Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Grand Piano, or: Not the Nicki Minaj Song Actually (Or Is It?)

Please don’t tell this week’s film it was second choice.  I think it already knows, though—a thriller about a piano concert isn’t really anyone’s first choice, is it?

The Film:

Grand Piano

The Premise:

See above.

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Uncondensed Version:

In the concert event of the classical music scene, Tom Selznick (aka Elijah Wood) is making a dramatic comeback after his breakdown 5 years ago.  Since he froze up onstage while attempting to play his mentor’s impossibly composition, Tom’s gone nowhere near a piano, much less played a sold-out concert in NYC.  Additional point of interest:  Tom’s mentor, Patrick, died a year ago, with his fortune mysteriously disappearing shortly thereafter.  This has all the makings of an Agatha Christie—all we’re missing is a mustachioed Belgian appearing out of nowhere to make wry observations.

a man in a suit and bow tie walks backstage at a theater

Understandably, Tom is so so goddamn nervous about his return to the stage and feels unworthy of using Patrick’s piano and fears a repeat of his breakdown 5 years ago.  Luckily, Tom has his world-famous actress wife, Emma, and his bff Wayne (played by Branson from Downton Abbey whose name I’m too lazy to look up) to believe in him.  By all accounts, this evening should be a glowing return to the classical music world for Tom.

But that would make for a very short film.  Shortly after Tom begins to play, he notices annotations on his sheet music—annotations demanding he play flawlessly or else…he’ll DIE, along with Emma.  This mystery person, played by John Cusack, has planned things out very well, planting an usher to carry out some unsavory tasks, leaving an earpiece for Tom to find so they can communicate, and relying on the spectacle of the stage to help him get away with it all.

a man dressed in black gestures to another man across a theater's light rigging system
I’m not going to even comment on this fight scene.

Ultimately, John Cusack (I can’t remember the character’s name, if it’s even provided beyond “Mysterious Sniper Who Takes Music Appreciation a Bit Too Seriously”) expects Tom to play the impossible piece without missing a single note.  For someone who doesn’t seem to be musical, he has a lot to say about musicians who aren’t also composers…?  He claims to want the most perfect concert experience ever and to go down in history, even going as far to give this big pretentious speech about how this has nothing to do with money…and then it turns out to be about money.  Because of course it fucking does.

Sorry this is really spoilery, but I need to share the absurdity of the premise (which is already pretty over-the-top to begin with).  What is all of this about?  A key that will be released from WITHIN the piano which will unlock the safe deposit box where Patrick’s fortune is hidden.  And, of course, how is this key released?  By playing his composition without a single error.  Obviously.

Tom is actually pretty smart about the whole thing, playing it much cooler than I probably would have.  He’s quite good at calling bluffs…well…some of them.  There are a couple that don’t end particularly well for Wayne and his date.  He also overcomes the obstacle of not having the sheet music to the piece in a pretty clever way.  I will leave you in suspense about whether this is enough for Tom to outsmart John Cusack.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I will say this:  you do get to hear some very nice piano playing in this film.

IDK, I think because the premise seemed straight-up out of Agatha Christie, I was really disappointed Patrick didn’t fake his own death and then just sort of fuck with Tom.  If I had a protégé, that’s probably what I’d ultimately do.

a Roman-style bust looks towards a large mansion
Alternative plot twist that would’ve been acceptable:  angry bust is haunted and behind all of the shenanigans.

Also like an Agatha Christie novel, I didn’t like any of the characters in this, but this wasn’t for any real reason.  I was hoping Tom would be a bit morally ambiguous like every Christie character ever so there might be tension created about whether or not he should get out of this situation alive.  But that never happened—he remained bland as ever yet uncommonly lucky.  I ended up really resenting both him and Emma for seeming so effortlessly successful, yet doing very little to earn the money, fame, respect, etc.  Tom also seemed to have very little motivation to return to the stage, and even the sniper had a rather boring motive, i.e. money.  I just feel if you’re going to do something so out of sync with social norms, it’s rather odd to care so much about a pretty ordinary thing, aka money.

