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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Patty Cake$ Leads a Quartet of 4 Good Indie Films Into the Summer

"We had to jump through hoops to get Cathy Moriarty (second from left in picture)," Patty Cake$ director Geremy Jasper (center) told us after a screening recently here in Washington, D.C. "I met her in Mexico. in a trailer for a film she was in. She's probably 20 years younger than the Nana role she plays in our film. "It's nice to meet you," she said in that amazing [gravelly] voice! So at that point we had our three generations of women in place and I felt good. She was kind and maternal to the young cast."

Usually the summer is a quiet time for good films, but there have been a few surprises this summer and at least four--including Patty Cake$--have been by first-time directors.
  • Columbus, written and directed by Kogonada, introduces into a starring role an amazing Haley Lu Richardson, a suitably mellow John Cho and the town of Columbus, Ind. itself.
  • Wind River wasn't as surprising--given that writer/director Taylor Sheridan had written the underrated Sicario and the justifiably praised Hell or High Water--but his directing skills proved up to the task.
  • Director Amanda Lipitz of Step and her 3 young stars came to the Newseum in Washington to unveil the amazing documentary she put together up I-95 in Baltimore.

Jasper said that it took 28 days to shoot Patty Cake$. Danielle Macdonald (next to Jasper in photo), who accompanied Jasper to the Washington, D.C. premiere, said that she had to learn to rap. "When I read the script I thought [Geremy] was insane [for wanting me to do this]. But I related to the character." Once she accepted the part, Macdonald started "rapping in my closet, practicing all the time.  Geremy would send me a different song every week--JayZ, Biggie, Kendrick. With Biggie, I felt kind of cool. [Rapper and producer] Kirk Knight did a screening in New York for us."
Jasper said that this was a personal story for him. "I was 23 living in parents' basement and bartending in a local dive. Nobody cared. They also played a song on the radio that we sang but we didn't go anywhere.  We were suburban misfits." (When I told Jasper that I was also from New Jersey--he's from Hillsdale--and sometimes was a bit, um, low-key about it, he told me, "Don't ever be embarrassed about being from New Jersey!"
Speaking of which, Jasper said that Bruce Springsteen let them use his song--The Time That Never Was--to open the film. "We sent to his people and got the okay," said Jasper. I hope he sees the film. It's funny that Born to Run is the New Jersey anthem and it's about getting away."
Staying with the New Jersey theme, Columbus reminded me a little of Paterson the movie. Columbus the town has its amazing architecture and Paterson has its equally is-this-really-here? falls. Both films move slowly, have some inside jokes and dwell in the power of routines. Let's hope the rest of the year brings us some independent films as good as these.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My Top 15 Films of 2016

This was a really good year for films. so without further ado…we'll go in reverse order:

