Movie Journal # 2: NEBRASKA and Other Fugue States




Prestige time (a.k.a. Awards Season) is upon us at the indieplex, and I’ve been lucky: not one stinker (or mediocrity) in the whole bunch.

“Older” is a They Might Be Giants song whose primary lyric incessantly proclaims, “You’re older than you’ve ever been / and now you’re getting older,” baldly and astutely stating a fact that most of us would rather not think about. Even though it wouldn’t fit the film’s sonic palette, one could hardly come up with a better song to describe NEBRASKA and its weathered, cranky lead, Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern). We first meet him shuffling down the side of a busy highway in Billings, Montana, all wild, white hair and worn, comfortable clothing. He’s determined to reach Lincoln, Nebraska by any means possible (even if he has to walk hundreds of miles) to claim a million dollar prize offer he received in the mail.

Of course, the “prize” is one of those magazine subscription scams everyone’s familiar with, including Grant’s crusty, domineering wife Kate (June Squibb) and his adult son David (Will Forte)—everyone, that is, except for Grant, who refuses to believe anything other than what the piece of paper he’s holding onto literally says. No one takes him seriously, as he’s an elderly alcoholic showing signs of forgetfulness and perhaps some early dementia. Nonetheless, David offers to drive him to Lincoln as a means to spend time together and get out of Billings (and away from Kate) for a few days. En route, they make an extended stop in Hawthorne, the tiny speck of a Nebraskan farming town that Grant grew up in. An impromptu family reunion ensues, filling in some of the blanks of Grant’s past; we also witness how relatives, friends and other folks behave (or not) when Grant spills the beans as to the monetary reason for his trip.

The film is a sort of homecoming for director Alexander Payne, who set his first three features in the Great Plains State. It shares a few themes with the last of the three, ABOUT SCHMIDT (aging, road trip) but retains the melancholy, less romantic tone of the films he’s made since then (especially THE DESCENDANTS). The muted black-and-white cinematography perfectly complements the region’s virtually empty widescreen canvases and the drab aesthetics of Grant’s Lutheran family. As always, Payne depicts the Midwest with precision and authenticity (I swear I’ve been in places exactly like Hawthorne), but now he relies less on satire (only David’s two doofus cousins inspire any ridicule), successfully honing a more no-nonsense yet not humorless approach—one that may even suit the feisty, hilarious Squibb, who scrapes, cuts and bleeds like a good Mike Leigh anti-heroine. Former SNL cast member Forte also acquits himself well in his first dramatic role, but it’s unquestionably the 77-year-old Dern’s film—disappearing deeply into Woodrow Grant, he’s neither a lovable old coot nor a wizened force of nature; he just is who he is, an aged man on an inexorable march towards death, putting up with all of life’s stupid inconveniences because what else can one do?

Deceptively simple and effortlessly graceful, this character study is the type of American indie you wish would receive the release and promotional heft of something like THE WAY WAY BACK.  Martin Bonner, a divorced, sixty-ish man of Australian decent (a charming Paul Eeehorn) has just relocated from Maryland to Reno, Nevada. Employed as a mentor for a prison work release program, he develops an unexpected friendship with Travis (Richmond Arquette), who is adjusting to life outside after serving a 12-year sentence. Martin and Travis are more alike than they initially appear (both live alone, are estranged from their children and seek redemption for past crises), but the beauty in Chad Hartigan’s script and direction is that he doesn’t hit you over the head with this notion. Often, moments of silence and reflection carry the narrative along, such as a 360-degree tracking shot where Travis takes in his surroundings, ruminating on what his life has come to. Hartigan never wallows in cheap sentiment or easy, unearned resolution, but you end up caring deeply for these two flawed but relatable men; their bond is also an all-too-rare depiction of male friendship onscreen.

A gimmick film, but a very good gimmick it is: Robert Redford is an unnamed man on a small yacht alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When he unexpectedly crashes into a shipping container, the yacht floods and thus begins a weeklong descent into him being completely stranded and struggling to survive. In a way, it’s almost the nautical equivalent of GRAVITY, only on a much tighter budget and in a minimalist, decidedly less commercial style. No dialogue, no backstory, no other characters—just Bob on a sinking ship and the realistic methods in which he attempts to stay alive. The film’s first half gets a little repetitious, but the second half is visceral, harrowing and effectively dramatic in its “man vs. nature” theme. Exquisitely photographed, it’s not just an impressive technical achievement but a conceptual one as well. I didn’t think the aged Redford (whom I’ve jokingly called a walking corpse for years) still had it in him to pull off such a demanding role; although I still haven’t seen MARGIN CALL, I also never expected J.C. Chandor to make a film this audacious.

