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Archive for the ‘Art house fare’ Category

Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“ALL ABOUT NINA” My rating: B-

97 minutes | MPAA rating: *

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been on the brink of stardom for a long time.

She’s delivered some terrific TV work (“Braindead,” “Fargo”), sometimes in lead performances, but most of her movie roles have fallen into the supporting category.

“All About Nina” should change that. Written and directed by Eva Vives, “Nina” provides Winstead with perhaps her juiciest role to date.

Nina Geld is a standup comic whose fiercely rude act (menstruation, noncommittal sex) reflects her own angry essence.  She’s perennially pissed because comedy is such a boy’s club; in her private life she avoids intimacy.

Emotional intimacy, anyway. Sex is something else…Nina’s a tart-tongued man-eater who picks up strangers and leaves them whimpering for more.

Despite her tough talk and swagger, Nina is weirdly vulnerable.  After a set — even a wildly successful one — she stumbles offstage and invariably pukes in an ice bucket or other suitable receptacle.  On some level her art hurts.

“All About Nina” follows her from NYC to Los Angeles, where her agent has wrangled her an audition for a TV show. But at the film’s real core is her relationship with Rafe (Common), a contractor who senses the pain beneath Nina’s rough exterior and decides to go slow. (It may be one of the movies’ rare instances of a guy turning down sex.)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common

Vives’ screenplay has its ups and downs. The depiction of the comedy world — especially backstage at a showcase where woman comics are competing for the same gig — feels absolutely right.

And the slow-burning Nina/Rafe relationship is sweet and sexy despite the landmines with which Nina’s past is littered.

But there’s a big reveal here about our  heroine’s childhood that will shock many viewers (though it retrospect it probably shouldn’t)…it’s not that the film shouldn’t have gone there so much as Vives hasn’t quite figured out how to finesse it.

“All About Nina” is a minor film but as a showcase for Winstead it delivers in spades.

More, please.

| Robert W. Butler

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Benjamin Dickey as Blaze Foley

“BLAZE” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 28 at the Tivoli, Screenland Armour and Glenwood Arts)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is unlike any other music biz film biography I can think of. Its closest competition in its nontraditional approach would  be 2015’s “Miles Ahead” with Don Cheadle playing the great jazz trumpeter in a narrative-tossed-salad retelling.

The ostensible subject of “Blaze” is Blaze Foley, a Texas musician and songwriter who hung out with country/folk music’s “outlaw” wing until his untimely death by gunshot in 1989 .

Hawke’s film (he  directed and adapted the memoir by Foley’s wife Sybil Rosen) follows no particular chronology. It’s all over the place. As a framing device he has given us a radio interview with fellow folkie Townes Van Zant (Charlie Sexton); scenes from Foley’s life play out as Van Zant provides a running commentary.

Foley (Ben Dickey) is a bearded, burly good ol’ fella.  He can be charming in a down-home way. He can also be a drunken maniac.

A Foley concert might be sublime, or it might be a slog, given the musician’s tendency to rap endlessly when the customers only wanna hear some tunes.  A few of his songs were recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine, but he was never a household word or a major player.

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“McQUEEN”  My rating: B-  

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That designer Alexander McQueen was an artistic genius is beyond debate.

The question posed — and only partially answered — by the new documentary “McQueen” is: “Just how screwed up was he?”

McQueen hanged himself in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral. During his two decades in fashion he had gone from impeccably tailored Saville Row suits for men to bizarre runway shows that often were more about performance art — and indulging his own  obsessions — than about creating a sellable line.

He was a rebel and a disruptor. One of his most notorious shows — 1995’s Highland Rape — featured disheveled models who seemed to have stumbled away from a sexual assault. The fashion world was appalled and many condemned the young designer as a misogynist.

Ian Bonhomie and Peter Ettedgul’s film dispels that notion — women were among McQueen’s best friends and most loyal collaborators — but it never does nail the sources of their subject’s neuroses and inspirations.

