“Ricki And The Flash”

The disapproving and judgmental looks falling off the wedding guests as Meryl Streep returns to Indianapolis for her son’s formal wedding are a huge part of the climatic scene in “Ricki And The Flash”. Streep,as Linda, with the stage name of “Ricki Rendazzo”, has made some unconventional choices in the pursuit of a steel-guitar and vocal career. Her ex-husband and three children have adjusted and matured, and moved on; but,their feelings of abandonment linger. Never making it out of the San Fernando Valley and financially broke,Ricki is still secure in her decision to follow her dream even as she files for bankruptcy. Yes, Ricki is a bit of a narcissist, a fame seeker;but she has a sweet soul. She makes instant friends with the family’s white, standard poodle,Sigma,who gives such a perfect, poodle-true performance that I thought I was watching my own family dog.

When Pete Brummel, Ricki’s worried ex(Kevin Kline) calls asking for Linda’s help with their only daughter’s catatonic reaction to being abandoned by her husband Max, Ricki feels a surge of remorse. Their daughter,Julie,played beautifully by Steep’s real daughter, Maime Gummer, sees herself abandoned again. Modern family dynamics are set in edgy dialogue which is entertaining while being real. Gummer’s first appearance is unhinged! She goes on to show a remarkable amount of varied emotions,just like her real life mother.

Landing at Weir Cook International,Streep adopts her persona in gleeful 1978 abandon,floral luggage and all. If as she says “she has given up a lot to become a rock star”, she has added blue henna-dyed skin bracelets,braided one side locks,and rings on every finger. Lug soled boots keep the beat and blue nails and shadow gloss her further out of the mainstream. We have a clash of cultures, here. Linda is a tad jealous of Pete and his wife Maureen’s privileged life. She comments on their home’s massive rooms and huge ceilings,and Pete admits he feels often like he is living in Monticello. Mo,Maureen, Pete’s wife and de facto mother to Linda’s children,is visiting her ailing father,so Pete readjusts his boundaries and allows Linda to save motel money and board with them. She snoops in the fridge,does some mischief with the “clean” “dirty” dishwasher sign, and shows disdain for all the wooden platitudes decorating the counters,but the family photos emotionally jar.

When Mo returns, she is in control as the traditional mom making lovely brioche breakfasts and overseeing therapy sessions. Again, acted beautifully by Audra McDonald, we have another strong woman who doesn’t fall into stereotype. Mo oozes confidence, warmth and common sense assurance. While wearing Mo’s robe, Linda tries to gain a hierarchical stance,” You know Pete still loves me”, Mo disarms Linda with a smile and, “I’ll give you that.” It is a telling scene, and McDonald makes the most of it. These women are making this family work.

I wish the few Indianapolis scenes were actually filmed in Indy. It would have been fun to recognize streets and locales,but our state’s taxing of the arts does not make this financially feasible.The Gummers are often in Indianapolis,so the wedding invitation made with flower seeds rooted in the paper fiber was donned as “Hoosier shit” by Linda in explanation. Southern-Mid-Westerners plant lots of seedlings,and they are self-deprecating to a fault. Likewise, I wish the editing in the film were better. Streep sings and strums a little too much. But,this may have been a showcase to underline how Streep can do about anything! Her relationship with her lead guitarist,Greg ( Rick Springfield) adds depth, and some astute moralizing. Greg is no pushover. His loving sacrifice comes with the admonishment that,”it doesn’t matter if our kids love us. It is not our kids’ job to love us ;it is our job to love them”.

Enjoy how well Streep’s character is developed. Linda’s cashier job at a California “Total Foods” store leaves her forever attaching numbered codes to produce~an added Ricki foible. And being reminded to exude gratitude by her youngster manager adds a flash of recognition and pathos. Ricki’s every check-out guest gets that special smile, and we get ring codes like “arugula #984”! Her parenting forays are not bad, and her final gift is no “flash in the pan”. Listen to those lyrics.

