Monday, October 16, 2017

Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) **** / *****
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Danny), Ben Stiller (Matthew), Dustin Hoffman (Harold), Elizabeth Marvel (Jean Meyerowitz), Emma Thompson (Maureen), Grace Van Patten (Eliza Meyerowitz), Candice Bergen (Julia), Rebecca Miller (Loretta Shapiro), Judd Hirsch (L.J. Shapiro), Adam Driver (Randy).
Noah Baumbach has softened a little bit in the 12 years since he made his first truly great film – The Squid and the Whale. That films – and the two that followed (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) were fairly harsh and unforgiving of its characters – punishing them, and at times, it seemed, punishing those in the audience who were watching. The softening started perhaps a little in Greenberg – his first collaboration with Greta Gerwig, who delivered a witty, funny, humane and overall tremendous performance in that film – and co-wrote and starred in two other Baumbach films – Frances Ha and Mistress America as well (the other Baumbach film during that time, While We’re Young is perhaps Baumbach’s cranky side coming through – as it’s a story about how annoying millennials can be when you’re older – and could be read as personal, given the age difference between him and Gerwig, who have been together for a while). But I noticed his softening most in his latest film – The Meyerowitz Stories – because in it, Baumbach offers at least a little forgiveness and understanding to characters he never used to be able to do that with. The aging father in the film – Harold, played in his best performance in years by Dustin Hoffman – is as insufferable as any of Baumbach’s other patriarchs – but it’s tempered with more understanding. There is also, undeniably, more sympathy for Harold’s children – on the late side of middle age, but still competing against for the affection of a man who is too self-involved to notice them.
There are three Meyerowitz children – Danny (Adam Sandler), is the oldest, and the only one who was the product of Harold’s second marriage. Danny is getting divorced and sending his beloved daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college at the same time. To a certain extent, Danny is another of Sandler’s overgrown man children – he has a temper, and can yell as loud as any Sandler character, but it’s more tempered with sadness and regret this time around – and less borderline psychotic. It’s a reminder of just how good Sandler can be when he works with a good director who pushes him. Danny’s half siblings are Matthew (Ben Stiller) – who fled to L.A. as soon as he could, and became a successful financial planner to the rich and famous (Adam Driver has a great cameo as one of his clients). Matthew worries more than a little that he’s too like his father. Then there is Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), whose primary family role seems to be peacekeeper. It’s too bad that Jean is the most underwritten of the major roles in the film, because Marvel is fantastic as a woman who allows the men in her life to treat her as an afterthought, and yet still be there for them (“Because that’s what a good person does”). They all playing supporting roles in the life of Harold (Hoffman) – who was once a sculptor of some (limited) renown, who believes that she is still doing the best work of his career – after his retirement from teaching. He lives with Mrs. Meyerowitz #4 – Maureen (Emma Thompson), playing a kind of drunken hippie – a role that doesn’t require someone of Thompson’s immense skills, but benefits from them anyway.
The title of movie evokes a short story collection – and to an extent, so does the structure of Baumbach’s movie, which concentrates on one sibling at a time, before bringing them together once Harold gets ill (the structure also kind of resembles Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – which Baumbach tried, unsuccessfully, to turn into a TV series a few years ago. The film shows moments in the lives of this family, not so much as they grow, but as they come to accept their place. Harold will never change – he is incapable of it, and doesn’t have the self-awareness to even see the damage he’s done. Hoffman is terrific here, digging into that a little bit.
The maturation of Baumbach helps his own art here. I still think I prefer The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding to The Meyerowitz Stories – yet I also think that the kind of anger and punishing streak in those films would have eventually grown stale, and overly harsh had Baumbach made a career out of them. Eventually, you have to forgive your parents – even if they are assholes. The Baumbach who made The Squid and the Whale didn’t know that – the one who made this film, does.

