Friday, August 17, 2012

The Campaign

Read my review of the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis comedy that pissed off the Koch brothers here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs

Review by Pamela Zoslov


Vanessa Taylor was battling a case of writer's block when she penned the script for the feature film Hope Springs. Taylor, a writer and producer of HBO shows including Game of Thrones and Everwood, wrote a story about a middle-aged couple who seek counseling to revive their faltering marriage. Taylor imagined it as “a tiny indie movie” until someone showed the script to Meryl Streep, who jumped aboard and enlisted The Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel. With Sony's backing, the tiny movie became a major release starring Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell as the therapist who helps the couple rekindle their love.

That the movie got inflated into a star vehicle means that viewers are treated to a virtuoso duet by two seasoned actors. It also makes for a top-heavy film, with A-list acting receiving tenuous support from a C-list script.

Streep and Jones play Kay and Arnold, a fiftyish couple married for 31 years. Their last child having left home, their relationship is distant, almost wordless. Arnold has moved permanently into the guest bedroom, ostensibly because of a bad back and sleep apnea. Kay, mousy and bespectacled, makes some sad attempts to revive their sex life, but even her new blue negligee (do people still wear negligees?) fails to lure Arnold back to the marital bed. When their children ask what presents they exchanged for their 31st anniversary, Kay responds with embarrassment. “We got each other the new cable subscription!” Kay, who works at a clothing store, asks her friend Eileen (played by Jean Smart, who I would have liked to see in a bigger part) if she thinks marriages can be renewed. “You married who you married, you are who you are” is Eileen's no-nonsense reply.

But Kay is determined: “I want to have a marriage again.” She picks up a book by Dr. Feld (Carell), whose kindly therapeutic face reassures her from the cover of his book, “You Can Have the Marriage You Want.” Kay signs up for Dr. Feld's intensive counseling retreat at Hope Springs, spending her own $4,000 to enroll. Arnold, an accountant, objects strenuously, but eventually agrees to make the trip.

Arnold is a piece of work, a nasty, cynical S.O.B., but we can't help but agree a little with him that Dr. Feld's program seems like a bit of a racket. Every other visitor to the quaint seaside town of inns and lobster restaurants seems to be there for the same purpose. “The 10:30 with Bernie?” a diner waitress inquires knowingly. Sitting across from her grumbling husband, Kay looks enviously at a couple holding hands, who tell her they come back for frequent “tune-ups.” But the film's attitude toward expensive therapy retreats is not at all satirical. It's a straight-faced narrative about how Arnold and Kay get their groove back, with the help of the wise Dr. Feld. The lone moment of genuine comedy occurs when Arnold, at dinner with Kay, makes fun of Dr. Feld's sober, measured tones, imagining the doctor speaking that way while having sex with his wife.

I get a little tired of Meryl Streep's ubiquitous acclaim, but it can't be denied that she can really disappear into a role. She invests Kay with little gestures and vocal mannerisms that are unexpected and delightful. Because the movie's characters are from Nebraska, or the writer's idea of Nebraska, Streep gives Kay a soft, subtle Midwestern twang. “When was the last time you touched me that wasn't just for a picture?” Kay asks her husband during a counseling session, her pronunciation hovering between “picture” and “pitcher.” When Dr. Feld asks about her sexual fantasies – a subject on which he dwells to the point of prurience – Kay reflexively fastens the buttons on her demure flower-print cardigan.

Jones, in a role that was initially offered to Jeff Bridges, has the challenge of humanizing the curmudgeonly Arnold. Jones is always interesting to watch (especially the topographical map that is his heavily lined face), but the character is so rigid and irritable it's a wonder anyone, let alone the sweet Kay, could love him. Dr. Feld's prescriptions focus almost entirely on sex, but the narrative suggests that the couple's problems go beyond insufficient blow jobs (Kay at one time buys a bunch of bananas for practice) into the realm of emotional abuse. Consider Arnold's estimation of Kay's intellect. When they first met in college, Arnold recounts, he was a teaching assistant in accounting, and she was a student. What did he notice about her? “She was pretty, and she probably shouldn't be majoring in accounting.” Evidently that's why all she can do now is cook eggs and fold sweaters at the mall.

