Movie Review: Slow, corny “Forever My Girl” seems to go on…

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“Forever My Girl” is a Nicholas Sparks romance without Sparks or sparks, without the beach; a small-town, broken people finding each other, a genial, low-heat courtship and lots and lots of talk. It’s as slow as a July 4 tractor parade and as corny as a Louisiana drawl, drawn-out for effect.

It could have been sold as a faith-based romance, as it has a preacher, a prodigal son, a funeral and small-town church services and a done-wrong woman who keeps the faith.

And for a film about a guy who leaves his fiance at altar, a child born out of wedlock and the dissolute, hard-drinking, one-night-standing country music superstar who doesn’t know she’s his, it’s oddly bereft of anything anyone would call “edgy.” If you’re a lip reader, you can see what little profanity was in an earlier cut was dubbed out for release.

But there’s probably an audience for it, because you can’t find romances this old fashioned anywhere but The Hallmark Channel.

Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day,” “La La Land”) is Josie, the young woman we meet on what is supposed to be her wedding day. The hubbub over the ceremony, the breathless dressing and preparations, have a soundtrack. Her intended’s got his first hit song on country music radio, and every Boudreaux and Thibideuax in tiny Saint Augustine, Louisiana is buzzing over it.

Until, that is, Liam Page is a no-show. The heel leaves Josie, his family and the town bereft. Liam (Brit Alex Roe of “The Fifth Wave”) goes off to find fame and fortune on the radio and on tour, singing big ol’country music lies about “My heart don’t have a home without you in it.”

But it’s an empty life of groupies, vodka and pricey hotel rooms.

It takes the death of a high school pal some eight years later to wake him out of his stupor. He heads back to “Saint,” fleeing his tour, his responsibilities and his manager (Pete Cambor) to figure out what he gave up.

Josie, who slugs Liam in the stomach first chance he gets, is part of that. So’s the preacher/father (John Benjamin Hickey) he hasn’t seen since leaving, either.

And so is Josie’s just-the-right-age daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson). Could she be…?

Of course she is, and it’s to writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf’s credit that this “mystery” isn’t treated as such. Working from a Heidi McLaughlin romance novel, the focus is on forgiveness, rekindling old flames and accepting grownup responsibilities.

Or it would be, if the kid wasn’t such a cute-mouthed spitfire.

“I said I wanted to meet him,” she says of her mother about her father. “I didn’t say I was gonna be EASY on him!”
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But she is. The town may have its gripes about this lout who forgot where he came from and pretty much everybody who made him who he is. Her mom and uncle (Tyler Riggs) remember the hell he put her through. But the kid is charmed. Will he, she and two of them together win mom over?

Wolf gets some background color into all this, from the primly-annoyed locals who mutter “Idiot!” to Liam’s face at every opportunity, to the talented honky-tonk singer who never left the local honky tonk (Travis Tritt). A nice detail — Liam clings to his battered, vintage flip phone, held together by duct tape, because it has Josie’s last voice mail on it.

But the heart-melting moments don’t have that tug, the laughs aren’t much more than chuckles. And every character introduction, every incident, every scene unfolds in slow motion. “Sleepy time down South” never felt so boring.

That spreads to Liam’s “other” life, too. There’s no pop to the high-powered country-pop machine (publicists, reporters, his adoring public) that Liam leaves behind. There should be some edge, some testy-comic anger at the meal ticket who’s gone AWOL. There isn’t.

Roe does his own singing, but lacks much in the way of stage presence. Rothe cannot help but upstage him in their shared scenes any more than young Miss Fortson can.

