Monday, August 31, 2015

“A Walk In The Woods”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy “A Walk In The Woods”, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.


When a travel writer decides to go on one last adventure before retiring, he enlists the aid of an old friend to accompany him along the journey – but when old grudges resurface and bodies debilitated by age confront them, will they be able to complete their trip?


After years of living abroad, renowned travel writer Bill Bryson (Redford) is finally learning to embrace a comfortable life with his family back home in the United States.  Following the death of an acquaintance, he is forced to re-examine things and realizes while he’s spent decades writing about different countries and remote locations around the world, he has never once written about the one subject he is presumed to know best:  his own home, America.  Unsure exactly how to rectify this, he decides that before he retires, he will travel one more time – except now, he’ll stay in his native country. 

When he tells his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) he’s decided to hike the legendary Appalachian Trail, she demurs; concerned that it’s too late in his life for something so rigorous, she is unsuccessful in her attempts to dissuade him from the excursion.  She can at least claim something of a victory in that her husband finally admits it would be wise not to make this trip alone.  Bryson starts reaching out to various acquaintances to invite them.  Unsurprisingly, all decline – not just because the idea is ambitious and risky, but also, because walking the complete trail would take about half the year. 

Bryson is approached by Katz (Nolte), a buddy from decades earlier with whom he shared just as many adventures as misadventures; Katz offers to be his companion for the travel; since time is running out and Bryson is getting desperate, he accepts Katz’s proposition.  Despite immediately discovering Katz’s obvious physical limitations and amid concerns about his sobriety, Bryson nevertheless sets off with his former partner-in-crime on what is anticipated to be an on-foot journey of a couple of thousand miles.  But when their age, the elements and wild animals give the pair an unwelcomed greeting, will they be able to finish the hike or must they give up once faced with so many obstacles?


As perfectly cast as Nick Nolte seems to be in the part of Katz, Robert Redford appears somewhat miscast as Bryson; although he certainly comes across as robust and vigorous enough to undertake a strenuous endeavor, he’s not terribly convincing as the curmudgeonly, almost hermit-like author the audience is supposed to believe him to be.  Whatever edge the character of Bryson was meant to have soon softens early on in their hike.  While the screenplay is supposed to be based on Bryson’s book, the fact that he’s tempted to extracurricular activity by flirtatious hotel manager Mary Steenburgen feels like a bit of a stretch. 

One of the problems in “A Walk In The Woods” is that it lacks sufficient conflict.  For the most part, much in the way of conflict arises from the various challenges presented by mother nature.  Given these two once-close friends are forced to be alone with each other after years of estrangement, one would expect more argumentative behavior between them as they wear on each other’s nerves while the bonhomie from their reunion understandably wears thin.  Their environment should require them to face and resolve (or not) the hostilities which drove them apart, but this is absent from the film.

Director Ken Kwapis makes some interesting – if not altogether unusual – choices in the way this story is visually told.  There are signposts along the route which the audience is clearly supposed to read, but he moves the camera off them a bit too soon; there is also a scene where Bryson is reading the messages written on the back of some postcards which employs an unnecessary use of voiceover when simply allowing the audience to read them on their own would’ve been much more effective and elicited greater humor in a motion picture that already has more than its fair share of inconsistently effective jokes. 


A Walk in the Woods (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

“Queen Of Earth”– Movie Review



This week, I attended the opening night screening of the new drama, “Queen Of Earth” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center; it stars Elisabeth Moss and was written and directed by Alex Ross Perry.


After suffering multiple personal losses, a woman visits a friend in order to recuperate – but when she starts experiencing mental problems, what impact will this have on their friendship?


Catherine (Moss) has certainly had a rough go of it lately – between recently losing her father and just having been dumped by her long-time boyfriend, it’s quite understandable that she’s feeling stressed.  Ever the good friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston) offers to let Catherine stay with her at her parents’ lakeside house while her family is away.  Desperate and lonely, Catherine immediately takes Virginia up on her most generous offer – which is probably where things begin to go awry.  Upon arrival, there is a palpable sense of tension between the two women.

