|Films I Neglected To Review: Blackberry Wine, Anyone?
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind," "I Used To Go Here," "My Dog Stupid," "Rebuilding Paradise" and "Summerland."
The trouble with reviewing documentaries about popular musical performers, which have become quite the cottage industry in recent years, is that one's opinion of them tends to be influenced more by their opinion of the musical qualities of the subject at hand than the particular artistic qualities of the actual film. For example, I would never dream of arguing that the recent films chronicling the life and work of Linda Ronstadt or Suzi Quatro were particularly revelatory from a cinematic standpoint but as a longtime fan of both, I unsurprisingly wound up enjoying the movies as well. On the other hand, I confess that the appeal of Canadian musical icon Gordon Lightfoot has always managed to elude me--it isn't that I hate the guy or anything but "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is not going to be popping up on my playlists anytime soon unless I am doing a maritime disaster-themed collection and even then it would be a tossup and the notion of watching him being venerated for 90 minutes did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Interestingly enough, I had the same basic reaction to Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni's "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind" as I have had to his music over the years--there is nothing overtly awful about it but its relentless blandness does not begin to convince me of his alleged greatness. Oh sure, there are plenty of fans and fellow musicians (running the gamut from Anne Murray and Sarah McLachlan to Geddy Lee and Alec Baldwin) on hand to testify to his greatness and there is an archival clip of no less of a figure than Bob Dylan showing up at an award ceremony to present him with a lifetime achievement award. Interspersed amongst the testimonials and archival clips is new footage of Lightfoot puttering around his house and making self-deprecating remarks. Although he clearly comes off as a genial dude here (helped in part by the refusal of the filmmakers to really delve into any of the darker elements of his life and work aside from his relationship with the infamous Cathy Evelyn Smith and, briefly, his alcoholism), that doesn’t quite make him a compelling figure to hang a documentary around. You don't really come away from it knowing anything more about the man and what makes him tick than you did going into it. Obviously, loyal fans are going to love "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind" and I am happy that they will enjoy it. As for those who are not already members of his fan base, the best thing I can really say about this film is that I would rather see a movie about him than one about Jimmy Buffett any day of the week.
As "I Used to Go Here" opens, 35-year-old Chicago-based author Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is reeling from both a recent breakup with her fiancée and the realization that her recently published debut novel is not going to be a success when she receives an invite from a former professor (Jermaine Clement) to come downstate to her alma mater to do a reading. She accepts, discovers that the bed & breakfast she has been is located across the street from the house where she lived as a student and soon finds herself hanging out with and getting involved with the lives of the students who are now living there. The film is the latest from writer-director Kris Rey, whose last film was the very smart and entertaining "Unexpected" (2015), but when compared to that film, this latest effort cannot help but come across as a little disappointing by comparison. For the most part, the story plays like someone trying to reconfigure the great and perennially underrated dark comedy "Young Adult" (2011) as a sitcom with all of the rough edges and dark emotions that made that film so memorable smoothed away in to something more innocuous. The early scenes, in which we see Kate returning to her school and slipping back into the rhythms of college life, are are knowing and entertaining but the second half devolves into silly hijinks involving Kate and her new friends trying to catch the professor in a compromising situation with a student (a largely wasted Hannah Marks) before arriving at an ending that is so abrupt that it feels as if Rey either deleted virtually all of the original conclusion or never bothered to include one in the first place. "I Used to Go Here" does have some good laughs here and there as well as an appealing lead performance from Jacobs but the film as a whole is ultimately too slight and meandering for its own good.
On the surface, "My Dog Stupid" may look like just another film in which a big and slobbery dog comes into a person's life and inspires all sorts of mayhem and life lessons but this one has a slightly stronger pedigree than most--it is based on an autobiographical story by the late John Fante and was directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Yvan Attal, who also co-stars in it with his wife, the brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg. As the story begins, Henri (Attal) is a writer who hit it big with his first novel a quarter-century ago but who now only writes increasingly tacky books and screenplays. He blames his lack of creativity on his stultifying marriage to Cecile (Gainsbourg) and the constant presence of his four obnoxious and freeloading live-in adult children--so much so, in fact, that he fantasizes about ditching the lot of them and going to Italy, the place where he wrote that first book, in the hopes of sparking his creativity once again. One rainy night, an enormous stray mastiff turns up unexpectedly and literally takes over the house. As he is big, messy and has a proclivity for humping many of the men who comes in his path, the family wants to get rid of it but Henri takes to the dog, whom he dubs Stupid, and decides to keep him. Through a series of odd circumstances, the kids all wind up moving out, leaving Henri and Cecile to confront the problems between them for the first time in ages.
