Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Invitation (2016) **

A group of 30 somethings gather together for a mysterious dinner party and strange events ensue.  They are all connected in some way and have experienced some form of loss.  The Invitation feels like a humorless version of the The Big Chill with an Agatha Christie premise added to the mix.  At first everyone is all politeness and smiles, until the hosts introduce their guests to the fascinating "group" (not a cult) they discovered in Mexico. And there's no cell phone service either at the house (of course).  While the film builds up the tension well enough, it's hard not to miss where it's all going.  Logan-Marshall Green as the lead gives deadpan performance, epitomizing the banal dialogue and cliche plot points that carry a slight charm. Above all, these people are soap opera cut outs.  The Invitation works as an above average TV movie and that's where it would belong in another decade.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in his Own Words *** (2016)

Eat That Question looks back at the career of Frank Zappa (1940-1993) through skillful use of archival footage, consisting mostly of interviews and excerpts from his live performances. Zappa was known more for his personality and battles with censors instead of his music (which rarely got radio play.)  Classically trained, Zappa's ability compose music put him way ahead of his contemporaries. His music combined elements of classical, jazz, fusion, doo wop, and noise rock - releasing over 80 albums of original material.

With his band The Mothers of Invention, Zappa made performance art a major part of his act.  His music was loaded with social commentary on all sorts of topics, breaking all sorts of barriers.  

Zappa's full of surprises. Despite his outlandish appearance and unconventional music he never drank alcohol or abused drugs (more of a cigarettes and coffee guy). When touring he would dismiss band members who took drugs.  Often grouped with the counterculture, Zappa actually despised hippies, viewing them as conformists. In the 1980s, Zappa led the fight against Tipper Gore's attempt to censor rock and rap albums.

Later in life Zappa got actively involved in politics.  In Czechoslovakia he served as a cultural ambassador and in 1992 he planned a run for the presidency until a cancer diagnosis sidetracked him.

Zappa passed away way too early at age 52, God Knows what he would make of America at the current moment, but voices more like him are desperately needed. Eat the Question is an excellent introduction to his work.  Don't miss his appearance on the CNN show Crossfire.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Midnight Special (2016) **1/2

The Midnight Special, a film compared to Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. upon its release, feels more like a slightly above average X-Files episode. The film is about a boy with psychic gifts who is on the run with his father (Michael Shannon) and his highway patrolman friend/guardian angel (Joel Edgerton). A religious sect believes the boy transmits messages from God. Meanwhile, the government is also interested in the boy (for drone warfare or something).  Director Jeff Nichols tried to compensate for the cliche elements of the script with iconic performances from Shannon and Edgerton, but both are more opaque than memorable. Shannon and Edgerton kept their characters too remote for there to be any emotional resonance.  Even when Kirsten Dunst appears as the mother the film never quite hits the right note. Adam Driver also appears as a sympathetic NSA analyst. Spielberg's great strength was establishing an emotional connection with the audience while dazzling them with special effects, a style few of his disciples have perfected.  Unfortunately, the conclusion felt routine and underwhelming. In saying that, The Midnight Special is not a bad film, there's a modicum of suspense to sustain the narrative - along with some exceptional cinematography. 

Cafe Society (2016) ***

Woody Allen's Cafe Society makes for a perfect escape from the August heat, a dreamy period piece set in 1930s Hollywood and New York City. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a young man on the make in Hollywood trying to get a job through his "big time" agent uncle played by Steve Carrel.  He strikes a friendship and romance with his uncle's striking secretary played by Kristen Stewart. As the characters get entangled in Romantic intrigue and unrequited love, questions are raised on the idea of fate and free will. Many will consider the plot a bit trite, but watching these actors work together is the best part of Cafe Society.  There's also hints of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Casablanca, themes of being in love and making difficult choices. The cinematography is beautiful, a welcome alternative to the current crop of blockbusters.