Friday, March 31, 2017

Occasionally Amusing 'For Here or To Go?' Tackles Silicon Valley's Immigration Dilemma

This review originally appeared on

For Here or To Go? tells a story that will likely resonate with a large segment of Silicon Valley's immigrant workforce, and it's a story I haven't seen tackled by a film before. Sadly, its clunky execution and uneven tone might make it a tough sell to anyone outside that tech field or the immediate Bay Area.

Set in the Bay Area during the 2008 and 2009 economic downturn, the story centers on Vivek (Ali Fazal), a Mumbai-born tech worker hoping to transfer from his current job into a start-up more in tune with his chosen field. After a successful interview, he appears to be a shoe-in, until the company lets him know they can't hire him because his H1-B visa is set to expire in under a year, and they don't have the funds to provide the legal help needed to extend it.

This impending expiration proves to be a hindrance for his current employer as well, who is also not willing to spend the funds needed to get an extension. This leaves a green card as Vivek's only real option, but it's a process that can take years, and without a valid working H1-B visa, Vivek can be forced to leave the county almost immediately upon its expiration.

This dilemma, and the accompanying fear of deportation, which also affects workers who hold valid H1-B visas but work for companies that suddenly go under, is an interesting and important topic, and one I'll admit I didn't know much about prior to seeing For Here or To Go?, despite working in the tech industry myself.

But For Here or To Go? isn't a documentary, and it's not a drama, so while Vivek's seemingly impossible situation is the center of the film's story, it often gets buried by a romantic comedy subplot involving an American-born Indian (Melanie Kannokada), and not one, not two, but three wacky roommates. This constant switch from social commentary to light-hearted fare (there's even a Bollywood-style dance sequence) can be jarring.

The film was written by Rishi S. Bhilawadikar and directed by Rucha Humnabadkar, both tech workers who continued to work their tech jobs during the years it took to finish the movie, and continue to work tech jobs now. It's the first feature for both (and a low-budget one) which explains the film's elementary cinematic style and cinematography, which includes plenty of San Francisco locations, (including scenes at Dosa on Fillmore and Blondie's Bar and No Grill). Luckily, the casting of Fazal and Kannokada, who are both very good looking and naturally charming, helps the film rise a bit above its amateur feel.

Despite its clunkiness, For Here or To Go? is an occasionally amusing peek into a culture that makes a lot of contributions to the Bay Area and the country, and it also makes some salient points about how the US's immigration and visa policies may ultimately cause the entire country to lose ground when it comes to innovation if it forces its immigrant workers to take their skills and go home.

Friday, March 24, 2017

'Song To Song' Is A Vacant Shell Of A Film

This review originally appeared on

Terrence Malick, the auteur who used to spend a decade or so between film projects, returns to the screen this week with Song To Song, his fifth film in six years. It follows 2016's Knight of Cups and 2012's To the Wonder, and if you've seen either of those films, well, you've basically seen Song To Song.

Like those previous works, it focuses on the romantic relationships between some barely fleshed out men and women, this time centered in the Austin, Texas, music scene. Rooney Mara is in a band, and once worked for a music producer (Michael Fassbender) before becoming his lover. At a party, she meets another songwriter and musician (Ryan Gosling). They fall in love, though Mara can't bring herself to end things with Fassbender, who has promised to boost both of their careers.

For a while, they all wander around Texas and Mexico, a Jules and Jim-esque trio. But truth and lies are revealed, with the lovers realizing the producer has essentially been screwing them both. The trio parts ways, finding hope for new love in the forms of Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, and Natalie Portman.

Now, all of this plot is only vaguely hinted at, and for the most part, has to be inferred. (Also requiring inference: All of the characters' names, which you wouldn't know they actually had until they're revealed in the ending credits.)

Malick hasn't had much interest in plot for years now, and of his last three movies, this one is the most obviously script-less, with scene after scene that feels like he brought his actors to a location and told them to do whatever they wanted. I guess what they wanted to do was lean against walls and into each other, wander rooms, and occasionally chase each other across a beautiful backdrop, because that's basically all we get. I bet at least 90 of its almost 145 minute running time is just wall-leaning.

There's not much dialogue in Song To Song, and what is there is often fragmentary and muffled. Instead, we get the usual bit of "Malickian" narration, with the characters questioning their lives, choices, and futures, but too often sounding like they're reciting bad high school poetry.

These people are supposed to be so focused on their music that they're messing up their personal lives for it, but we never hear any of them actually perform anything. Malick relies on footage shot during Austin's SXSW and Fun Fun Fun Fest to fill in for the lack of original music, so we get plenty of backstage moments featuring the likes of Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith, who has several scenes where she can be heard talking about her marriage with Fred Smith to Mara's character.

