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Updated: 2017-08-20T18:38:00-05:00

 



Jerry Lewis: 1926-2017

2017-08-20T18:56:32-05:00

Jerry Lewis, who has died aged 91, was more than a great comedian. He was, to quote the title of the book assembled from his lectures to graduate students at the University of Southern California, The Total Filmmaker. There are few filmmakers who have equaled his achievements as a comic actor, writer and director, and theirs are the names alongside which his should be mentioned: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen.Lewis was born either Jerome or Joseph Levitch (his precise birth name is debated by biographers) in Newark, New Jersey on March 16, 1926 to parents who were not stars but were hardworking show business professionals. His father was a vaudeville comedian, and young Jerome or Joseph studied him as he would later study the directors of his first films, hoping to learn everything they knew.As a child, Lewis worked with his parents on the so-called “Borscht Belt” of summer resorts popular with Jewish New Yorkers, and as a teenager he developed a solo act. But it was not until he was paired with an unlikely partner that the ridiculous, elastic-limbed Lewis would enter the American consciousness.Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin was the greatest comedy double act of its time on stage, on radio and in 17 feature films. It worked, said Lewis with uncharacteristic modesty, for a simple reason: it paired “the handsome man and the monkey”. Martin and Lewis eschewed the well-practiced routines of other acts and opted instead for anarchy, improvising, interrupting each other, upstaging each other, and earning colossal fees as they did. Watching them live, audiences saw something new. Watching them now, audiences still see something fresh.When the act disbanded, it broke Lewis’ heart. But it did not derail his career. When he filled in for Judy Garland onstage in 1956, it launched not only his career as a solo headline act but also a side career as a singer.Onscreen, his character—like those of Keaton or Chaplin or Tati or Allen—changed little from film to film. He talked in his high-pitched child voice, he stretched his face, he leaped in fright. He never reacted when he could overreact. To viewers now his shtick can seem a tasteless parody of disability, but this was not its intention. Lewis was chaos made flesh, a child forced into an adult’s role, equally afraid of and excited by the world. He was a human cartoon, and perhaps this is why he worked so well with Frank Tashlin, who directed Lewis in eight films, beginning with the late Martin and Lewis comedies "Artists and Models" (1955) and "Hollywood or Bust" (1956), and continuing into Lewis's early career as a solo star with classics such as "Cinderfella" (1960) and "The Disorderly Orderly" (1964). Before working with the the human cartoon, Tashlin had directed Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in Looney Tunes shorts.By 1960’s “The Bell Boy”, Lewis’ seventh solo film (or eighth, if we count a cameo in 1956’s "L’il Abner"), Jerry was able not just to star, but to write, produce and direct. In fact, he was forced to: he wanted “Cinderfella” to be Christmas a release but Paramount insisted on having a Jerry Lewis movie for the summer. And so Lewis made “The Bell Boy” in a month. For those of us who think Lewis made several masterpieces, this was the first.Lewis’s greatest triumph, though, came three years later. “The Nutty Professor” (1963) is the perfect Jerry Lewis comedy. It is perhaps the perfect comedy. A parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, it stars Lewis as both hapless lovelorn scientist Professor Kelp and as Buddy Love, the irresistible ladies’ man Kelp turns into once he drinks a special potion.Now Lewis was both the handsome man and the monkey, and could convey the switch from one to the other with little more than the angle of his eyelids or the position of his lips. It is one of the great comic performances in American film and, if I were able to redistribute the 1964 Academy Awards, I would give him the Best Actor statuette.T[...]



