Friday, November 17, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Starting Over (1979)

Starting Over (1979)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.   
Written by: James L. Brooks based on the novel by Dan Wakefield.
Starring: Burt Reynolds (Phil Potter), Jill Clayburgh (Marilyn Holmberg), Candice Bergen (Jessica Potter), Charles Durning (Mickey Potter), Frances Sternhagen (Marva Potter), Austin Pendleton (Paul), Mary Kay Place (Marie), MacIntyre Dixon (Dan Ryan).
Divorce wasn’t something new in 1979 – but Hollywood dealing with it in any sort of serious way, was at least somewhat new at the time. Paul Mazursky’s wonderful An Unmarried Woman had come out the previous year – and was a hit, and an Oscar favorite, and Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer ended up being the biggest box office and awards hit of 1979. Those two films are, for various reasons, still remembered today – but Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over has pretty much been forgotten. It’s easy to see why – it’s not a great film and Pakula is one of those great journeymen directors – who did everything from Klute to The Parallax View to All the President’s Men to Sophie’s Choice – who is more craftsmen that auteur, and those guys tend to get overlooked. It is the first screenplay by James L. Brooks – in between his sitcom career and the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment (1983) – but those looking for Brooks’ best work, will find it elsewhere. The film is uneven – Roger Ebert called it a sitcom version of An Unmarried Woman – and he wasn’t exactly wrong. Yet, it does have three good performances at its core, and it is trying for something interesting. I don’t think it quite gets there – Brooks it seems didn’t have the guts to go where he would in Broadcast News, and instead the film insists on a happy end that doesn’t make much sense – but this little curiosity of a film is worth seeing.
The film opens with Paul (Burt Reynolds) and his wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) breaking up – she wants him to leave, he doesn’t want to, but does anyway – something made easier by the discovery that she has been unfaithful to him. As he leaves, the audience is treated to, for the first time, a hilariously bad song by Jessica, sung wonderfully awfully by Bergen – who is convinced she’s going to have a hit on her hands (and, of course, she’s right). Paul ends up moving to Boston to be near his brother (Charles Durning), and try and peace his life back together. It is his brother’s wife who introduces him to Marilyn (Jill Clayburgh) – a nursey school teacher, who at first doesn’t want to date Paul – she has had it with divorced guys –but eventually she relents. They seem perfect for each other – he even says as much to his “divorced men’s support group” – but is he really over Jessica? When she shows up in Boston one day, wanting him back, what will he do?
Reynolds is, I think, an underrated actor. Sure, he has done more bad movies than good (and some are downright horrible), but he was one of the biggest male movie stars of the 1970s for a reason. He has an effortless charm about him here – making the fact that women are drawn to him understandable. Bur Reynolds also does a fine job showing us Paul’s insecurity – his hesitation in jumping into bed with Marilyn, the way he loves her, but is still drawn to Jessica. Of the three leads, it is Reynolds who has the most screen time, and delivers the most subtle performance. His two female co-stars both got Oscar nominations – and they are both wonderful, but their roles give them more showoff moments. Bergen steals every scene she is in here – she is downright hilarious when she sings, and she is the right mixture of infuriating, alluring and annoying to make at least some of what Paul does plausible. Clayburgh is wonderful as Marilyn as well – a somewhat kooky woman, who is happy in her life alone without Paul before he arrives, but willingly lets her guard down – even if she fears being destroyed. Both women are able to convey at least some complexity underneath all the humor in the movie – and judging on the basis of this movie, it’s a shame neither was given a great role in a Woody Allen movie at some point. They would have nailed them.
The problem with the movie is mainly in Brooks’ screenplay. While his ear for dialogue was already well-tuned – there is never a doubt about who wrote the thing – the plot mechanics creak under the weight of all the clichés, and as the film progresses, the characters make decisions that just don’t make any sense – right up to the happy ending. I know that Brooks is dealing with romantic comedy standards here – but it makes for an uneasy mixture with the divorce drama he’s also writing. By the time he made Terms of Endearment, he had mastered this tricky comedy/drama tone he does so well (he perfected it in Broadcast News) – but here, whether it’s Pakula’s direction (he was a journeyman – but many a thriller journeyman) or more likely Brooks’ screenplay, the mix is off.