Having ill-defined characters means you'd better cast actors who can do a lot with a little, but only Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett are able to rise to the level needed. Both are actors that can command a scene through the sheer strength of their natural charisma, no words needed. I would gladly watch Gosling fold napkins that look like roasted chickens with Blanchett for hours, but sadly, we only get a few seconds of that in Song To Song.

Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman, two actresses that are remarkably similar physically, are also similar in their acting styles, and don't flourish well in roles that don't require them to do much talking. Portman is also badly cast as someone who is supposed to be a simple Texas gal with big blonde hair and bigger boobs, someone who would catch the eye of a rich cad like Fassbender. She doesn't pull it off.

Mara is equally void. In one scene, she starts to make out with her hot new French girlfriend as the girlfriend's dog sits in the background of the shot, just looking at the scene in front of him. So dull was this supposedly hot make-out session that I just kept my eye on that dog, dying to see what he might do next. Alas, Malick's inability to let any shot linger for long means I never did get to see what that dog eventually did.

The first half of Malick's career centered on period pieces with tough, working class characters, like the teenage killers in Badlands, the farm workers of Days of Heaven, and the soldiers of The Thin Red Line. The juxtaposition between these seemingly simple people, their lyrical inner monologues, and the beauty of the often hard world around them helped audiences see history in a new way. That Malick took so long between pictures also helped; it's hard to grow tired of a cinematic style you only see every ten years of so.

But we have officially reached Malick fatigue. The modern stories he's choosing to tell, minimal as they may be, just don't lend themselves well to the Malick style. Instead of archetypes, the films are filled with barely defined types; pretty faces, wandering through pretty rooms, speaking pretty words. Pretty vacant.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Gross-Out Horror Movie 'Raw' Lives Up To Some (But Not All) Of The Hype

This review originally appeared on

Paramedics being called to festival screenings of your movie because audience members fainted is probably the best bit of pre-release hype a horror movie can get, so I don't blame those at Focus World for wanting to hype up the gross factor in the French "I Was a Teenage Cannibal" horror movie Raw one bit. The souvenir barf bags handed out at the screening I went to were a nice touch, and one that would make William Castle proud. But after seeing the film, I can only guess that those festival crowds were likely a bunch of lightweights, because I ate a sausage pizza while watching it, and I felt fine. (The bag came in handy for bringing home leftovers though!)

Raw centers on teenage Justine (Garance Marillier), who is entering veterinary school just as her parents did before her, and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who has already established herself as the school's punky weirdo. Raised a strict vegetarian, Justine recoils at the thought of having to eat a bit of raw rabbit kidney as part of the extended and elaborate hazing rituals forced on first year students, but Alexia, who's given up the family's vegetarian ways, forces it into Justine's mouth. And whether she actually swallows it or not, that taste of meat begins to change her.

First the change is actually physical, as she develops a peeling rash all over her body. Soon after, cravings overtake her, and she starts stealing hamburger patties from the cafeteria, gleefully chomping on gyros, and sneaking her roommate's raw chicken out of the communal fridge, not bothering to cook the sucker up before diving in.

Her hunger begins to dominate her mind, and when a freak accident leads her to taste human blood and flesh, she wants nothing more.

Justine is just sixteen, a virgin to almost everything you'd expect from college life, so it's sometimes hard to tell if the nightmare that is this particular veterinary school is as bad as it seems, or it's just that we're seeing it through the eyes of someone who has been sheltered her whole life. (Also, raging parties in cramped rooms with loud EDM and sweaty dancing is kind of my idea of hell, so maybe I'm projecting a bit here.)

Director Julia Ducournau wants to paint Justine's lust for the flesh as a strong metaphor for blooming sexuality. Despite the fact that her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) is very, very gay, Justine can't help but fall for him, and when she watches him play a shirtless game of soccer on a rooftop, you can't really tell if she wants to have sex with him or take a big bite out of him. And that's kind of the point.

I say "kind of" because Ducournau doesn't fully succeed with the metaphor, and the film suffers a bit from poor story continuity and cohesiveness, problems that often befall first-time directors who are eager to get everything they want to say into their movie, even if the movie can't handle all the messages. In this movie's case, this includes commentary on misogyny, patriarchy, female rivalry, vegetarianism, homosexuality, and nature vs. nurture. To name a few.

As a horror flick, Raw is at its most effective when it centers on the common horrors of the body. A scene in the doctor's office, in which the skin is peeled away from Justine's rashes in gory close-up, is pretty gross, but the movie really hits a Cronenberg level of body horror when Alexia attempts to give Justine her first bikini wax. (I bet no small number of waxing appointments will get cancelled after this movie comes out.)

