‘Schobert’s selections’ for the Buffalo News

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You’re probably getting bored with my 2015 recaps (it’s almost February!), but here is one more. Each year, the Buffalo News asks me to ponder my five favorites from the films I reviewed for Buffalo.com/the News in the previous year. There is some crossover with my Film Stage list, but take a look, and if you haven’t seen these five, get on it.

(Note that when this ran in print, ‘Schobert’s selections” was used in the headline. I must admit, I found that pretty cool.)

My film reviewing year started with a nightmare (“Jupiter Ascending”) and ended with a disaster (the dull, pointless remake of “Point Break”). However, there was greatness in between.

The five films I highlight below rank among the year’s finest, and all count as bold, innovative, personal visions. Even lesser films from my list of reviews – “Creed,” “Crimson Peak,” “Everest,” “Irrational Man,” “The Assassin,” “’71,” even “Magic Mike XXL” – offered significant pleasures.

Heck, I even liked “Pan.”

Here are five of the year’s most memorable cinematic treats:

 
1. “Phoenix.” There are moments in this stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film that will, quite literally, take your breath away. Director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis, is a stunner. The film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene cements the greatness of Petzold’s achievement.

2. “Clouds of Sils Maria.” The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. You have never seen Stewart be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is here. And rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human.

3. “Breathe.” The directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence. It tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

4. “Goodnight Mommy.” This Austrian horror-thriller is one of the most chilling films in recent memory, a fiercely compelling story of creepy, blonde-haired twins and the woman who may (or may not) be their mother. It repels and intrigues in equal measure, and there are moments in the film that make you gasp in astonishment. Featuring fascinating performances from its three leads, it is an off-kilter nightmare that dares you to not look away.

5. “What We Do in the Shadows.” An inspired, riotous mockumentary and future cult classic as sharply funny as any release this year, the film co-stars and was co-directed by “Flight of the Conchords” genius Jemaine Clement. Think vampire movies and mockumentaries have grown stale? “What We Do in the Shadows” will make you think otherwise.

Save the Movieland 8!

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I have fond memories of going to the old Como 8 cinema at the Apple Tree Mall to see such second-run movies as “Backdraft.” That theater has been gone for years now, followed by the cheapie Super Saver Cinema on Elmwood, A few years ago, Dipson turned the McKinley Mall into a modernized second-run theater, and Movieland 8 is still chugging along at the old Thruway Mall site. But it needs some help. Here is a piece I wrote for the Buffalo News Gusto blog.

“As far as I’m concerned, digital projection is the death of cinema. The fact that most films aren’t presented in 35mm means that the world is lost. Digital projection is just television in cinema.”

Thus spaketh a typically hyperbolic Quentin Tarantino during a lengthy press conference at the recent Cannes Film Festival, as reported by Indiewire and just about every other outlet that covers cinema.

Cinephiles can debate the accuracy of QT’s statement, but the “Pulp Fiction” director is undoubtedly correct in asserting that this is a new, digital world. And for movie theaters in Buffalo and beyond, this is a costly, dangerous transition.

The Movieland 8 theater located at the old Thruway Mall site in Cheektowaga, posted an update on its digital conversion process on Facebook, and the news was mixed, at best:

“If you have been to visit us recently, you have seen that we have been able to obtain 3 digital projectors for the theater, but we are in need of 5 more. If we do not get the 5 projectors, our doors will be closed by fall at the latest, but there is a strong possibility it could happen earlier. We are doing all we can to try to make that not happen!”

The Movieland 8 is not the loveliest place to see a film — the sound during the last film I saw there, Sofia Coppola’s “Bling Ring,” seemed to be emanating from speakers ready to be euthanized — but with ticket prices continuing to rise, affordable options are more important than ever before.

Movieland 8 has started an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the projectors. We will keep an eye on how things progress over the summer.

“We are a small, locally owned business, and many of our employees have been dedicated to us for many, many years. We are working hard to make some changes and to obtain some funding, but we will also be releasing an Indiegogo Campaign later on today to help raise money towards the digital projectors. This money will go towards the projectors, but more importantly will keep our doors open, allowing us to bring discounted movies to the community and keeping jobs in WNY. We hope you’ll support us and help spread the word. Thanks for your support and your time, and PLEASE come see us at the movies!”

