Getting Swanky With Cafe Society

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“Unrequited love kills more people than tuberculosis” a wealthy party guest tells the young Bobby Dorfman who has just arrived in Los Angeles eager to explore the opportunities this unfamiliar city holds. Woody Allen’s Cafe Society falls into that nostalgia category like Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris that longs for a lost golden age, here for the luminous stars of the silver screen but following a love story divided by the loyalty and morals conducive of the 1930’s. It has that potent Allen flavor of a New York Jew as a fish out of water in California and many quirks that Allen displays in his own films being manifested perfectly by Jesse Eisenberg who plays Bobby. Where Society stands out is its strong cast, novelistic storytelling and the warm chemistry that is continually displayed by Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in one of her best performances to date.

While taking in the sun drenched Beverly Hills homes and glamorous black tie parties by the pool, we enter the contrast of Bobby’s worlds. We’re stunned the beauty but reminded to look for what is real, past the facade of Hollywood. What draws Bobby to Vonnie (Stewart) is her down to earth nature which is reminiscent of his family back east. The film cuts between his days in California to the working class life of his overbearing mother Rose (Jeannie Berlin), his intellectual nihilistic brother in law Leonard (Stephen Kunken) and his gangster big brother Ben (Corey Stoll) which is the life he thought he wanted to leave behind. I was pleasantly distracted by the vintage aesthetic in the costumes, characters and dialogue that I didn’t overthink the fact that it’s never quite established what Bobby hopes to accomplish in LA aside from working menial jobs for his uncle and hot shot agent to the stars Phil (Steve Carell). It may be frustrating as a character motivation but also makes it relatable to young twenty somethings in 2016 who are still moving to this big city unsure of their aspirations aside from getting away from their familial environment. Allen nails some gorgeous LA landmarks like the Vista theater and Santa Monica pier pulling from existing relics of the past. He paints the pretty picture of the city even if it isn’t the right fit for Bobby.

Besides the backdrop eye candy, this is one of the most jovial Allen movies I’ve encountered in recent years. It’s ripe with humor with the situational comedy between Bobby and his encounter with an inexperienced but bright eyed hooker, his Yiddish family quarrels and Ben taking his persuasion methods a little too far. Where the script waivers is more around the flagrant voice over by Allen himself that overtakes scenes of dialogue I would have liked to see play out naturally. It sometimes is serviceable in introducing the audience to a variety of the background characters we wouldn’t have otherwise met but its prolonged presence becomes repetitive. It does contribute to that novelistic feel which at times sounds like Catcher in the Rye with similar scenarios involving prostitutes, exploring a new city and the distaste for “phonies”. The upside of this is also that it allows the viewer to more smoothly transition into the lives of the other Dorfmans that brings so much of atmosphere to the film.

Compared to last years Irrational Man, Cafe Society doesn’t come off as a rehash of previous Allen work. The humor, love triangle and surroundings are fresh and defined. There’s still this sense of rushed filmmaking as these are movies with a year turn around and scenes overlaid with VO that you’re not given a second to really taken in. There’s not clear sense of time in the film as you never know if this takes place in a matter of weeks, months or years. Maybe with some more room to breathe this could be elevated to a great Allen but I’m sure it’s fine settling for good.

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Am I An Accomplice Of Parental Negligence By Watching Bad Moms?

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It’s hard to garner a lot of sympathy for any of the moms in Bad Moms. As the voiceover of Amy (Mila Kunis), our protagonist, expounds about her daily hair pulling hassles of motherhood, anyone who didn’t grow up with upper middle class privilege will immediately find this appalling. She works part time, goes to the grocery store every day and openly completes all of her son’s homework. Every time a problem in logic arose I had to remember this movie exists in a fantasy world where parents idle outside the middle school to greet and gossip with everyone who walks by and the head of the PTA has the hiring and firing abilities of a public school’s faculty. It’s a Mean Girls meets The Hangover and if you want any of it to make sense, you have to let go of any preconceived ideas of parenthood and allow the movie do its thing.