The overarching problem is pacing and dramatic tension. Wolf, who made her name directing well-received short films like “Don’s Plum,” should know that watering down the conflicts robs her film of a villain, that there’s no drama without conflict, and that landing the right cute kid does not a finished movie make. It’s just a promising starting point.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including drinking, and for language

Cast: Alex Roe, Jessica Roth, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder FortsonTravis Tritt

Credits: Written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based on the Heidi McLaughlin novel . A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:44

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Preview: Van Sant’s latest is a True Piece of Portland History — “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Long before “Portlandia,” Gus Van Sant was the chronicler of quirky Hipsville’s underbelly, and his latest takes him back there for the true story of a quadreplegic/alcoholic cartoonist. Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, drunk and trapped in a wheelchair, who finds sobriety and purpose thanks to a support network that includes Jonah Hill (almost unrecognizable), Jack Black and girlfriend Rooney Mara.

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is an Amazon Studios release and opens in May.

 

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Movie Review: “Proud Mary”

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The late character actor turned director Bill Paxton once shared his secret to landing any directing gig with me.

“Tell ’em, ‘I can cut a HELLUVA trailer out of this!”

That’s what “Proud Mary” is, a helluva trailer with Taraji P. Henson as mistress of mayhem, mowing down mob minions to the strains of Tina Turner covering John Fogerty’s title tune. There’s little more to it than that trailer, a movie that expends its thin grasp of classic blacksploitation action pictures in an opening homage to the ’70s genre — graphics, music, colors and font introducing its version of “Foxy Brown” set to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” — and a bravura finale that is basically the trailer that sold the picture in the first place.

No, Screen Gems didn’t screen it for critics and no, that’s not unusual for the studio that gave us “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” movies. It’s a classic “January film,” not worth promoting, something those who saw racial bias in abandoning the film to its fate seem ignorant of.  January is when weak sisters of a studio’s slate get dumped.

Not that this applies to Henson. The movie may meander and mope along, and tend toward maudlin sentimentality. There’s too much that’s familiar, too much that isn’t worth saying or doing that the characters say or do. There’s too much Maserati, a bit of flashy product placement meant to show how good hit-woman Mary (Henson) is at her job. There are maybe 25 shots of the car going here, going there, Mary peeling out, power sliding and what not to show her determination.

We meet Mary as she’s carrying out a hit. There’s a kid, wrapped in headphones, deep into a video game, in the same apartment. Mary has the same code as the hit-men of John Woo’s action films with Chow Yun Fat — “No kids.”

A year later, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) has become a tweenage drug mule, armed and delivering product to dealers and cash to his brute of a boss. Mary sees this, lets maternal guilt get the best of her and takes Danny in. She also takes care of a member of Boston’s Russian mob.

And when that threatens to start a mob war, she covers up the crime by murdering another lieutenant of her boss (Danny Glover), a guy whose cold-blooded assassination she and this three-legged script justify by calling “a perv.”

As the bodies pile up and the boss’s son (Billy Brown), who used to have a “thing” with Mary, she and the kid bond in some of the clunkiest exchanges of any action movie ever. At some point the kid (an unskilled actor who telegraphs every emotion by taking a big breath for his BIG closeup) curses, and Mary tells him “Watch your mouth.”

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What they were going for here is “Atomic Blonde” (see above) meets the murderously maternal “Gloria,” and Henson just can’t make it work. Giving up its blackspoitation style too early, killing time with dimly-lit filler scenes in between killing sprees, fetishing firearms and Taraji’s makeup/lipstick rituals,, her boots, there’s little coherence to its style and subtexts even if its plot is penny plain.

The one teachable moment the mother figure has with the mouthy kid is “You stay ready you ain’t gotta GET ready.”

The best line is uttered by a guy gunned down in the first post-credits scene. “You shoot your mouth off like a parrot with t–s!”

And the best villain, McDonough, is dispatched with scarcely a thought.

Nothing much to be proud of here. Buy the soundtrack, skip the movie.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for violence

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown, Danny Glover, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Neal McDonough, Margaret Avery

Credits:Directed by Babak Najafi, script by John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, Steve Antin. A Screen Gems release.

Running time: 1:29

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Movie Review: Jason Momoa lends his action cool to “Braven”

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Jason Momoa, for those who missed the memo, is the man.

