Sunday, January 14, 2018

“Lover For A Day”– Movie Review

Lover4

This week, I attended the opening of the new French drama “Lover For A Day” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.

Synopsis

When a young woman is dumped by her boyfriend, she moves in with her father – but after learning his new lover is her own age, what will this do to their relationship?

Story

When Jeanne (Esther Garrel) shows up at the front door of the apartment belonging to her father Gilles (Eric Caravaca), it’s not for a friendly visit.  Jeanne is moving in with him because her boyfriend just kicked her out of their apartment.  While Gilles is happy to see his daughter, the living arrangement causes something of an awkward situation:  he’s now living with Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), a former student at the university where Gilles is a professor.  Making matters even more uncomfortable, it turns out that both Jeanne and Ariane are the same age.  

Despite the unease that the two young women feel at each other’s presence, they manage to bond due to shared frustrations over their various romantic involvements.  Jeanne is so distraught over her break-up that she is constantly bursting into tears and even attempts suicide.  Ariane, on the other hand, is beginning to question her pursuit of Gilles; while she is comfortable in the constancy of their relationship, she wonders what sexual adventures she may be missing in her youth.  Has she made a huge mistake in taking up with an older man?

Although Gilles has opportunities to cheat on Ariane with other university co-eds, he nevertheless remains steadfastly faithful to her.  Ariane, on the other hand, is being increasingly tempted by the young men she meets in chance social encounters.  All the while, Jeanne is now trying to socialize again with the hope of not only forgetting her ex-boyfriend, but also jumping back into the dating pool.  Soon, she becomes aware that her ex has apparently had a change of heart and is now trying to woo her back.  Meanwhile, Gilles is becoming increasingly suspicious of Ariane’s mysterious behavior.  Will the two remain lovers as Jeanne must decide if she’s still in love with her boyfriend?

Review

Keeping it short and sweet is usually a good tactic – but at less than an hour and a half, “Lover For A Day” is surprisingly short, suggesting, perhaps that the director didn’t have too much to say with this movie.  If that’s the case, it’s understandable as to the reason why:  neither the characters nor the story go very far by the film’s conclusion.  In fact,“Lover For A Day” doesn’t really have an ending – it just stops.  There is precious little in the way of a resolution; instead of going from Point A to Point B, the characters go full circle.

It seems that the director may be trying to make a point not only about relationships (that they are inherently unstable because they have a life of their own) but also trying to show the immaturity of young women.  While the females in “Lover For A Day” come off as emotionally erratic, the character of the father seems more disciplined and serious in terms of how he views his familial and romantic obligations.  In that regard, viewing the movie is almost uncomfortable because it feels like the director as father is trying to lecture the actress as daughter. 

Following the screening was an interview with the film’s star, Esther Garrel, whose father, Philippe Garrel, directed “Lover For A Day”.  She said that his directing style requires a considerable amount of rehearsal; the cast rehearsed on a Saturday afternoon (once a week) for 30 weeks before shooting.  This winds up saving a considerable amount of time and money as the shoot is usually pretty quick – most scenes are done in only a single take.  The real work between the director and cast is done during the rehearsal; once the director is on the set, it’s all about the technical crew, getting the lighting and camera set-ups correct. 

Lover for a Day (2017) on IMDb

Friday, January 05, 2018

“Why I Am Not A Christian”– Book Review

NotX

During my recent vacation, I read “Why I Am Not A Christian” – a collection of essays by philosopher, writer and teacher Bertrand Russell.

Summary

Probably the people most in need of reading this book will never do so and the people who cleave toward Russell’s viewpoint will make up the majority of its readership.  In that regard, perhaps you could say that Russell is preaching to the choir.  Yes, that was a pun and no, I’m not apologizing.  The essays in this book were all written decades ago, which is part of what makes it all so interesting.  We don’t often think of discussions of atheism, divorce and birth control from our parents or grandparents generations.  It is therefore refreshing to read the essays with that perspective in mind.

