Metropolitan (A-). Well, your reviewer was feeling a bit under the weather, so I wanted something light and cheery. I had fond memories of this 1990 indie flick but hadn’t seen it in years, so I pulled down my unwatched Criterion Collection DVD and gave it a spin. Suffice to say, it was as good as I remembered it being. It is about eight young people—four girls and four guys, early college-age, as best I can tell—who gather almost every night in Manhattan over one Christmas break to go to various debutante parties or balls or whatever they are. We don’t see too much of the parties themselves—the focus is on the after-parties, where the youngsters earnestly discuss all sorts of things you might not expect, like Jane Austen, the existence of God, and the relative merits of the bourgeoisie. Hm, I’m not really selling the movie very well. There are plenty of romantic complications too as sweet and inexperienced Audrey gets a crush on group newcomer and professed socialist Tom, who is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend Serena, who was last known to be dating the repellent Rick Von Sloneker. And the dialogue really is very funny, at least if you think it’s funny to hear lines like “Ours is probably the worst generation since the Protestant Reformation” delivered by very young people with drop-dead seriousness.
Writer-director-producer Whit Stillman went on to make two other excellent films in the 1990s, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, (starring Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale). Enough people took notice of his work to result in the 2002 publication of a book called Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman. Stillman then went quiet for a long time. Then in 2011 he released Damsels in Distress, which I thought was good but not as good as his prior work, and then in 2016 he released the better Love & Friendship. IMDB.com doesn’t show that he has anything new in the works, but I’m holding out hope. If you are new to his work I recommend you start at the beginning and give Metropolitan a try!
Lady Bird (B+). Indie actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) wrote and directed this indie dramedy about a high-spirited girl’s tumultuous senior year in a Sacramento Catholic school and her rocky relationship with her mother. I enjoyed it, and it moved along with a brisk 94-minute run time. Saoirse Ronan (The Way Back) shines as the title character (she’s named Christine McPherson, but she insists on being called Lady Bird), and we follow the ups and downs of her experience in Drama Club, her crushes, her relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Neighbor 2: Sorority Rising), her college aspirations, and most of all her relationship with her mother, a hard-working and long-suffering psychiatric nurse (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s Roseanne). Based on Ms. Gerwig’s IMDB biography, I’d say this movie has a strong autobiographical component. It also has a 94 score over on Metacritic.com, so what are you waiting for?
Brad’s Status (B-). Hm, Ben Stiller plays a guy facing a midlife crisis. Didn’t he just do this a few years ago in While We’re Young? Well, he’s at it again in this new dramedy, with fair to middling results. Here it’s not just middle age that’s getting to Brad Sloan (Stiller), but also Facebook. Brad, you see, has a perfectly decent middle-class life in Sacramento with a cute, loving wife (Jenna Fischer, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and a musically talented teenage son (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns). But his best friends from college (played by guys like Luke Wilson, The Skeleton Twins, and Michael Sheen, Passengers) are all (according to Facebook) wildly successful in various ways, and some 25 years after college they’re starting to leave Brad out of their get-togethers. This eats away at Brad something fierce, and we hear his neurotic thoughts in frequent voiceovers. And his unhappy thoughts provoke some awkward and embarrassing behavior when he and his son go tour some colleges in the northeast. I didn’t think it was bad, and I particularly enjoyed a scene in which a perceptive Harvard student calls Brad out on his very First World problems. Worth a look if Blade Runner 2049 is sold out.
The Big Sick (B). This is a pleasant and affable little romantic comedy with a couple of twists. First, it’s apparently based on the star’s real life romancing of his wife. And second, the main plot point is that the female lead (Zoe Kazan, What If) gets a mysterious illness that puts her into a coma halfway through the movie. After that, it’s mostly about the fellow, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, Life as We Know It) having to deal with the girl’s parents (well-played by Ray Romano, TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, and Holly Hunter, Thirteen) while their daughter is in potentially mortal danger. Also, he’s juggling his would-be career as a stand-up comedian and his overbearing Pakistani parents’ attempts to push him into an arranged marriage. Not everything totally worked for me, but there were enough chuckles, and the leads were likable enough, that I enjoyed it.