Taylor's ideas about what happens in an older marriage seem to derive from television. Arnold gives Kay “practical” gifts rather than jewelry. She talks about boring things. He watches too much golf on TV. Oddly, the couple seem to be not just from Nebraska, but from Nebraska in the 1950s. She's scandalized by talk about sex, but they have cable, laptops and high-speed Internet, and presumably are of the Baby Boomer generation. Apparently the sexual revolution entirely missed the Cornhusker State. Do people who live on the coasts imagine Middle Americans still posing for American Gothic?

It is refreshing, however, to see a film that celebrates people of mature years. As the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel demonstrated, there is a market for these kinds of films. A quiet chamber piece like Hope Springs is a good counterweight to the summer's dark and violent movie cacophony, as well as a chance to see two veteran actors deploy their considerable talents.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love"


Review by Pamela Zoslov

Woody Allen, who has just released his 43rd film, To Rome With Love, has become like that elderly uncle you remember from your childhood for his brilliant sense of humor, but whose increasingly feeble jokes you now laugh at out of polite nostalgia. He remains a formidable filmmaker — last year's Midnight in Paris was a thoroughgoing success — but his insistence on making a film every year means that lately there are more misses than hits, and the misses are all the more disappointing.

To Rome With Love, set in the colorful Italian capital because backers put up the money for it to be shot there, is based on a collection of half-developed ideas Allen had tucked away in his desk drawer. The randomness and mustiness of the stories is evident.

Allen toyed with several ideas for the movie's title, including The Bop Decameron, a nod to The Decameron, a 14th-century Italian novel consisting of 100 tales, and Nero Fiddled, before settling on the one that evokes the late-'60s TV series starring John Forsythe.

To Rome With Love features a handful of unrelated stories about tourists and residents of Rome. One story involves an ordinary businessman, Leopoldo (Roberto Begnini) who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no reason — “famous for being famous.” Paparazzi follow him everywhere, beautiful women throw themselves into his bed, and he's ushered onto a TV talk show to talk about what he had for breakfast. The point of this minor vignette, presumably, is to comment on the shallowness of modern celebrity culture, something Allen explored in more depth 32 years ago in Stardust Memories.

Another story involves a Roman mortician (played by Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) who can sing opera sublimely, but only in the shower. Allen plays a retired opera director whose daughter is engaged to Giancarlo's son. When he hears Giancarlo's shower aria, he devises an unconventional way to bring him to the stage, a visual punchline that's not particularly funny, but is nonetheless repeated twice.

A clumsy bedroom farce has a pair of Italian newlyweds, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have their honeymoon interrupted by a gorgeous prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz), who shows up at Antonio's hotel room by mistake, just ahead of the arrival of his very conservative family. Both Antonio and Milly, who is meanwhile wandering the streets of Rome, having lost her way in search of a beauty salon, experience unexpected erotic awakenings.

The most successful of the stories has Alec Baldwin as John, a successful architect revisiting the city where he spent part of his early career. He is recognized at a street corner by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect who idolizes him. Jack takes John to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). The street corner is analogous to the metaphysical Paris alley where Owen Wilson was whisked into the 1920s; John becomes a kind of ghostly presence in Jack's life, a mentor-advisor who comments on the action and warns Jack about the danger to his relationship posed by the impending arrival of Sally's supposedly sexy, irresistible friend Monica, an actress. “Can't you see that the situation is fraught with peril?” John warns his young, na├»ve protege. (John functions like Humphrey Bogart in Allen's Play It Again Sam).

