Comedy is difficult; humor about marriage, without being unduly cynical or downright silly, is even more challenging. Extra kudos, then, to Lake Bell, writer, director, and one of the stars of I Do . . . Until I Don't, a sweet, funny, and astute film about three couples assessing their varied relationships. 

The clever catalyst is an aggressive, manipulative BBC documentarian named Vivian Prudeck who sweeps into Vero Beach, Florida, hoping to capture some salacious footage, provoking her subjects if necessary. Her guiding principle holds that marriage is a dead idea and, therefore, should be a seven-year agreement, renewal optional. The pairs she hooks into participating are interconnected. Alice and Noah must soon decide about a family. Alice's younger sister Fanny and her partner Zander enjoy a free-spirited, hippy-type environment. And the middle-aged Cybil and Harvey face redefining their lives as they gear up for a momentous anniversary.  

Technically, Kayla Emter edits scenes in synch with active or quiet characters, a bit faster for the former, slower for more contemplative moments. Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield frames scenes with foreground and background in play, highlighting the dialogue visually and verbally, thrusting us into the more crowded events and keeping the camera at a comfortable distance when we're encouraged to think about the values and decisions on display. Since there's a documentary being made within this film, documentary style appropriately comes in for spoofing as well. The clueless doc director Vivian sets up awkward interviews, pushes in for extreme close-ups, and designs some terrible compositions, all in the service of her forced drama. 

None of this would work if the characters and their interaction didn't feel real, the presentation effortless. Kudos, then, to Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Wyatt Cenac, Amber Heard, and Lake Bell who breeze through their scenes, those of some painful import and those just icing on the cake for these expressive actors. Bell introduced her offbeat, appealing humor with her marvelous 2013 film In a World. With I Do . . . Until I Don't she proves that she is a formidable talent: writer, actor and director. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Danielle Macdonald is Patricia Dombrowski a.k.a. Killa P or Patti Cake$ in the film of that title. Daniele as Patti is a marvel for her powerful presence: she grabs Patti's story and infuses it with heart and soul, and that's just the beginning. The entire movie bursts with energy in its festive celebration of music and song.

Twenty-three-year old Patti lives with her mother and grandmother in New Jersey, longing to make the move to Manhattan, with all the success as a hip-hop artist that suggests. Her best friend, pharmacist Hareesh, called Jheri, encourages, strategizes, and works to make that happen. Patti's fears, her mother's abusive discouragement (revealed as a projection of her own disillusionment), and the lack of opportunity threaten the likelihood of that happening. Slowly becoming involved is a taciturn musician called Basterd who lives by a cemetery accessed through a tunnel called the Gates of Hell. Boldly, fascinated by him, Patti gets him interested and, along with her grandmother (a hilarious addition), the group PBNJ is formed but will they ever triumph with Patti herself botching their chances? This isn't your typical rise-to-stardom story, and all the better for its delicious uniqueness.

Patti Cake$--the woman and the film -- have no hesitancy jumping into and out of fantasy, namely the refreshing immersion in Patti's escapist desires and most cherished dream of life as a rapper. In fact, the film opens right in exactly such a performance, in close-ups suffused with green light (as most of the illusory moments are) and Patti throwing down her rhymes. I found it impossible not to love her immediately.   

Adding to its appeal is the rare treat of watching full-bodied women, beautiful and comfortable with their physiques even though Patti must endure and reject the hurt of those who call her Dumbo. She manages quite nicely, thank you, to challenge the insecurities of others who indulge their baser instincts. 

Geremy Jasper directs and also wrote the music putting his amazing, double barreled talent on display. He knows how to shoot this film as well, with d.p. Federico Cesca relying on close-ups to reveal emotion. And the actors do, with Bridget Everett who can also belt out a tune, and fine support from Cathy Moriarty and Siddharth Dhananjay. Patti Cake$ is the feel good movie of the summer, with a beat that won't quit and who would want it too? At several cinemas; check local listings.

 

You know, when Wallace Shawn appears at a dinner table, that the conversation around same and the dialogue around that will be literary if not a bit precious. It is both in this film, which takes its title from a precious source, a Simon and Garfunkel song. 

The "living boy" of the title is a wandering, if voiceless, minstrel in Manhattan, a recent college graduate without focus. Thomas Webb is the son of a publisher and his depressed wife, but Thomas Webb wants to write. He once showed a draft to his demanding father. Daddy's only comment was "serviceable."