That Cold Day In The Park

That Cold Day In The Park


Made right before M*A*S*H finally made him famous at age 48, this obscure 1969 film directed by Robert Altman is nearly of a piece with all his revered work from the first half of the 1970s. Apart from a few surface details like a standard minor-key musical score, it anticipates the director’s blossoming idiosyncratic style: numerous camera zooms, a prevalence of mirrors, scenes transitioning via blurred focus and a little of that trademark overlapping dialogue (not much, however, because there’s often only two characters on screen, and one doesn’t speak in the presence of the other). As for the one who speaks, a wealthy 30s-ish spinster played by the great Sandy Dennis, well, she owns the film, more so than Altman. That rare actress who exudes intensity without breaking a sweat, Dennis anchors this character study-cum-thriller (though you may not recognize the film as such until the last twenty or even five minutes) about a lonely woman who invites a young man into her elegant, claustrophobic apartment (itself very much a character). Her desperation mounts as her affection is returned and then rejected; unlike, say, in Repulsion, her sanity doesn’t come into question for most of the film, thanks to Dennis—like the best Altman heroines, she’s simultaneously poignant, delusional, sympathetic and exasperating. For a long time a difficult film to track down, it came out on disc earlier this year and is required viewing for Altman and Dennis admirers.

I’m inclined to downgrade films that contain subject matter too painful to allow for a second viewing (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, SALO)—after all, shouldn’t a great film be endlessly rewatchable? However, on occasion I do see the merit and greatness in something I could never look at a second time, like DANCER IN THE DARK or this uncompromising, based-on-a-true-story account of one of America’s most regrettable eras. Without sentimentality or any Hollywood sense of heroism, it accounts the injustice of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor, practically a lock for the Oscar, more so than the film) who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. What ensues is like a decade-long car crash, full of the ugliest behavior imaginable, yet you can’t look away knowing that this all happened and involved hundreds of thousands of people. By portraying this brutality in such a frank, plainspoken way, director Steve McQueen never lets you forget that this was simply a way of life—even more impressive, his artfulness (gorgeous visuals, lack of a musical score, extended scenes that add tonal coloring rather than narrative heft) doesn’t distract from or soften the brutality. The automatic acceptance Ejiofor is given in the North, pre-abduction feels like the film’s only false note; the rest unmasks last year’s slavery-themed DJANGO UNCHAINED for the puerile revenge fantasy that it was.

That old adage, “Write what you know” receives an ironic, cautionary spin in Francois Ozon’s latest, which also plays like an older-and-wiser update of 2003’s SWIMMING POOL. Here, a high school French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) named Germain Germain (shades of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert) becomes a mentor to his 16-year-old student Claude (Ernst Umhauer), an aspiring, gifted writer. However, two problems emerge: Claude’s stories observe and critique his increasingly risky transgressions with his classmate Rapha’s family, and Germain’s fixation on Claude and his prose threatens to cloud his judgment and integrity, not to mention unravel an already fraught relationship with his art curating wife (a delectably tart Kristen Scott Thomas). In time, Claude transforms Rapha’s family into a fluid blank page with which he takes some liberties in telling their (and his own) story, with Germain guiding him to find just the right arc. Although, much like Claude, the film’s a touch too clever for its own good in parts, it’s also witty, entertaining and admirably shrewd in how it examines the hazards of co-opting life for art.

Also Seen:

Whether The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is better than its predecessor seems as irrelevant and difficult to parse as how the individual The Lord of The Rings films rate against each other–this second installment makes clear this is one masterful story, broken up by necessity because no one could take in all ten hours at once. Still, as “middle” installments go, it’s more The Empire Strikes Back than The Two Towers… I’ve begun to whittle down my list of stuff I need to see with Videodrome, which was as fun and as prescient as one could hope; the increasingly complex plot mechanics made my head spin a little, but like the film’s protagonist, I was fine as long as I gave in to the pure sensory rush of it all… the 1946 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven isn’t quite Sirk, but it anticipates his great ’50s work: less hysterical and openly darker, with a chilling Gene Tierney as its femme fatale (even if nothing in this Technicolor beauty screams noir), though she’s much more Dorothy Malone than Jane Wyman.





In an attempt to get back into the groove of movie reviewing, I’ve decided to present my reviews as a journal/column going forward, perhaps on a monthly basis. I’m also no longer giving out letter grades because to be honest, they’re driving me batty.

Gravity is either an anomaly in cinema or a beacon for its future. You could say it’s a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey, but unlike Kubrick’s film, most of it transpires in exteriors rather than interiors—a vital distinction given its outer space setting. You could also call it a technological successor to Alien in that it’s very much a horror film, but there are no aliens, and the horror instead stems from the most extreme environmental circumstances one could imagine. You could run through any number of classic science fiction, action or horror films and find not a single true predecessor to Gravity—it accomplishes something new, but without seeming entirely alien.

Whether seen in 3D on the largest IMAX screen or in a perfectly acceptable 2D version (but make sure it’s a theatrical screening), the film is an enthralling visual experience. The camera continually glides around the only two real characters (played by George Clooney and a never-better Sandra Bullock) as if it was a ballet dancer, gracefully swerving over and under human bodies, through intricate, massive satellites, space stations and ricocheting cosmic debris. Often, the camera will pull back to reveal the awesome Earthscapes canvasing the distant backgrounds, working in tandem with Steven Price’s prog-ambient score and its effective loud-soft dynamics.