15. Captain Fantastic – I enjoyed the originality and the performance of Viggo Mortensen and his kids. Good film.
14. Things to Come – This isn’t the greatest film, but it is a throwback to the introspective, fun-talky, pretty-peopled French films of the past. Isabelle Huppert can still wonderfully center a film, and I was a sucker for the subplot with her cat. Loved the scenes in the countryside.
13. Julieta – This was a rare film that when it ended you wanted to stay longer. The characters were fun to be around. When Pedro Almodovar tilts just a bit normal, his films excel – Talk to Her, Woman on the Verge, All About My Mother, etc. Good to see he’s still sharp at 68. Read the New Yorker profile if you can. (John Lahr also wrote a beautiful profile there of Viola Davis.)
12 - Paterson – Who knew that a simple week in the life of driver of a bus in Paterson, N.J., could be so entertaining? Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani (loved her in About Elly) make an optimistic young couple; her patterns give the film great shape. As others have said, the ongoing joke with the English bulldog and the mailbox has a cool payoff.  It was a fun ride.
11 - Hell or High Water – Chris Pine and Ben Foster make an ornery pair of brothers, and with Jeff Bridges chasing them (another Oscar nod?), it’s another fun ride, though in much different surroundings. Good to see that the western isn’t quite dead yet, and it can thrive in modern times.
10. Twentieth Century Women - Annette Bening leads a stellar cast in this coming-of-ageish, funky family dramedy. It's intelligent and believable. As long as Mike Mills doesn't run out of family members for his films, we're in good shape.  
9. Loving – This really surprised me. I didn’t think Jeff Nichols could pull his magic again with the story about Virginia’s law against marrying outside of your race. But he did. By not heightening the characters and the love of the lead couple, Nichols actually heightened the story. Who could deny two people in love like that? With great touches from the Mom and then the great Michael Shannon as a Life photographer.
8. Queen of Katwe – This film probably moved me more than any except for maybe Dheepan. I love chess and they didn’t shy away from showing some game details like that not-so-good movie about Bobby Fischer did last year. David Oyelowo can read the phone book and I’ll probably be okay with it. (Sorry to miss him in New York in Othello.) Lupita Nyong’o always adds luster but this time she was upstaged by newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Rent it.
7. Hidden Figures – Great story. Great actors. Nicely done. Where did director Ted Melfi come from? St. Vincent? He did a splendid job with this rich material. Kevin Costner provides the perfect foil to Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae (what a year for her!) and Taraji P. Henson. Hard to believe no one knew about these incredible women for so long, but thank goodness we do now. The end-of-film, real photos are becoming standard now (see previous two), but that doesn't negate the power.
6. Dheepan – Have to put a couple foreign films in the top 5. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Dheepan came out in 2015 but I think most Americans like myself caught it in 2016. I recall leaving my treasured Cinema Arts theatre just stunned by the power of this film. Acclaimed director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) helmed this gripping, tale of survival, showing how three strangers form a family like nothing we’ve seen before. Rent it.
5. Sing Street – Feels like it has been ages since I saw this, but I do recall now that I fell in love with this group of Irish music-inspired kids. The ending involving the cool but under-performing brother painted a perpetual smile. I read an interview with John Carney, the Once-infused writer/director, where he was asked if he was happy to be back working with unknowns after directing Keira Knightly in Begin Again. He probably should have said, "No comment," but it got him some headlines. He later apologized, but his work shows the difference.
4. Moonlight – Mahershala Ali (Oscar?) made me cry twice this year, in Moonlight’s exquisite first part and in Hidden Figures’ dining room proposal scene. (I’ll deny it if you tell anyone.) Moonlight was so original and heartbreaking and dispensing of clich├ęs. Probably lost a little momentum in the last part but I’ll still take the brilliant performances and vibrancy of the characters. Will be exciting to see what filmmaker Barry Jenkins does next.
3. Manchester by the Sea – I’ll still cling to Gone Baby Gone as my favorite Casey Affleck film, but this one is pretty good. Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t make many films so when he does we take notice. And yes, the scene between Affleck and Michelle Williams later in the film is one of the year’s finest. There is some humor but the pathos does carry the day. The sort-of-happy ending feels just right.
2. Fences – No music here, but language doesn’t sing anywhere else like it does in an August Wilson play—or in this case the screenplay for a moving film. And the fact that two unparalleled actors deliver those words makes it an amazing experience. Viola Davis (did you say Oscar?) waltzes off with this film, and Denzel Washington’s direction patiently lets the characters shine. With supporting players who populated Wilson’s theatrical casts, there’s not a wrong note in this film that makes you laugh at one moment and cry the next.
1. La La Land – They had me at the opening number in the gridlock– Another Day of Sun. The film sparkles with originality and joy, and comes at a time where we need a little song and dance in our lives. Okay, maybe just I do. Lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are hot now – they also wrote current Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen – and deservedly so. Their words propel the story with wit and flair to its not-all-happy, you-can’t-have-it-both-ways conclusion. There’s just so much energy and emotion, and writer/director Damien Chazelle is just 31! Wow.

Other films that I enjoyed: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Edge of Seventeen, The Beatles: The Touring Years, Sully, The Fits, Love and Friendship (underrated), A Bigger Splash (just for Ralph Fiennes), Aquarius (enjoyed the live interview with Sonia Braga at AFI), Our Little Sister, Maggie’s Plan (also underrated) , The Birth of a Nation.

Films I did not get to see yet that I would like to: Weiner, Embrace of the Serpent, Elle, American Honey (played for about a week at one cinema! come on DC!), Microbe and Gasoline, 13th, Toni Erdmann, The Handmaiden, Cameraperson, Neon Bull, I, Daniel Blake and Aferim.