There are some truly suspenseful moments, like when we see the inner workings of the piano as Tom plays, but overall the entire movie is held back by a silly premise.  Plus the opportunity for the line “Play it again, Tom,” is missed.

However, on the bright side, Nicki Minaj’s “Grand Piano” is now stuck in my head for the rest of eternity.  And probably yours too.  You’re welcome.

Did this one play Christa’s heart like a grand piano or did she say “Play on” (or, like Nicki, all of the above)?  Find out by reading her review here!

two women sit next to each other in a bookshop
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Appropriate Behavior, or: I’ve Been a Bad Small Business Owner

Christa’s pick this week as we continue to Blog Free or Die Hard!  As a bonus, I was able to stream through library platforms and thus feel like an ambassador for library services/avoid paying for things.

The Film:

Appropriate Behavior

Where to Watch:


The Premise:

A young Persian American woman deals with the aftermath of a breakup and loss of her job while keeping that she’s bisexual a secret from her family.

The Uncondensed Version:

Shirin is having a pretty rough time.  Having just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine, she has to find a new apartment in Brooklyn on short notice, get a job, and keep her bisexuality hidden from her Persian family.

a woman stands in a dimly lit doorway wearing a t-shirt that reads "A century of women on top: Smith College centennial: 1875-1975"
This is actually a still from much later in the film, but I needed to make sure that shirt appeared somewhere in this post.

Luckily, her bff Crystal is there for her, putting up with her nonsense, listening, and calling out some of Shirin’s delusions, like the claim that she and Maxine were an “it” couple.  It’s through Crystal’s bff magic that Shirin finds one of the most hipster-y new jobs ever as a film teacher for 5-year-olds.  Pete from 30 Rock has a small role as her new boss!

Shirin seems to have a good relationship with her family, but she can’t help resenting the pressure they put on her to achieve more, and of course covering up her sexuality creates a lot of tension (she even tries to explain away the bed she shared with Maxine using Beaches).  Making matters worse, her brother seems desperate to fill the role of perfect Iranian firstborn as a doctor engaged to another seemingly perfect doctor.

a middle-aged man and woman look off-camera as a younger woman looks at them in concern
Right, that classic Beaches excuse…

For most of the film, we alternate between flashbacks of the relationship and its dissolution versus Shirin’s attempts to get over it in the present.  All of this is done with a great deal of dry, witty humor, self-absorption, and a few moments of real emotional depth.  One of my favorite moments is Shirin and Maxine fighting over who should keep the strap-on penis.  But then again, their roleplay in happier times where Maxine pretends to be a tax auditor is great too (and gives us the, ahem, sexy[?] line “I didn’t keep any of my receipts…I’ve been a bad small business owner”).

As Shirin reflects on her failed relationship, she thinks about their good times.  The two met at a party, where Shirin was a bit on the tipsy side and spoke very bluntly about her interest in Maxine.  Maxine is very smart and quite hipster-y, into LOTR but turning up her nose at Sex & the City.  But that’s not the problem with their relationship—Maxine resents all of the lies to Shirin’s parents, whereas Shirin feels judged by Maxine for not being out to her parents.

a woman in a party hat accepts a plastic bottle from a woman wearing glasses
True love = sharing clear liquor from a water bottle.

After the break-up, Shirin tries online dating, meets a woman at an LGBT rights discussion club, dates a series of hipster dudes, and has a threesome with a couple (both of whom have their own latex outfit)—all failed attempts to forget Maxine.

In her family and romantic relationships, career, and personal growth, Shirin seems to be stalled.  Will she learn from her past and those around her or continue to wallow?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The dialogue and the characters are brilliantly developed in this one.  Impressively, Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed, and starred in this film.  I absolutely adore her character, even though she’s painfully selfish, horrible at decisions, and lacking self-awareness (or at least honesty with herself).  She’s very witty and frequently uses sarcasm to cut others down when she’s feeling insecure.  IDK if I’m saying this because I was just watching Parks and Rec, but I’d say she’s got a bit of an April Ludgate vibe.

