Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) written and directed by Noah Baumbach

 

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To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.

And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.

In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.

This, of course, is purely delusional.

Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)

Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.

In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.

Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, wearing a beard and newsboy cap, films 'The Meyerowitz Stories' in East Village

Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz            Picture by: Christopher Peterson/Splash News    photodesk@splashnews.com

Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch.  (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny  is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.

But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s

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Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz

son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.

 

The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.

And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.

So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.

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Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is  much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.

 

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Movie Review: The Little Hours written and directed by Jeff Baena

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poster for the 2017 film “The Little Hours”

Plague is the new black

“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old looking-illustrations of people suffering from boils or lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I guess the plague is in vogue this summer. The above mentioned dean in Nathan Hill’s The Nix rose to her position by “knowing everything there was to know about…literature written during the plague, about the plague.”

And Jeff Baena’s new film, The Little Hours, is based on Boccaccio’s Decamaron, a series of one hundred tales written in the early 1300s and told by ten characters who have left Florence to try to escape the Black Death that is ravaging the city.

Actually, Baena’s film is an amalgamation of just three of Boccaccio’s hundred tales.

On the third day of the Decamaron, the first story is about a man who feigns to be a mute and is hired as a gardener for a convent of nuns, many of whom rush “to lie with him.” The second story of the day is about a servant who sleeps with the wife of a king. When the king discovers the affair, he cuts the servant’s hair when he sleeps so he’ll recognize him in the light of day. The servant foils the king’s plans by cutting the hair of all his fellow servants.

These two tales are combined and make up the main plot of The Little Hours, with Dave Franco as the shorn servant who then becomes the “mute” gardener to escape from the angry nobleman. And the convent he lands in is a roiling and randy world populated by Sister Alessandra, Sister Ginerva , and Sister Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza respectively) and led by Father Tommasseo (John C. Reiley) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).

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Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) testing Massetto’s (Dave Franco) deafness

Towards the end of the Decameron, on the ninth day, there is a tale of an abbess who is roused from her bed, with the intention of catching a nun in bed with her lover. In the dark, however, instead of her veil, she puts on the pants of her own lover, which deflates much of her authority.

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This scene is nodded at towards the end of the film, and when Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) comes out of her cell to find out what is going on, she is indeed wearing her lover’s pants on her head. But there is whole lot more going on than merely a lovers’ tryst.

The Little Hours is broad in its comedy–much as Boccaccio and, later, Chaucer had presented. Primarily the presence of nuns who incongruously swear more lustily than Anthony Scaramucci and who are riddled with all kinds of lusts and desires provides the major thrust of the humor. But it seems slight and repetitive.

John C. Reilly as the priest who serves the convent is marvelous, and Fred Armisen’s turn as Bishop Bartolemeo towards the end of the film who must try to corral these wild colts into order is full of incredulous, eye-popping, double-takes. There are also amusing minor roles filled in by by Paul Reiser, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke and Lauren Weedman.

But the entire piece feels thin–almost like an extended SNL skit. And to be fair, after all, its intent is to capture only about 23% of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.

But–to its credit–The Little Hours has caused me to pull the Decameron off my shelf again.

Movie Review: The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad

The New York Times, in its review of Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,  posted the picture below:

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photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is a photograph of unbridled joy, curiosity and innocence set in a refugee camp against the bombed out ruins of Gaza.  The happiness of childhood trumps–at least in this moment–the nastiness of the adult world around them.

This photograph reminds me very much of the first half of Hany Abu Assad’s film The Idol (Ya Tayr Al Tayer). It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who sneaked across the border from his Gaza refugee camp and traveled to Cairo to compete in Arab Idol (the Arab version of “American Idol”). The film is divided neatly into two halves. (Though it is an awkward transition from the first to the second half.)

The first-half begins with a group of young children, riding their bikes, running from bullies, scraping together money, fishing (and then cooking and selling those fish). There is a sense of pure joy and freedom and hope. Except for the background of bombed-out buildings, exposed rebar, enormous piles of rubble and trash and ubiquitous destruction, the scenes could have been written for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals.

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All photos from “The Idol” press kit.

The children want to form a band. The 10-year old Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year old tom-boy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) recruit their friends and begin performing. Mohammed’s talent is evident; his voice is mature and controlled beyond his age. His sister’s charm and grit and ambition push the band forward, and they begin getting hired to play at weddings. (Nour’s being female is a problem. They cannot get hired if they have a female in the band and no one would hire them without her musicality. So she hangs in the background, behind the others, playing guitar and wearing her ever-present backwards baseball cap.)