Movie Review: The Florida Project

The Florida Project **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sean Baker.
Written by: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Macon Blair (Tourist John), Karren Karagulian (Narek), Sandy Kane (Gloria).
There is a lot to love about Sean Baker’s The Florida Project – a beautiful, honest slice-of-life drama set beside the happiest place on earth in Florida – but perhaps none more than the best child performance I have seen in years by young Brooklynn Prince. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more natural performance by a child this young – she has to be 6 or 7 at the oldest – she never hits a false note. It’s a performance full of life – full of youthful exuberance that perfectly captures that age. The movie itself gives that performance a hint of sadness – not because of anything overt that Prince does, but just because at some point, we realize what the future most likely holds for Prince’s character Moonee. Now, she is innocent, and getting into the type of trouble that all kids that age get into – where their parents still get mad at them, but do so while smiling on the inside, because it’s not that bad. She spits on a car with her friends for instance – or puts a dead fish in the pool to “try and bring it back to life”. How do you not smile at that?
I realize that the first paragraph of this review perhaps makes The Florida Project sound like a feel good, Hollywood tearjerker, coming of age story – something like Stand By Me for instance, but that’s not really what this movie is. The movie is largely plotless, and takes place entirely in and around The Magic Castle, a rundown motel close to Disney Land in Florida, but is not a place you would stay if you had the money to go to Disney Land (unless, as in one very funny scene, you made a mistake with the online reservation). It’s summer vacation, and Moonee lives in one of the rooms with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) – who is in her early 20s, has no job, and whoever Moonee’s father was, is no longer around. Halley gets buy, week-to-week, on the rent by conducting various scams – like buying wholesale perfume, and selling it to tourists at the richer hotels in the area. Moonee basically spends her days getting into mischief with her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) – never quite understanding how close to being homeless she is, or how desperate her mother gets. The other major character in the film is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) – the motel manager, who isn’t what you expect him to be. Halley and Moonee are not the first family unit he’s seen in this situation – and they won’t be the last – and yet, he hasn’t grown cold or cynical. He really does care about them in his gruff one. The movie observes these various characters – and those who come in contact with them – over the course of a few weeks during the summer.
The Florida Project is a smart movie by co-writer/director Sean Baker, who follows-up his acclaimed breakthrough film Tangerine, about two transgender prostitutes in L.A., which he shot on an iPhone, with this film, shot on 35MM film. This film is bolder visually – and certainly brighter – than Tangerine, and yet it has the same humanistic approach to the storytelling. This one is even less driven by plot than Tangerine was – that one had a few storylines running throughout. This one is an even more closely observed film that really does understand these various characters, and their existence. It delves into the kind of lives that we don’t often see in movies – and rush by in real life. It also nails the feeling of what it’s like to be in Florida (in my limited experience anyway) – you feel the heat coming off everything, you can also feel the sadness underneath a lot of the happier facades in the film. At the heart, there are the great performances – by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite – two movies, and a pro-, doing some of the very best work of his long career. The movie ends, probably as it must – with a moment that is both sad, yet perhaps somehow optimistic. This is one of the great films of the year – it’s not to be missed.

Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99

Brawl in Cell Block 99 **** / *****
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler.
Written by: S. Craig Zahler.
Starring: Vince Vaughn (Bradley Thomas), Jennifer Carpenter (Lauren Thomas), Don Johnson (Warden Tuggs), Udo Kier (Placid Man), Marc Blucas (Gil), Tom Guiry (Wilson), Dan Amboyer (Longman), Fred Melamed (Mr. Irving), Rob Morgan (Jeremy).
I am as guilty as anyone of sometimes saying – especially of genre films – that the films would be better if they were tighter – mainly meaning, they’d be better if they were shorter. For the most part, I still think I’m right – and that’s mainly because the list of genre films that can sustain its momentum for more than about 100 minutes is short. Most of these film would benefit from being a tight, nasty 90 minutes. Films like Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the exception that proves the rule. Here is a film than runs two hours and twelve minutes – and it takes an hour before the main character is even in jail and another 45 minutes or so before he arrives in Cell Block 99 – he first has to get transferred to a different jail, and then get himself transferred into the title cell block. Oh, there is a brawl in Cell Block 99 alright – and it’s bloody and brutal when it comes. But the film takes its time getting there – and I pretty much loved every minute it takes to do so.
The film casts Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas – a large, hulking man who is mostly quiet throughout the film, which suits the usually motor mouthed Vaughn quite well. He’s a large man, with a shaved head, with a cross tattooed on the back of it. In the film’s opening scene, he gets fired from his tow truck driving job, and then heads home to have his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) tell him she’s having an affair. He doesn’t take the news well – and yet, surprisingly, after his initial meltdown, the couple actually manage a mature (kind of) dialogue about their relationship – and decide to try and make a go of it. Bradley goes to an old acquaintance of his and gets a job “transporting packages” – although we all know what that means. Soon, he’s working with the cartels, and things go from bad to worse as he gets arrested, etc.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a throwback to the films of the 1970s – the tough guy movies that were written and directed by the likes of Don Siegel or John Milius. It’s easy to dismiss those films as “problematic” – as it would be to do the same thing to this film – it’s perhaps not surprising that as violent as this film is, it is also far more right wing in its outlook than most films. The film wouldn’t really look out of place on a double bill like Dirty Harry – as both films have violent men at their core that you like at as heroic, until you actually stop and think about their actions for more than a minute. I don’t know that Bradley is racist – he beats up members of pretty much every race imaginable, but he has a primitive view of his relationship with his wife to be sure. If you were to argue that the film is about a violent, racist, misogynistic psychopath, I’m not sure I could disagree with you.
Yet the film really does give you the same giddy, transgressive thrill of those movies. It was written and directed S. Craig Zahler, who made the horror/Western Bone Tomahawk a couple years back, and learned some lessons from it. Both films are slow burns, gradually leading up to scenes that are absolutely shocking in their level of brutality and bloodshed. He does a far better job this time around though in keeping things interesting leading up to that shocking climax.
There will be those who think Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a masterpiece – that will think this is the best film they’ve seen this year, and watch it approximately a million times. There will be those who are offended by the movie, and shut it off fairly early in the film, and never look back. If you’ve made it this far into the review, I suspect you know which one you are.

Movie Review: 78/52

78/52 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe.
You could probably count the number of 45 second movie scenes that could support a feature length documentary on one hand, and have multiple fingers left over. The good news about the documentary 78/52 by Alexandre O. Phillippe, is that he picked one of the few that actually can – the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera setups/number of edits in the scene). The bad news is that for a while anyway – the first 30 minutes or so of the doc – you wonder exactly what the approach to the doc is going to be, and especially wonder how and why Phillipe chose his interview subjects to speak about the scene in question. It really does seem like he was willing to talk too just about anyone who wanted to (sure, come on in, Elijah Wood and a couple of your film geek pals, Illena Douglas, why not?, the director of From Dusk to Dawn 2, sure!). It doesn’t much help that in that first 30 minutes, the doc is going over some very well-trod upon ground – talking about the importance of the scene historically, and how groundbreaking it was, and how daring Hitchcock was for doing it. We saw this (recently) in films like last year’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, and we saw this – dramatically – in the disappointing film Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins – and those two are just the tip of the iceberg.
Luckily for those of us who already know all of that, the last hour of this 90 minute doc is something that really is fascinating – and really is worth your time. As the doc moves away from those talking about the importance of the scenes, and starts to break down the various elements of it – the different setups, and what they mean, the various cuts, Bernard Hermann’s score, etc. – the film gets into the nitty, gritty film geek stuff that you really do want to see in a doc like this. Sure, there is still a lot of fawning over Hitchcock and his genius here – but, whatever, it is kind of deserved.
The film takes the various stories and theories about the scene – and who is responsible for its greatness – and at the very least, addresses them. There is a vocal contingent who believes that the legendary title designer Saul Bass deserves more credit than he gets, because of the storyboards for it he drew – and the movie does show the various ways Hitchcock both followed them, and deviated from them to make the scene work more. The doc is perhaps even more fawning in its praise of Hermann and his score than it is even of Hitchcock – the composers he interviews seem to be in awe of him.
I do think there are various missed opportunities here. There is a fascinating moment where the film puts on a side-by-side comparison between the shower scene and a boxing scene in Scorsese’s Raging Bull the director has admitted to having inspired by in the editing of by the scene – but that flashes by too quickly. The doc interviews various people associated with the making of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film – but I would have loved it had it delved deeper into why that film didn’t work the same way (I believe the editor of the film essentially admits it doesn’t – but I would have loved a little more insight). I also think that the film could have stood with a little bit of questioning of the official narrative of Hitchcock as a genius – and delved past that a little. After all, there is a lot of talk in the doc about how modern Psycho is – and how with the melding of sex and violence, it was a precursor of much of what came after. But, surely someone thinks that may not be entirely good – especially considering what we know of Hitchcock and his relationships with actresses.
Still, this is pretty much a fan film, and on that level it works. As a filmmaker, that is pretty much what Phillippe is known for – he made The People vs. George Lucas – a film about why Star Wars fans love the original trilogy – and hate the prequels (whiny man children), and Doc of the Dead – about the history of the modern Zombie film. This is his best work to date, perhaps because it’s the most compressed – most focused on a single subject, rather than trying to do too much. Even if you know Psycho inside out and backwards, you should see this film – and if you haven’t – well, what are you waiting for?

