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May 12, 2017

Hey, did you ever hear about Chuck Wepner? A working-class hero of Bayonne, New Jersey, he was the first boxer to fight Ali after the Rumble in the Jungle, and he came within nineteen seconds of going all fifteen rounds. That fight kinda sorta inspired the script of Rocky. Maybe. If you squint at it. Then he mostly tried cruising on that fame and screwed up his life before putting it back together and settling down to run a liquor store.

The challenge of Chuck is to draw that paragraph out into a hundred-minute feature. Because that’s really all there is to this guy. I’m sure that Wepner (herein played by Liev Schreiber) is a great guy who loves his wife, Linda (Naomi Watts, nearly unrecognizable in ’70s makeup and redhead wig), and surely treats her better than he did his long-suffering second wife, Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss). But honestly I just don’t really care about this guy, and making the audience care is job one for a biopic.

It’s not like this is a fantastic boxing movie. Wepner scorned the “sweet science”, and mostly achieved fame on his ability to take a punch and keep on lumbering. He may have hated it, but they didn’t call him the “Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing. So we get the one bout with Ali (Pooch Hall), in which he does little but survive, and that’s about it. There are flashes on his infamous pro-wrestling appearance with Andre the Giant, and that time — I hope the only time — when he got in the ring with a bear. And they’re good for a hit of absurdism, but don’t have much to offer Rocky fans.

Speaking of which, Chuck does manage to get in contact with a young Sly Stallone (Morgan Spector), who even offers him a bit part in Rocky II. He seems to be a fan of Chuck’s, or at least to be glad to meet the boxer, but it’s not clear how accurate that is. Co-writer Jeff Feuerzig told this same story in a documentary for ESPN in 2011, so he surely knows about the lawsuit between Wepner and Stallone, but it doesn’t seem to make an appearance here.

Instead, Chuck squanders his opportunity with his escalating cocaine habit, egged on by his sycophantic friends (Jason Jones and Jim Gaffigan, the latter playing marvelously against type). Abandoned by his wife and his manager (Ron Perlman), and failing to reconnect with his brother (Michael Rapaport), he hits bottom without even a blaze of glory to make a good climax.

It’s nice to see Schreiber get a leading role that still lets him work his character acting skills, but Chuck‘s story is just not that interesting. Director Philippe Falardeau and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc seem more interested in matching the grain of their film stock to the archival footage they cut it together with, and little if any effort goes into making this a movie worth watching.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 5, 2017
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each sub-series has its own role to play. The first installment of Guardians of the Galaxy is that, even more than the rest of them, its place was to have fun. And sure, even when the MCU is in “serious” mode with its Captain America movies it’s still easily more fun than the slogs that DC has been putting forward. But Guardians is in another realm altogether, and Volume 2 shows no sign of slowing up.

Writer/director James Gunn is back after doing a great job the first time around, and he’s already tapped for a future Volume 3, which he’s more than earned. But this time, in an uncommon move for sequels, he goes smaller, abandoning the travelogue form that introduced us to Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), the last of whom has recovered from the climax of the last movie as an adorable ten-inch seedling. Instead he goes smaller, with a character-focused entry that delves deeper into each non-vegetal team member’s story.

Of course the most prominent thread belongs to Peter, the question of whose parentage was left a mystery the last time around. When have daddy issues NOT been the go-to excuse for male characters’ emotions? Predictably enough, when the deadbeat dad from the ’70s does show up he’s some smarmy guy with Kurt Russell hair and a truly massive ego, likable on the surface as long as everything goes his way, but twisted and rotten deep down at his core. And despite the natural desire of an abandoned son to yearn for a connection with his father, the obvious lesson to be meted out is that sometimes family has little to do with parentage.

In terms of the larger-scale MCU structure, the more interesting arc belongs to Gamora, whose rivalry with adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) flares up. The two had been forced to fight each other as children by their adoptive father, Thanos —
the giant, purple, Josh Brolin-voiced guy who doesn’t show up in this installment but will be the big bad of the upcoming Infinity War. Gamora always got the upper hand back then, and now that they’re out from under their father’s thumb, Nebula is out for revenge.