He made “Justice League” worth watching, all by his charismatic, beefy confidant self. He’s in “Frontier” on TV and has other projects lined up, based at least in part on the bounce that playing a burly-briny Aquaman gave him.

But after “Conan the Barbarian” and his turn in the early days of “Game of Thrones,” he’s made his mortgage on B-movie action pictures like “Wolves,” “Sugar Mountain” and “Road to Paloma.” Sadly, “Braven,” which hopefully will be his last B for a while, isn’t one of his better genre pictures.

It’s a formulaic thriller that underlines its foreshadowing and pins its hopes on big action beats — brawls, snowy chases, shoot-outs and archery. Even the title, his character’s surname, is just…so on-the-nose it’s funny.

Joe Braven is a lumberjack in the heart of Lumberland, the Pacific Northwest. A shady truck driver (Brendan Fletcher) has only to brush off Joe’s warnings about the snowy, slippery roads and mention holing up in Joe’s cabin for us to know where this is going.

The trucker’s going to wreck. And the drugs hidden inside the logs will have to be stashed “at your cabin” by the the smuggler (Zahn McClarnon, fierce).

Joe has other things on his mind. His aged tough-guy father (Stephen Lang, always good) hasn’t been right in the head since “his injury,” and may need to be institutionalized. His doting daughter is too underfoot for her own good.

And ducking into the cabin for a long talk with the Old Man brings them into conflict with the bad guys (Garrett Dillahunt plays their sadistic leader) who need to collect those drugs.

The Michael Nilon/Thomas Pa’a Sibbett script tries to rush past the obvious “Send his employee up there to get our stuff” solution to this possible dilemma. Cassidy (Dillahunt, of “12 Years a Slave” and “No Country for Old Men”) goes straight to “out flank him” by deploying heavily-armed henchman in the snow of Blue Mountain.

Joe and his crack-shot Dad will have to face them down, as reasoning their way out of this doesn’t seem to be an option. “I didn’t come here to kill good people” isn’t a very reassuring opening to the negotiations.

What ensues is built on Momoa’s vast physicality and whatever give-aways the screenwriters scribble into the story. Joe keeps axes, not rifles, in the rack over his cabin’s fireplace mantle. Think they’ll play a part in all this?

Stuntman turned director Lin Oeding’s confrontations, with rifles, knives, shotguns, pistols and bows and arrows, are barely inventive enough to get by. Some woodlore tricks work better than others, though having the walking tattooed muscle Momoa string his own hand-carved bow to deliver a little rough frontier justice is a nice touch.

The setting, not Momoa’s first turn in the snowy wilderness, is arresting, but the movie’s no “Wind River” or even “Walking Out” or “Edge of Winter.” Yeah, I’m a fan of the genre and this milieu, but there’s little memorable here.

Too many character actions seem inorganic, pre-ordained by the needs of the script. The set-up is strained, the quick move to violence perfunctory. Why not have McClarnon’s oily, foul-mouthed middleman try to settle this without gunfire?

“Get your SASQUATCH ass back in there!”

Oh yeah. Maybe that’s why.

Let’s hope Momoa is done with such pictures for a while (a remake of “The Crow” with him in the title role is in the works). But if not, he should go back to “Road to Paloma” and re-read that script. That’s what an engrossing B-picture built around his exotic looks and his screen charisma should look and sound like.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating:R for violence and for language throughout including some sexual references

Cast: Jason Momoa, Jill Wagner, Garrett Dillahunt, Stephen Lang

 

Credits:Directed by Lin Oeding, script by Michael NilonThomas Pa’a Sibbett  . A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:33

 

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Movie Review: “In Search of Fellini” finds whimsy, if few laughs

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Of all the attributes to strive to give your comic film, “twee” is the hardest to pull off.

