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This Summer’s Real Wonder Women

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Women are doing amazing things at the movies — and I’m not just talking about director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which shattered the $100 million opening-weekend glass ceiling. I’m thinking of female filmmakers like The Zookeeper’s Wife‘s Niki Caro and Band Aid‘s Zoe-Lister Jones, who have worked with primarily distaff crews, and especially Sofia Coppola, who became only the second woman in history to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival with her feminist remake of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled.

The 1971 original, directed by one of Clint’s most macho collaborators, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz), adapted Thomas Cullinan’s novel about an injured Union deserter during the Civil War who takes refuge at an all-girls’ school behind Confederate lines and drives the women there mad with desire. It plays like a Gothic horror film, seen from Corporal John McBurney’s perspective, as the cruel headmistress (Geraldine Page) amputates his wounded leg after he’s caught in bed with one of the girls (Jo Ann Harris) and pushed down the stairs by a virginal teacher (Elizabeth Hartman) who’s desperately in love with him.

Coppola’s version tells the story from the women’s points of view, and the characters are much subtler. Nicole Kidman underplays the headmistress role — she’s far from the castrating psycho embodied by Page. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, each of whom has collaborated with Coppola before on films like The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere, refuse to conform to Madonna and whore archetypes. And Colin Farrell brings a more feral hostility to the wounded soldier than cool Clint could muster.

The Beguiled 2.0 runs 12 minutes shorter than its predecessor, as Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) chooses not to depict the amputation on-screen and also excises an incestuous subplot involving the schoolmarm, thus rendering Kidman’s character more sympathetic. Her images, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, are immaculately composed, and she demonstrates a masterful control of the film’s tone. A second Oscar nomination for Best Director (after 2003’s Lost in Translation) seems likely for Coppola, and she could earn repeat nods for Best Picture and Best Screenplay as well. She delivers on the promise of the film’s title: She beguiles us.

Greenwich ’17: Darkness and Light

Here’s how you know I’m a born movie critic. I spent yesterday — a gorgeous Saturday in June — in bucolic Greenwich, Connecticut… sitting in a darkened theater watching three movies with equally dark themes: rape, cancer and homophobic self-loathing. Yet The Light of the Moon, The Hero and Beach Rats all left me with a sense of hope, if not for the characters, then for the talented actors and auteurs whose work was exhibited at the 3rd Annual Greenwich International Film Festival.

Stephanie Beatriz delivers a revelatory performance as a Bushwick, Brooklyn architect whose world begins to crumble after she’s raped by a stranger in The Light of the Moon. This role represents a night-and-day contrast with her regular gig as bad-ass cop Rosa Diaz on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine Nine, and Beatriz displays a dazzling versatility. She brilliantly plays every shade of her character’s complicated reaction to the assault, especially how it affects her relationship with her well-meaning but retroactively overattentive boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David).

Writer-director Jessica M. Thompson utilizes her skills as a documentarian to construct an unsentimental, realistic depiction of how this violent incident reverberates in every corner of the victim’s world—her work, her friendships, her family. After the film, Thompson and Beatriz participated in an enlightening Q&A in which the star shared her fear of taking on this project, not because of its themes but because it was the first time she had the chance to prove she could play the lead in a movie and she wasn’t sure she could do it. Beatriz has no need to worry: Her future as a cinematic protagonist is bright.

Sam Elliott is nearing the other end of his career, as is his character in The Hero, Lee Hayden, a Western-movie icon confronting his own mortality after receiving a grim pancreatic-cancer diagnosis. Writer-director Brett Haley, who’d previously worked with Elliott on another late-in-life drama, I’ll See You in My Dreams, tailored this part to his leading man, and it fits him like a well-worn pair of cowboy boots.

Lee tries to make piece with his ex-wife (Katharine Ross, Elliott’s too-rarely-seen real-life spouse) and his estranged daughter (an underused Krysten Ritter), while engaging in an unlikely romance with a much younger stand-up comic (Laura Prepon, whose natural deadpan serves her well here). The film’s best scenes, however, are between Elliott and Nick Offerman, as his onetime costar-turned-drug dealer. The story moseys along, and whenever Elliott is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. That’s the measure of a true movie hero.