(Image from http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/18864)

Review: Oscar-nominated short films, animated and live, worth seeing

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I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review this year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live-action short films for the Buffalo News. I don’t often get to see them, and while my review was mixed — three stars for the animated, two-and-a-half for the live action — they are all worth seeing, and pondering.

Walt Disney may have missed out on an Oscar nomination for the surprisingly ignored “Saving Mr. Banks” – err, Tom Hanks, I mean – but Mickey Mouse did not. In fact, Mickey’s latest cartoon, “Get a Horse!,” which runs before the smash hit “Frozen,” is the likely winner in the animated short film category.

“Get a Horse!,” a clever, surprisingly bold film that is best described as old-school Disney (think “Steamboat Willie”-era) meets “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in the era of 3-D, is easily the most high-profile entry. However, all of the films in the animated short category, as well as the live action short and documentary short subject categories, are worth watching before Oscar night. (The documentary collection is not showing here.)

This week, Magnolia Pictures is releasing “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014” at theaters across the country. Dipson’s Market Arcade and Eastern Hills Mall cinemas are each showing “Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation” (110 total minutes) and “Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action” (108 total minutes). It’s a wonderfully rare opportunity to experience these creations on the big screen.

Animation is generally the most anticipated of the shorts categories. While “Get a Horse!” is perhaps the most memorable, my favorite of the bunch is “Mr. Hublot,” from directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares.

“Hublot” is an offbeat treat – equal parts steam-punk and Wallace and Gromit – about a strange little man and the robot dog who turns his life upside down. The design aesthetic is marvelous and overcomes the rather predictable plot. There is clearly a dash of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot with this one, hence the title.

“Possessions” is unmemorable anime, but nicely atmospheric. “Feral” is the strikingly animated tale that tackles the feral-boy-found-in-the-woods trope. (The last two, especially, are not suitable for young children; do not assume these shorts are kid-friendly simply because one of them stars Mickey Mouse.)

Next to Mickey, “Room on the Broom” offers the most notable starpower, with a voice cast that includes one of this year’s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), along with Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson and comedian Rob Brydon. It’s not what I would call Oscar-worthy, but this “Shrek”-y short about a witch and her cat is certainly enjoyable.

The live action short film nominees are a bit less successful. “Helium” is the manipulative story of a dying child’s mental escape to a fantastic land, “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” is a grim effort about an aid worker and a young African soldier, and the exasperated mother of “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” is sweet, but nothing more.

“The Voorman Problem” is predictable but fun fare in which “Sherlock” star Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins, plays a psychiatrist tasked with attempting to help a man (Tom Hollander) who believes he’s God. Alexandre Gavras, the son of “Z” Oscar-winner Costa-Gavras, co-directed the tense domestic abuse story “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything),” and I’d call it the finest live action short.

(One shocker is that “Gravity” co-writer Jonás Cuarón’s “Aningaaq,” perhaps the year’s most notable live action short, was not among the nominees. This is the companion to “Gravity” directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s son centered around the voice on the other end of Sandra Bullock’s distress call – an Inuit fisherman.)

Like most years, these nominated shorts are a mixed bag. But they also serve as a reminder that even among Hollywood’s overblown blockbusters and Oscar bait, very interesting films occasionally come in very small packages. I guarantee you’ll get more from these than from “I, Frankenstein.”

Review: Unrelenting “Lone Survivor” is a tough war film to watch

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Despite some solid pre-release buzz, I did not expect Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor to be a winter box office smash, and that seemed even less likely to me after seeing it. I was way off. I reviewed it for the Buffalo News, and stand by my two-star verdict. It might be a hit, but that does not make it a great film.

The most moving chapter of director Peter Berg’s based-on-a-true-story Afghanistan war drama “Lone Survivor,” opening Friday, does not include stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch or Ben Foster.

It is instead a five-minute-or-so collection of real video and images of Navy SEAL(s) in training that is kinetic, compelling and moving. We watch as they are plunged into water relentlessly and speak of the bond they share with their “brothers.”

