Hunt for the Wilderpeople

WilderpeoplePosterRicky Baker is a bad egg. That’s the way his Child Services agent Paula describes him. He burns stuff, steals stuff, kicks stuff. And that little line says a lot about just how little the world actually thinks of him. He’s a big kid, round and pudgy with dark skin, yet wearing a big red hat underneath an even more oversized white hoodie covered in decals of diamonds and Illuminati pyramids. If all you think of Ricky is that he’s a bad egg, then you won’t see the quirky personality this outfit alone suggests; you’ll just see a punk kid and wannabe gangster destined for nothing.

Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” gives Ricky some credit and shows what he’s capable of if given a little love, care and attention. What’s possible when we set kids loose? The magic and irreverent, cartoonish humor nested within this unusual New Zealand film give new life to a story of adolescence and fatherhood, and it’s one of the more enjoyable viewing experiences of the year. Continue reading “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Don’t Think Twice

Dont-Think-Twice-Movie-Poster“Don’t Think Twice” may be a little too real. It’s a movie about 30-somethings coming to grips with failing to meet their dreams and ambitions, which, for a 20-something still harboring those dreams, doesn’t exactly sit well. Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s sophomore film will ring true for any artist/creative type who has tried to cut it in New York or LA, even though the improv comedy troupe it depicts is a very specific personality.

Miles (Birbiglia) leads an improv comedy troupe known lovingly as The Commune, and their pre-show rituals, whether embracing a bear statue, chanting vocal warm-ups or impersonating the mousy stage manager, all echo the sensation of a caring support group. Comedy for these ambitious weirdoes needs to come from a place of bonding. In an opening narration, we hear the rules of improv: Always Say Yes, Don’t Think, and It’s All About the Group. They share a hive mind and get through each performance by supporting the other.

Of course this personality type, always being on, never saying no and being unable to turn off the improvisational urge, can quickly get insufferable. Birbiglia’s screenplay highlights the Commune’s narcissism, in which they’re always talking about their own projects and reflecting on missed opportunities. And yet he still allows their chatterbox mouths to run wild. “Don’t Think Twice” is about comedy and has funny moments, but it’s a far more subdued character drama that shows the mind of the improv comic instead of laugh out loud humor. As a result, sitting with them at bars or in their dorm-sized apartment can be like trying to get in on an inside joke. Continue reading “Don’t Think Twice”

Suicide Squad

SuicideSquadPosterIf “Suicide Squad” is supposed to be fun, kill me now. It’s as much of a mess as “Batman v. Superman,” the other entry in the DC Comics Cinematic Universe this year. Director David Ayer’s film has no attitude, no wit, and though it’s a movie about bad guys, does not even have the pleasure and fun of bad taste.

As the story of a team of screwball, misfit villains teaming up to save the world against their best interest, “Suicide Squad” wants to be an anti-hero remix in the vein of this year’s “Deadpool.” But it also has the irreverent, pop sensibilities of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the overstuffed dream team burden of “The Avengers,” and why not throw in some “Fast and the Furious” or “Scarface” for good measure?

Reports have surfaced about studio meddling that resulted in a shortened writing period, expensive reshoots and versions of the film edited by a company that makes movie trailers. And it shows. “Suicide Squad” patches together story threads, cinematic styles and even a classic rock soundtrack pulled straight from a Spotify playlist, and it never comes together into something coherent or compelling. Continue reading “Suicide Squad”

Jason Bourne

JasonBournePosterThe first Jason Bourne movie came out in 2002, with star Matt Damon still a fairly young man of his early ‘30s. 14 years and a James Bond revival later, it’d be easy to forget how strong that original franchise was. And if you figure that about just as much time has passed in the movie’s timeline since the end of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” you’d think the CIA might’ve all but forgotten about Bourne as well.

And yet here we are in “Jason Bourne” with another set of CIA operatives chasing him down and trying to bury the past as they whisper his name in hushed astonishment. Now it’s Oscar winner Alicia Vikander’s turn to learn she “has no idea who you’re dealing with.”

Bourne (Damon) has been out of the game for years, lifelessly bare knuckle brawling in underground fights, but when his old colleague Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) ropes him back in, it turns out Bourne is still very much the priority of the current CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, who has played the gruff, sarcastic cop and secret agent so many times it’s amazing he wasn’t in this franchise earlier). Continue reading “Jason Bourne”

Pootie Tang (2001)

Pootie_Tang_posterThank God for Louis C.K. When he directed the 2001 film “Pootie Tang,” he was still an aspiring comedian, writer and director, not yet a household name, and certainly not the innovator on stage or behind the camera that we’re accustomed to today. Let’s just say no one was calling him a genius yet.

Chris Rock however imagined that C.K. one day could be a genius. C.K. wrote and directed on “The Chris Rock Show” and with Conan O’Brien on “Late Night,” and it was Rock who encouraged C.K. to start developing ideas for himself. But not before C.K. was tasked to adapt a successful sketch and character on “The Chris Rock Show” into a feature length film that would turn out to be the biggest failure of C.K.’s career: “Pootie Tang.”

The sketch is little more than Rock conducting an interview with a jive-talking pop star, and the film (barely qualifying as one at just 81 minutes) isn’t about much more. In fact, it’s a mess. “Pootie Tang” was such a disaster in 2001 that Roger Ebert wondered in his Half-Star review if it was even finished, imagining how such a wild mish-mash of a film could’ve possibly been made and released in this state. “Pootie Tang” is not bad so much as inexplicable,” he wrote. “How was this movie assembled out of such ill-fitting pieces?”