It doesn’t take long for Virginia to notice Catherine isn’t seeming like her normal self; her erratic behavior is unnerving and worrisome – not to mention awkward when around other people who don’t know her quite so well.  To make matters worse, Catherine is creating uncomfortable situations for Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s next door neighbor who frequently visits in the hope that he can somehow manage to develop something of a romantic relationship with Virginia.  Eventually, the two don’t even bother trying to conceal their hostile feelings toward each other.

After a few days, Catherine seems to be spiraling further into a state of mental distress, locking herself in her room, refusing to eat and abandoning her own personal care.  Virginia can only take so much of this behavior before she begins to get angry at Catherine; although she claims to be deeply concerned about her friend, she is also being severely inconvenienced herself, not to mention the fact that Catherine is turning increasingly hostile to her as well.  With the two seeming to be approaching their breaking point, will their friendship survive or will Catherine’s mental condition force an irreparable rift between the two? 


Enough cannot be said about how amazing Moss’ performance is in “Queen Of Earth”; the sheer expression on her face – the look in her eyes, in particular – is enough to convey the deeply-rooted level of insanity the character of Catherine is experiencing.  Add to this the fact that she is able to make Catherine seem completely normal via various flashbacks and that makes her performance all the more impressive.  Considering the fact that Catherine starts out weird and evolves progressively weirder, it’s a significant feat that Moss was able to maintain such a restrained portrayal.

As far as the movie itself, “Queen Of Earth” also seems to be suffering from its own severe personality disorder; its schizophrenia makes it appear as though it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a straight drama or a thriller – and the fact that it’s having difficulty finding its own identity proves a substantial problem, especially since the film has such an ambiguous ending.  Perry keeps hinting that it might be more than just a character study about how one woman deals with loss, but these merely turn out to be teases done with the intention of misdirecting the audience. 

Following the screening, writer/director Alex Ross Perry and star/co-producer Elisabeth Moss engaged in a question and answer session.  Perry said that although his last couple of films were released about a year after production, he did not consider this a particularly fast pace; for him, keeping this sort of a schedule feels about right – anything shorter and he’d feel rushed and anything longer would make him feel it was dragging on.  Since the movie was shot in chronological order (instead of out-of-sequence, which is the case with most films), Moss was asked if this and the fact that it was mostly confined to a single set made it feel like a stage play; she replied that it did not because with a play, there is commonly a month of rehearsal, which is rare with a motion picture (Moss recently starred on Broadway in a revival of “The Heidi Chronicles”). 

Queen of Earth (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

“Grandma”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Grandma”, a comedy starring Lily Tomlin.


When a teenager needs money for an abortion, she asks her grandmother for help – but with the woman also cash-poor, can she manage to find a way to assist her granddaughter?


It’s been a year and a half since Elle (Tomlin) lost Violet, her companion of 38 years, after a long illness.  Despite that, she still doesn’t appear to be over the loss quite yet; four months into a relationship with the much-younger Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle picks a fight and dumps her.  Elle isn’t allowed to wallow in her self-pity very long when she’s visited by Sage (Julia Garner), her granddaughter.  Unfortunately for both of them, this is no social call; Sage explains that her boyfriend has knocked her up and she must borrow money for an abortion. 

With Elle low on funds herself, she nevertheless remains determined to help Sage; together, they venture out about town to see if various other people can be of some assistance.  First stop is the obvious one, Sage’s boyfriend; under threat of physical violence, he finally coughs up some cash, but not nearly enough to cover the procedure.  Then, Elle tries to sell some books from her own personal library – but once she learns that they aren’t as valuable as she believed, the plan must be abandoned.  Next, they pay a visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), Elle’s ex-boyfriend; when things did not end well between them years ago, she must grovel to get the cash – but learning of the true reason for her urgency, Karl rescinds his offer.

