Movie Review: “Two-Bit Waltz” brings another Mamet to the big screen

waltz

Clara Mamet makes her film directing debut with “Two-Bit Waltz,” an inconsequential, self-consciously quirky coming of age comedy from an actress-playwright testing her movie-making wings at the ripe old age of 20.

The castmember of TV’s “The Neighbors” has made the transition from playing a filmmaker in the indie enviro-terrorism drama “Night Moves” to being a writer-director. It helps that her parents are the famed playwright/filmmaker David Mamet (“Glengary Glen Ross”) and his actress wife Rebecca Pidgeon (“Heist”). Would the Kahlo-browed Miss Mamet have gotten this project off the ground without the name, the fact that mom and two other members of Dad’s rep company — William H. Macy and David Paymer — agreed to co-star in it with her? Probably not. I’ll leave that to America’s thousands of film school students and alumni to gawk in jealous disbelief as this Hollywood style nepotism takes root in one of America’s premiere theatrical families.

Mamet plays Maude, an indulged, distracted and (take her word for it) precocious child of privilege who smokes like a chimney, lost her virginity to a heel, is constantly taking “notes for my novel” and is failing at high school.

“How have you been occupying your time?”

“I haven’t.”

“What you are you going to do today?”

“Not cause trouble.”

Her mom (Pidgeon) is a self-absorbed ditz, her dad (Macy) has taken to hiding under the bed, reading reading — always reading.

And “self-hating Jew” Maude is forever finding new ways to stand out in the New York private school crowd — bashing Anne Frank, for instance.

“Like she’s NOT making it up!”

Sassy, bored, urged by her more buttoned-down younger brother (Jared Gilman) to make more of herself “and not become “a filthy prostitute,” Maude is in counseling, has vividly cliched fantasies and finds an inappropriate response to every situation — from a sexual come-on, to funeral (licking her dead grandmother’s face).

It’s no surprise that a Child of Mamet should have a clever way with a line and wicked sense of when to drop some tasty profanity. But “Two-Bit Waltz” is amateur theatrics committed to celluloid, a cast of “adorable” eccentrics performing scenes with the precious, remedial chapter titles “Solitude,” “The Date,” “Suspension.”

She’s no Wes Anderson as a writer-director, no Tea Leoni as a quirky actress and whatever she got out of watching “Harold & Maude,” maybe she needs to watch it again.

Still, her rooting about finds a few laughs, more as a writer than as a performer. I’d suggest changing her name, the way Nicolas Coppola did (to Nicolas Cage). That way her fellow film school students won’t hate her so much. When she enrolls. Which she should.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for language including a sexual reference

Cast: Clara Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon, William H. Macy, Jared Gilman, David Paymer

Credits: Written and directed by Clara Mamet. A Monterrey Media release.

Running time: 1:19

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“Peanuts” trailer lets Fox declare war on “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Yes, it looks like the Blue Sky CG production of the “Peanuts” movie will have little or nothing to do with the classic “Peanuts” TV specials. Nobody expected a remake, mind you. And it may have its charms. But releasing it around the holidays means they’re trying to supplant a minor classic.

Which means this Christmas 2015 release won’t have Linus quoting the Bible, telling the birth of Jesus story related there. No “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” either, I’ll wager.  It’ll be about that politically correct kids’ cartoon motif, “imagination.”

We’ll get a little Vince Guaraldi music — then a heavy dose of whatever sensitive pop is in the air and on Spotify at the moment. And if we’re lucky, a few laughs.

Fox Family will be releasing it. So, irony of ironies, it is FOX that will strip the “Christmas” out of a Charlie Brown Christmas movie.

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Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1″

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Dark and hazy, relentlessly glum and dull, “The Hunger Games — MockingJay Part 1″ is the first film in this sci-fi series to refuse to even attempt to stand on its own.

If you haven’t seen the previous films, good luck picking up on what the story is or who those people are, off camera, that on-screen characters mention. Good luck remembering who everybody who shows up onscreen is as well, for that matter.