It’s that delicate dose of daft — just shy of cloying  — that lets most efforts in this corner of the cinema down.  When you swing and miss at twee, the result can be tooth-achingly sweet, or just plain dull because the silly sweetness you thought you were injecting into your story is too mundane to be magical.

“In Search of Fellini” fails to figure out twee, and more’s the pity, because the fellow who gave his name to the title perfected that — in decades of subtitled films made in his native Italy.

It’s about a young woman’s discovery of the cinema of Italy’s master satirist, farceuer and big screen bon vivant. Federico Fellini was larger than life, and his films, from “La Strada” and “La Dolce Vita” to “Eight and a Half,” reflected that. They were brimming with giddiness, layered with oddball autobiography and filled-to-overflowing with a circus sideshow of the silly, the sad, the world-weary and the witty.

After an insanely sheltered life, growing up with a single mother (Maria Bello) in suburban Ohio, Lucy (newcomer Ksenia Solo) is ready for a little lunacy. She finds it when she stumbles into a Fellini Film Festival one day in 1993.

Lucy’s been protected from any of life’s harsh realities by Mom, who has gone so far to to send her post-cards from dead relatives or pets, letting her know they’re fine, just to keep the real world from breaking her heart.

And then Mom herself gets sick. A post card just won’t do, this time.

“How’s she going to take care of herself?” Mom’s sister Kerri (Mary Lynn Rajskub of TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) wants to know. “Who would hire a 20 year old who acts like a 13 year-old?”

That’s what sent Lucy into the Big City in the first place, a job ad aimed at luring nubile young women desperate to “work in the movie business.” That pornographic near-miss is how Lucy wound up at the Fellini Festival. And that’s when this fan — she already has the ’60s chic sunglasses, the striped shirt of Gelsomina, wandering waif of “La Strada,”  and (believe it or not) the Vespa scooter of countless Fellini films. Now, she has a quest.

She will go to Italy and meet with the maestro. He’ll know what she should do with her life. A long distance call gets a Fellini assistant on the phone, and that lands her an appointment — or an Italian, Federico Fellini version of an appointment. She can’t take Mom, who is dying. This is all on her.

Unfamiliar with travel, not speaking the language, Lucy experiences a comedy of errors and botched arrivals, and blown Fellini appointments. But the Italian baker she stumbles into in Verona offers her that first taste of alcohol, and great Italian cooking — rum balls.

“Eat, drink, fall in love,” he tells her. So that’s just what she does.

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The cleverest conceit of this half-speed romantic farce is having Lucy hallucinate “signs” from Fellini that she’s on his trail, on the right life path, just by making him her quest. Characters from Fellini films — circus strong men like the one Anthony Quinn played in “La Strada,” beautiful people out of “La Dolce Vita,” the comic sideshow grotesques of almost all his movies.

Look for Nancy Cartwright, the “Simpsons” voice actress who co-wrote this, in wig and “uniform” as one of those “Fellini-esque” folks. And have a laugh at Kerri’s description of Fellini  to her credulous sister.

He makes “Italian films, mostly. Nobody watches them Humanity, togas, depraved orgies, asses…like, jiggling breasts. Lots of them. You know — art.”

Fellini quotes, about reality and realism and dreams, pepper the inter-titles between scenes. All of this serves to remind film buffs that he was a unique presence in the movies, never copied, never rivaled in sheer immersive weirdness and delight.

The rest of the picture? Not all that clever, a little light in the charm department. Lucy’s encounters with Italian men — ranging from romantics to rogues — fail to register.

Young Ms. Solo may look the part of the winsome gamine and manage the fish-out-of-water moments of awkward confusion well enough. But look back at “Letters to Juliet” for a hint of the tone they were going for here, a comparison which only makes that feather-light romance seem like Shakespeare’s lost masterpiece in comparison to “Search.”

Director Taron Lexton fails to get across the madcap sense of chaos Fellini generated, the lackadaisical Italian sense of”urgency” so common in Fellini’s later movies, filled with characters insisting they need it, they have it and that you must embrace it as well if you are to fulfill your life’s dreams, when actually they can’t fathom the meaning of the word.