Left with no further alternatives, Elle and Sage realize it’s now time to seek out Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), the absolutely last person on earth Sage wanted to know about her predicament.  Having had a falling-out some time back, Judy is not too pleased to see Elle; predictably, she goes ballistic upon being told of her daughter’s pregnancy, but agrees to help her regardless.  Once the situation has been addressed and Elle returns to life as normal, can she now figure out how to resolve some of the relationships that she went out of her way to ruin?


Although it may be somewhat difficult to consider Paul Weitz, writer-director of “Grandma”, to be a feminist filmmaker, that is precisely how he comes across in this movie; it is so female-centric and male-phobic, one might suspect it was both conceived and executed by a woman (or at the very least, he made sure that his screenplay passed the infamous Bechdel Test prior to being lensed).  The result, however, is a movie that is trite and clichéd despite the best efforts of its excellent cast – Lily Tomlin in particular – to elevate its material. 

All of that having been said, it seems both odd and even contradictory to state that in the one scene with Sam Elliott, he steals it – if not the entire movie, it might be argued.  His performance as Karl, Elle’s lover before having met Violet, is a central point in the movie and he delivers it well; initially understated, Elliott builds a momentum in the scene before finally exploding in its emotionally powerful culmination, which also sets the story on its ear, given all of the exposition delivered.  Equally good is the ever-reliable Judy Greer, to the point that you wind up wishing her Olivia had more of a presence. 

While this may have been intended as a vehicle for Tomlin to show off her skills in what may very well be her farewell performance in movies (at least in a lead role), the character of Elle is too much of a querulous virago to garner much in the way of sympathy from the audience.  Perhaps one possible explanation for this may be the fact that since Elle is in her 70’s, she is feeling stress over her life nearing its end and is experiencing considerable regret over the way it has turned out; that may be a way of understanding why Elle misbehaves the way she does – but it could also be giving the filmmaker an unjustifiably generous benefit of the doubt. 

Grandma (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, August 13, 2015

“Mistress America”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new comedy “Mistress America” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center; it stars Greta Gerwig who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach.


When a college student meets her stepsister-to-be, she is impressed at her nonconformist behavior – but when the woman suspects the student of betraying her, will the relationship be permanently ruined?


Tracy (Lola Kirke) is struggling through her freshman year in college – struggling to keep her grades up and struggling to make friends.  Just as she suspects there may be a budding romance with Tony (Matthew Shear), he winds up getting a girlfriend.  But Tracy has bigger plans:  she aspires to a career as a writer.  To this end, she is constantly writing and submitting material to Mobius, her school’s highly regarded literary periodical.  Distracting Tracy from both her schoolwork and personal life is that her mother (Kathryn Erbe) is remarrying.  With an impending wedding, Tracy decides to reach out to Brooke (Gerwig), the 30 year old woman who will soon be her stepsister.

From the moment Tracy first meets Brooke in Times Square, she is awestruck by this self-proclaimed autodidact who never attended college.  Her entrepreneurial spirit and devil-may-care attitude cut an impressive figure for this impressionable young woman.  Together, these two women spend the evening painting the town red; they hang out at bars, attend parties and meet new people before calling it quits with Tracy crashing at Brooke’s place.  Upon awakening the next morning, Tracy realizes that not only is she going to like having Brooke as a stepsister, but she may have also found herself a new heroine as well. 

As it turns out, Tracy may have found Brooke to be an inspiration for her writing, too.  She soon composes a short story which is her latest submission to Mobius; in it, the protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Brooke.  When Brooke accidentally learns of this abridged roman-a-clef, she is both hurt and insulted; not only is the main character portrayed in what she believes to be an unattractive fashion, but also, she feels that Tracy has used her purely for the sole purpose of advancing her standing.  With Tracy now on the outs with Brooke, can she repair their relationship before their respective parents wed or will they remain enemies forever? 


Whether Noah Baumbach sees comparisons between himself and Woody Allen as a compliment or an albatross may never be fully knowable, however, the similarities are striking.  Both are filmmakers with an exceptional string of good movies to their credit and they excel at comedy; both have or had a girlfriend who served double-duty as a muse (for Baumbach, it’s Gerwig while Allen had Diane Keaton).  Both make very New York films.  But one thing Baumbach has that Allen doesn’t is a keen eye and ear for crafting stories that are very much tuned to a modern 21st century audience. 

