THE GREAT MAN

HaircutThe Great Man is a great movie--one of the best I have seen so far in 2015. Two young men from very different parts of the world meet and bond in the French Foreign Legion. When they are ambushed in Afghanistan, one makes great sacrifices to save the other, but once separated, their paths diverge.

Second collaboration between director Sarah Leonor and co-screenwriter Emmanuelle Jacob. Much welcome proof that Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker will not be the only film in which women filmmakers provide brilliant insights into an all-male military. (JLH: 5/5)

Top Photo: Reunited with his son "Khadji" (Ramzan Idiev), the first thing "Markov" (Surho Sugaipov) does is give the boy a military haircut that matches his own.

Photo Credits: Claire Nicol

Q: Does The Great Man pass the Bechdel Test?

No.

There are a few women around the edges, but they don't really interact with one another. This is a film about male bonding, so it is as it should be.

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LEARNING TO DRIVE

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 10.45.32 PMIsabel Coixet brings us a feel good unconventional romantic comedy about a woman going through a divorce, who decides it is time to learn to drive so she can visit her daughter. Through all the ups and downs, she finds surprising support and friendship from her driving instructor. (JEP: 3/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry (plus Jan adds her Two Cents at the very bottom)

“Wendy” (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband “Ted” (Jake Weber) have done everything right. They live in a beautiful brownstone in Manhattan, share a love of books, and have been great parents to their daughter “Tasha” (Grace Gummer)—who is now a grown woman and out of the house.

But one day Wendy learns that Ted has been cheating, and that it is not just another one of his “phases”, but instead long-term, and cause to end their marriage. Alone in Manhattan, Wendy is left to deal with all the mess that comes with divorce.

One morning there’s a knock at the door of the brownstone, and when Wendy opens the door, she finds “Darwan” (Sir Ben Kingsley) standing there with a package in his hand. He has come to return something that Wendy left in his cab. As he leaves, she sees he is driving a different car, and then she spots the sign atop it that advertises driving lessons. Darwan won't accept a tip for the return of her package, so Wendy asks how she can contact him about driving lessons.

It turns out Wendy does not have a driver’s license because in Manhattan she’s never needed one. Anytime they went anywhere, Ted would drive. But Wendy’s situation has changed, and in an effort to visit her daughter in Vermont, she decides to take driving lessons.

Meanwhile, Darwan is being pestered by his sister back in India to find a wife. He eventually agrees to an arranged marriage, and his soon-to-be wife “Jasleen” (Sarita Choudhury) comes to Queens where they will be wed.

Darwan is a patient teacher and a good listener and Wendy may be a nervous student, but she is caring and takes an interest in Darwan’s life and culture. The two find common ground, and a friendship (with a poorly executed romantic storyline) grows. Both are going through drastic shifts in their lives and they lean on each other for support.

Learning to Drive was well intentioned and a nice watch. But it was just nice. There were silly flaws in the storyline where there did not need to be, flaws that appeared to have been overlooked by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan.

The haphazard romantic hints between Darwan and Wendy were completely unnecessary, and honestly, at times uncomfortable. What the two characters needed from each other, and eventually received, was friendship and guidance—not romance. So the romantic undercurrent was awkward and made for out of character moments for both Wendy and Darwan.

However, both Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley delivered strong endearing performances, begging me to love the film more than I did. As a whole, Learning to Drive was good time at the theater and a feel good film. But try as I may, I cannot say director Isabel Coixet hit it out of the park.

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (8/23/15)

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 9.48.53 PMTop Photo: Darwan marries Jasleen in a traditional Sikh wedding ceremony.

Middle Photo: Wendy and Darwan mid driving lesson.

Bottom Photo: Darwan rewards Wendy with a trip to the beach after she successful crosses her first bridge.

Photo Credits: Linda Kallerus

Q: Does Learning to Drive pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Yes!

Wendy and her daughter Tasha discuss Tasha's decision to live in Vermont. Tasha points out that Wendy will never be able to visit her there if she doesn't learn how to drive.

Meanwhile Jasleen finally finds the courage to explore Queens by herself. She meets a new friend in a convenience store who then introduces her to other women in the Indian ExPat community.

