Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Talking Tribeca: The Last Laugh


Head over to Jewcy to read my take on "The Last Laugh," a documentary that showed at Tribeca about whether it's okay to make jokes about the Holocaust. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Talking Tribeca: A Kind of Murder

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.


A Kind of Murder
Directed by Andy Goddard
Festival Screenings

Films often tell more than one story, and while they may seem to be unconnected at first, figuring out how they are related is a big part of a film’s exposition. “A Kind of Murder” begins with two parallel stories, one of a man whose wife has been found murdered at a bus rest stop and the other of a man whose wife drives him crazy. The former’s situation entices the latter, who moonlights as a crime novelist, and the line between fact and fiction is hard to decipher in this dark, brooding drama set in the 1960s.

Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) is an architect who lives in a beautiful, spacious home that he designed. He hosts lavish parties with his wife Clara (Jessica Biel), but it is evident that, despite the presence of many people around her, she latches on only to Walter’s extended conversation with an attractive young woman, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett). Her jealous behavior infuriates Walter, who is no angel given the fact that he does indeed lust for an affair with Ellie, anything to get him away from his possessive and sometimes suicidal spouse. His fascination with the unsolved case of the murdered Helen Kimmel and her husband (Eddie Marsan), the prime suspect, leads to events that seem to suggest that Walter is going to kill his wife too.

This is a film that very much frontloads its plot, with its title giving away a good portion of the film’s events and leading to the big question of what crime exactly both Walter and Kimmel have committed if they are indeed innocent of the actual physical murder of their wives. Aside from short, spoken protests, neither man does much to argue for his innocence with his behavior. Kimmel is a man who keeps to himself and seems not to enjoy conversation with anyone, and Walter is a boastful, social man who couldn’t be any less interested in his wife. The dogged, aggressive nature of the detective (Vincent Kartheiser) in hot pursuit of both of them is just about the only thing that makes either of them sympathetic.

Wilson spent time recently in the past on the other side of the law hunting criminals in the second season of “Fargo,” and while he was an endearing hero there, he can definitely play the part of the smarmy smooth talker. Marsan is a talented actor extraordinarily suited for this role. Kartheiser makes the eccentric and passionate Detective Corby hard to forget, giving the film three layered characters, none of whom can be described as likeable. While it presents interesting questions and intriguing characters, this film doesn’t do a great job of taking them anywhere, leading to a middling and unexciting resolution.

C+

Monday, April 25, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Always Shine

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.


Always Shine
Directed by Sophia Takal
Festival Screenings

The best films in a given genre work hard to expand upon typical tropes and other recognizable features and formats, experimenting and transforming expectations into something more. Such efforts often please fans of that genre and also attract those who are not usually part of that group. “Always Shine,” at first glimpse, is a film about two actresses taking a weekend away from Los Angeles and traveling to Big Sur. Close-up audition takes, creepy music, and frantic scrolling opening titles indicate that this story of friendship is a much more intense and frightening adventure.

Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is first seen reading lines for a horror film, and is told repeatedly after she pauses that the part she is reading for contains extensive nudity. She is relatively quiet and rarely speaks up, but she has a sweet nature that seems to make people like her. Her friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), on the other hand, is considerably more boisterous and unfiltered, usually cast in louder and bolder parts than the innocent girl running for her life. It is clear that Beth has achieved more success in their field than Anna, and Beth’s casual downplaying of the mediocre nature of her latest role, while perfectly well-intended, does not sit well with Anna, setting the stage for a foreboding build-up to an explosion of emotions far removed from the rest of civilization.

“Always Shine,” which is probably most accurately described as a psychological thriller, sets itself up as a horror movie from the start, with frequent flashing images laced with fear and death accompanied by short, high-pitched musical notes designed to make the spine tingle. Even when the two are sitting together in a crowded restaurant before they leave for their trip, the mood is tense and dark. For this particular story, that works well, but the film does seem unnecessarily dreary and brooding at times. That’s all in the service of its path to a trippy transition and a mind-boggling ending that has probably delighted some but left this viewer far from satisfied.

There are a few supporting actors who appear throughout the film, but this is a two-woman show. These two actresses have very different styles, and those work well to create a complex friendship for their characters that is based largely on a craft which unites but also divides them. FitzGerald, who stars in “Masters of Sex,” does a strong job of firmly establishing Beth’s discomfort and general squeamishness, while Davis, who stars in “Halt and Catch Fire,” holds nothing back in the most terrific and compelling way as Anna refuses to let Beth get away with silently usurping her. This is a strange and disturbing film, one that may entice but one that it is also perplexing and off-putting at the same time.

B-

Talking Tribeca: Special Correspondents

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.


