She’s Funny That Way (2015)

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What’s up, doc? Who takes a large and capable (if disappointingly white-bread) cast—Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Austin Pendleton, Illeana Douglas, Michael Shannon, Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis, Debi Mazar, Joanna Lumley, Lucy Punch, Tatum O’Neal, Colleen Camp, and yes, even Quentin Tarantino—and gives them nothing to work with?
     Peter Bogdanovich, that’s who.
     The principal proponent of the latter-day screwball comedy, Bogdanovich has screwed this one up royally, giving us few classic screwball situations and even fewer classic screwball lines (where’s the funny in She’s Funny That Way?). I counted a grand total of four screwballers, delivered by Aniston (on therapy etiquette, and when brandishing a knife), Wilson (the elevator crack), and a criminally underutilized Shannon (his one brief scene). Three out of four of these you’ll already have seen in the trailer.
     Despite all that, this script-less entity, credited to the director and his ex (Louise Stratten), does actually produce a handful of decent performances. The aforementioned Aniston is queenly in her bitchiness and TV staple Hahn (Transparent, Parks and Recreation, Happyish) also impresses as Wilson’s wife and leading lady (he’s a theater director). Best of the bunch, though, is Poots, who delivers her straight-outta-Brooklyn aspiring actress with delightful sass and conviction (her native Hammersmith accent slips out only once, in a scene in which she and Forte admire one of those famed unicorn tapestries).
     Poots sticks it—and glows—as Izzy Patterson, a call girl with the oddly uncomfortable moniker of Glowstick who, ahem, escorts Wilson’s Arnold Albertson when he comes to town—this time he’s here to direct a Broadway play. Wilson appears to be stuck in Midnight in Paris mode throughout. It makes sense, given how much She’s Funny That Way mimics a Woody Allen farce, but it doesn’t make his neuroses any more palatable.
     Via the subtle intricacies of the plot (yeah, right), Izzy winds up being cast in Arnold’s stage production of A Greek Evening and things quickly get triangular, with Forte’s sappy playwright vying for her ample attentions. Creating additional noises off are Hahn and Ifans, whose characters had a fling back when they co-starred on the London stage.
     She’s Funny That Way isn’t unwatchable by any means. It’s just not funny. That—or any other—way.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) (2016)

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A bubbly and infectious appreciation of 1960s pop art, particularly the silkscreen fabrications of its most famous purveyor, Andy Warhol, Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) tells an affectionate tale, tracing the journey of its titular work of art. Director Lisanne Skyler explains how her parents, primarily her art collector father, first acquired an original Warhol Brillo Box sculpture for $1,000. The box became an integral part of their family dynamic, encased in protective plexiglas as it was and placed, front and center, in their New York City living room, serving as a makeshift coffee table. Her father later traded it for another piece of art, produced by the less well known and colorfully dotty artist Peter Young. It would change hands—and show up on the auction block at Christie’s—multiple times before fetching in excess of $3 million in 2010.
     Warhol, a man more comfortable with images than with words, claimed that “repurposing,” as he did to such striking effect with everyday consumer products by Campbell’s, Kellogg’s, Mott’s, Heinz, and Del Monte, was simply “easier” than creating something new. He and his ‘Factory workers produced 93 white Brillo Box sculptures and only 17 yellow ones with the distinctive “3c OFF” lettering, plywood-constructed boxes with commercial artist James Harvey’s original red and blue Brillo design screen-printed onto them.
     When patriarch Skyler bought his 3c off original from Brooklyn art dealer Ivan Karp in 1969 he wanted proof of provenance, so Warhol, typically not one to sign or number his works, scratched his name in red crayon on the underside. This rare signature, along with the pristine, plastic-preserved condition of the piece, contributed to its collectibility some forty years after Warhol’s star first faded, then rose again.
     At once playful and instructive, the HBO Documentary short Brillo Box (3 Cents Off) lovingly blends its director’s personal story with an evocation of popular culture that examines the fleeting nature of fame and the controversial divide between Art and cartons of soap-impregnated steel wool scouring pads.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Tattoo (1981)