Movie Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail **** / *****
Directed by: Steve James.
In the wake of the Financial crisis of 2008 all the big banks pretty much got off Scot Free – or with bailout money, that yes, eventually they repaid, although that didn’t help all those people who got screwed over. Prosecutors in New York did go after one bank however for their mortgage practices – and that bank was Abacus: Savings and Loan – a bank you have probably never heard of, and, in reality, there is no reason for you to have heard of it. It’s not a major bank – it doesn’t have millions of customers, or anything. But it is an important bank for the family that runs it – and those who use it. It was started by Thomas Sung – now almost 80 – a Chinese immigrant, who got frustrated when he realized that banks were willing to take his money in deposits, but none of them seemed to want to lend him – or other Asian Americans – any money. He set up a bank in Chinatown in New York City to change that. He operated the business for years – and now two of his daughters run have continued that legacy. There were some shady things happening in their mortgage department – but when the Sung family discovered them, they fired the employees who did them, and even reported them to their regulators, and co-operated with the D.A.’s office up to the point where they realized that they were no longer being treated as witnesses, but as suspects. While no one in the Sung family was personally indicted with a felony – the corporation itself was. The Sung family decided to fight the charges – not in least because unlike the major banks, who got slaps on the wrists or hit with fines, the D.A. refused to let them off with anything less than a felony conviction – which would doom them as a bank.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a documentary by Steve James – the great filmmaker behind such films as Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and Life Itself. Here, he seemingly sets an impossible task for himself – to make a bank sympathetic – but it really doesn’t take him that long to do that. The film spends a lot of time with the Sung family – father, mother and three daughters, all of whom are smart, witty, charming and tough as nails. In short, they are not going down without a fight.
As the film goes on, it slightly expands its focus to Chinatown – and Chinese immigrants in general. While the bank fully admits that some of their employees did shady things in their mortgage department – they say they did everything they could to co-operate with the investigation into them, and have nothing to hide on a corporate level. The movie follows the trial closely – and it’s amazing how flimsy the evidence against Abacus is. After all the months – years – of investigation, this is what they had on Abacus, and they still decided to go to trial? To be fair, I’m not wholly convinced that Abacus did nothing wrong – but there isn’t any proof that they did, and many other banks did far, far worse things. I am more on the side of those in the documentary who believe that the D.A. wanted to show they were tough on banks – and decided to pick one to prosecute – just one that wasn’t too big, and only effected a small enough community that it wouldn’t hurt anyone election chances.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is a fascinating documentary on several levels – as a legal thriller, as a document of how banks operate, as a family drama and more. It doesn’t quite have the scope of James’ Hoop Dreams, or quite the emotional resonance of The Interrupters of Life Itself – but it’s another wonderful documentary by one of the documentarians in the business.