Bad Moms is a manchild premise mapped onto motherhood. Amy missed out on her twenties by having kids so young with her loser husband and is over following the rigid expectations of society to be a perfect parent. She embarks on a spree of joy riding, playing hooky and general misbehavior with timid Kiki (Kristen Bell) and actually negligent mother Carla (Kathryn Hahn). The central plot aside from the drastic personality change in these women is Amy stepping up to the head of The Plastics…I mean the super rich moms who run the PTA, mainly Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), who takes after school meetings and bake sales way too seriously. These rivalry scenarios can give a lot of free reign for characters to go big and wacky but what holds this film back is that they are still moms. It toes this fine line of shock value of older women behaving badly but you’re countered with being genuinely concerned for the children they’re overlooking. When Kiki ditches for four babies/toddlers (I’m still not sure why she was hanging around the middle school) to go have a lunch date with her friends, I couldn’t help thinking how distraught that last minute sitter must be considering how much of a handful those children are. I’m pro parents having social lives and not having to match unrealistic expectations but at the same time, these are your children. You can choose to take the Carla route of parenting wherein she doesn’t go to her son’s baseball games and instead gets drunk and hooks up with every guy in town but then you’re looking at a case for child services.

The movie is at its most fun when it goes into montage mode as the three friends throw a wild PTA rager, dancing until 11pm or rampage through a supermarket, tearing opening boxes of cereal and downing milk and kahlua. These high energy scenes are the brief moments where you ignore consequences and just watch them go crazy though I could have done without so many Top 40 and “girl power” pop songs. The film’s greatest asset is Kathryn Hahn who is a comedic gem on the level of Kate McKinnon in Ghostbuster. She gets all the best lines like “you had me at Nazi” and “I will fuck your husband” all while looking like a trashy mess. Her Plastics counterpart Vicky (Annie Mumolo) is equally jovial as the quintessential “dumb one” who I have a soft spot for. Particularly the middle of the movie is filled with laughs which gets packed with the rants like explaining an uncircumcised penis and a welcomed cameo by Wanda Sykes. The beginning relies too much on the hilarity of adults swearing and the assumption that viewers will identify with rich white lady problems and the ending wraps up too neatly as all is forgiven and the rivals instantly gets along.

This is a movie very obviously written by men. I don’t think filmmakers Scott Moore and Jon Lucas meant to be inept when it comes to understanding what women do with their time and how no woman in her right mind would attend that many PTA meetings. The post credits interviews with the actresses and their moms is perfectly sentimental and comes off as a tribute for all the moms who go through such obstacles to raise us right. I’m trying to view this purely on comedic merits, throwing out the contrived nature of so many scenes and overly soft lighting techniques, and while there’s some great banter between our three leads, a lot of the jokes and set pieces were rehashes. Making fun of Amy’s bra and the over the hill house party were quite similar to The Boss and Sisters respectively and there’s a line that is identical to Mean Girls iconic line; “she doesn’t even go here.” I don’t foresee a youthful demographic enjoying this movie because it’s about parenting, something they don’t want to consider and it’s not for actual parents because I can’t imagine them accompanying a premise where you can “quit” on the responsibilities of life especially concerning your kids. There’s not enough originality or big laughs to make this a comedy worth remembering.

Never Sleeping Again with Lights Out

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Darkness is terrifying, that’s what the initial short of Lights Out tapped into. The fear of what lies in the blackness the moment we turn off that switch for the night. The short works because it’s so simplistic, just an unknown being approaching closer and closer as a woman flicks the switch. No story, just a scare. This 80 minute adaptation is at its best when it can be those unsettling moments of a shadowy figure. At its worst, it can be an idiot plot of bulbs flickering out at inopportune times and plot twists for something we figured out a while ago. Somewhere in the middle is a genuinely eerie manifestation of mental illness reeking havoc on a broken family.