Monica is one of those patented pseudo-intellectual Allen heroines, mouthing sophomoric pronouncements and quotations from Kierkegaard, Pound, Yeats and The Fountainhead. As embodied by Page, her vaunted sexiness is overstated, but her manipulative seductiveness works on Jack, challenging his loyalty to the level-headed Sally. (A younger, precocious brunette often tempts an Allen hero away from his sensible blond mate — art imitating life imitating art, I suppose, in Allen's case.) Baldwin, the funniest presence in this not very funny movie, comments sardonically on Monica's pretensions as she speaks (“Oh, God, here comes the bullshit”), a conceit not unlike Marshall McLuhan's walk-on in Annie Hall. This story also goes nowhere special, but there's a certain amount of fun in getting there.

To Rome With Love is Allen's seventh European-made film, something he calls a “happy accident, because I couldn't raise money any other way.” The 77-year-old filmmaker spoke to the New York Times about his lifelong affection for Italian cinema, citing four films that influenced him: Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, Antonioni's Blow Up and Fellini's Amarcord. Even before his European cycle began, he was channeling Bergman (Interiors) and Fellini (Stardust Memories). Allen's latest film is a pretty anemic tribute to the films he admires; worse, it even fails to recapture the magic of his own best work.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wanderlust

Review by Pamela Zoslov


The comedy of David Wain, who comes from Shaker Heights, Ohio, is not for everyone. After the preview screening of his latest movie, Wanderlust, some older audience members made their way out of the aisles shaking their heads and saying words like “disgusting!” Well, I certainly wouldn't recommend it to my 86-year-old dad. But tastelessness is a style choice, and has long been the hallmark of sketch comedian Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten) and his longtime writing partner, Ken Marino. If you don't mind a lot of gross absurdity, Wain and Marino's comedy can be pretty hilarious.


With Wanderlust, Wain weds his signature scattershot humor to a more traditional romantic comedy format in the style of Judd Apatow (whose company produced this movie). The stylistic marriage is not an entirely happy one. The romantic story, grounded in recognizable reality in Manhattan and Atlanta, and the silly comedy, located in a fantasy hippie commune, compete for prominence, and both emerge rather worse for it.


The movie reunites Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, who co-starred in The Object of My Affection, as a Manhattan couple struggling with declining job prospects. George, who works in finance, loses his job after the Feds shut down the firm he works for. Linda, a dilettante whose latest venture is making documentary films, tries to pitch her latest film (described as a cross between An Inconvenient Truth and March of the Penguins) to HBO, which pronounces it too depressing. Rudd and Aniston make a credible and appealing couple, and the New York scenes, centering on the tiny, shoebox-sized apartment (or “micro-loft”) George and Linda buy before their fortunes decline, have a gentle satiric charm. Sadly, the movie marches into fantasy-land when George and Linda stumble into Elysium, an anachronistic commune in Georgia, on their way to Atlanta, where George's nasty brother Rick (Marino) has agreed to give George a job (as it turns out, in the Port-O-Potty business).


The commune, owned by the aging, wheelchair-riding Garvin (Alan Alda), is home to a motley group of unreconstructed hippies who strum guitars, smoke pot, shun animal foods, drink hallucinogenic tea, grow organic vegetables, make wine in the nude, and engage in “free love.” The leading hippie is Seth (Justin Theroux, Aniston's real-life boyfriend), a long-haired guru type who has designs on Linda. The commune's ideas are wacky, retro-'60s stuff – they don't believe in doors, so in Wain's world, that means that a horse might wander into their bedroom, and that various commune members casually visit George while he's on the toilet. Yet the commune embraces George and Linda so warmly, and the vibe is so relaxing, they decide to move in permanently and find paradise not as perfect as they'd hoped. (In a way, the movie is like Couples' Retreat with better jokes.)


There's a subplot about a planned casino development on the commune property (the group's future depends on Garvin locating his misplaced deed, which one would think was filed at the county recorder's office). But the story is entirely in the service of the gags, and there are many of them. Some are hilarious (a giant, Kafkaesque fly that strikes up a conversation with George) and others groaningly bad or, as the old people said, disgusting (parents of a newborn carrying around its placenta in a pan and promising to make soup of it).