This footage is unique and memorable – far more so than the nearly two hours that follow. Berg (director of “Hancock” and “Battleship”) and company try hard, but despite some of the most violent, relentless close-range combat in recent cinema, that opening is never topped.

“Lone Survivor” is based on the book by Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL played by Wahlberg. He was as the title indicates – and this is hardly a spoiler – the only SEAL to survive a failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan.

As the film opens, Luttrell and his brothers – Kitsch plays Mike Murphy, Hirsch is Danny Dietz, and Foster is Matthew Axelson – await the order to hunt Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Among them, Murphy is clearly the legend of the group.

Soon, the mission begins in nicely subdued fashion. The four find their target, sit and wait. But when a goat herder and two younger Afghanis stumble upon them, the mission is quickly compromised.

The most interesting moments between the four main characters happen here, as they debate what to do next. It’s a fascinating sequence, in which they are forced to face serious questions in a matter of minutes: Should they kill the trio? Release them? Tie them up, and get out as fast as possible?

It serves as a reminder of how difficult it must be to make possibly life-altering decisions without warning.

A decision is made, and from this point forward, it’s a different film – in essence, it becomes the most unrelentingly bullet-heavy military drama since “Black Hawk Down.”

It is no exaggeration to say that once the first shots are fired, they rarely stop over the next hour, bludgeoning the viewer to such a degree that it is difficult to leave the theater feeling anything other than mental exhaustion.

Was that Berg’s point? Perhaps. He is clearly attempting to thrust the viewer straight into the action, to make us experience the violence and terror that these four brave soldiers endured.

But we can’t experience it, really. Unlike those early photos and videos, we are watching Berg’s re-creation, and he cannot resist directorial tropes that only serve to highlight that disconnect between the real and the unreal. It is hard not to wonder how accurate the film is, especially considering its final stretch, in which villagers take on the Taliban to save Luttrell’s life. But even with those questions, the lengthy fighting and the ending is often gripping, and occasionally shot with real verve and creativity.

Berg knows how to craft an action sequence – one in particular, involving a helicopter rescue attempt, is a stunner. This is certainly a stronger work than the awful “Battleship,” but the early buzz pegging it as an Oscar sleeper was wrong. It’s no war classic.

Script-wise, none of the main characters are particularly well-developed; each gets a tidbit of background only, generally involving their significant others back home. Still, Wahlberg, Kitsch and Foster, especially, do fine work.

Wahlberg continues to make mostly solid choices that maximize his everyman appeal and penchant for dopey humor. Here, however, he is surprisingly overshadowed by co-star Kitsch, who gives a simple, effective performance. Eric Bana also is solid as a commanding officer faced with increasingly tough decisions.

“Tough” is a word that describes the film well, actually. “Lone Survivor” certainly works as a tribute to the men who died on that mountain. But it is not a great film – merely a “tough” one.

Review: “Delivery Man” is a step-by-step remake of dull foreign film

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A few months ago, I reviewed the French-Canadian hit “Starbuck” for the Buffalo News. Last week, I reviewed the American remake, “Delivery Man,” from the same director (Ken Scott). I hated “Starbuck”; I merely disliked “Delivery Man.” Here is my 2-star Buffalo News review.

Is it possible to despise a foreign-language film, but enjoy an American remake from the same director? In the case of “Delivery Man,” the answer is … Not really.

However, the mawkish Vince Vaughn comedy is, in its own way, a slightly superior film than director Ken Scott’s off-puttingly titled “Starbuck” (and I say that as a fan of Starbucks). Scott’s first attempt at this story was a French-Canadian smash, with a plot – a slacker is stunned to discover his sperm donations from two decades earlier have resulted in 533 children – seemingly tailor-made for an Americanized treatment.

“Starbuck” was a complete misfire in almost every way, an unfunny, lamely “heart-tugging” disaster. Star Patrick Huard did what he could, but the film – now streaming on Netflix – felt as contrived as a “Full House” rerun, and even less believable.

