I Rented It on DVD: “Edge of Seventeen”

Yawn! Another coming-of-age tale about privileged white teen-aged suburbanites who drive  gleaming new cars and vans to school (no second hand jalopies in this crowd), have pools in their backyard and all the latest technological gear at their disposal.

As usual, most of the actors in these films are too old to play high school students. 20 year old Hailee Steinfeld plays a high school junior!

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Hailee Steinfeld – Yearbook picture?

Fortunately, for writer/director and co-producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it is Ms. Steinfeld’s remarkable performance as troubled teen Nadine that saves the movie. Striking an ironic pose to hide the confusion lurking just underneath, Ms. Steinfeld somehow makes her difficult character human and, um. likeable. If you ask me (and no one did) she should have been Oscar nominated for this role as well as the Academy nod for her performance in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit. (She did earn a Golden Globe nomination for her work in Edge of Seventeen.)

Her exchanges with Woody Harrelson, as a deceptively sympathetic teacher, especially shine.

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I Got It at the Library: CUL-DE-SAC

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I’m not saying it’s dated. I just got the feeling  director Roman Polanski read Beckett (I’m thinking here of Waiting for Godot) and watched a lot of Harold Pinter theatre pieces while co-writing the screenplay with Gerard Brach. (There were times when I felt I was back in my Film Studies class again. This film, by the way. was made prior to Mr. Polanski’s exposure to temptation and tragedy in Hollywood.

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ROMAN POLANSKI- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Film-maker

A brilliant cast of 1960s players navigate through the psychological mind games of the screenplay. Lionel Stander, a familiar face (and voice) in 1930s and 1940s movie and radio, was forced to flee to Europe after he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He plays  American gangster Dickey, who holes up in a castle after a botched robbery. The castle.on a bleak island, is inhabited by a retired English executive,George (Donald Pleasance) and his flirtatious (and much younger) French wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac). The cast also includes future star Jacqueline Bissett (billed here as Jackie Bissett)  in  one of her first film roles. (A pair of sunglasses hides those now famous eyes.) No one does humiliation better than Mr. Pleasance aided and abetted by the gorgeous Mlle. Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, whose promising career was cut short by a fatal car accident at the age of 25). Mr. Stander, of course, is bullish and aggressive in the role of Dickey. Mix these personalities together, stir in Mr. Polanski’s caustic wit, and you have a combustible combination that is bound to blow up in your face at some point.

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Francoise Dorleac and Donald Pleasance – A Talent for Humiliation

I signed out this 1966 film because I was intrigued by the cast of characters, I have always been a fan of Mr. Polanski’s world view (Brrr!) and c) it was chosen for restoration by the Criterion Collection. If you are not already familiar with the brand (and most serious film buffs – and filmmakers – are), the Criterion Collection a) always shows great taste in cinematic art and  b) lovingly restores films of its choice and packages them with interviews, booklets and other background material. So even if I am unfamiliar with a work, I know that any film, no matter how old (or obscure, to me) chosen by the Criterion folks for their distinctive and caring touch will be viewing time spent well.

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Lionel Stander in CUL-DE-SAC

 

 

Rix Flix: Nice Guys, Injuns, Alice, Suicide and all that Jazz

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If this is intended as an antidote to all those superhero flicks, count me in. Otherwise, well. my inner twelve year old enjoys watching Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

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Batter UP!

The Nice Guys

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Writer/director Shane Black’s follow-up to his cult film hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t nearly as clever or original as his 2005 hit but stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe seemed to have a lot of fun making it. 

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No, it’s not the singer Neil Diamond

This film isn’t a current release (I signed  out the DVD at the local library) but it does make for provocative and insightful viewing – regardless of your ethnicity or whether you played cowboys’n’indians as an adolescent. Documentary film by  Quebec-born Cree film-maker Neil Diamond examines how native Indians have been portrayed in North American movies using clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, Billy Jack flicks and more modern examples like Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside and Atanajuat: The Fast Runner ( to name a few.)

