City of Gold. Directed by Laura Gabbert. Notes from December 10, 2016: Should a critic be easier or harsher when assessing the merits of a documentary about a member of the same profession? Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief food critic for the Los Angeles Times, is chronicled in this pleasant but underwhelming film by Laura Gabbert (Sunset Story, No Impact Man: The Documentary). The film presupposes that its audience either has no knowledge of the history of food criticism or no problem accepting the basic premise that Gold is a one-of-a-kind gastronomical observer of the human condition. Some of Gold’s forerunners make appearances, including Calvin Trillin and Ruth Reichl, but of course there are others whom Gabbert overlooks – two names that immediately come to mind are Nika Hazelton and Mimi Sheraton (fun fact: my mother sat next to Mimi at the recent alumni gathering for the 75th anniversary of Brooklyn’s Midwood High School; they spent about twenty minutes talking). Jonathan Gold has the advantages of being younger than those pioneering women and writing now in 2016, but the film focuses so claustrophobically on the subjective narrative that Gold is the first and only critic of his kind that Gabbert leaves no room for any other interpretation (or truth). In fact, the most interesting part of the film was when Gold, while being interviewed by a radio DJ for a “Favorite Songs” playlist, analyzed the history and meanings of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” giving me pause to wonder why Gold didn’t go in for music criticism instead.
The Dressmaker. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Notes from September 28, 2016: Having never seen any of filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s work before (although I have wanted to see Proof and How to Make an American Quilt for quite some time), I could only judge 1950s period piece The Dressmaker on its own merit. (I suppose that that is ideally how criticism is supposed to work anyway.) While Kate Winslet is fierce and fabulous as the couturier who returns to her small Australian hometown of Dungatar with revenge on her mind, and some of the other cast members also add to the local color (including Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte and Kerry Fox), the film is a jumbled mess of genres and themes with a wildly uneven tone. There are gorgeous costumes designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson (I’m mad about this red dress that Kate Winslet wears and Sarah Snook’s Saturday night soirée gown) and Donald McAlpine’s cinematography includes some excellent images and framing, so I’m glad that I saw The Dressmaker on the big screen, but the film’s decision to veer crazily into intense melodrama toward the end is preposterous.
P.S. The two elderly, New York-accented women sitting behind me gave the critique of the year as the end credits rolled: “Did you like it? No, it’s the strangest thing I ever saw!”
P.P.S. For those who have seen the film: a bunch of people behind me (including the aforementioned women) couldn’t remember, or didn’t understand the word for, the grain involved in a crucial scene in the second half of the film. Are there really adults who have never heard of sorghum, or were they just particularly bad at understanding the Australian accent in this instance?
Hello, My Name Is Doris. Directed by Michael Showalter. Notes from December 12, 2016: I’ll say it upfront: Sally Field is an incredible actress. Even in a film that falls somewhat short of her boundless talent, Field is able to transcend scripting limitations and create a multilayered character who is more than just a bundle of quirks, cat-eye glasses and 60s-girl-group-style hair extensions. As Doris Miller, a senior citizen who works as an accountant for a trendy magazine and who falls in love with a new, much younger coworker in the office (Max Greenfield), Field hooks us from the first minute. Much of the film’s comedy emanates from cringe-inducing situations involving Doris’s weird characteristics and the awkwardness of scenarios revolving around her making a fake Facebook profile (there is a great scene in which Doris, drunk and sitting around in her bra, rants online while the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” plays on the soundtrack), hanging around electronica concerts and knitting circles in Williamsburg, attempting to befriend airheaded colleagues (Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Lyonne, Rich Sommer) and visiting a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who tries to convince Doris, a lifelong hoarder, to clean and then move out of her recently deceased mother’s house. I was reminded of the older woman/younger man relationships in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – who says that age has anything to do with true love and beauty?
Some of the best scenes are the dramatic ones, however, like the two separate and highly emotional confrontations that Field has with her self-centered younger brother and his even more awful wife (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey) and with her longtime best friend (Tyne Daly). Field won’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance, but when you watch her discover social media, dance to modern music, experience confusion over common communication gestures or interact with unusual celebrities in her inimitable fashion, you know with certainty that after more than half a century she is still one of the best players in the game.
Joy. Directed by David O. Russell. Notes from November 19, 2016: Mark me down as surprised: I remembered Joy getting mixed reviews when it came out last year, and my feelings toward David O. Russell regarding I Heart Huckabees (one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I have ever had), Silver Linings Playbook (which I initially liked, but it doesn’t hold up) and American Hustle (wildly overrated, except for Bradley Cooper’s character) are less than positive, but I actually ended up enjoying his latest effort. Finally I have seen a film that has built on the promise that we got from Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone – not completely, mind you, but there’s no question that by focusing Joy entirely on Lawrence, rather than making her a co-lead or a supporting character, she has the opportunity to develop a character with considerable depth. (Let’s not speak of her anemic performances in the X-Men series, which I blame largely on the screenwriters and directors for offering Lawrence so little with which to work.) Critics have argued that Lawrence was too young to play title character Joy Mangano, a woman who turned a difficult middle-class existence as a divorced mother of two with endless bills and mortgages to pay off into success as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. This is true, but I still thought Lawrence did a good job of making Joy a character we can root for. Some of David O. Russell’s narrative interjections about feminism are too clichéd to be effective, but the pacing (which I thought was just fine, unlike other critics) and the supporting players – Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini (marvelously villainous), Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, cameos by Ken Howard and Paul Herman – keep things moving. Joy has not converted me to Hollywood’s supreme fandom of Jennifer Lawrence, but I’m definitely closer to approaching it now than I was before.
Sisters. Directed by Jason Moore. Notes from September 28, 2016: Fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would surely enjoy this comedy; all the other viewers… not so much. (My opinion lies somewhere in the middle.) Tina and Amy have a lot of fun as an irresponsible sister and a boring/do-gooder sister respectively, particularly since the film primarily revolves around a raucous farewell party at the old family home (which parents Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are selling), leading Amy and Tina to switch their usual behavioral roles. The bulk of the film’s humor arises from Amy’s increasingly inebriated attempts to connect to a potential boyfriend played by Ike Barinholtz (best described by one IMDb user as “cute in an attainable way, not a Ryan Gosling way”), who is luckily a pretty good match for her, both temperamentally and comedically. Additional good moments in the film come courtesy of Maya Rudolph, John Cena and John Leguizamo, who also attend the big bash, and Chris Parnell as the victim of Tina Fey’s terrible eyebrow-styling in her home salon at the beginning of the film. Sisters is not a great film, but there is an unmistakable charm in its being easily disposable entertainment, satisfying for at least the two hours when you are watching it.