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He first spies her on the cover of a glamour magazine, pouty and alluring, and then on TV in a perfume commercial, sensuous and inviting. He has to have her, possess her, leave his mark on her. He is Karl Kinsky, a decorated (literally) Vietnam vet obsessed with irezumi, the traditional Japanese art of tattooing. Post-’nam, he plies his learned trade in a Hoboken tattoo parlor. He is played by Bruce Dern, Hollywood’s favorite loony, back when he likely appealed to the ladies. Like Maddy. She’s a model, played by former “Bond girl” Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun, Octopussy). They coincidentally cross paths when a fashion editor propositions Karl to design some temporary tattoos—dragons and anchors and stuff—for a shoot with a nautical theme: scantily-clad women draped across buff, underdressed seamen (Maddy is one of the scantily clad). Obsession, domination, the permanence of ink—all these figure in Karl’s elaborate plan to possess Maddy completely. Bob Brooks never made a theatrical film before or after Tattoo, but he teamed up with Luis Bunuel’s daughter-in-law (!?) to write this schlock, an early ’80s “after hours” drama akin to Bedroom Eyes and Masquerade and I, the Jury (all proudly “now on Fox/CBS” videotape). Apart from a couple of episodes of TV’s Space: 1999 and a stellar made-for-television movie about London cabbies called The Knowledge (1979), Tattoo was it for Brooks. Perhaps the outcry that accompanied the film’s release (its publicity art featured a naked woman bound at the ankles) turned him off filmmaking altogether. Or maybe he just wanted to get Adams in the buff. Mission accomplished, Bob.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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Hail, Caesar! is not a Woody Allen movie, but anyone who has soured on the once-dependable director will be reminded of that classic line from his 1980 film, Stardust Memories. A super-intelligent being responds to our neurotic protagonist’s fear that making films—or doing anything for that matter—is meaningless. “We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones.”
     The same can be said of the Coen Brothers. I enjoyed their early films too. Not just the funny ones (their screwball masterpiece Raising Arizona), but the stylish noir ones (Blood Simple), the classy period ones (Miller’s Crossing), and the brutally black comedic ones (Fargo). But that was a long time ago.
     Since then they’ve fobbed us off with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers, and Intolerable Cruelty—intolerable all—and now they’re back with Hail, Caesar!, a novelty homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age and the studio system that begat it. The Coens’ clever writing style, once eloquent and facile, is nowhere to be seen (an interminable scene in which a stuffy director coaches his makeshift leading man in the fine art of elocution being a notable example). Charm is completely lacking. And once again we feel held at arm’s length, no longer party to the insider trading of wit or brilliant cinematic instinct. The film is finely cast and production-designed to death as you would expect, crafted to play like an ode to old-school moviemaking. But Hail, Caesar! isn’t nostalgic, it’s plastic. The only warmth one feels is the heartbreaking memory of ‘Arizona’s salad days, as they say, when round was funny.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Grandma (2015)

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All actors could use a little Grandma late in their careers, an opportunity to take it on the road, unbuffered and unbridled, reminding us of their talents and what we always liked about them. Writer/director Paul Weitz’s film fits that bill rather nicely for Lily Tomlin, who plays Elle Reid, recently dumped by her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy “say goodbye to these!” Greer). Tomlin is very good in Grandma, as is Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who plays her preggo granddaughter Sage who needs $600 for, you know, a procedure, before the day is out. (Garner’s Harpo Marx fright wig is actually her own hair but trust me it grows on you.) Good, too, is Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Sage’s overbearing, workaholic mother Judy. In fact, the film is filled with strong female characters like Elle and Olivia and Sage and Judy, brought to life by a commanding cadre of performers. It’s a drama and a comedy and a road movie rolled into one—a small one, not earth-shattering, but genuine. Sam Elliott gets a brief look-in as an embittered ex (“I always liked women, I just didn’t like myself,” Elle explains stoically), as does the deadbeat co-producer of Sage’s fetus (Nat Wolff), but these boys are definitely on the side. Weitz, whose filmography has been frustratingly up (American Pie, In Good Company, About a Boy) and down (American Dreamz, Little Fockers, Down to Earth) over the years, delivers a spry script and some solid direction, allowing Tomlin and her fellow thesps to do some excellent work.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Locke (2014)