Young Mohammed (Qais Atallah)and his sister Nour (Hibba Attala)

And they are good. Carried by Mohammed’s voice.

When Nour collapses from kidney failure, the band dissolves, but Mohammed vows to earn enough money singing to get her treatment–thus the quest to appear on Arab Idol. The actual quest begins the second half of the film when Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 18.

Life hasn’t changed much in the seven years that have elapsed. It may have gotten worse. There are still power shortages, travel restrictions, destruction, hopelessness.  But Mohammed is determined, especially when encouraged by the girl he met while his sister was getting dialysis.

This is not a spoiler. It is the fact that the film is based on. Against, incredible odds, Mohammed Assaf rises to the top of the competition. And it is here that one witnesses the true joy of the film.

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Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom) on “Arab Idol”

Every neighborhood, every household, every town square is filled with proud Gazans watching Mohammed on Arab Idol. Their pride and joy is palpable.  There is cheering, fireworks, embraces, flag waving. These people have not had a lot to cheer for, and now they do and it is cause for celebration.

It would be disingenuous to say that The Idol is not a political film, for of course it is. The politics, however, are subtle and act as a patina to a classic story of realizing one’s dreams. It is a joyous film, all the more remarkable for taking place in what appears to be such a joy killing space. And the realizations of Mohammed’s dreams are felt vicariously by the crowds that gather around televisions, big and small, and watch his ascent.

Hany Abu-Assad, who shares writing credits with Sameh Zoabi, has crafted an emotional film that never gets schmaltzy. There is angst and happiness, frustration and success, danger and death and victory and love. But it is all done with an even-hand and a simple narrative. Again, the politics are there–you cannot see Gaza and not wonder how or why? But, that is never the thrust of the film.

It is rare these days to see a film set in the Middle-East in which afterwards one comes out of the theater smiling and happy. Hany Abu-Assad has created such a film. And our joy is not simply for Mohammed Assaf, but for the Gazan people themselves. Sure their lives will remain unchanged for the most part, but the music competition has given them something to be proud of.

Movie Review: Maggie’s Plan, directed by Rebecca Miller

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Poster for Maggie’s Plan

A general statement would be that I greatly admire Ethan Hawke’s movies. (His “serious” movies. I’ve never seen his more commercial work.) Just as true is the fact that I rarely like the characters Ethan Hawke plays in these movies. Too often they seem to me to be self-involved posers. To wit, while I truly love the three Richard Linklater films (Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight), I do not like the Ethan Hawke character, particularly in the last. (As his success as a writer grows in these movies, so does his self-involvement and pomposity.) I believe that Hawke himself to be an interesting, knowledgeable and intellectual artist, honest about his art and serious about his decisions, but playing one on film is another thing. My god, the most annoyingly self-centered intellectual twit of all time is Hamlet, and Ethan Hawke’s version of the character is true to form. Though I love this version of Hamlet, I’m pretty glad when Hawke’s Hamlet gets it in the end (by gun this time rather than sword.)

Having said that, Maggie’s Plan is a sweet, whimsical film, filled with quirky performances and centered around the Ethan Hawke typical role–a wannabe novelist, anguishing over his work, and pretty sure the world revolves around him.

'Maggie's Plan' Film Set

Greta Gerwig as Maggie. Photo Credit: Kristin Callahan/ACE/INFphoto.com Ref: infusny-220

Quickly, the film concerns a young girl in New York, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) who wants to get pregnant. She finds a potential sperm donor–a friend from her undergraduate days in Wisconsin (Travis Fimmel). However, at the same time she meets  John (Ethan Hawke) a  professor at New York’s New School where she also works.

And so, they begin an affair.

John is writing a novel, and is not getting the support he wants from his wife Georgette, a superstar intellectual played by Julianne Moore, who hilariously uses an accent that channels Madeline Kahn from her Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles days. John begins having Maggie read his work-in-progress, which is basically how he seduces her.

Hawke and Gerwig

Quickly Maggie and John get married, they have a child, and just as quickly she wants to give him back to his wife. His self-centeredness is simply too much to cope with. So elaborate plans are made to “return him.” (This could be the “Maggie’s plan” of the title, or it could be her strategy to have a child.)The plot to get the original husband and wife together is humorous and flawed and is the gist of the film.

Helping Maggie along are her two friends Tony and Felicia, played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf. Both of these actors continue to grow their talents in a variety of interesting projects, and in Maggie’s Plan, they make the most of the minutes they are on the screen.

Maggie herself is quirky and likeable and somewhat innocent. Her wardrobe (which seems to be what can only be called 1950s Wisconsin-chic) places her as an outsider in savvy New York, and her contact with the intimidating Georgette only underscores this.