The reason for the whole “preaching to the choir” issue is due to the fact that many people do not like to have their belief system questioned.  Often, this is because they fear that they can’t articulately and logically defend it in the first place.  This obviously begs the most necessary question, “Perhaps if you can’t defend your belief system doesn’t that seem to suggest that your belief system is of questionable value?”.  Unfortunately, people usually respond to this emotionally rather than rationally; they are infuriated by the thought that what they were taught by their family, their clergy and their school growing up was all untrue or unhelpful.

As you might expect, many of the views set forth by Russell are quite similar to those of the late Christopher Hitchens.  That said, however, Hitchens’ work is a more entertaining read; by comparison, Russell’s essays, despite the fact that they all have a sound basis in thinking, can be a bit of a slog – at least at times.  Many of these chapters are somewhat dry and you almost get the feeling that you are reading an undergraduate-level philosophy textbook.  It’s not an easy book to get through, especially given that Russell’s background is as an academician and he is prone to using language that doesn’t sound particularly natural. 

There is an essay titled, “Do We Survive Death?” where Russell almost predicts the terrorism that we are seeing today.  He says that nothing productive would come if we stopped fearing death – thus, this fear of death is mostly useful.  Having read that, consider how today’s terrorists – especially the suicide bombers – who give little or no regard to the thought of death because they are focusing on the afterlife where they will be greeted by 72 virgins (although I’m not sure how much fun just one virgin would be, much less 72). 

In “A Free Man’s Worship”, Russell almost foresaw climate change, by stating that natural physics leads to the destruction of man.  Additionally, there is the rather provocatively titled essay, “Sexual Ethics”, where the author discusses birth control, infidelity and how theology determines our attitude toward sex rather than our attitude toward sex determining our view of religion.  Consider two men:  one a pastor, the other a layman.  The pastor has 10 children with his wife, who dies from exhaustion.  The layman has sex with a woman he is not married to and uses birth control to ensure they don’t have any unintended children.  Which man is the more moral of the two?

One thing that might be seen as a serious flaw in the book has to do with the organization of the various essays.  Specifically, the fact that the essays are not presented in chronological order may pose something of a problem.  It might be better to read them in the order in which they are written.  Doing so would allow us to see how Russell’s views evolved, matured and refined over time.  Arguably the best part of the book is its Appendix; it deals with the 1941 court case in which Russell was involved resulting in a judge deciding that Russell was unfit to teach philosophy at the College at the City Of New York.  


“On Paris”– Book Review

On_Paris

On my recent winter vacation, I read “On Paris” by Ernest Hemingway.

Summary

When the 20th century was in its early 20’s, so was Ernest Hemingway.  After his service as an ambulance driver during World War I, he lived in Paris with his wife Hadley and worked as a journalist for the Toronto Star.  Periodically, he would file pieces on a wide variety of topics – political, cultural, sports-related, you name it.  As a nascent writer, this young man was all over the place. While some may find these writings rather inconsequential, Hemingway devotees might in fact get a kick out of it because it shows the master as he’s figuring out how to perfect his craft.

This is a short, easy book to read, especially if you’re on vacation.  However, do note that if you’re on vacation in Paris (or are planning to go there), keep in mind that the places the author references in his florid writing may no longer exist since these articles are nearly a century old.  That said, it’s rather entertaining to see the references to prices with a favorable exchange rate between French Francs and U.S. Dollars (ah, the pre-Euros days).  That said, his love for the city of lights will still ring true for its most ardent fans. 

His view of French politics is particularly interesting, especially given the fact that the memories of The Great War are still fresh among its citizens.  What’s amusing, though, is the twenty-something Hemingway railing against the “old” politicians remaining in office.  He gives a peek behind the curtain of journalism describing the trials and tribulations of being a newspaperman.  The story related is about the installation of a new Pope and how the Vatican (like the politicians) didn’t trust journalists.  An appreciation of French History and world politics is not necessarily a pre-requisite for this book, but if you have this knowledge, it’ll certainly come in handy.     