The Edge of Seventeen (B-). This new tale of teen angst stars Hailee Steinfeld (Begin Again) as Nadine, a miserable and thoroughly unpleasant high-school student whose entire wardrobe seems to consist of barely-there skirts and shorts. Nadine doesn’t get along with either her mom or her older brother. To make matters worse, her only friend in the world (Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus) starts dating said older brother, which only makes Nadine more miserable and, amazingly, even more unpleasant. Really, Nadine is so obnoxious and filled with self-loathing that I found it very hard to empathize with her, She seemed borderline mentally ill. The movie’s bright spot is Nadine’s friendship with her history teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Management). Bruner’s dryly sarcastic responses to Nadine’s various crises had the whole theater laughing out loud. Basically, all the scenes involving Bruner are great, and the rest of the movie is so-so. And please note that the R rating for language and sexual content is well deserved.
Don’t Think Twice (B-). Two things drew me to check out this movie about six friends who perform together as an improv comedy troupe—its crazy high Rotten Tomatoes score (99%) and the fact that it co-stars Gillian Jacobs of my beloved TV show Community. Fact is, the movie is just OK. Most of the interest is provided by the rivalries, envies, and insecurities of the various members of the group. Everyone wants to break into a certain TV comedy show (a very thinly disguised Saturday Night Live), but of course not everyone can succeed. Additional interest is created when the father of a group member has a health crisis. And, of course, the movie shows how hard improv is. Not a bad way to spend 92 minutes.
Maggie’s Plan (B). I rather liked this little independent comedy, even though it chronicles the ongoing destruction (deconstruction? displacement?) of traditional marriage as the customary and assumed center of family life. Indie queen Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress) stars as Maggie, an unattached thirtysomething New Yorker who is on the verge of attempting to become a mother via sperm donation (but not from an anonymous donor; she picks a smart guy she knew in college who’s on the verge of great success as a pickle entrepreneur).
ARGUABLE SPOILERS FOLLOW.
But this whole plan gets derailed when she meets and falls in love with John (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset), an anthropologist and would-be novelist. The feeling is mutual, but John’s married to Georgette (Julianne Moore, in full-out Teutonic The Big Lebowski mode) and has two kids. But then, lickety-split, John and Georgette are divorced, John and Maggie are married and have a little girl—and Maggie starts falling out of love with John and hatches a plan to get Georgette and John back together. As Maggie’s pal Tony (Bill Hader, Trainwreck) asks, why can’t she just leave John like a normal person? I guess it’s because Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, and that’s not how a Greta Gerwig character rolls. Anyway, Greta Gerwig brings her usual charm to the proceedings, and I pretty much enjoyed it.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (B). Based on a true story, this is the story of Kim Baker (Tina Fey, Sisters), a copywriter for some TV network who impulsively accepts an assignment to report on the war in Afghanistan. Of course it’s a whole new alien world for her at first, but another female reporter (Margot Robbie, The Big Short) helps her get adjusted. She encounters other colorful characters, like a crusty but decent Marine colonel (Billy Bob Thornton, Friday Night Lights), the skeezy would-be attorney general of Afghanistan (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), and a rascally Scottish journalist (Martin Freeman, The Hobbitses). And she finds herself enjoying, and even getting addicted to, the adrenaline rush of war reporting. IMDB puts it in the “comedy” and “war” genres, but I thought it played fairly seriously despite occasional comic moments. Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie.
The Lady in the Van (B). The redoubtable Maggie Smith (TV’s Downton Abbey) stars in the title role in this British import. An introverted playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, The Queen) has bought a townhouse, and he soon meets neighborhood fixture Miss Shepherd (Smith). She’s an eccentric, excitable, and malodorous homeless woman who lives in a decrepit old van that she occasionally moves up or down the street. The neighbors, being normal people, don’t really want her around, but, also being liberals, they can’t bear to run her off either. Somehow she eventually gets Bennett to let her park in his driveway, and there she stays–for the next 15 years. And apparently this is based on a true story! We get bits and pieces of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, which, as to be expected, is not a particularly happy one. Good performances, but the story is a bit slight and certainly a bit sad.
Laggies (C). It seemed like this 2014 release was barely in the theaters at all, even though it stars the winsome Chloë Grace Moretz (Dark Shadows) and the toothsome Keira Knightley (Atonement). It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t very good either. Knightley stars as Megan, a 28-year-0ld Seattle woman who has failed to launch. She’s been dating her high-school boyfriend for 10 years, and despite having some sort of graduate degree she “works” by twirling an advertising sign in front of her dad’s accounting firm. She chances to meet some cool high-schoolers, and she winds up running away from her real life and staying with Annika (Moretz) and her divorced dad (Sam Rockwell, Moon) for a week. Not sure I’d let some stranger move into my house for a week on my kid’s say-so, but okay. Ellie Kemper (They Came Together) has a thankless supporting role as a humorless member of Megan’s old high-school posse. Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page) pops up in a tiny role. It’s not a very believable movie, and Megan isn’t a particular believable (or likable) character. Still, I liked this better than Your Sister’s Sister, also by director Lynn Shelton.