The real star of Beach Rats isn’t Harris Dickinson, the little-known actor cast as Frankie, a gay Brooklyn teen who can’t express his true sexuality in front of his hoodlum friends, his overwhelmed mother (Kate Hodge) or the confused young woman (Madeline Weinstein) he unsuccessfully tries to turn into his girlfriend. It’s writer-director Eliza Hittman, who builds on the promise of her 2013 feature debut, It Felt Like Love, which dealt with a young girl’s sexual awakening in a similar hood.

Hittman’s distinctive visual and aural style marks her as a genuine voice to whom attention must be paid. She could become the Scorsese of Coney Island. Her streets are still mean, even if they are on a boardwalk.

Sad Men: Churchill, Wakefield, Norman & Dean

I’ve seen some great acting lately, but nothing eclipses Brian Cox’s tour de force in Churchill. So why is the biopic sitting at 37% on Rotten Tomatoes? And why is Bryan Cranston’s empty all-but-one-man show Wakefield overrated at 76% Fresh? I wish I knew the answer. I’m thinking rather than “certifying” movies as Fresh, most of the critics who are aggregated on that site should be just plain certified.

Churchill depicts a tiny slice of a great man’s life: It takes place over the final hours before D-Day, as the gruff, cigar-puffing Prime Minister opposes the operation due to his traumatic memories of World War I bloodshed. Cox brilliantly constructs a two-tiered performance: the public Churchill is all stiff upper lip, but the private Winston is tortured by doubt, depression and self-medicating drunkenness. He’s matched by the formidable Miranda Richardson as Churchill’s stalwart wife, Clementine. John Slattery  initially seems miscast as Dwight D. Eisenhower — he’s like Roger Sterling in a general’s uniform — but it turns out there’s a method to director Jonathan Teplitzky’s madness, and I ended up liking Ike.

And loving Churchill. The script, by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, often lapses into Shakespearean soliloquies, but who better to deliver them than that great Scot Cox. His work is even more remarkable when you consider he based the character on Family Guy‘s Stewie, as Cox told me at a recent SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&A.

Bryan Cranston tackles an equally difficult challenge in Wakefield, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story that should’ve remained one. He plays a suburban husband and father who abandons his family and hides out in the garage spying on them and enacting what he imagines are their conversations about him. Cranston’s hair and beard grow as he begins to look increasingly homeless, but the character and the story don’t progress.  The rest of the cast, including Jennifer Garner as his wife and Beverly D’Angelo as her mother, are rendered almost entirely silent, and the ending is a total cop-out.

Meanwhile, forget the McConaisance — Matthew McConaughey has lost his way lately with lackluster duds like Gold — and say hello to the Richard Gerenaissance. Building on his acting triumphs in Time Out of Mind and The Dinner, Richard Gere gives the best and most unlikely performance of his career in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Cast way against type as a Jewish-American pisher who turns himself into a macher through sheer force of chutzpah, the onetime American Gigolo disappears into the role. He finds the pathos in a seemingly pathetic character and wrings all the humor out of writer-director Joseph Cedar’s rich, complex screenplay. There was always a character actor hiding beneath Gere’s good looks, and I’m glad he’s finally come out to play.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Dean. Stand-up/cartoonist Demetri Martin writes, directs and stars in this deeply funny and moving tale of two men dealing with the same loss in very different ways. Demetri’s Dean tries to fly away from the pain of his mother’s death, making an impromptu trip to L.A. and leaving behind his grieving father (Kevin Kline, never better), who’s determined to sell the family house and try to move on. With echoes of Annie Hall and The Graduate, Dean is ultimately a full expression of Martin’s psyche, from his primitively hilarious drawings (think Steven Wright crossed with The Far Side) to his mordantly off-kilter wit. Martin could be the next Woody Allen or Mike Nichols, a comic-turned-consummate cinematic storyteller.

So if you’re looking for a movie not based on a comic book this weekend, check out Churchill, Norman or Dean. They’re all, each in their own way, superheroes.

Are Dwayne Johnson & Co. Baywatch-able?

