Archive | June, 2019

Being Frank

28 Jun

‘Being Frank’: Hiding a whole second family, you’d think that by now he’d be a better dad

 

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It’s a kid-eat-dad kind of a world out there in “Being Frank,” a duplicitous daddy comedy, but hey, sometimes dad doesn’t know best and might even deserve a bit of comeuppance. Set in the early ’90s (you can see cellphones and the Internet ruining some of the narrative ticks), Philip (Logan Miller from “Love Simon”) wants to attend art school in New York; dad (the aptly named Frank, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan) wants him to stick closer to their small-town home – “Stay in state,” he says. Frank himself is never around, always off on business trips to Japan for a ketchup company. In a mini act of rebellion, Phillip runs off during spring break to a nearby lakeside town where he learns dad’s not in Japan, but settling in with his second family. That’s right: Dad’s got big love and two well-seeded clans. Surprisingly, Phillip doesn’t blow the lid off the polygamous do-si-do, but instead uses it to get what he wants. He even helps Frank perpetuate the charade.

Directed by Miranda Bailey, whose credits as a producer include indie comedies that similarly go to places few would (“Swiss Army Man” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), “Being Frank” in execution feels a bit staged and ham-fisted at times – think “Meatballs” if it tried to play it straight. Inconsistent lurches between romp comedy and soap opera melodrama detract as the plot noose tightens and the truth closes in on Frank. The one heartfelt light in all the household-shuffling madness (talk about multitasking) is the bond that forms between father and son. Granted, it’s not born from traditional roots such as golfing or an investment club, but at least it’s a common goal and the two forge a secret language to keep it all clicking along.

You can’t fault Bailey for going after such ripe comedic fruit, and Gaffigan goofs it up enough to make his lout empathetic, but overall “Being Frank” feels underdone – like some of the jokes and situational comedy needed to be hashed out more, or perhaps required a second or third take to get right. It’s worth acknowledging the supporting cast, which includes Samantha Mathis as one of the wives, Alex Karpovsky as Frank’s stoner buddy with gonzo suggestion and a sassy Isabelle Phillips as one of Frank’s daughters. They do their part to hold the leaky dramedy afloat.

Ophelia

27 Jun

A new feminist slant on a bard classic

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A feminist reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia” assumes the POV of Hamlet’s betrothed (the heroine of the title) and boldly begins with a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque opener; us hovering above the protagonist’s body floating in a body of water as their voiceover from beyond tells us how they got there and why. It’s an alluring grip, but not necessarily one that holds as tight as that 1950 classic starring Willam Holden and Gloria Swanson.

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the perspective pivot might tweak some Shakespearean loyalists but for others, it may also pique bard interest—after all look what Tom Stoppard did with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The burden of success for such a high dive attempt ultimately comes in the execution, and while Claire McCarthy’s production is big, lush and gorgeously shot (by Denison Baker) it doesn’t quite stick it. On the plus side, the tragic tale of deadly familial parlor games finishes with some smart, surprising twists and the whole feminine slant feels timely and appropriate given the state of sexual politics and equality these days.

The casting too is something of a minor coup, with Daisy Ridley (Rey in the current “Star Wars” trilogy) donning auburn locks in the title role, Naomi Watts as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude and Clive Owen as the snaky manipulator Claudius. George MacKay add a fresh face in the role of the Danish prince though it’s mostly in the corners of the frame, though the scenes with Ridley—and there’s not enough of them—posses the kind of rich ripe chemistry found in the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though the role of Claudious is deepened with more backstory here, Owen is mostly held in check by his character’s singular duplicitous mode. Ridley and Watt on the other hand, are gifted more full bodied characters that expand, bond together and lift what threatens to become a production over leaden with plot and expectation. To that end, MacCarthy and her screenwriter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) do keep all the pieces successfully (if precariously) in the air, and handle the flips from the known to the new, with respectful diligence.