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Thomasin Mckenzie, Ben Foster

“LEAVE NO TRACE” My rating: A- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Literature tells us.

Cinema shows us.

And few films are better at showing us than “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s second feature (after 2010’s flabbergastingly good “Winter’s Bone”).

There’s little dialogue in this film, and most of that is of a matter-of-fact nature. Situations that other movies would take pains to explain here  go unaddressed.

But far from diminishing the experience, this oral reticence makes  “Leave No Trace”  a rewardingly rich viewing experience.  Nobody tells us what’s going on; we simply watch…and then we know.

As the film begins 15-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) appear to be on a camping trip. They’re foraging for food, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under a tarp.

But at certain points Will announces that they’re having a drill. Dropping everything, Tom races into the thick forest undergrowth.  If her father can find her, she’s flunked.

Clearly,  this is no suburban father and daughter on a weekend retreat. The two are living in the woods, evading hikers and a groundskeeping crew of prison convicts. Periodically they go into town — they’re squatting in a park just outside Portland — where Will picks up his cocktail of psychotropic drugs from the V.A. and resells them to other veterans in a hobo town.

How did father and daughter end up hiding out in the woods?  What happened to Tom’s mother? What is the nature of Will’s mental illness? (A big clue is the way he involuntarily flinches whenever he hears a helicopter.) And is he dangerous?

The screenplay by Granik and regular collaborator Anne Rossellini (based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment) lets those questions hang. But no worries…everything we need to know about these fugitives is there if we pay attention.

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Andrea Riseborough

“NANCY” My rating: B

87 minutes | No MPAA rating

Brit actress Andrea Riseborough is a human chameleon.

She played Michael Keaton’s actress girlfriend in “Birdman,” Billy Jean King’s hairdresser and lesbian lover in “Battle of the Sexes,” and Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana in “Death of Stalin.” In each of these supporting roles she was hard to recognize as the same actress.

Now Riseborough gets a leading role and, not unexpectedly,  nails it.

In the title role of  Christina Choe’s “Nancy” she delivers a performance that is simultaneously heartbreaking and scary.

Nancy is a pale, mop-headed weirdo who lives with her demanding invalid mother (Ann Dowd). More accurately, she lives on the Internet, always peering into her cel phone or computer screen.

A social misfit, Nancy only really feels like a person when she assumes a false  identity and goes trolling for new friends/victims.  One such individual is Jeb (John Leguizamo), whom she met on a site for parents mourning dead children.  They arrange a face-to-face and Nancy (he knows her as Rebecca) shows up heavily padded to give the impression that she’s pregnant. Creepy.

She works as a temp, showing the other employees at a dental clinic faked photographs of herself touring North Korea.

When Mom dies Nancy is left to her own devices.  She catches a TV news report about a couple whose little girl Brooke vanished 30 years ago.  Forensic cops have used age progression software to create a “photo” of what the missing child would look like today…and Nancy is floored: “It’s like looking into a mirror.”

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Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters

“AMERICAN ANIMALS” My rating: C+ 

116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “American Animals” four college-age doofuses  rob a university library of a priceless copy of Audubon’s massive Birds of America.

Based on real events, the film is as much about these losers’ deluded dreams as it is about the planning and execution of the heist.

Writer/director Bart Layton attempts to add perspective to this shambling crime story by alternating between fictional recreations of the robbery and interviews with the actual participants. Now in their mid-30s, these men sometimes contradict one another…when that happens Layton will often replay a scene “Rashomon”-style, now altered to reflect a different individual’s memories (or inventions).

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) are childhood friends attending different colleges in Lexington, KY.  They are bored, unfulfilled children of Middle America, and when they learn that the Transylvania University library has a locked-down room displaying  the Audubon book and other treasures (like a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) they begin to consider if they could rob the place. (more…)

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Fred Rogers

“WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” My rating: B+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. (more…)

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