But Hollywood adores a high-concept, and lord knows “Starbuck” had one. This is the epitome of the “lovable-loser-gets-more-than-he-bargained-for-but-grows-as-a-person-and-ultimately-triumphs” genre – so who better than Vince Vaughn? (Perhaps Adam Sandler was busy.)

“Delivery Man” seems at times a shot-for-shot remake, with a few minor tweaks (Vaughn’s David Wozniak plays basketball instead of soccer, the setting is Brooklyn rather than Montreal), the overblown sentimentality is just as forced, and many of the same bad jokes make a reappearance. (David’s father: “You’re like a son to me.” David: “I … am your son.”)

But “Delivery Man” can hardly be called “Americanized.” Except for the casting, Scott has made the same film twice, and I don’t mean in the interesting, Brian De Palma sense. It is virtually the same movie.

Except, that is, for the casting. And that is why “Delivery Man” is a better film. But first, more on that oh-so-wacky plot.

Vaughn’s David Wozniak is a screw-up, a bad employee for his family’s meat business, a bad boyfriend to the sweet Emma, not a particularly great friend to his put-upon dad buddy Brett (Chris Pratt).

David’s directionless life is thrown into tumult thanks to two bits of news: Emma is pregnant with his child, and, says a sperm clinic suit, the more than 600 donations he made as a younger man (under the pseudonym Starbuck) have resulted in 533 children, and one lawsuit – the kids want to meet their father.

Soon, David faces a dilemma: Should he reveal that he is, in fact Starbuck? Or should he take his lawyer friend Brett’s advice and keep mum, or even countersue the clinic?

Unable to curtail his curiosity, David begins spying on some of his offspring, who, of course, are a lovely, varied bunch: a New York Knicks star, a wannabe actor, an adorable druggie-on-the-mend.

If you’ve seen “Starbuck,” you know what’s to come. David works to be a “guardian angel” to the kids, attempts to win back Emma, and struggles with his secret. Oh yes, there also is a tacked on, utterly pointless subplot involving $80,000 owed to some goons.

What transpires is not particularly funny, not very moving, and certainly unsurprising. But against all odds, the film is a reminder that Vaughn is capable of modest charm. The actor can be deliriously off-putting, but “Delivery Man” is a reminder he can occasionally be a cockeyed treat.

But Vaughn is not the actor who makes “Delivery Man” a more likable film than “Starbuck.” That honor goes to Pratt, the great “Parks and Recreation” star. As Brett, he is funny, dopey and utterly winning. In fact, the film’s strongest stretch is a courtroom sequence focused solely on Brett. (Perhaps a better film would feature Pratt in the lead?)

At this point, Pratt’s future looks far brighter than Vaughn’s. The same could be said about Cobie Smulders, the whip-smart star of “How I Met Your Mother.” Sadly, her role here is almost as small as her part in “The Avengers.”

So “Delivery Man” cannot be classified as a good film. Comparatively, however, it is a better one.

As for director Scott, it’s time to move on. You can only milk the story of a man whose sperm leads to 533 children so many times.

Review: Twitter star Kelly Oxford is hilarious in “Everything Is Perfect”

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Kelly Oxford is indeed a “Twitter star,” and her book “Everything is Perfect” is funny and often film-obsessed. It’s a great read. I reviewed it recently for the Buffalo News.

How do you know you have become an influential voice on the Twittersphere? Perhaps when hacks start stealing your material. Such was the case for Kelly Oxford, the Canada-born wife and mother who became an online superstar by composing note-perfect Tweets – no easy task.

Just ask the “campus minister” (his name is easy to find; I’d rather not give him the publicity) from South Carolina who explained a bold bit of thievery to Salon.com like so:

“[T]here was a Kelly Oxford tweet that I loved where she said, ‘I have a Victoria’s Secret model’s body!!! (in my basement).’ I still love that tweet with all my heart. So I thought it would be fun to do a similar one: ‘I have the body of a Hollister model. His name is Taylor. He’s in my attic.’ I still love that tweet and felt like it was a riff on Kelly, not a rip-off. But out of respect for Kelly I took it down because some felt it was too similar.”