Everyone looks like they had fun on this set, and I did not feel that I wasted my time.Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno” 2007) provides ample material. I particularly enjoyed Streep’s asides. After being admonished for airing “personal business” in a restaurant, she openly criticizes a father for trying to shield his young daughter, yet instantly piping in that she loves the child’s name- Journey.

Linda’s sons Josh and Adam add to the family’s stinging banter. As Adam corrects his mother by stating that he was born gay,Linda chirps back that she was born Ricki. Husband Pete seems to be keeping the familiar score,and he seems to delight in giving that one to Linda. Digs like Julie’s ,”OMG,get a camera, she is parenting” are cringingly funny. Pete’s “Rubbermaid memorabilia” and marijuana stash generate some loving sequences. And Riki is funny. While seated separately from the family at her son’s wedding,Ricki is asked by a guest how she met the groom. Her response is “Caesarian section”.

Song lyrics continue to be used to layer thematic meaning in many recent films. Here Director Jonathan Demme uses a perfect “gonna get lost in Rock and Roll and drift away”to give us a paean to music more than to the quest for fame. When Adam slings,”Historically, you don’t really give a damn” in his mother’s direction,Ricki Rendazzo’s craggy “my love,love,love will not let you down” seems to be directed at her children. “Mama Mia” infectious, pleasant and real,with the exception of the use of the word “crullers”, Hoosiers just say “pastries” or “donuts”. A fun summer flick that has the audience thinking about the choices we make and why.

“The Gift”

Wishing for a domestic thriller akin to last summer’s “Gone Girl” ?  Try the well-filmed and well-written and well-acted Joel Edgerton movie,”The Gift”. The 41-year-old Aussie wrote, starred and ,for the first time, directed a slow-burning psychological thriller that is “Pacific Heights” scary and “Fatal Attraction” obsessive. Plus,the ambition ethic of getting ahead at all costs is knocked a good punch.

The camera rolls in slow motion as we are introduced to Simon and Robyn (Justin Bateman and Rebecca Hall) electing to buy a mid-century-modern, glass home. Lots of light and Windex won’t give this couple clear views or intimacy as long as they keep up their respective lies. The music is ominous like the genre demands. The motif of transparency is nicely sprinkled throughout the film with steamy shower -surface -wipes and hearts drawn on glass after hot breaths. Attention to detail is this movie’s strength, while “there is more to what you see” is made clear.

While our couple is purchasing a throw rug, we see through wine glass displays that a man is staring. Even the clerk notices. The man advances and queries Simon with “don’t I know you?” Simon looks flummoxed and our writer-director-actor, Joel Edgerton, introduces himself as Gordon Mosley,or Gordo, a high school classmate of Simon’s. With all the principles on-screen, the secrets and deceptions keep the audience guessing. Gift giving turns into perversion. Surprise after surprise!

One of the ploys of scary movies is how normal,familiar activities like brushing your teeth or opening a box or attending a baby shower can lull you into identification. The way that Simon and Rebecca share their concerns about “Weirdo Gordo” with neighbors and work friends has all of them brain-storming how the couple should handle the intrusive Gordo. Simon says they should “rip off the band-aid” and cut all ties. Bateman plays the masterful husband well. We are more used to his 1980 sitcoms and his “Bad Words” persona. Here, as Simon, former high school class president, he is uncovered as a class bully,too. A horrifying abuse twenty years ago is clarified, a revenge plot is partially unhatched,and a pill-popping wife loses all trust in her husband’s fabrications. But the gifts keep coming! There are cars chases and hospital races and an abruptly closed curtain in the glass enclosed nursery.

Gordo uses Simon’s own top-dog vocabulary and tone in his revenge plot. “I’m going to power through this, or should I” is particularly satisfying. Edgerton’s acting,his use of blue-light night photography, and Wagnerian opera music is noteworthy.

Rebecca Hall plays submissive well, but her unlocking secrets in the most ordinary way and then magically deciding on key life moves is strong,resourceful and brave. Last seen and reviewed in the sci-fi drama “Transcendence” (4.29.15) as Evelyn Caster, Hall is a British actress who is subtle with emotion, yet forthright in action. I loved the gift-boxed pregnancy test stick and her offer to give up the monkey wind-up so spontaneously. Remember the saw that “good people deserve good things” and see this well-crafted tale.

