Preview, Felicity Jones becomes the Notorious “RBG” in “On the Basis of Sex”

A Christmas present for fans of Ms. Jones and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a bio-drama about what made her reputation long before she became the most beloved Supreme Court Justice by the left.

Oscar bait? One can only hope.

 

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Netflixable? “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”

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Desperation, as a general rule, makes for good comedy.

For a “caper comedy,” it’s an absolute pre-requisite.

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is fraught with desperation, real and comic.

Deidra (Ashleigh Murray of TV’s “Riverdale”) has it. She’s pretty much raising younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) and brother Jet (Lance Gray) before flaky, self-absorbed mom (Danielle Nicolette) flips out one-time too many in the parking lot of the electronics store where she works.

“This is who I AM!” She smashes an HDTV, that gets classified as “domestic terrorism.” And she’s HAPPY in the joint, happy to ditch the three kids she wasn’t really raising..

“Every meal has a SALAD! ‘Salad law!'”

Super-organized, super-smart valedictorian Deidra sells homework and test prep assistant to classmates and fills her big wall calendar with the deadlines that loom larger with every passing day.

She’s missing school, struggling to get her scholarship applications filled out so that she can get into “any college that’s at least a two day drive from this Goddamned hillbilly town.”

That would be Shelbyville, Idaho. She’s from an interracial family, so her African American guidance counselor (Sasheer Zamata, funny) wants her to succeed, wants “one student I have here get into a college that doesn’t have ‘community’ in front of it.” The African American GC wants to get out of this GD hick town too, “to an inner city school, where things are…nicer,” herself. So, “I need you to get desperate!”

As the deadlines snowball, the responsibilities mount (Child Welfare Services is involved), bills roll in.  “Genetic determinism” (apples not falling far from the tree) is a fresh worry brought up in sociology class.

What if she’s just like her crazy mom and no good dad? No child support dad (David Sullivan) is no help. But…he does work for the railroad.

And there are ways, a century and then some after the deaths of Butch and Sundance, to rob a train. Can a very smart teen and her always-in-her-shadow sister pull off a heist?

The whole voice-over “How to rob a train” montage is the first dull stretch in a comedy built on good casting, sparkling dialogue, brisk editing and yes, desperation. I mean, wouldn’t you feel anxious about your future if you mom was in prison? Especially after she drops one little dollop of “serious” about her past into one prison visit.

“Thought I could reach for something more,” Mom lectures. “‘More’ is not for us.”

The capers are childishly clever and amusingly tense, but it’s the high school and home life stuff that sings here.

Missi Pyle plays the etiquette/home ec teacher running the Miss Idaho Teen Pageant who arm-twists downtrodden Laney into entering.

Tim Blake Nelson is the railroad detective on the case — “Trying to think of a small word that means ‘ignoramus.'”

And Myko Oliver is the ex-boyfriend who works at a burger joint who pooh-poohs Deidra’s other get cash quick schemes.

“Sell weed? You broke up with me because I sell weed.”

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A tip of the Pacific Western Railroad hat to the always-funny as a villain Nelson, and to screenwriter Shelby Farrell. Whatever else Netflix is doing to carve a niche in faintly-edgy teen films — crime, illegal substances, sexuality, profanity — starting with witty dialogue and likable characters.

“What do I want to be? You do realize that for thousands of years, that wasn’t a question. No Mesopotamian farmer asked his kid, ‘What do you want to be?'”

“Deidra & Laney” engage in a ferocious sibling catfight (“Bitch” always leads to a throw-down), struggle to cope with bills and school bullying.

The caper and its investigation robs the film of some of its momentum and fun. I’m inclined to say “Rob a Train” (rob “trains,” in point of fact) says what it has to say and does what it sets out to do in the first 45 minutes.

But this generally deft Sydney Freeland film gets more complex, sometimes comically so, for another 45. It also goes all sentimental.

Still, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train” is that rare made-for-Netflix comedy clever enough, desperate enough, that it could have found an audience on the big screen.

