|Florence Foster Jenkins|
|Ants on a Shrimp|
Four extremely enthusiastic recommendations and a few turkeys in a busy week at the movies:
David Mackenzie's West Texas-set "Hell or High Water" - from an Oscar-worthy script by "Sicario" scribe Taylor Sheridan - offers two sets of mismatched travelers: bank-robbing brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), the loose cannon, and Toby (Chris Pine), the laconic and level-headed one who wants to steal just enough, and in small enough increments, to prevent the foreclosure of their family farm; and the cops chasing them: Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a curmudgeonly coot weeks away from forced retirement, and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), his part-Native partner, who bears the brunt of Marcus' politically incorrect yet hilarious ramblings. Special mention should be made of two actresses who play waitresses: Katy Mixon, who hasn't seen anyone like Chris Pine come along before, and Margaret Bowman, who in an unforgettable scene bellies up to Marcus and Alberto at a joint called the T-Bone and asks, "What dun't you want?" You can order whatever you'd like, but you're getting a steak, medium rare, and either green beans or corn. So…what dun't you want? Great scenes make great movies (more about that below) and "Hell or High Water" is full of them. Bridges deserves an Oscar nomination for his work - he owns the picture - and Pine shows dramatic acting ability to go with his magnetic looks. The brilliant ending leaves you thinking long after the lights have gone up. This is one of the best and certainly most entertaining films of 2016.
So is writer-director Jeff Baena's mumblecore gem "Joshy," without doubt the best movie set in my old stomping grounds of Ojai, California. Josh (Thomas Middleditch) came home from work on his birthday, chatted with his fiancée, went to the gym, and returned to find she'd asphyxiated herself with his belt. Well, he can't get the deposit back on the Ojai house he'd rented for his bachelor party, so he invites his friends to join him for the weekend anyway. There's Eric (Nick Kroll), the party animal; Adam ("Listen Up Philip" director Alex Ross Perry), the wet blanket; and teddy bear-ish Ari (Adam Pally), the emotional center of the group. Unbeknownst to the others, Eric's also invited his buddy Greg (Brett Gelman), a center-stage type introduced in one of eight to ten memorable scenes that unfold in delightfully unexpected ways.
The first night, Adam wants to play a "co-op game" with complicated rules nobody understands. Instead, they go to the bar in town, where Josh and Ari talk with Jodi (Jenny Slate), a fellow tourist who's celebrating her birthday with friends. (There is much to adore about "Joshy," but it may be remembered most for Slate, who's phenomenal here: adorable, sensitive, game. I didn't love her showcase film "Obvious Child," but now I can't wait to see more of her.) Adam cuts in. He managed to get a few bars of cell reception and called his longtime girlfriend, who unceremoniously dumped him ("Ten years of my life down the shitter"). He also mentions that Eric found a casino nearby, and Josh's eyes light up: "There's a casino near here?" The ways guys avoid dealing with problems are Baena's primary interest, and he's smart enough to understand that repression isn't strictly a bad thing. Adam, of course, pooh-poohs the casino idea at first: "Nobody wants to stay at home and [muttered] have bed time?" "HAVE BED TIME?" Ari asks incredulously, and I still haven't stopped laughing over that line. It's the funniest of the year.
There are also lovely and tender scenes between Ari and Jodi, who went to the same summer camp as kids and consider the possibility of pursuing a relationship; a terrific scene in which Josh's friend Aaron ("Happy Christmas" director Joe Swanberg) stops by with his wife and four-year-old son, whom Eric promptly offers cocaine; a great scene involving Isadora (Lauren Weedman), a sex worker whom Eric invites over to bring Josh "catharsis"; and a tonally incongruous but riveting scene with Lisa Edelstein and Paul Reiser as the late fiancée's parents, who continue to harbor unfounded suspicions about Josh's involvement in her death. And so many more. "Joshy" is already available on Video on Demand. I realize the title is cringe-y, but I implore you to give it a chance.