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True story: David Hasselhoff once threatened to kick my a–. It was 1993, and I was on Baywatch‘s L.A. set to write an Entertainment Weekly cover story. As he posed for the cover shoot with comely blond co-stars Pamela Anderson and Nicole Eggert, the Hoff suddenly started hassling me. He refused to take off his windbreaker, even though his female cohorts had stripped down to their trademark red bathing suits. I patiently tried to explain to him that since his was a show about lifeguards working on a beach, readers would expect to see him shirtless. “This better not be a T&A story!” he bellowed at me. “If it is, I’ll kick your a–!”

You see, Hasselhoff mistakenly believed people watched Baywatch for the character development and the story lines, not the well-developed chests and the bikini tanlines. “I love family entertainment—stuff that makes you cry,” he told me. “I’m from the Michael Landon school.” He showed me a clip of his character saving a child from drowning. “Now, that’s not T&A,” he told me. “That’s real.” (Actually, it was about as real as Pamela Anderson’s breasts, but that’s another story.)

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When I heard several years ago that Baywatch was being turned into an R-rated big-screen comedy, my hopes were high that it would deliver what fans really want: namely, T and A and not a lot of boring scenes of lifeguards rescuing people. My expectations were raised even further in 2011 when one of my favorite writers, Peter Tolan, revealed on my pal and future Landline co-star/director Matthew Aaron‘s podcast that he had just finished a script for the film, which was set to star SNL‘s reliably hilarious Bill Hader. Tolan seemed like the perfect scribe for this project: On his TV series with Denis Leary, The Job and Rescue Me, he had managed to blend raw, off-color humor with unsentimental depictions of life-and-death professions.

Cut to 2017, and Tolan isn’t among the six—count ’em!—writers credited for the Baywatch movie, nor is Hader anywhere to be seen on screen. Instead, the Artist Formerly Known as the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, stars alongside High School Musical grad Zac Efron, and the movie is a disappointing mish-mash of dirty (but not funny) gags and way too many boring scenes of lifeguards saving people.

The names haven’t been changed from the TV series: Johnson plays Mitch Buchannon, Hasselhoff’s old role, though the Hoff confusingly shows up as a mentor also named Mitch; Efron replaces David Charvet—who also couldn’t act—as brash Matt Brody; and the female triumverate of C.J. (Anderson), Summer (Nicole Eggert) and Stephanie (Alexandra Paul) have been made slightly more diverse with the casting of bland blond Kelly Rohrbach, underrated brunette Alexandra Daddario (who played Johnson’s daughter in San Andreas) and half-Ethiopian Ilfenesh Hadera.

I’d give the film points for broadening its cast with Quantico‘s Priyanka Chopra as the drug-dealing villain and The Get Down‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a lifeguard-hating cop, but it feels like a self-conscious attempt to market the movie, which was largely financed with Chinese money, to an international audience. Plus, their performances are weak, as is the work of great stand-up/terrible actor Hannibal Buress as a techie.

 

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Despite the R rating, there are no fully exposed Ts or As, except for the flabby ass of the untalented Jon Bass, who’s ridiculously cast as a lifeguard recruit, despite his potato-like physique. Even more absurdly, he ends up scoring with C.J. I’m guessing he’s supposed to fulfill the fantasies of geeks like me who pay to see this movie. Oh, but there is a D in the movie. Horrible director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) thinks the sight of a penis and testicles is inherently hilarious, so he sets one scene in a morgue where Efron’s Matt is tricked into examining a stiff’s taint. In one of many vaguely homophobic moments, Mitch takes pictures of Matt touching the corpse’s franks and beans, and we’re treated to a photo montage over the closing credits, as the film steals a bad idea from both The Hangover and Bad Santa 2.

Baywatch doesn’t know what it wants to be — an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style action flick or a Zach Galifianakis-esque comedy. To wit(lessness), Johnson beats up a bad guy in a little girl’s bedroom, then buries his head in a diaper pail and throws him into a pool, finishing off the scene with an awful pun: “Bathtime, shithead!”

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Just before the movie reaches the end of its punishingly long running time, Anderson shows up for a throwaway cameo — and she doesn’t even have any lines. Then we’re treated to the blooper reel, which packs more laughs in two minutes (especially from improv vet Rob Huebel as the crew’s testy boss) than the rest of this dud does in two hours. Like its jiggly heroines, this film seems to run in slow motion.

