten Ritter, as Lee's estranged daughter who is so mistrustful of him now that she's like a puppy you have to coax out of hiding, may have you scratching your head as to where you've seen her before. She's been in a surprising number of films, and various sitcoms such as Gilmore Girls (I wasn't going to admit that I used to watch that sometimes). She's a good fit for this role, though her looks are too perfect, especially when you look at "Lee"...then you really have to scratch your head! 

Aside from needing to trim his trademark moustache (don't you hate it when the hairs are starting to curl down over the guy's lips?), Sam Elliott's noteworthy--and possibly Oscar worthy--portrayal carries the day in The Hero.

 He's a man who has to become the hero of his own life...and that's something to which we can all aspire.

Grade:  B + 

POSTSCRIPT: As I was leaving the theater, a couple walking in front of me were holding hands. She was forty-ish, and he had clearly put seventy in his rear-view mirror. He could have been her father, but that wasn't my sense of it. I started thinking that The Hero might trigger a rash of younger women looking for that daddy figure in their lives to come out of the closet. 

If it does...bring it on!



JILL'S TAKE

(Dream on, Timmy. Dream on!) Although I'd been told that the audiences in Tucson were flocking to see this flick, the theater I went to in La Jolla was nearly empty. So be it. Some men are sexy no matter how wrinkled they get. Sam Elliott is one of those men. (Along with Clint Eastwood and Christopher Plummer.) But The Hero isn't just about senior sex appeal, or estranged father/daughter relationships, or May-December romances. It's about a subject many of us will unfortunately have to face: The Big "C.'' And whether, after reaching a certain age, seeking treatment is the best option. (The old 'quality of life' conundrum.)

On a personal level, I've seen what chemo can do to a loved one and, believe me, it ain't pretty. I won't give away the choice Sam Elliott's character makes but I will say that most cancer patients don't run into the likes of Laura Prepon after learning they have a 7% chance of recovery.... 

Aside from the shock value of the comedy club scene that Tim has already described, my favorite was when Lee was put on hold, trying to make an appointment to see his oncologist -- while Grieg's "Anitras' Dance" from Peer Gynt played endlessly over the phone. How many times have you had to wait endlessly, trying to make a doctor's appointment? (If I had my way, I'd have Chopin's "Funeral March" playing in the background!)

Despite the sometimes confusing and disruptive flashbacks, The Hero is definitely worth seeing—and talking about afterwards.

Grade: B+
  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)






Rated: R

STARS: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky
DIRECTOR: Miguel Arteta
GENRE: Dark Comedy/Drama


We live in a politically polarized nation (I'm talking about America--if you are outside the U.S., I don't know at this point whether to congratulate you or send my condolences). So it was inevitable that a film such as Beatriz At Dinner would come along--prompting us to titter at ourselves in grin-and-bear-it fashion, while simultaneously providing plenty of food for thought.

Salma Hayek is riveting as Mexican immigrant Beatriz--a massage therapist/ holistic healer with a deep empathy and love for all critters great and small. Her car breaks down during a professional visit to her client/friend Cathy (Connie Britton), and she becomes an unscheduled guest at the dinner party being thrown that evening for an ensemble of perfectly shallow upscale southern Californians--headed by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a sociopathic land developer and big game hunter.

Things start out with polite interaction between Beatriz and the other guests, though they reveal their vacuity with comments like "I love Cancun" while Beatriz is relating a story about her early life in Mexico.

The fireworks begin when Strutt passes around a digital image of himself posing beside a dead rhino that he has gunned down somewhere in Africa. Beatriz sees red and fires off a verbal barrage--throwing his phone at his head to emphasize her point. Her righteous indignation seemed to win over the audience in the theater. But then director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White felt the need to portray her as someone becoming rapidly unhinged from that point forward (out of character from everything she stands for), as if to say we don't want to take sides between the Trump and the Bernie factions, so let's give each something to roll their eyes about.

And while Lithgow's villainous Doug Strutt grabs center stage the way he grabs up land for shady development deals, it is Connie Britton as Cathy who gives the most layered performance as the "friend" who has nothing but praise and admiration for Beatriz in the beginning, then shifts ever so subtly as things go along to reveal herself, in the end, as being just as shallow and ruthless as the people she hangs out with.

As we approach the Fourth Of July, I recommend you see Beatriz At Dinner. The incendiary battle of ideologies embodied by Hayek and Lithgow's characters is worth the price of admission--though the ending will leave you up in the air (a pun) as to what really happened and what it means, as well as a feeling of being somewhat underfed by the mere 77 minutes of running time.