Another film of finely observed moments is Ira Sachs’ “Little Men,” far superior in its understanding of New York real estate to Sachs’ previous picture, 2014’s implausible “Love is Strange.” Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear are the married couple Kathy and Brian Jardine, she a successful psychotherapist, he a community-theater actor whose father dies as the movie opens, leaving Brian and his sister their childhood home in Brooklyn. She lets Brian and Kathy move in in exchange for market rent from the adjacent space downstairs, where Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia), a close friend of their late father, has for many years been allowed to pay much less for her old-fashioned dress shop. Brian and Kathy’s son Jake (Theo Taplitz), a sweet and artistic introvert, makes fast friends with Leonor’s extroverted son Tony (Michael Barbieri). As Brian and Kathy slowly but surely insist on a rent raise from Leonor, how will the boys’ relationship be affected? “Little Men” is wise to the primacy of money and to the elaborate dance we do (and at times stop doing) to pretend otherwise. Its five central characters are drawn with dimension, each given important moments, and impeccably realized by the first-rate cast. Seek this one out.
Finally, another huge thumbs up for David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon,” a wondrous, old-fashioned and mercifully low-tech live-action film that’s a real gift to moviegoing families this summer. Oakes Fegley is the name of the young actor who scored the lead, and he delivers an engaging performance that eschews precocity and convinces us of his special connection with the titular (and, blessedly, mostly un-anthropomorphized) dragon, Elliott. That name – Elliott – is one of several similarities “Pete’s Dragon” bears to the great “E.T.,” the most important being a simple story told without condescension from the youngster’s point of view. Bryce Dallas Howard is not a personal favorite, but she finds a nice way as the park ranger whose father (a well-cast Robert Redford), a former ranger, claims to have seen the Millhaven Dragon in his youth. She finds Pete, who was orphaned in an automobile accident, six years later, ostensibly living alone in the woods. But don’t be so sure… “Pete’s Dragon” drew me in and left me wiping away tears. I’m so glad I didn’t write it off as just “a kids’ movie.”
Quick capsules on the rest, from the bottom up: I love that “Sausage Party” revels in its political incorrectness. We all know that the closer we are to someone, the more forthright we can be with him or her, so it stands to reason that getting past P.C. nitpicking will allow a more meaningful dialogue to take place. Unfortunately, “Sausage Party” simply isn’t funny. Not a little bit, not here and there, not at all. I slept through at least half an hour of its 89-minute runtime, a mash-up of endless food puns and witless vulgarity… To nobody’s surprise, the great Meryl Streep manages to bring humanity to the enthusiastic-yet-awful-singing novelty act that is “Florence Foster Jenkins.” But after the similarly themed “Marguerite” earlier this year, diminishing returns have set in. It may be fundamentally impossible to choose a perspective on this material. Is Florence to be laughed at? Pitied? Cheered? Surely not enjoyed? Nina Arianda, still smacking the same stick of gum from her terrific turn in 2014’s “Rob the Mob,” is forced to deliver an exhortation during Florence’s performance at Carnegie Hall that is so laughable, it stops the movie cold. Hugh Grant appeals as Florence’s (to the outside world) husband, St. Clair Bayfield, while Simon Helberg simpers annoyingly as her accompanist, Cosme McMoon… Sean Ellis’ “Anthropoid,” about the Czech resistance’s somewhat bumbling mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich (the so-called “Butcher of Prague,” third in command behind Hitler and Himmler), is a two-hour sleeping pill. Jamie Dornan is here, perhaps looking to establish his bona fides after “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but he’s cardboard. Cillian Murphy is worse; there’s something actively dislikable about his screen presence. The climactic set piece, a shootout at a church where the resisters held off the Nazis for six hours, is a cut above the rest, but you wonder whether a few well-aimed grenades might not have ended it early… If so inclined, you can catch “Ants on a Shrimp” on the tube. That’s where Maurice Dekkers’ documentary belongs, perhaps late at night on the Food Network. We’re behind the scenes as Rene Redzepi and his A-team from Copenhagen’s Noma (frequently ranked the world’s top restaurant) decamp to Tokyo for a five-week pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental. The movie is best in its depiction of the interconnectedness of the team, but lacks in the areas of critical distance, structure, and food porn… Finally, also on VOD (in conjunction with a quickie arthouse release this week) is Alice Winocour’s “Disorder,” a triumph of sound design more than anything else, with hunky Matthias Schoenaerts as Vincent, a French soldier back from Afghanistan, whose buddy sets him up with a sinecure as weekend security guard for the wife (Diane Kruger) and son of a Lebanese arms dealer. I liked Kruger a great deal in this summer’s “The Infiltrator,” but her Jessie and Vincent have less than zero chemistry. I, on the other hand, could think of lots of ways to help him forget about his PTSD…