Tag: movie

Review of Best of Enemies

4 stars

“Enemies” a fascinating, poignant, profound documentary

The masterful documentary, “Best of Enemies”, is about the televised debates between Democrat Gore Vidal, and Republican William F. Buckley. They were shown on ABC in 1968, when ABC was considered a dumping ground for lesser programming such as “The Flying Nun”. Their debate would hopefully give ABC more credibility, and it happened to revolutionize television forever.

“Best of Enemies” shows why documentaries can be so much better than fictionalized accounts when it comes to insights into human nature. Both Buckley and Vidal were so much more than they seemed, and this documentary showed their nuances and human complexities more than any fiction account probably ever could.

Buckley and Vidal seemed to have so much in common that their differences were practically an irksome disappointment. They both went to boarding schools, they were both writers, and both had an elevated, aristocratic manner. Yet, it was mostly their sociopolitical views that divided them, and created so much personal animosity between the two.

Since ABC was suffering from a creative void, the network executives thought it would breathe new life into the channel and give it a ratings boost, if they had two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum debate each other’s views; essentially, the verbal equivalent of boxing. Buckley already had his own show, called “Firing Line”, where he debated his guests, who were just about always Democrats.

Buckley and Vidal had a total of 10 televised debates, and there is a point toward the 8th or 9th debate, where they both cross the line into name-calling. I will let you see for yourself, but at that point in the film, their overboard insults truly got under my skin. Gore and Bill were articulate and intelligent in a way that most TV personalities, these days, are not, yet when they needled each other enough, their worst sides would spill out.

Though Vidal and Buckley had their flaws, and were both smug in a way that just about every political commentator nowadays is, the film shows their humanity. I found it rather tragic when it is recalled that when Buckley was older and he was on a talk show, he was shown a clip of the name-calling feud between him and Vidal, and I could sense how ashamed he was, saying “I thought that tape had been burned.”

Following the debates, Vidal and Buckley wrote what could basically have been called smear articles about each other in Esquire Magazine. They went back and forth with lawsuits, and one can sense that on some level they enjoyed this back-and-forth feud. Gore Vidal, though, like Bill Buckley, seemed to hide his insecurity with cold wit and sarcasm. These two men deserved each other.

Whenever I see a documentary like this, I wish there would be more documentaries this great, that explore human nature and behavior in ways that fiction cannot. This was truly one of the best films, of any genre, of 2015.

 

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Review of Chiraq

3 stars

“Chiraq” a weird, over-the-top spectacle

Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is surreal, meta, and over-the-top. I admire the whole film for its boldness of vision, even if it is not always pulled off well. When it works, it is a wonder to behold. For all the stylistic flourishes in the film that do not work, there are many that do. The film begins with a breathtaking image of the United States split into thirds of red, white, and blue, and guns and rifles making up the states. This works despite its heavy-handedness, mostly because it is creative, and it got my attention.

The film is based on the classic Greek comedy, “Lysistrata”, and updated to the present day in Chicago. It keeps the characters names, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The main female protagonist is Lysistrata, who is in a relationship with a rapper with the stage name Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon. Lysistrata gets the idea from a neighbor played by Angela Bassett to go on a sex strike and round up all the other heterosexual black women in Chicago to strike with her, until the men stop shooting each other.

This premise does not translate seamlessly to modern America; I would even say that, as a resident of the Chicago area, with the exception of some shots and references, the film did not give me a strong Chicago vibe. It kind of felt like it could have taken place anywhere in America, and this is probably because Spike Lee is not from Chicago. With Spike being a Brooklyn native,  I got more of a sense of place and location from films he directed like “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is because a) he is most familiar with NYC and b) Chicago, at least for me, has never been as conspicuous on film, as cities like NY or LA. Despite this, Chi-raq worked somewhat as a stinging commentary on race and violence in America as a whole, even if Chicago may have been a generic backdrop, that served little purpose besides its provocative nickname.