As comedian, actor and Twitter genius Patton Oswalt – also the victim of this hack’s “borrowing” – put it on his website, “Kelly Oxford wrote something, during this latest joke thief debacle, about how the stealers and joke-thieves can often get themselves through the highest doors only to find, when they’re at the top and people want to hear their ideas … they’ve got nothing.”

Kelly Oxford will never have that problem. As her memoir, “Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar” makes abundantly clear, she is one of the most subtle, smart, dork-cool writers we have. The fact that Twitter made her famous takes nothing away from her success.

In fact, I would call it a sign of real talent. The Guardian called her “Twitter’s first star,” but note that she did not quickly crash and burn. She wrote her first Tweet in 2009, and still maintains a loyal audience through sheer verve and wit.

(A recent sampling: “I know I’m still in Canada because I just walked into a woman and she apologized to me.” “Scary to think that my kids could become adults who mix up your/you’re and I’ll have wasted 20 yrs because I have to kill them.” “Macaulay Culkin is older than Danny Tanner was on the first 2 seasons of Full House.”)

“Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar” gives her the opportunity to detonate the 140-character limit, and tell her story from growing up in Edmonton to Internet fame, and the result is not just a funny story, but an involving, expertly composed one.

It is a case where even the childhood section, often the I’m-gonna-skip-this-to-get-to-the-good-stuff part of a celeb memoir, is truly funny. As “Perfect” opens, young Kelly is mounting a theatrical production of “Star Wars” at her school. After an icy putdown from a fellow classmate, Kelly marches to the school office to call her mom:

“When I got there, another fifth grader was manning the secretary’s desk while the secretary was at lunch. (In retrospect, either my school had NO MONEY for support staff, or my school was run by Wes Anderson.)”

Things did not get easier in high school: “Once, I peed my pants in a gas station while standing in line to buy cigarettes.” Perhaps it is no surprise that one Leonardo DiCaprio, then on the cusp of “Titanic” superstardom, became an obsession for young Kelly; her first trip to Los Angeles was a quest to make him her boyfriend.

Predictably, the trip did not end well, and that is a standard turn for Oxford, who describes plenty of these scenarios from her past. But eventually she found love, had three kids, and garnered more than 350,000 Twitter followers. Recently, she sold a script to Warner Bros.

But what her readers love is her down-to-earth, inimitable style, and it’s on full display in “Everything Is Perfect.” My favorite section comes at the book’s close. Oxford describes her family’s trip to Disneyland, and it’s brilliant:

“The crowd throughout Disneyland is thick and 85 percent gross. You have the locals (deadpan), the socks-and-sandals crew (Europeans), and the people dressed like they just walked off the set of ‘Roseanne’ (small-town Americans and Canadians). Our group is the ‘normals,’ which makes up, perhaps, 15 percent of the herd. Of course that 15 percent can then be divided further into different subsets: overprotective parents, neglectful parents, teens on dates, adults on dates. It’s just a LOT of people.”

Oxford can be deliciously nasty (“Looking around, it seems like the most popular ride at Disneyland today is obese ten-year-olds riding in strollers”), she can be self-deprecating (“Having three children doesn’t seem like it would be so different from two, but when you’re shepherding them through parking lots and the chaos of crowds outnumbered, you quickly realize you’re way out of your f—— league”), but above all else, she is funny.

As Oswalt so succinctly stated, “[F]or some reason, everyone wants to be funny. And feels like they have a right to be funny. But being funny is like any other talent – some people are born with it, and then, through diligence and hard work and a lot of mistakes, they strengthen that talent.”

Oxford was born with it. And whether it is a 140-character Tweet or 300-page memoir, she will make you laugh.

Photo: Harper Smith

Review: “The World’s End” is a bold, funny end to Edgar Wright’s trilogy

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Last week, I reviewed “The World’s End” for the Buffalo News, and gave it 3 stars. I quite liked it, and have been wondering whether it deserved 3 ½ … Hard to say. This is as strong a 3 star review as I can give.

For the first 40 minutes or so, “The World’s End,” the third collaboration between U.K. director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is a bold, funny, downright insightful film about that horror of horrors: getting old.