If you’re looking for a fun screwball comedy to keep you cool on these dwindling hot summer days, you won’t do much better than “Mistress America”; it is packed with so many hilariously funny lines, quoting only one would be an unforgiveable spoiler.  In Brooke, Gerwig and Baumbach have succeeded in creating a character who is simultaneously pretentious and vacuous in addition to being laughable in her boorishness.  Ultimately, this woman is confronted with recognizing herself as being the loser that she truly is, despite the hapless façade she chooses to display publicly. 

Following the screening, both Gerwig and Baumbach were interviewed.  Gerwig said that while she tries to keep the performing and writing aspects separate when she’s developing a character, she admitted that inevitably, one winds up informing the other.  As far as the character of Tracy is concerned, Gerwig claimed that she based much of it on herself when she was going to college at Barnard, where she originally wanted to become a dancer, not an actress.  Baumbach said that he prefers to try to keep the budget for his movies approximately the same; while this obviously imposes certain limitations on him, he feels that it also provides certain freedom as well (such as spending more time on specific shots). 


Mistress America (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, August 06, 2015

“Ricki And The Flash”– Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Ricki And The Flash” starring Meryl Streep, directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Diablo Cody.


When a woman visits her family after abandoning them years earlier to pursue a music career, will she be able to repair the relationships she’s broken by her choice?


Decades ago, Ricki Randazzo (Streep) started a family with her then-husband Pete (Kevin Kline): two sons, Adam (Nick Westrate) and Josh (Sebastian Stan) and one daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer). Still unfulfilled, she divorced Pete and left the family to start a career as a rock-and-roll singer. Joining a band called The Flash, they play cover songs by famous rock bands and perform in bars throughout California to small audiences of varying ages. Although never finding success after all of these years, Ricki is nevertheless happy living this lifestyle, despite the fact that she has to support herself by making a meager living as a cashier at a supermarket chain.

Having not heard from her family in quite some time, Ricki is surprised to suddenly get a call from Pete, who insists she visit because Julie recently attempted suicide. Ricki breaks the news to the band’s lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield) that she must leave town due to a family emergency and heads off to Indianapolis for a brief family reunion. Once there, none of her adult children are happy to see her, including and especially Julie, who is now heavily medicated and under the care of a psychiatrist. Julie explains the reason for her suicide attempt was due to her husband leaving her for another woman.

Later, when Pete’s wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) shows up and proves to Ricki that she has been quite capable of providing the domestic stability Ricki could not, Maureen has a tête–à–tête with Ricki and advises her that she is no longer wanted or needed in this family and that her presence is a mere distraction during an otherwise difficult time. Angrily, Ricki returns to her band to continue their low-paying gigs when Maureen attempts a peace offering by inviting her to Josh’s upcoming wedding. Can a conflicted Ricki attend the wedding or will she permanently put her family behind her forever?


With Meryl Streep starring, Jonathan Demme directing and Diablo Cody crafting the screenplay, it is both shocking and disappointing that “Ricki And The Flash” comes across as nothing more than a made-for-TV movie that has big names attached. Cody’s comedy is very hit-or-miss and there are many opportunities for more jokes that are missed altogether. Streep and Demme appear to be onboard for this solely because of the music angle. Streep singing in her rock-hound character and Demme shooting a variant of a musical. The other thing these two appear to have in common is their nepotistic hiring practices: judging from the credits, Demme seems to have employed some of his family while Streep has her real-life daughter playing her movie-daughter.

Streep seems to go overboard emoting during the numbers, rather than merely perform them, which probably would’ve been a more realistic performance (and considerably less cringe-worthy). As far as the way the music scenes are shot, there does not appear to be anything creative or inventive Demme adds to them; aside from occasional close-ups of some of Springfield’s guitar solos, there’s really not much interesting to watch there. Cody’s screenplay wants us to believe that Ricki has been beaten up enough throughout the movie that she deserves a happy ending of some sort, but the resolution of the story is really not terribly believable.