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There are also video bites from Native Indian activist Russell Means, First Nations actors Adam Beach and Graham Greene, Professor Melinda Micco and film-maker Chris Eyre (among others).

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Born to Be Blue

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This is another film that has been out for a few months. I rented it on DVD because I have always been a big fan of Chet Baker’s music. There has been a Baker biopic in the works for over a decade (originally Brad Pitt was signed to star with Richard Linklater directing) but it took Canadian money, Ethan Hawke as Baker and Toronto-born filmmaker Robert Budreau to bring it to reality.  Like Miles Ahead (a fictional reporter played by Ewan McGregor invades the home space of Miles Davis played by Don Cheadle to find out why the famed jazz trumpeter has not recorded or toured in seven years) Born to be Blue is a “reimagined” version of real events. It’s true that Baker was wired on heroin, served jail time, was beaten up and lost his teeth in the process.  What isn’t true is that he was romantically involved with an actress named Jane (Carmen Ejego as Jane plays a composite character representing the women in Baker’s life) What’s true is that he was the “James Dean of Jazz”, the “Prince of Cool” just like the film says, a pop idol back in the early 50s when jazz still ruled the charts.

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Chet Baker in the 1950s

What isn’t true (to the best of my knowledge) is that Hollywood planned to make a documentary on his life (depicted in the film). 

Writer/director Budreau skips over some of the more sordid aspects of the jazz legend’s life. (For that you will have to check out Bruce Weber’s riveting but ruthless Baker doc Let’s Get Lost).

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Chet Baker -Lost in the Eighties

Budreau prefers to think (as he says in a DVD extra) that Born to Be Blue  is the kind of film folks might imagine while listening to Baker’s lightly swinging playing and dream-like vocals (“he sang with an innocent sweetness that made young girls fall right out of their saddle Oxfords,” Rex Reed once wrote. The film, on the other hand, has Dizzy Gillespie, portrayed by Kevin Hanchard, advising Baker not to try singing.)

The playing and vocalizing sounded effortless. And in the beginning, they were. That may have been part of the problem, the film seems to say.

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Interestingly enough, some of the folks funding Born to Be Blue also shelled out money to produce this illuminating documentary on the famous (or infamous) shock rocker.  The film itself was produced and directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen who collectively have worked on rock docs about Rush and Iron Maiden (to name just two).

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Sam Dunn (right) and Scot McFadyen (the other guy)

I signed this one out from the library (in other words, it’s not a new release) on the word of my little sister. I have never been a huge Alice fan (although I hafta admit “Under My Wheels” has a greasy kick to it) but I was attracted partly by my sister (who doesn’t recommend  many films – especially docs) and by the reputation of Messrs Dunn and McFadyen.

Rent it for vintage photos and trivia (the band’s original name was The Earwigs),cameo appearances by his wife (he has had only one), his mom and dad and some true confessions on why the original band broke up.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Most of all, you will see and hear and why the character of Alice Cooper almost killed its creator, a nice, church-going, golf-loving family man from Phoenix, Arizona named Vincent Furnier. 

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Vincent as Alice: “Now let’s not lose our heads over this character.”

 

 

Finally – A “Dick” Movie I Can Laugh Along With

Generally  I don’t  find alleged laff riots starring Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd or former members of Saturday Night Live especially humorous. My little sister (eleven years my junior) tells me she sat through one of these movies, bewildered, while members of the predominantly youthful crowd howled with laughter at the dick and fart jokes, common to these  movies. Don’t get me wrong. I thought this type of “humor” was hilarious during my prolonged adolescence.

Maybe  it’s a generational thing.

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Funny in any language?

Nevertheless, I was relieved to discover I found POPSTAR (Never Stop Never Stopping) both funny and clever.

Popstar is the second feature from twisted trio The Lonely Island (responsible for those “Digital Shorts” on, yes, SNL)  The group comprises  Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. Messrs. Schaffer and Taccone directed the film and all three co-wrote and co-produced with the help of modern-day comedy maestro Judd Apatow, whose patented blend of humor’n’heart is prominently on display.