Overall “Ophelia” delivers bewitching intrigue and charm. It takes bold chances and mostly succeeds—a big part of that being Ridley’s subtly sizzle. Her Ophelia’s not too far from Rey in “The Force Awakens” (heroines of ‘common’ origin forced to the center of an epic conflict spurred by greed and tyranny) but in a Shakespearean yarn you can’t hide behind massive CGI FX and Yoda speak, her range and confidence will have casting agents think of her for—just about anything. McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) too should likely see her stock rise, the composition is assuredly sharp and authentic, though the slight modernistic infusion into the period score, distracts more than it adds anything new.

Toy Story 4

22 Jun

‘Toy Story 4’: These may well be the end tines for Pixar series, but Forky just adds to the fun

 

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The odd ones are the exceptional ones. I’m not taking about the quirky potpourri of personality in Andy’s toy chest (because they are all pretty odd and exceptional), I’m talking about the prime-numbered chapters in the long-running Pixar franchise. As is, it’s hard to believe it was nearly a quarter-century ago that “Toy Story” (1995) hit screens and defined a new generation of animation – pretty much becoming the impetus for the Best Animated Feature award initiated by the Oscars in 2001. The smart, simple tale of a cowboy doll jealous of a spaceman figurine new to a young boy’s toy collection, and its moral of friendship and support, hit with all ages. The olio of characters was as bright and infectious as their wondrous 3D rendering. Woody and Buzz were an instant thing. Of course, having a talented voice pool led by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Don Rickles didn’t hurt. “Toy Story 2” (1999), in which the crew had to band together to rescue Woody (Hanks) from a toy collection was a fair, pat followup; “Toy Story 3” (2010), which rightly notched that animation Academy Award, went to some dark places as Andy headed off to college, dealing with mature themes of separation and the despair of realizing you’re not needed anymore.

Toys, we learn in “Toy Story 4,” have a job that is pretty much what you’d expect: making your kid feel happy and secure. We catch up with Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Allen) now in the service of Bonnie, the girl who was gifted Andy’s lot at the end of “3.” Shy and demurring, Bonnie’s about to enter kindergarten and is somewhat terrified at the prospect, but before school starts her family heads out on a cross-country RV trip with much of the toy chest bunch in tow. New to the crew is Forky (Tony Hale), a kindergarten orientation creation – a spork with glued-on facial features, popsicle stick feet and a pipe cleaner twisted around the midsection for arms. Because of where he comes from, the plastic friend made of disparate materials is imbued with an innate affinity for trash (the “trash” mantra is up there with “claw” or “Groot”) and spends much of the film dumpster-diving or flying out the window of the RV. Mission one for Woody & Co., adhering to their job description, is to keep Bonnie’s new favorite in her stead even if Woody has to stay up all night tossing the Frankensteinian craft creation back into bed next to its creator after back-flipping into the nearby waste bucket.

Other smartly woven subplots have Woody separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – I forgot that she was porcelain – and a segue to a thrift store where a life-sized doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her phalanx of Jerry Mahoney-styled goons hold nefarious plans for Woody. Then there’s new adds Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian Evel Knievel-like action figure, and two bickering fluff toys (voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) who deliver as a goofy Greek chorus, a role Rickles used to provide as Mr. Potato Head (the comedian passed in 2017, and is used in small, archived metes here).

Allegedly “4” is the last chapter in the “Toy Story” canon. The third film seemed like the perfect concluding point, but “4,” directed by Josh Cooley, goes in a slightly new direction while hitting all the right notes. With Bonnie and a new set of friends, the series seems ripe for a spinoff. No matter – young kids going to this without seeing the previous films will likely be hooked, and want to see the full set after. To any parent rolling your eyes: Just go with it. There’s plenty of mature witticisms, and the subtle life lessons are a win for all.