Scientific Cinema: Michael Almereyda on "Marjorie Prime"

2017-08-18T16:11:46-05:00

“Marjorie Prime” is the allusive and poetic new film by essential American independent Michael Almereyda. It’s adapted from the Pulitzer-shortlisted play of the same name by Jordan Harrison that was originally staged at the Mark Taper Forum, in Los Angeles, in 2014. Three years later, the movie premiered at Sundance and won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize. A science fiction-inflected story set in circa 2045, "Marjorie Prime" is a roundelay, or chamber drama, centered on three characters: Marjorie (Lois Smith, reprising her stage role), a dementia-afflicted 86-year-old former concert violinist who lives with her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins), in an airy beach house on the eastern shore. Almereyda's adaptation is intelligently staged as a series of bracing, forthright and open conversations on essential questions of mortality, mourning and the past. These prickly issues are given particular clarity and dramatic weight with “Primes,” digital holograms whose advanced software enables them to acquire important knowledge and personal details. They can quickly achieve the richly humanistic qualities of empathy, intuition and openness. Introduced in an opening conversation with Marjorie, Walter (Jon Hamm) is a simulacrum of the woman’s dead husband, now gone 15 years. The twist is he marks a younger iteration, when the couple first met, and Walter is a debonair and handsome man is his early 40s. “Marjorie Prime” is not about the science or its moral implications. The technology is the deus ex machina, a way to probe and confront existential questions of individual and personality. Michael Almereyda has been making idiosyncratic works since his wonderful debut, “Twister,” in 1989. His best films, his sinuously beautiful black and white vampire movie, “Nadja,” produced by David Lynch, and his modern dress adaptation, “Hamlet,” are stylistically nervy and visually hypnotic. He has also made freewheeling documentaries on significant artists, like Sam Shepard and the photographer William Eggleston. The director has been on a roll as of late. “Marjorie Prime” follows quickly on the heels of his fantastic “Experimenter,” made two years earlier, a visually supple and nonlinear biography on the social and behavioral theorist Stanley Milgram, featuring great performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. With the theatrical release of “Marjorie Prime,” Almereyda talked to RogerEbert.com about his life and work, the particular challenges of adaptation, his influences, and his work with his extraordinary cast. What compelled you to make this adaptation of the play by Jordan Harrison? The starting point was I wanted to work with Lois [Smith] and it was ready made, in a sense. I liked the design of the play and what it was about, and the characters and the structure. It felt like a movie could be built from that in a way that would be exciting and dynamic and not stage-bound. I was really to work with Lois and build outward from that. How did you conceive the work visually to reconceive the material cinematically? The story is [set] in a house by the beach, and for me, that opened it up and gave it more visual possibilities. The presence of the ocean as a real thing, and a metaphor, enhances the story. I added some flashbacks—one per character—purposefully to fill out the idea of memory being unreliable. I put in a couple of swimming scenes. In most ways it is very respectful of the play. I tried to be true to the play, but I also recognized how fun and exciting it would be to include these other elements.Did Harrison have input into your adaptation? Sure. I showed him a kind of treatment. I also revealed these ideas that were different from the play. The one idea that he had actually changed the play. In the original production, the house was not a house, it was an old-age care home. I thought it would be appropriate to make it more focused and intimate, by saying, it is just this house, and it is just[...]