Special Correspondents
Directed by Ricky Gervais
Festival Screenings

Journalism can be one of the bravest professions. Getting the story, and more importantly exposing the truth to a wide audience, can require entering dangerous territory and putting one’s life at serious risk. That isn’t usually the premise for a comedy, but apparently it can be. In “Special Correspondents,” a cocky radio reporter and his eager sound engineer are sent to Ecuador to cover a worsening political situation, but their plans change when their tickets and passports are lost, leading them to shack up across the street from the radio station and do their best to pretend that they are actually reporting live from a war zone.

As odd couples tend to be, our two protagonists couldn’t be any more different. Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) walks around like James Bond, posing as a detective to get a major scoop and acting like a rock star despite really being a radio host. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is a kindhearted technician whose wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) hates him, and he is often prone to unintelligent decisions and choices. When Frank decides to bring Ian along to Ecuador, he can’t regret his choice quickly enough, as Ian’s bumbling results in a preposterous plan to make up news and make it seem like it is the real thing.

Predictably, this film hinges on a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief, compounded by the fact that Frank and Ian decide that a hideout directly across the street from the radio station, which means that they can see the reaction to their false reports, was the smartest plan. As a grander statement on society and the digestion of news, however, this film has plenty of mildly intellectual things to say. Its most memorable instance of parody is when Frank decides to make up a source so that he will have some credibility and other news outlets immediately report that they too have been in touch with this totally false person.

Australian actor Eric Bana hasn’t always found the right roles in American films, and this part is a pretty good fit for him, allowing him to have a great time being a cocky jerk who unintentionally starts to turn into a nice guy as the film goes on. Gervais has, as usual, cast himself as a good-natured, idealistic man who gets walked all over by most people, one of his two typical archetypes. This isn’t Gervais’ first time behind the camera or as the author of a script, and unlike his racy Golden Globes routine, this moderately R-rated (or TV-MA, since this is a Netflix original film premiering on the streaming service this Friday) movie contains some swearing but still feels a bit simplistic and censored, which is a shame given its potential for raunchiness. It’s a fine parody that does contain some funny moments, but there’s nothing extremely memorable about it.

B-

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Pelé: Birth of a Legend

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Pelé: Birth of a Legend
Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
Festival Screenings

Sports have a unique power to unite people from many different backgrounds. The most common aspect that brings sports fans together is where they’re from, whether it’s a local, regional, or national team. When the competition is on the world stage, countries vie for coveted titles, and a sense of national pride takes over. This stirring biopic tells the story of one of the most celebrated soccer players who came to prominence at just the time that Brazil needed a major win and a chance to prove itself on the international scene.

The man who would become Pelé is introduced as a young boy playing in the streets of Sao Paulo, eternally excited by the notion of the game but more likely to get in trouble than anything else. His passion for the game is held back considerably by the state of poverty in which he lives. That doesn’t stop him from dreaming, and though he encounters a number of obstacles and setbacks along the way, he soon has the incredible opportunity to join Brazil’s national team and head towards the World Cup, a monumental event that may well put Brazil back on the map after a devastating surprise defeat in the previous games that has crippled morale in the country.

This is a relatively standard biopic, one that presents its character at his humble beginnings and takes him all the way through to the impossibly high status of being considered the greatest soccer player of all time. The telling of this story, however, is exceptional, showcasing the enthusiasm young Dico, who will later adopt the negative nickname given to him and embrace it as his signature, has for the game. His style of play in particular is what made him unique, intent on sticking to the inventive and historical manner of playing that was seen as an antiquated embarrassment that was not suitable to represent Brazil.

“Pelé: Birth of a Legend” does a magnificent job of conveying its protagonist’s ascension from unknown kid on the streets of Brazil to internationally celebrated star. The actors who portray him are well-cast, and the ensemble of the film contributes positively as well. It’s the film’s spirit that ultimately shines through, and its presentation of impactful games is particularly engaging. This reviewer is far from a sports fan yet still very much got into the scenes on the field depicted in this affirming and energizing film.

B+

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Festival Screenings

Adjusting to a new family situation can be a very difficult thing to do. The foster care system in many countries is not set up in a way that makes transitions smooth or the likelihood of success terribly great. Often, that creates serious problems, but it can also be fodder for comedy. In this highly entertaining film, an overzealous social worker dumps a juvenile known for such depraved behavior as "spitting" and "loitering" on an eager mother and her disgruntled husband, with no idea what adventures lie ahead.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is silent and unfriendly when he first arrives at his new home. He tries to run away and makes it just a short distance, prompting his generous new parent, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), to try a different approach, one that blends sweetness with sarcasm, while her husband Hec (Sam Neill) maintains a stuffier exterior. The quality of the situation becomes clear when Ricky celebrates his birthday and notes that it is the first time that he has had occasion to do so. Sadly, Bella’s untimely death means that Ricky is headed to a new home and probably juvy, and an ill-fated attempt to fake his own death results in Hec following him into the woods and injuring himself, leaving the unlikely pair stranded for months as the public begins to spin devious theories about what has become of the old man and the young boy.

