Diane…Realism Personified

Kent Jones (known most for his documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut) wrote and directed Diane, the second of what I call noble films I’ve seen this week (For those who don’t read my every critique; Saturday was The Public by Emilio Estevez).

Diane was noble in taking on the true true reality that none of us get out of here (Earth) alive. Mary Kay Place (who I envied as an adolescent ogling over her sexy character Loretta on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman) does a tremendous job as the lead character, who like a Timex watch that keeps on ticking even after being dented again and again.

Her dings come in the form of an abusive drug addicted son (a supporting actor worthy performance by Jake Lacy), a cervical cancer stricken cousin, and other family members who both support and deride each other.

Also pinged by the cold winter of New England, Diane shops, enables her son by doing his laundry and grocery shopping, and works at a low income food co-op. She gives so much of herself, that she has no self left to nourish. Added to her plight is a painful secret (or maybe two) that haunts her and a true love that got away.

The dichotomy of mystery and symbolism (we are in the car with her viewing the winding road at several points) of the journey capture what our real lives truly are. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring (mystery), but we must keep driving the journey (symbolism) to discover. The flip the story takes where instead of mother badgering son, son badgers mother is beautifully portrayed and shows the evolution most of us face in being the givers and subsequent receivers of care.

A tiny bit wonky in parts and a little confusing as far as Diane’s own experimentation and denouement, Diane reminded me of a lesser First Reformed, yet totally worth viewing this thought provoking story.

The Public: Important Conceptually; But Cinematically? Well….

Dear Emilio,

First, let me say you should have been nominated for best screenplay, director AND actor for The Way. You’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that poignant father son film. On the lighter side, I enjoyed your work in The Stakeout, as sweet as the Bubble Yum gum I devoured in my youth.

Now, dodging rain drops in Asheville, North Carolina, I gladly took in your newest film The Public. I mean, you’re such a humble man with good intentions and the homeless using public libraries must be an issue in many cities, my hometown of Sarasota (shout out to the Selby Library!) included. And due to the aforementioned films, I had high hopes especially with two of my other favorite actors also in the film; Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater.

But boy, did I wish wish wish after the fact that I could have been a script doctor or more apt, let me shelve alphabetically what character contradictions I would have excised:

A for Alec; how can a person specializing in conflict resolution then lead a charge of storm troopers?
C for Christian Slater: he goes from prosecutor/bully to acting with the authority of chief of police? Christian threw his weight around more than a WWE Wrestler. He also sued on behalf of a homeless man’s rights being denied at the library (who paid for his service?) yet called them bums and basically wanted them taken down in the coup so that he could go watch The Tonight Show? Did we go back in time to the Johnny Carson days when The Tonight Show was a one time event? Now you can watch clips in any cab in NYC days later.
D is for dialogue: much too snappy and choreographed…there were times when I was waiting for this to be a musical and then sure enough, it became one! A mixture of Hair and The Full Monty!
E for Emilio Estevez: your character defended the privacy of the public within the library, but you were pumping (see Groucho Marx and his wiggling cigar say, “in more ways than one”) your cute Apartment manager for the dirt on other tenants?
G for girlfriend: her mood swings were bigger than Mariah Carey’s; one minute she’s supportive the next she’s lecturing, wait, that’s actually realistic of most women…add that to the positives…

Segue…for the positives: the movie held my suspense, I really didn’t know where it was going, sort of like what it must feel like to lose your brakes on Lombard Street.
I did believe the chemistry between you and the Apartment Manager. I did believe some of the homeless people and the crazy antics that must happen in libraries every day. I also appreciated your attempt to see the rift between the haves and the have nots.

Your resolution, while Hollywood in bright lights was cute, and Emilio, so are you! And see me for future script help, I’ll work for peanuts (make that almonds, I need calcium:)

Yours Respectfully and Truly,

Roxanne Baker

Three is a Magic Number, Man and a Woman Had a Little: Aftermath

You remember School House Rock cartoons from the ’70’s, right? The one about the number 3; “man and woman had a little baby, they had three-ee-ee in the family.” I loved that cartoon and was reminded of trinity significance after seeing the critic maligned movie The Aftermath written and directed by James Kent.