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

15 Jun

‘Woodstock’ doc comes to Kendall big screen with too small a vision for moment it honors

 

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“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (2019) should never be confused with the indelible 1970 rock-doc “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music” that captured the iconic concert in all its ragtag glory and raucous verve. Sure, filmmakers Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City”) and co-director Jamila Ephron (“Far from the Tree”) are playing on the title, and the film’s about the same event, but surely they can’t be trying to outdo Michael Wadleigh and his talented crew – including a very young Martin Scorsese as an editor?

The project put together for PBS for the music festival’s 50th anniversary is a nice, light reminder of what was – a love-in postcard, if you will – and does an adequate job of capturing the political turmoil and spirit of the moment.But if you’re coming to “Three Days that Defined a Generation” for the music, you’ll likely be disappointed. Wadleigh’s doc (and I need to stop mentioning it, but it’s impossible not to) captured Jimi, The Who, Janice, Santana, the Airplane and Joe Cocker in all their sweaty, electric grandeur; “Three Days That Defined a Generation” gives you 30-second metes that look like shortened outtakes of the same footage. If that doesn’t drive you to Wadleigh’s baby, you’re not interested in these legendary acts, performances or the historical significance of the ambitious concert and should stop reading this right now and go get a ticket for “Godzilla.”

One angle that “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes that gives some fresh perspective is dialing back to three years earlier as Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower borrow money from the Polident fortune to get the venture off the ground. Then there’s the quest for space. Folks from Woodstock and other neighboring townships wanted little to do with a horde of rebellious youth and hippies, but diehard GOP dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in and served up his vast fields, and it was on. No one knew how big it would be (a half-million people) or the logistical miscues for hosting that many people in a podunk north of New York City that included getting sets, security and food up and running. The most affecting moment comes when Yasgur addresses the sea of youth from the stage.

Most of it is in that other doc too. Goodman and Ephron do get testimony from attendees, staffers and a few of the performers, including Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Cocker. Most of it’s fine but lacking the fiery energy of the moment. The affect is mostly flat; it’s a real non-starter when someone says The Who or Jimi was “good” – that’s like what, a C or a B-minus? And you don’t have more than a few chords to see that were nothing short of explosive.

Still, “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes us there. It’s a rock-doc by definition, but more a pat historical rewind. It’s not possible to top Wadleigh’s masterpiece, one of the five greatest rock docs of all time (with “Stop Making Sense,” the Scorsese-directed “Last Waltz,” “Gimme” and “Dig!”). You feel imbedded. It’s more than three hours long, and you never want it to end. They were stardust, it was golden … and “Three Days That Defined a Generation” does little more than remind us about Yasgur‘s garden once upon a time.

A Kendall Square screening Friday includes Susan Bellows, a senior producer for PBS’ “American Experience” and two people who were at Woodstock: Bill Hanley, a festival audio engineer, and Jon Jaboolian, a “Woodstock veteran.”

The Complete Howard Hawks

15 Jun

‘Complete Howard Hawks’ at Film Archive celebrates director who could do anything

John Wayne and Angie Dickinson talk with Howard Hawks on the set of “Rio Bravo” in 1959.

Howard Hawks may be the greatest American filmmaker you never really think about. His name should be right up there in the conversation with Coppola, Chaplin, Scorsese, Tarantino, Ford and Welles, but rarely is. His output – dozens of films, most during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s Golden Era of Hollywood – is an astounding list, filled with iconic stars, yet Hawks never won an Oscar and was nominated only once as director, for “Sergeant York” (1941). Beginning Friday, the Harvard Film Archive will commemorate Hawks’ incredible career with “The Complete Howard Hawks.” The slate of 40 films will be exhibited throughout the summer, concluding Aug. 30 with “Monkey Business” (1952).

The classics include “Red River” (1948, screening Aug. 4 and 11), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, June 15 and 23), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938, June 15-16) and “The Big Sleep” (1946, June 29-30), peppered with Hollywood A-listers such as James Cagney, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and even a young James Caan. “Sergeant York” screens Aug. 12.