One of the things about the film that works surprisingly well is that it is spoken in iambic pentameter. The dialogue mostly rhymes, and after a while, I was having fun guessing and anticipating the characters’ rhymes.  A rhyme that worked especially well was “strike” and “dyke”.

Another powerful aspect of the film is John Cusack, as the compassionate Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Rev. Mike Pfleger; he has a deeply moving scene, where he preaches to a black congregation about their “self-inflicted genocide”. This scene may be the best piece of acting that John Cusack has ever done.

“Chi-raq” may be somewhat bloated, with a reach that exceeds its grasp, and it has moments that are so over-the-top that I just had to cringe. Yet, what does work has a sort of go for broke power that, by the end, left me haunted and shook up, and feeling like I saw an imperfect, yet vital piece of cinema.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Review of Nebraska

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“Nebraska” a brilliantly deadpan road dramedy

3 stars

The opening scene of “Nebraska” shows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) walking on a highway to Lincoln, Nebraska. This is before the credits and is a little slow going, yet it seems to completely establish Woody Grant as a character. He wants to go to Nebraska and he is not going to let anyone get in his way. Woody got a letter in the mail from a sweepstakes saying he won a million dollars, and can pick it up in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is obviously junk mail, but Woody is senile, yet this is not all that is going on; he sees the sweepstakes as the only thing he can cling onto in his seemingly empty life. He lives in Billings, Montana, so this would be a long drive.

Woody convinces his son David (Will Forte), to take him on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. Woody’s hilariously judgmental wife, Kate (June Squibb) is strongly against this. Just about everybody knows Woody is senile and not very aware of his surroundings. Woody’s other son Ross, (Bob Odenkirk) does not support the road trip either. Yet David wants his Dad to be happy, and he knows he does not have much time left.

The road trip, and especially the adventures along the way, are often gut-bustingly hilarious, yet they are very deadpan and understated in a way that makes them so much funnier than if they had gone over-the-top. The film, so much of the time, seems to combine the Cohen Brothers’ quirky view of Middle America minutiae with “The Simpsons” view of goofy geriatrics. So many of the old-timers in “Nebraska” have an endearingly terse way of talking that I could not help but laugh, simply because of their rhythms of speech.

“Nebraska” is directed by Alexander Payne, who has an excellent track record, even though he has only directed 6 films since 1996. This may be the most heartless, soulless, and bitter of all of Payne’s films, yet it is so funny, in such an underplayed way, that I didn’t mind its misanthropic tone. Bruce Dern does not make by any means a likeable character; probably, the only conventionally likeable character in the film is Woody’s son, David, who is also the least interesting character in the film. I actually would have preferred it if Bob Odenkirk had switched places with Will Forte, and had the bigger part in the film.

“Nebraska” would be an extremely unpleasant and depressing film if it were not so funny in such a controlled and underplayed sort of way. June Squibb, who also played Jack Nicholson’s wife in the movie “About Schmidt”, is full of hilarious comic lines and monologues. She is a well-written character, and she brings her character to exciting, hilarious life. It is in black & white, giving it a beautiful, old-fashioned kind of feel, and the film’s look seems perfectly suited to it; it is set in an old-fashioned small town, highly reminiscent of my Dad’s hometown of Pontiac, Illinois. The trouble with so many of the people in the film is they are so naïve that they do not have much a perspective beyond their hometown, even if they have traveled beyond it.

The junk mail sweepstakes that Woody receives makes him a superstar in Lincoln, Nebraska, much to the chagrin of his sons, and his wife. When Woody and David finally get to the sweepstakes office, the way they both react is brilliant. I do not want to give away too much, because there is much joy to be had in seeing people’s reactions to things that happen to them.

 “Nebraska” does have a sense of superiority to its characters, and seems to mock them most of the time, but somehow it just worked; it was so in control of its tone that I wanted to applaud it. I loved the humor that “Nebraska” found in minutiae, vacant expressions, and ordinary everyday occurrences. In this sense, the film is a profound achievement.