Patti Cake$

2017-08-18T15:32:45-05:00

If "Patti Cake$" were a song, it would be the kind you hear on the radio and get excited about singing along with, until you realize it's not the song you thought, but another one that sounds like it; and because you liked the first song, you like this one, too, and after hearing the new one a few times you start singing along it. Written and directed by filmmaker and musician Geremy Jasper, who also did the film's original soundtrack, it's the story of of a plus-sized, working class white teenager, Patti "Dumbo" Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald, an Australian actress making a sensational American debut). Patti works a series of menial jobs while trying to make it as a rapper with the encouragement of her hip-hop-loving best friend Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay). People constantly make fun of how fat she is and how white she is, sometimes at the same time, depending on the situation. There's also a strong element of flat-out sexism in young men's responses to her, whether they're black, white or brown. A big white girl can't make it as a rapper, they tell her. The very idea is ridiculous. Of course they're wrong, because this film is "8 Mile," with a big woman in the lead, and set not in Michigan but in the post-industrial jumble of northern New Jersey (Bruce Springsteen country; he even has a song on the soundtrack). The film turns into "Purple Rain" when it shifts focus to Patti's fraught relationship with her mother Barb, brilliantly played by actress and singer Bridget Everett. Like Prince's "Kid" in his 1984 movie breakthrough, who struggled to define himself apart from his dad (Clarence Williams III), a failed professional pianist and wife-beating drunk, Patti is simultaneously inspired and embarrassed by Barb, a onetime rock singer who was on the verge of a commercial stardom when she got pregnant with Patti. Barb holds Patti's existence against her at the same time that she sincerely expresses love for her. The scenes between them are the best and most powerful element of "Patti Cake$." Everett's history of using her considerable weight and height as comic fuel in standup and cabaret made her a perfect choice for this role, but she's as strong in the arguments and drunk scenes as she is when she's singing or cracking wise. If there's any justice, this should be a career-redefining performance on the order of Frank Sinatra's in "From Here to Eternity."If you saw "Purple Rain," "8 Mile" or half a dozen other films about struggling musicians, you know how this tale will resolve: with Patti trying and failing to navigate one road to success (getting a mix tape into the hands of a famous rapper) only to manage a 98-yard dash to victory anyway, via a local rap competition. You also know in your bones that the support of Patti's chain-smoking, handicapped grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) will be the wind beneath her wings (and a financial boost, too), that there'll be plenty of salty-adorable scenes between them as the story unfolds, and that grandma will die before the last reel to give the movie another powerhouse acting moment (as well as a strong link to another plainly obvious inspiration, the "Rocky" series, which made sure to have a tearjerking deathbed or funeral scene for a parent or mentor figure in nearly every installment). Prince's presence is also felt through another supporting character, an African-American, antiestablishment, punk-metal solo artist named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who lives in a secret hideout in a state park that looks like the musical version of a madman's laboratory in a horror film. Basterd speaks in a low, distant voice that conveys immense but highly theatricalized hurt; his backstory, once revealed, only partly succeeds in making him seem less like a white suburban filmmaker's fantasy of a tortured black musical genius. He's the most schematic, in many ways preposterous character in the film. But he's also the one who is least connected to its shamelessly commercial template, with its many famil[...]



The Hitman's Bodyguard

2017-08-19T12:49:33-05:00

The charismatic stars of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard”—Ryan Reynolds shifting into lovable-loser gear as a down-graded protection agent for hire, Samuel L. Jackson in macho-and-mouthy mode as a profanely proficient deadly assassin and Salma Hayek as the sexy spitfire of a spouse who is devoted to him—all combust with masterful comic chemistry as they play off their well-established cinematic personas.As for the high-speed vehicular stunts, they are breathless, relentless, endless—and a bit too numbingly generic.Still, the main concept of lethal frenemies who must put aside their grudges for a common goal is a tried-and-true trope, as writer Tom O’Connor acknowledges with echoes of everything from “48 HRS.” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” to “Midnight Run” and “The Gauntlet.” But the real draw, much like Russell Crowe vs. Ryan Gosling in “The Nice Guys” and Kevin Hart vs. Dwayne Johnson in “Central Intelligence,” is the odd-couple matchup.Hearty laughter does ensue as Reynolds’ cautious Michael Bryce is forced to keep Jackson’s reckless Darius Kincaid safe while transporting him from London to the Hague so he can testify against a genocidal Belarusian tyrant. As the villain, Gary Oldman—sadly, not exactly running on all thespian cylinders—recycles his Russian accent from “Air Force One” while his disfigured face appears to be coated in crusty bread crumbs. Luckily, the main dudes are on the ball as they race against the clock during their hazard-prone road trip while turning the art of bickering into a non-stop aria of foul-mouthed mutual belligerence and, eventually, reluctant respect.When Bryce complains that Kincaid keeps putting him in harm’s way, Jackson goes full bellow: “I AM harm’s way. My job is to harm.” Of course, the bodyguard should know that since his passenger has attempted to take him down no less than 28 times over the years. There are in-jokes, such as when Bryce grouses that Kincaid “single-handedly ruined the word ‘motherfucker.'" There are also musical beats, as Kincaid insists on drunkenly singing a bluesy number to pass the time in the car, while Bryce counters by warbling a falsetto version of Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign.” And little did I think I would ever see Jackson gleefully harmonizing in a van filled with habit-wearing Italian nuns as if he were trying out for the Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music.”That doesn’t even cover the contributions of Hayek, whose Sonia is being kept in a Dutch jail in order to guarantee Kincaid will provide evidence against Oldman’s baddie. It is a hoot to see the actress calmly strike yoga poses behind bars as she fiercely lashes out like a flame-thrower at any law official stupid enough to hassle her. Meanwhile, she intimidates her cellmate into standing in the corner. Maybe Hayek should book a guest appearance on “Orange is the New Black.” But one of the best scenes is a flashback showing how Kincaid met Sonia when she was a waitress at a Mexican bar, swooning over how she took care of hand-sy male customers by cutting them with broken beer bottles. The use of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” in the background adds a nice romantic touch.Less successful is Bryce’s attempt to reunite with onetime squeeze Amelia (French import Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent whom he blames for getting a client of his shot. The flashback to their first lusty encounter at a funeral is cut short by the arrival of murderous thugs. But the actors can’t summon the same kind of heat generated by Jackson and Hayek, who calls her hubby “La Cucaracha,” since she says, “He’s un-killable.” While no one is going to mistake “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” for high art, it will please those in the mood for late-summer fun. But why did I feel so emotionally depleted by the cartoony chaos unleashed in the name of entertainment by director Patrick Hughes ("The Expendables 3"), when the body count among the mostly anonym[...]



