Monday, May 30, 2016

Grandma (2015) ***

Don't be thrown off by the title of this movie or by its twee-sounding Netflix description. “Grandma” is actually pretty decent.

Lily Tomlin plays Elle, once a famous poet, now sort of coasting. On the day that Elle breaks up with her latest girlfriend (Judy Greer), Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up needing quick cash for an abortion. Elle doesn't have the cash, so the two start hitting up old friends and lovers, and Sage winds up learning a lot about her grandma.

That may not sound like much fun, but trust me that the excellent cast makes this little, film-festival-type movie work. Julia Garner, the curly-haired blond who plays Kimberly on “The Americans,” has a real career ahead of her. Judy Greer shows once again that she is one of the best character-actors working today. Sam Elliot is excellent as Elle's ex-husband. Lily Tomlin is wonderful, playing Elle with the perfect amount of frankness and occasional ferocity. Her strange-looking face is impossible to look away from, and at the age of 76, she still moves like a 20-year-old.

One thing that limits this film's audience is its very distinct cultural viewpoint. This is a movie about a lesbian helping her granddaughter get an abortion. People who are passionately opposed to anything in that sentence will probably want to give “Grandma” a skip.

“Grandma” is fair to all its characters, exposing each person's flaws, but giving each one's story a fair shake. The movie is really about Elle, though. Widowed by the death of her longtime lover, Violet, Elle is facing the fact that she is growing old alone. She has her moments of bitterness, but mostly she faces this with grace and stoicism. Elle is not defined by any of the labels that could be applied to her: not just a “writer,” not just a “lesbian,” and definitely not just a “grandma.”

3 stars out of 5

Monday, May 23, 2016

Warriors (1979) ***

“The Warriors” is the story of nine members of the Warriors, a gang from Coney Island, who travel to a huge gang parlay in Harlem. There, a charismatic gang leader named Cyrus preaches that all the gangs should unite and rule the streets. He is an attractive character, and his words find some appreciative ears, but he is assassinated, gunned down while making his appeal. No one apparently sees who fired the fatal shot, and Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the guilty party, randomly chooses the Warriors to pin it on. In the chaos that ensues, everyone pretty much accepts the Warriors' guilt, and they beat down and likely kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon. The other eight Warriors escape and spend the rest of the night running from one rival gang's territory to the next, racing to get back to Coney Island before the other gangs hunt them down.

The novel from which the movie is adapted is based loosely on the ancient Greek story “Anabasis,” the tale of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who had to fight their way back home from Persia. Like those Greek soldiers, the Warriors have to fight their way back to the sea.

During a lull in the violence, the Warriors discuss the merits of the fallen Cyrus's plan, and the difficulty in turning it into reality. “It's all out there for the taking. You just gotta figure out what's worth stealing.” When a group of well-off, young people boards the train, the Warriors see that what those kids have is what is worth stealing, that carefree life, but it's something beyond their grasp.
When one of the rich kids drops a corsage, Swan picks it up and gives it to Mercy, saying, “I just hate to see something go to waste.” You get the feeling he is talking about her, not the flowers, but the story itself is a lament to the waste of all these capable youths, who are going to waste as well.

The thing about this 1970s cult classic, like all cult classics really, is that you can't take it too seriously. The movie is sometimes so cheesy it's painful, but you have to view the film more like a comic book. The action is cartoonish, the characters are barely developed, they make stupid decisions, and the movie glorifies street gangs in a way that led to violent confrontations during it's 1979 theatrical run. Still, with its depiction of bare-armed tough-guys roaming the gritty streets of 1970's New York City, the film has a certain gumption that justifies its cult status.

3 stars out of 5