At this historical juncture, jokes about hippies are pretty old hat. The strongest parts of the movie are the saner, human moments, sans hippies – Linda pitching her “penguins with testicular cancer” doc; George and Linda singing along to the Doobie Brothers in the car; Rick's depressed wife confronting him about his infidelities; George's nephew's sarcastic retort to his uncle's greeting; Linda and Garvin sharing a secret feast in a diner; a running joke about a novel written by the naked winemaker Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio). If I were writing a structural assessment of the movie, I'd say, “Strong start. Strong finish. Sags in the middle.


But Wain is committed to silliness, and likely has no desire to be Judd Apatow. As he said in this 2007 interview with me, “My comedy doesn't stem from anger and pain so much as looking at things from a silly perspective.”


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In the Family

Patrick Wang's In the Family was rejected by 30 film festivals before making its premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival and being distributed independently. The film, a remarkably stirring drama about the changing definition of “family,” has some technical peculiarities that may have kept it from initial consideration: it's long (nearly three hours), glacially paced in the early scenes, and some of the camera work is decidedly eccentric (actors shot at the edge of frames or moving out of frame). And yet the story is so powerful that these concerns are swept away; it draws you in and never loosens its grip. The film has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Set in the small town of Martin, Tennessee, the story centers on a gay couple, the soft-spoken Joey Williams (Wang) and his partner, Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), who are raising Cody's precocious 6-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). When Cody dies in a car accident, Joey, known to Chip as “Dad” (his natural father was “Pop”), finds himself in a battle with Cody's sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), whom Cody had named as Chip's guardian. Cody's family, whose mistrust of Joey – based on their non-acceptance of Cody's gay relationship, and perhaps also on ethnic prejudice – remove Cody from Joey's house, leaving Joey, with the support of his friends, to find a way to reunite his family, despite the fact that the law does not favor his position.“You do not have a child custody case,” says one of the many lawyers who refuse to take his case.

Much of the film's power resides in Wang's sensitive, naturalistic screenplay, which effectively illustrates the everyday domestic life of a nontraditional family -- extraordinary for its sheer ordinariness. Cody, a math teacher, and Joey, a talented architectural designer, have a dedicated interest in young Chip's development. Chip is fond of dragons, so “Pop” Cody helps him research them online, while “Dad” Joey fashions him a special wooden block depicting each day's dragon. (Any child would be lucky to have two such attentive dads.) The acting, too, could not be better. Wang, a stage actor with a low-key manner and incongruous Southern drawl, is wonderfully sympathetic, and classical actor Brian Murray is superb as the retired lawyer who agrees to represent Joey in his improbable case. The scene in which Joey stands up to harsh deposition questioning about his background (he was an orphan whose foster parents also died), and his reasons for wanting to fight for Chip, is quietly shattering. -- Pamela Zoslov

The Iron Lady

Last week I had the opportunity to review two films about Western European political leaders – The Conquest, about the rise of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as erstwhile British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Of the two, the Thatcher bio, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is the more satisfying dramatically, yet neither film provides a complete picture of its subject's politics and importance. Where The Iron Lady does excel is in its sensitive portrayal of the experience of dementia. Having suffered a series of strokes and suffering from memory loss, Thatcher, 86 and frail, now seldom appears in public.

Admittedly, the prospect of another impersonation of a famous doyenne by America's anointed top actress, Meryl Streep, was not an attractive one. But, as it happens, she is superb, particularly as the aged Mrs. Thatcher, whose husband, Denis (the excellent Jim Broadbent), regularly consoles, cajoles and encourages her, even though, as her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), points out, he has been dead for years.

