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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Thoughts on Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas

Yesterday I felt like watching Anna Kendrick in movies, so I watched Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. I liked Drinking Buddies, more so for Olivia Wilde's performance. It is a romantic comedy centering around Wilde and Jake Johnson as best friends who work together in a Chicago brewery, and deal with drama in their romantic relationships. Kendrick is good as Johnson's girlfriend, she adapts well in small movies.

I think Wilde has found her stride in indie films lately (Butter, Better Living Through Chemistry), she had been bland for many years before that in mainstream movies and T.V. I liked her in interviews way back from 2006 because of her parents' illustrious background in journalism and her wit, but that charisma was often lost onscreen. She is just much better in indie films that allow her to be funny and multifaceted.

Happy Christmas stars Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey, and Kendrick plays a person trying to get her life together and avoid her addictions (alcohol, weed) while living with her brother and his family, Lynskey plays his wife who is a novelist and stay-at-home mom. She loves her son, but is bored and creatively frustrated while being a SAHM, and wants to go to a retreat to write her second novel. Kendrick's character is likable and sympathetic even while messing up, and the movie stays fairly light, it has a hopeful feel of her turning out OK. She is just good at playing relatable characters, and seeming normal while having immense Broadway talent and huge fame. It is just nice seeing her bring that likability in smaller films and fitting into them as well as in big movie musicals.
Both movies are directed by Joe Swanberg, and are pretty good. Lena Dunham has a supporting role in Happy Christmas, and is surprisingly not annoying.

I am biased to not like indie hipster directors because I grew to despise them while working at Filmmaker, but Swanberg is good, and Ti West makes some good horror movies. I however, can't stand the Duplass brothers, and I cannot stand Mark Duplass. I disliked him in Safety Not Guaranteed, and cannot watch anything else he stars in. I think Greta Gerwig can act, but I cannot stand Noah Baumbach movies (though I liked Gerwig's performances in Frances Ha and Mistress America), and their cutesy partnership turns me off. So, yeah, I like indie movies, but not insular hipster twee stuff.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rubble Kings - A Film Review

Rubble Kings is a 2015 documentary by Shan Nicholson, and narrated by John Leguizamo. It is a really good documentary, and goes into a lot of interesting history of the racial politics and socio-economic backgrounds that led to gangs starting in the 1970s Bronx. Between the government neglecting neighborhoods and allowing people to starve in poverty without utilities or educational resources, corrupt landlords kicking people out and burning buildings for insurance money, and the government allowing heroin to come into the ghetto and destroy black and brown communities, it was a rough place to survive in.

I really liked how badass and peace-loving The Ghetto Brothers were, as a Puerto Rican gang devoted to social activism and improving their community, and how they had an awareness of the futility of the gangs fighting each other instead of against their government oppressors, and refusing to enact a "gang war" so the media can call them savages and killers. The gangs eventually settled peace with one another, coming together to form collectives that focused on social activism, and developing hip-hop as a positive and creative force, showing the world that they wouldn't be killed or marginalized, and can create art out of their poor and rough surroundings, that they would not die.

It is a really powerful story, and so great to see stories of gangs eventually trying to be peaceful and work together, instead of fighting over turfs and colors and being abused by the system overlords who want them to fight and kill each other. I highly recommend this documentary, it can be found streaming on Netflix.

Grandma - A Film Review

I enjoyed seeing Grandma yesterday, an indie movie written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin as Elle, who is helping her teen granddaughter Sage (Garner) raise $600 in a day to pay for her abortion.

Elle is a lesbian poet whose partner died after 38 years of togetherness, and she just broke up with her girlfriend (Greer) of four months. She is a miser who pushes people away, isn't on speaking terms with her daughter (Harden), and has a mean and bitter attitude towards people. Yet Tomlin's performance is brilliant, and her love and feminist actions for her innocent granddaughter make her sympathetic. They raise the money through visiting various contacts of Elle's, getting the money through favors or collecting debt, and Elle often has to confront the effect that her bad attitude has had on her loved ones, and own up to her life's mistakes and show compassion for others.