First, let’s talk about the triumvirate of actors: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgard and Jason Clarke who commanded the movie each with a particular set of respective skills: welling believable tears, pained, but not annoying countenances, and polite European rage. Their love triangle is plausible and moving. While I don’t know Skarsgard as well (wasn’t a True Blood fan, mainly due to middle class HBO-less wages), I’ve loved and hated Knightley (loved: Atonement, eye rolled: Laggies) and thought Clarke nailed Kennedy (well technically Mary Jo, ok bad joke) in Chappaquiddick.

In The Aftermath, the love triangle doesn’t take long to build, but this is war torn Germany where wives are often alone and some men happen to be widowed. What worked best is some snappy Double Indemnityesque dialogue: Skarsgard, “I was going to apologize (for kissing you),” Knightley: “Why?” as well as other witticisms from the invaded Germans, “They’re making themselves at home”, “yeh, just like maggots in the bacon”.

An additional bonus saving this film from being a stuffy period piece is characters experiencing joy (Skarsgard and Knightley frolic in the snow and have some hot cabin sex). Hence, kudos to the other terrific trio (James Kent had help writing the screenplay from Joe shrapnel (great war writer name) and Anna Waterhouse). Bless all three of you for writing a script that had light as well as dark; and for having layers of stories, the teenage daughter of Skarsgard naively falling for the malevolent German boy also was credible.

To finish my troika analogy and commendation, watching The Aftermath had the delicious combination of a mudslide (Kahlua, Baileys, Cream aka the actors) with Napoletana pizza (Tomato sauce, achiovies, crust aka the writers) without the cheese. Unfortunately, all the cheese was in the trailer which probably dissuades some from seeing this impressive film.

The Mustang: They Punch Horses, Don’t They?

As usual, I was glad for Gus Mollasis‘s film class to force me to eat the proverbial film equivalent of spinach. I’m not a prison movie fan, yes, even Shawshank Redemption is not something I’m going to seek out, but The Mustang, written and directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre was definitely worth getting in the saddle for.

First it included one of my old man crushes, Bruce Dern. Truth be told, I had a crush on this actor young, The King of Marvin Gardens, continuing into his ‘experienced’ years, Nebraska. In this, he plays a crusty horse wrangler, perfect for his wagon wheel house.

Second, the writer/director Cleremont-Tonnerre, starred in one of my favorite movies of all time The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The real star of the film, Matthias Scheonaerts, plays a violent inmate with boiling rage. In a perfect parallel, he is placed to tame wild mustangs. He’s been in a few of my favorite films as well, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Bigger Splash.

What I loved about this film were the many co-existing symbols: Schoenaerts (his character’s name is Roman) being told not to look the horse in the eye, the prison visiting room camera man who tells Roman and his daughter not look in the lens (eye) rather look at his finger. The fact that “Roman’s” daughter will not allow her father to be close to her, correlated to the mustang not trusting Roman in the pen.

Connie Britton, the prison psychologist does a magnificent job as the understated no nonsense anger management counselor. I first became a fan of hers in the film Beatriz at Dinner. And while I could only take one episode of the soap operatic Dirty John, appreciated her role.

Best of all, The Mustang taught me information: First, 100,000 wild mustangs roam the northwest and occasionally some are rounded up, tamed and trained to be auctioned off to police agencies. Second: the movie made me realize (once again) how tragic prisoners’ lives are, in the most profound group counseling scenes, Britton asks the men how long the pre-meditation of their crimes was, to which many of them answered mere minutes, contrasted to the decades duration of their sentences (and rightly so for the most part considering death and destruction caused). Having a cousin who spent time in Attica for a violent crime, when his upbringing was abusive and lacking to say the least, re-broke, for lack of a better word, my heart again for his trajectory.

I certainly could have done without the violence and yet it was not gratuitous, just sad realism. Great story writing and tremendous acting!