+ JAN'S TWO CENTS: Wendy also has a few crack-up scenes with Samantha Bee as her sister "Debbie." Are riffs on Blow Jobs about a man, about men in general, or what? Me, I think riffs on Blow Jobs are riffs on Blow Jobs, and in my book, riffs on Blow Jobs pass the Bechdel Test 😉

Jan2Cents

This old lady is a bit sad to learn that Jess is so hard on Wendy and Darwan :-(

Without giving too much away, I don't think Wendy ever has a romantic interest in Darwan (altho she is certainly intrigued by and mystified by the concept of an arranged marriage). But by the end, it becomes clear that Darwan cares a bit more for Wendy than he should. The question is what interests him and why, and this requires the viewer to "follow the breadcrumbs" to the heart of darkness in Darwan's past.

Darwan grew up in Punjab. He was a university professor who came from a prominent Sikh family, but that life ended when they were caught up in India's crackdown on militants after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Darwan tells Wendy that he, his parents, and his brothers were all imprisoned and tortured. He tells Wendy that the only family member who not imprisoned was his sister, and she only escaped because the authorities thought she was too young to have any involvement in whatever the authorities thought the rest of Darwan's family was involved in (which is never actually specified). What is specified is that Darwan arrived in the USA in 2000, and he was granted political asylum... right before 9/11...

So this very refined and educated man has been living an extremely lonely life for decades, with none of the intellectual stimulation he once took for granted. And then he meets Wendy... ConeyIsland

In this chamber music duet, Wendy is the soprano and Darwan is the pianist. Even though Kingsley--who won an Oscar playing Mahatma Gandhi in 1982--gives Clarkson all of his attention, the film loses its meaning if we lose sight of him.

This is director Isabel Coixet's second film with Kingsley. The first was Elegy (co-starring Penelope Cruz), which I also loved. Once again, Coixet's casting is impeccable. Grace Gummer is lovely as "Tasha," as is Sarita Choudhury as “Jasleen.” (Old folks like me might remember Choudhury from her steamy love scenes with Denzel Washington in Mira Nair's film Mississippi Masala; youngsters might recognize her as someone currently playing a supporting role on Homeland.) Samantha Bee is a hoot as Wendy's sister "Debbie," and Avi Nash (who plays Darwan's nephew "Preet") is absolutely adorable.

After one too many INS raids, Preet--who has been hiding out illegally in Darwan's apartment--tells Darwan that he is moving to Chinatown to live with his girlfriend. Not to worry, says Preet, she's Jewish... and yes, my heart did a little leap in that moment for the miracle that is America!

Bottom Line: This time Jessica and I must agree to disagree. For me, Coixet definitely did "hit it out of the park." (JLH: 4.5/5)

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (8/24/15)

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SLOW LEARNERS

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 9.47.21 AMAdam Pally and Sarah Burns star as two nerdy, bookish co-workers who transform into “cooler” versions of themselves to try and find happiness. The laugh-out-loud romantic comedy knows it’s cliche, but gives the audience a ride that is thoroughly enjoyable. (BKP: 5/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

High-school librarian “Anne” (Sarah Burns) loves books, her cat sweater and tidying up Red Solo cups at parties. Her best friend, high school guidance counselor “Jeff” (Adam Pally) has little luck in the love department and spends his weekends with his book club buddies. When school lets out for the summer, Anne and Jeff decide to make a change in their lives.

How can they be cool? How can they find love? Anne ditches her librarian wardrobe for skin-tight black dresses and flashy jewelry. Jeff trades in his glasses and khakis for bandanas and leather jackets. At first, everything is fun with Anne and Jeff testing different personas during nights on the town. In typical romantic comedy fashion, things go too far until Jeff and Anne realize they truly have become different people.

bookclub

As typical as it sounds, screenwriter Matt Serword and co-directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce keep you laughing by the minute. During one of Jeff’s book club meetings, his friends ask “Lenny” (Bobby Moynihan) about the last time he went on a date. Lenny looks up and says, “What’s today? Sunday? … 1986.” The humor resonates because it feels so real. Even in smaller scenes with Jeff’s parents, the dialogue about party preparations is spot-on. As clever as Serword’s script is, the blooper reel indicates that improvisation was a major component of Slow Learners. Pally, Burns and the entire cast deliver their lines with impeccable comedic timing.

The third act feels a bit extreme, with Anne and Jeff seeming like completely different characters - but that is exactly the point. Aside from the romantic or comedic aspects of the film, there is a deep underlying message. Should you be yourself and not have what “everyone else” has? Or should you alter your personality to fit in, losing what you love in the process? Anne and Jeff slowly learn that there is a fine line between the two ... they only need each other to figure it all out.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (8/22/15)

SLOW_LEARNERS_Still

Photos: Adam Pally as "Jeff" and Sarah Burns as "Anne"

Photo Credits: Chase Bowman/Sundance Selects

Q: Does Slow Learners pass the Bechdel Test?