Postscript: I did write a T and A story, and the Hoff never kicked my ass. But maybe he’s gotten his revenge: Sitting through the Baywatch movie left me feeling brutalized.

 

Is Snatched as Good as Goldie?

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Lately, I’ve been complaining about the buffalo herd of critics on Rotten Tomatoes getting it wrong on movies like the underrated The Zookeeper’s Wife, Going in Style and The Dinner and the overrated The Lovers and Personal Shopper. Now they’ve done it again, giving Snatched a measly 37% fresh rating. Which may explain why there were only two other people in the suburban New Jersey theater where I caught a rainy-day matinee. Never mind the other reviews: This gave me more belly laughs than any Hollywood comedy since, well, Amy Schumer’s last one, Trainwreck.

True, she basically plays the same character again: a narcissistic hedonist who learns to be less selfish. But you know what? She’s still funny. And rather than a romantic comedy, this is a mom-daughter buddy movie, with Goldie Hawn taking her first big-screen role since 2002’s The Banger Sisters. She’s an overprotective homebody who reluctantly agrees to accompany her freshly dumped daughter on a vacation to an Ecuadorian resort. While she’s essentially playing the straight woman to Amy, Goldie’s an old pro when it comes to comedy, and she expertly sets up her co-stars physical and verbal gags after the duo get kidnapped for not entirely apparent reasons (one of the few weak spots in the script by Katie Dippold, who thankfully comes closer to her gut-busting work on The Heat than to her toothless reboot of Ghostbusters).

Schumer and Hawn generously share the comic spotlight with an estimable ensemble of scene snatchers. It’s a refreshingly diverse lot as well, with Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as the hilariously shallow rocker who breaks up with Schumer; former Late Night with Jimmy Fallon standout Bashir Salahuddin as a short-tempered State Dept. employee; Broad City‘s charming Arturo Castro as a doctor who treats Schumer for a tapeworm in the movie’s most uproarious set-piece; and Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack as platonic pals who use their special skills to stage a rescue mission. Plus, Ike Barinholtz and Chris Meloni score big yuks as Hawn’s annoying agoraphobic son and a less-than-intrepid jungle explorer, respectively.

So why didn’t more critics like Snatched? My hunch is it’s part of a pattern in which reviewers wildly praise whomever’s considered “new” and “hot” (as Schumer was when Trainwreck came out), then tear them down with the old “sophomore slump” critique. All the better to build them back up again with a predictable “comeback” piece. Expect to read that story come October when Schumer “gets serious” (another irresistible angle for pop-culture writers) in the PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service. In the meantime, see Snatched now and thank me later.

Montclair ’17: Smart Movies for Silly Season

If your idea of an edifying night at the cinema doesn’t involve Baby Groot, don’t despair. I just saw three yet-to-be-released movies at the Montclair Film Festival that provide food for thought as well as considerable entertainment value.

Perhaps you heard the deafening buzz about Patti Cake$ coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It wasn’t just the high altitude talking. Writer-director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature plays like a Dirty Jersey version of La La Land: the inspirational story of musical dreamers who are a lot less photogenic but no less appealing than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Danielle McDonald, an Aussie actress of immense charm (think Rebel Wilson with talent), delivers the breakout performance of the year so far as Patti Dombrowski — cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” by her blue-collar Garden State classmates. She dreams of escaping her bleak reality by dubbing herself “Killa P” (among other hip-hop monikers) and becoming a rap superstar.

She assembles an unlikely crew of collaborators, including her Indian-American pharmacist pal (Siddharth Dhananjay, another major comic discovery), an African-American death-metalhead (the charismatic Mamoudou Athie) and her terminally ill grandmother, played by an all-but-unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty, who could earn her first Oscar nomination in 37 years since her debut in Raging Bull for her heartfelt and hilarious work. She may find herself competing for best supporting actress against Bridget Everett, the NYC cabaret legend who contributes a powerhouse turn as Patti’s alternately cruel and caring mother, whose own dreams of pop stardom were crushed.

