Movie Review: Pedro Almadóvar’s Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)

P&GposterAt 6:30 a.m. on the Friday after Christmas, I found myself fully inserted into a large MRI tube. For 45 minutes I had to remain completely still while an icy course of “tracer” pulsed through my veins and a cacophonous symphony of beeps, clanks and rumblings sneaked through the noise-reducing headphones that were provided.  Forty-five minutes in odd isolation gives you a lot of time to think…about pretty much everything, but certainly about one’s own mortality, about creativity and about finishing the work that one has started.

I don’t know if I am unconsciously seeking out these type of things/thoughts or that I am just noticing them more and more. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a Rodney Crowell song titled “It Ain’t Over Yet” which deals with not giving up despite what age and time and others might tell you. I’ve played that song at two separate gigs since then. Today I finally saw a film that I had been wanting to see since it came out a month ago: Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.

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Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain and Glory

Almodóvar’s film deals also with the subject of mortality. (Though a two-hour film can certainly uncover many more layers than can ever be exposed in a four-minute song.) The protagonist, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a film-director/screenwriter beset by pains and various medical conditions who has completely stopped working and who–when not self-medicating–slips into fond memories of his past, memories triggered by the slightest moments of the present.  There are memories of his mother, of his early home, of his childhood. And, at the moment, he feels that they are all he has.

Yet his film career is now the subject of art house retrospectives and a memoir piece is currently being staged by an old colleague/nemesis. But he has stopped working. There is nothing new.

He has a wonderful, solicitous secretary (Nora Navas) who continues to answer the many requests for interviews, conferences, etc–always with a “no” response. She is also charged with taxiing him to doctors and hospitals.  (A wonderful throw-away line is when he asks why he is so popular in Iceland, after the umpteenth Icelandic request for him to visit.)

I have loved Almodóvar’s films since I was quite young. And if asked what it is about all of them that I remember, I might say–beside the passionate storytelling–the color. His eye for color is startling. There are many vivid reds and electric blues–Mallo’s apartment is a designer’s dream–and even the white-washed caves that the young boy and his mother (Penelope Cruz) live in pop off the screen in memorable brilliance.

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Young Mallo (Asier Flores) and his mother (Penelope Cruz) in the cave where they live (before the white washing).

There has been much written about how Pain and Glory is Pedro Almodóvar’s most personal film. And that is easily understood. But since I am often teased for being a “spoiler” in any posts that I write about movies and books, I will do my best to restrain myself here. However, I will say that whatever Pedro Almodóvar is thinking, he should listen to Rodney Crowell’s song “It Ain’t Over Yet.”

Because this film is wonderful.

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.

 

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: Girl Most Likely –a different kind of Jersey girl

poster2Ocean City, New Jersey cannot be happy that they allowed Girl Most Likely to use it as location, for the directors, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, paint this quaint, South Jersey town in a trashy, rusty, tone that is so opposite to the quaint, well-kept, South Jersey resort that it is.  It is as if they wanted a “Jersey Shore” vibe and settled on the first town they found named on a map. Except they chose one of the most conservative, upper-middle-class, dry towns, and they didn’t know it.

A hint that they truly didn’t know the locale happens early when Lee, Darren Criss’s character, is filling his car with gas as he prepares to drive to New York.  I saw the film in Philadelphia, and everyone in the theater noticed the gaffe: New Jersey does not let drivers pump their own gas! (It must be done by an attendant and it’s a good 20 to 50 cents cheaper than Philly’s stations.)

But aside from their missing the mark with the location–which only a small proportion of the audience will recognize–Girl Most Likely is a likeable film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: is it a “small film” or a large entertainment? It can’t be both.

Imogene (Kristen Wiig) is an aspiring playwright in New York. She had won some recognition as a young woman, but ten years later she has produced nothing. Through her boyfriend, she travels in the rarefied world of women who chair charities, wear simple black dresses, and sharpen their talons on their preposterously large diamonds. Although they tolerate Imogene’s company (because of her boyfriend), they look down their noses at her because she is, after all, (gasp), from Jersey.