While We’re Young (B). Here’s the newest film from director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). I was hooked by the premise: a childless married couple about my age starts hanging out with a newly married couple in their 20s, with unpredictable results. Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum) and that cute little buck-toothed Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) star as the older couple, and Adam Driver (Tracks) and Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) star as the younger couple. It wasn’t really laugh-out-loud funny, but it was definitely amusing to watch Ben and Naomi try to keep up with the youngsters; not so amusing to watch Ben (playing someone exactly my age) try to come to grips with losing his youth. (An arthritis diagnosis hits him particularly hard.) The plot was so-so, but the characters were fun to watch. I say check it out.
Danny Collins (B+). I am afraid my critical apparatus may be showing some signs of age. Sappy, sentimental movies like last year’s St. Vincent and this current release are really striking a chord with me. Al Pacino (Scarface) stars as the titular character, an aging rock star who lives and parties like Mick Jagger, even though the only hit song we hear him sing is a dreadful knock-off of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Anyhoo, we are quickly acquainted with Danny’s lifestyle, his mansion, his wise manager Frank (Christopher Plummer, Beginners), and his ridiculously too-young and too-uninhibited fiancee Sophie (Katarina Cas, The Wolf of Wall Street). Then Frank surprises Danny with a thought-provoking gift, and Danny decides it is time to start squaring up some of life’s accounts. Mainly, he sets out to meet the adult son he has long known about but never met. It’s sappy, but it worked for me. Nice supporting work by Bobby Cannavale (Chef) as Danny’s son Tom, Jennifer Garner (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) as Tom’s very pregnant wife, and Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) as the Hilton hotel manager that Danny attempts to court while visiting his son in New Jersey. But Pacino steals the show as the flamboyant, often ridiculous, Danny Collins.
Birdman (B-), The latest film from director Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel) seems to be getting some award buzz, so I figured I should check it out. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan Thomas, a once-successful actor who walked away from a popular superhero movie franchise to pursue . . . well, I’m not sure what, but something different. Now, many years later, he is struggling to open a Broadway play that he has written, is directing, and plans to star in. Everything is going wrong, of course; money is short, critics are sharpening their knives, and to top it off Thomas is starting to hear a scornful voice in his head—the deep voice of Birdman, the superhero role he left behind. It’s a pretty entertaining movie with lots of star power. Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) plays Thomas’s in-and-out-of-rehab daughter. Edward Norton (Fight Club) plays the temperamental actor who just might save the play. Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover) is Thomas’s over-stressed lawyer, and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) are the actresses in Thomas’s play. I’d have to say the film’s weakness is its length; at 119 minutes, it just started to feel a little long to me. Cut out about 15 or 20 minutes towards the end, and I’d probably give it a solid B.
Mrs. Doubtfire (B-). This was my first time to see this 1993 flick, starring Robin Williams (Night at the Museum) and directed by Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting). It was not at all as annoying as I expected it to be. Williams plays Daniel, a voice-over artist who is as hyper and as entertaining as, well, Robin Williams. As one might expect, this much energy could take a toll on a marriage, and we aren’t too deep into the movie when Daniel’s wife Miranda (Sally Field, Lincoln) gives him the boot. But he can’t bear to be separated from their three kids, and when Miranda advertises for an after-school nanny for the kiddos, Daniel gets his make-up artist brother to create the perfect disguise—a matronly British woman who applies for and gets the job. The hijinks that follow are reasonably entertaining and occasionally exhausting. A very young-looking Pierce Brosnan (Mamma Mia!) shows up as the new fella in Miranda’s life. I’m not sure why Columbus felt obliged to include a bunch of tacky sexual references in the movie, thereby tipping it over into PG-13 territory and really making it less enjoyable all the way around.