Definitely!

RedAWhile the film gives Jeff other storylines aside from his romantic entanglements (his parents, his buddies) screenwriter Matt Serword also focuses on Anne’s relationship with her other best friend, recent mother “Julia” (Catherine Reitman).

A typical romantic comedy would have the sidekick be attentive and 100% invested in Anne’s love life. Instead, Slow Learners shines a realistic light on what happens to friends once one becomes a mother and one is still single. The dynamic changes. Julia doesn’t become a patronizing witch just because she has a newborn, a refreshing change from the typical portrayal of new mothers. Their friendship reaches a turning point as both women grow and evolve, giving Slow Learners yet another interesting plot line.

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FORT TILDEN

FTFirst-time directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers tell a humorous story of two best friends on their journey to the beach. The simplicity and relatability of the premise allows the comedy to take center stage, with Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliot perfectly executing their Brooklynite alter egos. (BKP: 4/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

The comedy opens with a rooftop party in Williamsburg (Brooklyn). Hippie twin sisters play guitars and sing their self-written songs to a group of their closest friends. Here we meet “Allie” (Clare McNulty) and “Harper” (Bridey Elliot) - two of their “friends” who discretely text back and forth during the performance. Immediately, you get to know their senses of humor. While they greet the twin sisters with sugary-sweet compliments, they are secretly making fun of them behind their backs. This moment, alone, is a true-to-life picture of millennials who struggle to handle societal expectations in their early 20s . On the outside, most people act as if they have their lives together and everything is great. On the inside, it’s a different story.

Before leaving the party, Allie and InstagramHarper meet two guys with enough sex appeal to set a beach date for the following day. This is perfect for Allie, who is leaving for the Peace Corp in the coming week, and wants one last day of fun and adventure.

Harper, too, is looking to forget her money troubles and head to Fort Tilden without a care in the world. But their memorable day doesn’t actually happen at the beach - because they never quite get there. Small obstacles continuously get in their way: bicycles, neighbors, crashes and phone calls to name a few. This plot device has been used in countless films (Date Night, Baby’s Day Out and/or every roadtrip movie ever made) yet it feels refreshingly entertaining for Fort Tilden.

Maybe you need a particular sense of humor to relate to this story or maybe you need to be in the “millennial” age range, but so much of the comedy seemingly comes from real-life experiences. Furthermore, the idea of “What am I going to do with my life?” can be applied to a broader audience - or at least the exact same demographic who watches Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls. There is a similar tone between the two as they both take place in Brooklyn with young hipsters looking Instagram-ready in their big sunglasses and floral rompers. Fort Tilden feels uncomfortably real, like these scenarios are occurring in real-time and not in an idealistic, picture-perfect world of cinema.

McNulty and Elliot are perfect in their roles as best friends, Allie and Harper. The undeniable chemistry makes for an easy, enjoyable watch. Like Girls, the story takes place in a complicated, yet simplistic world. Its insightful message is understated and sweet, using comedy as its main vehicle rather than sappy or dramatic plotlines. Allie and Harper, like many young women their age, are trying to find their place in this world. All they have is each other, a gift more important than a perfect job or a cashed rent check.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (8/14/15)

fort-tilden

Photos:  Clare McNulty as “Allie”  and Bridey Elliot as “Harper”

Photo Credits: Brian Lannin © Orion

Q: Does Fort Tilden pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Absolutely! Although they talk about relationships,  “Allie” (Clare McNulty) and “Harper” (Bridey Elliot) have conversations about many other things: their life choices, their families, etc.

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MERU

With breathtaking cinematography and a heartfelt message, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarhelyi document three friends and their treacherous, painstaking journey of climbing Mount Meru. (BKP: 4.5/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

September 2011. Northern India.

Climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk set out on a trek to reach The Shark’s Fin, a smooth surface at the top of Mount Meru - located 21,000 feet above the Ganges River. There is more to the story, however, other than climbing a terrain more difficult and dangerous than Mount Everest.

Three years prior, Chin, Anker and Ozturk attempted to climb Mount Meru in what was supposed to have been a seven day journey. With only 100 meters remaining in their climb, a snowy storm derailed their efforts, leaving them stranded for 20 days in freezing temperatures and with little food. Thankfully, the men returned home safely, promising each other - and their families - that they would never attempt a climb to The Shark’s Fin again.