Lucy’s quest withers even as her assignment, from that rum ball purveying baker, is fulfilled. And “In Search of Fellini” falters as it does, forever grasping at ghosts, never quite getting its arms around “twee.”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and language

Cast: Ksenia SoloMaria Bello, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Credits:Directed by Taron Lexton, script by Nancy CartwrightPeter Kjenaas. An Ambi release.

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: Fanning can’t Fake Anything Fun “Please Stand By”

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An Autistic young “Star Trek” fanatic expands her horizons on her first-ever road trip on her own in “Please Stand By,” a picture whose picaresque premise holds more promise that its star or director deliver.

The heroine of the piece works at a Cinnabon and has written a script for “Star Trek” screenplay contest. She skips out of a group home in the San Francisco Bay area, with her Trek-attired chihuahua in tow, to deliver the tome, in person, to Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. You’d think there’d be some light moments in that — misadventures on the lam, getting robbed, surviving a bus wreck, confronting snotty studio functionaries.

But no. This is a “serious” road comedy about autism. Or at least it is in the hands of director Ben Lewin (“The Sessions,” “Paperback Romance”) and his star Dakota Fanning. The most ardent supporters of either would have to confess that “light” isn’t really in their repertoire. They conspire to throw the whole tone of the picture off, with only comic Patton Oswalt’s arrival in the third act providing so much as a smile.

And, well, the dog’s cute.

Fanning is Wendy, who has to treat every potential human interaction as a project, requiring her full attention. She must say “Welcome to Cinnabon. Would you LIKE a Cinnabon?” differently every time she tosses it at a potential customer.

Her therapist and coach at the halfway house (Toni Collette) has worked long and hard to get Wendy this far out into the world, working, practicing interpersonal skills.

“Can we try three seconds of eye contact?”

Wendy’s therapist is conveniently named “Scottie.” Because Wendy is deep into “Star Trek.” She clatters away at her epic script for the franchise, with plans to get it into the mail and into a contest Paramount is throwing for ardent fans of the series. We hear Wendy narrate scenes, and sometimes see space-suited characters wander the desert in a spot-on allegory for how someone “on the spectrum” might view the hostile world

Wendy hopes to win the contest and see her story produced. But her most fervent hope is that she’ll win, “be able to buy mom’s house back” and come off as “normal” enough for sister Audrey (Alice Eve) to bring her home so that she can start being an aunt to Audrey’s new baby. The occasional violent fit, which Scottie talks her out of with the calming phrase “Please stand by,” suggests that won’t happen.

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Events conspire to make Wendy miss her mailing deadline for the contest. There’s nothing for it but to make the trip to LA to hand-deliver it. Wendy rides the bus to work. There’s a bus to LA. Easy peasy, right?

Of course not.

And the fact that she didn’t tell anybody where she was going sends one and all into a panic.

We can trust Lewin, a rare disabled director, to treat any disability with the utmost sensitivity on screen, and he does. What we can’t trust him or the humorless Fanning to do is to make this fish-out-of-water road picture funny, to make Wendy anybody we want to spend time with or any of Wendy’s encounters (Marla Gibbs plays a senior citizen who “rescues” her) amusing or interesting.

Until, that is, Oswalt arrives.

More could have been made out of the “Star Trek” opus, comic parallels with Wendy’s own dilemma (the dog gets her kicked off the bus). A life this sheltered experiencing the big wide world for the first time can be “Rainman” fraught and funny. Not here.

Fanning makes Wendy a compulsive knitter, and is does the whole never-make-eye-contact thing with commitment and skill, but utterly without warmth. That’s a knock that’s dogged her throughout her career, so even the character’s suitability to her skill-set that works against her here.

Her co-stars have little to play. The trip itself is a fairly unsurprising and colorless affair, with Wendy finding allies and obstacles in the usual places.

