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What the Hell Happened to Al Pacino?

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Every time he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in… with a paycheck! That’s the only explanation why Al Pacino, one of the finest film actors of all time, has resorted to making direct-to-video potboilers like Hangman, premiering on VOD Nov. 24. Over the past decade, Pacino has been churning out forgettable “thrillers” like 88 Minutes, The Son of No One and Misconduct at an alarming rate. He’s not as shameless as Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or John Cusack, but none of those guys ever attained the esteem that Pacino achieved in his prime.

At least the 77-year-old star is acting his age in Hangman, which casts him as an ex-cop who comes out of retirement to pursue a serial killer playing a deadly version of the titular game in an unnamed Southern state. The locale gives Pacino an excuse to deploy a version of the corny drawl he adopted in his overrated, Oscar-winning turn in Scent of a Woman. Still, he acts circles around his main co-stars, the impossibly bland Karl Urban (just because he was in Lord of the Rings and Star Trek doesn’t mean he should keep getting lead roles) as a detective haunted by the murder of his wife and the even more vanilla Brittany Snow as a journalist with a dark backstory of her own. The film’s best performance comes from Person of Interest vet Sarah Shahi, cast against type as a tough-talking police captain in a wheelchair.

Directed by Johnny Martin, who recently worked with, yes, Nicolas Cage on the direct-to-VOD Vengeance: A Love Story, Hangman is serviceable but nowhere near the caliber of classic Pacino cop movies like Serpico, Heat or Sea of Love. The last of these marked a major comeback for Pacino after a decade of crap like Cruising, Author! Author! and Revolution.

One can only hope Pacino’s got another career revival left in him — he’ll soon continue his run of HBO biopics (Phil Spector, You Don’t Know Jack, about Dr. Kevorkian) as Joe Paterno in Happy Valley, directed by Barry Levinson, who made one of the actor’s best films in recent years, The Humbling. He’ll also collaborate with Martin Scorsese for the first time — how is that possible? — as Jimmy Hoffa in Netflix’s The Irishman, which reunites Pacino with Robert De Niro, his co-star in Heat… as well as 2008’s justifiably obscure Righteous Kill. Oh, and Pacino’s also got a small role in the low-profile pic The Pirates of Somalia, coming Dec. 8. With any luck, to quote Al’s Scent of a Woman character, he’s just getting warmed up!

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Yes, Sweet Virginia, There is a Santa Claus!

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Big-budget Hollywood blockbusters mostly bore me to sleep. In the past few weeks, I’ve taken naps during Kenneth Branagh’s well-appointed but deeply unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express and Zack Snyder’s less-than-super Justice League (Thor: Ragnarok was better, but why has Chris Hemsworth’s Norse god headlined three movies while Mark Ruffalo’s incredibly endearing Hulk hasn’t earned a single stand-alone?) I’m more excited these days by wildly creative low-budget indies like Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Mr. Roosevelt and now Sweet Virginia.

If you haven’t heard of it — and you probably haven’t, as it was quietly released in one theater and on VOD over the weekend — Sweet Virginia is a lean, mean thriller that brilliantly casts the often-brutal Jon Bernthal against type as a mild-mannered Alaska motel owner who crosses paths with a deadly stranger, magnetically embodied by Christopher Abbott. (When Abbott left Girls after its first season, I thought he was nuts to ditch such a red-hot show, but that decision is looking wiser and wiser all the time.)

Turns out Abbott’s character is a hit man who was hired by a disgruntled wife (Imogen Poots, in her strongest performance to date) to knock off her cheating husband. The only problem is, the heel was also broke, and the client was counting on his inheritance to pay off the killer. Complicating matters is the fact that the contract killer also murders the husband of a woman (the always-underrated Rosemarie DeWitt) who’s having an affair with Bernthal’s ex-rodeo rider.

Director Jamie M. Dagg (River) wrings maximum tension out of the script by brothers Benjamin and Paul China, who originally set the story in 1970s Virginia. The period details proved too expensive, so Dagg moved it to present-day Alaska, but the film still has a ’70s feel to it — it’s gritty and minimalistic like so many of that decade’s best movies. (Bernthal’s character hails from the Old Dominion and has dubbed his hotel Sweet Virginia.) Dagg mostly keeps his camera still, letting characters walk in and out of frame, creating an unspoken suspense that’s sometimes almost unbearable.