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Annette Benning as Zelda, Imogene’s eccentric mother.

When her boyfriend leaves her, she fakes a suicide attempt in the hope that he will save her and come back to her. Her plan backfires, and, instead, she is given in custody to her mother  and driven to New Jersey. Her mother–the wonderful Annette Bening–is a casino habitue, an ex-go-go dancer, living with a shady CIA agent (Matt Dillon) who has told her children that their father died twenty years ago rather than saying that he simply left her.

When Imogene comes home, she learns that her mother has rented out her room to a handsome casino performer (Chriss), her brother’s social anxiety is getting worse, and her father isn’t really dead as she has believed for all these years.

The arc of the plot is familiar. Angry about being in New Jersey and not in “glamorous” New York, appalled by her mother and her life-style, and shattered by the news of her idolized father’s existence, Imogene grows to learn how wrong she is in so many ways.  After lurching from one disappointment to another, from one shredded dream to the next, Imogene finally realizes her talent, embraces her family, and “lives happily ever after.”

While the film is inconsistent at times, it is propped up by some memorable performances:

Christopher Fitzgerald plays Imogene’s brother Ralph, who bordering on the autistic, is more comfortable with crustaceans than with people and has constructed a bullet-proof, wearable, snail shell into which he can retreat when he needs protection from the real world.  But he is wiser than his sister and more tolerant of the quirky household that their mother has assembled.

Matt Dillon plays a CIA agent (“Is he or isn’t he?” we wonder throughout most of the film.) with the name of George Bousche.  We have seen Dillon play this character before, over-the top, mildly threatening and unbalanced, and oddly mysterious.

Annette Bening looks like she is having fun playing trashy, but when her character has to show depth and anxiety she demonstrates why she is one of America’s finest actors.

Kristen Wiig is loveable and confused and vulnerable and frustrating. She seems, however, ten years too old for the character. We are used to seeing late twenty-somethings struggling with identity, purpose, and life; it is a bit off-putting to see that same struggle played the same way ten years later.

Light summer fare, Girl Most Likely, is too frothy to deal with the subject it seems to want to address: class distinctions and presumptions.  Imogene’s father is a pompous prig, her New York girlfriends are two-dimensional caricatures and her condescending attitude towards Lee, Chriss’s casino performer, is brutal and unfair. But the film simply does not have enough weight to go there.

Like a night of summer fireworks, Girl Most Likely is enjoyable but easily forgotten.

Movie Review: Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited! (Los Amantes Pasajeros )

Pedro Almadovar famously said in 2012 that Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves was the best film made in Spain that year.

Pedro Almodovar at London premiere of I'm So Excited

Pedro Almodovar at London premiere of I’m So Excited!

Whether it was false modesty or not on Almodovar’s part, he could have said that his own Los Amantes Pasajeros was Spain’s funniest movie of the year.

Almadovar’s film–which was given the English title of I’m So Excited!--gives us all the things one wants in an Almodovar film: Brightness, intelligence, silliness, kinkiness, a large dose of drugs combined with a bit of social commentary, modern instability and fractured and teetering relationships . Working within a particular genre–a group of unusual characters are trapped within a small confine, Almodovar uses the trope to have fun, plain and simple.

The plot of the film is that a plane bound for Mexico from Madrid encounters immediate mechanical problems and must begin circling until an empty airport can be found so it can make an emergency landing. The crew, in order to keep things calm give the entire “economy class” and its attendants muscle relaxers, and they are asleep they entire film (except for one who is later sexually awakened!) Leave it to yourself to figure out what Almodovar is saying about the sleeping “economy class.”

Meanwhile business class has seven passengers: a washed-up actor, the most famous dominatrix in Spain, a shy hit-man, a crooked businessman, a honeymooning couple and a virginal psychic who has sneaked in from economy. And we soon learn their quirks, their secrets, and their passions. We are right to think we have been here before with Agatha Christie and that bunch. But we’d be wrong.