There is a push and pull with Lights Out of being another run of the mill Blumhouse-esque production. It follows the beats of an Insidious or Sinister where the motivation behind why the evil spirit/ghost/paranormal is doing its haunting must be uncovered. Given a name and a makeover from the short, long nailed and foreboding eyed Diana has imprinted on unstable Sophie (Maria Bello) and attack her young son Martin (Gabriel Bateman) and his half sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer). Compared though to those other movies, it’s very easy to come by information about Diane as it’s neatly boxed up in Sophie’s house. Because there’s little mystery to unravel, her backstory is repeated multiple times to whoever is entering the scene next. I would have prefered less time spent on her history and more of an expansion between the family dynamic or even our hero Rebecca that I can only assume pays for her nice Highland Park apartment with wishes because she seems to have no job. With such a small cast, the only other major character being Rebecca’s almost boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia), there’s little opportunity for kills or any major peril which is why it fills its time with explanations we don’t need.

Even with weak relationships, the allegory of mental illness feels fleshed out enough to give some credence to Diana. Sophie is a manic depressive off her meds which is what opens the door for this evil to creep in. I’m impressed of the choice to meld the destructiveness of an unmonitored disorder with a Ring like demonic child. The morality tale is the importance of addressing these types of issues rather than running away which was Rebecca’s tactic. The ending takes a rough turn as a bit more bleak hard out for that metaphor than I had expected. Bello does a great job of making Sophie not a stereotype of a crazy person but rather a somewhat functional mother who doesn’t completely realize the harm she’s causing her children. The film makes a nod to its Mommie Dearest roots but tries to steer clear of the melodrama.

The film climaxes too neatly when you figure out this is all going down in a single night at the mother’s house and the best they can do is keep the electricity on. It feels like cop out and at the same time there’s missed opportunities for good scares when the opening introduces mannequins or as Leslie Jones would say “a room full of nightmares” but proceeds to be purely background aesthetic. It’s sadly anticlimactic when Diana has been so promising up until then. Maybe I’m asking too much because the appeal is the single, ghoulish woman and the darkness she thrives amongst. As a first feature for director David F. Sandberg, he presents great command of the atmosphere and lighting for decent scares and has made a PG-13 horror movie that’s not schlocky garbage. Lights Out may not shine the brightest but enough to make me want to move into a lamp store.

Barf Me To Hell: Top 5 Eating Disorder Movies

Mental health is a hard subject to broach in a cinema. Unless you’re a schizophrenic math genius or an attractive guy with manic mood swings, mental illnesses are internal and not very constructive for a visual medium. The subject of an eating disorder is even more marginalized because it’s firstly a women’s issue and secondly it sounds so overdramatic thanks to its rise of awareness in the 70’s after school special era. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder since the age of 14 (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) if you want to be technical) I completely understand that perception. It feels like the most first world of problems where either you have food available and refuse to eat it or see all that food and can’t stop consuming it. You’re ashamed that you can’t manage the most basic of human needs. The stigmas makes it even more guilt-ridden which is why I’ve gravitated to the few films willing to talk about it. These aren’t revolutionary movies that changed the perceptions of these disorders but smart enough to weave it into their stories in humor or solidarity which is what makes them remarkable for me.

5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)

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I’ve never quite warmed to this cult classic as I’m not much of a Raimi fan (or a Dead Head, is that the term?) with its projectile vomit and eye ball popping but I do respect it. Originally it was purely because of its bleak ending that lived up to the title. Since then thanks to the incredibly well researched academic horror podcast, The Faculty of Horror, who shed light on the theory that this movie about young banker, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) who is being haunted not by a curse but a rather nasty eating disorder. There’s an oral fixation theme as flies and cats exit characters’ mouths and an old gypsy woman tries to sink her teeth into our heroine. Most telling is Christine’s overweight childhood flashbacks and her tendency to stare longingly into a pastry shop. I’m impressed with Raimi sneaking such a heavy message into a gross out horror comedy. As this is a subject matter that often pertains more to women it actually feels less of a male gaze “final girl” scenario and back to the roots of horror being an allegory for real issues.