When Bernthal, whose character could be a spiritual cousin of Willem Dafoe’s kindly innkeeper in The Florida Project, finally erupts into violence, it’s a profoundly dramatic catharsis. Yet Virginia ends on a surprisingly sweet note with a simple scene that requires no dialogue. If there’s any justice, moviegoers will discover this quiet gem over the holidays. Without a superhero in sight, it’s in a league of its own.

Getting Naked at the DOC NYC Festival

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Anybody who knows me knows of my love for the New York City burlesque scene, so I was thrilled to attend the premiere of director James Lester’s fantastic documentary Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story at the DOC NYC festival this week. (It screens again on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 9:45 p.m. at the IFC Center.) I spoke with James about his quest to honor such fabulously talented artists as Hazel Honeysuckle, Gal Friday and the Schlep Sisters (Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda).

Do you remember the first time you saw a burlesque show? It was in 2008 at the old Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was an accidental show. I was meeting a friend, and as I got in, a band onstage was air-playing “Free Bird” and then these two trapeze girls descended from the ceiling wearing skimpy tank tops. One said “Free” and the other said “Bird.” It was wild and hilarious and neo-burlesque ironic. I didn’t even know what it was, but I fell in love with it.

What did you love so much about it, right off the bat? I loved that it was sexy but not exploitative. I loved that it was funny and theatrical and it was making fun of itself.

When did you start working on the documentary? I had done a scripted series of webisodes featuring burlesque performers, and when I ran out of money because we were self-financing it, I was in limbo. I bought one of those cameras you can hold in the palm of your hand in 2010 and kept filming the performers. Then I got the idea to make a documentary when I saw how many performers the city had and the scope of all the different venues.

Why did you choose to focus on Hazel, Gal and the Schelps? What I realized as I was doing it was I didn’t want to do a history of burlesque. I wanted to do a character study, and to do that well, you need arcs. I gravitated to those who had the most struggle, whether it was internal like Gal — because I could tell she was going through an artistic and personal transformation — or with Minnie, who was going through a physical struggle with her health. With Hazel, a new performer, I could see she had a struggle underneath the surface about who she was and whether she was being accepted in the scene.

Was it difficult having established personal friendships with these performers to decide who gets the most screen time? It was at first, and the most difficult footage to lose was with Perle Noire, who gave me this great, raw interview. But you have to separate yourself from the friendships. It became very clear once I handed the film over to my consulting editor, Meg Reticker, who has cut The Wire and True Detective. Having her in there was very helpful. The performers are so professional so there was rarely, if ever, a moment when it felt like they were whining about screen time. They trusted me to do it right, and I trusted them to be themselves.

What do you hope people will take away from the film about burlesque? I hope people will see these women are artists. They’re craftspeople, and they work their tails off. My father is a jazz musician, and this world felt similar to me: They work at night in clubs and don’t make much money.  These women work eight hours a day on an act that’s going to take three minutes. I’m hoping what I show makes it clear who these ladies are.

Virginia is for Film Festival Lovers

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When I was a fledgling film critic during my undergraduate days at the University of Virginia, I tried to see every new movie that came to Charlottesville, somehow talking friends into accompanying me to see such seemingly forgettable flicks as Disorderlies, Hello Again, Memories of Me and The Killing Time. (But if I remember them 30 years later, were they really forgettable?) During my final year at U.Va., the first Virginia Festival of American Film was held, and since then, I’ve come back periodically to revisit the event, which has been renamed the Virginia Film Festival. This year, I saw seven movies over two and a half days, including the opening night premiere of Downsizing, which I’ve reviewed separately.