“Irrational Man”

At seventy-nine,Woody Allen can no longer charm romantically inclined girls,so what does he do? Make fun of the romantic temperament,of course.

As writer and director,Allen does his wordplay thing, called antithesis. “Conservative ~in a liberal way” is how Jill,our smitten college senior,( Emma Stone) describes her philosophy teacher, Abe. ( Joaquin Phoenix) Murder as giving one meaning to live is Abe’s existential thought, “The perfect murder made me feel alive.” When Jill cites that Abe suffers from despair, he retorts drolly with “How comfy that would be”.

Joaquin Phoenix enters in a voiceover as Abe Lucas. He is in a late-model,gray Volvo entering a new campus setting in Newport. Abe is relaxed as he bonds with his philosophy students and ironically talks about “situational ethics”.Kant’s perfect world where there is no room for lying foreshadows Allen’s storyline,too. Kierkegaard’s “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” meshes with Abe’s choices and moral posturings.With flask always at hand, Phoenix is so comfortable in the role that he often channels Woody’s mannerisms. This is funny and adds another layer of depth to the film. His definition of philosophy as verbal masturbation does not.

Emma Stone is equally as good as the besotted Jill. When she stares with her big blues and states,”I hate that you think I’m practical”, the audience gets that she is too romantic to throw away the risk of losing a boyfriend for dating her prof. Allen uses a second character voiceover to keep us guessing who is really “the irrational man”,student or teacher. Anyway, Jill sees Abe as a brilliant sufferer. She wears a new perfume on a restaurant date and sighs,”I love that you order for me.”

If Emily Dickinson is quoted as “drunk on air” then Woody is “drunk on music”. His film’s jazzy score is often more entertaining than the film’s action. Besides Abe imbibing non-stop on single malt Scotch, his colleague in the Science Dept. unscrews flasks just as fast. Parker Posey plays the screwable Rita. Initially,she has trouble making the character more than a caricature. As the film progresses,she warms up and plays a dreamy foil to Jill.
When Abe complains,”I can’t write. I can’t breathe”, Rita follows up with “I hope you are not going to send me out into the rain without sleeping with me.”Forthright and gossipy,her crackpot theory and mutual crush rattles Jill and allows for a neat story arc.

Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is shown when Abe sees no way to save himself but by killing the precocious Jill. The storyline is silly. The flashlight roll into the elevator memorable.The passive intellectual finding zest for life in murder is more cause for despair than for humor. Go with your instincts on this one. A dark cloud has crossed Woody’s moon and there is poison in the park.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

“Good Apples in a bad barrel”~Zimbardo

Billy Crudup’s voice declaring Mastercard’s ability to improve your life as “priceless”,does not prepare you for his role as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the author of “The Lucifer Effect”. Nor does Crudup’s acclaimed title role on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” pave the way for his portrayal of a prideful academic whose “mock” prison perpetuates the devil in man.

Under the direction of Kyle Patrick Alvarez,Crudup is able to channel the renown psychologist as he loses himself in his quest for significant publishable data. Fingering his goatee and watching his volunteer subjects,Zimbardo is not likable in this film. He is not the winner of The Vaclav Havel Foundation Prize or the challenger of the American Correctional System. He is the perpetrator of an experiment that would be against the law today. This is a docudrama of his redemption and of the stoppage of his clinical experiment after only six days.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens with the pleasing sounds of the typewriter. A Want Ad is being written and duplicated in 101 copies. Fifteen dollars a day will be paid to emotionally-stable college males,who participate in a psychological study. The interviews begin. Guard or prisoner roles are queried;role selections are made by a coin toss; head shots are taken. Formal arrests are made. Prisoners are blindfolded. Sunglasses and uniforms are given to the guards,dresses of numbered sackcloth to the prisoners. Day one begins with ad-libbed orders from the guards: “hands on the wall”, “feet wider”,”strip”, “shut up”, “clothes to the right”. Billy clubs are out and lice spray is sprayed. “Mr. Correctional Officer” is how warden and guards are required to be addressed. One guard who uses an accent like the Southern official in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) later reminds me more of  the movie “Deliverance” as he has the men pretend to sodomize each other with the image of camels humping.