Did I want a bit more structure and positive signs of change for Shirin?  Initially, yes.  But I really grew to appreciate this film as both a realistic study of relationships with family, romantic partners, and the self, as well as a story about healing and how difficult it is to make necessary changes.  The script asks as many questions as it answers, offering hope without complete satisfaction or resolution.  It allows Shirin to grow without becoming a completely new character with a sudden sunny disposition (oops, spoiler I guess).

I feel I’ve underrepresented how great the dialogue is in this post and I haven’t made a list in forfuckingever, so in no particular order, 5 brilliant pieces of Shirin’s dialogue from this film:

  1. “I’m dead inside. Can you tell just by looking at me?”
  2. “I’m going to lie here and try to forget how it felt to be loved. Could you turn off the light?”
  3. “I’m looking for the grown-up underwear of a woman in charge of her sexuality and not afraid of change.”
  4. “What happened to you at Wesleyan to make you this way?”
  5. “You have the sex appeal of a ferret.”

Did Christa settle down and make up Beaches excuses with this one or slowly grow to hate everything she loved about it?  Read her review here to find out!

a boy tells another boy in school uniform, "In this world, you're either a wolf or a sheep"
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Excuse My French, or: Children Don’t Make Sense

This week’s film takes us to Egypt, and that universally terrifying place:  a boys’ middle school.  The horror!

The Film:  Excuse My French

Where to Watch:  Netflix (US)

The Uncondensed Version:

As our film opens, Hany is the only child in a wealthy Egyptian family.  He attends private school, where he excels academically and is quite popular.  Hany’s family is Christian, and he enjoys attending church.  He is something of an Anglophile, supporting Manchester United and imagining himself the Egyptian Harry Potter.  All seems to be well in Hany’s life until his father suddenly dies, leaving Hany and his cellist mother with very little income.

a boy dressed as Harry Potter with the caption "he's the Egyptian version of Harry Potter"
Can we get an Egyptian version of Harry Potter, though?  I think it would be pretty stellar.

Since the family can no longer afford Hany’s expensive private school, he will attend the local public school for boys, whose students are almost all Muslim.  His mother gives him 2 instructions:  1.  Don’t make friends, and 2.  Don’t talk about religion.

Hany is off to an unfortunate start, sticking out like a sore thumb when he corrects the English teacher’s grammar and points out “Hasta la vista, baby,” is not English, nor is it a line from a classic novel.

The structure of this film is a bit loose, but revolves mostly around Hany’s efforts to fit in with the other students while hiding his identity as a religious minority.  He manages to make a friend in Mo’men, though he makes a decided enemy in the form of Aly, bully and overall unpleasant character.  He is thrilled when his crush, science teacher Nelly, encourages him to develop and present a scientific project to the school.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, not a single student is impressed by such nerdy feats of engineering.

a group of boys in a schoolyard roughhouse
[Insert requisite scene introducing the shocking nightmare that is public school]
Hany is able to fly under the radar for a long time despite skipping out on afternoon prayer and hearing from Mo’men that he can tell a Christian from a mile away.  Of course it’s not until Hany gains power and popularity that things start to unravel.  Hany is named class president despite never running for the position–this school does not do elections the same way my school did.

To fit in better, Hany begins participating in prayer at school, and even enters a religious chanting competition.

two schoolboys stand side by side
I’d also like to see an Egyptian version of Boy Meets World b/c the actor playing Hany looks so much like young Ben Savage.

The situation begins to deteriorate when Hany overhears some older boys planning to follow and grope Nelly.  Typical boy, Hany advises her to dress more modestly rather than reporting the boys to the principal (RAGE).  After the incident, the boys are expelled, but the trouble is only beginning.  Kids are getting beaten up left and right, and I lost track a bit of who and why.

Shortly after, Hany’s identity as a Christian is revealed, he begins taking judo, and he deliberately antagonizes Aly.  Why and what does he hope to accomplish?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really looked forward to seeing a perspective on being a religious minority that is the majority for the US, but I felt a lot of the emphasis was on the behavior of the boys as little creeps rather than as Muslims/Christians.

