Review of Grandma

 3 stars

“Grandma” a bittersweet dramedy enlivened by Lily Tomlin

Paul Weitz’s dramedy, “Grandma”, is given heart, energy and a reason to exist by Lily Tomlin. She gives her lines levels of warmth, sadness and self-deprecating humor that probably most other actresses probably could not have. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, who has a rich backstory, which comes into play when her granddaughter, Sage, asks her for money so she get an abortion. Elle has no money to give her, because she paid off all her debts, and hilariously cut up her credit cards into wind chimes.

Elle reminds Sage that this decision will haunt her for the rest of her life if she chooses to go through with it. Elle and Sage spend the day asking others for money, including Sage’s boyfriend, a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), Elle’s ex-husband, Karl, played excellently by Sam Elliott, and finally, Sage’s mother, played very well, yet somewhat cartoonishly, by Marcia Gay Harden. Elle beats up Sage’s immature boyfriend with a hockey stick, making Sage worried that the whole school will know. Elle scoffs because of how ridiculous it would sound.

Elle is a lesbian, and she just broke up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). She married Karl before she came to terms with herself as a lesbian. Their scene is written with written in a relaxed yet intelligent manner, revealing their past and their personalities. It is the only scene Sam Elliott is in, yet it shows how he was wounded by her, yet is still in love with her. Sam Elliott’s face and voice are very expressive in this scene, showing how much an actor can accomplish with so little screen time.

Marcia Gay Harden, as Sage’s mother/ Elle’s daughter, is intensely caffeinated, and always on the go. She is the very last person they ask for money, and the reason is apparent right when we see her. She immediately asks her why she didn’t use condoms. We can tell, though, that she cares for Sage, and she is just juggling too many things at once.

It was an interesting choice to have the mother, almost self-consciously, out of the picture, and focus, for the most part, on Tomlin’s rapport with her granddaughter. Even with how cranky Elle appears, she has Sage’s best interest at heart, perhaps in some ways more than Sage’s mother. The film is divided into six chapters, and  the final chapter was a bit superfluous. It just seemed to lay things on a little too thick. If the film ended a little before that, it would have been more satisfying.

 

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Review of It Follows

it-follows-cannes-2014-4 2 and a half stars

“It Follows” a beautifully shot, yet frustrating horror movie

The best thing about “It Follows” is its cinematography. It has a haunting, picturesque sense of Midwestern nostalgia, that is reminiscent of Terrence Malick. The only thing in the film that seemed modern was a girl using an e-reader shaped like a seashell. Everything else seemed pretty ’70’s; the score reminds one of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” updated by Trent Reznor; “It Follows” is extremely detail-oriented, with its retro couch and TV. It is set in Detroit, and its suburban setting is very unnerving. Its retro suburban setting, containing only one modern electronic device, may signify how closed-in their neighborhood is.

I honestly did not find “It Follows” to be especially scary, mostly because of its absurd premise. Relative newcomer, Maika Monroe plays Jay, a 19-year-old girl, who, at the beginning of the film, goes on a couple of dates with a mysterious, slightly older man named Hugh. On their second date, they have sex, and after the sex, he tells her that a mysterious being will follow her and come after her, and the only way to stop it is by having sex with someone else.

The film does what it can with its rather goofy premise, yet one of the problems is that so much of it felt like a tease. So much of it is startling rather than genuinely terrifying. Something the film does well, though, is get the audience so emotionally invested in the characters, that when there is a thud, a crash, or any kind of noise, it is much more startling than it would be if we did not care about the characters.

Maika Monroe is very effective as Jay, seeming very natural, tragic, and pretty understated for the female lead in a horror movie. She has a group of 3 friends she hangs out with: Paul, the nice, shy guy, played very well by Keir Gilchrist; Yara, the awkward nerdy girl, and Greg, the good-looking guy down the street. Of the 4 of them, Jay struck me as the only well-rounded character; though her history with Paul was fascinating. Paul was Jay’s first kiss, apparently when they were about 12 or 13. Their tension, and what they say and do not say to each other, is one of the most subtle and thought-provoking parts of the film.

Ultimately, “It Follows” did not have much of a pay-off. I was never genuinely terrified, and I could not always tell what effect the film was going for. The ending left me confused and frustrated, instead of haunted or terrified. It is possible that some of what happened was only in Jay’s head, which would make more sense, or it could have just been flaky writing. I’m not sure. Overall, “It Follows” is uneven, with some good qualities, though it should have been a lot scarier, and packed more of a punch.

Review of ’71

3 stars

 ’71” a tense, riveting war thriller

After all the hype surrounding  Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, “’71” was just the film I needed. “Sniper” was aggressively sentimental, calculated and its sense of heroism did not ring true to me at all. “’71”, on the other hand, hits the ground running in its first scene with soldiers boxing each other in basic training. The reason “’71” has so much urgency is partially because it does not get sidetracked with its need for a grand statement, or to make its protagonist into a hero. It feels like it is going on real time, without a sense of hindsight, which gives it all the more power.

