Monday, July 31, 2017

FUN MOM DINNER: Alethea Jones and Julie Rudd's mom-com opens on multiple platforms

Think of FUN MOM DINNER as the low-budget version of Bad Moms -- only friskier, funnier, better written, acted and directed. And though it is every bit as manufactured and manipulative as its predecessor, because of its consistent air of geniality and the improvisational style of the writing and performances, the end result goes down more easily than you might imagine. As written by Julie Rudd (shown below, left) and directed by Alethea Jones (below, right), and with four fine actresses essaying those mom roles, the movie is pretty consistently buoyant and entertaining.

The set-up proves relatively quick and efficient, as we meet the moms in question (below, right to left): Toni Collette, Katie Aselton, Molly Shannon and the movie's surprise "find," Bridget Everett, who pretty much steals the film as the sexy, heavy-set, forthright and funny mom named Melanie.

Two of the mothers initially loathe each other -- Everett and Collette (shown below), the latter in her best holier-than-thou mode that soon morphs into genuine friendship -- while the other two deal with their own problems. Aselton, towing a husband who is overworked and emotionally absent, easily proves that she can handle the leading romantic role, while Shannon does her sweet-and-goofy nerd routine as the lonely single mom in the bunch.

Our girls, on their evening out, get drunk and naughty, have near-flings (Adam Levine makes a nicely sexy bar owner), go clubbing, do some karaoke (below), and take an ocean dip, all while bonding and learning. Meanwhile we spend some time with two of the husbands (Adam Scott and Rob Huebel), both of whom are brought to believable life with humor and more sense and honestly than we often get from the men in some of our current chick flicks. Paul Rust makes a lovely foil for Shannon's character, while writer Rudd's hubby Paul get a funny cameo as the local pot dealer.

There's little new here, but thanks to the talented ensemble both in front of and behind the camera, there's enough liveliness and humor to fill the 82-minute running time -- even if the movie seems to end twice (with the second one not all that necessary).

From Momentum Pictures, Fun Mom Dinner hits theaters, VOD and digital this Friday, August 4. In New York City, look for it at the Village East Cinema; in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center. It will also play nine other major cities. Click here then scroll down to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Woody Harrelson is brilliant in the under-rated/under-seen character comedy, WILSON

Having now seen two Oscar-caliber performances from male actors in the space of two days -- yesterday's post on Wakefield via Bryan Cranston and today's on WILSON, featuring a simply wonderful turn by Woody Harrelson -- I must say that I am now looking forward to seeing just who the Academy might deign to nominate for 2017's Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Mr Harrelson is always good and sometimes infinitely better than that (have you seen his performance in Rampart?), and here he is given the chance to play one of the more unusual characters in his already bursting-at-the-seams repertoire of versatility. The actor comes through with one of his best-ever performances.

What makes Wilson -- the character and to a large extent the movie itself -- so memorable is that what this character says is often dead-on in terms of being truthful. And yet the guy is so weak in the social graces department that what he says ends up not mattering so very much. As directed by Craig Johnson (shown at right, of True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins) and written by Daniel Clowes (of Ghost World and Art School Confidential) from his own graphic novel, the movie hits us full-out with this truly bizarre fellow and doesn't let us escape from him for more than a minute of its just-over-an-hour-and-a-half running time. And yet so thoroughly real, if strange, is Wilson, and so funny/sad/embarrassing/kind/angry and above all compelling is Harrelson's ability to bring him to grand and oddball life, that by the end of the movie we're rooting for the guy like you wouldn't have believed possible going in.

Wilson is full of other smart, deft performances, too -- particularly from Laura Dern (above, with Harrelson), who plays our hero's ex; Judy Greer (below) as his dog-sitting friend; and especially Isabella Amara, as the young woman who comes into his life as quite a surprise.

Ms Amara (shown at center, below) captures incredibly well that teenage surfeit of worry masked by a don't-give-a-shit attitude, from which little moments of genuineness now-and-then emerge. She's quite a find. The movie also manages to balance its view of modern technology as something tiresome and problematic with one that admits its usefulness and sharing abilities. Mr. Clowes also brings us a full-bodied, wart-and-all hero who must navigate his way around things that many of us simply take for granted.