We open on a grim support group meeting, and the sad face of Gary King, played by Pegg (“Star Trek’s” current Scotty). The chipper Pegg has never looked quite like this, and I don’t just mean the dark hair. He looks aged, and exhausted, and maybe even a bit ill.

But Gary comes alive when describing a bender that took place two decades ago in the British town of Newhaven, in which he and his four friends almost completed an epic pub crawl – the “Golden Mile,” consisting of 12 pints in 12 pubs, ending at a bar called the World’s End.

And so does the movie. Zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” and small-town cop romp “Hot Fuzz” were the first two parts of Wright, Pegg and Frost’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (named for a U.K. ice cream that appears in all three, but also humorously referencing filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy). Both had the same gleeful mixture of dark comedy and winking satire that kicks in before “World’s” opening credits.

Childhood friends Andrew (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (“Hobbit” star Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) were part of that failed Golden Mile effort, and unlike Gary, they’ve moved on to successful careers.

Gary is not successful. So when the idea of a reunion and renewed attempt at finishing the Mile hits, it represents a chance at reclaiming the failed glory of his Sisters of Mercy T-shirt-clad youth.

His four cohorts – “just like the Five Musketeers!” – are unconvinced. As Frost’s Andrew puts it, “You remember the Friday nights; I remember the Monday mornings.”

But the allure is too great, and the friends have soon descended upon Newhaven, all to a soundtrack of early-’90s pre-Britpop classics (Primal Scream, Blur, Suede).

The first stretch of the Golden Mile is dripping with great moments, like Gary’s response to Andrew’s order of H2O, or Gary’s line about the chains that have taken over the bar scene – “part of a nationwide initiative to rob old pubs of all discernible character.”

It is all a brilliant middle finger to the phony let’s-get-the-gang-back-together frivolity found in most movies of this sort. It feels shockingly real, equal parts pathos, comedy and beer.

And then Gary uses the men’s room. And attempts to start a conversation with a surly teenager. And gets in a fist fight. And the chap’s head pops off, triggering a bum rush of all the young robot dudes.

Newhaven, you see, has been taken over by aliens who are trading out humans, “Body Snatchers”-style, for robot duplicates.

Now, this is not shocking, “spoiler alert!” news. The trailers made it clear that “The World’s End” starts as boys-gone-wild and becomes an alien invasion comedy.

But that does not make it any less of a bummer. The film was almost saying something extraordinarily wise … and then it is not.

As disappointing as that embrace of genre tropes is following the opening, that does not make it unenjoyable. In fact, the film moves briskly and stays funny, with Pegg and Frost, especially, doing some of their finest work.

Considine, Freeman and Marsan are well-cast, and Rosamund Pike provides a real spark as Oliver’s sister.

Proceedings take another strange turn at the end, coming to a close with a bleak conclusion that felt a touch at odds with the rest of the proceedings. Let’s just say “The World’s End” is both a title and an indicator of where things are going.

So even though it is not the film it could have been, “The World’s End” is mostly a frothy good time at the movies. Wright, Pegg and Frost have found a way to end their “Cornetto Trilogy” with verve, humor, beer and aliens. I would have preferred verve, humor and beer, period.

Marilyn Monroe’s Swan Song Screens at the Burchfield Penney

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Another day, another very cool screening in Buffalo.

The documentary “Love, Marilyn” — which is NOT the film screening in Buffalo, as you will see — debuted at TIFF 2012, and drew raves, which might seem surprising. How much more, after all, can be said about the late screen legend? I missed the film in Toronto, but caught it recently in HBO, and I can tell you that it certainly does cover some new ground thanks to its novel use of Marilyn’s diaries and letters.

A who’s who of acting heavyweights — Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, and, err, Lindsay Lohan — recite her words to the camera, and it works. Director Liz Garbus succeeds in showing us a side of Marilyn that feels true, and truly bruised.

The making of John Huston’s “The Misfits” is of course part of “Love, Marilyn”; the 1961 film about two cowboys and divorced woman in the Nevada desert is the last film Monroe and Clark Gable appeared in, and one of Montgomery Clift’s final performances, too. It’s a stunning, sad drama, and worth revisiting at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this Thursday (August 22).