And if you know the book, you know they’ve saved the climactic action — much of the action — for “Mockingjay Part 2.”

That said, “Part 1″ is an interesting change in tone and approach. The Austrian Francis “I Am Legend/Gotham”” Lawrence directs with more concern for smoky underground atmosphere than for exposition, more interest in telling the audience what they want to hear than letting them feel it for themselves.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is traumatized by the bloodshed of the previous “Games,” and by the loss of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The revolt she inspired against “The Capital” has spirited her away in their vast underground fortress. That’s where other childhood beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is at her side, and old colleagues like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the daft fashion plate Effie (Elizabeth Banks) might be some comfort.

But the powers that be — President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and cunning propaganda chief Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have big plans for her. She is The Mockingjay, the symbolic “face of the revolution.” They want her to do some heroic posing for the cameras, to get the other bombed and embattled districts where labor is enslaved to do The Capital’s work to join in the rebellion.

And all Katniss wants is Peeta. He survived the last “Games,” and is now turning up on TV, urging the rebels to give up on behalf of Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

So it’s a video war, with Katniss coached and made-up and pitted against a frail and haunted Peeta, both of them guided by marketers or straight coercion into staying on message. That’s why the rebels need fashionista Effie, “condemned to this life of jumpsuits” in her new subterranean cell.

The humor is more overt here, but so is the melodrama. Every move and counter-move is arch and built around a ticking clock — doors about to close, bombs about to explode.

George Lucas obsessed about poorly armed peasants bringing down hi-tech war machines with sticks and stones, an idea he put into “Apocalypse Now” and built his Ewoks of “Star Wars” around. It finds new life as we see Katniss bring down a futuristic hover-copter with her bow and arrow.

The underground facility scenes have a smoky quality, as if poor lighting was not enough. The ventilation isn’t up to the job. And what DO all those people do down there to survive, aside from wearing jumpsuits?

Lawrence strains to find real emotions to play here. Her undying love for Peeta seems more unreal than ever. And Moore is entirely too stiff to be a compelling leader of rebels. But Hoffman, after a rough opening scene, reminds us of the shock of his death, bringing a quiet urgency to a supporting role any number of actors could have played, all of them with less shading.

It’s not a bad film, this first-half of the concluding chapter of “The Hunger Games.” But it is, from first scene to last, just a tedious good-looking set-up for what one might hope would be a more lively, and perhaps better lit and ventilated finale.

2stars1

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks

Credits: Directed by Francis Lawrence, written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the Suzanne Collins books. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 2:03

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Movie Review: “Point and Shoot”