It turned out I saved the best for last, as I’ve just returned from the centerpiece screening of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. I loved Cooper’s script for Crazy Heart as well as his earlier directorial efforts, Black Mass and the criminally underrated Out of the Furnace. Hostiles reteams him with Furnace‘s Christian Bale, in another Oscar-caliber turn as a U.S. Army soldier assigned to escort a grief-stricken widow (a career-best Rosamund Pike) and an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family across dangerous territory from New Mexico to Montana in 1892. It’s a stark, beautifully shot drama that combines the visual sweep of a classic Western like The Searchers with the brutal revisionism of modern masterpieces like Unforgiven. The note-perfect cast overflows with great character actors (Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Scott Wilson and an especially impressive Rory Cochrane). Much more than a period piece, Hostiles raises relevant issues. The title itself dehumanizes an entire race by referring to a group people by a plural adjective rather than a noun, much like Trump Era racists refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” In the end, we’re left with a question: Who are the real hostiles?

Earlier in the day, I attended a provocative and entertaining Q&A with Spike Lee, led by U.Va. professor Maurice Wallace, that addressed some of the same issues by way of introducing Lee’s documentaries 4 Little Girls (about the Birmingham church bombing) and I Can’t Breathe (about the killing of Eric Garner, and how life imitated art with the death of Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing). Lee, who wittily pointed out that he might be related to Robert E. Lee but he won’t believe it until he sees the DNA, likened the genocide of Native Americans to the gentrification of NYC neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem. He also took a few well-placed shots at a local sacred cow (“Your boy Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner!”) It was a bracing wake-up call to a community still reeling from the white supremacist terrorism in August.

Issues of racism and genocide also resonate throughout Django, a powerful biopic of the legendary gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) and how he navigated his way out of Nazi-occupied France in 1943. It’s a fascinating chapter in the life of a man whose music remains as invigorating as ever.

I also attended a couple of classic films with something extra: Alfred Hitchcock’s still-entertaining silent thriller The Lodger with live accompaniment from the Reel Music Trio and Harold and Maude with enlightening shot-by-shot commentary from Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson as well as the film’s producer Charles Mulvehill. I first saw Harold and Maude when I was at U.Va., and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Which just proves the truth of the festival’s tagline: Virginia is for film lovers.

Is Downsizing a Movie Mini-Miracle?

 

downsizingThe opening-night feature of the 2017 Virginia Film Festival, Downsizing concerns a scientific miracle: technology allows human beings to be shrunk, alleviating pressures of overpopulation and pollution. Alexander Payne’s sci-fi dramedy is no less a miracle: a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood studio movie that’s entirely original. This isn’t a superhero flick, a sequel or a reboot — it’s a film of ideas, emotions and three-dimensional characters, even if they are only five inches tall.

At an enlightening Q&A following the screening led by The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday, executive producer Mark Johnson (a proud U.Va. alum) discussed the challenges of getting such a cinematic unicorn made. Although Payne’s earlier films like Election and Sideways were ironically much smaller in scale, Paramount was willing to gamble on Downsizing after a huge movie star, Matt Damon, signed on to star. He gives one of his best performances as a profoundly decent man who’s unsatisfied with his workaday life and finds greater meaning only after getting small.

The teeming ensemble includes such big names as Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern (reuniting with her Citizen Ruth director Payne). But the breakout star is Hong Chau, a Taiwan-born, Louisiana-raised actress known for Treme who tackles a truly bizarre role — a one-legged Vietnamese-refugee humanitarian maid with a bracingly brusque personality — and infuses it with heart, humor and sex appeal. I’m not sure what mainstream audiences will make of Downsizing (I loved it, though it’s a bit of a feathered fish), but I will be shocked if Chau doesn’t get an Oscar nomination.Also in the running for an Academy Award nod may be two-time winner Christoph Waltz, who makes Damon’s swinging, selfish neighbor deeply endearing.

The less you know about Downsizing‘s plot, the better. The story takes unexpected turns that some may find jarring but I found exhilarating. Through it all, Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) maintain a tricky, delicate tone. Imagine if Frank Capra and Charlie Kaufman had a baby, and you might have some idea what I mean. I hope Downsizing proves to be a gigantic hit, but its very existence gives me hope for the future.

Two Daddies and a Son on Daddy’s Home 2

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Bruce Fretts: I just saw Daddy’s Home 2 with my favorite daddy–son combination, comedian extraordinaire David Rey Martinez and his 10-year-old Sebastian. Had you guys seen the first one?

David: No, we didn’t. We were talking about that earlier. We weren’t sure we wanted to see it because we hadn’t seen the first one.