Drax gets some of the best character work here, albeit with little in the way of an arc. His literal-mindedness could be a one-note joke in Vol. 1, but here he gets some depth and shading. He tends to pair off with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the saucer-eyed codependent empath that Peter’s dad has gaslit into doing all his emotional labor, and their complementary naïvetés play off of each other nicely.

And then there’s Rocket, the foul-tempered, genetically-engineered raccoon trapped in a world he never made — wait, no, that’s Howard the Duck, who has a couple more cameos this time. His selfish idiocy is what brings the wrath of the high Sovereign priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) down on the team, along with the outcast team of Ravagers led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) that first abducted Peter from Earth as a boy. Rocket, even more than the rest, embodies the bickering and infighting that almost defines the team, and yet he’s only just starting to realize that a fight is not necessarily the end of a relationship.

All of this is what makes Vol. 2 go, but what really makes it work is the same sense of off-beat fun that suffused Vol. 1. Gunn, along with cinematographer Henry Braham, creates some of the most gorgeous, colorful shots in the MCU. The Day-Glo rainbow puts to shame the grimdark, gunmetal-grey palette all too often taken as a stand-in for grown-up gravity. More than any other comic-book blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy refuses to apologize for its roots.

But of course what really sets it apart from the rest is something the comics themselves could never manage: the “Awesome Mix” needle-drop soundtrack, courtesy of Peter’s treasured mix tapes. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack album for about a week now, and I have to say it’s better than the first one. Glen Campbell, Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, and Jay and the Americans provide sometimes surprisingly effective backdrops for action sequences. Cat Stevens may be a little on-the-nose for a wistful scene, but I can’t think of a better choice. And while I’ve always loved “Brandy”, I have to admit that it’s a natural fit for love-em-and-leave-em douchebags.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is light, frothy, and maybe even toned down a bit from Vol. 1. Still, it manages to deliver better than any of its peers is a sense of whiz-bang glee that “serious-minded” comic book adaptations dismiss as kids’ stuff. But yes, this is kids’ stuff, and what’s wrong with that? There are a lot of annoying things about being a kid, but the easy access to wonder and joy is not among them. When a movie like this comes along offering them, I’m not going to turn my nose up at it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but it doesn’t quite pass.

The Circle

April 28, 2017
The Circle

I was excited when I went to see The Circle. Based on the novel by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, directed by James Ponsoldt, and featuring a stellar cast in roles I just knew they could knock out of the park, I’d been looking forward to it for months.

I could definitely see how Eggers’ book would attract Ponsoldt, who has always told stories about people with unhealthy and sometimes destructive habits. His first three features all dealt with alcoholism, including Smashed, among the finest examples of the form. His most recent was The End of the Tour, adapting David Lipsky’s memoir about a road trip of sorts with David Foster Wallace, for the 10th anniversary edition of whose magnum opus Eggers wrote the forward in 2006. Even when I didn’t care for the movie itself, I could respect the craft that went into The Spectacular Now. This was bound to be good.

But then I started watching. And one scene landed awkwardly. And another one felt forced and rushed. And another one felt unmotivated and convenient. I tried to reassure myself, of course a two-hour movie has to cut something from a five-hundred-page novel. It might not have the wonderful character development, or the thematic resonances, or the unexpectedly perfect literary structures. But surely it would at least get the overall feel and idea of the novel, right? It might be flawed, but it must still be at least passable.

I held out hope as long as possible, but I slowly came to the realization: this is a bad movie. Yes, the basics of the story are in place — Mae Holland (Emma Watson), with help from her old friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan), gets a job in The Circle, a mashup of Google, Facebook, Apple, and every other utopian Silicon Valley behemoth you can think of — but the similarities run thin. Mae is at first skeptical of The Circle’s share-everything ethos, as in the novel, but the person she meets who shares her suspicions (John Boyega) quickly reveals his identity. In the original it was a mystery that dragged out much longer, and even if the reader could probably guess it earlier, the question helped drive much of Mae’s evolving opinions.