There are basically two movies at play in "My Dog Stupid," one pretty awful and one reasonably insightful, and one's reaction to the film as a while will depend on which one they respond to more favorably. The one involving the antics of the dog, which largely dominates the first half of the story, is largely intolerable with its endless focus on Stupid jumping on unsuspecting people and violently humping them, a not-especially-amusing running gag that clunks even further by Henri referring to Stupid as "a faggot dog" since he only seems to attack guys. The stuff involving Henri's horrible kids is equally overdone--they are so terrible and obnoxious that they come across more like cartoon characters than everything else. However, in the second half, the kids disappear and the dog mostly fades into the background as the focus shifts to Henri and Cecile confront their own issues with each other and at long last face the problems and realities that all long-running couples face at some point. These scenes have a smarter and more realistic tone to them and while the ultimate resolution to them maybe be a little on the hokey side, they are inspired enough to make you wish that Attal had just told their story and jettisoned the rest. I can't quite recommend "My Dog Stupid" because the overdone stuff with the dog and the kids throws the rest of the film fatally off balance but if you have a higher tolerance for messy mastiffs than I, you might find it to be worth checking out.
I can say with almost complete certainty that you will not see a more harrowing or horrifying sequence in a movie this year than the opening minutes of Ron Howard's new documentary "Rebuilding Paradise" that utilize footage shot from inside the massive 2018 fire that surrounded and decimated the town of Paradise, CA that gives viewers an unforgettable close-up look at the devastation as it unfolded. The subsequent focus of the film is on the aftermath of the fire, which killed 80 people, displaced over 50,000 locals and which was later proven to have been sparked by faulty equipment belonging to the Pacific Gas & Electric utility, and how the residents coped with the stress of trying to rebuild their lives in the face of such destruction. In this case, many of the residents elected to stay in Paradise and rebuild both their homes and the community at large. The result is a stirring portrait of a group of people who pull together to help each other begin again in the wake of an unthinkable cataclysm and it is one that perhaps rings even truer and stronger today than it might have in more normal times. My only real gripe is that it could probably delve a little more into PG&E's negligent actions (although there is one brutal scene in which a company rep is sent to a town meeting to offer corporate-style apologies that do not go over well with the crowd) and the notion that the ever-increasing scale of natural disasters is a direct result of climate change--an idea introduced at the very end of the film. Those quibbles aside, "Rebuilding Paradise" is a heartbreaking and ultimately limiting tribute to the resilience of people in the face of adversity and the importance of the idea of home.
Set during World War II in a picaresque British seaside village far removed from the Blitz currently raging in London, "Summerland" centers on Alice (Gemma Arterton), a decidedly anti-social writer living in near-isolation in a remote cottage writing academic theses on the the historical origins of folklore and myths and inspiring any number of tales about herself amongst the townspeople. Her solitude is soon broken when she is inexplicably placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a young evacuee from London. Naturally, she wants nothing to do with the kid but is forced to keep him for at least a week until he can be placed elsewhere. In a surprising turn of events, she not only finds herself warming up to the kid after all but his presence also begins to inspire memories of Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the one great love of her life whom she was forced to give up because of the fear of discovery by a scornful society and Vera’s wish to have a child. Writer-director Jessica Swale offers up a sentimental saga of love, los and hope that is only somewhat marred by the fact that there is not a single moment of authentically felt emotion to be had in its entire running time. The narrative offers no surprises or variations on the extremely standard grumpy adult-cute kid narrative, the dialogue throughout is just a little too on-the-nose to be believed at times and the potentially interesting stuff about Alice and Vera is treated more like an afterthought than the beating heart of the story. Arterton and Mbatha-Raw are two normally reliable performers but they can't do much of anything with what they are working with here--the latter is especially wasted on a character that is little more than a period lesbian version of the old Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The best thing about the film is the appearance of Tom Courtenay in a few scenes as the headmaster of the local school--his part is as weakly written as the others but he invests them with enough charm and quiet authority to make them come across as something other than a bunch of cliches. Other than that, "Summerland" is a well-meaning but ultimately failed work that is brought down by too much hackneyed melodrama and fatally bland execution.
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originally posted: 07/30/20 17:05:45
last updated: 08/02/20 11:34:38