Review of Short Term 12

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3 stars

“12” a heartfelt, charming, sometimes funny indie

“Short Term 12” is about 2 people named Grace and Mason (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) who are the staff at a group foster home for teens. They are caring and compassionate which, to a certain extent, tested the limits of credibility for me, because of the kind of things I hear about foster homes in general. They are not known for being caring, or even giving a damn. Yet the movie never feels phony, and the emotion always feels genuinely earned.

The film had some moments that were a little too still, where characters were just staring and thinking. Yet, otherwise, the film has enough dry humor and sincerity of emotion to stay watchable all the way through. Also, Grace is the heart and soul of the film. Larson’s performance is moving and complex. She is strict, yet loving, and she holds painful secrets from her past.

When Grace’s secrets are revealed, it is devastating, yet it makes perfect sense. Grace and Mason have also been going out off and on for a while, and when she reveals to him that she is pregnant, his reaction is brilliant and well-timed. The residents at the group home are also very interesting characters, especially Jessica, played by  Kaitlyn Dever, and Marcus, played by Keith Stanfield. I am not familiar with either of these actors, yet they were both outstanding.

Jessica is a cutter, who has a tragic secret of her own, and Grace helps her tell the secret. Marcus is aggressive, belligerent and he smokes weed. She is white, and upper-middle class, and he is black and just about at the oppposite end of the spectrum. They both have secrets, and even though they both put up fights, they are survivors. Marcus writes a rap song, and by doing this, he reveals his pain.

“Short Term 12” is ultimately about redemption, and doing the right thing. The movie makes this clear at the end, with a conversation the staff are having about Marcus. The ending scene also shows that you need a sense of humor to get through the day, which Grace and Mason have in abundance. Even with how nice and good Grace and Mason, they are imperfect, complex characters, who have known pain, and have a great deal of empathy. The world needs more people like them.

Review of Blancanieves

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3 stars

“Blancanieves” a quirky, imaginative, stylized take on “Snow White”

If my description of “Blancanieves” makes it sound odd, then take note; it’s much odder than that. Yes, it is a Black and White silent version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and it is beautifully executed. What makes it work so well, even with the absence of spoken dialogue, is the expressive eyes of its three female leads. Maribel Verdu (Y tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth) plays Snow White’s evil stepmother, and though she has imperfect features, she has an abundance of feeling in her eyes; so do Carmen a.k.a. Snow White, as both a child and a grown-up. All three of them are imperfect beauties, with their eyes being their strongest feature.

The film takes place in 1920’s Seville, Spain and is primarily centered around bullfighting. Yep, I told you it would get weird. Also, “Snow White“‘s original name is Carmen, or Carmencita as a child. So the story starts off with Carmen’s mother and father, Antonio and Carmen, meeting and falling in love. Carmen’s father is Antonio Villalta, a famous bullfighter.

Carmen’s mother becomes pregnant with her, and she dies in childbirth. Antonio also gets gored by a bull, and becomes paralyzed. The soon-to-be evil stepmother is the nurse that delivers Carmen. Pretty soon, Carmen is living with her stepmother, who forbids her to go to the second floor, and has her sleep in what looks like a barn.

Carmen’s paralyzed father has been kept upstairs by the stepmother, whose name is Encarna, which is why she does not want her to go the second floor. When Carmen goes to the second floor and finds her father, their reconnecting is deeply moving. Carmen’s father teaches her how to bullfight, using his blanket.

I honestly do not want to give away anything else, but I will say that I found “Blancanieves” stronger and more entertaining than “The Artist”. The acting is better, especially by Maribel Verdu. She does what she can to be creepy, strange, and cruel. Verdu has showed tremendous range as an actress. “The Artist” is somewhat bland in comparison to “Blancanieves”. Both films borrow from other sources and styles, yet “Blancanieves” feels more fresh, original and alive.