Movie Review: The House

The House ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Andrew Jay Cohen.
Written by: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen.
Starring: Will Ferrell (Scott Johansen), Amy Poehler (Kate Johansen), Jason Mantzoukas (Frank), Ryan Simpkins (Alex Johansen), Nick Kroll (Bob), Allison Tolman (Dawn), Rob Huebel (Officer Chandler), Christina Offley (Davida), Jessie Ennis (Rachel), Rory Scovel (Joe), Lennon Parham (Martha), Cedric Yarbrough (Reggie), Kyle Kinane (Garvey), Michaela Watkins (Raina), Jeremy Renner (Tommy), Andrea Savage (Laura).
When The House was released this summer, it was generally dismissed by critics. It didn’t help matters that the studio decided not to screen the film for critics before it was released – meaning those assigned to review it, had to run out to late shows on Thursday night, or early matinees of Friday. When films don’t show for critics, it’s usually a safe bet that those films are terrible – and the studio wants to avoid bad buzz leading up to the release date that a bunch of bad reviews would bring. In most cases, the film would have been dismissed by the critics – and unless it became a surprise hit (The House did not) that would be the end of it – and the film would rarely be thought of again by anyone. The House, though, is at least somewhat different. A.O. Scott of the New York Times gave the film one of its only positive reviews when it was released – and the film found an unlikely champion a few weeks ago in Chance the Rapper, who attacked critics for not liking the film – which itself has inspired at least would good think piece by a critic (Matt Singer of Screencrush) about The House, and its critical reaction. I cannot help but wonder if we’re headed for a full-scale critical reappraisal of The House – just a little earlier than normal. The truth about The House is, unfortunately, kind of boring – it’s nowhere near as terrible as the first wave of reviews made it out to be. It could very well be that critics were cranky, and on tight deadlines, so they dismissed it, and moved on. Yet, it’s also not really an underrated classic that will one day be listed as a landmark in American screen comedy. It’s a rather average comedy – that had moments that undeniable made me laugh. It also had, I think, some ambitions beyond being a straight ahead comedy – but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of Ferrell’s best works in those regards either. It’s a decent, kind of funny comedy.
In the film, Ferrell and Amy Poehler stars as Scott and Kate Johansen, a middle class couple, living in a nice, quiet suburban town, with a nice house, nice jobs and a daughter – Alex (Ryan Simpkins) who they adore. She has gotten into a great college – and won the town scholarship this year, so they don’t have to worry about paying for it. That is, until the town council led by Bob (Nick Kroll) decides instead to spend the money on building a pool. Now the Johansen’s have no money – they look well off, but aren’t – and have the summer to come up with the case, or tell their daughter she cannot go. So they do what every loving parents would do – team up with their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to run an illegal casino out of Frank’s house. Frank is doing it because his wife has left him, and his gambling debts mean he’s about to lose the house. They decide they’ll run things just long enough to make $500K - $250K each to get them out of their binds. Things, of course, do not go according to plan.
The premise of the film is, of course, goofy – but then again, the film knows that. Co-writer and directed Alex Jay Cohen, is trying to make a comedy about the financial crisis – and he pushes things to their logical extreme, eventually – as mild mannered Scott eventually becomes known as The Butcher when he cuts off a man’s finger, and gets covered in his blood. The film is about the increasing price of the American Dream – and how more and more people are being priced out of it. It’s a comedy with at least a larger idea it wants to express.
As a comedy though, the film is largely hit or miss. Jason Mantzoukas has a delivery style that makes me laugh – or at least smile – at nearly every sentence he utters (the same was true of his vocal work in Big Mouth). Ferrell and Poehler are a good pair together as well – and they are able to mine some laughs out of some pretty thin material.
In short, The House isn’t as bad as those first critics thought it was. It is a goofy comedy that is at times smarter than the average studio comedy – but never manages to rise to the level of the best Adam McKay/Will Ferrell comedy concoctions. It’s better than you heard – but that doesn’t quite mean it’s good.

Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson *** ½ / *****
Directed by: David France.
Written by: David France & Mark Blane.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is most effective when it looks at the larger picture, and a little more suspect when it tries to zoom in on the details. The film uses its title figure – the famous drag queen Marsha P. Johnson, a figure in the Stonewall riots, and a gay activist her entire life, until her mysterious death in 1992, to tell the complicated history of transgender people in the gay rights movement. While today, the LBGTQ community is overall very supportive of trans rights, that wasn’t always the case – and director David France has the footage to prove it, as a large rally for gay rights in the 1970s features trans activist Sylvia Rivera giving a speech, where she is essentially booed and shouted down. She left the movement after that – and had a complex relationship with the movement for decades after – going through her own struggles, before dying in 2002 herself. When the film looks back at the movement in those earlier days, or focuses on the current situation – which is better, but far from good – the movie follows a murder trial where a man admits to beating to death a Trans woman, but says he did so out of “panic” when he discovered she was trans – it is excellent. When it focuses on the personal story of Victoria Cruz – a trans woman herself, from the same generation of Marsha and Sylvia – it is also quite good – giving a more personal side to the movement. But it’s on shaky ground when it examines Marsha’s death itself – coming up with very little other than shaky conspiracy theories.
Marsha’s death is undeniably strange – she was found in the water off the Christopher street pier in 1992 – and the cause of her death was drowning. There doesn’t appear to be any trauma on her body – she wasn’t beaten, stabbed, shot, etc. – and the police essentially rule it a suicide, and move on. But was it? It also could have been an accident. It also, of course, could have been murder. Cruz is convinced that it was murder, and does everything she can to try and prove that. She goes to Marsha’s surviving siblings to get them to give her permission to get the autopsy report from the medical examiner, she reaches out to the original investigating officers, with little success, and she digs through the records of the organization in which she works – the Anti-Violence Project. She reaches out to those who knew Marsha – her roommates, her friends, etc. What she discovers in this investigation is, honestly, not that much. The original officer won’t talk to her – but a cold case detective eventually does, saying he looked into the case a couple years ago, and couldn’t find any evidence that she was murdered. Part of the autopsy record is missing – but it is 25 years old, so that’s not that unusual (on the phone, Victoria asks the woman in charge of the records “So you’re saying that out of all of your records from 1992, this is the only one missing” and the reply “No, I’m not saying that”). There is a witness that says she saw Marsha at 4 am the day before her body was discovered – and she was being followed by two men and looked scared. There is also an anonymous phone call, warning Marsha’s roommate away from his then current mission of trying to wrestle the local gay pride festival away from the Mob – but that’s about it. By the end of the documentary, the feeling I got about Marsha’s death is that I still don’t know what happened – with murder, suicide and accident all still being possible. The biggest problem may well be that the police didn’t do more of an investigation back in 1992 – but unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and do that now.
Everything around this investigation into what happened to Marsha in regards to her death was so fascinating however, that I didn’t much care that the crime aspect just went in circles. The film was directed by David France – whose debut film, How to Survive a Plague, was an even more impressive doc – about ACT UP in the 1980s, and their struggle to get people to take the AIDS epidemic seriously. This film is another important one, looking back at the history of the gay rights movement, and documenting how contentious it once was. For someone like Marsha, there was no hiding she was – and being a “drag queen” at that time was a day in, day out form of activism. The trans community were outliers then, and they remain the most picked upon, abused and mocked members of the LGBTQ community to day. This documentary acts as a reminder of how far we have come as a society in these matters – and how much farther we have to go.