Starting Over is an interesting film – it’s interesting to watch Brooks before he perfected his style, it’s interesting to see Pakula try his hand at comedy, and it has three performances that help paper over the films rough patches – mostly (as great as Clayburgh is, I have a tough time with that last scene in the movie). It’s mainly been forgotten – and there’s a reason for that. But it was also an Oscar nominated hit in 1979 – and there was a reason for that as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh.
Written by: Michael Green based upon the novel by Agatha Christie.
Starring: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Edward Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Henry Masterman), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Tom Bateman (Bouc).
The best thing about the new version of Murder on the Orient Express is Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Agatha Christie’s infamous detective Hercule Poirot. Sporting the best mustache I have ever seen, Branagh somehow finds new dimensions to play in Poirot – even for those of us who have seen Albert Finney’s Oscar nominated turn in the 1974 original film, and who had a mother who watched a lot of David Suchet as Poirot, and as such, watched a lot himself. Branagh’s Poirot is almost a tragic figure – he certainly is a sad one – pining over his lost love, and admitting that his curse is that he can only “see things the way they ought to be”, so when something is amiss, it sticks out. This makes much of his life miserable – but makes him a great detective. But despite being this sad figure, it’s still a joy to watch Branagh in this role – he’s funny and clever, and has Branagh swinging for the fences again, in a role a worthy of him, for the first time in I’m not sure how long (yes, he’s very good in Dunkirk – but that’s a different kind of performance). If they announced tomorrow, a new movie or television series with Branagh as Poirot, I’d be enthused.
The problem with the new version of Murder on the Orient Express however is that Branagh, the director, doesn’t seem to put as much care into the storytelling as he does in crafting his own performance – or growing that mustache (please tell me it was real). After a crackerjack start at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem the film never really finds it footing again once we are on board the titular train. Part of the problem is that there are so many character (this version even combines two together to help) – but with 15 other major characters, played by one of the best ensembles you can hope for, the result is that most of the cast is underutilized. Essentially, they all get introduced with one character trait, and stay that way. It isn’t that some of them aren’t having fun – Michelle Pfeiffer is a man hungry widow certainly seems to be having a blast, as does Judi Dench as an elder Princess, but the movie does a poor job of keeping the characters sorted out. Every time Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Marquez shows up, you wonder who the hell he is for example – and for a long stretch of the movie, you forget that there is even a Count and Countess on the train. Other great performers are barely utilized – poor Olivia Colman and Willem Dafoe – and some are given little to work with other than their costumes – to be fair, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. both look amazing in those costumes, but you wish there was more there. There’s a problem in your Murder on the Orient Express adaptation when Johnny Depp’s Ratchett has more screen time that practically anyone note named Hercule.
Perhaps some of these flaws could be forgiven in an overall better film. After all, you have a great Poirot here, the costumes and art direction are superb, and Branagh and cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos do what they can to try and open up the story a little – hard to do when the story is confined to a train, and that train is stopped in its tracks alongside a mountain. But the biggest problem with the film is that it screws up precisely the part of the movie where you cannot screw up – the finale, the “solution” to the murder – which is stories like this is always the key moment, and always takes a long time, because the plot is so elaborate that Poirot needs to explain it for a good 15 minutes or so. First of all, the way he even comes to figure everything out is never really explained – he’s putting pieces together that the audience didn’t have, which doesn’t seem fair – and second, his big long explanation is muddled and confusing. It leaves you scratching your head – and I knew the solution before I saw the movie.
Branagh is a talented filmmaker, who has had to change with the times over his 30 year career. Despite the fact that he’s directed some of the best Shakespeare movies of all time – I’ll take his 1996, 4 hour Hamlet over any other version of that play – no one much seems interested in financing those anymore. So he directs a Jack Ryan movie, he directs Thor for Marvel, he directs Cinderella for Disney – and all of those, he brings something of himself to the film. He does so here as well – but this time, it never quite comes together. The movie hints as a sequel – Death on the Nile – and I would love to see it. Although, I think I’d replace Branagh as director, and just let him and his glorious mustache take over the screen.

Movie Review: Kedi

Kedi **** / *****
Directed by: Ceyda Torun.