You’re best off knowing little about the narrative going in, except that much of the film narrows its focus towards one goal: the desire to survive when the elements are against you. Some have complained that the film has too simplistic a story, one at odds with its technical and conceptual innovation; in fact, wedding such a primal, basic and unapologetically entertaining narrative with the new visual language director/writer Alfonso Cuaron has devised creates a sublime tension. Together, they represent the very best a convergence of art and commerce has to offer. I’ve seen the film twice (once in 3D, once in 2D) and both times I’ve left the theater elated, exhausted and deeply moved.

As dependable as Rohmer or Ozu, Nicole Holofcener could be their modern American equivalent as an auteur director. In terms of style and sensibility, she arguably makes the same film over and over again, but touches on a different, tiny but significant quirk of human behavior each time out. The worst you can say about her latest, a gentle but solid rom-com about what to reveal to and conceal from a new lover is that it hinges on a plot contrivance usually found in the more hackneyed sitcoms. Fortunately, everything else in the film is nearly perfect. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is consistently, dependably funny on TV shows from Seinfeld to Veep; here, she’s wisely cast for those talents but also able to show that her range extends beyond comedy. She’s up to task, matching Holofcener regular Catherine Keener (playing her character’s foil), but with a tenderness and whimsy that Keener might not have managed had she played Louis-Dreyfus’ part. As for the late James Gandolfini, it’s near impossible to be objective given real-life circumstances, but his own unexpected tenderness and ease slots into the film beautifully. Sweet, sad and in the end, more realistic than the premise initially suggests, Enough Said is another Holofcener film, which is to say, as good as anything else she’s done.

Matteo Garrone’s previous film, the bleak crime drama Gomorrah was easy to admire but hard to fully embrace, not so much due to its subject matter but to its nearly clinical apathy. This follow-up (and second Grand Prix Cannes winner in a row) is decidedly lighter, following Naples fishmonger and small-time con man, Luciano (Aniello Arena). After witnessing the fame and fortune it has brought one of its contestants, he obsesses over securing a spot on Italy’s version of the reality TV show Big Brother. The film further illustrates Garrone’s technical mastery with its lengthy, brilliant tracking shots and gorgeous saturated colors—at times, the jaunty pacing and extravagant set pieces (the opening wedding sequence is of a piece with all of cinema’s great ones) resembles a Fellini film, albeit one of the relatively restrained ones like La Dolce Vita. He also has a good find in Arena, a real life ex-gangster (Gomorrah depicted his kind) who makes his film debut here and serves as an actual protagonist. Even when he starts to go a little mad, he’s magnetic and sympathetic enough to hold your attention. It’s less clear how effectively Garrone satirizes a television genre that’s arguably already beyond lampooning, but then again, Reality is less about how Big Brother makes one a celebrity and more about how it skews our own perceptions of celebrity and aspirations on becoming one.

Also seen:
Like most Baz Luhrmann pictures, The Great Gatsby is all sensory-overload fabulousness in its first hour and a snoozefest thereafter. DiCaprio and Maguire are well-cast, and Mulligan at least looks the part though her Daisy is a bit of a blank; again, why did this adaptation have to be made, and is Luhrmann’s anachronism-shtick finally starting to get old? … 20+ years on, Slacker continues to age tremendously well, a definitive record of a subculture that anticipates mumblecore while still resembling nothing else … All That Jazz, on the other hand, feels a tad dated and retains less spontaneity and thrills than it did on my last viewing a decade ago; that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable, carefully controlled mess. One revelation: Ryan Gosling could be Roy Scheider circa this film come 2025 … celebrated the Halloween season with Young Frankenstein (first viewing in a theater) and Rosemary’s Baby (second) on the Coolidge’s big screen; they remain two all-time greats that I can’t imagine ever tiring of (if I don’t view them every single year, that is).

Human Behavior: SHORT TERM 12 and DON JON

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield


On the TV series UNITED STATES OF TARA, Alison Brie excelled at playing a complicated teenager: initially shallow and self-absorbed, over three seasons her character convincingly grew into a somewhat wiser, if still searching young adult. Still, if you only know Brie from that show or from supporting parts in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and THE SPECTACULAR NOW, her leading turn here is a revelation. As Grace, a young woman managing a group home for at-risk teens, Brie exudes confidence without any strain or palpable effort. You immediately sense how mature and genuine for her age Grace is, and how naturally she acts as a caregiver who can transition between nurturing and disciplining her charges.  She also conveys how her professional demeanor co-exists with her personal anxieties and concerns—both those she shares with her co-worker/long-term boyfriend, the lovably scruffy Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) and those she can’t bring herself to divulge, not to him or anyone else.