Thus does the generally lifeless “Please Stand By” only discover signs of life when our heroine gets to LA, where everybody wants to be “in the business,” where every mailroom wannabe on a studio payroll is on a power trip and every police force has its share of native Klingon speakers.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, Alice Eve, Patton Oswalt

Credits:Directed by Ben Lewin, script by Michael Golamco. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:33

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Box Office: “The Post” opens Strong, “Paddington” does not

box1I have been fretting that Fox is mishandling its potential Oscar contender, “The Post,” opening it wide well AFTER its peak hype (early last month). The Golden Globes and other awards nominations, where a very fine film is underperforming, seems to bear that out.

But this weekend, as it finally rolls out wide, Steven Spielberg’s grownup history about a watershed moment in the press’s holding a corrupt government accountable is opening at a healthy $21 million. Or better.  People want to see a movie with veteran film stars telling a story of an intrepid, responsible press going after the Pentagon Papers and their official government “secret” history of the Vietnam War.

Good news.

The bad news comes Warner Brothers’ way, as their latest very fine, delightful children’s film (with yuks for parents, too) “Paddington 2,” is underwhelming. Deadline.com tends to underreport kids’ films and Saturday’s take will be more telling, but $14.15 million is weak. Disney gets an automatic pass due to its reliable brand, Pixar doubles down on that. Both “Paddington” films have been wonderful, warm and mid-winter releases that underwhelmed.  Too British? Too Anglo? Who knows? Everybody should take their tykes to it, and they’re not.

“The Commuter” is doing similar numbers, but it’s not an all-star semi-animated delight for kids. $14 million for Liam Neeson fighting his way through a train.

“Proud Mary” isn’t delivering numbers, and seems like a classic Jan. “dumping ground” release. Screen Gems didn’t preview it for critics (not unusual for them, not at all unusual for a January film) so it has no hype. Taraji P. Henson isn’t that big a name, despite her resume. It won’t hit $10.

“Jumanji” is still the top dog at the box office, proving Kevin Hart can be kid friendly (again, after “Captain Underpants”). It’s heading towards $600 million worldwide.

“Darkest Hour” is the best performing Oscar contender in the top ten, “Three Billboards” got a nice Globes Bounce, “The Shape of Water” has done what it’s going to do and “Phantom Thread” still isn’t in many theaters.

 

 

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“Time’s Up” for Franco’s Oscar chances?

francoIt started with Ally Sheedy tweeting in protest about James Franco’s Golden Globes win for starring in “The Disaster Artist.”

Then others came forward, alleging sexual harassment and coercion on film sets. And now the LA Times has chased down several actresses and former acting students of the twinkly polymath Franco, women who tweeted their outrage, etc. at his “win.”

And that may be that for his chances of competing for the Best Actor Oscar.

Franco has courted this sort of always-grinning, intellectual “James Dean Reborn” image as an actor, director, poet,  novelist, what have you. He’s even teased that he might be gay or bisexual as a way of adding to his mystery, his allure even.

But this? As much as I loathe the “Guilt by Accusation” nature of this Hollywood scandal, an all out “#Metoo” war against every offense (Matt Damon is right, there are “degrees” to who has done what) ever committed in an industry that traffics in sex appeal, where no one should show up for work blind to the historic “skin trade” nature of “getting ahead” in the movie business, anybody with multiple accusers cannot dismiss or explain away that. Franco’s peak moment may have been Sunday night, and his Frat Pack days may be over.

Nobody should have to put up with this. Whatever women figure Casey Affleck got away with before winning the Best Actor Oscar last year just multiplies the outrage and “Never again/Enough already!” sentiment that is carrying the day.

The ugly truth, hinted at by one of Franco’s accusers, that he wanted an actress to play a scene nude in one of his movies for $100, is that thousands of times a year, there are women who say “Yes” to that contracted deal. It doesn’t matter that virtually nobody who is “nude stripper/pole dancer #3” winds up as a star, women have  participated in this exploitation to the point where one actress saying “No” just means she’ll be replaced by one who says “Yes, this is my BIG BREAK.”