Line-ups are excruciating with role-call intimidations,sleep interruptions,bogus exercise punishments and finally violence. Revolt is attempted,as are escapes. The cinematographer’s use of slow motion is very effective in capturing the robot-like circumstances of the rule bound group. Letters are written to perspective visitors,visitors commune,groups are divided and cell mates change. A priest is called on to counsel in Day Four. He is not trusted by Zimbardo,who feels he may call a lawyer and halt the experiment, thus nullifying any cogent results.Yet, the priest tells our psychologist that he is doing a good thing:”Boys of privilege should know what prison is like.”

A colleague of Dr.Zimbardo questions his research and the rather “frightful site” of the mock prison. He asks if an independent variable or simulation is being used to validate his research. Zimbardo spews invective at this challenge.

Day Five finds two prisoners released after a breakdown and a parole hearing. One consultant is a black man who served time in Rikers. He was selected to “legitimize the project”.He treats the prospective parolee with indifference and realizes that they all have become part of this demonstration.”I enjoyed it ( the power). You can’t imagine how that makes me feel.”

The mastermind of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment redeems himself with the aid of his fiancée, a former student and psychologist at Berkley. He becomes a distinguished PBS Series teacher/host in “Discovering Psychology” and holds teaching positions at Yale,Columbia, NYU,and Stanford. His understanding of sadistic abuse and the ease of abandoning morality under certain conditions led to his role in the Abu Ghraib investigation in Iraq. Zimbardo’s  book “Psychology and Life” is in its nineteenth edition. He has evolved from academic egotist to a champion of social bravery. The film never tells us this,but we see his frightened eyes, the tears, and the head-holding pain of awareness,and his stepping up to halt evil when he sees it.This is not a fun film, but an instructive one. How do good people become evil ? How is the evil within each of us manifested ? Do we need more martyrs to a cause? This is a cerebral film about the baseness of humanity. Submissiveness and power are central to the theme.

“Infinitely Polar Bear”‘

Mark Ruffalo plays a “teddy bear” of a daddy even with pan-throwing-manic episodes. I doubt that any social worker would agree with this assessment,and this may be the film’s main flaw: down-playing mental illness like it is eccentricity. Using alcohol and pills and leaving eight and eleven years-olds home along even if it is only for one night is not a good thing, yet this film exudes so much love that we make exceptions.

Can a once institutionalized parent graduated to a half-way house muster enough personal control to provide for the safety of his charges? Screenwriter and director Maya Forbes thinks so because her story is based on her real life father who suffering from bi-polar disorder and was able to do just this: successfully care for Forbes and her younger sister in Boston while her mother completed her MBA in New York City. “Infinitely Polar Bear” normalizes the manic and skirts the depressive, but it wonderfully shows a family loving each other while choosing and suffering with the best course of action.

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play Cam and Maggie Stuart,a mixed raced couple of mixed economic up-bringing. Cam was expelled from Exeter and Harvard,and has a trust fund doled out sparingly by a grandmother called Gaga. Just enough money is given to pay for the subsidized rent controlled apartment the Stuart family keeps. When an old Bentley is offered,Cam turns the car down because of the inconquency and the cost of gas. Maggie believes in work and education as a means to an end. She even lies to thwart the boundary restrictions of the best school for their girls, Amelia and Faith. She is described as having a bourgeois,Mid-western, can-do spirit. And in eighteen months,with Cam watching the girls,she will have her MBA and a chance at a better life for her babies. This is her plan, but she is anything but sure. Can she keep her promise to be home every weekend?!