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Maggie (Greta Gerwig) reveals her plan to Georgette (Julianne Moore)

Maggie’s Plan is light fare–so much lighter than director Rebecca Miller’s previous work. There is a sweet and satisfying (though hinted at) ending and there are some wonderful performances. (Again, Julianne Moore is hilarious, and seems as if she is enjoying playing so over-the-top.)

It is not the kind of film where one goes for  coffee afterwords to deconstruct and analyze it–and it is not intended to be such. Maggie’s Plan is simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours in the summer.

 

 

 

Movie Review Monday: Wiener-Dog, directed and written by Todd Solenz

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“Wiener-Dog”  illustration 2016 by jpbohannon                                                                                                                                                       (based on one-line Picasso drawing of his dog LUMP)

I have always had a thing against dachshunds. I believe it stems from cartoon watching when I was a child. Back then, if you were a dachshund in a cartoon, you were typecast: you had to wear a monocle, smoke a cigarette in a long cigarette holder and dress like a Nazi officer. (German Shepherds were often the guard dogs, the grunts, but the dachshunds were ALWAYS the officers.) Anyway, the prejudice stuck, and I am still not fond of dachshunds.

So against my better instincts, I went to see Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. A quirky series of vignettes, performed by an interesting cast, and tied together by a dachshund who is passed from one owner to the next. And while the dog itself has little to do with the different stories, it is the tie that binds, so to speak.

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Movie poster for Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog

We begin with a young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor, whose father brings the dachshund home to the boy as a companion. The parents are self-absorbed; the boy is understandably interested in death and life and birth; and the mother, played by Julie Delpy, tries to answer his questions honestly. However, she has difficulty with this. (The story she tells to explain why it is important to have the dog spayed is extraordinary in its outlandishness. At one point in the story, the man in front of me moaned at the political incorrectness in her tale.)

The parents cannot handle the dog in their pristine house–who has gotten violently and graphically sick–and quickly take it to the vet to be put down. Here the vet’s assistant (Gretta Gerwig) steals the dog and brings it home. While shopping for dog-food, she meets an old high-school friend (Kieran Culkin) with a heroin problem. He is driving across country to Ohio to inform his brother of their father’s death. For some reason, she decides to accompany him. The dachshund sits on her lap throughout most of the trip and does nothing. Much like Gerwig herself.

Although the wiener-dog is given to Culkin’s brother and his wife in Ohio (Connor Long and Bridget Brown) at the end of Gerwig’s vignette, it next appears in New York City with a film-school instructor, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz is waiting for his big break; his screenplay has been sitting in offices in Hollywood and it is obvious that the agents are not taking him seriously.

He is also greatly disliked by his students who feel he is a dinosaur and has nothing to offer their uber-hip selves. (One hipster film-student explains just how out of touch Schmerz is by claiming he probably has a box-set of Curb Your Enthusiasm, still watches Seinfeld, and thinks Woody Allen is terrific. Wow!)

And while DeVito’s character puts the dog in an adorable yellow dress and walks her through Manhattan on his way to school, his story is sad and does not end well.

And so somehow the wiener-dog  appears next with a curmudgeonly old woman (Ellen Burstyn). She is bitter about her life and her life choices. After her drug-addled granddaughter visits and asks for a very large check to help finance her artist boyfriend, (which she writes), the old-woman is visited by a series of versions of herself–selves she would have been, if she had been different. (This hearkens back to Danny DeVito story, where the teacher is ridiculed for his screenwriting mantra “what if.”)

This story does not end well either.

Wiener-Dog is beautifully shot, particularly the scenes of the little boy and the dog, of the dog and Ellen Burstyn, and the suburban landscapes that Gerwig and Culkin drive through. Full of light and color, they capture an America that always seems to have something hidden right under the surface. And the performances of Keaton Nigel Cooke, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn are poignant and memorable.

And there is a jokey Intermission sequence where a large Dachshund walks across the American landscape to a cowboy-type theme song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.” It is fun and silly and for a moment takes our mind off some of the more unsettling ideas that lie beneath the tales that we are seeing.

Wiener-Dog is described as a dark comedy. I am discovering that the more I think about it, the darker it becomes.

 

Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Quote # 52: DFW defining “Lynchian”

“David Lynch” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

 

 

 

“A good 65% of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6:00 A.M. tend to qualify as [David] Lynchian figures–flamboyantly unattractive, enfeebled, grotesque, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances.”

David Foster Wallace defining “Lynchian”as quoted in
David Lynch: The Man from Another Place by David Lim