What Happened to Monday

2017-08-20T13:50:19-05:00

Tommy Wirkola moves on from Nazi zombies (he did both of the “Dead Snow” movies) to identical sisters in the Netflix original film “What Happened to Monday,” a showcase for Noomi Rapace’s range that will suffer in comparison to the similar “Orphan Black,” in which the amazing Tatiana Maslany plays identical clones. The Emmy-nominated actress gives a master class with that show, offering each of her characters their own identity, personality, flaws and strengths. Rapace doesn’t have nearly the same material to work with but she does the best she can with this sci-fi curiosity, a movie that starts with a relatively clever concept but then doesn’t build enough on its structure. On a narrative level, it’s the kind of script that feels like it never got past the concept stage, almost defiantly refusing to build on its central premise with a world that seems three-dimensional or characters who feel like more than devices. Wirkola stages a few excellent set pieces and Rapace is fantastic, but the general lack of entertainment value has to be considered disappointing given the potential of the entire piece. In a future not that dissimilar from the one imagined in “Children of Men,” human beings have exhausted our planet’s resources. It’s resulted in a shocking but practical government decree: families can only have one child. If a family has more than one child, the extra child will be taken by the government and cryogenically frozen until a time when we have colonized another planet or found a way to create more natural resources. The woman in charge of this program, Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), is the kind of ruthless leader who promises a better future while stripping families of their offspring. When Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) has septuplet grandchildren, their mother dying in childbirth, he knows he’s in serious trouble, but he crafts a masterful scam to keep his granddaughters alive. They will essentially take turns being Karen Settman, who eventually becomes a powerful businesswoman, but is really seven sisters working a very elaborate “Parent Trap.” Named after days of the week, Monday, Tuesday, etc. must inform the entire sisterhood every night about every detail that happened during the day. And in one of the film’s more ingeniously grotesque twists of fate, they must all look exactly the same. Think about the potential ramifications. If one sister loses a finger … And then Monday doesn’t come home one night. The other six girls, who have distinct enough personalities to allow Rapace to have a little fun—one is more of a bookworm than her sisters, one is more physically outgoing, etc.—have to figure out what happened to Monday. It leads them into the clutches of the Child Allocation Board, and the truth about Nicollete Cayman’s vision for the future. It’s certainly not a bad idea for a sci-fi film, or an extended episode of “Black Mirror,” but screenwriters Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson needed another pass to take it beyond a very loose collection of action scenes. Most surprisingly given how “Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead” played with expectations and got only increasingly more gonzo, “What Happened to Monday” is kind of boring when it comes to style. There’s an awesome fight scene early on when the women are first tracked down by their enemies that features stunt work similar to Wirkola’s other films, and allows Rapace to show off the physical abilities as an action star she’s displayed before. But there’s a shocking amount of sitting around and talking in this movie about seven sisters named after days of the week. It’s almost as if the original script was more intellectual sci-fi, Wirkola pulled it as much as he could toward action, and it got stuck somewhere in the middle. “What Happened to Monday” is just not as fun as you’d think it would be given the ridiculousness of its concept, the talent of its star, and [...]