“Ricki And The Flash” is very much a woman’s tale in the sense that it asks the question of why a woman will be shamed for leaving her family to pursue a different lifestyle whereas a man who did the same thing might be commended. Unfortunately, this movie is built on a false premise and seems to suddenly become somewhat aware of it too late. Any sort of edge Diablo Cody may have had in her writing appears to have been lost, or at the very least, missing in this particular script. The story here seems to have been kidnapped by The Movie Reality Of Magical Thinking and contrivances abound. 


Ricki and the Flash (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

“The Diary Of A Teenage Girl”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” starring Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård.


When a teenage girl discovers her sexual awakening, how will it impact her life with family and friends?


As a teenager in the hip, funky era of the mid-1970’s, Minnie (Bel Powley) is starting to become aware of her own sexuality. An unfortunate by-product of this is the fact that she is finding herself being drawn to Monroe (Skarsgård), who just so happens to be the boyfriend of her mother, Charlotte (Wiig). Unsure if Monroe is attracted to her, Minnie boldly comes on to him at the first opportunity when they are alone; seeing that he’s receptive to her advances, they decide to go for it. Delighted at having finally lost her virginity -- and especially that it was with such an experienced man as Monroe -- Minnie decides to make an audio recording of her adventure so that she will have it for posterity.

Pascal (Christopher Meloni), Minnie’s father, is deeply concerned about his daughter’s well-being. After the divorce, Pascal moved to New York City. Although he calls periodically to inquire about her situation, Pascal suspects Charlotte’s irresponsible behavior may be having a negative impact on Minnie. Pascal starts hinting it would be best if Minnie moved to New York where he could keep a closer eye on her. When Minnie starts expanding her circle of friends to include sexual experimentation with young men and women closer to her own age, Monroe begins to feel they should end their affair because it may be bad for her and also harmful to his relationship to Charlotte.

The love triangle implodes when Charlotte finds and listens to Minnie’s audio tapes graphically detailing her sexual encounters with Monroe. Charlotte confronts them and decides they should be together. Unnerved by this, Charlotte immediately runs away, crashing with a friend she made one night while out partying. After a few days, things take a turn for the weird and she regretfully returns home to learn Charlotte is now unemployed (leaving her more time for drinking and drugs) and has dumped Monroe. With things having changed so drastically and dramatically, can Minnie repair her relationship with Charlotte or will she be forced to live with Pascal in New York City?


Perhaps it’s an interesting coincidence that “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” is set in 1976 San Francisco because based on the way the movie is shot, its quality resembles that of a porn flick from that precise time and place. It is also coincidental that the use of animation and subplots about hallucinogenic drugs of the time are employed because of the film’s digressive nature. This might also account for why some things in the motion picture don’t quite parse (e.g., Why did Charlotte carry groceries upstairs when coming home? Is the kitchen in their house on the second floor? Also, how exactly did Charlotte find Minnie’s tapes? Did she stumble across them while cleaning her room or just snooping around?).

Although “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” is slightly over an hour and a half, there is the remarkable sense that its running time is much longer. A little more than an hour into the film, you may find yourself wondering not just how this story will resolve itself, but when it will end. Boredom sets in after a while once you’ve been pelted with just about every unusual situation imaginable. As it nears the end of the second act, it begins to either lose steam or lose interest in its own story; whatever momentum it may have had up until that point seems as though it gets lost, quite possibly out of sheer exhaustion.

Admittedly, “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” may be similar to Lena Dunham’s HBO television series “Girls” in the sense that it might be somewhat wasted on anyone other than its target audience: women -- and more specifically, young women. If you are not part of that demographic -- either by gender or age, if not both -- then this might not necessarily seem like the most appealing entertainment option. Additionally, there is the matter of how Minnie relates to Monroe after their affair concludes; she comes across as somewhat bitter and angry at him and it’s a little unclear why, since they both appeared to satisfy a deep-seated need the other had. Whether Minnie is better or worse by the end of the motion picture could also be a matter of opinion.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) on IMDb

Monday, August 03, 2015

“Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing”– Book Review



This summer, I’ve been reading, “Ava Gardner:  Love Is Nothing” – a biography by Lee Server.