Hawks had a pretty rich life. He grew up in a family that possessed a small industrial fortune, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell. His interest in film came when his family transplanted from the Midwest to Pasadena, California. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force during World War I and some dabbling as a gambler and race car driver, Hawks fell in with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Douglas Fairbanks. Hawks made several silent films in the 1920s, including the hedonistic “A Girl in Every Port” (1928, July 8), the Arabian-Parisian romance “Fazil” (1928, July 22) – both to be screened with a live accompaniment by Robert Humphreville – and his debut about a woman coming to terms with her sudden blindness, “The Road to Glory” (1926, not on the calendar and not to be confused with the 1936 war movie of the same title by Hawks that plays Aug. 16).

Many of Hawks’ works mirrored his life. He made several war films with a focus on aviation, including “Today We Live” (1933, Aug. 24), “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939, June 14 and 16), “Dawn Patrol” (1930, July 13 and 28) and the chaotic post-Pearl Harbor bombing epic, “Air Force” (1943, July 14 and 21), as well car racing dramas such as “The Crowd Roars” (1932, Aug. 19) starring Cagney and “Red Line 7000” (1965, Aug. 23).

Hawks’ diverse, genre-spanning slate included crime dramas (“Scarface,” 1932, June 29 and July 7), noir (“The Big Sleep”), romantic comedies (“His Girl Friday,” 1940, June 24 and Aug. 30), westerns (“Rio Bravo,” 1959, July 26 and Aug. 10) where he was often competing for audience share against friend John Ford, and a foray into science fiction (“The Thing From Another World,” 1951, July 13 and 21, from the same source material as John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror film “The Thing”). 

Personal favorites include the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s pulp noir “The Big Sleep” which boasts a screenwriting credit from Willam Faulkner, “Bringing Up Baby,” which I feel is the greatest rom-com of all time – but, then again, I wanted to be a paleontologist growing up – and “Scarface,” with Paul Muni setting the standard for classic bad guy performances. Then there’s the classic showdown “High Noon,” which paired Gary Cooper (one of Hawks’ two longtime collaborators, the other being Cary Grant) as the sheriff with an “X” on his back and Grace Kelly, and the grim and dark “Rio Bravo,” which would become the basis for another Carpenter film, the 1976 urban crime thriller, “Assault on Precinct 13.” Angling back toward the light is the newsroom romp “His Girl Friday.” Perhaps one reason Hawks is left out when it comes to talking greats is his appetite for a smorgasbord of subjects and his quietly competent compositions – for better or worse, you don’t feel the filmmaker in there trying to make a splash or leave his signature, as you do with many star directors. Hawks’ films have always been about narrative and character and letting the combination make the magic that pulls in the audience. It’s something he did repeatedly. 

“The Complete” series at the HFA was the brainchild of programmer David Pendleton, who sadly passed in 2017. Previous series have focused on Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. 

Films and times, tickets and other information are on the HFA website.

 

American Woman

14 Jun

 

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Can you imagine being a grandparent at age 36? In this dark, cloistered drama, we meet Debra (Sienna Miller), who had a daughter at age 16 who did the same thing at the same age. When we first catch up with Debra, she’s working as a waitress and sleeping with a married man who’s pretty much paying for her time. It ain’t pretty, but in her working-class neighborhood it feels like part of the American way.

The film spans 10 years. During it all, Deb’s older sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) is across the street, disapproving of her sib’s lifestyle but giving out unconditional love and support.Not far away is their newly widowed mother (a dignified Amy Madigan) who, while compassionate and reflective, also harbors reservations. In short, we get three generations of women with the youngest, Bridget (Sky Ferreira, “Baby Driver”), rebellious and not all that great of a mom, often hitting the party scene and dumping her neonate, Jesse, on Deb. Funny how history repeats itself. The toddler’s fate seems sealed, but Deb holds it together as much as she can, clearly doing better than she did with Bridget. Then Bridget disappears, and the film shifts.