It’s not. Ask the thousands of women who turn up in such scenes every year, the obligatory “strip club scene” in virtually every crime thriller/cop movie, really just a “producer or director wants to check out/audition/coerce the ‘talent'” opportunity.

If everybody says “No,” thanks to the courage of the women who are now making themselves heard above the Hollywood hype machine, then we can say “Well, that moment changed EVERYthing.” If not, then all these “lads” whose mothers and fathers never taught them how to respect women (Miriam and Max, I’m looking at you), all these sick people drawn to the business for its predatory prospects, this frat house mono culture of men in leadership positions striving to attain those positions for their access to coercable women will continue as before.

Franco? I review LOTS of movies with a fellow who is something of a major movie star that make one scratch one’s head over his presence in them. It’s not just the “challenge”of an indie project, the generosity of lending his name to a tiny film that needs star power to get made, the ego trip of filming his own material or difficult to film literary adaptations.

Looking at him in this new, creeper light, I see all the starlets attached to such movies, the pretty young things in bit roles. Women he could pressure, threaten, lord over and have his way with?

Go on Netflix, check out the haunted bank thriller (HAH) “The Vault.” Tell me that’s not why he made that one.

 

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Documentary Review: “The Final Year” shows the calm, dogged competence of a White House that worked

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The first thing that hits you is the quiet. For all the movement, the rush from meeting to meeting, the urgency of the issues they seem to be dealing with, there’s no sign of discord, chaos or quarreling in this White House.

Everybody comes off as smart, articulate, on-task, hard-working and not prone to panic. There’s urgency to their tasks, as they know, as journalist turned United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power notes, “We’re all just passing through these jobs.”

So reaching a deal on Iran, trying every idea they can come up with to stop the fighting in Syria, grasping at straws in Nigeria or opening a door to Cuba, widening the open door to Vietnam, those things “we don’t want to leave hanging” occupied the top decision makers of the Obama Administration during “The Final Year.”

Greg Barker’s documentary filters in outside criticism here and there — news voices and those of political operatives on various broadcast media attacking Syria policy or “The Iran Deal” with various degrees of heat. And the film can be faulted for being an insider’s inside look at Obama Era foreign policy, focusing on President Barack ObamaSecretary of State John Kerry, U. N. Ambassador Power and Deputy National Security Adviser and speech writer Ben Rhodes.

But the overarching idea is the simple contrast of remembering what political, administrative competence looks like. For all the media and political talking heads hacks heat about “America’s standing in the world” and the ongoing struggle to manage the crisis in Syria, “The Final Year” is jaw-dropping in the nostalgia it creates for a time when “THIS is all we had to worry about.”

Most glaring of all is the movie’s one moment of scandal. Rhodes, a brash true-believer who exudes a sort of “smartest guy in the room” confidence, gave an interview to the New York Times Magazine about how the White House managed a DC press corps that was getting younger, greener and dumber thanks to the collapse of newspapers and other legacy media enterprises, making it easier to shape the Obama narrative and also, it is implied, creating the callow online headline-chasing coverage that led to the rise of Trump.

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes told The Times. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

That’s it. That’s what a “White House Scandal” used to look like, an adviser speaking bluntly about a “sea change” in the competence of the press covering the government.

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“The Final Year” isn’t a great film. It’s so “verite” — bouncing along with Kerry and Powers, Rhodes and Obama as they jet from Vienna to Nigeria, Vietnam to Cuba, fighting fires and tamping down future fires — that it can feel like hagiography.

The chilling and then deflating moments come when we see Trump convention coverage in the background of an historic Obama trip to Laos, hear Rhodes complaining about the staggering accomplishments on the foreign policy front that “final year” (with the glaring exception of Syria, Russian-meddled into a murderous quagmire), all ignored in favor “of something Trump tweeted.”