My friend Ed Cardoni, the executive director of Hallwalls and one of the most insightful people I know, introduces the screening, which starts at 7:30 p.m. It ties in with the current BPAC exhibition “Marilyn: The Douglas Kirkland Photoshoot,” featuring some incredible photographs shot by the then 27-year-old photographer.

This got me thinking about a flawed but compelling book I reviewed back in October 2012 for the Buffalo News. “The Empty Glass” is a uniquely told fictional account of Marilyn’s last days, and while it is a tough read, and certainly an unsettling one, there is just enough to recommend. In fact, I think I would give it a more positive review today.

The shelf in David Lynch’s basement labeled “ABORTED FILMS” is cluttered, misshapen, and odd — as might be expected. There’s “Ronnie Rocket,” a dwarf detective tale, and “One Saliva Bubble,” a wacky comedy that was rumored to star Steve Martin and Martin Short.

But perhaps the most fascinating of these is “Goddess,” written by Lynch and Mark Frost shortly before they began work on “Twin Peaks,” and based on the book by Anthony Summer. In his text, Summer made the accusation that Bobby Kennedy and Peter Lawford were intimately involved in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a claim which today does not sound particularly shocking, but made waves in 1985.

(I found this warning, from a Marilyn fan site: “The 1992 edition includes a photo of Marilyn’s body after autopsy. I have no idea why the author would do such a thing to Marilyn’s memory.”)

“Goddess,” of course, was never made, and likely never will be, at least by Lynch. But in some ways, J. I. Baker’s new novel “The Empty Glass” reminds me of what Lynch might have brought to the tale of the world’s most tragic cracked actress: a sense of doom, of outside forces too strong and warped to defeat, and of the grotesqueries of Hollywood.

Yet even with this Lynchian undercurrent (there is even a blurb on the dustjacket from “Wild at Heart” author Barry Gifford), “Glass” is a disappointment, a story that peters out and, sadly, adds little to the cult of Marilyn. Why? Because we’ve been down this grim road before. It no longer holds any surprise.

Even so, much to chew on here, including our protagonist. Los Angeles deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald is an intriguingly ruffled character, a man with a past that killed both his career and his marriage. He’s stuck in a shady apartment with hot plate and a cold cup of coffee. It’s no place for his young son, and he knows it.

Fitzgerald is called to duty at 5 a.m. on the morning after Monroe’s death to the star’s home, and everything is fishy — even the location: “No name on the mailbox. It was modest enough. The most famous woman in the world, with all the money that implies, but instead of a mansion in the Hills, she’d bought a one-floor hacienda in Brentwood.”

Everything is amiss, from the position of the body, which appears to have been “placed” (“People who overdose don’t drift happily away,” Fitzgerald says. “There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”)

There is also an empty water glass, which Fitzgerald — the novel is written in the first person – calls particular attention to: “Remember the glass. It becomes significant.”

Indeed, it does. Things get appropriately tangled, very quickly. We’re introduced to Annie Laurie, “second only to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons when it comes to chronicling the ins and outs and ups and downs of the rich and famous. OK, third to Hedda and Louella.” Laurie is an inspired character; rogue police bigwig Captain Hamilton, less so.

Just as villainous is, yes, Bobby Kennedy, and to say too much more than that would spoil the book’s second half. But the character we return to, of course, is Marilyn, whose voice is kept “alive” by diary entries. “I wish you all just leave me alone,” she wrote, as the end came near.

Baker is a debut novelist, and the executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler. He has created something very interesting here, I think, a work whose failures have more to do with the sheer number of tomes, films and stories about Marilyn Monroe, and their hold on our collective mind, than with the story itself. He’s a good writer, smart at creating a dark mood and an eve-of-destruction vibe. His next book will certainly be noteworthy, I think.

For the Marilyn completist, then, “The Empty Glass” is likely a must-read, but not a satisfying one. I think most fans would rather think of Monroe as the sweetly naïve starlet brought to life by Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn” — tragic, yes, but above all else, radiant, and full of life. “The Empty Glass” presents Marilyn as full of death, if you will, and while that might be more accurate, it remains too unsettling.