One of this I noticed on my honeymoon – when we stopped in both Greece and Turkey – is that there are animals everywhere – cats and dogs, who just seem to roam the streets, sleeping wherever they want, and obviously getting fed – since none of them seemed too skinny. It may seem like a small difference between Europe – or at least, those parts of Europe (I didn’t seen any strays in Italy for example) and North America – and yet I think it’s a sign of how in many ways Europeans are simply different – more laid back, and easygoing. Or, at least they were – because now that “progress” has started to catch up, apparently this way of life is in jeopardy. The documentary Kedi opens with a quote about how long cats have roamed the streets of Istanbul – how they’ve seen empires rise and fall, and no one quite knows when they got there – they’ve just always been there. The documentary, which runs just under 80 minutes, is a portrait of 7 cats, and their humans, in Istanbul. Some of these people own their own pet cats – inside cats – but most of them do not. But they get to know, and love, the cats that they see in their everyday life. They feed them, care for them, take them to the vet if need be, and basically love them – but, and this is also key, they let the cats be themselves. Cats are not idiot attention whores like dogs are – they don’t need you to be their friend and tell them how good they are. You have to earn a cat’s love – and these people earn it.
I will admit that when Kedi came out in theaters earlier this year, I kind of brushed it off as inconsequential – if I wanted to watch 80 minutes of cat videos, I can go down a YouTube rabbit hole fairly easily. This is why I didn’t make the time to see it in theaters – a decision I now regret. There is a lot of great footage of cats in the movie – but it is decidedly not of internet cat video quality. Director Ceyda Torun’s camera gets on the ground level with the cats, and really does Istanbul from their point-of-view. The camera follows them everywhere – up trees, down into sewers, etc. – and gets the type of footage of cats people normally don’t get – mainly because cats always seem so secretive – they don’t want you to know what they’re doing all the time, unlike idiot dogs, who crave nothing but your constant attention.
Still, if Kedi were just 80 minutes of cat footage, it would be fun – but not much more. What makes it one of the year’s best documentaries, is that Torun and her camera pulls back, and really does get a sense of the entire community around the cats. She interviews the people who care for these seven cats (more than seven people, because some of these cats have multiple people), who explain the personalities of the cats, their habits, their likes and dislikes. Through the cats, we get to know the people, and through the people we get to know the cats.
As a country Turkey is obviously currently in a state of upheaval – but Torun never comments on this directly. There is one woman who talks about the difficulty of being a woman in Turkey, and many people mention the current changes happening in the city – changes they fear will end up hurting the cats. If there are more high-rises, less neighborhoods, where will they go? Torun doesn’t ignore the issues – she simply lets them play out in the background.
Kedi ends up being a surprisingly touching film. Yes, if like me you are a cat person, you’ll love it even more than if you’re not (especially if, like me, you married someone allergic to cats, so instead of having one, you’re stuck with an idiot dog – a lovable idiot dog, but an idiot dog just the same). But it’s more than just 80 minutes of cat videos.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Greta Gerwig.
Written by: Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson), Laurie Metcalf (Marion McPherson), Tracy Letts (Larry McPherson), Lucas Hedges (Danny O'Neill), Timothée Chalamet (Kyle Scheible), Beanie Feldstein (Julie Steffans), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Father Leviatch), Lois Smith (Sister Sarah Joan), Laura Marano (Diana Greenway), Jordan Rodrigues (Miguel McPherson), John Karna (Greg Anrue), Odeya Rush (Jenna Walton), Marielle Scott (Shelly Yuhan).
There is an art to making the kind of coming-of-age teen comedy that Greta Gerwig gets exactly right in her directorial debut – Lady Bird. In theory, Lady Bird could just another “Sundance” like movie – we see seemingly a dozen like it a year – about seemingly messed up, yet ultimately rather conventional suburban families, and the frustrating push-and-pull people parents and their children as well as high school crushes, losing your virginity, and wanting nothing more than to get out of your home – and home town – and then immediately missing them when you do. Lady Bird should be another of those movies (not unlike say Patti Cake$ - which I caught up this weekend as well) – that I either mildly enjoy as they cycle through the clichés, or else just absolutely drive me nuts. Those have become as formulaic as the Hollywood movies they are supposed to act as counter programming to. But Gerwig has always had a talent of taking something that would normally make me role my eyes, and instead making something honest and genuine out of it. The first film she co-wrote – and starred in – was Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha – which I almost dreaded seeing because I thought it was going to be more twee, millennial naval gazing – and yet that film moved me, made me laugh, and had genuine insight. Lady Bird is much the same way – you’ve seen this movie before, sure, but never quite like this – it is grounded in the real and the specific in a way that makes it feel new and different.