These moments, combined with Ducournau's beautiful use of color, an intense synth score (both totally worthy of Dario Argento at his most garish), and a genuinely clever ending, means Raw does live up to some of the hype — even if the smelling salts are purely optional.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ACT's 'John' Is A Weird, Delicious Treat

This review originally appeared on

Annie Baker's latest play John, currently running at ACT's Strand Theatre, is a story about truth, lies, madness, God, ghosts, and Vienna Fingers, although not necessarily in that order.

John is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel), who prefers to go by "Kitty" though no one else actually calls her that. It's the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Mertis's only guests are a twentysomething couple, Jenny (Stacey Yen), and Elias (Joe Paulik), who are on their way back to Brooklyn after visiting Jenny's family in Ohio.

We learn when he was growing up, Elias was a Civil War buff, despite a childhood spent in California in an Esalen-esque retreat run by his hippie parents. Jenny, who does not share Eli's fascination with Gettysburg, has nonetheless agreed to the stopover, mainly in the hopes it will relieve some of the tension that is currently filling their relationship; they're having "issues."

But once menstrual cramps overwhelm Jenny, she opts to stay behind at the B&B, and finds herself sharing some surprising moments with Mertis and Mertis's equally surprising friend Genevieve (a perfectly deadpan Ann McDonough), an elderly woman who has lost both her sight and her mind.

Technically, there are only five characters in John, though the amazingly detailed set by Marsha Ginsberg is almost a character itself. Every inch is filled with tchotchkes and dolls; a large Christmas tree, complete with a miniature, fully lit town at its base, stands in one corner, with lights that have a tendency to flicker on and off, as if commenting on the action. Another corner is home to "Paris," which is what Mertis calls the tiny dining area, each table decorated with lit-up Eiffel towers. Characters often disappear into the set's second story and a hallway's darkened entryway, their conversations becoming muted, just as they would in an actual bed and breakfast.

The decor's dolls are particularly unsettling to Jenny, who had a complicated relationship with dolls as a child, and with one in particular, an American Girl dolled named Samantha. Of course, Mertis has the same doll, and it sits on the wall, reminding Jenny how much it freaked her out as a kid, and how she was convinced Samantha would stare at her in anger, anger about having to be a doll...

But Samantha the doll isn't the only spooky thing about John. The play is filled with a constant and foreboding sense of weirdness. The blind Genevieve is convinced she can hear the house emitting noises no one else can hear; Mertis tells a story of the house's use as a hospital during the Civil War; and a player piano has a life all its own.

So while much of the play's plot is based in realism, specifically the, at times, painfully mundane story of a twentysomething couple's relationship issues, almost everything else feels slightly supernatural, or at least, unreal.

Mertis opens and closes each act by opening and closing the stage's curtains. She also turns the hands on a grandfather clock, and at first this, paired with some beautiful lighting changes from lighting designer Robert Hand, comes off as just a clever bit of stage direction to help illustrate the passage of time. But when she does it in full view of another character, we begin to question Mertis's mere mortal status.

Annie Baker wrote the role of Mertis specifically for Georgia Engel, and it is the perfect fit. Engel is probably best known for her role as Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another role that used her almost ethereal speaking voice in a surprising way: she was supposed to sound dumb, but would often prove herself to be the smartest person in the room.

Mertis similarly comes off as slightly simple. Happy to have company; gullibly partaking in a weight loss scheme that involves hormonal injections; always ready with the perfect cup of tea and a plate of Vienna Fingers when you need them.

But as the play progresses she surprises her guests, and the audience. She reads Jenny a passage from her journal, a daily description of that day's sunset which includes descriptions that are almost gory, ("Phosphorescent oranges, grotesque reds, and blasphemous purples slashed open the sky"); when Eli asks if she's religious, she replies that she's a "Neoplatonist;" when Genevieve comes over for her "daily reading," Mertis reads a passage from H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu.

Ultimately, all of the characters have moments that come as a shock. (Genevieve's comes after the curtain closes on Act II, so stick in your seats.) But at over three hours long, with two intermissions, John can be a challenging play for some. Annie Baker loves silences as much as she does dialogue, and the play is filled with them. But I found myself loving those silences. They allowed me to really look at that incredible set, and gave me the space to think about what the characters were saying, and not allowing themselves to say. John is a play to be savored.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Chick Flick Cliches Abound In 'The Last Word'

This review originally appeared on

Wednesday was International Women's Day, so it's the perfect week to release something like The Last Word , a movie centered on three generations of women, one with the kind of face that doesn't get a lot of leading roles in Hollywood releases these days.

The face belongs to 82-year-old Shirley MacLaine, and the last time I saw that face was a few weeks back, as she stared, mouth open in abject horror, as her brother Warren tried to recover from one of the most historic live television flubs of all times. Thankfully, she lived through the trauma.