This film is a pure delight. Ricky is an affable boy well aware of his body size and the fact that people don’t have high expectations of him, yet he never wants to give up. Hec is gruff and has no desire to socialize with anyone, and seeing how he coolly follows Ricky and only slowly opens up to the boy who takes care of him and then becomes his accomplice as they run from the authorities is an entertaining process. Other characters, like Rhys Darby’s forest-dwelling conspiracy theorist and Rachel House’s furious social worker, enhance a genuinely charming and funny film.

Dennison is a tremendous find, capable of anchoring scenes and sharing the screen with much more established performers, like Neill, who does a great job being serious and only occasionally allows Hec to have any fun. The two are great together, and they lead a superb cast. The film’s setting in New Zealand works on many levels, with appealing backgrounds and a good-natured vibe. Taika Waititi, who previously directed the fantastic “Eagle vs. Shark,” has made another supremely compelling and unique comedy that is easily one of the best and most endearing movies at Tribeca this year.

B+

Friday, April 22, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Elvis and Nixon

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Elvis and Nixon
Directed by Liza Johnson
Festival Screenings

Ask any young person today to name someone who was alive and important in 1970, and it’s a good bet that both Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon would come up very frequently. Those two men held very different positions in society at that point, one a music legend and the other the leader of the country, and by the late 1970s, neither was in a place of power anymore. To imagine them together is a crazy thing, yet one immortal photograph showcases their meeting. “Elvis and Nixon” dramatizes the whole story of what brought them together and what happened behind closed doors.

Elvis (Michael Shannon) needs no introduction, and this film features a number of recognizable traits and phrases coined by the rock and roller. What’s most clear about Elvis is that he does whatever he wants to, bringing his signature style and attitude to everything he does. He won’t play by the rules, and when he gets it in his head that he wants to be appointed a Federal Agent at Large to help the country come back from the direction in which it’s headed regarding drugs and culture, he drives straight up to the White House to deliver his hand-written note in person. Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has no desire to meet with the man, but a series of amusing interactions and conversations lead to the fated sit-down that makes up the centerpiece of this film.

It’s a real treat to see Shannon and Spacey tackling these roles. Shannon, who has been working nonstop lately and stars in multiple features at Tribeca this year, usually portrays very serious characters with a dark side. Watching him imitate some of Elvis’ mannerisms and adding his own take is extremely entertaining, and it’s great to see him lighten up. Spacey, who is no stranger to presidential roles, delivers a substantially removed performance from his “House of Cards” character that is still just as sharp and superb. While there are a number of specific jokes and references to be found throughout, anyone with even the most minor knowledge of either man can understand why these performances are great.

Though the film contains a subplot involving Elvis’ public relations manager Jerry (Alex Pettyfer) trying to get his life back on track, this is purely a comedy. The supporting cast includes Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville, Tracy Letts, and Tate Donovan, all of whom put on their most serious faces to enhance the entertainment factor as they interact with the absurd Elvis and the flummoxed Nixon, who thought he was something before he met the king. This is a wild adventure that seems too crazy to be true, and this dramatization is a thoroughly involving and memorable take.

B+

Talking Tribeca: Equals

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Equals
Directed by Drake Doremus
Festival Screenings

It’s almost impossible to find a cinematic or literary future where everyone lives happily ever after. It may be the pessimistic nature of our society, or it may just be that it makes for better material, but the future, as imagined so many times and in so many different ways by screenwriters, authors, and other visionaries, is always bleak. There exist an infinite number of dystopian possibilities for why everything fell apart and needs to be put back together again. In “Equals,” the cause of society’s downfall is presented as “Switched-On Syndrome,” an unfortunate and untreatable condition in which people actually experience feelings, a part of humanity that has otherwise been extinguished.

Silas (Nicholas Hoult) wakes up each morning in exactly the same way. He pushes buttons in his neat, hospital-like apartment and watches it transform around him to most efficiently go from sleeping space to living space to uninhabited room for the majority of the day. He puts on the same plain white outfit and goes to work as an illustrator, visually interpreting relics of the past. Conversation with other worker bees occurs, which is a more muted and uninteresting version of present-day gossip, but emotions are nowhere to be found. Every once in a while, a person cries out and attempts to shout to the masses that a mask has been pulled over their eyes, but they are quickly removed from the public eye, never to be seen again as they are shipped to a treatment facility where suicide is the simplest option.