The film is about the troubles in Northern Belfast, Ireland, seen from the perspective of British soldier Private Gary Hook. Gary Hook comes from a foster home with his little brother, who he shares a warm moment with before he is to shipped off to Belfast. Gary and his crew are shipped off to Belfast immediately upon word of “The Troubles”. On their first day, the soldiers are assigned to inspect houses for weapons, on a street filled with Catholics and Protestants that are at each other’s throats.

Right when they get there, the citizens start attacking and overpowering them. They are hard to control, and when one of the soldiers is shot, Gary flees the scene. He does not know who he can trust, and the rest of the film is fascinating and suspenseful, because except for Gary, we are never sure who is on whose side. Pretty soon, some young IRA members are after Gary, and as scary and threatening as they are, they are never black-and-white villains. They were desperate, and I could tell how they were driven to do what they were trying to do.

Like I mentioned earlier, “71” works because of how matter-of-fact it is about its atrocities. Also, for once the shaky-cam effect is not nauseating, but it really got me into the story, and made me feel like I was right there. The film is brutal, and difficult to watch, yet there is a power in the desperation of its characters, and I found the closing scenes to be deeply moving and uplifting.

Review of The One I Love

3 stars/ 4 stars

“One I Love” a weird, yet funny, well-acted romantic dramedy

“The One I Love” starts with Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss), getting marriage counselling from a therapist played by Ted Danson. He suggests they go to a weekend retreat to fix their marriage and rekindle the spark they once had. When they get to the retreat, they seem to hit it off instantly. Things start to get weird and mysterious though, when Sophie tells Ethan they had great sex, and Ethan tells her he does not remember them having sex.

I do not want to give away the twist, because part of the fun is feeling just as confused, yet curious, as Ethan and Sophie. Duplass and Moss are superb in the way they balance their paranoia with dry humor. The film, to be sure, has an abundance of weird, deadpan humor, which is what makes it watchable, whereas without the humor, it might have just been creepy and off-putting.

“The One I Love” is essentially a surreal two-person play, and the two actors act the hell out of their roles. It reminded me a bit of “Gone Girl” in its exploration of whether you really know your spouse or not, and how well they can be trusted. The ending seemed a bit anticlimactic, as if it was going for more of a punch than it had or could have had. Yet I enjoyed the overall goofy weirdness, and low-budget ambition of the film, which makes it good enough for me to recommend.

Review of Dear White People

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3 stars

“Dear White People” a provocative, uneven, sporadically funny satire 

I did not find “Dear White People” to be by any means perfect, yet either way, the moral center of the film, Lionel, the guy whose Afro is being poked in the poster, got to me on a deeper level than any character in a movie has in a long time. The film is a loosely plotted satire of race relations in America, using Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college as the backdrop. The title refers to the outrageous radio show of mixed race student Samantha White, who always starts her show with a smug sort of witticism of white people, and how they try to enhance their street cred, by having a couple black friends to avoid seeming racist, or reciting Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics just so they can say the “N word” when black people aren’t looking.

As simplistic as this sounds, it almost seemed as if first-time director Justin Simien made a point to have no sympathetic white characters in the film. Just about all the white students in the film try really hard to “act black”. While I understood the point the film was making, it came off too much of the time as a racially charged “Mean Girls”, which was most of the time more cringe-inducing than funny.

The film begins with a report of a riot at a Halloween frat party. The concept of the party is rather shocking and alarming, but realistic; it is revealed toward the end of the movie, so I do not want to reveal it here. In a way, “DWP” may do nothing for any movement, racial or otherwise, since it paints the white students as wrong, and just about all the black students as misguided at worst and righteous freedom fighters at best.

Lionel, played by child star Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris”, is the most likable character in the film, by leaps and bounds. I found him utterly relatable. In addition to being gay, like I am, he is insecure, vulnerable, yet he is able to use irony as a defense mechanism. What he does to a homophobic white frat boy, toward the end, is priceless. Even though he is pretty intelligent, Lionel is out of place, for the most part, at Winchester. He does not identify with the blacks because, as he says, he listens to Mumford and Sons and his favorite director is Robert Altman. In addition, the aggressive, testosterone fueled white frat boys obviously would not and do not get along with Lionel.

Even though as a character, I loved Lionel dearly, and found him nuanced and understated, I found too many of the other characters, especially the white, homophobic frat boys, to be over-the-top stereotypes, contributing to the overall unevenness of the film. In one particularly cringe-inducing scene, the main frat boy exposes himself to Lionel, and even if this was supposed to show how awful and inhuman of a person he is, it just does not work. It is much more wince-inducing than actually funny.

One of the good things about the film is that it was loosely plotted, and for the most part, it was more concerned with getting a feel for some of the characters. Tessa Thompson is excellent as Samantha White, who is of mixed race, and is so conflicted that as a film major, she pretends her favorite director is Spike Lee, when it is really Ingmar Bergman. She is also romantically involved with the white TA. Tessa Thompson is beautiful, and her character of Sam is tough yet vulnerable.
Another interesting character is Cholondrea, who legally changed her name to “Coco”, and desperately wants to fit in with the white crowd. As contrived as some of this material is, it has a fair degree of meaning, because so many young people, myself included, want to feel like they belong, and may go to great lengths to do so. Many people may have deep issues that they are working out and sometimes it is hard to know whether you should just “be yourself” or simply assimilate. For whatever does not work, the statement that this film makes is utterly valuable, especially for young people struggling with their identity.