As director Mr. Johnson wisely steps out of the way of his talented cast, allowing them to pull out the stops whenever needed.  He also keeps his tone light and jocular enough to carry us over the movie's several surprising turns. Prison, it seems, can sometimes even build character.

By the end of Wilson, most of its characters have managed to stay true to themselves, even as they make the concessions and compromises that go into somehow living in our very problemed world, while our hero has managed to finally, quite believably grow up.

From Fox Searchlight and running 94 minutes, after a disappointingly meager theatrical run, the movie may finally find an audience and success via home video (it's out now on DVD and Blu-ray), on VOD and via streaming facilities.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Blu-ray/DVDebut: WAKEFIELD -- Robin Swicord's take on the E. L. Doctorow story

The idea of WAKEFIELD -- both the movie (directed and adapted by Robin Swicord, shown below, from the short story by E.L.Doctorow) and the Doctorow story itself -- is such a strong and original one that I think it would be difficult for any intelligent middle-class reader or viewer not to be drawn in by it. A relatively successful corporate drone on his way home from work one evening encounters first a problem with his commuter train's inability to proceed (in the short story, it is the accidental uncoupling of the train car in which he is seated) and finally arrives in his town only to discover that an electrical blackout has occurred.

Once he reaches his house, instead of proceeding inside to greet his wife and daughters, without anyone noticing, he goes up and into the attic room located atop the garage across from the house. Why? Both film and short story make it clear that Howard Wakefield is an intelligent but unhappy man and not a very good or kind one, either (at least in the more conventional meaning of those words). His marriage is certainly in trouble, so perhaps he needs some time alone to figure it all out. Whatever: Howard decides to take that time, which stretches from mere hours into days, weeks and months alone in his little attic storeroom by day, while scavenging for food and other needs by night.

After viewing this film, which TrustMovies found interesting enough, certainly, but not as compelling as he had hoped it might be, he decided to read the short story (which you can find here). Doctorow's Wakefield takes less than half as long to read as does Ms Swicord's version (at 106 minutes) does to view. And while the character of Howard narrates both, because the movie's POV allows us to see what Howard sees, rather than simply hearing his words, our experience is now much broader and encompassing.

Some viewers might find this more interesting, if expected, but Swicord's version does two things that detract from the original: It takes you, to some rather large extent, out of the mind of Mr. Wakefield, while allowing you to form our own judgment of what he (and now you) see; and it absolutely softens Wakefield's character so that you can imagine that this man's time alone has perhaps helped him to change for the better. The story itself offers none of the latter. For instance, in Doctorow's original our guy refers to the Down Syndrome children next door as "retards." But, oh, my, not in the movie. The whole tone of Wakefield's narration in Doctorow's version is drier and more "entitled."

And while the ending of both story and movie is almost exactly the same, the movie offers, yes, quite a bit more possibility of hope. Perhaps this is simply the difference between Ms Swicord's reading of the original and my own. Certainly the performance of Bryan Cranston in the title role (shown, above, in his middle class mode and, below, in the gone-to-seed version) is exemplary, as this actor most often is.

Jennifer Garner (below and two photos up) also proves credible as the wife, but because what we see of her and all the others here comes from Howard's viewpoint, the movie remains pretty much a one-man show. To her credit, Swicord stays remarkably close to the original regarding the various incidents that pile up along the way. But Doctorow kept us closed into the mind of his man; Swicord lets us wander too much. Still, I'd have to recommend Wakefield, the movie, simply because the idea here is so fascinating, while the execution, if flawed, is at least good enough to carry us along. If you have the time, however, I'd highly recommend reading that original, too.