4. Heathers (1988)

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Bulimia is the least of students’ worries at Westerburg High when teens start dropping like flies with Draino overdoses and homoerotic murder/suicides. Being a Heather is all about rising to the top of the popularity chain and sometimes you have to off a few people to get there. Part of maintaining that status is looking the part and Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty) who becomes crowned Queen Bee is not so secretively a bulimic. In one of the many memorable quips of this movie Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) remarks into the bathroom mirror “Bulimia is so ’87.” It’s made even more clear of Duke’s fear as she denies having any connection with her former best friend, now overweight high schooler Martha “Dumptruck” (Carrie Lynn). This doesn’t help you sympathize with Duke’s plight but expands upon her character who rather be skinny and idolized than fat and happy with one true friend. As a dark comedy, this is probably the kindest way Heathers could address this 80’s “fad”.

3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

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Dolls are scary. Dolls dying of malnutrition is even scarier. There’s an undercurrent of unease throughout this rarely seen short partially because blank faced Barbies expounding about the price of fame is rightfully unsettling but also because you know the fate that awaits the molded plastic singer. Hearing the inanimate object say “I like the way I look” still gives me the chills. It may sound melodramatic and silly but Todd Haynes’ mix media film which includes archival 1970’s footage and title cards, gives it substantial artistic gravity. Plus as we all know now, Haynes loves the melodrama and because he’s such an aficionado of the genre there’s immense passion in the filmmaking. It’s obviously a startling watch with its truthfulness being delivered by innocent toys and yet the most inventive way to present a bio pic as well as a “scared straight” video.

2. God Help The Girl (2014)

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Completely unfamiliar with the titular album or Belle & Sebastian’s body of work, I was blown away by the mod musical which put visuals to the conceptual songs. It’s catchy as hell and beautifully captures Glasgow while making homage to the Beatles films of the 60’s. In its tranquil, twee fashion main character, young runaway Eve (Emily Browning), is a girl escaping to the big city during her hospitalization for anorexia. Director and band mate Stuart Murdoch perfectly encapsulates the emotions of a teenage girl lusting after boys and freedom paired with the persistent nature of the disorder. Eve tries to evade her illness that finds its way into song lyrics like “Musician, Please Take Heed” or impedes her normal abilities of having energy to go and have fun. Amongst the themes of friendship and self worth, Eve must come to terms with the need to get better and returns to the hospital to complete her recovery. It’s a genuine portrayal of what it’s like to carry on your day to day with the lingering anxieties of food and weight while still trying to have a good time.

1. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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There was a period of time in middle school where I would sight this Oscar bait drama set in a mental hospital as my favorite film. Years later I would realize the bizarre similarities between the film’s narrative and my own life. First, Interrupted was filmed in my home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania primarily at the State Hospital. While the source material is Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her stint in a Massachusetts’ psychiatric ward the movie never states its location but director James Mangold’s shots of the capital building and Market Street Bridge is all the proof I need. Secondly, I spent time in a hospital for my eating disorder when I was a freshman in high school. My story differs in the details as it was not a mental facility but for the more health complications of my disorder and I didn’t get to be the cool protagonist played by Winona Ryder but rather the binge and purge type that is Daisy (Brittany Murphy) sans her darker secrets. When I first saw this film and in subsequent rewatches, I didn’t understand Daisy’s odd behavior of hiding food and refusing to eat in front of others till I exhibited these mannerisms myself. These coincidences are what continue my deeper connection to this movie and also makes it harder to watch. It’s still fascinating as an account of how women’s health was viewed in the 60’s when anorexics and bulimics were thrown in with the insane. It’s also an accurate encapsulation of what the surreal environment of a prolonged hospital stay is like. Maybe if I had known the path my life was going to take, 12 year old me would have taken better notes.

Ghosts From Our Past And How We Left Them Behind For Brand New Ghostbusters

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Fuck. The. Haters.

Sorry I had to get that off my chest. I never expected to become so emotionally invested in this subject. I tend to keep far away from internet disputes especially with anger as misdirected as this level of misogyny. Women were cast in a remake, it’s not a big deal. Well at least not for me, someone who has absolutely no nostalgia for the source material. Yet as I watched these ghost hunting scientists who must conquer the external forces telling them it’s not their place to act, I realized this was a game changer. I understand why men could feel threatened because Paul Feig flipped a movie with supernatural blow jobs to a one hundred percent feminist film. Unlike Charlie’s Angels which I recently defended, these women don’t have to use their sexuality as a means of persuasion. There is no male gaze here only baller jumpsuits, high tech weaponry and a “step aside” attitude, all things that make me so proud to be a woman in 2016.