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The Lonely Island

 There is enough lowbrow humor here for the multitude of fans  who embrace it (it’s no accident that during my “research” I was directed to a website called “Tastefully Offensive”) but there is also some witty dialogue for non-fans of this kind of funny. There is also a truckload of savvy pop cultural references that even a grizzled former media type like me could figure out) and cameos from real life music biz types (50 Cent, Danger Mouse, Adam Levine, Simon Cowell and Ringo Starr, just to name a few) saluting the exploits of mythical group The Style Boyz.

 The Style Boyz could be inspired by early Beastie Boys. The frontman, Conner4Real, played by Andy Samberg, bursts out of the group to become a successful solo act just as Justin Timberlake left ‘NSync to become a best-selling solo act.

Remember when U2’s Songs of Innocence appeared free of charge on millions of phones and iPods? Well, in this movie, Conner cuts a deal with  fictional company Aquaspin.  Everytime the door of a home appliance manufactured by the company opens, music from Conner4Real’s second CD starts playing. (The CD is released to mixed reviews, to put it charitably. Rolling Stone and Pitchfork hate it. The Onion gives it, uh, a rave review) Conner’s DJ, Owen. a former member of The Style Boyz (played by Jorma Taccone) wears a large piece of headgear just like Deadmaus. Conner’s song, “Equal Rights” bears a suspicious resemblance to Macklemore’s “Same Love” (although Conner goes to great pains in the lyrics to point out he’s not gay). Canadian popstar Justin Bieber is the target of several jibes. In fact, the whole movie is shot much in the style of self-indulgent pop documentaries like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.) And so on.

Naturally ,there are brief appearances by SNL alumni like Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Jimmy Fallon along with humorous perfs by Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager, Sarah Silverman as his publicist and Imogen Poots as starlet Ashley Wednesday (a play on ’60s starlet Tuesday Weld?)

As Mikey might say (a reference Popstar fans will probably not “get”) – “Lowbrow, yes, but I like it too.”

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“Youth” and Aging and Paolo Sorrentino

Youth is an English language film by Oscar winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty).

The film is a somber meditation on, yes, youth and old age and all the choices we make in between.  Signor Sorrentino’s screenplay also has moments of humor. In fact, I found the comic relief refreshing in a film that often makes for unsettling viewing for a person of my age group and background.

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Veteran actress Rachel Weisz in Youth looking simply stunning in an old school one piece bathing suit

Youth boasts heartfelt performances from an excellent cast toplined by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and the indomitable Jane Fonda. (Ms. Fonda received a Golden Globe nomination  in the supporting actress category for her role as a fading but still potent screen actress. It is only a brief cameo but Ms. Fonda breathes real fire into it. I sense she has invested her character with her own experience surviving in the showbiz jungle.)

The film opened to mixed reviews. (Entertainment Weekly called it “hit-and miss. Beautiful but frustrating.) A number of critics mentioned Signor Sorrentino’s obvious indebtedness to fellow Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. (” … sub-Fellini touch feels indulgent and sugary” to quote Peter Bradshaw of U.K.’s theguardian.com) Actually, I welcomed Signor Sorrentino’s Fellinesque touches. (Two of my all-time film favorites are  8 1\2 and Amarcord.) I much prefer James Bernardelli who, in Reel Views, writes that ” Watching Youth, you’d swear Fellini had risen from his grave and returned to make another movie.” There are some amazing images here (and I’m not just referring to a totally nude Miss Universe, portrayed by Romanian model Madalina Ghenea, wading into the pool under the startled gaze of Messrs. Caine and Keitel.

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Brad Wheeler in a generally favorable review of the film in Canada’s Globe and Mail writes  “Some of the dialogue is overstuffed and pretentious, written as if meant to be carved into stone.” Frankly, I thought the dialogue was wise (and, at times, humorous) and hit the mark (with me, at least).

In a previous life I reviewed films for pay. Okay,it was only for community newspapers  but I think I know the difference between a professional review written for money and a review written from the heart.  So even though I liked aspects of the film that more established critics did not appreciate, I am not going to allow those reviews to trivialize the emotions I may have felt while watching the film. 