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MPAA Rating: TV-14, burglaries, sexual situations, profanity (a single F-bomb included)

Cast: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crowe, Missi Pyle,

Credits:Directed by Sydney Freeland , script by Shelby Farrell. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:32

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Netflixable? Gay bachelorette comedy “The Feels” ought to be funnier

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It’s the first or second thing they teach you in all the better “How to Script a Romantic Comedy in Nine Lessons” online courses.

Find an excuse to throw a bunch of sexually active folks together, find a cool location, introduce drinks and pot as “truth serum” and bring in a promiscuous wild card/free electron to stir stuff up.

Let hilarity and maybe a few hurt feelings (with tears) ensue. There’ve been so many big screen variations of the “Secaucus Seven/Big Chill” formula that I lost count that I lost count around the time of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” And that was way back in 1997. “About Alex,” “Peter’s Friends,” the list is endless.

“The Feels” is a slapdash lesbian entry in the field, a laugh-free roundup of seven friends for a bachelorette weekend in or around Healdsburg, in California’s Sonoma Valley wine country.

There’s a little (very little) “Bridesmaids,” and “Bachelorette” (a Kirsten Dunst flop) thrown into this “Big Chill” variation.

The novelty here is having a confession cam — or what plays like one. Characters break from the partying to sit and talk about themselves — mainly about orgasms — for some half-hearted attempt at mockumentary reality.

It’ll chiefly be remembered as the movie Constance Wu made before “Crazy Rich Asians” made her famous and possibly a bankable box office star. Wu stars as Andi, the “attractive, powerful and cool” about to marry Lu (Angela Trimbur). Five of their pals join them for this “wild” weekend in the country.

There’s Vivien (co-writer Lauren Parks) and Youtube lesbian-pop- singer Karin (Kárin Tatoyan). “Regular Helen” (Ever Mainard) is the amusingly blunt, stereotypically butch friend who shows up with a VW Microbus. 

And there’s Josh (Josh Fadem of TV’s “Better Call Saul” and “30 Rock”). He’s done much of the organizing, haplessly managed the decorating (AndiLu4EVR poster), and is the one who relishes telling the disappointed Lu that her married-with-two-kids older sister Nikki (director and co-writer Jenée LaMarque) won’t be coming. Or will come. Late. And let down her sis.

Josh is a little on the bitchy side. He’s also the wild card, an Eddie Deezen in the Jeff Goldblum role, heterosexual male in the henhouse. Not quite the right casting, I have to say.

There are awkward toasts, treks to town where they are “Round, brown and ready to party down” (?), according to Helen. Lauren got off early this weekend by lying “to my boss. I told him I was having my eggs harvested this weekend.”

As asides, they have these little confessions — about their first sexual experience, in a two story house with a shiny banister, in a hot tub with frisky waterjets, etc.

Despite those “accidental” Os from puberty, it turns out one of them has never had an orgasm. Ever.

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Feelings are hurt, and mended. The singer sings an improvised Lordes-ish tune. Love is all around, no need to waste it. Which is to say that the dweeby guy makes his move (moves).

And precious little happens aside from that, mainly the No Big O revelation, and everybody telling everybody else “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Every movie has the potential to speak to “its audience,” and “The Feels” is no different. But basic building blocks like entertainment value, funny lines and funnier situations, played with zest and directed with some sense of pace are dispensed with.

If you’re not inclined to grade on the curve? Slapdash.

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MPAA Rating: TV-MA, drug abuse, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Constance Wu, Angela Trimbur, Jenée LaMarqueJosh Fadem, Ever MainardKárin Tatoyan, Lauren Parks

Credits:Directed by Jenée LaMarqueLauren Parks , script by Jenée LaMarqueLauren Parks . A Gravitas/Netflix release.

Running time: 1:28

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Preview, Elle Fanning is menaced by Ben Foster in “Galveston”

Melanie Laurent’s new film opens in France before the U.S (Oct 10), but with this cast, we’ll see “Galveston,” based on a Nic Pizzolatto novel, in limited release shortly.

Brush up on your French with this English language with French subtitles trailer, which puts Elle Fanning in rough company of Ben Foster for 90 minutes.