In contrasting the way we currently express ourselves now as opposed to then, text dripping with racism was rampant.  As an example, there was an author of African-American descent who was notorious for writing a controversial novel.  Having met the man, Hemingway not only mentioned the man was Black, he went on to try to describe exactly how Black by comparing his skin color to that of a known boxer of the day who was also African-American.  Reading this particular piece, it is hard to imagine it being written in this manner today.

One of the funnier items is “American Bohemian”, where he writes about American artists (or artist wannabes) who come to Paris seeking networking with other such artists and, hopefully, to be discovered and get a shortcut to fame and fortune.  Hemingway describes these people as “the scum of Greenwich Village”.  He also writes harshly of the tough, gritty nightlife of the real Paris where you can be robbed by a waiter just as easily as you can by a young street thug with a weapon (although the latter method will induce considerably more physical pain). 

Besides writing about dilettantes, Hemingway also notices that Russians abound in Paris and they seemingly are able to get away with anything because the French are so gullible.  He also complains about how absinthe was outlawed and how Berlin tries to compete with Paris in terms of its nightlife (he says that Berlin is overrated because of the abundance of cocaine there, which is readily available almost everywhere you go).  The French themselves don’t get let off the hook quite so easily; Hemingway whines about how rude they are and that everywhere you go, they will harass you for tips. 

On Paris (On Series): Ernest Hemingway: 9781843916048: Books

ISBN: 1843916045
ISBN-13: 9781843916048

Thursday, December 21, 2017

“Downsizing”– Movie Review

DS

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science-fiction comedy, “Downsizing”, starring Matt Damon. 

Synopsis

When a man decides to undergo a procedure to shrink himself in order to lead a better life, can he resurrect his life after he discovers he’s made a bad choice?

Story

Paul (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to seize on an opportunity to improve their standing in a most unusual way:  they will be shrunken down to a size of five inches in order to save their money and save the planet.  They rationalize their decision by being sold on the idea that since they will be taking up less space, spending less money and consuming fewer goods overall, they will be doing something noble – something ecologically sound given the impending dangers of climate change.  All around, a win-win for everyone, right?

Of course, the plan goes awry when Paul, after undergoing the irreversible procedure himself, discovers that Audrey got cold feet in the end and backed out.  She chooses to go back to her regular life while Paul has to move forward in his miniature state; eventually, they divorce, leaving Paul alone to live in a village full of other people who have similarly been reduced in size.  Depressed, lonely and without friends, he feels he’s made the worst decision of his life and now must deal with his choice.  This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go at all. 

Paul’s crazy neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) winds up introducing him to Ngoc (Hong Chau), an infamous Vietnamese political refugee who was shrunken down and escaped her country by fitting inside an electronics box that was shipped to America.  Dusan offers Paul an opportunity to travel to Norway to visit the original colony where the first “downsized” people live – he agrees, but Ngoc insinuates herself into the trip, against their wishes.  While there, the villagers inform them that they’re heading off to an underground world they’ve created to escape the imminent destruction of the planet – with polar ice caps breaking off, increased amounts of methane are released in the air.  The townspeople invite Paul to join them, but since he has developed a romantic relationship with Ngoc, this would mean leaving her.  Will Paul abandon the woman he loves in order to fulfill a greater destiny to re-populate the planet?  

Review

Keeping in mind the saying, “Go big or go home”, “Downsizing” should have gone home.  It is hard to remember a more disappointing movie by Alexander Payne.  After so many terrific films to his credit, fans must begin to wonder if he’s just too erratic; Payne’s motion pictures seem to lack consistency in their quality.  In fact, perhaps the only consistency is his fascination with his home of Nebraska.  What may be the heart of the problem here is the fact that “Downsizing” can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a science-fiction story, so it tries to fob itself off as both and fails miserably. 

The movie is a little over two hours long, but it feels much longer due to the fact that it is all over the place.  There are so many stories and characters, it’s easy to get confused.  The audience should be able to grasp the main thrust of the story and become emotionally invested in it in order for the film to work.  Too many times, however, you find you’re asking yourself, “Exactly what is the story here that I’m supposed to be following?”.  While attempting to be a fable about climate change and its impact on humans, it ultimately winds up being nothing more than patronizing in its pedagogy. 