Speaking of which, there’s none to speak of. We slam right from Mae feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to participate in on-campus activities and online Circle interactions — which are far from mandatory, but from which her absence keeps raising questions — into her embracing the radical openness espoused by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the charismatic Steve Jobs-esque CEO.

In contrast, Eggars’ novel guides the reader through this evolution smoothly enough that even if you don’t personally buy Bailey’s arguments and Mae’s rationalizations, you can at least see their appeal. The adaptation lacks all this nuance, allowing The Circle to become yet another example of the superficially-happy dystopias that form the settings of so many young-adult-targeted movies.

And even as Eamon’s plans with his co-founder and COO, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), are revealed, life in The Circle never takes on a darker, more threatening, or even dystopian tone. It’s bad because well obviously they’re the bad guys, but we never feel trapped within a system that’s growing to encompass more and more of our lives, that scares us as much to leave it as to stay. This goes right down into the score, which opts for a poppy Danny Elfman vibe where it really needs something closer to Cliff Martinez’ queerly edgy sensibility.

We do at least get some sense of those who remain skeptical, in the form of Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) and a childhood friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). But again they feel poorly integrated into the central plot of Mae’s life at The Circle — not that we really get the feel of life at The Circle in this adaptation — and their arguments feel less like real misgivings and more like cheap knee-jerk Luddism. None of it jells into an effective statement, much less a serious attempt to wrestle with the real changes being wrought on our society by the rise of social media.

But the most galling change is the wholesale replacement of the dénouement. Everything after the climactic sequence — which of course is itself tweaked to take off its edge — is replaced by something far more pedestrian and audience-friendly than the thematic genius of Eggers’ novel. The only thing that surprised me more than the way his story was mangled was to see that he himself, along with Ponsoldt, did the mangling.

Maybe it’s not entirely fair to judge an adaptation that tries to squeeze a decently hefty novel into a single feature’s running time. But is is more than a mere abridgment; the whole texture of the work has been squeezed out, and the central ideas have been reduced almost to the point of self-parody. World-class actors struggle mightily with clunky, expositional monologues, which are all the script has time for anyway. And no matter how pretty cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes it look, it’s clear that the soul of The Circle did not survive the transition to the screen.

As a bit of a postscript: while most of the cast do at least a decent job, Paxton is the only one who is really fantastic, for as little as he’s given to do. It’s a shame for him to go out on this one, but he still manages to remind us here just how great his talent was.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but fail.

Grey Lady

April 28, 2017
Grey Lady

The title of Grey Lady is evidently a reference to Nantucket Island. I mean, I’ve never heard of it, but it shows up on the Wikipedia page, and I’m willing to concede that writer/director John Shea might know something I don’t. But that’s about as conciliatory as I’m feeling for what may number among the worst movies I’ve seen without the words “Lifetime Original” being involved somewhere.

We’re on Nantucket because Boston detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is investigating a series of murders that have already claimed his sister and his girlfriend (Rebecca Gayheart). Who is, er was, also his partner. Oh, but the sister and girlfriend are two separate people, though the script isn’t terribly clear on that point and I wanted to at least do better on that count. Oh, and the girlfriend was also pregnant with Doyle’s baby, which I’m not entirely sure he could have known, but I think we’re also supposed to assume he knew because it adds that much more pathos to his back-story. Pathos is the name of the game here. Very, very pathetic.

Anyway, so he shows up in Nantucket despite being thrown off the case by his BPD captain — a case that since it started with his sister he shouldn’t have been on in the first place but whatever — because he doesn’t care about your rules, and he’s in this for justice. Seriously, this kind of dialogue is just in here and as far as I can tell it’s meant to be taken seriously. I could almost respect a movie that quoted this sort of self-serious garbage in an attempt at parody, but no it really is this ridden with clichés.

But why are we on Nantucket again? Honestly, I’ve been back over the first chunk of the movie again and I can’t see the connection. Something about Doyle’s family, and they used to come to the island, or he thinks some portion of them live here. It’s the sort of small town where everybody knows everybody, but nobody knows the names he’s asking about even as we later discover they’ve been there the whole time.