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Movie Review: Kelly Macdonald is charmed by Irrfan Khan in “Puzzle”

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“Puzzle” is a lightly charming New York variation on “The Lunchbox,” another aching tale of romantic longing and disappointment about a lonely married woman who tumbles for the soulful charms of Irrfan Khan.

This time, Kelly Macdonald is the housewife trapped in a suffocating, unfulfilling marriage who falls for the sleepy-eyed Indian stranger. “Puzzle” becomes that rare vehicle to make full use of the baggage the sweetly-mousy Macdonald and the droll, sensitive Khan bring to their movies.

Agnes is the child of immigrants, living in the house she grew up in with her high school beau, Louie (David Denman), a mechanic, and their two college age sons.

Her life is built around “taking care of” the other three, a submissive wife who volunteers at church, takes a back seat in every decision being made and when we meet her, is lighting the candles on the cake she had to bake at the party of mostly-his-friends she had to organize — for her own birthday.

She’s not a worldly woman, and that makes her come off as a little dim. The iPhone she got as a present rattles her need for simplicity, quiet and that tiny shred of independence that she enjoys in her Luddite life.

“Would somebody please tell my mom she has to stop living in the 20th century?”

It is another gift that changes Agnes’ life. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. We glimpsed her aptitude for reasoning out shapes and missing pieces when Louis broke one of her dishes. Now, she takes to this thousand-piece challenge with relish.

She tears through it in a flash. She calls the relative who gave it to her, wanting to know where she can get another? She’s that sheltered. That leads to her first trip in ages from Bridgeport to the Big City, tp the puzzle shop where she finds what she’s looking for and the flier that piques her curiosity.

“Champion seeking puzzle partner.”

Robert (Khan) lives in a beautiful old house in New Rochelle, a man of means with a maid and a lot of idle time on his hands. She takes the train to his house and he dumps a puzzle on the table.

“Is this a test?”

“Absolutely.”

Whatever else she doesn’t know, whatever her limited life has kept from her, Agnes is a damned jigsaw savant, a “godsend…It was meant to be,” Robert enthuses.

And thus begins their training in the arcane sport of competitive jigsaw puzzling.

She is shy and just coming out of her shell, he is wounded and a little aimless. She has to lie to her husband about where she’s going and what she’s up, because he thinks, “Children play with puzzles, Agnes.”

But as the Agnes and Robert puzzle away, tinkering with their mismatched techniques, the odd personal question gets answered. He starts calling her by her given first name, Marta. She understands the sort of mind that obsesses over every disaster on cable news, a man who craves the order that comes from disorder in solving a puzzle.

And of course, there’s “The Big Game” cliche that they’re prepping for, the Nationals. With that comes a prize, a trip to the Worlds, in the capital of Belgium. She doesn’t know about that.

“You don’t want a free trip to the ancestral home of the Brussels Sprout?”

That line and Khan’s dry, fatigued and yet effortless reading of it should be a tip. If Hollywood wants him for a movie, this is the sort of part they should be offering and not villains in bombastic “Jurassic World” movies. He has the effortless charm all the great romantic leads possess.

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Macdonald has a gift for getting across a Gandhi-like passivity built on top of steel. Agnes may put up with a lot. She may not have a clue what her hip, smart younger son’s vegan/Buddhist girlfriend (Liv Hewson) will eat. But the other son, the drowning in garage work older son (Bubba Weiler) catches the wince in her eyes when Buddhist-girl explains her belief system over dinner.

“We have to give up on the idea of ever being happy.”

Every disaffected wife movie has certain touchstones, and how well they work depends on how easy it is to sympathize with the woman’s plight. Louie is appreciative, but insensitive, never thinking she’s smart enough to be in on the Big Decisions he always has made for them.

The husbands always snore in these movies.

The wives, be they “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” the bored, repressed English suburbanite who craves “The Escape” or the Indian woman whose care filling “The Lunchbox” is wasted on an insensate lout, have varying degrees of justification for their wandering eye.

Agnes’ tiny world is suffocating her, and Louie’s chief sin is not seeing that. Seems a little weak, but as she fibs and keeps up the charade, Agnes loses all patience with a lifetime of grievances with him and their sons, justifying her actions to herself, at least.