Part of that is because of the lead performance by the great Saoirse Ronan – who is only 23, and already has two Oscar nomination (she should have won for Brooklyn) – and should get a third here. This performance is nothing like her work in breakout Atonement, which itself was nothing like her work in Brooklyn – and her impressive resume already shows amazing range. Here, she’s playing Christine – a high school senior who has decided she wants everyone to call her Lady Bird, and wants nothing else but to get out of Sacramento (the “Midwest of California” as she calls it) – and head to the East Coast “where culture is”. Lady Bird is smart – but not necessarily in the way that shows up in grades, and everyone wants her to be more “realistic” about her college aspirations. Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metclaf – finally getting a movie role that lets her show what many of us have known for years – that she is a terrific actress) is hard on Lady Bird – in part because they are too similar, both too hard headed to be willing to admit when the other may be right. The two are at each other’s throats a lot – which means easy going dad Larry (Tracy Letts – continuing to show he’s one of the best character actors around in addition to be one of the best playwrights) to play peacemaker – although he has his own issues as well.
Throughout her senior year, Lady Bird will do what a lot of teenagers do – she’ll fall in “love” with two boys at her Catholic school – the first is Danny (Lucas Hedges) – from one of those good Irish Catholic families with a lot of kids, but he’s hiding a secret, and the second is Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), the kind of pretentious ass, who smokes cigarettes, read books, and says things like “I’m trying to avoid being a part of the economy” – that teenagers can think sound deep. Her best friend is Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the two of them share a bond that only teenage girls do.
Lady Bird is perhaps a tad too episodic – there isn’t much a plot here, other than Lady Bird finds her way through senior year. Not every episode works – but most of them do, and in total, they add up to something quietly moving. Gerwig, as a screenwriter, knows when to give you that big emotional moment, and when to pull back. It’s also well-directed throughout – unshowy, but finding the right moments. Gerwig had already shown immense talent as an actress – and her two screenplay with Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America) – was a nice blending of their styles. Here though, she finds her voice solo – and it’s remarkable to see. This is one of the year’s most endearing, funny and entertaining films – and in a year this dark, that makes it vital and necessary as well.

Movie Review: The Square

The Square **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ruben Östlund.
Written by: Ruben Östlund.
Starring: Claes Bang (Christian), Elisabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary (Oleg), Christopher Læssø (Michael).
If Jordan Peele’s Get Out had not have come out this year, than Ruben Östlund’s The Square would be the year’s most “uncomfortable” film to sit through – and I mean that in a good way. Östlund’s point is to make us uncomfortable, to have us question our own ethics and morals throughout the film, while at the same time, providing a ruthless – and funny – satire of the contemporary art world. Östlund knows, of course, that The Square is itself an “art film”, so he’s poking fun at himself – and everyone in the audience watching as well. I’m not sure he has any real answers to the questions he asks – nor does he want to – he just wants to prod you into thinking about them. You likely already know if this film sounds like it would appealing to you – and you’re almost definitely right about that. If you don’t want that sort of experience, The Square would be excruciating to sit through – especially since it rambles around for nearly two and half hours.
The film stars Claes Bang as Christian – the head curator at a Stockholm museum of Modern Art – the type of place where they have an exhibit that consists of piles of gravel on the floor and a neon sign proclaiming “You Have Nothing” – but helpful guards who will tell you you’re not allowed to take photos of it. The film opens with a scene in which a reporter – Anne (Elisabeth Moss) interviews Christian about the museum and its philosophy – particularly about a night in which they hosted a talked about the difference between Exhibit and Non-Exhibit – and what art “is”. Christian unhelpfully babbles on and on, without really saying anything in a way that many do when talking about Modern Art – after all, you don’t want to appear to be “pretentious” is discussing these lofty ideals, but you also don’t want appear to be stupid and “not get it” either. This sets up the Christian we will see for the rest of the movie – who time after time has reality interfere with his lofty ideals, as he gets himself into more and more trouble.