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In a cinema recently overrun with combat documentaries, Marshall Curry’s “Point and Shoot” manages a first. Here’s a film that captures the romance of war amongst today’s young and testosterone-fueled.
Want to know why young men from all over the world have flocked to fight for ISIS? “Point and Shoot” explains it.
As fresh as this afternoon’s latest viral video, and as immediate, Curry’s film follows a young man’s “crash course in manhood,” a self-documented
series of adventures that a self-described “spoiled” Baltimorean set out on that culminated in his eager participation in the Libyan Revolution.
Matthew Vandyke had a Georgetown degree, a girlfriend and was living off his mom when he set out, by motorcycle, across the Middle East.
Inspired by “Lawrence of Arabia,” a lifetime of Hollywood action films and by the swaggering Australian adventurer Alby Mangels (TV’s “Adventure Bound”), Vandyke bought a bike and a camera and crisscrossed the Middle East, from Morocco to Syria, Egypt to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He got press credentials and was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, grew a beard and visited the house where Osama bin Laden was killed, where he stole a brick and planted a tiny American flag.
He popped wheelies, wrecked and and recorded hours and hours of video on some of the most harrowing roads in the world.
And then he met some Libyan hippies, fell in love with the country and decided, when the civil war started there in the late winter of 2011, that he should stop simply recording the world he saw. This time, he would participate. He wouldn’t just target practice with every weapon American G.I.s let him try out. He’d carry them into battle, fire them at an enemy and try to bring down a dictator.
It’s a jaunty movie, as the narcissistic adrenalin junkie and OCD sufferer rolls down the roads of the world he only knew through books and freaks out at toilets that give “primitive” a bad name. But as the story turns more serious, so does what he filmed. The footage he captured was first-person stunning — firefights and breathtaking motorcycle rides, Tripoli before Gaddafi fell and Baghdad during U.S. occupation. He was living his dream, starring in his own adventure, in his own movie.
But it took Curry, the acclaimed documentarian who gave us the political campaign film “Street Fight” and the NASCAR stars in training movie “Racing Dreams” to organize it, see the story and big themes and make a movie out of it all. Whatever else he was, Vandyke was no filmmaker. He would just, as the movie suggests, “Point and Shoot.”
In revealing narration and occasional questions from Curry, Vandyke expounds upon how video and the presence of a camera altered the revolutions that swept through the Middle East in 2010 and 2011. These were young men, as himself Vandyke admits, whose “concept of war” comes from TV and movies. They’d stand in the middle of a firefight, emptying their clip, shooting from the hip like Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
They’d pose, as he posed, with weapons they were about to fire.
“Everybody wants something they can share on Facebook.”
They and he were amateurs, but over the course of the civil war, they harden into wary, smart fighters and not just macho yahoos riding in the back of machine gun-armed pickups.
Vandyke may have come to his various epiphanies about the machismo and adrenalin-fueled excitement of war, being swept up in a cause that boils down to sticking with and sticking up for your friends, of young men craving adventure and willing to take deadly risks to leap from video games to house-to-house combat.
But with Curry’s help and Curry’s editing — animation is used to recreate a sequence where Vandyke was imprisoned — Vandyke’s story becomes the universal one this self-centered man-child could never have dreamed he was making as he was shooting it.

3half-star
MPAA Rating: unrated, with bloody violence, profanity

Cast: Matthew Vandyke

Credits: Written and directed by Marshall Curry. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:23

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“Ornery” thy name is Tommy Lee Jones — just ask Hilary Swank