“Downsizing” is a largely depressing story, so it begs the question as to why it was given a holiday release.  Being preached to about the effects of climate change is not exactly the material that forms a good basis for a comedy, much less a source for Christmas cheer.  It hardly fills you with good will toward men; the opposite, in fact – it reminds you just how truly lousy humankind is.  This is either the feel-bad movie of the year or the feel-confused movie of the year – it’s unclear as to which.  And maybe that’s because the film itself lacks clarity.   

Downsizing (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

“Molly’s Game”– Movie Review

Molly

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Molly’s Game”, starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner.

Synopsis

When a woman becomes wealthy by organizing high stakes poker games, will she be forced to do prison time because of her ties to organized crime?

Story

From her childhood in Colorado, Molly Bloom had a number of challenges to overcome before she could become an Olympic-class skier.  First, she had a severe case of scoliosis which required long surgery to correct.  For another thing, in Larry (Costner), she had a rather strict and demanding father.  All of this combined to make her tough both physically and mentally.  By the time she grew up, Molly (Chastain) saw that all those years of practice and sacrifice paid off by being able to compete for a spot on the United States Olympic Team.  But there was one more challenge for her to overcome:  during a competition, she sustains a freak accident which not only disqualifies her but also leaves her badly injured, effectively ending her career as an athlete.

Without the career for which she had spent all of her life to that point in a state of constant training, Molly now had to figure out how to move forward.  An incredibly bright and studious young woman, she could get into law school.  But she put that on hold and took a job for a man who had her organize his weekly high-stakes poker games with rich and famous participants.  Being a quick study and naturally intelligent, Molly became knowledgeable not only in the game itself, but also proficient as the superintendent of these games.  Eventually, she realizes she doesn’t need her boss – she can put together these games herself and pocket all of the money.

But she proves a little too successful, causing her to be arrested by the FBI.  Not only are they after her for the gambling, but also for the fact that by coordinating these games, she came into contact with members of organized crime which The Bureau is trying to nail.  In deep trouble, she hires Charlie Jaffey (Elba) as her lawyer to represent her in court and defend her against the FBI.  Molly insists that she was unaware of the players’ connections to the Russian Mob, but when incriminating evidence appears to pile up, can even a skilled attorney like Jaffey get her out of trouble?

Molly

Review

“Molly’s Game” is a true story, based on the book by Bloom.  The movie is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin; while watching it, you could probably figure out that it’s a Sorkin script by virtue of how much dialog it has.  Sorkin has a reputation for writing excessively talky screenplays, and he continues in that tradition.  Whether or not people will reject it – as they did with his other biographical drama, “Steve Jobs” – remains to be seen, but if you don’t know what to expect when you buy a ticket to a film he wrote, then shame on you. 

This is also Sorkin’s directorial debut; while he shows a good deal of promise as a visual storyteller (surprising, given his proclivity for dialog-heavy scripts), he does seem to make some rookie mistakes.  One of those – and arguably, the most glaring – is an early scene of Bloom’s first meeting with Jaffey.  While in his spacious office, they have a long and (guess what?) talky scene; instead of trying to break it up with secondary action (i.e., editing so as to cut between the two actors using different shot sizes), he chooses primary action (having the actors move around the room and/or each other).  This results in some awkward moments.  Thankfully, he didn’t opt for tertiary movement (physically moving the camera during the shot) because as we all know, only Scorsese can successfully pull off that one. 

As far as the acting is concerned, Chastain’s performance is seamless; you genuinely believe she is Bloom, a brilliant ex-athlete who proves to be too clever for her own good.  But stealing the movie from her is Elba as her attorney.  Elba’s earnest, stalwart lawyer Jaffey is at times quite funny; it’s difficult to know for certain, but one gets the impression while watching Elba’s performance that this was an acting choice on his part.  If so, it was a good one, because this is a heavy movie desperately in need of comic relief.  Perhaps the only negative about “Molly’s Game” is its length (over two hours), but this can be easily forgiven; a story this complex is difficult to tell in two hours or less.

