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Five Fun Facts About Crossing Delancey

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I must confess I didn’t think much of Crossing Delancey when I saw it upon its initial release in 1988, but its vivid depiction of Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often come back to me as I’ve spent time in that neighborhood and watched it change in the three decades since I moved to the area. So I was curious to revisit it when I saw that Film Forum had scheduled a screening of the rom-com, followed by a Q&A with director Joan Micklin Silver and stars Amy Irving and Peter Riegert. I enjoyed the film much more on second viewing and was especially entertained by the discussion afterwards. Here are five things I learned from it.

The studio thought it was too Jewish. Silver had difficulty raising money to make the film. One potential producer offered to finance the picture only if all of the Jewish characters were changed to Italians, which was considered a more marketable demographic in light of the success of Moonstruck a year earlier. Then Irving’s husband, Steven Spielberg, put in a call to his friends at Warner Bros., who immediately agreed to back it. But even after the film was completed, the studio didn’t go wide with it, fearing it was “too ethnic” and wouldn’t play well in the South. Still, it earned a tidy profit, grossing $16 million—four times its budget.

It turned “Pickle Man” Peter Riegert into an unlikely sex symbol. The now-70-year-old Animal House alum recounted with glee how many women approached him after his charmingly low-key performance as a pickle purveyor. One woman accosted him on the street in Manhattan and insisted on introducing him to her daughter, and another made him get on the phone with her boyfriend—a real life Pickle Man—and try to convince him to marry her. “So thank you, Joan, for that,” he deadpanned.

Amy Irving’s agent originally turned it down. When Silver initially sent the script to the actress’ representative, the agent told her that Irving, who had earned an Academy Award nomination a few years earlier for Yentl, didn’t do “little New York pictures.” So Silver ran an end-around and got the screenplay to Irving through a mutual friend, and she fell for it instantly. (No word on whether Irving fired her agent.)

Reizl Bozyk had only acted in one film before — and never in English! The Yiddish theatrical legend was nervous about making her English-speaking screen debut at the age of 74 as Irving’s lovably irascible Bubbe. (She had appeared briefly in 1950’s Catskills Honeymoon, which Film Forum programmer/moderator Bruce Goldstein said was “the worst Yiddish movie ever made”). But Riegert said as soon as he saw Bozyk, he knew she was going to steal every one of  her scenes. And she did.

Izzy and Sam the Pickle Man didn’t live happily ever after… or did they? Irving and Riegert confessed neither of them believes the odd couple was destined for lifelong bliss after the freeze frame that ends the film after Izzy finally agrees to go out on a date with Sam. (Silver said she’d never thought about it.) Riegert said he was too cynical to expect a happy ending, while Irving said she pictured the duo reconnecting years later via the Internet. Sounds like a good plotline for Crossing Delancey 2!

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Five Reasons Why “mother!” Sucks

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And just when I thought I couldn’t be more disappointed in a movie than I was in Baby Driver… along comes mother! Like another of this year’s biggest cinematic letdowns, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Darren Aronofsky’s latest fever dream punishes us for more than two hours by hitting the same note over… and over… and over… until we go insane. How did I hate mother!? Let me count the ways…

It makes no sense. I don’t mind a movie that’s open to interpretation, but this one falls into the category of “cryptic yet meaningless.” Here’s a quick plot summary: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple who receive an unexpected visit from some extremely strange strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer). Now repeat that and multiply ad nauseam. It’s basically a horror movie about annoying houseguests who won’t leave. Saturday Night Live did it better with John Belushi, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray — in a minute and 15 seconds.

The cast is utterly wasted. Speaking of Saturday Night Live, one of its most gifted alums shows up late in the film — I won’t spoil who it is, though I don’t think you can spoil such a rotten movie — which makes mother! seem even more like a sick (and unfunny) joke. The four main characters have one personality trait apiece, and they’re given no backstories that might help us care about them. So we don’t.

Darren Aronofsky is one creepy mother! Not since David Lynch sexually tortured his real-life girlfriend Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet has a filmmaker so reveled in the degradation of his alleged off-screen love. J-Law is stripped nude by a vicious mob, beaten, brutalized and burned. Aronofsky’s ex Rachel Weisz seriously dodged a bullet (and upgraded by marrying Daniel Craig).

The movie isn’t disturbing, just disorienting. There’s a difference, Darren. Go back and re-watch your masterpiece, Requiem for a Dream, to remind yourself what it’s like to create a truly powerful psycho-drama. This is like Black Swan Lite — and Black Swan was pretty light to begin with, if you ask me. Keeping a camera tight on J-Law as she stumbles through a creepy old house is the definition of cheap thrills.