This is where Meru unveils the heart of its story - with the families of the climbers. As three years pass and the pull towards another attempt at Mount Meru starts to consume their lives, worry and and hesitation comes to the forefront of their personal lives - particularly Jimmy Chin’s wife, co-director Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarhelyi. When discussing the making of the documentary, Vasarhelyi reflects on the importance of focusing on the familial aspect of the climbers:

In these kinds of stories, people often get caught up in the accomplishment, but there’s another side, of course. Being married to Jimmy, I’m especially interested in what the female characters in the story—the ones back home, often wringing their hands—had to say. How did they tolerate the risks these climbers, their closest family members, take as part of their professional careers? What drove their lives, and what kept them steady? Despite the fact that this film reaches an apex of 21,000 feet, I felt Meru had to also remain firmly on the ground.

It does, indeed. With more failed attempts than any other mountain in the Himalayas, their families are understandably apprehensive. Is this really worth it? What if they do not return home? What is the point? Their fear and nerves are projected onto the audience as Chin, Anker and Ozturk begin their second, high-stakes journey to The Shark’s Fin.

Climber/Cinematographer Renan Ozturk beautifully captures their every move. The crisp and steady imagery brings you into their world and makes you feel like you are the fourth man on their climb to the top.

The documentary tells a story that is less about reaching The Shark’s Fin and more about a metaphor for accomplishing goals, trusting friends and loving family. The hardships and fear-inducing moments keep your blood pumping, making you fully engaged in their every move.

The only thing typical about Meru is the editing style - complete with talking heads and narrations which give insight into history, feelings and reflections. It is a story well-told from beginning to end, leaving you both inspired… and utterly exhausted.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (8/19/15)

Top Photo: Jimmy Chin and The Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India

Middle Photo: View of Mount Meru from Tapovon Basecamp. The Shark's Fin is the central pillar in the formation.

Bottom Photo: The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011; Climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk

Photo Credits: © Jimmy Chin

Q: Does Meru pass the Bechdel Test?

Unfortunately, no.

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MISTRESS AMERICA

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.58.07 AMWritten by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the pair deliver a wonderful and original film about a lonely college freshman living in New York, whose life becomes a lot more eventful the moment she reaches out to her soon-to-be stepsister. (JEP: 4.5/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

As a freshman at Barnard College, “Tracy” (Lola Kirke) is lonely and struggling to fit in. She forms a bond with neighboring student “Tony” (Matthew Shear) through their mutual goal to be admitted into a highly selective and elite writing society on campus.

Tracy soon develops romantic feelings for Tony and things seem to be turning around. That is, until she runs into Tony and his new girlfriend “Nicolette” (Jasmine Cephas Jones) on campus. Once again Tracy finds herself alone, trying to navigate the ins and outs of her school’s isolating social circles and find her place in New York City.

Tracy’s mother is getting married over the upcoming Thanksgiving Weekend, and her fiancé’s daughter also lives in New York City. So she encourages Tracy to reach out to her soon-to-be stepsister. Tracy resists at first, but when she is once again eating dinner alone in a diner, she decides to take a chance and reach out.

Enter “Brooke” (Greta Gerwig), a 30-something who still lives life like she’s in her 20s, a character trait that has long since stopped being “cute.” But Tracy immediately loves Brooke, idolizing her and overlooking any flaw.

Tracy goes back to campus after her first night with Brooke, and writes a “fictional” short story about her soon-to-be stepsister and her adventurous ways. It is a story that is sure to step on some toes, but Tracy goes ahead with it anyway, submitting it to the campus writing society.Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.57.17 AM

Meanwhile, Brooke is attempting to open a restaurant. It is her newest venture that no one thinks she will actually follow through on. And when her boyfriend--and biggest financial backer--pulls out of the deal, he leaves Brooke high and dry.

Tracy adventures with Brooke to find a new financial partner for the restaurant, and she drags Tony and Nicolette along for the ride. Hilarious situations ensue, paired with genuine and honest moments.

Mistress America is the second film Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have done together. While I have not seen, and therefore cannot speak about Frances Ha, I found Mistress America unique, creative, and simply on point. Gerwig and Baumbach bring us a film that at times feels completely a mess (in the most honest way), but artfully executed, this mess is completely intentional.