It all starts on the streets when he hears a woman calling out for help – but who he ignores, until he is pretty much forced to react, because he’s physically pulled into the conflict by another man, shielding the woman, from what we assume is an angry boyfriend. After it’s all over, the two men congratulate themselves on a job well done – neither one of them realizing the woman is gone, and Christian only realizing later that his wallet, cellphone and cufflinks have been stolen. Instead of just letting it go, Christian will end up tracking his phone to a large apartment building – and it’s there where he really makes a mistake, that will end up haunting him the rest of the movie, and getting him in deeper and deeper trouble.
The film is largely episodic, which each episode operating both as its own sort of moral quandary, comedic set piece, and interestingly, a part of the larger overall picture. There are things that are never explained – like Anne’s pet chimpanzee for instance, who Christian sees one night when he’s over there, and we feel like he’s about to ask Anne why she has a pet chimp – but then again, she’s clearly ready to have sex, and he’s not going to stop that (the sex scene itself is funny, awkward, unerotic, and completely honest – and is followed by an absurdly long conversation about the condom that was used).
Basically the movie is about a man who has lived his life largely compartmentalized – he places the different aspects in his life in different boxes you could say – and throughout the course of the film, those boxes start to be mixed together, and he cannot function. The title of the movie comes from an upcoming exhibit at the museum, which is a literal square where inside “We all share the same rights and obligations” – a utopian idea that we all know what work in practice. There is a brilliant sequence late in the film at the museum during a black tie dinner, where Oleg (Terry Notary) a performance artist comes in and blurs the line between man and animal – at first in amusing ways, and then gradually in ways that start to annoy, and perhaps even endanger people. The sequence is perhaps a microcosm of the whole movie – the social contract works because we all agree to it – but it can be violated so easily, and then what are you supposed to do (and if you don’t know, do you do anything).
All of this probably sounds like it’s more a thought experiment than a movie – and there is certainly a danger that could happen here. But it’s grounded by Bang’s remarkable performance as Christian – who somehow keeps his character relatable – even charming – throughout, even as he does worse and worse things (Moss has the key supporting role – and she helps as well). The movie is also just outright funny. The film won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year – an irony not lost on anyone, as this film that wants to puncture the airless art world wins the biggest prize at the most arty film festival there is. That only makes things more interesting – and perhaps, proves its point.

Movie Review: Ingrid Goes West

Ingrid Goes West *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Matt Spicer.
Written by: David Branson Smith & Matt Spicer.
Starring: Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Thorburn), Elizabeth Olsen (Taylor Sloane), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Dan Pinto), Wyatt Russell (Ezra O'Keefe), Billy Magnussen (Nicky Sloane), Pom Klementieff (Harley Chung).
I thought a lot about Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy while watching Matt Spicer’s debut film – Ingrid Goes West. There are times when I think that The King of Comedy is Scorsese’s masterpiece – and even if it isn’t, it was certainly his most perceptive about where the culture was going. You update the clothes that DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin wears and give him an iPhone, and you could pretty much remake the film the today – and it wouldn’t look like the crazy satire it looked like in 1983 – but rather a sketch of reality (put it alongside Sidney Lumet’s Network for 1976 – same thing). Ingrid Goes West doesn’t reach the levels of The King of Comedy – but its aim is in the right place. It is a film about a stalker, but this one isn’t obsessed with someone on TV – a remote person it is actually difficult to meet in real life – but rather someone she “met” on Instagram. What we in the audience (hopefully) know that Ingrid in the film doesn’t, is that knowing someone from Instagram isn’t like knowing them in real life – we all cultivate our image on Social Media to how we want to be perceived, not how we actually are. Ingrid knows as much about her object of obsession, Taylor (Elisabeth Olsen) as Pupkin did about Jerry Lewis’ talk show host in The King of Comedy – nothing.
As played by Plaza, Ingrid is essentially a blank – a person with nothing on behind the eyes, no genuine feeling for other people. She sees Taylor’s Instagram feed when she gets out on the mental ward following another stalking incident that turned violent (maceing a woman on her wedding day because she wasn’t invited to the wedding) – so Ingrid decides to pack up, cash the life insurance cheque she got when her mom died, and move to California to become best friends with Taylor.