It leaves us wanting less. The ending is an embarrassing cop-out — it’s like something from a freshman English major’s really long short story. We’re left with unanswered questions about what it all means. Is this suffering a metaphor for fame? Parenthood? Religion? Who cares? Perhaps picking up on a line J-Law offhandedly delivers about the apocalypse, the closing credits feature Skeeter Davis singing, “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?” If only we were so lucky.

 

It, AHS and the Creepy-Clown Trump Era

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With his cotton-candy coif, circus-peanut complexion and general buffoonishness, Donald Trump has often been compared to a clown. So maybe it’s no coincidence that less than a year into his laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-terrifying presidency, the Bozo-in-Chief has inspired a pair of scary-clown shockers: the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It and FX’s American Horror Story: Cult. The question is: Is either more frightening than the real-life nightmare we’re experiencing as a nation?

The answer is: Yes, It is. In fact, It‘s so good, It‘s scary. (OK, I’ll cut It out with the It puns. Maybe.) Now before you start cyber-bullying me like that Twit in the White House, I know It was originally written by Stephen King in 1986, long before the idea of a Trump administration was anything more than a sick fantasy in his own head. Perhaps it was meant as a metaphor for the Bonzo-in-Chief who was occupying the Oval Office at the time. But you can’t deny the current cultural resonance of a story about an evil force who was once a joke — in It‘s case, Pennywise the Clown, brilliantly embodied by Bill Skarsgard — and now seeks to tear a community apart by striking terror into the hearts of its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Now I have no idea if director Andy Muschietti or screenwriters Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman intended for It to play out as a metaphor for our contemporary predicament. The film is set in the late ’80s, when a gaggle of teenage outcasts (including a stutterer, an obese new-kid-in-town, a home-schooled African-American and a girl with a bad reputation) bands together to fight back against Pennywise. This joker quite literally feeds on the fears of children, and these self-proclaimed “Losers” (one of Trump’s favorite putdowns) believe the only way to triumph over this bully is to stand up and unite against him. Sound familiar?

If It‘s Trump connections remain buried deep in its subtext, American Horror Story: Cult hits you over the head with the parallels. Ryan Murphy repertory-company player Sarah Paulson stars as a lesbian with a deep-seated phobia of clowns, which is only one of the reasons she freaks out after the election of Ronald McDonald — er, the Donald. As her fears are stoked by various aggressive Trumpers, including a MAGA-cap-wearing supermarket cashier (Chaz Bono), a gay anti-Obama survivalist (Billy Eichner) and a blue-haired psycho racist (Evan Peters), she and her son start to be haunted by visions of evil clowns. Does Cult make American Horror Story great again? Not quite, although it is a refreshingly realistic and timely incarnation of a franchise that has grown increasingly grotesque and absurd with each season.

Why clowns have become the monster du jour (there have been sightings reported around the country) might have more to do with the marketing tricks of Warner Bros. and FX than any political commentary, intentional or not. It and AHS don’t exactly offer escapism from the nightly horror show of Fox News — like FX, an arm of Rupert Murdoch’s octopus-like media empire. But at least they can provide a kind of catharsis. Watching seemingly marginalized characters resist nefarious tyrants who seek to divide and conquer could prove inspirational and ensure that the real-life Scary Clowns around the world don’t get the last laugh.

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Will a Guy and a Gal Go Wild for “Home Again”?

 

19956726_358434657908975_7567105337389479228_oI’ve never seen a Reese Witherspoon rom-com—and yes, that includes both Legally Blondes—so I enlisted Mara Reinstein of the cool website Maramovies.com to help me review her latest, the couldn’t-be-more-generically-titled Home Again.

BRUCE: Mara, I take it you’re an expert on Reese’s rom-com oeuvre?

MARA: Yes, I’ve seen Legally Blonde maybe 200 times.

BRUCE: Great, then maybe you can help me put this in perspective. I went into Home Again with the expectation that it would be about as much fun as dental torture, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. But how would you rank it among Reese’s other rom-coms?

MARA: She’s so effervescent in the genre that she can get away with carrying a so-so flick, which is what she does here. Reese is so appealing and youthful and always has a kind of Tracy Flick-ness to her.

BRUCE: Yes, she seems like she’s playing the same character she did in Election. And on Big Little Lies, for that matter. She’s always this anal, uptight perfectionist. She tried to get away from it in Wild, but I didn’t think she was successful. She just seemed like a dirty Reese Witherspoon to me.