The film is captioned in time frames like “summer”,”winter”, “spring” and “one year later”,after the backstory of 1978 is shown through hazy reels of home movies. No babies are shown,no early years of the relationship,but we come to understand that Cam is jobless after being fired from a designer’s job. Cam tells the girls that he does not know who did the pushing. The girls know their parents split over “something to do with making money”. What we see are scary and controlling Cam-outbursts mixed with eccentric behaviors like keeping children out of school to pick mushrooms for Mommy’s omelet. Cam is not a layabout. He is a chain-smoking Lucky Strike, crepe making Dad,who Maggie proclaims is funny,compassionate and outdoorsy knowledgeable.

Cam’s projects are hilarious. He never throws anything away and uses placards all over the house to label greasy bike chains and freshly glued pottery. The older girl Amelia is played by Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ real daughter. She moans “Nobody wants what we have.” Yet, this film proves the opposite. Everyone wants a parent who will stay up all night making a sparkly and rufflely flamingo skirt,and who will teach one the lyrics of the Hitler one-ball song.

The casting is great. Ashley Aufderheide is a perfect Faith, as she models Dad and carves a flower into the dining room table. Love is always in the air even in tangled hair-combing and utensil pounding scenes. Enjoy Ruffalo’s wardrobe,especially his red undies and matching headband. The bibs and railroad hat are equally cool.Whether Ruffalo is wrestling,hunting or mating,he just emotes a “nice guy” vibe which this viewer admires.

A Bohemian take on mental-disability challenges with plenty of Gerber daisies to go arround.

“Southpaw”

Ever since I read Edward Hoagland’s second novel “The Circle Home” in 1965, I have been drawn to boxing as a metaphor for slugging out a life. “Scrappy” might be the adjective that sticks best. In Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, “Southpaw” he plays the scrappy kid,who made it out of the orphanage with a partner who stayed by him,even when he was incarcerated. Now married,Billy Hope and Mo (Rachel McAdams) are living the “good life” with pergolas and pools and canopied beds. Their ten-year-old daughter, Leia (Iona Laurence)is protected and cherished.Then fate intervenes as screenwriter Kurt Sutter follows the typical story arc of falling from grace and redeeming oneself.

The dialogue and the storyline are the weakest parts of the film,and the great cinematography can not really save it, even though photography director Mauro Fiore choreographs some stunningly fast montages of gauze wrapped hands, blood-vessel-broken eyes, and neck-snapping punches and upper-cut jabs.

As Light Heavy Weight Champion of the World,Gyllenhaal has worked to look the part. His musculature is completely different from his last highly acclaimed role in “The Nightcrawler”. His neck and abs are impressive. His arm tattoos reading “Fighter” and “Father” set his roles. “Fear No Man” is inked on his back in the same font used in the initial credits.

Billy ends his career ignominiously by hitting a referee. The shot of him naked and alone sitting on a white-tiled,shower floor and crying out,”Anyone still here?” is an example of the dialogue. “I feel like I broke her heart” and ” My wife would have liked you” are other  examples of his simple declarative sentences. But one comes to a “fight movie” to see the sweat spume and the blood fly.  Here  the sound of the strikes and jabs is what you will remember.

The score is by the late James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Eminem has a new song heard as one of these  famous montages flick on and off the screen. The beat was good,but I could not make out the lyrics.

A social conscience of sorts is attempted with the character of Tic Wills (Forest Whitaker).He becomes Billy’s trainer and come-back manager who organizes charity bouts and teaches young street kids disciplined sport. Billy who has been dubbed “The Great White Dope” tells Wills, “I can handle the rules. I grew up in the system.” It is this same system that Billy wants to keep his daughter out of. But provisional custody is court ordered. Naomi Harris plays Angela Rivera,a social worker who shows professional caring and warmth. Oona Laurence,likewise, is painfully believable with her anger-crossed arms answering the question “Is that your Dad?” with her sad “I don’t know anymore.”