Shot Caller

2017-08-18T08:27:29-05:00

Chances are that you’ve likely seen “Shot Caller” before. Ric Roman Waugh’s tough-minded prison thriller contains enough familiar elements cherry-picked from the last two decades of pop culture that it might as well come with its own personalized checklist. White collar Everyman thrown into a gritty gangster life? Check. A beautiful family that he loves but is forced to abandon for their safety? Check. A harrowing introduction into the demoralizing routine of prison life that eventually hardens the Everyman into a real criminal? Check. Racially homogenous gangs, corrupt guards, and dedicated, no-bullshit cops? Check, check, and check. If anyone guessed there would be a dangerous deal that goes south during the film’s climax, then congratulations. You’ve won a set of steak knives. But despite its unabashed fondness for clichés and tired tropes, “Shot Caller” mostly succeeds in its aims because of Waugh’s sober, matter-of-fact approach to the material. There’s an abiding sense of inevitability that runs through the film, as if all the events that occur were predestined because of systemic rot. “Shot Caller” isn’t the type of film that would use the phrase “prison-industrial complex” but that ultimately works to its advantage since its implications live in its bones. There’s a casual brutality at play that never feels grotesque in Waugh’s hands, just sadly unavoidable. The film follows Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, acquitting himself well), a family man sent to prison on manslaughter charges after a fatal traffic accident that left his best friend (Max Greenfield) dead. As one can reasonably surmise, he quickly falls into a white supremacist prison gang initially for survival but he soon becomes acclimated to the lifestyle (or does he?). He shuts out his wife (Lake Bell, who deserves better than these thankless roles) and his son (Jonathon McClendon) after receiving a longer sentence when he’s identified during a prison riot. After ten years, he’s finally released, under the watchful eye of his parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick), but he’s almost immediately thrown back into the criminal world. Waugh makes it abundantly clear that it’s Jacob who must now determine his own fate. In case it wasn’t obvious, Jacob does determine his own fate in a defiantly self-flagellating manner. The actual narrative mechanics of “Shot Caller” are telegraphed from miles away, but Waugh’s weaknesses in screenwriting are frequently made up by his clean, functional direction. The film’s first half moves at a brisk pace, in part because Waugh and editor Michelle Tesoro maneuver between scenes, introduce new characters, and lay out different environments with restrained confidence. Though he takes plenty of shortcuts, Waugh also provides the audience with just enough information and time so that nothing and no one feels one-dimensional. Credit should also be given to the film’s supporting cast (Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, and Jeffrey Donovan, to name a few), all of whom do wonders with the little they’ve been given. “Shot Caller” slides into predictable mediocrity in its second half, which amps up the violence and downplays the emotional core—Jacob’s self-immolation as penance for his actions—seemingly in a foolish bid for raw authenticity. The film might track Jacob’s own downward trajectory into ruthlessness, but it falters when it begins to embody those qualities rather than simply depicting them. Waugh also too frequently wants to have his cake and eat it too by portraying Jacob as a vicious criminal and a victim of the prison system and a good guy who somehow still retains his own morality. That’s not to say it isn’t possible to do, far from it, but neither Waugh nor Coster-Waldau are capable of capturing all of those contradictions at once. This ultimately leads to bloody, half-hearted climaxes that never once have[...]