If Beale Street Could Talk: So Gorgeous, It Doesn’t Need To

Keeping with my Citizen Kane metaphor of a luxurious cinematic bath, If Beale Street Could Talk is a spa treatment for the eyes and ears.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk (noted hereafter as IBSCT) is not Moonlight by any stretch. To me Moonlight was a masterpiece, in story, in acting, cinematography and so on.

Reminiscent of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in IBSCT, we’re treated to the gorgeous symbolic benefits of color (the feminine yellow that Kiki Layne and Aunjanue Ellis wore (the former an innocent chick [as in baby chicken], the latter as a religion jaundiced old bag). Layered innocence again in Kiki’s baby blue mock turtle neck and her more sophisticated paisley numbers as she works the perfume counter. And let’s not forget the dapper gents costuming; the manly leather worn by Colman Domingo and Michael Beach, the slick but honest suede worn by the movie’s main male character Fonny, played by Stephan James.

Our ears were gifted the string magic of Nicholas Britell ( I defy you to listen to the track “Eden” and not be stirred inside), our eyes basked in the slide and swing cinematographer James Laxton. Two scenes that stood out to me in this cinematographic regard were: 1. During Fonny’s empathetic listening to his friend Danny’s prison horror stories where the camera glides back and forth between them is indicative of a truly human exchange. This isn’t just one man’s story, it is two men sharing a moment. 2. When Fonny and Tish are shown the loft by a yamaka clad Dave Franco, the camera moves up and down Tish with the grace of a high rise elevator even though they are on the cusp of renting a barren warehouse.

The acting was excellent in most places: Kiki Layne-terrific, Stephan James (in need of a smidge more emotion) and the fathers (Domingo and Beach)-great, both mothers (Regina King and the aforementioned Ellis) fantastic. Even the sour sisters (reminiscent of the Lowell bitches of the film The Fighter) were phenomenal.

Overall, IBSCT is prime example of art transcending story….we don’t need to know the back story of the two families antagonism. We don’t need to see prison brutality, nor be bludgeoned by a rape scene. Jenkins does well in the documentary style interruptions of Kiki’s voice over just stating the facts, that police and prison systems worked jointly (present tense ‘work’ probably in some places still today) to continue slavery and racial bias. A sad, sad story told through magnificent art.

Roma: singular in its perfection, multiple in definitions

This is a blog of numerations.

First, I am doubly blessed to have access to pre-published books (most recently a phenomenal epic novel coming in March called The Old Drift) working at BookStore1 Sarasota and second, having met Jack Guren, friend of Larry Singer (Emmy Award winner for sound) who was gracious enough to show us the new foreign film Roma directed by Alphonso Cuaron (probably most known for winning the Oscar for Gravity).

And continuing the twin peaks theme, Roma has at least two definitions: plural for gypsies and in the urban dictionary, a big hearted female introvert who trusts few, but when she does, consider yourself extremely valuable (sounds like someone I saw in the mirror before my jog this morning).

Roma was incredible. I don’t need to see any other foreign film to tell you that this should be the winner of all of the major film awards. Clearly, this is Cuaron’s magnum opus.

Shot in black and white and set in Mexico in the 1970’s, I experienced another world that I only get a much glitzier, (yet certainly not glamorous) glimpse of here in Sarasota, the interior lives of domestic servants. New actress Yalitza Aparico, the domestic servant lead role, is as awe inspiring as Lupita Nyong’o was in 12 Years a Slave.

Also fantastic is Marina de Tavira as the jilted middle class mother of four. This is more of a woman’s movie than Colette without having to club you over the head with feminist philosophy. Even the Caitlin Jenneresque Grandma, actress Veronica Garcia, was terrific.

On the men’s side, the stand out role was the impregnator, if there is such a word, the actor Jorge Antonio Guerrero. He has obviously just begun what will surely be an illustrious film career.

I don’t want to give anything away on this one. One could definitely make a case that the cinematography almost outshines all the acting. Experience it yourself, in all its cinematic glory. Just gorgeous through and through.