Released theatrically via IFC Films, the combo DVD and Blu-ray pack arrives on home video from Shout Factory this coming Tuesday, August 1 -- for purchase and/or rental.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Rejoice! Stephen Fry's THE HIPPOPOTAMUS adaptation arrives on screen via John Jencks

Attention, please: For anyone who savors the English language in all its succulent, incisive, trippingly-off-the-tongue glory, Stephen Fry -- one of the great humorists of our time -- is back with an adaptation of his comic novel THE HIPPOPOTAMUS, brought to the screen by director John Jencks and a quartet of writers that includes Blanche McIntyre, Tom Hodgson, John Finnemore, and Robin Hill. It is, from first scene onward, a non-stop delight, one that Mr. Fry himself calls, "Frankly terrific. In fact, probably better than the original source material."

Not having read the novel (TrustMovies knows Fry best from his film and television work), I can only say that Mr. Jencks (shown at right) and his crew have captured Fry's sense of humor -- quirky, mad, inclusive, smart, satirical, and hugely funny -- quite well, and have managed to tell a rather complicated tale of mystery and miracles, life and death, creativity and sensuality, desire and need extremely well, drawing fine performances from a cast that includes actors both known and not-so on these shores, and a great one from the movie's leading man, Roger Allam, below, who would immediately become an "Oscar" contender in any just universe.

Mr. Allam portrays a "blocked" poet named Ted who has now morphed into a slovenly, cynical theater critic. One of the movie's early and juiciest scenes discovers him, drunk (as near-usual), sitting in a London theater observing a truly awful performance of Shakespeare by a no-talent director and his cast (shown below, chosen clearly for its looks and maybe fame, certainly not for its talent) that Allam's character rightly, loudly and vociferously -- in the very best Queen's English -- boos off the stage. This scene is so funny, shocking, intelligent and deserved that it immediately becomes a "classic."

Then Ted is asked by a dying member (Emily Berrington, below) of a family with whom he has long been involved to look into the occurrence of miracles on the family's estate. This he does, for payment of course, and soon he is chock-a-block in plots and schemes, all of which allow Mr. Fry (together with his adapters) to explore everything from religion and science to language and desire, which he does in his own surprising and commanding manner, which is then brought to great life by the assembled crew and cast.

This would include some folk we've often seen, for instance the wonderful Fiona Shaw (below, right, with Allam) and John Standing, along with some actors new to us but sure to be seen again soon, such as

a young fellow by the name of Tommy Knight (below), who plays a relative who may be key to these "miracles," and a young actress named Emma Curtis, who just might become the new subject for our miracle worker.

Along for the ride are such fun actors as Tim McInnery (below, left), playing an over-the-top theater director with major health problems, and Lyne Renee (below, right), in the role of Ms Curtis' sexy mother. Everyone from Russell Tovey to Geraldine Somerville to Matthew Modine make appearances here, and they're all just fine.

But mostly it's Mr. Allam, with his spot-on delivery of Mr. Fry-and-adapters' delightful dialog, that makes this movie such an amazement. You, as were we, are likely to come away from The Hippopotamus with a renewed appreciation of the English language -- and what can be achieved with it by folk who really know and care about what they're doing.

From Lightyear Entertainment and running a lean 89 minutes, the movie -- after playing around the country on the theatrical and "special engagement" circuit (two of its final stops are here in Coconut Grove and Naples, Florida, this coming Monday, July 31 at the Silverspot Cinemas) -- will make its debut on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital this Tuesday, August 1, for purchase and rental. However you choose to view, do make sure you see it.

Note: Once you've viewed the film, be sure to watch the wonderful Q&A included in the Blu-ray's Special Features (and as part of the theatrical program, too). It features actor Allam, the film's director and lead writer, and Stephen Fry himself. What they all have to say about the filmmaking process, transforming a novel into a movie, creativity, and how things get done (or don't) 
is very nearly as delightful and edifying as the film itself.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Gillian Robespierre's sophomore effort, LANDLINE, hits South Florida theaters

Well, its credentials as a piece of American Independent Cinema are certainly flawless: actors the likes of John Turturro, Edie Falco and Jay Duplass, along with newer members such as Abby Quinn and Jenny Slate, the latter of whom director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre collaborated with a few years back on the funny, original and much better indie movie, Obvious Child. Their newest collaboration, LANDLINE, though it boasts a number of lovely moments and scenes, doesn't fare nearly as well overall.