homes1“Ornery” is a word that fits Tommy Lee Jones like a well-broken in pair of cockroach killers, boots as leathery as the features on his timeworn face.
“I don’t know the meaning of the word,” Jones grumps. He’s being disingenuous, of course. We all know he was a Harvard man — Al Gore’s roommate — before he became an Oscar winner. He knows his image, because he’s reminded every Oscar night as hosts and others take it upon themselves to try and get a smile out of his perma-scowl.
“Ornery” comes up in reviews of his latest movie, “The Homesman,” a fine cowboy-free Western set in 1850s Nebraska. Sometimes, one suspects, the critic is talking more about Jones than his character in the film, a claim jumper who calls himself George Briggs, a man who walks the line between ornery and rascal.
“Oh, he’s a lot of both,” chuckles Hilary Swank, who is earning Oscar buzz for her performance as a flinty spinster who blackmails Jones’ character into helping her transport three farm wives whom the hard life on the prairie has driven insane. “He has this great sense of humor, and it comes across in his performances in the odd cadence he uses to deliver a funny line. There’s a little laugh in there that he’s half-hiding. That’s really true of Briggs. And that’s him as a director, too.”
In interviews, Jones’ default mode can be clipped, dismissive. But he takes compliments well, and they’re deserved for “The Homesman” as they were for his directing debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Jones earns comparisons to the cinema’s greatest Western director, John Ford, in Anthony Lane’s review of “Homesman.” What Lane calls his “painterly” eye for a prairie unblemished by powerlines, homes, or even hills or trees was the result of an extensive search for something America has in short supply — unbroken prairie horizons.
“We rejected a lot of places” during the lengthy location scout for the film, Jones says. “Something would be in your sight lines that wasn’t right. But when I found the country that was right — north and east of Las Vegas, New Mexico — all of the locations turned out to be in pretty much one place, all of them found in one day. You look until you find it. We were getting desperate, but that’s desolate, treeless country. I was much relieved there are still places like that out there in America.”
The scholar in Jones — he wrote about Catholic themes in the works of Flannery O’Connor for his senior thesis at Harvard — loved the process of adapting the Glendon Swarthout novel “The Homesman” into a screenplay, and researching the period — little filmed by Hollywood, “which has made a lot of Westerns, but ironically, has told the same Western stories over and over.” Research is a subject he warms to.
“There was a fellow named Solomon Butcher, an itinerant photographer, who worked in the middle of the 19th century IN Nebraska. He left extensive records, photographs, of those people and their houses, their lives.
“He had a standard motif. These people were not used to having their picture taken. It was a very big deal in their world. So when Solomon Butcher showed up and set up his camera, the angle would be very wide. He’d include the entire house. And the entire family would get put on their best clothes — grandma, grandpa, the kids, everybody — come out and stand in front of this house, built of sod bricks, or built of mud, dug out of a slight hill or built with four sod walls. They would put their entire lives into this picture. If they had a good crop of watermelons that year, they’d bring out a table and put a watermelon on it. Cut it in half, and left the photographer see it. If they had a piano or a melodeon, that would be brought outside.
“The men would quite often have their gun. If they had a milk cow they were proud of, they’d get her in the shot. Somehow. I remember one picture, they were so determined to get that beautiful milk cow in the frame that they just walked it up on the roof of the house. Cow, standing on top of the dugout, looking down on the family in front of the house. Damnedest thing. Bizarre, but very very real.”
Butcher’s photographs were all the research he needed for the sod houses, the hairstyles and the clothing of 1850s Nebraska. And in Swank, already earning Oscar buzz for her Hepburnesque performance, he found “an impeccable actress who is strong, determined and physically perfect for the part.”
Jones filmed the Oscar-winning Swank in stark, colorless frames that could be snapshots from Walker Evans’ portraits of Great Depression and Dust Bowl women. And being a trifle ornery, he didn’t sweet talk her into playing a part that every other character describes as “plain as an old tin bucket” or, as Briggs himself mutters, “plain as Hell.”
“They can all call her ‘plain,'” Swank laughs, “but I found her so beautiful in so many ways. It just goes to show you that how some people define ‘plain’ kind of misses the point. She has morals and values and manners chooses to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.”
Swank relished the chance to learn how to harness a mule to a plow, and the chance to work with another Oscar winning actor turned director. And she lets the world in on a secret about her famously crusty co-star and director.
homes2“He’s funnier than you think, and kind of charming. He’s made a feminist Western,” she says. “He’s a brilliant person, well-educated and well-schooled on humanity and people. It transcends time, this movie. The objectification of women, the trivialization of women, women who are labeled ‘bossy’ when they’re just being independent. It’s all in this. It still goes on, and here’s a movie that shows us how far we’ve come, in some ways — treating the mentally ill for instance — and how far we have to travel in others.”

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Have a question for Leighton Meester?

meesterYou don’t have to have caught her break-out performance on TV’s “Gossip Girl” to have a take on Leighton Meester.

She all but stole “Country Strong,” she’s a sexy-comical come-on in this fall’s “The Judge,” and plays an adorable folk singing lesbian (No, THAT’S not a cliche) in “Life Partners,” a cute comedy about two best friends whose relationship gets bent when one of them falls in love and marries.

She reminds me of an American Keira Knightly — Keira lite — willowy, gorgeous eyes, not afraid to play roles that aren’t just clothes horse fare.

Questions for the fetching and funny Leighton Meester? Post a comment, and thanks for the help.

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Spade starts filming “Joe Dirt 2″ — Why?

dirt2Seriously, was there a demand for this that I am missing? The first movie was a lower-than-low fiasco, not exactly a smash, though it did give us a chance to see Spade’s SNL castmate Dennis Miller trying on his radio talkshow guise. All I remember from the movie is that Miller misused “tact” when he should have said “tack” — a sailing term — in “taking another TACT” in an interview.