Writer/Director Destin Cretton is also someone to watch. An adaptation/expansion of his own short, the film occasionally reminds me of Ryan Fleck’s and Anna Boden’s HALF NELSON (also adapted from a short), particularly in how carefully it reveals various plot points—for instance, we gradually learn something relevant about Mason’s past during a family reunion, but your heart almost skips a beat upon discovering it because it’s relayed so beautifully that the sentiment it invites feels earned.  Likewise, when Marcus (Keith Stanfield), one of the elder teens asks the others to each take a sheet of colored paper, it’s a seemingly random, unexplained moment that fully resonates a few scenes on. If Cretton doesn’t prevent Grace’s burgeoning angst from turning into melodrama late in the film, at least he allows her (and the audience) some release. While it provides ample closure for Grace and Mason, the film’s cyclical conclusion also reinforces a notion rare in a medium where happy endings are the norm: some problems aren’t fully solvable, so you learn to deal with them the best, most proactive way you possibly can.  Grade: A-

don jon


Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the rare child actor who, as an adult has sculpted a markedly distinct career and identity. He’s also difficult to pin down, having convincingly played everything from a gay hustler (MYSTERIOUS SKIN) to a lovesick indie-boy ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) to a thinking person’s action hero (LOOPER). In this, his directorial debut, he stars as Jon Martello, a New Jersey muscle-head. An upstanding working-class mook devoted to his friends, family and church, he fashions himself a ladies’ man, albeit one who finds more pleasure out of watching pornography than from having sex with actual women. Jon is not a type you’d ever expect Gordon-Levitt to pull off, but he fully commits to the part. His thoroughness in making Jon more than just a caricature aptly parallels the character’s own obsessive, rigorous behavior.

As an actor, Gordon-Levitt has great chemistry with both Scarlett Johansson (as Barbara, a beautiful but domineering nice girl he attempts to date), and Julianne Moore (as Esther, a slightly quirky middle-aged woman he befriends while taking a night college class). As a director, however, he’s assured but not always successful. His use of repetition (such as multiple shots of Jon walking down a gym hallway to his daily workout) is effective in depicting Jon as a slave to his routines, but sometimes his quick, transitional cuts come off as flashy and superfluous. The film’s first half is also tonally inconsistent, as if he’s unsure whether to satirize or sympathize with the macho dude culture Jon seems the epitome of. Happily, the film’s second half is steadier and considerably deeper, particularly as Esther becomes a more prominent figure in Jon’s life. Admittedly, it’s a little corny—life lessons are learned and Jon, despite himself, becomes a Better Person. But Gordon-Levitt and his cast (which also includes a very funny Alison Brie as Jon’s mute-by-choice sister) know how to sell such hokum. DON JON has its share of broad strokes (so to speak), but as a whole, it leaves a pleasantly sweet aftertaste.  Grade: B

Stuck Between Stations: BLUE JASMINE


As protagonists in Woody Allen films go, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has to be one of the least likable. A New York socialite stripped of her wealth after the arrest of her Bernie Madoff-esque husband (Alec Baldwin), she scurries off to San Francisco to live with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Upon arriving at her new digs, she sashays around in a perpetual, deeply affected stupor, criticizing everything about Ginger’s life, from her modest apartment (shabby but still chic enough for an Allen film) to her greaseball boyfriend named Chili (Bobby Cannavale)—yes, Chili. Jasmine serves as a prototypical fish out of water (and, as many have noted, a faint gloss on Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire)–she’s a ripe, deserving candidate for a comeuppance.

Fortunately, BLUE JASMINE isn’t always that simplistic. Although Allen continually lets slip how out of touch he is with the real world (Jasmine taking a computer course? In 2013?), his examination of class and identity is one of his more compelling recent themes. Through Jasmine, he seems to ask if someone like her is truly capable of reinvention or prone to the same old destructive patterns due to her own hubris. Blanchett’s performance is a breathless tour de force because, with great care, she presents Jasmine as a woman who is constantly straddling these two poles, trying to adjust to her new surroundings and move on with her life but incapable of ignoring how her life has changed and what she’s lost. As Allen gradually reveals more about her past, our perception of her also changes significantly. At the end I didn’t know whether to pity Jasmine or feel vindicated by her many losses. At its best, BLUE JASMINE could almost be a pitch-black comedy if it wasn’t ultimately so sad.  Grade: B+




As the old saying goes, THE ACT OF KILLING must be seen to be believed. Few other nonfiction films swerve so fluidly between riotous absurdity and appalling horror; this one’s often both simultaneously. In 1965, Indonesia’s military overthrew its government. Consequently, death squads composed of gangsters-for-hire and various paramilitary groups slaughtered over two million communist citizens. Nearly half a century later, director Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to interview some of these surviving death squad leaders. None of them were ever punished for their acts—after all, what they did was legal in their regime; to this day, they’re perceived as pillars of a society where youth paramilitary outfits continue to flourish.