The documentary’s subjects start facing questions, “What’s going ON with America?” Troubled foreign folks who cross their path express worry about Brexit and what that could herald with America’s 2016 election. The rise of Trump, Rhodes notes, “is already having a cost,” even before the electorate lashes out and elects him.

Power, the daughter of Irish immigrants, has lovely moments of listening to Nigerian mothers weep and rage at losing their daughters to kidnappers of Boko Haram, or choking up, remembering her own story as she swears in new citizens taking the oath.

But the most revealing moments are simple, inside-voice conversations with all involved, especially the ones where Obama talks about the secret to his rise and his ongoing way of shaping messages — “story.” His “story,” told in the way he chose to tell it, got him elected. “America’s Story,” a great tale summarized by The Declaration of Independence, secured America’s place in the world’s consciousness.

Or at least it did until Jan. 20 of 2017.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity

Cast: Barack Obama, Samantha Powers, John Kerry, Ben Rhodes

Credits: Directed by Greg Barker  A Magnolia/HBO Films release.

Running time: 1:33

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Documentary Review: Nature lends a hand in the art in Andy Goldsworthy in “Leaning into the Wind”

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Andy Goldsworthy makes art where he finds it — in decaying forests, in snow-covered fields, on streets where he might lie down just as a light rain is beginning. His “ghost” is his dry body shape, which you see on the wet street after he gets up.

It is natural art — made of wood, clay, leaves, flower-petals spewed into the air, and stone — “site-specific” and often mind-bogglingly ephemeral, and not just the wet street he might decorate with what looks like with his dry spot.

He’s world-famous for his stone carvings and assemblages, fallen trees that he covers with yellow leaves, in season, snowballs when winter comes. And he’s something of a muse to art documentarian Thomas Riedelsheimer. Riedelsheimer has filmed or directed a number of documentaries about artists, including “Breathing Earth,” about Japanese “wind” artist Susumu Shingu, and the film that first brought Goldsworthy to the attention of many of us, “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time.”

“Leaning into the Wind” is their latest collaboration, following the artist from rural Brazil, admiring the sturdy, hand-built houses, the care with which an old woman patches and polishes a homemade floor out of clay and “bull-s–t,” to the fields and hills of his home in Scotland to the stone walls overrun with forest in the hills of New Hampshire.

A favorite — “Wood Line,” a minimalist wavy path of connected logs in the Presidio, San Francisco.

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Riedelsheimer listens as Goldworthy talks about “trying to understand the process is how something is made” (the hovel in Brazil) and embraces the decay in a broken-down tree line. “This sliver of trees, a burn (creek) running through it” makes him appreciate the lifetime of work decorating the fallen elms (Dutch Elm Disease) he sees, art made by nature itself.

It takes a team of craftsmen — tree surgeons, New Hampshire stone-cutters — to realize Goldsworthy’s visions. His daughter Holly also pitches in, and Goldsworthy himself seems handy with all manner of stonesaws and chainsaws. “The farm” was what inspired him, long before art school, he admits.

One fascinating sequence lets us watch a dead tree dropped and scored, by chainsaw (by the artist himself) for an installation that will move that tree into a cottage which he will then coat in clay, the tree as well, which changes appearance as the clay dries and cracks.

There’s a limit to how much interest something as static as the creative process can create on film. Films like start to feel repetitive after an hour, even if we’re seeing static works of art in the process of creation. But Riedelsheimer manages a deft portrait of a creative mind in a simple scene that unfolds under the opening credits.

Split screens capture Goldsworthy as he notices a beam of light boring a spot on the floor of that Brazilian hut. He tosses dust in the air, outlining the beam all the way through the room, changing it from moment to moment.

The objects he assembles or carves out of stone will outlive him, but it’ll only be a hint of the mind that saw beauty in the destruction, decay and rebirth that nature itself was creating all around him.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Andy Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy

Credits:  Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:35

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