MARA: Wow, I thought she was great in Wild. Sidebar: She was supposed to be in Gone Girl, and I think she would’ve been fantastic, based on the fact that the character is so duplicitous, and I feel like Reese could totally get away with that.

BRUCE: She certainly would’ve been better than Rosamund Pike, who was a total stiff. I can’t believe she got an Oscar nomination.

MARA: That was the worst casting in a major movie in recent memory. Let’s not go there— it was so disappointing.

BRUCE: It did lead to my favorite verbal faux pas by an Oscar pre-show commentator ever, though. Some idiot on E! said, “Rosamund Pike just gave birth to a baby six weeks ago, and she is KILLING IT on the red carpet!” I wasn’t looking at the screen and I heard that and expected to see her covered in blood. But I digress. I enjoyed Home Again not because of Reese but in spite of her. I liked some of the other actors better, like Candice Bergen as her mom. She comes in and kills it—no pun intended—in a few scenes, but I could’ve used more Candy.

MARA: I thought she was fine, but I thought anyone could’ve played that role. It’s that woman-of-a-certain-age type of role. Frankly, I thought it was a little irresponsible that she encourages her newly separated daughter to let these three shmoes move into her guest house. If you’re Reese Witherspoon and you hook up with a millennial stranger on your 40th birthday and you take him and his two pals back to your house and he throws up, you wake up and say, “OK, nice meeting you. Let’s be Facebook Friends.” You don’t have them move in and help take care of your kids. Why would you add that kind of drama to your life when you’re already going through so many changes? I didn’t buy it.

BRUCE: Having been through a divorce on the cusp of my 40th birthday and having immediately jumped into a completely insane relationship, it rang true for me.

MARA: You would’ve had three strangers move in?

BRUCE: No, you’re right, three is too much. It’s two too much. But I did like one of the three actors—Jon Rudnitsky. He got kicked off SNL after only one season, and he barely ever showed up in sketches. I’m glad he got a good role. He was charming and funny. It was like when Greg Kinnear did As Good As It Gets and people were like, “Oh, I didn’t know he could act!”

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MARA: I didn’t realize it was him until I Googled him. He was the best of the three. But I don’t think that’s saying much. I wasn’t sure what Nat Wolff was doing in that movie. And the guy who plays the love interest, Pico Alexander…

BRUCE: I hated him. I read an interview with Hallie Meyers-Shyer, the writer-director, and she said she was looking for a young Jack Nicholson—probably because the movie feels like a remake of her mom/producer Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, with Diane Keaton and Jack. Suffice it to say Pico ain’t no Jack.

MARA: I also didn’t like Michael Sheen as Reese’s estranged husband. I thought they had no chemistry. I can see why they split up, but not why they would’ve ever been together in the first place.

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BRUCE: You have to see the prequel, Not Yet Home Again. It’s kind of weird because Sheen’s character is a lot like Reese’s character’s late father, this famous filmmaker we see in flashbacks. Hallie’s dad is also a famous filmmaker, Charles Shyer, who made movies like Father of the Bride and Baby Boom with her mom. Home Again is such a Meyers-Shyer production, literally and figuratively, that it’s a little spooky.

MARA: I can’t fault Hallie for that. It’s her first movie. It’s the cliché, “Write what you know.” I’m sure that’s the life she knows. I don’t expect her to write Moonlight.

BRUCE: She’s apparently never met anyone who isn’t white. Except for one small role of an interior decorator, who’s Asian, it’s pretty much all-white.

MARA: I didn’t want to go there. I’m glad you did, so I didn’t have to.

BRUCE: The interior decorator works for a socialite played by Lake Bell, who’s out of place in this movie. Although she’s better in this than in the new movie she wrote and directed, I Do… Until I Don’t, which is just godawful, especially after she made such a promising debut with In a World. Now I want Lake to go jump in a lake.

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MARA: Poor Lake. Poor Lake’s name.

BRUCE: But overall, I thought Home Again went down easily. It was nice and bright and shiny. I chuckled a couple of times, which is saying something for me. I didn’t hate it. I was shockingly not angry walking out of the film.

MARA: I come at it from a different perspective, as someone who loves romantic comedies, and I don’t see enough of them. I’m not even going to say it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s just a pleasure for me. But this one going in, I wanted something light and breezy and charming, and it was disappointing. It was just OK. I guess I have a high standard for rom-coms with the name Meyers attached to them. I want better than nice, Bruce! I’m a slave-driver when it comes to rom-coms. I just didn’t understand what Reese’s character was doing.