Marjorie Prime

2017-08-18T16:18:28-05:00

The first scene of Michael Almereyda’s graceful, enthralling chamber drama “Marjorie Prime” takes place in the well-appointed living room of a Long Island beach house. The sounds of waves outside are heard throughout. A woman in her mid-80s and a handsome man who appears to be in his 40s sit across a table and talk for a good while. If you came in not knowing the film was adapted from a play, you might guess it here. While the dialogue sounds a bit stagey, it does draw us into the personalities of the characters. Marjorie (Lois Smith), pleasant and voluble, obviously enjoys conversing with dapper Walter (Jon Hamm), and together they explore the subject of her past, recalling, for example, two dogs named Toni the family once owned. Walter, it seems, can help in the task of recollection because he is Marjorie’s husband. Or rather, a walking, talking, smiling and very helpful image of her husband as he was several decades before. “Marjorie Prime” is so beautifully and consistently focused on the human that I wanted to introduce Marjorie and Walter as people with a rich and complex relationship. But Walter, in addition to being a very charming and well-spoken guy, is also a hologram. He is, in fact, a “prime”—a hologram created to technologically reincarnate a dead person for therapeutic purposes (the real Walter died 15 years before). Walter Prime provides comfort to Marjorie by helping her recall her past as age slowly eats away at her memory. But their conversations also benefit him, so to speak, since his knowledge of her history must be supplied and augmented by others, including her. Almereyda’s film belongs to a category that also includes “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Her,” “Ex Machina” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” but to me it’s singular in being the science-fiction movie that feels the least like a sci-fi movie. Although it evidently takes place sometime in the future, there’s virtually nothing futuristic about it; it could be set right now. Also, it’s entirely non-mechanistic; the technology behind primes goes completely un-shown and un-discussed. Rather than gizmos or hypothetical futures, Almereyda is interested in philosophical issues concerning memory and identity. Adapted from the acclaimed 2014 play by Jordan Harrison, “Marjorie Prime” has a gentle, probing Chekhovian feel, and a deliberate dramatic approach that invites us to look at those aforementioned issues from various angles before coming to our own conclusions about them. The film’s story has two other main characters. Marjorie shares the beach house with her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). Tess is troubled by various things in her past and present, including Walter Prime. It just doesn’t feel right to have this image of her dad as a young man having chats with her mom in the living room. Jon, though, is an enthusiastic supporter of the new technology; he thinks Walter Prime is good for Marjorie and is happy to share his memories of the family to help out. Beginning with the first scene’s revelation of Walter’s nature as a hologram, “Marjorie Prime” contains a steadily accumulating stream of ingenious plot twists, sometimes very subtle or subtly revealed. To discuss these would be to venture into spoiler territory, so suffice it to say that Almereyda’s script is very sharp and especially good at delineating the film’s four main characters. Chief among the film’s pleasures is watching the exemplary work of the actors who embody those people. Lois Smith is a veteran performer whose movie credits include “East of Eden,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Minority Report,” as well as a couple of earlier Almereyda films. She played Marjorie in both the Los Angeles and off-Broadway versions of the play, and here brings her deep knowledge of the ro[...]