A representative from the local police (a wasted Adrian Lester) is there to meet him off the ferry, and he quickly meets local socialite Melissa Reynolds (Natalie Zea) who naturally falls for him but he’s still too hurt — in a quiet, manly way, of course — by the loss of his basically identical girlfriend to return her affections.
Yet. There’s a local drunk (Amy Madigan) and a loopy blonde (Carolyn Stotesbery), and Shea himself shows up as the police chief here to deliver an in-person dose of canned rogue-cop dialogue.

There is nothing redeeming here. It doesn’t look particularly good; there are no bravura performances; there’s no interesting quirk that makes up for the overwrought, well, everything. It even commits the cardinal sin of hiding information from the audience for no story-driven reason, and it has the cluelessly poor taste to do it right in front of us. I can only imagine that Shea had stockpiled a decade’s worth of favors from his television career, and hope that he has now cashed them all in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.


April 21, 2017

Unforgettable offers us a tragic story: a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman, forced into playing out one restrictive ideal of femininity. She repeats her dictated role over and over, internalizing her oppression until she becomes the harshest critic of her own imperfections. And even that doesn’t prevent her from being passed over and replaced with a younger, fresher face. Naturally enough, she snaps, throwing just as much craft and dedication into her rage as she once did into her affections; the very dedication that some had found off-putting in the first place. She would claw her way back to her former place, even if she had to destroy herself in the process.

But aside from Katherine Heigl, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

In a switch from her long-running typecasting as a rom-com lead, Heigl takes a heel turn in this psychological and sporadically-erotic thriller. The picture of icy perfection, thanks to her own overbearing mother (Cheryl Ladd), Tessa Conover had everything. Most importantly she had the husband, David (Geoff Stults), with his high-status job at Merrill Lynch, and she had her perfect little girl, Lily (Isabella Rice). But when David decided he’d had enough of real estate and instead started a microbrewery, things were strained. Now divorced and sharing custody of Lily, Tessa’s biggest threat comes in the form of David’s new fiancée, Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson).

Longtime producer Denise De Novi does well enough her first time in the director’s chair, and the script by Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson isn’t significantly worse than most others in this genre. They’re not significantly better, though, either. The movie seems to play as if there’s any mystery at all about who’s harassing Julia, which puts a bit of a damper on any tension.

It could have been a fine if somewhat lackluster thriller, except for the one big problem staring us right in Dawson’s face. I’m sure the script was turned in long before she was cast, but it’s impossible to see how a woman of Julia’s complexion sticks out in the otherwise lily-white community in the hills outside Los Angeles and not wonder how that must play into the psychodynamics. A pale blonde ice queen who met her husband at Stanford displaced by a Latina from Oakland, and somehow race never even comes into it? Even at the climax, when police are on their way, there’s no question that Julia’s story will be believed over Tessa’s. It’s a glaring omission.

Still, it’s fascinating to see Heigl turn bad, even if the result is far from unique. Everyone who dismissed her during the rom-com days might have to take another look now that she’s breaking type.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

April 21, 2017
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

If nothing else, Richard Gere’s work with producer Oren Moverman has given him some of his best acting roles since the turn of the century. First in I’m Not There., Todd Haynes’ impressionistic portrait of Bob Dylan; then in Moverman’s own Time Out of Mind, as a man dealing with homelessness and mental illness on the streets of New York City; and now in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, whose Footnote fell just short of A Separation as Best Foreign Language Film, Norman provides Gere with yet another opportunity to stretch his range.

Which is not to say that he disappears into the role, the way some of the best character actors can. Norman is always recognizably Gere — you can’t forget a face that’s been in the public eye for so long — but he is, for lack of a better word, nebbishy, which adjective I’m pretty sure has never been applied to Richard Gere before. He’s a “fixer”, which seems to amount to a professional go-between even when you’d rather he just go away.

Right from the beginning he’s trying to get his nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen) to introduce him to big Wall Street movers-and-shakers like Wilf or Taub (Harris Yulin and Josh Charles), saying he knows a guy in the Israeli government — he can’t say exactly who right now — who wants to cut some deal about withheld taxes and if he can just meet the guy with the right capital to invest…

But of course Norman doesn’t “have an Israeli” in his pocket; he’s also hustling to find one in time for the meeting he’s hoping to set up. And though he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, he does meet the up-and-coming Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) outside Lanvin. They talk and relax, and Norman buys Micha a pair of $1200 shoes. And when, three years later, Micha turns out to be the new Prime Minister with a mission to make peace with the Palestinians once and for all, you can already see where this is going.