It’s clear from fairly early on that the life of Taylor – and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) isn’t as perfect as Taylor proclaims it as on Instagram. Not that they’re miserable or anything – just that they are normal. They have the same fights about money, careers, family, etc. as every other couple has – but of course, you don’t post about that. This all flies by Ingrid, to whom nothing that isn’t perfect doesn’t really register (she remembers it all – but doesn’t acknowledge it). The arrival of Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) threatens Ingrid’s newly found friendship (Ingrid has found ways to weasel herself in) – probably because Nicky is smart enough to see a fellow scammer. Ingrid has to rope in her new landlord – Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) in some of her schemes.
Plaza is scary as Ingrid – because of that blankness. And yet, it is not a one note performance at all – she makes Ingrid someone to fear and pity at the same time – and she can be genuinely funny as well. I wish there was a little more depth to some of the other characters as well. Once we start to realize that Taylor isn’t as perfect as she pretends to be – and that her marriage isn’t either – there’s really not much more there (like everyone, she lies about what books she’s reading on social media). The movie veers to over-the-top territory in a kidnapping sequence (definitely trying for King of Comedy vibes there) – and then just kind of ends shortly after, in the way you probably expected it to from the beginning.
Yet, what works about the movie is excellent – it’s a genuine, sharp tongued satire of our modern age of social media, with another great performance by Aubrey Plaza. It’s funny and disturbing in equal doses – which is how it should be.

Movie Review: Patti Cake$

Patti Cake$ *** / *****
Directed by: Geremy Jasper.
Written by: Geremy Jasper.
Starring: Danielle Macdonald (Patti), Bridget Everett (Barb), Siddharth Dhananjay (Jheri), Mamoudou Athie (Basterd), Cathy Moriarty (Nana), McCaul Lombardi (Danny), Patrick Brana (Slaz), MC Lyte (DJ French Tips), Sahr Ngaujah (O-Z).
No one can really claim that Patti Cake$ is in anyway an original movie. It is basically Eight Mile with a heavyset white women in the lead – and remember, Eight Mile was essentially Purple Rain, with Eminem stepping in for Prince. And Purple Rain wasn’t that original either. You know the beats this story is going to hit from the moment it begins – and it hits them all – and hard. Yet, despite my better judgement, the movie mainly won me over. The performances are winning and touching, and the music is genuinely catchy. No, the film didn’t become the audience favorite so many thought it was going to be out of Sundance – but you’d have to be pretty cynical to hate it.
The film takes place in the downtrodden wasteland of suburban New Jersey. It’s there where Patti (Danielle Macdonald) lives with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett) and chain smoking Nana (Cathy Moriaty). The family is poor – Barb is a hair dresser, not making very much, Patti – who’s now 23 bartends, at a low rent dive. Patti can never be sure if Barb has a new man in her life or not – Barb drinks a lot, and battles depression – and when she wants to, her rage can be turned on Patti.
Patti alongside her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) – who works in a pharmacy – have what is likely an unrealistic dream of becoming rappers. It’s a dream Barb does not encourage – she had dreams of her own music career, and they didn’t go far. Patti and Jheri have to deal with the assholes who don’t think they’ll be able to do it, not because of their talent (they don’t see them perform) – but because of who they are, an overweight white girl and her Indian friend. It doesn’t help that Patti has stage fright, and backs down quickly when they do get their chance. Eventually these two misfits will meet a third one – Basterd (Mamodou Athie) – who lives in a shack by the cemetery, and is some sort of metal/rap musical genius.
You know where this is headed, right? If you don’t, congratulations on watching your first movie ever. For the first half hour or so of the movie, I resisted, because everything seemed to be running on a track – everything was too by-the-numbers, and easy. But gradually, the movie does wear you down. A lot of that has to do with Macdonald, who brings genuine emotion to her role as Patti – you don’t often see women like her in the lead roles of movies, and she knows it. She lacks confidence, but is a genuine hard working and nice person – and when we do hear her rap, she is legitimately great as well. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag – I don’t know that Jheri ever really becomes a complete character, and Basterd certainly doesn’t. Bridget Everett, the bold, brash stand-up comedian really does bring it as Patti’s mom as well – she surprised me, in a good way.
The film is directorial debut of Geremy Jasper – who also wrote the music for the film. As a first effort, it’s pretty good – he certainly isn’t swinging for the fences, but then that’s a mistake too many inexperienced directors make – trying to do too much, and end up doing it all poorly. Patti Cake$ lacks ambition – but it does what it sets out to do.