BRUCE: If she made good choices, it wouldn’t be an interesting story. She didn’t make good choices in Wild. She was sleeping with strangers and taking drugs.

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MARA: But the guys in that movie didn’t help her make good decisions. The whole premise of Cheryl Strayed in Wild was she made bad decisions, but she herself hiked that Pacific Crest Trail and came out a different person the other side. In this movie, Reese goes through problems and she has three twentysomething guys solve her problems for her. I didn’t think it was particularly pro-“You go, girl!”

BRUCE: So it’s not every woman’s fantasy to have three millennial guys move in with her? Reese’s female friends in the movie joke about how great it must be to have one guy for sex, one for full-time tech support and one for free babysitting. That didn’t resonate with you as aspirational?

MARA: I guess it is, in a sense, but I wish one of them had been like, “Listen, girlfriend, you got the new house, you got your family, you’ve got your mom, your kids are going to be fine, you’re going to be fine. Don’t be so frazzled.”

BRUCE: But then the movie would’ve ended. It would’ve been a short film.

MARA: They could’ve saved it for the last scene. I guess I came in with high expectations for this movie, and you came in low.

BRUCE: And we met in the middle. Because I would give it two-and-a-half stars, and you gave it two. But you were expecting a potential four-star movie and I was expecting a potential one-star movie.

MARA: See, we’re not that far apart!

BRUCE: Well, I feel like we found common ground here, which is the important thing. We’ve bridged the gender divide, so congratulations on that.

MARA: Thank you. We’ve done a lot for man and womankind.

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Mara Reinstein of MaraMovies.com

And Then There’s Maudie…

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I didn’t want to see Maudie, but I had time to kill, and it was the only movie playing at my local theater I hadn’t seen that didn’t feature animated emojis. It sounded dreary on paper: the true story of a Nova Scotian painter stricken with arthritis who goes to work as a maid for a cranky fish peddler in the 1930s and becomes his wife — and a famed folk artist. But Maudie doesn’t live on paper: It lives on film, and it’s one of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve had in a very long time.

Sally Hawkins — an actress who’s never particularly impressed me before, despite her Oscar nominations for Happy Go Lucky and Blue Jasmine — plays the title role. The beauty of her work, and of the script by Canadian TV vet Sherry White (Orphan Black, Rookie Blue), is that it doesn’t focus on Maud Lewis’ disability. Though Hawkins delivers a remarkably convincing physical turn, she and White treat Maudie’s arthritis as a simple fact that she doesn’t let prevent her from making the most of her life. More important, they capture the emotional richness of the character’s existence.

Ethan Hawke, who’s matured into a great actor in recent films like Boyhood and The Phenom, matches Hawkins perfectly as Everett Lewis, the misanthropic recluse who starts to melt when he sees the world through Maudie’s eyes. He brings a sly, quietly funny take to a role that could have been deeply off-putting.

Director Aisling Walsh — like White, a female alum of quality small-screen offerings (Wallander, An Inspector Calls)documents the breathtaking natural landscape of Nova Scotia with an offhanded ease. She also demonstrates an affinity for outsiders and a perceptiveness for telling human details reminiscent of Robert Altman in his McCabe and Mrs. Miller/Thieves Like Us period-drama mode.

Here’s the highest praise I can give Maudie: It’s a movie my mother would’ve loved. She passed away five years ago, but I kept thinking about her during the film, and not just because her mother’s name was Maude. My mom loved art, and artists, and underdogs, and Maudie is a valentine to all three. Last night, after I saw the film, I dreamed I saw my mom and told her about it. (She told me she knew about Maud and liked her, but she liked Grandma Moses better.) That’s how instantly this movie entered my subconscious — and my heart.

Like Harold and Maude, Maudie stands as one of the most unexpectedly affecting love stories I’ve ever seen. And there ain’t no emoji for that.

Why Atomic Blonde Kicks Baby Driver’s Ass

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My recent takedown of Baby Driver seems to have hit a nerve, and I’m more convinced than ever that I was right after seeing Atomic Blonde, which is the movie that writer-director Edgar Wright’s twee critics’ darling wishes it could be. To wit:

Charlize Theron > Ansel Elgort. The Oscar-winning actress has been kicking ass since Baby Driver‘s star was literally a baby. More than 20 years after her breakout role as a mobster’s moll in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley (in which she beat up Teri Hatcher), Theron just keeps getting fiercer. This time, she plays a spy who will stop at nothing to retrieve a list of Soviet spies on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s fall. She brings a world-weary gravitas to the role as well as superior screen-fighting skills. As for Elgort, I’m told he’s adorable. Sorry, I don’t see it.