This new Ghostbusters is trying its best to be a send up to the original as well as tell its own story. The core team aside from their attire and choice of vehicle are quite different personality wise from their 1984 counterparts. The lead is arguably Erin (Kristen Wiig) who is pulled back into the exploration of the paranormal after an apparition is sighted at a historically preserved mansion. Her former partner Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and quirky engineer Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) put their gadgets in action to uncover the paranormal phenomenons that infests the city. Joined by chipper MTA worker/New York historian Patty (Leslie Jones) and dimwitted secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) they must save humanity from the restless spirits being summoned from the unknown. While the narrative follows similar beats, there’s strong individuality sparing us from having to compare the performances to the iconic stylings of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Each actress gets their own opportunity to shine whether it be silly freak outs as Erin doused in slime proclaims “ghosts are real” in a Youtube video or Holtzmann’s badass fight sequence as she whips the paranormal with proton lasers. As for the homages, almost every scene becomes an origin story from the genesis of the logo, tagline and Ecto-1 which I got more mileage out of than the flagrant cameos. Most were shoehorned as the the movie stops for applause breaks (Ernie Hudson was the only actor to receive one in my screening) and rarely were they actually funny but rather retired stars with puzzled expressions entering a scene. Take those out and give the squad more time to riff and test wildly unsafe contraptions as that’s where the biggest laughs come from.

There’s so many moments where I wanted to cheer alongside these women as they have celebratory dance parties in their makeshift Chinese Restaurant Headquarters. Whether Feig and writer Katie Dippold knew going in that they’d be fighting an uphill battle, the challenges within the story mirror the same hurdles it faced before release. The mayor of New York and homeland security who attempt to contain the situation, discredit the Ghostbusters as the public is not ready for this kind of truth. The central villain played by UCB alum Neil Casey who is a bullied man determined to make the city to bend to his will can easily be viewed as a men’s rights activist furious that his white male privilege has been undermined. The film calls out how “it’s really easy sit there and be the naysayer when you don’t actually do anything” where at every turn they’re being told “no” wherein the original film, the Ghostbusters’ credibility was never in question. It’s so self aware of its undertaking without overstating its enthusiastic message of diversity and female empowerment.

I’m impressed that the Feig/McCarthy magic was able to translate into a big studio reboot, a genre itself I’m quite skeptical of. Their foray into sci-fi is a success with remarkable special effects as the demon dragons and sentient mannequins are visually enthralling and nightmare inducing. Even better the film doesn’t feel the need to insert an unimportant love story which I had inherently expected. Aside from Erin becoming weak at the knees for Kevin because c’mon, it’s Kevin, the team is focused on more imperative matters than dating. It’s a movie that doesn’t want to end as the credits are packed with a show stopping disco sequence and extended gags which is a huge improvement over a lifeless blooped reels I’ve sat through this year. I hate that we still live in a society where we have to prove that women are funny and can lead a movie rather than being “the girlfriend.” I’m happy knowing a new generation of girls will grow up with this positive portrayal and that they can grow up to be a Ghostbuster (or at least a physicist). I’d like to see this film have an impact on the industry and span to more than just McCarthy led films but for now I’m content that it proved wrong all those who said “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.”

 

We Run the World: My Top 5 Female Driven Comedies

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As this post goes live, I’m preparing myself of an evening of Ghostbusting in the 21st century and if you have somehow missed the hounding controversy, this 2016 reboot is all women! The hate this film has garnered from misogynist internet trolls has led to more hype as this remake represents something greater than the usual Paul Feig flick. I now must to attend not just out of interest but to represent my people which is a gender that makes up more than half the population. Ghostbusters has become a statement against sexism which is quite a high bar for a movie involving buckets of slime. My enthusiasm for this upcoming release prompted me to compile a list of some of my favorite female led comedies. I sadly realized when I put the kibosh on including rom coms and love triangle centric stories it made choices quite slim. I wanted my top picks to not only have the Bechdel seal of approval but that the driving factors not be about relationships with men. I love Reality Bites but half of that movie is Laney deciding between her opposing suitors, bohemian Ethan Hawke and yuppie Ben Stiller, a Sophie’s Choice that could only exist in 1994. Instead this list is filled with female characters that embolden me with their independence and spirit plus the recurring theme of friendships worth preserving that can’t be stated enough.