Director Marc Turteltaub is far better known as a producer, with indie classics from “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sherrybaby” and “Chop Shop” among the projects he helped get before audiences. He has a light touch behind the camera here. His chief contribution was recognizing the perfect people to play these two leads and letting them play to their strengths.

“Puzzle” doesn’t get lost in its jigsawing subtext, thankfully. It lets us get lost in new discovery, finding common ground, the empathy that grows with getting to know someone and finding they appreciate you in ways others don’t.

And thanks to its most engaging, sympathetic stars, even the over-familiar path it takes lets us find the warmth in the predictable first steps its characters take toward a richer life.

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MPAA Rating:  R for language (sexual situations)

Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Iffan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler

Credits:Directed by Marc Turteltaub, script by Oren Moverman, story by Natalia Smirnoff . A Sony Classics release.

Running time: 1:43

 

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Preview, “Lord, what fools these Hollywood folk be,” a new indie “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Rachel Leigh Cook, {Paz de la Huerta, Hamish Linklater and Finn Wittrock are the big names  — OK, not quite big — attached to this latest cinema stab at Shakespeare.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” isn’t my favorite of the plays, but it lends itself to modernization, sexy spins and the like. This doesn’t look half bad, and it sounds — like all reasonably respectable and respectful Shakespeare, like a long, lyrical song. Lovely.

An outfit called Brainstorm Media is releasing it next Friday, so maybe we’ll get a look at it before it reaches Netflix.

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Movie Review: Gemma discovers housewife ennui is still a thing in “The Escape”

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Even filmgoers too young to remember the ’70s are likely to find “The Escape” dated — almost quaint.

A well-acted, intimate drama about a housewife’s depression over the limited life she’s leading, it harks back to the Decade When Hollywood Discovered Feminism, aka The Golden Age of Jill Clayburgh.

Films such as “An Unmarried Woman” and “It’s My Turn” covered this ground in American cinema 40 years ago. So now it’s Britain’s turn?

Gemma Arterton is most famous internationally for being a “Bond Girl” in “Quantum of Solace.” But she once starred in a Brit updating of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” the original housewife ennui tale, a film called “Gemma Bovery.” So she’s covering familiar ground as Tara, a suburban housewife whose horizons have shrunk with every year of her marriage to Mark (Dominic Cooper).

You can see it in the thousand yard stare she wears during perfunctory sex, in between the short bursts of enthusiasm she summons up to entertain their two pre-school age kids.

“I make myself care,” she admits, when pressed by her somewhat self-centered husband over “What’s wrong?”

To him, to her mother (Frances Barber), she “has it all.”

But the definition of that has changed over the decades. A two car, house in a London suburb lifestyle is not “having it all” in the “lean in” era, when woman are assured that yes, they can have fulfillment on levels Clayburgh’s characters could never dream of, back in the day.  Tara is dying of boredom, and Arterton, to her credit, makes this seem literal.

It’s not that she’s suicidal. But she’s checked out. A day trip to London, the chance purchase of a book about famous tapestries (“The Lady and the Unicorn”), that’s what gives her the spark of life, a little hope that there can be more to life than the drudgery of child-rearing and being around other women perfectly content with that.

Writer-director Dominic Savage and his stars go to some pains to not allow either  Tara or Mark to slip into caricature, and all concerned generally succeed at that.

Cooper’s Mark can be selfish, fretting over the ingrate his wife seems to be, doting on his kids when he gets home, not entirely selfish in bed all of the time. But Mark has a temper, and all his concern, “Let’s get this sorted,” and the like, seems coerced. He’s utterly at a loss in terms of suggestion solutions, or even agreeing to Tara’s self-cure idea (art classes).

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Arterton’s Tara comes closer to “A Woman Under the Influence” than “An Unmarried Woman,” if we’re referencing ’70s feminist mainstream cinema. Her mood swings are wide, her boredom with the “security” of this life soul-sapping.

“I never meet anyone. Ever. I’m not happy.”