The characters are all flawed, all extremely human, and nothing is sugar coated. Brooke is trouble, and everyone knows it. Greta Gerwig delivers a wonderful performance, in a role that was undoubtedly made for her. Lola Kirke is a new face, and one to watch. She is absolutely perfect as Tracy, delivering a subtle yet grounded performance. I believed her the whole way through.

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (8/19/15)Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.58.16 AM

Top Photo: Tracy carrying all of Brooke's things for her back to her apartment.

Middle Photo: Brooke and Tracy out on the town.

Bottom Photo: Brooke and potential financial backers reading Tracy's "fictional" short story.

Photo Credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Q: Does Mistress America pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Definitely!

From Tracy's opening conversation with her mother about adjusting to college life, to Brook and Tracy's numerous conversations about anything and everything, Mistress America is filled with meaningful interactions between the female characters.

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RETURN TO SENDER

Return1On the heels of her infamous role in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike steps back into a similar character - a vengeful, mentally-unstable woman who is grappling with trauma. The majority of the film is equal parts engrossing and disturbing, ultimately unraveling in Act Three. Nonetheless, screenwriters Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett grasp your full attention until you get there. (BKP: 4/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

“Miranda Wells” (Rosamund Pike) is living life like any other person. She works as a nurse, bakes cakes for birthday parties and visits her aging father on the weekends. If only she could make a relationship work.

When a blind date goes horribly awry, she is left to deal with the haunting aftermath. Her actions are troublesome, confusing and unpredictable - the elements that make Return to Sender so very intriguing. Any specific plot details would take away from the film’s shocking developments and gasp-worthy scenes.

When a story immediately captures your attention and draws you in, certain aspects can be forgiven (i.e. realism, dialogue and/or unnecessary scenes). There are some elements in the film that do not work, but there are many more that do. In a heart-pounding fight scene, the choreography is masterful and tastefully done. It is just graphic enough to get the point across. Director Fouad Mikati knows when to focus on the camera on Pike’s face, letting her talented acting ability tell the story more so than the action.

Miranda’s relationship with her dad, “Mitchel” (Nick Nolte) is one of the highlights of Return to Sender. Although the payoff is not exactly satisfying, their relationship feels loving, believable. Nolte captures the heartache of a father who feels guilty for being unable to protect his daughter from the evils of the world. You feel his pain, you feel his anger and, as a viewer, you relate to his confusion.

It is quickly paced, spanning the timeline of many months. Yet, somehow, after 95 minutes, the climax and falling action seem rushed. Would 10 more minutes make it all better? Who knows, but despite its occasional missteps, this hybrid of Gone Girl and Misery is bizarrely compelling.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (8/14/15)

Return2

Photos:  Rosamund Pike as "Miranda Wells" and Shiloh Fernandez as "William Finn."

Photo Credits: Image Entertainment

Q: Does Return to Sender pass the Bechdel Test?

Not really. Although she has female co-workers, they only talk about finding her a man.

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SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY

She'sFunny1Originally titled Squirrels to the Nuts - which would have been more fitting - Director Peter Bogdanovich and co-writer Louise Stratten make their screwball comedy comeback in She’s Funny That Way. Led by Owen Wilson and British beauty Imogen Poots, the film tells a slightly entertaining, slightly humdrum tale of a romantically entangled web of characters. (BKP: 3.5/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

She’s Funny That Way fades in with the sound of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ “Cheek to Cheek” playing over the opening credits. Although the film’s laundry list of characters makes for a complicated plot - and the film is nowhere near perfect - the feel-good tone is evident from those first few Irving Berlin notes.

We first meet “Isabella” (Imogen Poots) at a bar, as she sits across from a stern, unimpressed reporter. Now a Hollywood star, Isabella recounts her story of how she went from a call-girl in Brooklyn to a successful actress in Tinsel Town.

It all begins in her escort days when she meets “Arnold,” (Owen Wilson) a married Broadway director in need of a “good time.” Their connection deepens when he generously gives her $30,000 to begin a new life and start over - and that’s exactly what she does. Isabella auditions for a Broadway play and, unbeknownst to her, Arnold is the director and his wife, “Delta” (Kathryn Hahn) is the lead. Secondary characters make their way into the story and the plot starts to get tricky:

  • Isabella sleeps with ArnoldShe'sFunny2
  • Arnold directs a play with his wife Delta
  • Delta is unaware of her husband’s relationship with Isabella
  • The play’s male lead, “Seth” (Rhys Ifans) loves Delta
  • Arnold’s friend “Joshua” (Will Forte) is the wimpy playwright
  • Joshua is romantically involved with a harsh therapist, “Jane” (Jennifer Aniston)
  • Isabella is one of Jane’s patients

Following? If you throw in cameos from Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis, Tatum O'Neal, Jennifer Esposito and Debi Mazar, you’ve got yourself one interesting - and random - film. Using the framing device of Isabella’s interview, the film continuously cuts back and forth from the past to the present. It feels as if you are being woken up from a dream, falling back to sleep and being woken up again. That device works for some films (i.e. Forrest Gump) but here, it feels jarring and unnecessary.

Yet, British Imogen Poots is convincing as Isabella, complete with a heavy New York accent. Owen Wilson is unsurprisingly funny as “Arnold,” as well as Will Forte as playwright “Joshua.” The standout here, however, is Jennifer Aniston as therapist “Jane.” Much like her feisty role in Horrible Bosses, Aniston gets to play “bad girl” once again and does it with comedic perfection. Kathryn Hahn, who has worked with Aniston in We’re the Millers, is always convincing in her wide array of roles, but is somewhat underutilized as Delta.

The satirical nature of She’s Funny That Way keeps the film entertaining. The funniest lines come from Forte or Aniston, making mockeries out of their respective professions (playwrights, therapists). Occasionally, certain lines of dialogue are so sharp that they make you forget what you are watching. Unfortunately, the narrative structure and tonal shifts overshadow a majority of those enjoyable moments.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (8/17/15)

She'sFunny3

Top Photo: Owen Wilson as "Arnold" and Kathryn Hahn as his wife "Delta"

Middle Photo: Arnold and "Isabella" (Imogen Poots) spend the night together

Bottom Photo: The film's climax, everyone confronts each other

Photo Credits: Lagniappe Films, in association with Venture Forth, Threepoint Capital, Lailaps Pictures, Holy Wiersma Productions

Q: Does She’s Funny That Way pass the Bechdel Test?RedA

Yes!

There are many scenes that pass the Bechdel Test, particularly a humorous scene between  “Isabella” (Imogen Poots) and “Jane” (Jennifer Aniston) during a therapy session.

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STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 4.44.15 PMStraight Outta Compton follows the rise and fall of popular rap group NWA, some of whose member’s are still forces in the music industry today. The powerful and record-breaking film was written by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, and is an absolute must-see! (JEP: 4.5/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Jessica E. Perry

Directed by F. Gary Gray and written by Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman, Straight Outta Compton has broken records on its opening weekend, and rightly so. The powerful film depicts the rise to fame of rap group NWA, and all that came after. Made up of five young men from Compton, California NWA’s music revolutionized the hip-hop music culture.

When the film opens these young men are all at very different points in their lives. “Dr. Dre” (Corey Hawkins) is leaving home because his mother wants him to get a “real job” instead of pursuing his career as a DJ. “Ice Cube” (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is one of the select students to be bussed into affluent neighborhoods to go to high school. Intelligent and motivated, he writes his rhymes on the bus ride home. “Easy-E” (Jason Mitchell) is good with business, but is currently only in the business of selling drugs.

Everything changes on one fateful day in 1986 when Dr. Dre convinces Easy-E to put his money and business prowess towards music instead of drugs. Easy-E agrees and Ruthless Records is born. With their own record label to support them, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy-E, “MC Ren” (Aldis Hodge), and “DJ Yella” (Neil Brown Jr.) form the group known as NWA.

When their first single Boyz-n-the-Hood is met with incredible success, music manager “Jerry Heller” (Paul Giamatti) offers to represent the group. Soon after, Heller gets the boys signed by Priority Records and they begin to work on their debut album Straight Outta Compton.

The boys quickly reach success, but Heller and Easy-E work for themselves. So the other four members of the group begin touring without proper contracts from their record label, while Easy-E sits secure with his own signed and executed contract.

The group faces much adversity, especially after they release a song speaking out against the police’s discrimination and poor treatment they all witnessed growiStraight-Outta-Compton-Movie-Still-1ng up in Compton. At one point, the group is arrested for simply performing the song at one of their shows. A riot ensues and NWA’s influence and popularity only grows.

Ice Cube meets with Jerry Heller about the contracts, and learns that they are far from fair. He decides to leave the group since Heller and his label refuse to treat him with the same respect as Easy-E. Ice Cube begins his solo career, and his success prompts retaliation by NWA through the release of their next album.

Dr. Dre is the next to recognize Heller’s deception and unfair treatment, and like Ice Cube, Dre decides to leave the group. He becomes affiliated with “Suge Knight” (R. Marcus Taylor), and soon releases his first solo album and begins producing songs for other rap artists.

As time goes on each man begins to question his decisions, and Easy-E brings them all together again after their careers have taken them in vastly different directions.

Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell as Easy-E both deliver powerful and moving performances. The relatively new actors are both superb and I’m excited to see what they do next.

Straight Outta Compton is O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s first IMDB credit. As the son of Ice Cube himself, it is fair to assume Jackson was cast because he looks so much like his father, and while I’m sure it helped, he is also extremely talented. Jackson was a force, delivering an absolutely phenomenal performance in his debut role.

Straight Outta Compton is a wonderfully written, powerful film, captivating your attention from the very first scene to the very last. With a runtime of almost two and a half hours, one would expect the film to drag or feel incredibly long, but it doesn’t. Instead, you don’t want it to end. See Straight Outta Compton, and see it now.

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (8/17/15)Bottom Photo

Top Photo: Dr. Dre spinning for a crowd.

Middle Photo: Dr. Dre and Easy-E recording Boyz-n-the-Hood.

Bottom Photo: The members of NWA.

Photo Credits: Jaimie Trueblood

Q: Does Straight Outta Compton pass the Bechdel Test?

Not even a little bit.

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TEN THOUSAND SAINTS

Saints01Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini throw a lot of love--and an excellent cast--at Eleanor Henderson's novel Ten Thousand Saints, but success eludes them. Unfortunately, their adaptation is a bit of a "paint by numbers" exercise that never manages to fully engage. (JLH: 3/5)

Review by Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner (with additional two cents from Contributing Editor Jessica Perry at the bottom)

According to Amazon, Eleanor Henderson's novel Ten Thousand Saints is 390 pages long. I haven't read it, so I can't tell you where filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini--who co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation--made their cuts. But I can tell you that their film--which runs just under two hours--has left an excellent cast stranded in a plot-heavy drama that is surprisingly dull and predictable.

My guess is that Henderson created backstories for each of her main characters, but without these backstories--which have been stripped away in the screenplay--it's very hard to care about the cardboard people who now inhabit the Ten Thousand Saints universe. Of course, I am only guessing. Surely something must have made Berman and Pulcini interested in Henderson's novel when they first started the project. I'm not callous enough to believe their primary motivation was to recreate the vibe of the East Village in the '80s. But hey, who knows? After all, they have done a marvelous job of capturing a certain look that oozes with nostalgia. I just wish the tableau had included people who feel as real as their milieu.

The central character is a a high school kid named "Jude" (Asa Butterfield) as in "Hey Jude."  Jude's Dad "Lester" (Ethan Hawke) is a stoner who lives in Manhattan. Jude's Mom "Harriet" (Julianne Nicholson) is a single mother raising Jude and his sister "Prudence" (Nadia Alexander)--as in "Dear Prudence"--in a large comfortable home in Vermont, although it's never quite clear where she gets her money. Does the income Harriet derives from blowing glass baubles really stretch this far? Hard to believe, but once again, who knows? What matters is that Nicholson is never provided with an opportunity to give Harriet any depth or dimension.

After a brief prologue explaining why Lester left Vermont sometime in the '70s, Ten Thousand Saints  jumps ahead ten years to New Year's Eve, 1987, when Harriet suddenly informs Jude that he must to go to the bus station to meet up with "Eliza Kaplan" (Hailee Steinfeld), another high school student who just happens to be passing through town... on New Year's Eve. This news comes out of left field and Jude is rightfully resentful because even though he has never met her, Jude knows that Eliza Kaplan is the daughter of Lester's latest girlfriend "Diane" (Emily Mortimer). So he dutifully goes to the bus station, and one thing leads to another, over and over again, in the same over-determined way, in an overstuffed plot filled with similar coincidences and improbabilities.

It's as if Berman and Pulcini are checking off the boxes on a master list: abortion, adoption, drug overdose, gentrification, teen pregnancy, etc, etc. Presumably Henderson used her 390 pages to provide some connective tissue, but once again, who knows? What matters is that actors--no matter how talented they are--have a hard time making such a depressing litany of social issues interesting, even when they are allowed to visit a few requisite cultural landmarks like CBGB and Tompkins Square Park along the way.