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Ivan Locke is in concrete. Up to his beady Welsh eyeballs in the stuff, in over his head. He’s a building site manager who, as Steven Knight’s film opens, is abandoning a multi-million pound commercial pour scheduled for 5:25am the next morning because he has another, more pressing commitment, a commitment to Do the Right Thing. This commitment will, ultimately, destroy everything he’s worked for, but it’ll show his dead-loss dad, show him that some men shoulder their obligations, men like Ivan Locke.
     As Steven Knight’s film opens, Ivan is about to drive through the night, from Birmingham to London, where his commitment awaits. Over the course of the film he’ll speak with many who depend on him, among them a subordinate, Donal (Andrew Scott, Sherlock‘s Moriarty), whom he promises to handhold throughout the morrow’s pouring process; his poor, sad, soon-to-be-destroyed wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and their two young sons, safe at home with soccer and sausages; his boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), who, like us, can’t believe what’s happening; and, most urgently, Bethan, played by the redoubtable Olivia Colman, scared and alone and laboring at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, W2.
     As Steven Knight’s film opens, Tom Hardy climbs into the driver’s seat both literally and figuratively, hand-held device at the ready. Turns out he’ll need it. The lights from the motorway blur and shimmer and dance cross the windscreen, moving in and out of focus. Hardy is magnificent: contained, emotional, resolute. But Knight is magnificent too: constructing, managing, moving things forward, towards greatness. For what a drive this is, as we watch, rapt.
     Some will call it a one-trick pony, like Hardy playing both Kray twins in the gangland drama Legend, or piano man Elton John in the forthcoming biopic Rocketman. But when the pony is wrangled this well, one tends not to notice the artifice. My palms are sweating just writing about Steven Knight’s film. Steven Knight’s Locke.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

I Smile Back (2015)

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When she’s not popping pills, downing booze, or snorting coke, Elaine “Laney” Brooks is a pretty good mom to her two young children, Eli and Janey. She packs them lunch and she drives them to school and she hugs them and kisses them and tells them how much she loves them. She’s also a pretty good wife to her husband Bruce… when she’s not cheating on him with her best friend’s spouse or with sleazy strangers in seedy bars. But that’s the drugs and the alcohol and the cocaine talking. Laney’s condition—depression—isn’t one of her own making. It all started when her father walked out on her when she was a kid.
     “My Dad left when I was nine. That’s the whole story. He kissed me goodnight, and that’s the last time I saw him.”
     So yeah, she has daddy issues. She’s also not taking her lithium—not that there’s a whole lot of room for it in her system.
     In I Smile Back, Sarah Silverman strips herself bare. It’s a brave and believable performance, a better part than the film’s overall sum. For as good as Silverman is in the film, which is based on the book by Amy Koppelman, Adam Salky’s domestic drama never moves much beyond the conceit of the sarcastic Jewish-American stand-up struggling with mental illness and addiction.
     The comedian-turned-dramatic actor is not a new phenomenon, of course. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s almost a rite of passage for any funnyman—or woman—seeking industry “credibility” (even though most, ironically, would tell you that comedy is harder). Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler—they’ve all switched allegiances at one time or another. Fewer female comedians overall mean fewer crossover hits, but Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Kristen Wiig, and Tina Fey have all attempted more serious roles on camera, and (mostly) impressed. Even Emma Thompson, whom we think of more as a Merchant-Ivory staple, started out in television sketch comedy.
     But Silverman deserves a better script. Josh Charles (TV’s The Good Wife) is on hand as her sympathetic, frustrated husband, and Skylar Gaertner and Shayne Coleman are solid as the kids.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com