That abrupt changeup draws in the audience, going unpredictable places fast. Did the boy’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), himself still a kid, have something to do with it? Is Bridget alive or dead? The not knowing almost literally kills Deb, but also forces her to be the mother to Jesse she wasn’t with Bridget. When we leap forward in time, Deb has changed and has a decent man in her life (Aaron Paul, from “Breaking Bad,” feeling a bit miscast), but the Bridget mystery remains, as does the fraught weight hanging on Deb. The film, directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s boy), revolves around tropes about family and watching each other’s backs despite some wildly poor life choices. The script by Brad Ingelsby has Lifetime network written all over it as it ambles awkwardly out of the gate. Much is asked of Miller to hold it all together, and she responds with a gritty, emotionally deep performance. The rest of the cast is up to the task too, especially Will Sasso as Katherine’s protective husband (and perhaps the only decent man in the film), who saves Deb from more than one unsavory situation.

Digging around in the trivia trash heap, the film was originally called “The Burning Woman” and Ann Hathaway was set to star. (Hard to imagine her pulling this off any better than Miller, capable as she is.) There’s no question the film could have used a better title: Many will associate this with the indelible 1970 song by The Guess Who – not bad company, mind you, but also no way to distinguish yourself. “American Women” might have made more sense. Without Miller bringing the burning misery of uncertainty to the fore, “American Woman” would be just another generic American drama with a dusting of grit and woe.

Late Night

14 Jun

‘Late Night’: Writers’ room full of white guys just isn’t working, but now Mindy Kaling is

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For a wispy-light, sitcom-ish comedy with some dark edges, “Late Night” covers a lot while getting guffaws and even some well-earned, teary-eyed moments. Lurking in the wings are the specter of Trump and #MeToo; more upfront are issues of white privilege, diversity hiring, ageism and sex scandals as “Late Night” takes us into the drama unfurling behind the scenes of late night TV.

The film benefits from an agile script by locally reared Mindy Kaling (“The Office” and “The Mindy Project”), no stranger to issues of race or trying to hold a show together as a woman. The other galvanizing infinity stone here – and there are “Avengers” jokes, I promise – is the chemistry between Kaling as a chemical plant engineer turned comedy writer and Emma Thompson as the notorious queen of mean of late night TV. Her Katherine Newbury, the lone female face of late night, is both menacing and engrossing, something of an improbable hodgepodge of Johnny Carson, Anna Wintour and Leona Helmsley. Ever in glamorous pantsuits and sporting a frosty cropped do, Katherine’s held her spot for decades, but recent years of poor ratings from her shunning of millennials, social issues and social media has the brass (Amy Ryan, great in small strokes as a “Network”-esque TV exec) considering a replacement. It doesn’t help that the show’s phalanx of writers are all white men, working obsequiously within the confines of their star’s narrow construct.

One such writer with a second child on the way asks for a raise and is fired – Katherine, while married (John Lithgow gives a nuanced and compassionate performance as her husband) does not have children, having poured herself into her show, and demands the same devotion from her staff. Desperate, and against her better instincts (she leans toward “national treasures” such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, while Jimmy Fallon slays her in the ratings by washing a sheepdog with “Avengers” star Robert Downey Jr.), Katherine books a YouTube sensation – a sassy female comedian whose MO is to sniff her dog’s butt. “What could go wrong?” The next move is to bring in a woman of color. Enter Molly (Kaling), who wins a corporate essay contest. Turns out the parent company that owns the chemical plant also owns the network (shades of GE and NBC). Yup, it’s that kind of light “dreams come true” fantasy, totally forgivable considering the smartly portrayed friction that ensues.

The delivery of “Late Night” overall is fairly predictable, with audience-cued reactions. Thompson is riveting throughout, and sure to be in this year’s Oscars conversations; she holds it all together, especially when her Katherine moves beyond commanding and demanding for a few vulnerable moments. Kaling’s Molly rides along in her wake, and together the two conjure up something akin to what Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep did in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). Together they make “Late Night” a sweet, serviceable fairy tale with a crisp acrid bite.