5. Charlie’s Angels (2000)Charlies02-1
I hope I don’t lose any feminist cred over this but this new millennium action comedy was a major inspiration throughout those hellish middle school years where I would dream of being a boss like these girls. Before I realized so many of the scenes were homages (alright rip offs) of Mission Impossible, I delighted in the Angels’ detective skills, ass kicking and the ability to turn down guys left and right (please revisit the scene where Lucy Lu shuts down a bothersome party goer.) Even in spandex suits, Natalie, Dylan and Alex are highly intelligent when it comes to stopping a sexy Sam Rockwell from assassinating their employer and saving bumbling Bosley from sumo wrestling (poor Bill Murray). Their flaws are quirky as hell (Alex is such a terrible cook!) but they never back down whether it’s jumping out of planes, extensive fight choreography in well lit alleyways or dancing on Soul Train. They’re my superheroes and they taught me all the words to “Baby Got Back”.

4. Welcome To The Dollhouse (1996)heather-matarazzo-welcome-to-the-dollhouse

Dawn Weiner is one of the most iconic indie cinema characters. A young Heather Matarazzo brings such pathos to this awkward, bratty twelve year old that even if you didn’t have middle child syndrome, you could completely relate too. It’s an unconventional coming of age story that has the pastel splashed dark tone that is Todd Solondz’s suburbia. There’s not much hope for Dawn at this young age as she already attaches herself to unavailable or emotionally abusive men. Junior High has mercy on no one and her world is relentlessly unkind from the likes of cheerleader and burnout bullies. She is the personification of not fitting in and Matarazzo both looks the part and plays it so well.

3. For A Good Time Call…(2012)
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Aside from having to suspend your disbelief that a phone sex hotline could still be a lucrative business in the internet age, For A Good Time Call… is about the sweetest sex comedy I can think of as two sworn enemies down on their luck become roommates and go into business with each other with a dirty talk phone service. Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller have fantastic chemistry as polar opposites in every facet of their being yet becoming the solid relationship missing from each others lives. Graynor shines as she coaches Miller in the art of verbal seduction and fake orgasms. The venture becomes a sexual awakening for both characters as well as introducing viewing audiences to two underserved comedic talents.

2. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)rm

On the surface, Romy and Michele are two dumb blondes slumming it on Venice Beach who go to trashy clubs and are incapable of holding down a job. Some of that is true but it’s a travesty to insult the intelligence of two creative women with an eye for fashion and the greatest “fake it till you make it” attitude. In the pursuit to impress their former high school rivals ten years later, our titular characters (played by the underrated and under appreciated Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) fabricate careers and romances that lead to a falling out only to realize their strongest assets are each other. This movie is all about 90’s career women with strong supporting characters like cigarette pioneer Heather Mooney (a grungy Janeane Garofalo) and Vogue editor Lisa Ludor (Elaine Hendrix) who launches the girls’ groundbreaking fashion careers. I respect any movie that commits to an almost thirty minute dream sequence and any actresses willing to commit to even more outrageous platform heels. Who cares about success, all you need is a best friend and Pretty Woman.

1. Josie and The Pussycats (2001)JP

When Josie and the Pussycats not so subliminally states it’s the best movie ever, it’s not half wrong. The pop music satire may be a time capsule of the early 2000’s but it’s witty, reference soaked dialogue and rocker chick songs still fill me with glee. Bookending this brief list with trios, Josie, Melody and Valerie put friends first as they battle the corrupt and illusive music industry run by Fiona (Parker Posey) who has a thirst for power in the form of popularity. It’s insane that a story so blown out of proportions as a mysterious organization that controls mainstream trends would feel so on the nose. Writer/director team Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan make these women more than just the two dimensional characters they were originally drawn as but small town musicians who struggle to maintain their Riverdale roots in the big city which will swallow them whole. Bigger than “Archie”, this film is a hit in my heart and I can only hope inspired female garage bands everywhere or in my case lip syncing ensembles to the tune of “Three Small Words”.