I liked that the film is very woman-centered, and has an ensemble cast of talented actresses: Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Lauren Tom, and Elizabeth Peña. John Cho is in a cameo, and Sam Elliott appears in a notable sequence as Elle's ex-husband, but the movie is largely dominated by women. The movie is interesting and well-written and well-acted, and was refreshing to watch.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fool For Love - A Theater Review

I saw the Sam Shepard play Fool For Love yesterday on Broadway. I liked it a lot, I loved the raw Western vibe in it, with two on-and-off lovers in a nowheresville motel room in the Mojave Desert tangled up in their tumultuous relationship, yet still attracted to one another amidst tearing each other apart. More so, May is tired of Eddie playing head games with her for 15 years, and Eddie comes to the motel room to insist on taking her back, like she is his property to retrieve. I had seen the 1985 film version about ten years ago, and really enjoyed seeing the story revisited in live theater.

Nina Arianda was excellent as May. I knew of her as a Broadway star, but thought of her from Born Yesterday, a perky upbeat type. She was really good in playing a Southern woman who had nothing and was on the edge of losing it when her ex shows up. She had a lot of fire in this role, and played her character with a lot of grit and rawness. Like in her gestures of pushing back her hair, holing herself up in the bathroom, packing her suitcase quickly while her ex is out of the room, and fixing irritated stares.

Sam Rockwell was really good in this as Eddie, totally getting into the cowboy part and bringing some menace to it, like swinging his lasso while singing "Clementine" in a quietly threatening way in front of his ex. He even shoehorned some dancing and a split in this, because Rockwell dances in almost everything he is in. He does use his physicality to his advantages, like sliding along the floor, scootching himself under a bed, or reclining against a bed while getting half-drunk and mocking his ex's new suitor.

The other two actors did well, too. Tom Pelphrey did really well as the hapless, confused suitor Martin, who is nice but kind of dim, and easily believes whatever story he is told, which often sparks a debate of truth vs. fiction. Gordon Joseph Weiss as the old man did well too, but I preferred Harry Dean Stanton's performance from the movie.

I am happy I saw it, and the two women next to me said they met Arianda by chance at dinner before the show, as she was having dinner with her parents. I shared my stories of me and my sister meeting Rockwell (my sister actually talked to him, I just saw him but was too shy to approach him), so it was a fun exchange.

The play will have a limited run, from now to December 6th, and I highly recommend it for the solid acting, intense drama, and the Western motif.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Mostly Martha - A Film Review

Mostly Martha is a 2001 German romantic comedy written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, starring Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castelitto, and Maxime Foerste. It is a quiet and enjoyable film about a workaholic chef (Gedeck) who, through hardship and tragedy, learns how to open her heart and enjoy life more through the influence of her family and friends.

Martha Klein (Gedeck) is a chef at a gourmet restaurant in Hamburg, Germany. She is a perfectionist and dedicated to her cooking as an art, but has poor social skills, loses her temper with a picky customer over an undercooked foie gras, and only gets away with her attitude by being the second-best chef in the city. Her boss makes her go to a therapist to improve her social skills, but she spends the therapy sessions avoiding discussions about her control issues, preferring to discuss her philosophies on cooking and cooking meals for her therapist as a way of “talking” to him. At work, she handles her stress by taking brief trips to the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator for breathers.

Tragedy strikes when her sister is killed in a car accident, leaving behind her 8-year old daughter Lina (Foerste). Martha is now her guardian, and struggling to balance her high-powered career with parenting. Lina is a reserved young girl who is grieving her mother’s death, becoming withdrawn and depressed and refusing to eat. Lina’s father is an Italian man who has been absentee in her life, and Lina only knows his first name and nationality. Martha and Lina aren’t close, and Martha prefers to let Lina grieve on her own while she focuses on her career.

But just as Martha is trying to adjust to a great change in her personal life, her professional life takes a hit too: her boss has hired an easygoing and charismatic sous-chef named Mario (Castelitto), who Martha sees as a threat to her position as head chef of the kitchen. She says of him to her therapist, “Two chefs in one kitchen is like two people driving a car. It’s impossible.” She is possessive of the hard work that it took her to be chef in the kitchen, and is fearful that Mario will usurp her. Mario, meanwhile, admires her talent and drive, and chose the restaurant to work for her. His relaxed attitude and love of jazz turns Martha’s kitchen from a precise factory of fine food into a light-hearted environment to work in, and the shake-up to her professional life scares her.