That's a real knee-cutter of a comment, but it shows the rivalry between the two. What's a boy to do then but grab his father's mistress and bed her? His path is paved by a new man in his East Side apartment, also a writer but a published one. An older, paternal man, who guides Thomas from his perch on a bar stool, literal or figurative. And just where did this man come from? And why won't Thomas' darling girl friend accept him as a boyfriend? Other questions arise in this rather claustrophobic movie, filmed in the canyons and crabbed corridors of the city, but they are not well answered. That's because of the airless writing by Allan Loeb.

Marc Webb, who also directed this summer's brilliant Gifted, tries to direct his way out of the morass. He manages to direct his good cast in and among the stumps of Loeb's words. Of course, Jeff Bridges excels as the old man, but Pierce Brosnan manages as the father with Cynthia Nixon staying low as the mother. Kate Beckinsale seduces as the mistress, but the stand-outs are Callum Turner as Thomas and Kiersey Clemons as the ingenue. With Landline, The Only Living Boy in New York focuses on cheating. Neither succeeds utterly, but both trying hard.

"All beginnings are hard," it is written in the Talmud. And Menashe is finding life hard since he lost his wife Leah a year ago. His son Rieven has gone to, or been sent to, his mother's brother's house to live. Menashe, a hapless, portly Jew, wants his son back.

The rabbi of his tightly constrained Hasidic community, shown in tight camera shots, grants Menashe a week to earn his son back. It's the week before Leah's memorial, which her brother thinks should be held at his house, not in Menashe's crowded flat. In that week, Menashe does everything wrong. 

He has a job for a pain-in-the-tuchas boss at a grocery store, where he loads and unloads Sisyphean boxes. He is in debt and has the chutzpah to ask his boss for a loan after costing his boss money. He cannot cook and has to ask his neighbor for her recipe for kugel if he plans to feed the men he's invited to Leah's memorial.

He does not present himself in coat and hat as do the rest of the men in his minyan. He sometimes does not have the water for morning ablutions. He struggles. He despairs. He longs. He tries to counsel Rieven, and he does confront his oppositional brother-in-law, the know-it-all. Menashe does not get very far, but it is that tiny incremental step as seen over this week of trial that gives heart to Menashe.

Menashe Lustig stars as the title character, who holds the focus of the film. He was directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, a co-writer of the script. The dialogue is entirely Yiddish except for some Spanglish spoken by the Hispanics in Menashe's grocery store, in one sympathetic scene crossing cultures. Weinstein is not a member of the Hasidic community nor does not speak Yiddish, so he kept a translator on set through the shoot.

This film, running under 90 minutes, rightly deserves to be slotted in the category "slice of life." 

 

 

Jerry Seinfeld joked that his show was about nothing. Well, now there's a film named Good Time that can keep it company, though Seinfeld had humor to entertain us, an element sorely lacking in the movie. Instead, it relies on technical bravado -- all nervous, jittery style and pounding, screechy soundtrack -- with no real substance aside from Robert Pattinson's marvelous performance.  

Two brothers -- Connie and Nick Nikas -- rob a bank with, of course, dire consequences. Police capture Nick, mentally slow and quick to anger, injured and hospitalized. Over one long night, the lion's share of the story, Connie connives, lies, and scrambles to get Nick back. Many unexpected twists and turns propel the action, with Connie's quick, not always wise, decisions. 

Directors Ben and Josh Safdie deliver all the events with loads of close-ups, a moving camera, and a ramped up (often annoying) Daniel Lopatin soundtrack. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams saturates the screen with various colors and neon or compositions almost too dark to be seen. With apologies now to Faulkner, this is sound and fury signifying nothing. 

The most compelling aspect of Good Time is Robert Pattinson as Connie. With implosive intensity and guile born of desperation, Pattinson bobs and weaves his way forward like a rat in a maze, though what Connie never realizes is how responsible he is for that maze. In small roles, Taliah Webster as Crystal and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Corey lend strong support. I often felt more interest in their stories.

Brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie have written that they wanted to make "an action-packed thriller . . . a popcorn film . . . entertainment that rockets you to another world." The episodic construction here does keep the film rushing along which it needs so we don't notice the lack of depth. That isn't what they intend, fair enough, up front notice that this is a thriller they want played with loud sound. I want something to chew on, and so in what I have to consider an ironic title, Good Time is screening at Landmark's Tivoli Cinema and several Wehrenberg Cinemas. Check local listings.

 

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