On Christmas Eve of 1922, Ava Gardner was born into a family of modest means in the small southern town of Grabtown, North Carolina.  If only men knew at the time what trouble they would be in for in decades to come.  In her late teens, Ava visited her much-older sister Beatrice (nicknamed “Bappie”) in New York City, which turned out to be a major turning point in her life.  A friend of Bappie’s was a professional photographer who recognized a striking young woman when he saw one:  he asked Ava to pose for a photograph that he could put in the window of his shop – and when it was noticed by an executive from the MGM motion picture company, Ava soon got a screen test and was offered an acting contract.  Not long after, she and her sister were off to Los Angeles to prove to the world what a big deal she was. 

After a few small roles, Ava finally got her big break when she appeared as a femme fatale opposite another Hollywood newcomer, Burt Lancaster, in “The Killers”, an adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story.  Eventually, she was on her way to be known as one of the sexiest movie stars in the motion picture business (although not much was made of her acting ability at the time; MGM had to give her speech lessons to rid Gardner of her southern accent).  Ava’s first marriage was to another MGM employee, actor Mickey Rooney, who by then was already a major star; he was also a major womanizer, which was why the marriage didn’t last very long.  Ultimately, Ava remarried – this time to bandleader Artie Shaw, who emotionally/psychologically abused her, effectively ending that marriage, too (he would belittle her in front of others because of her limited education).  In better days, Shaw memorialized their sex life by penning a song titled, “The Grabtown Grapple”. 

Her final – and arguably most notorious – marriage was to singer Frank Sinatra.  They were an explosive pair and separated for a long time before eventually divorcing (several reconciliations were attempted at various points).  Although Gardner never married again, she and Sinatra remained on again/off again lovers for years after.  Having lost her interest in acting, she took fewer and fewer roles starting in the 1960’s and by the following decade was semi-retired; she only took jobs when her bank account dipped a little too low.  Her last jobs were television work in the 80’s; toward the end of that decade, she fell ill and her health went into slow decline before finally passing away at the age of 67 in 1990, about a month after her last birthday. 


This book could just as easily have been titled, “Ava Gardner:  Wotta Woman!” not only because she was a great beauty but also because she was a real handful for all of her acquaintances – but especially the men in her life with whom she had plenty of romances.  The only thing more impressive than the many adventures in Gardner’s life is the list of men she had, both famous and obscure.  Some she left a wreck (like Sinatra) and some left her a wreck (like Shaw and George C. Scott, who had an affair with her during filming of “The Bible”, in which they got into many drunken brawls which resulted in her taking a beating at his hands). 

Author Lee Server has not only put together an entertaining book – at 500 pages, it really flew by – but also one that was extraordinarily well-researched.  The level of detail – including Gardner’s family background and the number of quotes from friends and colleagues – is most impressive indeed.  There are two sections of photographs; if there is any quibble with the book, it is here, albeit a minor one.  Missing are photos from Gardner’s childhood; also, all of the pictures are in black and white, even the ones from later years, so that’s a bit of a disappointment (but one that can be easily overlooked). 

If you are looking for a good beach read for what remains of the summer (or are planning a winter vacation where you’re expecting to be beach-side), “Love Is Nothing” would be an excellent choice; by the way, the book’s title is derived from a portion of a quote from Gardner when a friend asked the actress about her love life, “Love is nothing but a pain in the ass”, she replied.  This bold woman was a feminist before it was fashionable; she lived her life on her own terms and spoke bluntly.  While married to the scrawny Sinatra, she was asked, “What do you see in that 120 pound runt?”; Gardner’s pithy answer was, “He may be only 120 pounds, but 20 of those pounds are pure c*ck!”.  Ava Gardner was a woman as refreshing as a taste of watermelon on a hot summer afternoon.

When Ava Gardner appeared on the old TV game show “What’s My Line?” back in 1953: