REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B

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REVIEW: Happy Christmas

26 06 2014

Happy ChristmasJoe Swanberg had a modest little hit on his hands last summer with “Drinking Buddies,” a more mainstream-friendly comedy.  And thanks to all the stars he packed into the film (and thus the cover art), it seems to have found some nice legs on Netflix.

Happy Christmas” seems unlikely to win over those new fans once more, and it may not even wholly satisfy those more tolerant of the mumblecore style.  Swanberg shows his talents, sure, but the whole enterprise just feels slight and disposable.

It’s a slice of not particularly interesting life that gets in and out within 82 minutes.  During that runtime, the film doesn’t really have much to say, either.  Anna Kendrick gets to have some fun as Jenny, a hapless twentysomething who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife, the sometimes-writer Kelly (Melanie Lynskey).

She brings headache and heartache along with her, as plenty of our own family members are capable of doing.  This familiar narrative device yields little new to ponder or even laugh about.  Unwrapping “Happy Christmas” is like opening the gift from that random aunt of yours … and realizing it’s the same thing you got from her last year.

Though the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, that’s not to say it doesn’t boast some great facets.  The “cool girl,” seemingly down-to-earth Kendrick is a perfect fit for Swanberg speak.  She stammers like a natural, fumbling over “like” just as any of us would and reacts to her surroundings with startling authenticity.  Kendrick brings the honesty and fun to “Happy Christmas” where everyone else just seems kind of dour and depressed.  At least we can say we spent some time basking in her aura of awesomeness.  B-2stars





REVIEW: This Is 40

31 12 2012

Judd Apatow is quite a curious entertainer, and I’m fascinated by the trajectory he’s taken to put his stamp on comedy.  Lately, he’s been using his tremendous power to advance women’s voices in comedy through Lena Dunham‘s HBO series “Girls” and Kristen Wiig’s “Bridesmaids,” quite a noble thing to do.

Yet otherwise as a producer, he makes comedies largely by the status quo, albeit with a slightly Apatowian (is that the proper term?) spin of vulgarity opening up on a big heart.  Some are hits, and others are flops.  Some work; others, absolute disasters.

However, as a director, he’s on the cutting edge.  2009’s “Funny People” and his fourth feature film, “This is 40,” are bold experiments in genre.  In these two movies, Apatow is probing the boundaries of comedy and attempting to make sense of the murky gray area that is dramedy.

These two movies are flawed but noble ventures into the great unknown.  Both films attempt to find the kind of tender human drama that defines the works of Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman, two directors who make serious works with touches of levity.  Apatow strives to find that same pathos without losing his films’ firm rooting in comedy, and though he doesn’t find it in “This is 40,” I’m willing to sit and watch him decipher it out.  Because once he finds that balance, a true masterpiece will be the inevitable result.

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REVIEW: Side by Side

18 12 2012

Side by SideIf you are a film buff, “Side by Side” is a documentary that is totally up your alley.

If you just enjoy watching movies for fun, “Side by Side” will easily raise you up to aficionado level on the craft of cinema.

If you don’t like movies at all, why would you consider watching a movie, especially one about movies, in the first place … and why would you have even made it this far into my review?

Christopher Kenneally’s doc about the Digital Revolution’s impact on how film is made and watched is insightful and captivating for anyone who cares about film at all.  If you don’t, again, I’m not sure how much this will work for you.  The film doesn’t preach to the converted, but rather to the convertible.  But it also manages to never feel like pandering to those with less knowledge.  I even thought I was very well-informed on the subject and found that I knew a whole lot less than I thought.

And right around the moment you might feel that “Side by Side” is playing to a level beneath you, the film geek inside will be tickled with excitement by seeing one of your favorite directors come on screen to opine on the matter.  From James Cameron to Christopher Nolan to David Fincher to Martin Scorsese, this movie has got some major talent to back up any claim it wants to make.

Then again, it also has bizarre appearances by Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig.  Not exactly authoritative figures on these issues, but they add some nice entertainment value.  As does producer and narrator Keanu Reeves, who makes his first meaningful contribution to the cinema since “The Matrix.”  (Side note: he’s seriously disappeared from the movies these days.)

There are so many changes occurring so rapidly in the film industry, and “Side by Side” does a great job at trying to hit on all of them.  I really enjoyed taking in the full scope of all the enormous adjustments having to be made, but I also wish I could have gotten to learn a few of them in more depth rather than getting a cursory overview on several more.  Perhaps this calls for a sequel?  What do you say, Keanu, how about “Side by Side Reloaded” and “Side by Side Revolutions?”  B+3stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2012)

22 06 2012

Have you been looking for a way to fill the Lena Dunham void in your life after last week’s season finale of “Girls?”  Or have you been the idiot that hasn’t experienced the brilliance of “Girls” and thus needs to be introduced to the comedic genius of Lena Dunham?  Regardless of which person in the scenario above you are, you need to see “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham’s debut future which introduced her to talents into the entertainment world.  It’s a freshly real burst of humor into a genre characterized now mostly by vapid ribaldry and high concept hijinks, so much so that I have named it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (I realize it’s been a while, so I owe you all another unpacking of the acronym “F.I.L.M.”  It stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.)

I often use the phrase twentysomething as a pejorative, but now that I’m three months removed from becoming one, it’s about time I start embracing it.  Thanks to Lena Dunham, I know what to expect.  I know to embrace the awkwardness, the uncertainty, the belittling, and the pockets of fun as just part of the age.  Most movies painting a portrait of an age or a specific stage of life usually wind up totally missing the mark and just make me scoff.  Yes, I’m looking at you, just about every high school movie whose title is not “Easy A.”

Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” on the other hand, suffers from no Hollywood-itis.  Her storytelling suffers from no illusions or fabricated myths about being twenty.  Aura, her surrogate here that yields many revelations into her character Hannah on “Girls,” is not even trying to get her footing in the professional or post-collegiate world; she’s trying to find where the ground is.  Her frustrations are chronicled with her family, her job, and her friends.  While it’s nerve-wracking for her, thankfully Dunham’s organic sense of humor makes the discontent more than just watchable – it becomes insightfully entertaining.

“Tiny Furniture,” much like “Girls,” isn’t a typical comedy where people just spout off ridiculous lines that make you think, “Gosh, whoever wrote that is wicked clever.”  Dunham’s film finds humor in the mundane and ordinary – in other words, where us regular people are forced to find it (because not everyone can wake up with a tiger in Las Vegas).  The dialogue gives us plenty of quotables but nothing too outrageous; they are the kind of things that normal people would say.  Her slice-of-life is filled with bitter cherries, tasty but not withholding the painful nature of things.  So if you are like me and had “Tiny Furniture” dwelling in the middle of your Netflix queue for months, it’s time to bump this to the top.  The furniture may be tiny, but the payoff is huge.