Oppenheimer could have profiled these men, left it at that and ended up with an interesting film, even something worthy of Errol Morris or Werner Herzog (two of this film’s producers). Instead, he did something nearly brilliant and kind of crazy: he asked the men to make a movie of sorts, one recreating the various ways in which they exterminated the communists. Much of THE ACT OF KILLING is a behind-the-scenes account of those efforts. A few of the recreations take a deliberately cinematic, “entertaining” approach: one meticulously stylizes itself like a 1940s gangster noir, complete with heavy shadows and period suits, while another features a chorus of dancing girls, exotic, colorful locales like a scenic waterfall, one of the more portly men done up in elaborate drag (wearing sparkly, revealing outfits that would make Divine blush) and a rendition of a 1960s movie theme song that you’ll never, ever hear the same way again.

Some of the recreations are far more realistic and startlingly so. When a depiction of an attack on a rural village casts hundreds of present-day villagers as victims, the filming itself ends up so raw and intense that more than a few “victims” are genuinely traumatized by the experience. The whole process is highly disturbing to watch, all but forcing us to ask, why produce these recreations? Are they meant to shock the audience in showing how brutal these acts could be? Or are they more for the killers’ benefit, an attempt to get at least a few of them (and by default, the society at large) to realize, decades removed, how immoral these acts were and what real implications they had on their victims?

As the recreations play out, their impact on the killers is not always crystal clear. Many seem generally unaffected by the acts, none more so than Adi Zulkadry, whom we first see exiting a plane wearing a black t-shirt with the word “Apathetic” in big yellow letters sprawled across the front. Zulkadry is unrepentant to an extreme regarding his participation in the killings—he gives off a sense of being at peace with himself, only becoming cagey when Oppenheimer pushes the notion that he did anything immoral. In contrast, consider Anwar Congo, one of the most revered killers whom the film slowly gravitates toward. An almost beatific, gaunt, white-haired elder, he initially makes excuses for the killings, telling us he learned to live with them by partaking in a lot of “eating, boozing, dancing” (promptly doing a pathetic little jig for the camera). Then, as the recreations commence, we discover just how haunted the killings have left him. One of his recurring nightmares even becomes fodder for a dream sequence in the recreations, while Congo himself plays the victim in the gangster noir pastiche.

A simpler film would conclude with Congo full of remorse and begging the director or perhaps one of the victim’s descendants for forgiveness. Instead, Oppenheimer conveys this project’s moral complexity with two astonishing final scenes. The first illustrates how wide the chasm between action and perception distressingly remains for Congo, while the second captures, with chilling austerity, an involuntary guttural reaction to that chasm when he directly faces his own past.  Grade: A

Art and Entertainment: MUSEUM HOURS and THE WAY WAY BACK



Art is a tricky subject for a movie. Most filmmakers take the artist biopic route (and many of them end up feeling stuffy and hermetic) while others utilize a more experimental approach (RUSSIAN ARK and its feature-length tracking shot, for example) often emphasizing form over content. Jem Cohen’s film undoubtedly falls into the latter category, which is expected given the director’s unconventional, decades-long filmography of Super 8 shorts, still-photo heavy tone poems, feature-length documentaries and other numerous hard-to-classify works. However, here he centers our focus towards the film’s content (in this case, the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna), even when it leaves the museum for other environs. Without trying to sound too scholarly, his thesis is to show how art complements and also has the potential to complete one’s life.

Although it resembles a documentary at times (observing patrons of the museum as they view its collections), MUSEUM HOURS is primarily a narrative film with two characters: Johann (Bobby Sommer), a middle-aged guard/docent at the Kunsthistorisches, and Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian visiting Austria to watch over her cousin, who lies comatose in a nearby hospital. As Anne begins frequenting the museum, she and Johann become close friends. Their initial conversations relate strictly to art and getting around Vienna, but as they start meeting up outside the museum, they find themselves confiding in each other and reflecting on a plethora of topics: food, sex, death, the band AC/DC.  We see how art can serve as a jumping-off point to our thoughts, laments, hopes and desires (no matter how profound or mundane).

If this all sounds a tad pretentious, it’s not, thankfully. Early on, Cohen sets a modest, low-key tone (there’s no musical score) with wistfully paced opening shots of Vienna in all of its historical beauty (and some of its industrial squalor). Soon, he begins alternating between actual landscapes and close-ups of the museum’s paintings, making the connection between art and life clear but with a graceful, understated touch. Even an extended scene that amounts to a presentation on Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel by a visiting lecturer (Ela Piplits) feels far from dry due to her becalmed but passionate demeanor in making fully accessible what Bruegel means to her. Still, the most compelling parts of MUSEUM HOURS often feature Johann and Anne, alone and together—for instance, cult singer/songwriter O’Hara sings two songs to herself which are as breathtaking as any of the visual art featured. Art may complete one’s life, but it’s the living that gives art meaning.  Grade: A-