And yet if it weren’t for C.K.’s rise as a director, would anyone have given “Pootie Tang,” truly a cult classic that just had its 15th anniversary, the second look it deserves? Continue reading “Pootie Tang (2001)”

Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’

Horace_and_PetePosterIn the third episode of Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete,” Horace’s ex-wife Sara (Laurie Metcalf) delivers a gut-wrenching, vivid monologue in which she slowly reveals her infidelity to her new husband. The camera remains firm on her fragile face, and it takes a solid ten minutes before the camera even cuts away to reveal Horace (C.K.) is sitting across from her as she speaks. The more we learn about her backstory, the more she digs a hole for herself. But it’s so descriptive and well acted we empathize with her immediately. We understand why she’s behaved so horribly and why she can’t bring herself to stop. Worst of all, she now has the audacity to look to Horace to help her find a way out, but we too understand why he’s the only one who could.

Call it TV, film or theater, this episode of “Horace and Pete” is possibly the single best hour of art of the year. It explores through only dialogue and character what it is to be on the brink of something so terrible and be unable to stop. Horace tells her it’s like having home insurance during a fire: you just have to burn it all down.

“You really have a skill at justifying horrible things,” she says to him. That line speaks volumes in the moment of the episode, but whether on stage doing stand-up, on screen, or in public, Louie increasingly is all about justifying horrible things. Continue reading “Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’”

Café Society

Cafe_SocietyPosterKristen Stewart is only 26, but she feels as though she could’ve been in Woody Allen’s movies since the ‘70s. The camera loves her face, her hair, and the way she dresses. Stewart was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet following “Twilight,” and in “Café Society,” a movie that’s all about how culture and class changes and effects people, Allen sees her as authentic.

Stewart plays Vonnie (short for Veronica), the center of a love triangle between her fun and care free boyfriend Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) and her wealthy and married lover Phil (Steve Carell) nearly twice her age. Set in the 1940s in the heyday of Old Hollywood, Bobby has just moved to Los Angeles to get away from New York and try and make it by doing work at his uncle Phil’s agency. Of course, this is a Woody Allen movie, and Bobby can’t resist saying how much different and better New York is than LA at every turn. In fact Allen probably couldn’t have tolerated LA in any other period than the ‘40s, using it as an excuse to talk about jazz, so here we are. Continue reading “Café Society”

Zootopia

movie_poster_zootopia_866a1bf2I raised an eyebrow when critics were declaring that with “Zootopia,” Disney had made a triumph of a film tackling racial biases. This is a movie about talking animals after all. But whereas “racial” may not be the right word, it addresses very clearly what it is to be prejudiced, to assume the worst about a person based on their upbringing, their skin or their biology.

And it’s not just a running theme but a core tenet of the plot. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a bunny rabbit from the country who dreams of becoming a police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia, despite the knowledge that no bunny has ever matched up with the lions, tigers and bears of the world fit for law enforcement. You could even say she’s very much a girl trying to force her way into a boys’ club that doesn’t believe she has the stuff. She’s diminished as figuratively and literally small time and again, and directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore aren’t shy to remind you of Judy’s failures and struggles in pursuit of her dreams. She’s so exuberantly positive and yet even the Zootopia radio is against her.

The moral of needing to remain optimistic in order to achieve your goals would’ve been enough of a life lesson for any other Disney film, but the prejudice subplot of predators going “savage” serves as an added carrot. When Judy meets up with Nick (Jason Bateman), a sly con-artist of a fox, “Zootopia” plays on children’s built-in knowledge of predators and prey, foxes and rabbits, and anything else within the animal kingdom, and then challenges those assertions. Continue reading “Zootopia”

Little Men

Little_Men_(2016_film)Making friends and keeping them can be hard enough as it is. For Jake and Tony, two 13-year-olds living in Brooklyn, they have to contend with issues of class, of family feuds and of distance, all in one of their most volatile periods of growing up. Through understated performances by both of these boys, Ira Sachs’s “Little Men,” touchingly shows how with some love and maturity even the most strained of bonds can endure.

13-year-old Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and his family have just moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn after learning about the death of his grandfather Max. Max has left the apartment and ownership of the dress shop below to Jake’s parents Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle). The Jardines want the shop’s owner Leonora (Paulina Garcia of “Gloria”) to move out, but Jake has just become good friends with Leonora’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri).

Jake and Tony bond over their art and their video games, both of them with dreams to attend LaGuardia Performing Arts High School in a few years. The quiet and reserved Jake is a talented artist neglected at public school (“Van Gogh ended up cutting off his own ear,” his charming teacher informs him during class), while Tony, complete with a thick Brooklyn accent and down to Earth attitude, has the acting bug. During an acting workshop, Tony proves he’s a natural, sparring with his professor in an observational exercise of repeating the same comment back to the partner. Continue reading “Little Men”

Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party

AbigailsPartyPosterAt the beginning of “Abigail’s Party,” Beverly enters the living room of her home, opens a cabinet full of liquor, and pours herself a drink, her first of what will be many this evening. She’s wearing a low cut, salmon colored dress and a large, garish gold necklace beneath a frumpy Pageboy haircut that’s rounded perfectly above her eyes. In the course of this evening, she will turn out to be a real monster. And that’s saying nothing of her friends.

In Beverly we get one of the most grating, annoying characters ever put to film, her British accent almost cartoonish, her poise sloppy and her decorum atrocious. And yet she’s the star of a truly devastating and cringe-worthy character study. “Abigail’s Party” was an early film by British director Mike Leigh released in 1977. It’s a teleplay made for TV and based on a theater production. Louis C.K. was inspired by it to make “Horace and Pete,” firstly due to its live, three-camera, sitcom style filmmaking, and secondly for how this darkly funny story of alcoholism, etiquette and societal values add up to a dreary tragedy. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party”