Listening to Norma's (Cecelia Ruth) secrets.

Listening to Norma’s (Cecilia Roth) secrets.

For we have never been here with the likes of Almodovar’s flight crew. They are introduced swigging shots of tequila as they prepare meals (their way to deal with the mechanical emergency after drugging the economy class). One has a pop-up Hindu temple that he prays to; the other is having an affair with the closeted and married pilot; and the third has his eyes on the “determinedly” heterosexual co-pilot. And as the danger becomes more eminent and potentially catastrophic, they entertain the business-class travelers with a song and dance routine (the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited!”)

The Airline Stewards performing "I'm So Excited"

The airline stewards performing “I’m So Excited”

This isn’t Ship of Fools, nor was it meant to be. It is silly, outrageous fun. And when the “Valencia Cocktails” are served, spiked with an overdose of mescaline, the fun really begins! As the one steward tells us, the mescaline will make people more open, more honest and horny. And was he ever right!

Almodavar has been soundly criticized for this, his nineteenth film, for its being too light, too campy, too slapstick. (One reviewer said to “never trust a movie title with an exclamation point”!) But the hell with them. Sometimes, light, campy and slapstick are what we need. I know I almost moved my seat because of the guffawing elderly lady near by. She laughed (loudly) non-stop. And there was good reason to.

Almodovar is sure of his craft and his precedents. The nods to Hitchcock’s Vertigo are almost immediately obvious–we quickly find ourselves staring into the twirling mechanics of a jet engine. While the awareness of his own personal filmography and progression is demonstrated by his opening the film with his original stars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz–actors who never again appear in the film– anchoring it with Cecelia Roth who has played so many great Almodovar roles, and featuring a whole new stable of actors who are certain to show up in future Almodovar films. (Paz Vega is another actor who has played in Almodovar films before but who has a minor part and less than two minutes of screen time.)

Almodovar has his own bag of tricks and devices and storylines; that he uses them time and again is not necessarily a negative for me. We have neurotic women, shady men, flamboyant revelers, and unknowingly ingested drugs–as we have had often before in Almodovar films. But because the colors are bright and mod, the homosexuality over the top and flamboyant, the villains somewhat stereotyped and the story too sweetly resolved—because we know what to expect in an Almodovar film, it has been regularly panned by critics.

But for me, it was a cool, tasty, silly romp that was perfect for a muggy day at the end of July.

Disney’s Folly, Snow White and Disneyland

The Carthay Theater

The Carthay Circle Theater where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered on December 21, 1937

I’ve been in Southern California for the past two weeks, and yesterday I spent 14 1/2 hours in Disneyland. With a very energetic seven-year old. And I’m completely exhausted.

But I am sure of this: no matter what people say about the Disneyfication of things, one has to admit that everything they do is efficient and entertaining. And often awe-inspiring.

When Walt Disney came to California, he focused on making short animated films, primarily the Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies cartoons. But in 1934, he decided to produce the first feature-length animated feature…much to the dismay of his brother and business partner, Roy Disney, and the delight of the Hollywood critics who called Disney’s project “Disney’s Folly.”

For what sensible person, it was thought, would sit through a 90 minute cartoon?

Disney mortgaged his house, brought artists in to train his animators, emphasized a European look for the artwork ensign design, and spent close to $1.5 million in 1937 dollars to get his feature,  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, completed.

If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hadn’t succeeded, most of us probably would never have heard of Walt Disney–except maybe for a few film students who might have studied his early cartoons.  Instead the film’s success, both among the public and the industry, allowed Disney to capitalize on success after success until the Disney brand became what would have been unfathomable to Disney itself.

The story of the making of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs is well documented: the switch from a rollicking tale about the dwarfs to the romantic love story it became,  the metamorphosis of the Wicked Stepmother from a hare-brained slovenly witch to the sensuous, shapely queen that all boys of a certain age remember, the downplaying of the prince’s role in the plot–this is all a matter of history.