Asa Butterfield is a handsome young actor from London who was barely ten years old when he played the lead role in The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. (Just to be clear here, Butterfield played a German boy named "Bruno." "Shmuel"--the Jewish boy who actually wore the stripped pajamas--was not the lead, and Jack Scanlon--the young actor who played Shmuel--has pretty much disappeared from view.) A few years later, Butterfield played "Hugo" in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning  film Hugo, but it's indicative of Butterfield's screen presence that none of Hugo's nominations--let alone its five wins--were in acting categories.

Butterfield has zero charisma, and casting him as Jude was a seemingly "safe" choice that backfired. The intensity that Canadian actor Avan Jogia--who plays Jude's Vermont buddy "Teddy"--packs into the first fifteen minutes of Ten Thousand Saints is never recaptured and yet his image lingers on screen like a vampire, making Butterfield seem even more pale than he already is. With neither the inherent emotion of the Holocaust nor Scorsese's technical wizardry to sustain him, Butterfield is like a black hole that drains energy from Ten Thousand Saints rather than adding anything to it.

In 2003, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini came out a nowhere to win an Oscar-nomination for their first feature film American Splendor (which also pushed the career of actor Paul Giamatti from obscurity right up to the Indie A List). They followed up with The Nanny Diaries (which I fought for to no avail). But since then, their films have gone from bad to worse...

I do not believe the Conventional Wisdom that the book is always better than the movie. Berman and Pulcini met the challenge of adapting Harvey Pekar's complicated graphic memoir American Splendor with flying colors, and The Nanny Diaries is a case in point where the screenplay is actually better than the source novel on which it is based. So all I can do now is wish Berman and Pulcini better luck in the future.

© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (8/19/15)

Saints02

Top Photo: Asa Butterfield as "Jude."

Middle Photo: Hailee Steinfeld as "Eliza Kaplan," with Emile Hirsch as an East Village musician named "Johnny."

Bottom Photo: Jude and a very pregnant Eliza walk the streets of New York.

Photo Credits: JoJo Whilden © The Solution Entertainment Group (2014)

Q #1: Does Ten Thousand Saints pass the Bechdel Test? RedA

Yes, but barely.

Hailee Steinfeld has a couple of brief scenes with Emily Mortimer (who plays her mother "Diane"), and one even briefer scene with Julianne Nicholson (who plays Jude's mother "Harriet"). Near the end, Mortimer and Nicholson also get one scene together in which they discuss Eliza. The fact that they are connected to each other through Lester has become a moot point by this phase of the plot. But unfortunately they are both marginal characters with very small roles. Eliza also has a classmate in one scene, but if you blink you will miss her.

Q #2: Where is Tompkins Square Park?

Tompkins Square Park is located in Manhattan's East Village north of Houston Street and southeast of Union Square (14th Street). To orient non-New Yorkers, this is very close to where the famous Fillmore East once stood. On the other hand, the CBGB club--actually referenced by name in the film--was several blocks further south to Bowery then west to Bleecker. Click HERE for more on the 1988 riot shown in the film (which actually happened).

MapquestTSP

 

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I have to agree with Jan on this one: Ten Thousand Saints began with a lot of promise but by the end I was frustrated with every character and ultimately not invested in the film’s resolution.

Asa Butterfield stars in the film as “Jude,” a teenage boy growing up in a small town in Vermont. While I wouldn’t say his performance was so unbearable872bcf489655917184752f52848a54c3 that it was synonymous with a “black hole” draining energy from the film, I also wouldn’t say it was anything special.

I’m sure filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robet Pulcini strove to capture their audience with a strong and compelling protagonist. But sadly in this case, they did not succeed. I found myself caring more about exterior characters, such as Avan Jogia’s small yet ever-present role as Jude's friend Teddy. And saw a new side to Hailee Steinfeld in her performance as “Eliza,” a pregnant teen who will do anything to feel safe. But unfortunately, I did not see anything new in Butterfield. In all honesty, I was so distracted by his terrible haircut in the first half of the film that I wasn’t focused on much else.

I will fess up and admit that before watching the film, I was not aware that Ten Thousand Saints was adapted from a book. But if I had been, I’m not sure if this review would be much different, because the final product is the same. To me, Ten Thousand Saints felt like a gritty, precariously executed, coming of age story propped up only by a compelling 1980’s New York City backdrop.

Ten Thousand Saints showed so much promise at the beginning that I want to say it was great. Instead, it was an hour and a half of me wanting to knock each character upside the head and tell them to “get it together!” The film had its moments, but I’ll hold my thumbs up for Berman and Pulcini until their next films. (JEP: 3/5)

© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (8/25/15)

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