I was basically disappointed in “Southpaw”. Scriptwriting like,”Come on,baby, get off those ropes” leave me punch-drunk and I want to go home. And the boy named “Hoppy” because his mother liked bunnies was as sad as his killing. Sorry, but Clint Eastwood did a better job with his “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

“Mr. Holmes”

Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. ~ Joseph Wood Krutch

Don’t miss director Bill Condon’s film “Mr. Holmes”. I was entranced with some of the best acting I have seen. The seventy-six -year- old Ian McKellen is so masterful that he brings tears to the viewers’ eyes in his show of joy, of fear and of grief. This performance just can not be missed on the big screen. McKellen’s silences, his stares, his impatience and his show of regret are astounding.  Playing a ninety-three- year-old man,who is  still filled with the wonderment of learning about the world and how to live in it, touches our souls.

The film based on a novel I have not read, (Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of The Mind”) shows Holmes losing his belief in the absolute power of pure logic. At his most indulgent, Oliver Wendell Holmes (  a real person and true American  Brahmin and contemporary of Longfellow) once stated that “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind over-tasked”. Here  Arthur Conan Doyle’s character,Sherlock Holmes, rather cruelly learns that intuition and feeling reference things that logic alone can miss.

The subsequent suicide of a young woman thirty years ago had precipitated the end of Holmes’ career. Now,dealing with major memory loss (that his physician has asked him to document with dots in a journal), Holmes is sadly obedient. Conundrums now posed are bedeviled with lapses of short-term memory as simple as the name of his housekeeper’s son.

Roger is the ten-year-old son played by Milo Parker. His character is exceedingly gifted and in awe of our detective’s methodology and rational carriage. It is lovely to see Holmes correct this bright boy’s put-down of his mother’s language and reading acumen. We have the feeling that the younger Holmes was as saucy. Parker,too,is an amazing actor with his wide eyes and constant questions and sassy,quick comebacks. McKellen excels in showing his delight and approval all the while reminding us of what the grade school detective must have been like. Now,boy and man swim together in the sea. Enjoy the clear language of Holmes’ : “Come along or we will lose the day.” Whether working in his apiary or watching the film, “Lady Grey” where an actor stars as the detective, Holmes states that ” Logic is rare. I dwell on circumstance.” When Roger asks Mr.Holmes what will happen to his bees if he dies, our detective says, “I can’t solve everything!”

Age and the passage of time is a motif in all three storylines: the case that caused Holmes to retire,the widowed housekeeper’s work to provide for her son,and the misplaced revenge of a Japanese national. Flashbacks to Japan include Hiroshima-scared faces and ground devastation. Holmes brings back prickly ash,a supposed remedy for senility. Asked by the young Roger of the herb’s side effects, Holmes responds with “hope”. “Forgetfulness the cure.” When Mrs.Munro  (Laura Linney) asks what to do with it,Holmes snarkily says,”cook with it to enhance your specialities.” McKellin’s earlier groans and subtle question of ,”Is that for dinner?” are right-on delightful in their old age commonness.

Laura Linney is herself masterful. Her protectiveness,tenderness and anger will stay with you. “Spite” and “malice” are words her son uses. She marvels, “Where did you get words like that?” Still she has her mother’s lesson, “Lesson, there then. Don’t say everything you think.” You will knowing smile at the film’s and her last line: “The workers do the work.”Mrs. Munro is  not talking about the bees!

Besides incredible acting all around and multiple story lines,we learn factoids of bee husbandry, the glass harmonica, and how the dead are not so far away when they are remembered with love and with well-placed  stones. We learn that Watson saved Holmes by “bringing him back from the brink” and writing a fictional tale where Holmes was the hero. Early on we learn that there are many misconceptions about Holmes, wearing a hat and smoking a pipe are two. The wrong house address is another. One truth abides Holmes tells his young friend,”When you are a detective and a man visits you, it is usually about his wife.”

On Monday afternoon,at one thirty on July twentieth,2015, there were sixty people in the theater,all over sixty. All were drawn to the screen as soon as McKellen’s steam train left Cuckmere Haven Station. You will be drawn,too, as you learn about “Welsh pony” boys,invisible stories,Catholic “sins of desire”,cowardice cloaked in sacrifice and the fact that logic alone can not explain human nature.