The two kids who played Robin Williams’s daughters have retired from acting and have blogs now, if you’re curious:
St. Vincent (A-). Okay, the grade may be slightly inflated, but what can I say? I fell for this sappy little movie about a cranky old boozehound and the little boy who moves in next door and gets taken under his wing. Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) plays Vincent, a cranky old boozehound with a Russian stripper girlfriend (Naomi Watts, The Impossible) and a serious debt problem. Melissa McCarthy (The Heat) plays the woman who moves in next door to Vincent. She’s going through a tough divorce and works long hours, so she gets Vincent to watch her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, in his first movie) after school. It’s Murray’s movie, but young Lieberher also turns in a great performance that really makes the movie work. Chris O’Dowd (Calvary) has some good one-liners as a Catholic priest and teacher at Oliver’s school. I described this movie to The Borg Queen, and she said, “It sounds like About a Boy.” And you know, there is some similarity there, although I don’t think I’ve ever cried watching About a Boy. Anyway, I’ll be curious to see if Murray gets an Oscar nom for this one.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (B). My mom is visiting me, and I had saved this movie up for her visit because it looked like one of the few squeaky-clean movies available these days. Happily, it was just as squeaky-clean as the trailers had led me to believe it would be. The Kadam family runs a restaurant in India until political violence destroys their business and causes the death of the family’s matriarch. Papa Kadam (Om Puri, Charlie Wilson’s War) moves his family to Europe, and they wind up in a little French town where they open an Indian restaurant right across the street from a fancy French restaurant run by the haughty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren, The Queen). One of the Kadams, Hasan (Manish Dayal, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), is a cook with great natural talent and deeply soulful eyes, and Madame Mallory’s cute sous-chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, Mood Indigo) encourages him out by giving him some French cookbooks. It’s a little sappy, and it loses some steam in the rushed third act, but I can’t deny I enjoyed it.
The Trip to Italy (C+). Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) play a couple of Brits who get the plum assignment of spending a week in Italy, driving through the countryside, staying in great hotels, and eating at great restaurants, all for the purpose of writing some review articles for a magazine back home. Amusingly, they play versions of themselves, so there’s a lot of talk about the movie biz and a little submerged rivalry that emerges as Brydon learns he is up for a part in a major American movie. The friends debate the merits of Alanis Morissette, occasionally muse about their own mortality, and do tons of celebrity impressions. It’s not a particularly weighty film, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours. It’s a sequel to The Trip (2010), in which the guys apparently did the same thing in the north of England.
Chef (C+). This movie has been playing in Dallas theaters since the beginning of the summer, so I thought I’d better see what could justify such a lengthy run. It was pleasant enough, but nothing to write home about. Jon Favreau (Couples Retreat) writes, directs, and stars as Carl Casper, a well-known Los Angeles chef in a swanky restaurant. A Twitter feud with a snarky food critic gets Casper fired, and he decides to reconnect with his love for cooking—and with his 10-year-old son, whom he hasn’t had much time for since a divorce—by starting up a food truck. It’s a perfectly decent movie, but it felt a little slight for the big screen. And occasional brief appearances by big stars—Robert Downey, Jr.! Dustin Hoffman! A tatted-up Scarlett Johansson!—are more distracting than anything else.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (B). I hardly know what grade to give the latest movie from writer-director Wes Anderson. He is known (to me, anyway), as director of whimsical movies, some of which I have liked (Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and some of which I haven’t (The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket). The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very watchable film, with a madcap story that barely pauses to let you catch your breath. Although the movie is imaginative and occasionally amusing, it is so suffused with nostalgia and deeply felt loss that I left feeling pretty sad. The cast is a who’s who of working actors, but Ralph Fiennes (Wrath of the Titans) is the star and really steals the show. He plays M. Gustave, a concierge at a fabulous resort hotel somewhere in eastern Europe just before World War II. He takes a young refugee (from the Middle East, I think?) under his wing as the hotel’s new lobby boy, and the two have quite a series of adventures. Among the many familiar faces who turn up are the lovely Saoirse Ronan (The Host), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Jeff Goldblum (Nashville), Jude Law (Side Effects), and Edward Norton (Fight Club). If you like Wes Anderson, I think you will almost certainly like this movie. But don’t go expecting a straight comedy.
Nebraska (B+). It’s time to cram in some end-of-the-year Oscar contenders, and I started with the latest film by director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt). It’s the story of a middle-aged man named David Grant (Will Forte, MacGruber) who tries to connect with, or at least do right by, his aging, alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern, The ‘Burbs). Woody has gotten convinced that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, and since he can’t drive anymore he keeps trying to walk from his home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to collect his prize. David, who’s at sort of a dead-end in life himself, decides to drive Woody to Lincoln to dispel his father’s delusion once and for all. The heart of the movie, though, is the extended detour they make to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the little town where Woody grew up and where his surviving siblings live. There are some very touching scenes, as well as some very funny ones–the latter usually involving Woody’s scold of a wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), who has almost nothing good to say about anyone. Most critics seem to like the film, although I think some find Payne’s treatment of these taciturn Midwesterners a bit condescending. Maybe it is, a little, but it wasn’t off-putting enough to make me dislike the movie. I thought Forte, Dern, and Squibb were all great; it may have helped that I have never seen Forte on Saturday Night Live, which he is apparently best known for, so I had no trouble accepting him as the straight man at the center of the piece. Check it out.