The music stays in tune with the story. Much has been made about Baby Driver‘s soundtrack, which preceded Wright’s screenplay, and how it’s synchronized with some of the film’s scenes. But it struck me as a random assemblage of pop tunes,  like Wright just put his iPod on shuffle: Beck, T. Rex, David McCallum, Martha and the Vandellas, Blur, Barry White, Queen. Atomic Blonde‘s New Wave-themed soundtrack, on the other hand, syncs up perfectly with the film’s 1989 setting and comments on the film’s story at the same time: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away),” Falco’s “Der Kommisar,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” And if you don’t get a kick out of the scene in which a Russian thug stomps on a boombox playing Nena’s eternally annoying “99 Luftballons,” there’s something wrong with you. (Plus, why does Baby Driver wait until the closing credits to play the Simon & Garfunkel song that inspired its title?)

The action never stops. Baby Driver comes to a screeching halt whenever Elgort’s Baby starts making goo-goo eyes with a miscast Lily James as an Atlanta waitress. But Atomic Blonde reaches nuclear-level intensity when Theron’s secret agent goes undercover with The Mummy‘s Sofia Boutella as a French femme fatale.

The supporting actors provides real support. Baby Driver‘s ensemble either hams it up (Jon Hamm) or coasts on their previous personae (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx). Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, allows its cast to show new sides of their talent, whether it’s a slimmed-down John Goodman as a cagey CIA agent or the often-underrated James McAvoy as MI6’s dissolute Berlin station chief. And there may be no actor better-suited to espionage dramas than Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Secret Agent), who looks like the live-action embodiment of the latter, constantly-trying-to-take-over-the-world half of Pinky and the Brain.

The director puts you in the driver’s seat. A former stunt double for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Atomic Blonde helmer David Leitch (in his directorial debut, although he did uncredited work on John Wick) puts you in the middle of the action. Most notably, there’s a car-chase scene that leaves Baby Driver‘s wannabe-Bullitt sequences in the dust. The only action film that gives Atomic Blonde a real run for its money in the smash-’em-up department is The Villainess, the South Korean sensation also directed by a former stunt man, Byung-gil Jung, and hitting U.S. theaters on August 28.

Maybe after he’s done directing Deadpool 2, Leitch can team up with Jung for a crossover sequel: Atomic Blonde vs. The Villainess. Now that would really kick ass.

5 Ways Strange Brew Predicted the Future

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Take off, you hosers! I recently caught a screening of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’ 1983 cult classic Strange Brew as part of Quad Cinemas’ “Cool Movies” series in NYC, and I was surprised how well its surrealist humor held up — and how eerily prescient it was. Let me count the ways it predicted the pop-cultural future.

1. Bob and Doug McKenzie begat Wayne and Garth. Spun off from a late-night sketch show into a movie, the perpetual adolescents played by Moranis and Thomas lived in their parents’ house and co-hosted a public-access-style TV show (“The Great White North”). Plus, they did movie reviews — in this case, of their own film, over the closing credits. And like the latter-day kings of “Schwing!” Bob and Doug spoke in catchphrases, most notably “Take off, you hoser!” Beauty, eh

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2. The comedic force was with them. Four years before he donned comically oversized Darth Vader headgear as “Dark Helmet” in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, Moranis dressed in Imperial Stormtrooper gear for an absurdist hockey game against a team sporting the black gear made famous by Luke Skywalker’s dad. To paraphrase Yogurt—er, Yoda— “A coincidence I think this is not.”

3. The McKenzie boys went Gaga. Three decades prior to Lady Gaga’ wore her infamous “meat dress” to the 2010 Grammys, Moranis and Thomas donned gigantic raw steak costumes in a fantasy sequence depicting how they looked to their starving dog, Hosehead. Those little monsters!

4. Beat the Press! After they’re arrested for allegedly kidnapping a brewery heiress, Bob and Doug get bailed out by their thuggish lawyer. He confronts a bunch of nosy reporters and proceeds to karate-chop and body-slam them. “That’s how you handle the press!” he tells them. GOP Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte couldn’t have said it better — and done it worse — himself.

5. They were Canadian before Canadian was cool. Back when no one noticed our mild-mannered Neighbor to the North, the McKenzies made no secret of their national pride — Bob even wears a maple-leaf flag on his ski cap. Now that Justin Trudeau has trumped our Prez, everyone wants to take off for the Great White North.

Oh, Canada!