Nothing’s more depressing than seeing the future and not seeing anything more than humdrum routine on your horizon. This isn’t a new feeling or a new phenomenon. Listen to “Try a Little Tenderness,” or the third act appearance of a sympathetic Older Woman Who Gets It (Marthe Keller) in “The Escape.”

Some cope with that by making vacations more adventurous. But being this close to London, and thus that close to Paris, Tara can almost see her salvation, a place where art and beauty and romance are paramount in life, where sensual and intellectual pleasures abide.

We know what’s coming, but Arterton and her director tease it out, almost endlessly, and find no fresh resolution for all this thought of “Escape.”

That makes this a sturdy melodrama, more enjoyable for its performances than from its aged, time-tested and formulaic plot.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sex

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Marhe Keller

Credits: Written and directed by Dominic Savage. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:41

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Preview, Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen replay “Romeo and Juliet” in “Little Italy”

Emma Roberts has had an interesting time of it, trading on her aunt and uncle’s name, crashing and burning at the end of her youth role years (she was going to take time off for college, but hated the hard work), a tread lightly “comeback” in quirky indie fare.

This has “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” tones, ethnic and family friendly (ish), a little of Europe, a little “Little Italy.”

Hayden Christensen is the bartender hunk from the family hers is feuding with, with Andrea Martin and Danny Aiello in support.

“Little Italy” was directed by Donald Petrie, still kicking around the business decades removed from “Grumpy Old Men” and “Miss Congeniality” (the guy knows sweet, offbeat funny) and opens this fall, near as I can tell.

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BOX OFFICE: Vampire cartoon sucks and soars, “Skyscraper” crashes, “Ant-Man” shrinks

box1Rock “The Dwayne” Johnson’s run of box office blockbusters comes to an end this weekend. And you can thank “Rampage” for that.

Surely some of the residual “We shelled out $16 a ticket for THIS?” hangover from that mad monkey movie hurt “Skyscraper,” a “Die Hard/Towering Inferno” mashup that wasn’t nearly as bad.

“Skyscraper” is the underperformer of the weekend, based on limp Thursday night and weak Friday numbers. A $34 million (projected) hit only will manage $23-24, based on that.

“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” earned mixed reviews as well. But little kids don’t read criticism, and their parents are too busy to. It will clear $40-42 million on its opening weekend, in line with projections for it. 

That means “Ant-Man and The Wasp” will squeeze into second place on its second weekend, a steep 60-65% fall off would put it at $28. It’s doing low end of blockbuster business, it’s just a lot less monetarily dazzling than every other Marvel title in recent years.

Three films with almost entirely African American casts are in the top ten at once, led by “The First Purge,” which has a chance to reach the $50 million mark by midnight Sunday.

“Sorry to Bother You” goes wide this weekend, a satire of work and class and black life in the stacked deck of American capitalism, it’s no “Get Out,” but a healthy $4 million take on its first wide weekend means profitability is just around the corner.

And “Uncle Drew” has one last week in the top ten as well.

 

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Netflixable? “Penalty Kick” a soccer comedy from Mexico that

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Mariano lives and breathes futbol, especially as it pertains to the Mexican national team/

He nervously drinks shots with friends and relatives, bickers over whether they are “traitors” for not rooting hard enough and trash talks one and all when they score.

“If I watch the Mexican team play, they never lose,” he brags, in Spanish with English subtitles. “I am their good luck charm.

Mariano (Adrian Uribe) leads younger brother Pancho (Carlos Manuel Vesga) singing, “Ay, yai yai yai, Canta y no llores” after every win.

OK, it’s Mexico. He sings even after a draw. A man’s got to have something.

Something more than living like a 40something mooch in the house he grew up in, more than a cushy government job which he’s barely clinging to, more than vintage 70s hair, a ’70s mustache and a dishy, indulgent Colombian girlfriend, Luz (Julieth Restropo).

MPAA Rating: TV-14, sex, death

Cast: Adrian Uribe, Julieth Restrepo, Carlos Manuel Vesga, José Sefami

Credits:Directed by Rodrigo Triana, script by  Dago GarcíaLuis Felipe Salamanca. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:29

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