Grade :  B

JILL'S TAKE

Beatriz At Dinner is not a film for the faint-hearted. It will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth no matter which side of the political seesaw you are teetering on. Salma Hayak's performance is as authentic as they get. But to sound like the superficial ladies at that dinner party, I might also point out that Salma's 'put on a few' since her Oscar-nominated performance in Frida. ("That Mexican food will do it to you every time," those ladies might whisper, cattily.) 


What I thought was very well scripted was how blissfully unaware the guests were of their own prejudices and bigotry. It reminded me of my dad when I chose to marry a Jew. His classic response? "Why, some of my best friends are Jewish!" When I tried to point out that his statement was making "them" different than "us," he replied: "But they are different! They give more money to public institutions, they respect education more!" I shrugged my shoulders and prayed that he wouldn't greet his new son-in-law with that some-of-my-best-friends line. (Which he did within five minutes.) I felt that this movie depicted that kind of insular ignorance extremely well. 


Acting kudos go out to John Lithgow. Big time. Having recently seem him portray Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown," I found it remarkable how such a tall actor could play such a short, squat man in his final years as England's prime minister. And do it so convincingly.


But the film took a turn for the worse towards the end. And what really pissed me off was the happily-ever-after images at the end. I haven't given anything away here but if you see Beatriz At Dinner, you will know immediately what I'm referring to. You don't do sad and then tack on happy. Life just doesn't work that way.


Grade: C +






Friday, June 16, 2017

NORMAN: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017)



Rated:  R

STARS: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg
DIRECTOR: Joseph Cedar
GENRE: Drama

Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don't. You won't get that until the end of the movie. One that is well worth sitting through to groan at my little pun!

So here we have Richard Gere. I never thought I'd see the day when he would totally dampen down his sex-appeal to play a character as quirky as this one. Gere is Norman Oppenheimer--a New York City flim-flam man. A schemer. A dreamer. A name dropper. Always working some angle that's going to hopefully put him into the black. But he's not very good at it. The epitome of those who live lives of quiet desperation, and he wears that look like it's painted on him from start to near finish of Norman:The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

And while Norman has some visually delightful and imaginative cinematography, Gere's character is as drab as anyone could ever look. He wears the same overcoat and "old guys' cap"--you know, the one that's supposed to look sporty but only old dudes wear them--throughout the entire film! Wardrobe expenditure for Mr. Gere: next to zilch.


Where Norman's rise begins is when he gloms onto Micha Eshel  (Lior Askenazi), a visiting Israeli politician. He buys the man a pair of shoes at a swanky boutique and nearly faints dead when he sees the price tag.  It turns into the best investment of  his life when Eshel becomes the Israeli prime minister.  For a while, Norm is living his dream of schmoozing with the movers and shakers. But where there are politicians there will be scandal, and our man finds himself smack dab in the middle of it, headed for a fall (hey, they tell you that in the title, so no spoiler there).


His years as a major heartthrob may be a thing of the past, but Gere is adapting nicely and establishing himself as a fine character actor. And there are noteworthy performances from Steve Buscemi--as a RABBI no less; and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist; Nymphomaniac) who uncharacteristically keeps her duds on the whole time while delivering a sensitive portrayal as Norman's chance encounter on a train. And Lior Ashkenazi's character, whether he's up or he's down, is muy sympatico throughout. 

The thing I pondered as I left the theater is whether our protagonist changed even a whit in the end. Because Norman has only one gear (pardon the pun), but it's fascinating to watch him roll through the stops signs as he goes for broke at every turn, desperately trying to stay in the race. 

Grade:   B +


JILL'S TAKE

The best thing about this loser of a movie are the puns it created in Tim's review. I kept thinking "This has got to get better!" But it didn't. Not by a long shot. It's never easy to sit through a film where the main character is so desperately needy and sychophantic. And I, for one, prefer Richard Gere as an aging sex symbol to a smarmy weasel like Norman Oppenheimer. I have to give the director Joseph Cedar credit, though, for enlisting the talents of so many fine actors. Steve Buscemi was already mentioned but there were cameos by the likes of Michael Sheen, Hank Azaria and Harris Yulin. But that's the ONLY thing I'll give Cedar credit for.

I still don't know what half the movie was about – and couldn't care less. I found the score intrusive when it interrupted those endless conversations Norman insisted on having with people who avoided him like The Plague. There were so many loose ends in the script that it felt like a shag rug gone rogue.

But I try to find something positive in every review I write, so here goes: I applaud the acting of Lior Ashkenazi. Very believable. (And it probably doesn't hurt that he's an Israeli playing an Israeli politican!) Interesting last name:Ashkenazi Jews are people who are descended from the Jewish population of Central and Eastern Europe. Around 80% of the Jewish people around the world are Ashkenazim, including most American Jews.

Regardless of what you believe, "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer" is – like its subtitle – painfully long-winded and uninviting. 

Grade: D -