Set in 1995, the movie opens on Labor Day, with some awfully laborious (and, yes, funny) sex taking place on screen. Ms Robespierre, shown at left, together with her co-writers Elizabeth Holm and Tom Bean, have fashioned a movie about family set back some 22 years, at a time when technology, computers, the internet (but not yet cell phones) were beginning to control our lives. This will initially make the movie a nice nostalgia trip for some of us. (Benihana, the restaurant most seen in the film, was also perhaps a bit more newsworthy then.)

The themes here, in addition to the perennially popular one of "family," are those of intimacy, fidelity, trust and betrayal -- and how important these actually are (or maybe aren't) to a successful, long-term relationship. All good -- if nothing we haven't encountered at the movies many times before.

When the family's younger daughter (Quinn, above right) discovers -- a little too easily, it seemed to me -- what looks like an affair their dad (Turturro, at right, two photos above) is having with another woman, she eventually apprises older sibling (Slate, above, left) of the goings-on.

They keep mom (Falco, above, center) out of it while they (sort of) investigate matters, even as the older daughter, though engaged to a nice fellow named Ben (Duplass, in bathtub below), nonetheless falls into an her own affair with an old friend she has recently encountered at a party (Finn Wittrock, at left in photo at bottom).

That's about it -- except that the chickens, as they say, do come home to roost. (Oh, there's a little drug-dealing here, too.) The problem is that nothing we see or hear is all that incisive, interesting, funny or moving. (It's certainly not original, either.) Performances are as good as can be, given the material, and the movie is never unwatchable. But we keep waiting for it to take off. Instead it stays firmly grounded until it finally rolls into its predetermined destination.

From Amazon Studios and running a little too long even at 97 minutes, Landline, after hitting the major cultural centers a week or so back, opens here in South Florida tomorrow, Friday, July 28, in the Miami areas at AMC's Aventura 24 and Sunset Place 24, Regal's South Beach 18 and the O Cinema Wynwood. The following Friday, August 4, it expands to Fort Lauderdale, the Palm Beach and Boca Raton areas at The Classic Gateway TheatreRegal's Royal Palm Beach 18 and Shadowood 16, the Living Room Theater, and the Cinemark Palace 20. Wherever you live across the country, just click here to find a theater near you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Netflix's latest: a James C. Strouse trifle titled THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES

Not terribly bad, but unfortunately not very good either, THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, starring an either miscast or mis-directed Jessica Williams, makes its streaming debut via Netflix this Friday, July 28. As written and directed by James C. Strouse (shown below and who, as Jim Strouse, did a hell of a lot better with his earlier People Places Things), this thankfully short movie introduces us to a character who, in current rom-com fashion, is incredibly inappropriate.

Except when, conveniently, she isn't. This little matter of conveniences sticks out throughout the film like a sore thumb. You may notice it first as Jessica has a date with a new guy (Chris O'Dowd, as delightful and real as always) and suddenly decides to have a few "honest" moments. Great. But then we're back to the nonsense again. Our girl Jessica (below) is a control freak, and this is understandable when so many things in her life are going wrong -- from significant others to the workplace to her lifelong love of theater.

Nonetheless, the girl is, as they say, a handful, carrying her inappropriateness into every area of her life. At best she's mildly amusing; at worst, she's just annoying. -- never more so than at the family baby shower for her younger sister (below), at which her gift is both dumb and, yes, inappropriate.

The themes here include how to fit into things, what divorce does to children, hook-ups vs relationships, and commitment -- to everything from a man to the theater. Plenty of little life lessons are learned along the way, all worked out sweetly and conveniently, and, as with most rom-coms these days, much too quickly and easily.

I don't think I've seen Ms Williams in anything other than Mr. Strouse's earlier People Places Things, in which she was quite good. I suspect that she is not being shown to her best here, but as Mr. O'Dowd (above) notes at one point, she does have a beautiful smile.