The wicked queen, witch, stepmother

The wicked queen, witch, stepmother

But no one would have cared about that history, if the film flopped.

On December 21, 1937, the film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater. The premier, which was attended by all the Hollywood royalty—Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, George Burns and many more were present—was an extraordinary success.  Outside the Carthay Circle Theater, 30,000 fans who couldn’t get tickets waited.  The NY Times led with the line, “Thank You, Mr. Disney” and Walt Disney and his Seven Dwarfs were on the cover of Time a week later. (Disney always saw the dwarfs as the centerpiece of his film.)

A shot the Walt Disney wanted badly in the film

A shot that Walt Disney wanted badly in the film

And the film made money. The numbers are staggering–within 15 months it had become the all time money making film ever–but more importantly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs provided the seed money for what was to become the Disney Empire.

And so, as I trudged around Disneyland–visiting Radiator Springs and Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, as I watch Henson’s Muppets and a Broadway caliber Aladdin,  as I witness technological and creative boundaries pushed and optimized–I realize what an awful lot has blossomed from Disney’s hunch that people, yes, would sit through ninety minutes of animation.

By the way…

Did you know that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first film to release a “soundtrack” album as a separate entity?

Movie Review: Frances Ha (dir. by Noah Baumbach) —-running in place and getting nowhere

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances running through the streets of Brooklyn

Frances runs a lot during the course of Frances Ha.  She leaves a restaurant and runs to the ATM, she runs to work, she runs to her parents in Sacramento, she runs back to New York, she runs to Paris, she runs from New York, she runs back to her old college, and she returns again to New York.  And until the end, she doesn’t get anywhere. She’s just running in place. She is hapless and feckless and lonely and dangerously stuck in the past.  And she is endearingly quirky.

Frances is played by Greta Gerwig who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. (There is a follow-up collaboration already in post-production, tentatively titled Untitled Public School Project). She–like countless others–have come to New York, because it’s the world’s biggest stage and she is a dancer. However, we are to infer, not a very good one.

So we follow her trajectory as she breaks up with her boyfriend, as her roommate leaves to move in with her mate, as she “crashes” in various friends’ apartments, and as she is “fired” from her job.  What is a poor girl to do?  Certainly, she makes some bad decisions–an impulsive trip to Paris on her credit card and a friendship shattering tantrum at a restaurant–but ultimately we know she is decent and hard-working, and we hope that things will pan out for her.

I had seen the trailer for Frances Ha a few months back, but hadn’t put it on my “must see” list. Then I saw an article in one of the free newspapers that ran with this headline:

“Woody Allen Call Your Lawyers…Someone has Stolen your Style.”

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances in Frances Ha

So of course that sent me to the theaters.  (I didn’t even read the article, just the headline.) The “stolen style” is the cinematography. It is filmed in black-and-white, and there are scenes that very much have a “Woody Allen” feel: New York street scenes, a shot going down into the subway, a scene around a table in an up-scale apartment, a family Christmas dinner.  These all very much LOOK like a Woody Allen film.

However, the similarity stops with the dialog.  What, I assume, is meant to be witty and quirky and insightful is not.  It simply does not come off.

Instead, we follow Frances (and her friend Sophie, played by Mickie Sumner) as she stumbles forward, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes ineptly.  And we want to root for her except that we often lose interest in her.  No doubt that her travails are all true to life, but more often than not it is simply that–true to life.  And life is often not all that interesting to watch.

I realize that Gerwig and Baumbach both have solid credentials in films about life’s wry moments. Baumbach has successfully co-written with Wes Anderson and has written and directed such films as Margot and the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale; while Gerwig has been working–non-stop it seems–with directors as varied as Daryl Wein and, yes, Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), while increasingly taking part in the screenwriting, as well.  But Frances Ha left me wanting something more.

I want to like Gerwig and Baumbach’s work. I want to very much. I am excited about what they are trying. But so far, I am lukewarm with the results. I feel as if I know what they are trying to say, to do, but it is not coming across.

I feel as if they are running in place.