The familiar, loving interaction between Margaret and Denis' ghost is a clever framing device, launching a series of flashbacks as the intermittently lucid ex-PM sorts through her late husband's possessions. Abi Morgan's imaginatively structured narrative uses inventive avenues for recollection; for example, while autographing copy of her book, Margaret inadvertently signs “Margaret Roberts,” her maiden name, which launches a flashback to the her girlhood days as the daughter of a grocer in Grantham. (Her father owned two stores and was mayor of the town). Young Margaret (Alexandra Roach), mocked by her better-heeled classmates as she sweeps up at the shop, wins a place at Oxford, from which she emerges with fully formed conservative ideology – free market economics, anti-union, anti-Socialist – and a burning political ambition. Margaret's father was a Liberal, but the film's , the narrative offers no insight into the origins of her views. A Thatcher biography reveals that she was influenced at Oxford by Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, a 1944 work that argued that government economic intervention is a precursor to authoritarianism. Though she was not a strictly doctrinaire Conservative (she supported a bill to decriminalize homosexuality, for example), she also was known, while serving as Education Secretary, for denying schoolchildren free milk.

Her determination impresses young, bespectacled Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, who is Charles Dickens' great-great-great-great grandson), who asks her to marry him. She happily accepts, and the couple enjoy a comfortable life. (Denis, a wealthy businessman, financed his wife's studies for the bar and her political career; the film doesn't mention her early career as a research chemist and as a barrister specializing in tax). The two become the parents of twins, Carol and Mark, who are shown as children running helplessly after “Mummy” as she drives her fancy car away from the family estate and toward her Parliamentary career. Before she agreed to marry him, Margaret warned Denis that she refused to be simply a housewife – like her mother, presumably – and did not intend to “die washing a teacup.” (In a moment of sad irony, a later scene has the aged Margaret, all alone, washing out a teacup.) In her old age, Margaret is depicted as still proud and tough – she haughtily rebuffs her doctor's inquiries about her health and state of mind – the story allows her some sentimental reveries: her lifelong courtship with Denis is punctuated by the couple dancing to “Shall We Dance?” from their favorite musical, The King & I. Margaret also has a penchant for Bellini's opera Norma.

The film takes us on a newsreel view of British history from 1959, when Mrs. Thatcher was elected a Member of Parliament – not the first female M.P., as the film implies – through her turbulent reign as Britain's first woman Prime Minister, beginning with her election in 1979 and ending with her resignation in 1990 after she lost her Conservative Party's support. (The film implies that she disappeared from politics, when actually Thatcher served as a Member of Parliament for two years before retiring at 66.) These were tumultuous years for Great Britain; Thatcher is shown responding to labor unrest (with harsh anti-union measures), IRA hunger strikes and bombings, including one that struck the Brighton hotel where she was staying, and the war with Argentina over the Falkland islands, which boosted Thatcher's flagging popularity at home. Her legendary intransigence toward the Soviet Union, alongside her ally Ronald Reagan, earned her the nickname “The Iron Lady” from a Soviet newspaper.

While the film capably depicts Thatcher's famous absolutism – denouncing labor unions, the social welfare state (and its “culture of dependency”) – what is missing is a ground-level view of how Thatcherism affected people in the UK, many of whom were left unemployed and dispossessed by her economic policies. Her legacy is still being debated, but her impact on popular culture is clear. Without Thatcher to protest against, there would likely have been no British punk music. Unfortunately, the soundtrack contains none of the era's iconic Sex Pistols, Jam or Clash songs, but it does include “I'm in Love With Margaret Thatcher,” a relatively minor-league 1979 song by Michael “Haggis” Hargreaves (“I'm in love with Maggie T.!”).

Streep is fine, even if occasionally calling to mind her portrayal of Julia Child, and Broadbent is a pleasure, though jarringly different in appearance and accent from Lloyd as the younger Denis. The prosthetic aging makeup is tastefully done, in contrast to the bizarre work in last year's silly J. Edgar. The film is skillfully constructed, but it suffers from the problem of all biopics that attempt to portray a significant life against the backdrop of history. In the attempt to cover the life and the history, either or both will suffer. In this case, it's the history; we learn more about the lady than about the interesting times in which she served. -- Pamela Zoslov