Also not quite as uplifting as expected?  This isn’t really a heartwarming story of acceptance and religious tolerance–Hany’s classmates never try to be particularly welcoming to him.  However, Hany is a little asshole for so much of the movie, and deliberately bringing in sandwiches to eat during Ramadan is a pretty fucked up thing to do.  I hoped there would be quite  lot of time dedicated to Hany’s relationship with his mother as well.  Though they get along well, there seems to be a lack of emotional depth in their relationship.

Overall, I think watching this film proves irrefutably that I don’t understand children.

Would Christa share a Riesen with this one or abandon it after discovering its true nature?  Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

No Men Beyond This Point, or: No One Wants a Picture of a Man Hanging Over the Fireplace

This week’s film is a perfect example of humor that may be less than amusing after tomorrow’s election.  And another reason we deserve a simultaneously laughing and crying emoji for the world we live in.  Until then, we do what we want.  That’s right–it’s another free-for-all month.

The Film:

No Men Beyond This Point

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Premise:

This mockumentary-style film examines gender roles in an alternate history where men are no longer needed for reproduction.

The Uncondensed Version:

As the story unfolds, we follow Andrew and the women he works for.  The last man ever born, he is a second-class citizen and is relieved he is employable as essentially a mother for several families.  One of the women comments she acknowledges that convention cautions against having a man around to negatively impact her children, but she chooses to rise above this generalization.  At the same time, his maternal role is much better paid and more appreciated than women doing this work.  Glass ceiling/escalator again, eh?

To understand how this state of affairs came about, we learn about events around the 1950s, when a record number of women reported virgin births.  One of my favorite things about these sections is they are frequently narrated by a men’s history expert, who is, of course, a woman.  The social commentary is strong with this one.

A woman is interviewed in an empty lecture hall. She is identified as Ajala Bhatt, Professor of Men's History at Oxford University.

A former academic is interviewed and gives the expert opinion that there was only one explanation—all of these women were lying.  Later, tests are developed to support the stories these women tell, but initially they are shamed.

As time passes, the number of virgin births means both a dramatic increase in the female population and the undeniable fact that men and sex are no longer needed for reproduction.  Social progress is rapid–the first female president is elected, men are sent to live in separate sanctuaries, and all women’s menstrual cycles are synchronized, necessitating a monthly holiday.  Men, of course, are extremely resistant to the changes and hold a few whiny protests to demonstrate their displeasure.

Men chant angrily at a demonstration, holding a banner that reads "Male Liberation Organization."

There are down sides to this–the government stops pursuing the space program (which was played for humor, but still felt like a bit of a stretch), and women are discouraged from forming romantic relationships.  While there are still some women having sex, the stereotype of women not having a sex drive is reinforced in this version of the future.  Sadly, this man-free future is not the utopia I need it to be.

Returning to Andrew’s story line, we find one of his employers, Iris, expressing interest in him as a man.  She has painted just a few detailed portraits of him and is constantly watching .  Iris tries to brush off her work as not a big deal, claiming “no one wants a picture of a man hanging over the fireplace.”  Lines like that make this film.

A woman wearing a shirt with paint streaks stands in a studio in front of several portraits of a man.

When Iris and Andrew pursue a sexual relationship, they are shunned and Andrew sent to a sanctuary for men.  As one woman puts it, “Of course, there are still women who are attracted to men and don’t want them to perish, but they are a small part of the population.”  Coincidentally, women who don’t want men to perish make up a small part of my friend group as well.

Will Iris and Andrew shake up the new status quo, or is their relationship doomed to fail?  Maybe a bit of both?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

The premise is stellar, but the execution is a bit lacking IMHO.  I’m just not overly taken with mockumentaries as a whole and wanted more time for character development and for the stories to weave together more smoothly.  The dialogue is excellent, though, and so sharp.

I will say this: I really feel like watching Pleasantville now.  But maybe an alternate version where all the men get chased out of town at the end.

Would Christa want this film to perish or would she allow it to live its final days in a peaceful sanctuary?  Read her review here to find out here!