In The Last Word she plays Harriet Lauler, a woman not too far removed from her Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment character Aurora Greenway. Both are wealthy, stubborn perfectionists; both wander around their immaculate two story homes, with only the help to keep them company. And both are difficult — to say the least — mothers.

But Harriet is in her 80's, and knows she hasn't got much time left. When a (possibly not so accidental) drug overdose sends her to the hospital, she begins to question her legacy. Turning to the obituaries, she decides, perfectionist that she is, that she'd better get that obituary written before she's actually gone. Noting a series of obits written about people she knew — and knew to be jerks — she seeks out the obits' writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), and drafts her into the role of personal obit writer.

Harriet is nothing if not self-aware, so it's a tad unbelievable when she's surprised that no one in the list of people she sent Anne to interview had anything nice to say about her — including a Father at her church who says he doesn't like to use the word hate...but he haaaaaates her. And this all illustrates one of the biggest issues with the film's script: events and characters are included because they fit a mold, not because they are in any way authentic.

While Harriet had created a successful advertising business on her own, somehow we are to believe that legacy was completely destroyed because of one tantrum she threw over 30 years earlier. We have to believe that because if we didn't, there would be no reason for Harriet to spend the movie trying to build up an instant legacy.

Part of her quest involves instant good works, via mentoring an "at risk youth," who, yes, turns out to be a sassy black kid named Brenda (AnnJewel Lee), who of course has a penchant for swearing and melting the hearts of icy rich white ladies.

It's also awfully convenient that writer Annie has mommy issues, and Harriet has a daughter who hates her, AND that Annie has a crush on a radio DJ, and Harriet is a closet audiophile. Throw in a road trip, the three gals swimming in a moonlit lake, and a scene of them dancing with abandon, and you'd have more than enough Chick Flick cliches for one movie. But no! That's not enough! There's also a shot of them about to perform a Harebrained Scheme™, walking towards the camera in slo-mo, while wearing dark glasses.

While it pleases me greatly to see Shirley MacLaine still getting leading roles, especially a role that helps play off one of her greatest performances, and her real-life parental difficulties, it's not doing her any favors when it's a movie filled with cliches older than she is.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Stellar Cast Can't Save 'Table 19'

This review originally appeared on

Table 19
is an indie comedy that tries to capture the awkwardness of having to sit with people you don't know at weddings, especially when you wonder if you've been seated with all the guests the wedding party was hoping wouldn't actually come, because if so, surely that must be some kind of mistake, right?
Eloise (Anna Kendrick) knows her placement at table 19 isn't a mistake, because she helped the bride plan the wedding, and was scheduled to be the maid of honor until the best man, Teddy (Wyatt Russell), who is also the bride's brother, broke up with her a few weeks before the wedding.

The other guests at table 19 include the bride's former nanny (June Squibb), a bickering married couple (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), a "successful businessman" (Stephen Merchant), and a teenage boy (Tony Revolori) desperate to lose his virginity. The table 19 guests and their relations to the bride and groom are slowly revealed, and why they were all placed at the loser table becomes clear. (Except for the teenager; never did get why he was invited.)

Weddings are usually good fodder for comedies, but Table 19 makes the mistake of moving a lot of the action away from the wedding reception itself, as the motley crew bonds over their mutual loser status while smoking some medicinal marijuana and wandering around the hotel's lakeside grounds.

The film was directed by Jeffrey Blitz and written by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. The Duplass brothers have a lot of mumblecore comedies under their belts as writers, actors, directors, and producers. And as with most mumblecore films, Table 19 is more interested in character and dialogue than it is in plot, which would be fine if the characters and dialog were actually funny.

There are a lot of gifted comedic actors in the movie, but there aren't a lot of laughs. Kudrow and Robinson are convincing as a couple who hates each other, but you don't believe for a second that they ever actually liked each other, even though the plot dictates it. Stephen Merchant gets the most consistent laughs, but he's just a natural born scene stealer who spends a lot of the film in pants and a blazer two sizes too small. And Anna Kendrick has to rely on her natural charm and play straight man way too often, while also saddled with a character obsessed with a guy who is cleeeaaaarly a loser.

But film's biggest problem is in its direction and editing. The timing is all wrong, with jokes getting no time to breathe before someone else starts talking. Some dialogue that's clearly supposed to be funny, is literally mumbled, so you miss it completely.

So, who knows, maybe it's a much funnier movie than I think it is, just one that isn't suited to an audience experience. It's not often I'd suggest skipping seeing anything on the big screen, but I really think Table 19 would work better on the small screen, where you can rewind and listen again for that joke you're pretty sure you just missed. And if it turns out it wasn't worth a rewind? At least you can fall asleep and start snoring without bothering the person in the row in front of you.