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Jane Fonda in Youth

 

 

 

I Got It at the Library: IL DIVO

No, it’s not a new group of Italian  tenors- or the penultimate flavor of Italian gelato. It’s a 2008 film by Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino.

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Judging from the reviews, the general consensus seems to be that the scope and ambition of Il Divo can only be fully appreciated if one is familiar with the many twists and turns of former Italian Premier Guilio Andreotti’s 50 year political career and the alleged skulduggery associated with his lengthy stay in power.  It is provocative stuff, especially considering Andreotti was still alive at the time of the film’s release. (He died at the age of 94 in 2013 .) He was reportedly angry when he was first shown the film (at a private screening) but later told his biographer (Massimo Franco): “I’m happy for the producer. And I’d be even happier if I had a share of the takings.”

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 Guilio Andreotti – ‘What? Me Worry?”

The great Italian actor Toni Servillo as the enigmatic politician, gives a master class in restraint and control.

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Toni Servillo as Guilio Andretti in Il Divo

However, despite rave reviews from All the Right Critics, I still prefer  Signor Sorrentino’s 2014 entry The Great Beauty (Oscar winner Best Foreign Language Film) with its more accessible narrative, a textured performance from Signor Servillo in the lead role and a visually sumptuous tour of Rome – past and present.

 But then I’m prejudiced. As a youngster I was a fool for ancient Roman history. (Okay, I was a weird kid). As a teen I took a course on the history of ancient Greece (it was the nearest I could get to Ancient Roman Studies, not offered in my university. Big mistake.  Although I scored well on an essay on The Battle of Marathon I almost flunked the final exam) As an alleged adult I  saw some of the places I had only read  about (or written about.)

In fact, it was the advice of friends whose opinions I respect who urged me to watch this film. “If you liked The Great Beauty,” they said, “You’ll love Il Divo.”

Well, “love” is a strong word but I was sufficiently intrigued to watch Signor Sorremtino’s English language feature Youth which I spotted recently on Netflix. I enjoyed it (more on this in a future post) and I didn’t have to read any newspapers to follow the plot. (Which is just as well. I don’t read Italian, anyway.)

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Italian film-maker Paolo Sorrentino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Got It at the Library: Truth

Dan Rather in the film Truth  looks like an older Robert Redford.  Truth is, it IS an older Robert Redford.

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The film revolves around a segment on the TV news program 60 Minutes II in 2004 regarding then presidential candidate George W. Bush  and whether or not his service in the Texas Air National Guard affected his war record. (George W. Bush did not serve in Vietnam. The story presented on the air leaned heavily on a series of documents purporting to show that he may have received preferential treatment during his time in the U.S. military.) However, the emphasis  in the story (once it was aired) seemed less about George W. Bush’s military record and more about the veracity of the documents presented in the story. The failure to positively authenticate those documents eventually resulted in the “retirement” of newsman Dan Rather and the firing of his loyal assistant Mary Mapes (played here by Cate Blanchett). I suppose the film poses some serious questions about the state of investigative journalism – where and how do reporters get their sources? How accurate are they? Are they properly vetted? (the recent furor about a certain story in Rolling Stone would seem to prove the relevance of these issues) – but I couldn’t get past the casting of Mr. Redford as Mr. Rather. No  attempt is made to disguise Mr. Redford as Mr. Rather – not that a dye job and prosthetics would ever transform Dan Rather into an older version of Robert Redford,  as I assume director James Vanderbilt correctly realized.  It is ironic, though, that a film which seems to bemoan the fact that the focus of a story became less about what it was intended to suggest and more about the way it was prepared should appear (to this viewer) to be less about the issues presented and more about the casting. 

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That’s Robert Redford on the left (fittingly) and Dan Rather on the right (just in case you were confused)

The film seems to present Mr. Rather as some kind of hero, understandable since it is based on a memoir by his still faithful assistant, Ms. Mapes (Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power). All of which means that, despite its title, we, as viewers may not be getting the full truth of the matter, after all is said and done.