The Secret Life of Wiener-Dog

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A Wiener Dog rises in the new Todd Solondz anthology feature of the same name. Slightly breaking away from dark suburbia this release is much more tame than his previous films. At the end of something like Welcome to the Dollhouse or Palindromes, I have the urge to shower and never trust anyone in my neighborhood. The four vignettes containing the titular dog have either nasty or depressing characters but the stories themselves are not as heartbreakingly nihilistic as I’ve come to expect from Solondz. There’s none of the shock value of all the peril involving minors and only one outlandish scenario. It’s very grounded and to an extent boring aside from the droopy eyed companion.

The first two stories are the strongest. The film opens with Wiener Dog being adopted by an unhappy husband and wife (played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delphy) for their son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who is recovering from a recent illness. The boy and the dog’s bond is so sweet in contrast to the how much the parent despise it. The theme of removing productive rights and a mother’s intuition which is quite prevalent in Palindromes is revived intermittently here where in a succession of dour scenes, the mother tries to rationalize to her son why Wiener Dog must be fixed. It’s a bizarre take on the hyperbolic rabbit holes a parent goes through to mask the truth to “protect” a child’s innocence but in this case making it worse. A fit of prolonged diarrhea by Wiener Dog produced by an unsupervised day of fun with Remi leads the pup into the next story with Solondz favorite character, Dawn Weiner, no longer dead and now played by Greta Gerwig who put on glasses to be uglied up for the role. Paired with her old Dollhouse flame Brandon (now Kieran Culkin) they embark on a roadtrip with tinges of sadness as they pick up an aimless mariachi trio who find America a hallow and lonely country that Solondz is always trying to convey. Gerwig does justice for the beloved character as she stares longing at the lost soul of a boy to which she idolizes. She’s not as quirky or bratty as her twelve year old self but it’s a believable trajectory for the character. This segment is the perfect slice of life with Dawn which Solondz fans will be pleased with that I would have preferred to see as the entire film.

I was disappointed that after this vignette that the transitioning device of following Wiener to his new home is dropped and instead suddenly appears on the desk of Danny DeVito who is a run down film professor trying to get his hacky screenplay read by film execs. Grinding to a halt but branching out to the big city, Solondz takes jabs at the phoniness of the industry and pretentiousness of film school, none that feel original ideas. Most of this story is spent watching DeVito talk on the phone which wasn’t that engaging even with Ari Graynor on the other end. It’s conclusion is the high concept, third act twist that Solondz is great at and is a satisfying use of Wiener in the story. The dog’s last owner is cranky grandma (Ellen Burstyn) who is visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) asking for a large sum of money. Even though Burstyn excels as Bad Grandma, the short is just uncomfortable silences as despicable people sit in their awkwardness. There’s not even much to say as it story slowly meanders towards Wiener’s demise that is literal overkill.

 
This is a movie that’s got one foot out of the water as Solondz tries to break away of his usual patterns of storytelling. There’s a more range of characters first in age as each vignette the main protagonist gets progressively older and it’s not all middle class with the book ending stories presenting more shallow upper class families but still quite white. Each story had the dark overtones and unconventional humor that make his films so charming but wasn’t as emotionally impactful as his previous work. He plays it safe, not pushing any boundaries or wowing me with memorable characters. Watching the dog itself is delightful and his presence is felt throughout. It’s a movie about life, death and the different trajectories one’s choices can lead them. This film offers an alternate path for Dawn who I welcome back to the big screen. Wiener-Dog is Solondz light and maybe a good way to ease people into exploring his older work. It’s interesting to see some big names in this one that make it more appealing to an unfamiliar audience but the rawness of his 90’s films still reigns supreme.