A list of precious details/scenes I don’t want to forget for class next semester (so spoilers)
hotel room scene
hospital scene
Gravity homage in movie theater
movie theater scene
going to movie with Grandma/Dad sighting
tai chi guru scene
drunk mom scene
holiday fire scene

A Salad Bar is Born

You did read the headline right, a salad bar is born. I wanted to like A Star is Born (directed and starring Bradley Cooper) having a halcyon remembrance of seeing the Kristofferson/Steisand version at Silver Lake Drive Inn many moons ago. I remember thinking that movie was sexy (though I’m sure I didn’t even know what that word meant at 13).

I’m bucking the crowd here in my dislike of the film, but I’ll tell you what I did enjoy first. I liked it for the same reasons it may win awards….the people in it are drop dead gorgeous. Bradley Cooper is downright adorable and Lady Gaga looks prettier without much makeup than she does with. But this is the same reason I didn’t feel for the characters. They weren’t tortured enough (or ever looked to be like anyone who could experience pain).

Another bias against the film is that I’ve seen Lukas Nelson perform (in Nashville by accident). I was there a night early and wanted something to do so thought, why not? Lukas is peripherally in A Star is Born and worked with Cooper on seeming to be a realistic guitar player. Lukas Nelson is ten times as “real” as Cooper and I think it may be telling that he didn’t even get a speaking role, in that, ‘don’t let anyone with genuine talent overshadow ‘the star’ sort of way. Its even strangely coincidental that Lukas’s band name is Lukas Nelson and The Promise of the Real. If a brave director had cast Lukas in the starring role with a younger Gaga like ingenue, we might have had a film. Lukas Nelson’s performances are entertaining and 3D, whereas Cooper’s were like a cardboard cut out.

My last problem with the movie has to do with my salad bar analogy. You know when you’re in line at a salad bar and you can’t linger too long in choosing because someone’s directly next to you? That’s what the scene length and therefore shallowness was in this film. I’d like to go see it again just to time out the scenes. I bet in the two hours and 17 minutes of the film, there wasn’t a scene longer than 5 minutes. Again, if we don’t linger in any pain or joy for more than that, we don’t feel anything.

So the film was admirable and the music was decent. Both Cooper and obviously Gaga are mega talented. it’s just too bad they’re so pretty and the screenplay was just too fast scene-wise to evoke an emotional response.

The Wife: A Whole Lot of Hand Wringing

The Wife directed by Bjorn Runge is a whole lot of hand wringing. Do we fault his Danish maudlin ways? Or should we go after Jane Anderson who wrote the screenplay based on Meg Wollitzer’s novel? I say Jane.

The dialogue was a bit like a high school chorus practice, at times the singing’s revelatory, at others, as if half of them are experiencing nails on a chalkboard adolescent hormone induced voice changing.

But enough whining, let’s talk about the positives, of which there are many. As I said, at times, this film soars: Close is fantastic, even if I kept waiting for her to pull out an ice pick or boil a rabbit. Equally great was Elizabeth McGovern, stealing a scene that resonates far beyond its short duration. The plot does indeed thicken on a slow burn and was suspenseful and unpredictable.

And the movie was realistic in showing the stickiness of co-dependent relationships. I spent 6 years of my life in one and sometimes wonder what the hell I was doing. Yet my time was chump change compared to the long duration of this marriage.

Not to end a negative, but Jonathan Pryce is a bit precious at times and Jeremy Irons’ son, if you can believe it, shows LESS emotion than his steely dad (hey how’s that for a pun: iron, steely)….ok, go easy on me.

Go see it, especially if you think your partner might be cheating on you. If he or she sweats profusely, you might want to retain an attorney:)

My Love & Hate for the new film First Reformed

I haven’t seen every Ethan Hawke film, but I’ve come pretty darn close. There’s some immense sadness behind his eyes that makes me want to give him a hug. Though I fully realize his persona is that of a cad, a guy who left Uma for the nanny. That said, my favorite film remains Before the Devil Knows Your Dead in spite of the 98% rating of First Reformed which I saw last night as a generous treat from my friend.

I’ve had this experience before, wary of where the film is going, yet willing to jump on for the ride. I was at first bored and depressed by the bleak Upstate New York winter setting, and the stifling repressed religious ministers. But I bought it, as Hawke is an amazing blank slate who takes on the gray coloring of the film written and directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Fun fact I just read about Mr. Schrader is that he grew up in a strict Calvinist family and that his next film is titled The Jesuit. Looks like he’s on a ‘give us this day our daily religious roll of film’.