Spade, like all of us, has aged and aged. Channel surf by that godawful Sitcom he’s been in and check it out. Kathleen Turner may have turned amusingly puffy (to the Farrellys and Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels). Spade has wizened into a Phil Spectorish gargoyle — a done of dirty blond hair over his snarky old leprechaun carcass.

He’s tweeting from makeup — or the set. The new mullet. Darker, for a darker era?

The good news is that he’s directing it, and that it’s going straight to video, 14 years (next year) after the original. Then again, after “Dumber To” does $38 million last weekend? Some studio might get a wild hair to pick it up.

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Next Screening: “After the Fall”

Wes Bentley stars in this crime drama, about “a suburban dad who turns to a life of crime to support his family.” Seems a little dated, with unemployment back below 6%. But we’ll see. Jason Isaacs is in it. Dec. 12 release.

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Box Office: “Dumber To” dominates, “Birdman” cracks the top ten

boxoffice“Dumb and Dumber To” felt like a blockbuster, earning laughs from the audience I saw it with even as I wearied of it at about the 30 minute mark.

It had a big Friday — not epic, but big for a comedy – and appears headed for a weekend win at the box office, besting “Big Hero 6″ $36-33 million, according to Deadline.com’s estimates.

Saturday’s the bigger day for an animated film, so “Hero” could pull out the upset. “Interstellar” doesn’t figure, as it is in line for a still-very-healthy $28 million or so.

Apparently, women aren’t making the big movie going decisions this weekend. The very fine genre picture “Beyond the Lights,” perhaps suffering from the low profiles of the stars and the clunky title, is only opening in the $6-8 million range. A love story set against the coarse backdrop of modern hip hop, maybe the music genre is scaring people off. Maybe they’ll show up Saturday. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the bomb, and she’s bound for stardom.

“Birdman” added hundreds of theaters and cracked the top ten, “Gone Girl” has cleared $150 million, and “St. Vincent” is over $30. I think that last figure means that Bill Murray will collect an Oscar nomination, an indie smash (it’s earned three times what “Birdman” has). So all three of those figure in the Academy Awards.

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Weekend movies: Critics dump all over “Dumb and Dumber To”

toReviews won’t hurt “Dumb and Dumber To.” The college crowd I caught it with ate it up. Granted, they weren’t Ivy Leaguers, but I dare say a generation that grew up with the original semi-raunchy Two Stooges Throwback are going to be all over the AARP qualified Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.

But the reviews have been pretty brutal. A few fell for its sentimental streak, and underwear stains. But not many. Watching “Horrible Bosses 2″ last night I was struck again by how dated the Farrelly Brothers’ PG-13 grossout slapstick seems now. Their style may come back, but the Carrey and Mike Myers style of character farce — broad, cartoonish, unreal — has given way to believable dopes played by Will Ferrell, Ed Helms, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis.

The good reviews this weekend go to Jon Stewart’s directing debut, “Rosewater.” A good film telling the story of a journalist not exactly beaten to the edge of death in an Iranian prison. He was famous enough to have Stewart and Hilary Clinton, among others, rattling Iranian mullahs for his release. So his suffering seems pale by what the movies normally show us. But it’s realistic and commonplace, Stewart and the film’s subject prisoner told me.

The better reviews roll in for Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman.” Hilary Swank leans into another Oscar worthy turn as a spinster who, with an old rascal (Jones) escorts three crazy women from the desolate prairie to Back East. Very good, I thought.

“Beyond the Lights” is a simple “Bodyguard” style take on music, the music biz, stardom’s cost today — but it stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and critics such as myself are totally smitten. Very good reviews for a genre piece.

Then there’s “Foxcatcher,” the best reviewed release opening this weekend. OK, limited release.VERY limited release. Wider soon. Steve Carell, Chaning Tatum and Mark Ruffalo also transform themselves for this (somewhat) true story about the rich DuPont heir who murdered a wrestler.

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