Enough Said (B-). I was lured into this movie by the favorable reviews (a score of 79 on Metacritic, 95% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and it was decent enough. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (TV’s Seinfeld) stars as Eva, a divorced masseuse of a certain age who is fretting over her daughter Ellen’s imminent departure for college. I was not a big Seinfeld fan, but I get the impression that Louis-Dreyfus specializes in playing characters who make bad and self-sabotaging choices. That’s certainly the case here. Eva starts dating a nice-enough fellow named Albert (James Gandolfini, Zero Dark Thirty), and she simultaneously picks up a new client named Marianne (Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin). She quickly figures out that Albert and Marianne used to be married, but [bad decision #1] she decides not to tell either Albert or Marianne about this connection so she can get information about Albert from Marianne. Meanwhile [bad decision #2], she latches onto her daughter’s needy best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson, a dead ringer for a young Michelle Williams) as a surrogate daughter before her real daughter is even out the door. Given the set-up, the outcome is a little over-determined. Billed as a comedy, Enough Said really doesn’t generate many laughs. But as a character study, it is not bad.
Drinking Buddies (B). The Dallas Morning News gave this independent dramedy a good review, but I almost let it slip through my fingers—I had to skip out of work a little early a few days ago to catch it before it disappeared from the theaters. I found it a worthy effort. It’s basically about a couple of co-workers who dance interminably around the edge of romance. Kate (Olivia Wilde, Cowboys & Aliens) and Luke (Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) work together at a small brewery, and they have an easy camaraderie about them. But they are both in serious relationships, she with Chris (Ron Livingston, Office Space), and he with Jill (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect). Then the two couples go off to a cabin for a weekend getaway together, and you start to wonder if things might—or should—get rearranged a bit. Olivia Wilde gets to play a real person for a change, and she’s pretty good. The dialogue seems pretty realistic, and the characters (except for Chris, who’s kind of a dud) are pretty likable. Check it out on Netflix or Pay Per View or wherever technologically savvy people get their movies these days.
In a World . . . (B). Remember that lackluster Meryl Streep movie called It’s Complicated? It featured a slinky gal who played Alec Baldwin’s trophy wife or girlfriend or something? Well, that actress is named Lake Bell, and she wrote, produced, and stars in this interesting little independent dramedy. Bell plays Carol, who is around 30 but still lives with her dad—until he kicks her out to make room for his new and much-younger girlfriend. Dad is a big fish in a small pond, that pond being Hollywood’s voiceover industry. Carol is following in her father’s footsteps but without terrific success; mainly she works with actresses as a voice coach. But then she lands a real gig doing a voiceover for a movie preview, and her career starts to take off. It’s a pretty amusing little movie, but there’s serious stuff in it too, like some marital difficulties being faced by Carol’s sister and her husband, and dad’s inability to be proud of rather than competitive with Carol. Worth a look.
Blue Jasmine (B+). Cate Blanchett (Hanna) shines in the title role of Woody Allen’s latest film. Jasmine is a New York socialite whose world has been turned upside down. Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin, The Cooler) was a high-flying finance guy, but it turned out he was a crook and a philanderer, so now Jasmine is broke, husbandless, and heavily dependent on alcohol and prescription meds to stave off a complete breakdown. So she flees to the blue-collar home of her blue-collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky) in San Francisco. To say that she clashes with Ginger and Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale, The Station Agent) would be an understatement. I haven’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire in a long time, but this movie seems very similar to that one. Nevertheless, I thought this was a good movie.
Prince Avalanche (B-). Blink and you’ll miss this little indie flick, which I believe is showing in a single theater in the Dallas area. It’s an amiable little movie starring Paul Rudd (This Is 40), who must be one of the hardest working actors in show biz, and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), who looks a lot like a young Jack Black (High Fidelity). The year is 1988. Alvin and Lance, played by Rudd and Hirsch, are out in the middle of nowhere in central Texas, painting center stripes on some lost highway. At night, they camp by the side of road. Alvin catches fish and squirrels for dinner and pines for his girlfriend, who is Lance’s sister. Lance talks about going to town on the weekends and “partying” with girls. They bond. They fight. They rarely see another soul. It’s only 94 minutes long, so it doesn’t really wear out its welcome. I kinda liked it. Hard to believe it was directed by David Gordon Green (Your Highness).