A hip-hop enthusiast and music-video veteran, Jasper worked for 10 years on Patti Cake$, two alone with McDonald, who had no music background, muchless rap skills, and it shows. Zoe Lister-Jones spent several years penning the songs for her first film as a writer-director-star, Band Aid, with less transcendent results. Still, there’s much to admire about the film, which Lister-Jones aptly likened to “a John Cassavetes comedy” as well as Woody Allen’s painfully revealing Husbands and Wives.

Lister-Jones currently co-stars on CBS’ sitcom Life in Pieces, and she’s populated her cast with various third or fourth leads from primetime shows: Happy Endings vet Adam Pally plays her husband, a frustrated artist who’s constantly bickering with his failed novelist-turned-Uber driver wife, and there are also appearances by New Girl‘s Hannah Simone, Grey’s Anatomy‘s Jesse Williams, and Lister-Jones’ Life partner Colin Hanks. The unhappy marrieds decide to turn their frequent arguments into songs and form a band with a creepy neighbor, a recovering sex addict delightfully played by Fred Armisen (who lives platonically with a couple of babes portrayed by Once Upon a Time‘s Jamie Chung and Kevin Can Wait‘s Erinn Hayes).

The tonal transitions between wacky scenes, many of them involving the intake of narcotics, and emotionally raw depictions of martial strife, can be jarring at times, and Pally seems incapable of cutting more than skin-deep, unlike the gifted Lister-Jones. The film’s biggest surprise is Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Susie Essman, who curbs her trademark hysterical screaming and delivers a monologue on the differences between men and women that’s breathtakingly insightful, even as she admits it’s a gross generalization. Commendably, Lister-Jones shot the film with an all-female crew, and her film offers sharp observations about the male and female psyche alike.

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The documentary Strong Island takes its title from a hip-hop nickname for Long Island, but music isn’t its focus. Rather, director Yance Ford’s profoundly personal film investigates why a white man who shot and killed Ford’s brother in 1992 wasn’t indicted by an all-white grand jury. More than just another entry in the burgeoning true-crime genre, Strong Island tackles issues of class and race without reaching any easy answers. As hypnotically paced and beautifully shot as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, this eye-opener announces the arrival of a formidable filmmaker.

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No wonder the movie won a Special Jury Award for Storytelling at Sundance and has been acquired by Netflix, which will distribute it theatrically as well as on its streaming service this fall. Cinephiles won’t have to wait as long for Band Aid (opening June 2) or Patti Cake$, which starts rolling out July 7. Forget Guardians of the Galaxy: These directors are guardians of a great legacy—truly independent filmmaking.

Jodie Foster & John Singleton on Demme

 

26OSCAR25YRS2-master675 Filmmaker Jonathan Demme died at 73 today. While his diverse resumé ranged from freewheeling comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob to such earnest dramas as Philadelphia and Beloved, he’s most widely remembered for 1991’s serial chiller The Silence of the Lambs, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Actress (Jodie Foster) and Screenplay (Ted Tally). Only two other films, It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, have swept the top 5 Oscar categories. To mark the 25th anniversary of Silence‘s feat, I interviewed Foster as well as one of Demme’s Best Director competitors, John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), for a New York Times story. Here are their memories:

JODIE FOSTER

The Silence of the Lambs has stood the test of time. It has as much entertainment value as it does heart. It’s really intelligent. It’s classic. It doesn’t date. It feels timeless. It had a strong female character who was complicated. I felt like it was a really rich film, so I’m very proud. I feel like all of us did our best work in the movie.”

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JOHN SINGLETON

“I knew Jonathan Demme was going to win Best Director. He came really close to producing Boyz. He was the first professional director I knew who said, “You have something here with this screenplay.” He was going to get it made at Orion Pictures. He flew me to New York, he had read the script, he wanted to produce it. He took me to lunch and gave me some directing tips and took me to a screening room and he was just about to show Silence to the studio for the first time.”

“We were friends. When we were both nominated, we celebrated. I used his advice for my first film. He would tell me things about thematics and what’s going on behind a scene. This was just over lunch, and the things Demme told me have resonated with me to this day.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Demme.