As the film’s title suggests and as anyone who has ever seen a movie with two leads might expect, everything changes for Silas when he begins to realize that he is developing feelings for another worker bee, Nia (Kristen Stewart). At first, their romance is basically nonexistent, but as it progresses, the oppressive nature of their society only encourages them to push boundaries in secret even more. Watching their transformations from human robots into actual people is a familiar journey for any story such as this, but it is also an effective and involving one.

Stewart is a bold choice for this role given her tendency for relatively robotic acting, but a recent focus on quality performances in films such as “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Camp X-Ray” has prepared her well for a more serious and impressive turn. Hoult, who has demonstrated considerable range in “Young Ones” and “Warm Bodies,” is an appropriately muted and effective partner for her. Their story is an interesting and thought-provoking one that doesn’t necessarily break new ground but does follow a compelling trajectory leading to a strong and intense finish.

B+

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Talking Tribeca: Adult Life Skills

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Adult Life Skills
Directed by Rachel Tunnard
Festival Screenings

There are many things that prevent a person from properly growing up, and context can completely change someone’s understanding of another person’s existence or mental state. When Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is first introduced, she is living in her mother’s shed, which is adorned with antiestablishment puns. Her dead-end job at a local boating center hardly enthralls her, and she aggressively shies away from her looming thirtieth birthday because, for the first time, she won’t be able to celebrate it with her late twin brother, whose loss has all but crippled her.

Though the circumstances are tragic and upsetting, the place in which Anna finds herself at the start of the film paves the way for plenty of endearing humor. Anna’s go-to mode is to seem annoyed or disinterested in just about anything, and she runs from her mother and grandmother anytime they try to ask her a simple question, especially if it involves the topic of doing something productive with her life. Anna continues to make silly movies like the ones she made with her brother, and spends some time socializing with her friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), who has recently returned from being abroad, and budding realtor Brendan (Brett Goldstein). Reluctantly, she begins to look after her young neighbor, Clint (Ozzy Myers), aiding him to cope with his mother’s illness and to work through his anger at the situation.

Characters like Anna have existed in film before many times, and the only thing that makes Anna unique is that she was a twin. Her brother is a regularly-appearing player in the film, showing up in brief flashbacks to moments when Anna was truly happy and then again at points as an encouraging hallucination. His constant presence in her mind and the nagging of her living family members pushes her to stand still while her three friends nudge her to figure out what’s next for her. It’s a truly enjoyable journey that’s also laced with some important and powerful drama.

Whittaker is a wonderful British actress who has delivered terrific performances in films like “Venus,” “Attack the Block,” and “White Wedding,” and she is typically superb here as the unmotivated but still likeable Anna. Deering and Myers are both strong performers as well, but it’s Goldstein who is truly wonderful as the well-meaning Brendan who tries very hard to cheer Anna up and provide her with daily encouragement when he meets her as their paths cross on the way to work. This is a fun film that modifies a common concept and turns it into something fresh and highly worthwhile.

B+

Talking Tribeca: Dean

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 13th-24th.


Dean
Directed by Demetri Martin
Festival Screenings

It’s funny how many films there are about people struggling with writer’s block. The lack of material that a character can come up with often directly translates to plenty of inspiration for cinematic storytelling about that very thing. There’s an added tendency for the second work to be a particular challenge for writers, and that’s no different for those who create collections of drawn images. Dean (Demetri Martin) is one such artist whose life is headed nowhere as he contends with many missed deadlines, his father’s attempts to sell his childhood home, and the frightening allure of selling out.

Dean is a celebrated artist whose first book performed very well. The untimely death of his mother has greatly affected him, prompting little motivation on his part to do anything and to care about much of what is going on in the world. He took back the proposal he made to his girlfriend Michelle (Christine Woods), claiming that he only asked her to marry him to give his mother some hope about his future. By the time he serves as one of two best men at his friend’s wedding, there is little optimism left, which causes him to fly out to Los Angeles to be courted for a more regular collaborative gig. While that meeting is a bust, Dean’s chance meeting at a party with Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) starts to inspire some long-dormant enthusiasm within him and makes him question what he is doing with his life.

Comedian Martin has a certain way about him that makes him the perfect lead for this film, which he wrote and which also marks his directorial debut. It’s a very pleasant and entertaining experience watching Martin, who usually shows up in supporting roles as an eccentric oddball of some kind, get to take center stage in a story about navigating both adulthood and human relationships. Casting Jacobs as the object of his affection is a resounding success, since she proves to be alluring enough to entrance him and distant enough to not let him feel secure in their potential future happiness. Woods is a great part of the cast in a small role, and Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen occupy appropriate screen time as Dean’s widowed father and his new realtor love interest in a side plotline. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endearing and enjoyable comedy that, assisted by some fun drawing-inspired visual aids, provides more than a few laughs.

B+