 

 

Review of Citizenfour

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3 stars

“Citizenfour” a quietly chilling, riveting documentary

One of the most satisfying aspects of “Citizenfour” is hearing Edward Snowden’s voice. With all of the news coverage I saw and heard about Snowden last year, I never actually heard his voice. Hearing his voice gave him a somewhat more human quality than people merely speaking for or about him.While it may not be a perfect documentary, “Citizenfour” nonetheless shows how documentaries can have so much truth about human nature, whereas a fictionalized film would feel phony and wrong.

Edward Snowden was one of the most talked about public figures of last year, as well as a renegade hero for our times. He leaked information from the National Security Agency (NSA); basically, after 9/11, the NSA started cracking down and spying on people, tracking their every move. This included their phone calls, web searches, texts, and everything we wanted to be private, or thought was private. After a while, though, with the emergence of social media, nothing seems to be private anymore, everything has to be viral or social or whatnot, and if we keep going in the direction we’re heading, the word “privacy”, after a couple generations, is going to sound like old English. In a sense, we have sacrificed so much of our privacy that we are practically begging to be hacked, tracked and spied on.

Most of “Citizenfour” depicts documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras tracking down Edward Snowden, who was working for the NSA, but fled the agency after he leaked their files. The footage that precedes Snowden is fascinating. One scene is of an NSA member being questioned in court about his methods, and denying pretty much everything. I could not help but think that it was opposite day for him, where yes means no and no means yes. Another scene showed the leader of Occupy Wall Street lecturing students about how closely the NSA tracks us, and in a chilling way, what he was describing was reminiscent of the dystopia of “Minority Report”. All of this works very well as a foreboding build-up to the meeting of Snowden himself.

As minimalist as the film is, it summons up more tension than most fiction films this year. Even if some of the film’s shots, such as Edward Snowden quietly typing on his laptop are a little too inwardly placid, the film still has an abundance of power; at a hotel in Hong Kong, Laura Poitras and a writer for Salon.com are interviewing Snowden, and he is revealed as a highly complex human being.

Snowden is brilliant at what he does, yet somewhat humbled. When he finds out that the NSA is coming after him, he is more poised than the average human being would be. I know that I would go into a total freak-out if the NSA were after me, so I admired Snowden’s courage. He seems to be somewhat of a martyr, even though he says is not, sacrificing himself for his beliefs. Toward the end, there was footage of Obama saying that Snowden is “not a patriot”. He may not be one in the absolute sense of the term, but he cares for his country and does not want it to turn into a dictatorship. In a strange way, Snowden is an idealist.

Review of Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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“Birdman” a rapid-fire dark comedy that is certainly not for all tastes

“Birdman” is by no means a conventionally likable film. I might go as far as to say it is not a movie for most people. It is creepy, off-putting and misanthropic; yet despite, or maybe because of all these qualities, it is laugh-out-loud funny. It brings to mind many other films, and writers/ directors. As I was watching the film, I could not help but think of the nightmarish magical realism of “Black Swan”, or even David Lynch. The film also brought to mind Charlie Kaufman’s magical realism, and even the rapid-fire pacing of a Preston Sturges film like “Sullivan’s Travels”, which is also about show business. That “Birdman” made me think of such disparate films and filmmakers could be considered an accomplishment in and of itself.

The star of the film, turning in a searing, Oscar-worthy comeback, is Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson. Thompson is a washed-up movie star whose fame is solely based on his role as fictional superhero Birdman in the three film franchise. It seems like the further away from the “Birdman” franchise Thompson becomes, the more egomaniacal he becomes.

Basically, the plot revolves around Thompson’s attempt to make a comeback on Broadway,by directing, producing, and starring in the Raymond Carver play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Pretty much everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and Thompson is his own worst enemy, and that is putting it mildly.

Even though Keaton is the star of the film, “Birdman” has an exuberantly weird supporting cast. Emma Stone gives a dynamite performance as Thompson’s combative, unpredictable daughter/ assistant. There is a hilariously heartbreaking scene where she tells him off, telling him his play is a desperate attempt for him to stay relevant, and yet he does not even have a Facebook page.

Edward Norton is also darkly hilarious as Mike Shiner, an egotistical loose cannon that nails the role that Thompson has him audition for.British actress Lindsay Duncan is razor-sharp as Tabitha, the brutal, cynical theater critic that has it out for Thompson. She even tells him that she has not seen it, but she hates it already, mostly because she hates Thompson.

As indicated earlier, I probably would not recommend “Birdman” to most people. It can be shocking, nasty and over-the-top. So much of it is effective though, because at its worst it is like a train-wreck that we can not look away from. It is a little messy and scatterbrained, but in the most riveting way possible. At its best, it is a sharply out-of-control satire of celebrity. If any of this makes “Birdman” sound appealing, seek it out at your own risk.