As summertime, sorta-indie crowd-pleasing dramadies go, this directorial effort from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (screenwriters of THE DESCENDANTS) ain’t half bad. Actually, it’s wonderful whenever Sam Rockwell appears as a snarky but good-hearted New England resort town water park employee who takes the film’s lead, a vacationing 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, disarmingly natural) under his wing, encouraging the boy to find himself. Often ignored or misused, Rockwell is perfectly cast here, adept at both the humor and pathos the part requires and showing no strain in expressing either one. As for the Rockwell-less sections of the film, the conflict between Duncan, his divorced mother (a muted Toni Colette) and her jerk boyfriend Lance (Steve Carell) is less engaging if only because Lance is such a relentlessly awful jerk that I came to dread the mere sight of him onscreen. No fault of Carell’s, who successfully plays against type, giving his all to finding any possible nuance in the character. Allison Janney’s fitfully funny as a perpetually sloshed neighbor, but she already did that part more successfully in AWAY WE GO. As filmmakers, Faxon and Rash aren’t quite at Alexander Payne’s level, but they’re always sincere. While that alone doesn’t propel THE WAY WAY BACK to greatness, you nonetheless appreciate how its presence drives and enhances the film.  Grade: B



ONLY GOD FORGIVES is similar to DRIVE, only without any redeemable characters, narrative momentum, or moral structure whatsoever. That may sound a little glib, but sadly, it’s not much of an exaggeration. Once again working with director Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling is an American drug dealer in Thailand, seeking revenge for his reprehensible brother’s death at the goading of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), an operatic villain (when posed with cigarette in hand, she rather resembles a bottle-blonde, 70s-era evil Cher). Gosling has a knack for conveying a lot with his minimalist technique, but here he has nothing to work with. Scott Thomas is far more committed in playing the vamp—it’s not a great performance but a ripe, juicy one along the lines of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, only with more control.

One can admire the film on a purely technical level: the darkened, neon-suffused locales all look great and Cliff Martinez’s score is as accomplished as the one he did for DRIVE but just different enough to not feel like a retread. In every other regard, however, the film is a mess. The story makes hardly any sense, the violence often seems present only for its shock value (why does Gosling drag a seemingly random guy down a hallway by his teeth?) and, most alarmingly, the editing and pacing are entirely off—for all of his stylistic confidence, Refn’s direction feels clumsy and confused. Look, DRIVE was my favorite film of 2011—it was seductive, convincing, and psychologically complex and it contained a discernible heart, even if it was submerged under a lot of surface gloss. Here, Refn’s so fixated on the surface he’s neglected everything else; the result is pretty but absolutely joyless and consequently, excruciating.  Grade: D+


Michael B. Jordan in FRUITVALE STATION

Michael B. Jordan in FRUITVALE STATION



So powerful and upsetting are the last twenty-odd minutes of Ryan Coogler’s debut feature that it’s not hard to see why it won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. In recreating the moments that led up to the real life tragic shooting of Oscar Grant by a transit cop at the Oakland locale that provides the film’s title, Coogler guides the audience through a chain of events that, while often speculative, feel chillingly realistic as the tone nimbly shifts from celebration to sudden conflict to escalating chaos and ultimately, appalling brutality. Even though the film opens with actual footage of the event recorded off of a witness’ cell phone, this dramatic reenactment at the conclusion still packs a punch to the gut.

I’d almost hail Coogler as a major talent if the rest of FRUITVALE STATION didn’t illustrate how shamelessly manipulative a filmmaker he often is. Those fifty-odd minutes before the final chain of events imagine what Grant’s last day alive was like prior to those moments. While Coogler likely drew upon as many artifacts as he could, he also questioningly filled in some considerable blanks—it’s one thing to depict Grant as a man loving enough to care for his young daughter and affable enough to casually assist a stranger at a supermarket deli counter, and quite another to devise a scenario where he witnesses a car hitting and killing a lovable dog to show what a kind, decent soul he is when he cradles the poor, dying mutt in his arms. Although we occasionally see his temperamental, less savory side, he’s ultimately rendered more of a saint than a sinner, prodding us to ignore any shades of gray surrounding his fate.

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan at times seems a bit low-key for what should be a potentially star-making role, but his professionalism and ease solidly anchor the film. As his mom, Octavia Spencer exudes an almost effortless grace and subtlety in her scenes with him to the point where you wish there was much more of her on screen. Other figures, such as Grant’s long-suffering girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and the aforementioned supermarket customer (Ahna O’Reilly) seem two-dimensional in comparison.

By nature, FRUITVALE STATION is difficult to fully disparage because it basically amounts to a work of protest towards an unfortunate incident of grave injustice (and in light of the Trayvon Martin case, a blatantly relevant one). Still, the way in which it fictionalizes what led up to the incident doesn’t really do justice to Grant’s memory. Rather than end the film at Grant’s death, I would’ve preferred that Coogler considered more in-depth the lingering aftereffects of this incident (particularly those on his family and community) or that he had simply made a documentary instead.  Grade: B-


Not just an unexpected hit, BRIDESMAIDS was a real phenomenon. For this encore, director Paul Feig aims to subvert another genre (the buddy cop flick, as opposed to a rom-com) and casts the previous film’s breakout actress, Melissa McCarthy as one of the two leads. As an uncouth, foul-mouthed, salt-of-the-earth East Boston beat detective, she’s just as gonzo and committed as you’d expect her to be—in fact, because she’s now famous enough to carry such expectations, her appearance doesn’t delightfully surprise you the way it did in BRIDESMAIDS and thus feels a tad less special. Fortunately, she has excellent chemistry with the film’s other lead, Sandra Bullock, who, as a buttoned-up, by-the-book New York FBI agent,  hasn’t been this funny in years (since MISS CONGENIALITY, maybe?).  Bullock and McCarthy hits giddy highs whenever they’re together, especially when doing little of consequence (the nightlong bender-at-a-dive-bar extended sequence is so good you almost wish it was twice as long); when Feig emphasizes the generic crime plot over the quirks of these two characters, the pacing drags and the distaff buddy-cop thing feels far less subversive (if at all).  THE HEAT is much earthier (and more fun) than SEX AND THE CITY, but is in nowhere near the same league as NINE TO FIVE.  Grade: B

Other Voices

Merry Clayton in 20 Feet From Stardom

Merry Clayton in 20 Feet From Stardom



I see so many films that I sometimes forget what makes one exceptional. I guess a cynic could dismiss this documentary about backup singers as simply a slick, manipulative, entertaining crowd pleaser with a topic only a complete grouch wouldn’t love; there’s nothing really inaccurate in that assessment. And yet, from the opening credits introducing the film’s subjects via a lush montage of graphics and color set to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, I was completely hooked, barely able to sit still in my seat (as I sensed most other people in the theater were, too).

The women of 20 FEET FROM STARDOM run the gamut from 1960s and ’70s stalwarts such as Darlene Love (who sang on many vintage hits produced by Phil Spector) and Merry Clayton (best known for her thunderous part on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) to more contemporary performers such as Lisa Fischer (an idiosyncratic jazzbo who has sung with the Stones on tour for the past two decades) and Judith Hill, and up-and-comer who was selected to be Michael Jackson’s duet partner on his This Is It tour (which never came to pass because of his death). While each woman has a distinct narrative (and personality to match), similar motifs emerge in nearly every tale: a childhood spent singing in a church choir, appearances on Motown, r&b and rock and roll hits, industry recognition that eventually leads to a solo record deal, solo record(s) that flop, followed by a fall into obscurity or a retreat to backup parts.

Although each tale has enough of a dramatic arc for an episode of VH-1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC, the film fortunately takes a higher road, channeling its focus towards the profession itself and its value. We not only learn how background vocalists came to be a thing in pop music but also specifically how they often add something essential to a musical piece. Songs are played with and without the backing vocals to illustrate this, and interviews with musical icons such as Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Bette Midler not only drive the point home but also provide a fascinating point of view from the literal (and metaphorical) opposite end of the stage or recording studio.

So, you have a compelling topic, interesting subjects, considerable depth of inquiry and lots of great music—what more could you want? Well, what elevates this documentary from good to great is its confident, exciting rhythms. From scene to scene, it’s masterfully constructed, full of crisp, clear editing in which the whole film seems to effortlessly soar. In exploring all of these talented ladies’ triumphs and tragedies, it weaves together a wide-reaching tapestry that justifiably gives them their due.  Grade: A


A brief bio of George Plimpton would say that he was a journalist and co-founder of venerable literary magazine The Paris Review. Still, more so than Jean Shepherd, Truman Capote or even David Sedaris, Plimpton was most famous for being himself. The idea seems commonplace now, but Plimpton pioneered first-person journalism by inserting himself into the reportage and becoming an active participant (thankfully, he had the extroverted and engagingly wry personality to pull this off). For people of my generation who only remember him for his late-in-life appearance on THE SIMPSONS, this cheekily but accurately titled documentary is occasionally a little dry but often a revelation, drawing on tons of archival footage to create a stirring tribute and an enlightening analysis of his small but significant contribution to his field. While often dismissed as a dilettante for wanting to try everything and not commit to creating great art of his own, the man that emerges here comes off as someone who knew exactly what he was doing, but with an air of genuine curiosity rather than the career-driven cynicism that defines a majority of today’s reality TV “stars”—if Plimpton were still alive, you bet he’d have his own weekly series, and it would likely be great.  Grade: B+


Joss Whedon’s take on this Shakespeare play is a total lark and has few pretensions of being anything more. Shot on the fly in black-and-white over twelve days at Whedon’s own home, it contemporizes the setting and costumes but keeps the original dialogue. The solid ensemble cast includes mostly Whedon regulars, with the biggest name being a notably bloated Nathan Fillion (FIREFLY, CASTLE) as constable Dogberry. His performance is also a highlight, sly and humorous without going anywhere near the grotesque eccentricity Michael Keaton lent the role in Kenneth Branagh’s big-budget, star-studded, sun-kissed version from twenty years ago. Elsewhere, Alexis Denisoff and Amy Acker make for a perfectly fine Benedict and Beatrice, and the Claudio (Fran Kanz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) subplot, particularly dramatic in itself for one of the Bard’s comedies, is handled gracefully and avoids being maudlin. After a slow start, the film finds its groove: a little loose, often lighter than air, fun but grounded enough to take seriously. I can’t imagine it making quite the same impact on youthful viewers that the Branagh version had on my 18-year-old self, but as larks go, this one’s affable enough.  Grade: B

PIFF 15: Documentaries

Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley

The three documentaries I saw in Provincetown were all celebrity profiles. The one I anticipated the most I ended up liking the least.


A half-forgotten pop culture figure you probably never thought the world needed a documentary feature about, mid-century black comedienne Moms Mabley actually proves ideal for the format. Her career trajectory (playing to mostly black audiences until finding mainstream fame in her old age) is sheer novelty, but her status as a trailblazer (as a black and as a female stand-up) and as a subversive (her likable, bug-eyed and toothless old lady persona rendered her harmless on the surface, allowing her to get some pretty politically radical material across) makes the case for her cultural significance—you leave this film wondering why it took so long for someone to make it.

In her filmmaking debut, actress Whoopi Goldberg not only doesn’t embarrass herself, she mostly skirts hagiography to curate a thoughtful, balanced, visually and emotionally engaging portrait. Given her own connection to Mabley as a pioneering black female comedienne of a subsequent generation, it’s appropriate that she inserts herself into the film, and her interviews with everyone from Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers to Kathy Griffin and Dick Cavett are all delightful. In addition to a treasure trove of old television clips and still photos, she illustrates her subject’s technique by matching white text on a black screen to recordings from many of Mabley’s comedy albums—a simple, obvious device, but a highly effective one, mapping out how Mabley intricately constructed her stories and their punchlines. More so than all the fond reminiscences, these sequences emphasize why Mabley, a woman very much of her time but also sneakily ahead of it deserves to be feted.  Grade: A-


Divine was great and could unquestionably carry a film, but could Harris Glen Milstead do the same? Of course, Divine was Milstead’s outrageous drag alter-ego and left such a vivid legacy behind no one would dare argue against it. I AM DIVINE revels in its construction as a Divine-opedia of sorts, fleshing out all the expected classic clips from John Waters’ oeuvre with footage from 1970s stage and cabaret performances and 1980s gay club appearances (where Divine was briefly an unlikely hi-NRG dance diva), plus many entertaining interviews with everyone who knew and admired him.

However, Divine was also Milstead, and he wanted to also be perceived as a serious (read: male) actor. As he approaches his early, sudden death in 1988 at age 42, we see him increasingly out of drag, being interviewed on national talk shows, defending himself as a seasoned performer for whom Divine was but one tiny part of his range. Unfortunately, he’s not entirely convincing and in the end, neither is this film. It wants to make a case for Divine as containing multitudes but Milstead’s attempts at “respectability” shown here can’t help but pale in comparison to Divine eating dog shit, screaming about cha-cha heels and all the rest (curiously, we get no footage of Divine-as-Milstead’s most convincing and widely seen male turn as the dumpy, racist TV station owner in Waters’ HAIRSPRAY).

Given how well-crafted his last film VITO (about The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo) was, it’s disappointing to see director Jeffrey Schwarz’s name on something that looks so hastily assembled, complete with cheapo animation and narrative padding (the whole section on fellow Waters’ cast member David Lochary’s death belongs in another film). If Schwarz really wanted to convince that Divine was much more than just Divine, he should’ve balanced the endless kitsch on display with more depth and analysis. I haven’t seen it, but, from evidence of the clips procured here, I suspect the 1998 documentary DIVINE TRASH does a better job at this, for it seems to propose that (with the possible exception of Kathleen Turner in SERIAL MOM), Waters absolutely needed Divine and vice-versa—a key to understanding each artist’s worth, and something that this film barely acknowledges.  Grade: C+


Mariel Hemingway is an accomplished actress in her own right—she even received an Academy Award nomination while in her teens for Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN. However, before anything else, most people will identify her as Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter and as an unfortunate recipient of a familial history of mental illness that led to the well-publicized suicide of Ernest, her sister Margaux and four other close relations. Now pushing fifty, Hemingway still struggles with her family’s legacy, but seems determined to live with it and not let it destroy her.

RUNNING FROM CRAZY juxtaposes accounts of Mariel’s past and the dynamics of growing up in such a famous, damaged family with her present attempts at finding peace, engaging in soulful activities both physical (rock climbing) and metaphorical (speaking at anti-suicide rallies). Much like the naturalness she exuded as an actress, Hemingway comes off as immensely likable and genuine, but credit legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple (HARLAN COUNTY USA, SHUT UP AND SING) for digging deep and guiding her subject to be comfortable and remarkably candid in front of the camera. Despite all of the stunning California and Idaho vistas, the film doesn’t feel as cinematic as it should—it was produced for OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s ratings-deficient cable-TV network (an encouraging sign that Winfrey’s attracting talent of Kopple’s caliber, though). While this lacks the fire and purpose of Kopple’s best-known aforementioned works, it’s still an affecting narrative and we can always use more films about a subject often considered too taboo to publicize and examine.  Grade: B