So there I am, riveted, more so than my friend, who had every right to be turned off due to some spoilers of which I won’t mention that she’s all too familiar. But after offering to leave (movies aren’t worth psychological torture, aka my leaving Thin Red Line which was much too violent for me to take) and my friend saying she was ok due to some vastly different circumstances between her life and the film, I was fully ‘woke’ to experiencing what the culmination would be.

Schrader does a great job of establishing both a menacing foreboding and many foreshadowing red herrings. Where he lost me was at probably an hour and fifteen in, a magical realism sequence cascades into an Aronofskyesque Mother ending. At the conclusion (big question mark), my friend and I looked at each other thinking perhaps Burns Court was sent a bad cut of the film. Or perhaps we’re not ‘deep’ enough to get all the symbolism.

Hence, I’ll be heading to Rotten Tomatoes now to read the trained critics’ unpacking this film which means I was moved enough to care about what the hell it all means. Ethan Hawke definitely deserves fanfare, as does Cedric the Entertainer, who is an ultra serious role, is terrific as the financially minded super preacher. Amanda Seyfried is also fantastic as the emotionally confused pregnant Mary.

The film certainly confirms my opinion of organized religion in that much like any organization that becomes large, power corrupts. And if my life is any indication (my best friend pretty much breaking my heart in her rejection of me once she became full Baptist), religious folks can be some of the coldest. A visceral scene from First Reformed is when Ethan says an inch away from the face of a woman (portrayed by Victoria Hill, also very good) who loves him that he despises her for her petty emotions, you fully get that he is not a man who can heal.

Unfortunately, due to the uneven story, this won’t win Ethan the Oscar, but it was worth seeing for the acting and ‘interesting’ story idea.

Disobedience, Two Rachels Sitting in a Tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Don’t you feel proud to remember something before you end up doing an internet search?

Like I was going to pose the question: does Rachel Weisz play the same femme fatale character in every darn movie?….but then I remembered, ‘wait, no! Remember one of your favorite films OF ALL TIME (thanks Kanye) called “Truth” where she played Michael Caine’s loving daughter. A maudlin role, but not a malevolent one. But then came another memory question: why can’t I remember The Constant Gardener for which she won the Academy Award when I adore Ralph Fiennes? And a non-memory question: why did she leave poor Darren Aronofsky (who has now also been left by Jennifer Lawrence)?

As usual, I digress, but at least I left out my wish for the halcyon days, because guess what Disobedience (written and directed by Sebastian Lelio, [Fantastic Woman]) was about? The Jewish culture! I’m on a Hebrew Roll as they say. If you’ve seen the movie poster for Disobedience, you can almost cite the plot to me without ever seeing the film. Rachel Weisz comes home for the funeral of her father only to be tempted back to her true lesbian tendencies that had her excommunicated from the Hasidic culture.

“Fun” fact, wiki Hasidic Jewish Culture and this definition pops up: “The Hasidic movement is unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God’s commandments (mitzvot), heartfelt prayer, and boundless love for God and the world He created.” Which sounds so kind, right? According to the film Disobedience, all’s good as long as you follow the strict rules, which does not include homosexuality or women with fun hairstyles or a sexy sense of fashion.

Rachel Weisz was great as the self-loathing lesbian. I don’t really care for Rachel McAdams as a rule. She was fine in The Notebook, but I don’t see a thing on her IMDB page she’s done since that thrills me. On a Rona Barrett (how’s that for an old reference?) note, she did just have a baby with Jamie Linden and it has to frost her onions that on his IMDB page there are nothing but photos of he and Zoe Deschanel. Anyway, she’s fine for what she had to do in this film; repressed scowling.

Who stole the show for me was Alessandro Nivola, of whom I’ve not had much exposure. His understated, yet moving portrayal of a man scorned was original.

Not a fantastic film, but it held my interest for at least veering from textbook screenwriting in the last half.