If you're interested, the only place to see The Incredible Jessica James right now (starting this Friday, anyway) is via Netflix streaming. So: your move. (That's Lakeith Stanfield, above, left, who plays Jessica's ex very well, even though his character, too, seems only quasi-real.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Michael Almereyda probes Hampton Fancher (and Hollywood) in new doc bio-pic, ESCAPES

If TrustMovies had to pick a single quality that describes what filmmaker Michael Almereyda consistently achieves more than any other in his films, I would call it empathy for the subject at hand. Almereyda's style is often so strange (and equally wonderful, however) -- have you seen his Happy Here and Now? -- that the empathy comes across as something other than the more usual 'sympathy' that pushes us to shed a tear for our poor protagonist. Yet that empathy stands tall amidst other conflicting feelings: surprise, wonder, confusion, even occasional queasiness.

In his second-latest film, ESCAPES (another new one, Marjorie Prime, opens soon), Almereyda, shown at left, takes a good, long, loving look at a fellow possessing the very classy name of Hampton Fancher that many of us have heard of yet probably know little about. The filmmaker begins by showing us, as we hear Fancher's gravelly-yet-mellifluous voice (which narrates the entire documentary), our young man (shown below) as the typically hot-looking-yet-impoverished Hollywood actor, struggling to make ends meet, even as he refuses to be taken care of by his current and more successful actress girlfriend. That girlfriend is owed some money by her ex-boyfriend, and Fancher is keen on her getting the debt paid back. That story turns out to be just one of many succulent tales that Fancher regales us with over the course of this consistently interesting, surprising and enriching 89-minute movie -- which bounces along merrily, due to both Fancher's abilities as a raconteur and Almereyda's very interesting use of accompanying visuals.

What the filmmaker has cleverly done here is to splice together one after another of Mr. Fancher's many appearances on screen and TV (50 of them are seen here by my count) to form a kind of constant backdrop for the actor/writer's storytelling. Other actors -- from Troy Donahue (below, left) to Raymond Burr -- appear with Fancher in scenes from his various films and television series.

The key to why these scenes were specifically chosen appears to be their mood and the intention of the characters on screen, reflecting whatever situation Fancher is currently describing. They're clearly not that situation, but the manner in which they reflect it is by turns amusing, surprising, graphic and/or silly. It's all great fun, in addition to being an original and appropriate way to couple visuals to verbal storytelling.

Among the many anecdotes, the best may be Fancher's tale of arriving in Harrisburg, PA, for a special screening of an earlier (and evidently pretty awful) movie he'd made, and then coupling for a day (and a night) with the plain-Jane secretary of the person in charge of his appearance there. This is a humdinger and then some, and it just keeps getting better as it goes along. Divided into chapters with interesting heading, the movie spends one of these giving us a fascinating take on Fancher's own early history, growing up (at right) at as part of a half-Hispanic family in Southern California and then ending up, for a time, as an evidently pretty good Flamenco dancer (below), before setting his sites on a career as an actor, and then a writer, in Hollywood.

His career as the former did not take off, past a slew of minor and then supporting roles, and he admits in the course of the film that he never really wanted to act and was, in fact, a lazy actor, who never bothered doing his homework regarding character. It was as a writer (as well as executive producer of but a single film) that he is likely to be best remembered. That film was Blade Runner, which, as an actor, Fancher had tried to option from its author Philip K. Dick early on, and was finally able to do with the help of his good friend and (by then paralyzed) actor Brian Kelly, who had starred in the popular TV series, Flipper. The section devoted to Kelly sheds a good deal of new light on Fancher, the friendship between the two men, their careers and competitiveness, and Fancher's psychological profile.

The man's relationship with several women important in his life comes to the fore, as well, especially that of his connection to and love for actress Barbara Hershey. Of course, it is via Fancher himself that we are hearing all this, but I have to admit that the guy seems like a relatively reliable witness and somebody I might have been happy to know and be lucky enough to call my friend. (That's the more-or-less current Mr. Fancher -- still a good-looking guy, even as he approaches his 80th year -- shown above and below.

From Grasshopper Film, Escapes opens tomorrow, Wednesday, July 26, in New York City at the IFC Center, and from there moves to another 14 cities around the country over the weeks to come. It will play Washington DC at the Landmark E Street Cinema beginning August 4, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, starting August 11. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here then scroll down to the bottom of your screen and click on Where to Watch.