Lemon

2017-08-18T15:36:02-05:00

The dictionary definition of "quirky" is "characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits." But how is something "peculiar" or "unexpected"? Mid-to low-budget indie films are described as "quirky" so often that the term has lost any specific resonance. Better to be called "quirky" than "predictable," I suppose, but at a certain point, "quirkiness" becomes just as generic as the actually generic. "Lemon," a comedy directed by Janicza Bravo (with a number of short films and television episodes under her belt), and co-written by Bravo and husband Brett Gelman (who also stars in the film), has some legitimately peculiar traits, and moments that flash with true absurdity. But there's a flatness in the end-result. The quirky is utterly predictable.Actor/acting teacher Isaac (Brett Gelman) goes through the motions of his life like a grumpy automaton. He is married to a busy career woman who also happens to be blind (Judy Greer), but the two are mainly estranged. Once upon a time, he must have been an actor of some sort (although it's very hard to picture), but now he is barely holding on. He gets a gig, but it's a commercial for adult diapers. The man lives in a constant state of humiliation and barely controlled rage. He takes out his humiliation on the students in his acting class. The acting class sequences are, far and away, the best parts of the film.Bravo knows her stuff when it comes to acting classes. She films them at peak high drama: the black box studio, the spot-lit students working in front of the class, the tense silence as everyone waits to hear what Isaac will say. "Lemon" understands what it's like when a teacher has a clear "favorite," the one student who can do no wrong. "Lemon" also understands how disorienting it is for the "favorite" when the teacher moves his attention on to another student. Egos get increasingly fragile the more they are over-praised. "Lemon" also understands how a failed-actor teacher secretly resents the young students in his care, and subtly tries to sabotage their confidence in themselves. These are all very subtle inter-dynamics, familiar to anyone who has taken an acting class, and Bravo and Gelman get all of those details right.The two students caught up in the web of Isaac's failed-actor dysfunction are the insufferable Alex (Michael Cera, with an Art Garfunkel mop of curls) and the beleaguered Tracy (Gillian Jacobs), shown throughout working on the famous scene in The Seagull when Nina and Konstantin reunite after Nina's time away. According to Isaac, Alex can do wrong, and Tracy can do no right. Alex says stuff like, "I've been using colors in my exploring" and Isaac nods in rapture as though it's the Pythagorean Theorem made manifest. Isaac and Alex gang up on poor Tracy and you want to tell her to find another class pronto. In these scenes, Bravo finds exactly the right tone: they are funny, observant, and hugely insightful about a very specific sub-culture (acting classes and the emotional melodramas therein).The rest of "Lemon" struggles under the weight of its imposed tone, which is mannered, flat-affect, deadpan, ultimately oppressive, punctuated by ranks of eccentric characters, and all accompanied in heavy-handed fashion in almost every scene by a score from Heather Christian. How would the film would play without the over-reliance on the music?Isaac's life shifts, as much as it is able to shift, once he meets Cleo (Nia Long). She is a makeup artist and single mother, and he becomes instantly obsessed with her after meeting her on a photo shoot for his commercial. His obsession is understandable since Nia Long is a beautiful actress and naturally charming (almost a lost art). In her career, whether it's the television series "Empire," or "Dear White People," or the Tyler Perry film "The Single Moms Club," Long brings depth of feeling to whatever she does. Why Cleo w[...]



Crown Heights

2017-08-18T15:50:50-05:00

"Crown Heights" is a pretty good movie about a great subject: the sheer backbreaking labor necessary to force the system to even acknowledge a terrible injustice, much less make it right. Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, the film retells the story of Colin Warner (“Short Term 12” star Lakeith Stanfield), a Brooklyn man from a Trinidadian family whose life as a burglar and car thief was interrupted by a 20-year stint in prison for a crime that nobody, including the officers who arrested him, thinks he committed.The story begins on April 10, 1980, when Colin Warner is arrested in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He thinks he's been busted for stealing a car. The cops inform him that he's being charged with shooting and killing a local Jamaican teenager named Mark Hamilton in the nearby neighborhood of Flatbush. Colin tells him he's innocent. It's not that they don't believe him; they just don't care. Somebody has to go to jail for the crime, and it's going to be Colin. He's on the hook because he has a criminal record and a witness was coerced into picking his photo out of a book of mugshots. The witness, a frightened young teenager (Skylan Brooks), recants his testimony on the stand, but it doesn't matter. Turner is sentenced to 15 years to life, with a possibility of early release if he expresses remorse for a crime he did not commit. Up until this point, Ruskin's film is compelling but unremarkable. Its wobbly blue-grey images are shot close and cut fast, the default visual language of TV programs about urban cops and robbers. The storytelling is similarly rushed, sprinting through moments that might've been profoundly wrenching if the movie had enough faith to stay inside a moment. (Give the director credit, though, for having the old-movie gumption to jump ahead several years in a single cut and trust Stanfield's performance to fill in the emotional connective tissue.) The visual storytelling never develops much personality, but the screenplay's decision to shift focus from Warner to his best friend Carl (former Oakland Raider Nnamdi Asomugha) energizes and focuses the story. As Carl goes from house to apartment to government office, re-investigating the case, debating and chastising lawyers, and ultimately crowdfunding neighborhood money to hire William Robedee (Bill Camp), an attorney who seems as outraged by Colin's plight as Carl is, "Crown Heights" sketches the entwined obstacles standing between the hero and his freedom: racism and institutional exhaustion. This is a world in which poor people's lives, more so black and brown lives, don't matter to the state. Colin and the man who actually committed the murder are considered interchangeable as long as the case can be marked "solved" and the overworked, cynical employees of the police department, the prison system and the courts can get a green light to move along to the next outrage, which will likely also be dispatched in a cursory way. There's a long section in the middle of "Crown Heights" where Colin and Carl's stories play off each other in a grandly melodramatic and satisfying way, echoing sections of HBO's recent potboiler "The Night Of," which had a similar color palette. The film alternates between Colin trapped behind bars, turning into the kind of dead-end hard-case that the arresting officers already insisted he was back in 1980, and Carl, William Robedee and other allies working to exonerate him, uncovering ever-more-appalling proof of the brokenness of the system.The problem is, despite the best efforts of Ruskin's writing and direction and Stanfield's expressive performance (it's all in the eyes), Colin's story remains the tale of a martyr to the system, struggling to hold onto shreds of his dignity as he's stripped, de-loused, caged with an actual murderer, packed into a cell block with gangbangers and ass[...]