At times it feels almost like a caper movie, with Norman trying to get all the pieces in place to help his friend, Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) with a favor from Wilf for a favor from Micha for a favor from Philip for a favor from the rabbi, all without each other knowing about it in a plan that you’re never sure quite makes sense, even when he explains his web of connections to an unfortunate Amtrak passenger (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who just wants to get some work done.

But it’s either more complicated than the script gets into, or not as complicated as it seems. Either way, things never quite click, and the caper aspect feels unsatisfying. The oblique Israeli politics angle as well comes up short, though it might resonate better for an audience more in tune with the rhythms of the Knesset.

Instead, what Norman really offers is a study of a character you’re never quite sure whether or not to root for. The schlubby, sad-sack bit makes us feel sympathetic, but at times it’s hard not to see Norman as simply pathetic. It’s hard to see how he even makes a living, seeming to be interested in approval and validation more than anything else. Cedar even offers us a younger version of the same kind of glad-hander (Hank Azaria) just to cement how creepy the whole thing can be.

And if nothing else it’s fun to watch Gere exploring this character. Couple that with some of the same imaginative imagery that Cedar and his cinematographer Yaron Scharf deployed in Footnote and you’ve got a pleasant enough distraction, even if it’s not the greatest film any of the principals have ever made.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine

April 21, 2017
In Search of Israeli Cuisine

Chef Michael Solomonov was already making a name for himself in Philadelphia when his brother, David, was killed in an Israeli military operation in October of 2003. In the wake of his brother’s loss, Michael decided to change his culinary focus to Israeli and Jewish cuisine. But what, it’s natural to ask, does that even mean? One answer might be a visit to his flagship restaurant, Zahav, but if you don’t live between DC and New York there’s another option. Along with documentarian Roger Sherman, Michael heads back to the Holy Land In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

In part, the question is a difficult one because despite its existence at the confluence of some of the world’s most ancient cultures, the modern state of Israel is among the youngest nations in the world. Even then, it has only embraced its cooking culture within the last thirty years. Is there even such a thing as “Israeli cuisine” that has come together in such a short time?

There are, at least, a number of different cuisines coexisting in Israel. Of course, many of them are related to the predominantly Jewish population. The traditions of the local Sabra and those of the returning diaspora populations are well-represented. But even among these, there is a stunning diversity. The Ashkenazim bring back those dishes from central and eastern Europe that can be made with local Middle-Eastern ingredients, while the Sephardim bring a whole range of foods from the Iberian peninsula and across North Africa, many of which blend over with the local Hamitic and Semitic cultures along the way.

And then there are the influences from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze minority groups. It takes a while to get around to the Palestinians, and early on there are a number of disparaging comments from some of the chefs and shopkeepers Michael interviews, insisting that no, Palestinian food isn’t really that big a deal anyway, that he lets go unchallenged. But in time he does make sure to visit the Territories and sample their own distinct flavors.

One of the most striking commonalities is the way “locally-produced” takes on a whole new meaning in a country that’s only about 250 miles long and between 10 and 70 miles wide. It’s a region that would fit comfortably within most American restaurants’ definitions of the term, and in Israel it can sometimes mean only farms the chef can walk to from her kitchen. But even within this small area is a remarkable array of climates, from the warm Mediterranean and coastal north to the central mountains to the Negev desert in the south. Each one offers its own particular influence on the local cuisine.

Lest I come off like a press release from the local tourism board, I should say here that that’s kind of what In Search of Israeli Cuisine becomes, both for Israel itself and for Michael’s restaurants in Philadelphia. It’s pleasant enough, and the food looks great, it would fit in better on the Food Network or breaking up a Sunday afternoon block of cooking and tourism shows on your local PBS station. There’s little need to pay multiplex prices for this one. And, if you’re really interested in learning about Israeli cuisine you’d be better served by working your way through Yottam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.