Sebastian: But he said, “We’ll be okay. We’ll be able to follow it.” I was a little confused.

Bruce: The family relationships are kind of complicated. Will Ferrell plays the stepfather of Mark Wahlberg’s kids, and John Lithgow and Mel Gibson join the cast as Will’s and Mark’s dads.

Sebastian: When Will Ferrell said, “Did I die again?” I was like, “When did he die?”

David: So he died in the first one?

Bruce: I saw the first one with my son and enjoyed it, but I don’t remember him dying. Did you guys like this one?

Sebastian: I thought it was funny. It seemed authentic.

David: The family dynamic was very well thought-out.

Sebastian: I liked when they brought in John Cena.

David: You liked the wrestling aspect of it. I liked the way they brought in the grandfathers. The pairings were good.

Sebastian: I think in the next one they’re either going to have great grandpas or bring in uncles and aunts.

Bruce: Did any of the dads remind you of your dad?

Sebastian: (laughs) The nice ones. He’s not hostile.

Bruce: He’s affectionate?

Sebastian: Yes. And he’s funny.

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David: I thought the women in the movie could’ve played a bigger part. It just focused on the guys. Where are the women’s families?

Bruce: We have to see A Bad Moms Christmas to get the female perspective.

David: Didn’t we give Bad Moms a bad review? And they still came out with another one?

Bruce: We tried to warn people. It didn’t work. But I liked both Daddy’s Home movies. Will Ferrell is funny. He reminded me of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Bruce: Did you have a favorite part, Sebastian?

Sebastian: I liked when they went to the improv comedy show. That reminded me of my dad’s shows, but it wasn’t as funny.

David: My problem was when Will Ferrell grabbed the Christmas lights, and everything came crashing down. It would’ve never happened like that.

Sebastian: You should just accept the movie for what it is.

Bruce: Out of the mouths of babes.

David: If it’s a science-fiction movie, I let all those boundaries go. If you’re making something real, I hold you accountable.

Bruce: But it’s a slapstick comedy. I think it achieved what it set out to do, which was to be a big, dumb movie. So are you going to watch the first one now?

David: Yeah, we’re gonna go back and watch it.

Sebastian: And then watch the second one again.

David: Yeah, when it comes out on TV. We’re not paying to see it again. It wasn’t life-changing.

Bruce: And if they make a Daddy’s Home 3, would you see it?

David: Yeah, we’d see it.

Bruce: I’d see it for free.

Are Wind River’s Oscar Chances Gone?

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It pales by contrast to the stories of the dozens of women who were assaulted and harassed by Harvey Weinstein, but the scandal could cause a different kind of fallout: The Oscar hopes for The Weinstein Co.’s Wind River may have dried up. That’s a shame, because I recently caught up with the sleeper hit on VOD, and it’s easily one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year.

The film’s writer-director, Taylor Sheridan, as well as its producers have wisely tried to distance themselves from Weinstein, stripping his company’s logo from the movie online and at Academy screenings. Some critics have commented that the drama’s storyline, which concerns a woman who is sexually assaulted and murdered on a Native American reservation, could make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition given Weinstein’s behavior. But that’s all the more reason why Wind River should be seen; inspired by actual events, it closes with the tragic fact that no statistics are kept for women who disappear on reservations. The film could shine a much-needed light on that issue.

Aside from its social significance, it’s also just a damn good thriller. Jeremy Renner gives his best performance since The Hurt Locker as a fish-and-wildlife ranger who discovers the body, which triggers memories of a daughter he lost under similar circumstances. He’s teamed up with the often-underrated Elizabeth Olsen as an FBI agent sent to investigate the crime, and together they track the killer.

After his deservedly acclaimed screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan completes his Western revisionist trilogy brilliantly, and in his debut as a director, he shows an impressive eye for strikingly composed images. Among the flawless ensemble are two gifted Native American actors: Graham Greene (who got an Oscar nomination for 1991’s Dances With Wolves) as Gil Birmingham (who should’ve gotten one for Hell or High Water) as the murder victim’s grieving father.

Oscar voters, please don’t punish Wind River for Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. This film isn’t part of the sexual-assault problem; it could be a part of the solution.