As Martha and Lina’s relationship slowly gains trust, Martha brings Lina to the kitchen to learn the basics of cooking. Lina takes to Mario’s warmth and playfulness, and opens up from her grief to enjoy Italian food and find joy in life again. Martha begins to trust Mario too, by seeing his genuine care and concern for her niece, and a romance blossoms forth, though not without complications in Martha’s life.

The film has a good, slow, and quiet pace, as the scenes unfold to allow the audience to get to know the characters and be in their world. Whereas it is the rhythm of the kitchen, jazz music, the classic Italian song Volare, or Martha’s transformation from a tightly-wound workaholic to a more giving and openly loving person, the film has a beautiful simplicity to it. Gedeck plays Martha with gritty honesty, with a life well-lived on her face, in a stunning performance. Foerste is natural and realistic in her performance as a grieving and reserved child, and Castelitto is warm and likable as the loving Mario.

The film had an American remake in 2007 as No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Abigail Breslin, and Aaron Eckhart, but Mostly Martha is the superior film. It isn’t hackneyed or contrived, the film is not only focused on the romantic comedy genre, and the film is centered around an accomplished and intelligent woman learning to open herself up to the pleasures and joys in life beyond her single-minded career ambitions. It is really a wonderful film, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Take Care - A Film Review

Take Care is a 2014 romantic comedy written and directed by Liz Tuccillo, and starring Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski. The film is a charming and offbeat romantic comedy, about a fairly simple story about an injured woman who gets her ex-boyfriend to care for her out of payback for her nursing him during his cancer.

Frannie (Bibb) is a woman who is recovering after getting hit by a car, with a broken right arm and left leg. She is house-bound, stuck in a fourth-floor walk-up, and while she has her friend and sister for occasional help, she is often struggling on her own to make a meal, go to the bathroom, or just get around her home in general. She says of her friends’ appearances to help, “Sure, here and there, when they can fit me in. But I’m not anyone’s priority.” She can be childish, and is described as “dramatic” by her ex-boyfriend, but Bibb is likable and charming in her performance, so that overrides the immaturity of the character.

Frannie often feels lonely in her home and needs more consistent help, so she resorts to contacting her ex-boyfriend, who her friends have called “The Devil” for dumping her after Frannie took care of him for two years while he had colon cancer.  Thomas Sadoski as Devon delivers a good performance, but Devon is an unlikeable character like Frannie. He is bland and dull, and often has a wishy-washy attitude when it comes to both Frannie and his jealous girlfriend Jodi (Betty Gilpin). While he knows that he “owes” Frannie for what she did for him, he often seems awkward and unsure of himself throughout the movie, and doesn’t have much of an attractive personality to justify why either woman would be interested in him.

Through this arrangement, Devon regularly comes to Frannie’s apartment to buy her groceries (he had recently gotten $6 million for a software deal with Yahoo), cook her dinner, take her to the doctor, wash her hair, and spend time with her watching T.V. Her favorite show is Law & Order, and there is a fun running joke with Frannie and the reruns. “I can see the murder in the first minute and I know who did it . . . it calms me somehow.” Those moments are some of the highlights of the film, which has an otherwise thin script.

There is an entertaining subplot with Frannie’s neighbor, a guy who blasts dance music in his apartment and does CrossFit. He often is dragged into Frannie’s life, whether it is carrying her up the stairs or her making him come over to make a sandwich for her, and so forth. He is a normal guy who wants to be left alone, and doesn’t want anything to do with her problems. “When someone asks me to do them a favor, it feels like they’re sucking air out of my lungs, like they’re trying to steal my life.” His aggravation with Frannie’s self-involved drama is often a funny diversion from the main plot, and showing an entirely different life outside of Frannie’s world.

Jodi is often made the villain of the film, and her jealousy and own neediness often makes her more of a caricature, rather than a woman who has every right to be uncomfortable with her boyfriend spending a lot of private time nursing his ex-girlfriend back to health. Gilpin delivers a good performance, but her character is definitely made to be over-the-top in her whininess.

The movie is light and fun to watch, mostly because Bibb and Sadoski has a nice chemistry together as exes and burgeoning cordial friends. Even though the outcome of their relationship is predictable, the scenes where they are bonding over his cooking and her love of Law & Order are warm and nice to watch, like seeing old friends reconnecting. It is a movie that would work as a one-hour play, as most of the action takes place in Frannie’s apartment, and the actors seem mostly suited to working in theater and television. It is a nice movie, not great, but pleasant to watch for an offbeat romantic comedy.