In This Corner of the World

2017-08-18T15:55:04-05:00

With two world leaders discussing the size of their nuclear arsenals and their willingness to use them, it’s poignantly appropriate that Sunao Katabuchi’s “In This Corner of the World” is opening in stateside theaters after its successful Japanese run. A dramatic animated film set in Hiroshima and Kure, mostly in 1944 & 1945, Katabuchi’s adaptation of the award-winning manga by Fumiyo Kouno is an elegant reminder that we can never forget what life during wartime does to the human soul. Late in the film, our protagonist says, “I wanted to die a daydreamer.” That’s what war does: it takes away one’s ability to dream by making reality too oppressive for the light of imagination to find its way through the darkness. “In This Corner of the World” is the story of Suzu Urano, an artistic, kind, supportive young woman who moves to Kure, a small town just outside Hiroshima. Using thousands of photographs of the era, Katabuchi artistically and yet realistically recreates the area in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The film is constantly reminding us where we are in history with on-screen dates, almost like a journal, and, of course, everyone knows what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It’s that knowledge of history that brings an understated poignancy to the first half of “In This Corner of the World,” as it really just captures countryside life in Japan before the world changed forever. While most of the film takes place in 1944 and 1945, we do get to see life in Hiroshima in the ‘30s, and it’s a lovingly detailed recreation combined with a sense of the beauty of the natural world clearly inspired by Katabuchi’s work with Hiyao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli (Katabuchi was assistant director on “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and worked at Ghibli on other projects as well). In a structure that’s sometimes too episodic, we really watch a coming-of-age story as Suzu develops her personality and lives everyday life in pre-WWII Japan. So, there are a lot of scenes that play out like anecdotes a woman would tell her grandchildren about how she learned to cook, make a kimono, draw a fish, etc. It can sometimes lead to an erratic rhythm that verges on being too slow. This kind of episodic storytelling works masterfully in a manga, as stories and imagery are more structurally self-contained, but film requires a different flow. However, patience in the first half of “In This Corner of the World” is rewarded in the second. As air raids and rations become a part of daily life in Hiroshima, Suzu’s story becomes more heartwrenching and tragic, and yet Katabuchi never loses the visual beauty of the film. There’s a striking centerpiece sequence in which Suzu is out during an attack, and Katabuchi transposes shots of explosions across the sky with painterly images, turning the bombs falling into brush strokes on a canvas as blue as sky. It works with Suzu’s artistic talent, but it’s also almost a meta-commentary on the film itself, blending art and history. From there, “In This Corner of the World” becomes more and more harrowing. Rations get more limited, the area is bombed more often, and Suzu faces horrific tragedy. Suzu experiences an injury at one point that I won’t spoil, but that almost becomes a commentary on Japan since World War II, moving on but forever altered, never quite the same as it was before. Ultimately, “In This Corner of the World” is a stark reminder of what wartime does to those ethereal elements of humanity that we truly need to survive: dreaming, art, love, etc. We are all lessened by war. Even if “In This Corner of the World” ends on a note that imagination and hope can continue, it would serve our world leaders, two in particular right now, to watch this before allowing the horror of war to repeat itself[...]