 

Photo: Douglas Kirkland b. 1934, “Marilyn Monroe,” 1961; photograph, 40 x 60 inches; Courtesy of the artist; from burchfieldpenney.org

 

Review: Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening Make “Girl Most Likely” Watchable – Barely

girl most likely

When I first saw “Girl Most Likely” at TIFF 2012 and reviewed it for The Playlist, it was called “Imogene.” I found it a sitcom-y but likable affair. I reviewed it again recently for the Buffalo News under its new name, and pretty much had the same response. Perhaps I went a little soft on it, but that’s how likable Kristen Wiig is. Here is my 2 ½ star review.

Thank goodness for the return of Kristen Wiig in a starring role. The former “Saturday Night Live” star has not been the lead in a feature since “Bridesmaids” ruled the box office in 2011, and that’s far too long a wait.

The film that brings her back to a starring role is “Girl Most Likely,” opening here Friday, and it is no “Bridesmaids.” Silly and generally unbelievable, it is still a well-intentioned, often very funny effort, one anchored by Wiig’s inherent likability.

Wiig plays Imogene Duncan (the film’s original title was the far lovelier “Imogene”), a New Yorker who won a prestigious writing award many years before, and was even included on New York magazine’s “list of playwrights to watch.”

Now, she is living with a jerk boyfriend, has wealthy, snobbish, barely tolerable friends, and ponders what happened to her bygone talent. After a breakup, she makes the logical next step – the fake suicide attempt. (You may recall I classified the film as “generally unbelievable.”)

Following this blunder, Imogene is released to the care of the last person in the world she wants to see: her brassy, casino-addicted mother, Zelda, played deliciously by a very funny Annette Bening. Next stop is her childhood home, in Ocean City, N.J.

Zelda lives with a “CIA agent” who calls himself “George Boosh,” and often leaves suddenly on “secret missions” (sigh), and Imogene’s sweet brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), an introverted man-child afraid to leave Jersey.

Ralph considers himself an inventor, spending his time building a giant, impenetrable exoskeleton. In other words, he is nonsensically quirky, dumb quirky, “movie” quirky.

Living in the family home is a boarder, Lee (Darren Criss of “Glee”), a member of an Atlantic City Backstreet Boys’ tribute band. (Between “Girl” and “This Is the End,” this is the best press the Boys have had in two decades.)

Lee and Imogene grow close amid the Ocean City insanity, and he becomes an ally in her attempt to put her life back together. Along the way, she discovers the father she thought was dead may be alive, and in Manhattan, and realizes that the writing inspiration she needed might just come from her family.

Wiig – who, post-“Bridesmaids,” also appeared in a winning but underseen comedy called “Friends With Kids” – will happily play the dorky klutz, and play it well. As Imogene, she is her usual charming, funny, endearing self, to a degree that it becomes rather depressing to watch how horribly everyone treats her.

Imogene’s insistence on being involved with these shoddy folks makes her seem, well, dopey. But Wiig is so talented, from her expressions to her body language, that simply having the chance to watch her on screen for 90 minutes feels like a treat.

Bening, Criss and even an over-the-top Matt Dillon are just amusing enough to rise above the hysterics, but the actor saddled with the film’s weakest – and most unnecessary – role is Fitzgerald, whose Ralph is neither funny nor cute. (I was eager for him to stay in the exoskeleton.)

The screenplay is also a problem. The film’s initial concept – Imogene as former next-big-thing playwright – is mostly dropped, except for the occasional reference. Plus, Imogene’s search for her father takes up way too much screen time, and adds little.

“Girl Most Likely” is directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the husband-and-wife directing team whose career took a nosedive after the great Harvey Pekar story, “American Splendor.” This is another odd digression for the duo, but it is difficult to be too upset with a movie featuring a cameo by Whit Stillman.

No, this is nowhere near as successful as “Bridesmaids” (which Wiig co-wrote), but it is sure to please Wiig’s legion of fans. Still, she deserves to play a character as smart as she is.

I expect that will be very soon, but until then, the mostly likable “Girl Most Likely” will have to suffice.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions; from The Playlist “Imogene” review