Molly's Game (2017) on IMDb

Monday, December 18, 2017

“The Greatest Showman”– Movie Review

Showman

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new musical, “The Greatest Showman”, starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron.

Synopsis

When P.T. Barnum attains great success as a circus master, will he lose both his business and his family when it all goes to his head?

Story

In the 19th century, the childhood of Phineas T. Barnum was not an easy one; his mother passed and he was put to work early, assisting his father, a tailor.  Being poor, he greatly envied those with financial resources – his yearning for wealth only grew when he was orphaned after his father’s death.  But when Barnum became a man (Jackman), he married Charity (Williams), his childhood girlfriend, who herself came from a family of means.  Together, they went on one of life’s great adventures, where she blessed him with two daughters.  Life would not remain so blissful. 

After losing his bookkeeping job when his employer was forced to shut its doors, Barnum cons a bank into loaning him some money so that he could start his own business:  a wax museum.  Once the museum fails to get enough visitors to sustain itself, Barnum gets an idea:  add some live acts to appear before an audience.  He then sets out to hire all sorts of interesting and curious looking people:  midgets, giants, morbidly obese, bearded women, etc.  He even hires performers like jugglers, magicians and acrobats.  The idea works and Barnum’s “circus” becomes simultaneously famous and infamous.

Rising through the ranks of high society, Barnum engages Carlyle (Efron), an aimless young man from a wealthy family, to be his partner.  Carlyle handles things from a business standpoint and arranges for Barnum and his troupe to meet the Queen of England.  It is there he meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a beautiful young singer who’s the toast of Europe.  Barnum decides he will introduce her to America by taking Lind on a tour of the country.  But things get out of hand when she fails at an attempted romantic entanglement with Barnum, causing both to abandon the tour and lose money.  Returning to New York, Barnum finds himself bankrupt and without a business as his circus has burned down.  With Charity threatening to leave him, will Barnum be able to regain his career and family before it’s too late? 

Review

Is “The Greatest Showman” a family movie?  It might depend on your definition of the term “family movie”.  If by “family movie” you mean something you could take your kids to and not feel the least bit squeamish or embarrassed having done so, then the answer is yes. If by “family movie” you mean something that your children might like, then the answer is maybe.  If by “family movie” you mean something that both the parents and spawn would enjoy equally, then a most unambiguous no is the answer.  It’s about as squeaky clean as a film about adultery could possibly be.

Seeing the movie “The Greatest Showman” is very much like seeing an actual Broadway musical.  Depending on your general feelings toward Broadway musicals, that could either be a very good thing or a very bad thing.  The film is definitely a spectacle, whatever that may mean to you.  Be forewarned that if you are in the least bit annoyed by the fact that characters can barely have three lines of dialog before they start bursting into a song and dance number, then perhaps this motion picture is not for you.  It is almost enough to make you feel sorry for the actors and actresses on screen.

In the event that you do not fit into any of the above categories, there might be one entry point to this movie where it could be appreciated on some level:  politics.  If you look at the popularity of Barnum as being an allegory for The Trump Phenomenon, then the symbolism is stark.  During his time, the general public liked Barnum because they found him entertaining.  He exploited vulnerable people to the enjoyment of many and to his own enrichment.  Sure, he hoodwinked everyone, but not only were they fully aware of it, they liked it very much.  Barnum = Trump?  Perhaps it’s a less outrageous comparison than you may think.

 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool”– Movie Review


film stars

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool”, starring Annette Bening. 

Synopsis

When Gloria Grahame looks up an old flame, is it to rekindle their romance or to save her life?

Story

In 1979, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) was a young Englishman who aspired to an acting career.  Living in a boarding house, he soon discovered that one of the other residents was Gloria Grahame (Bening), a once-famous American actress who is now long passed her prime.  With her career hitting the skids, she is now finding movie roles few and far between; as a result, Grahame is trying to kick-start her career by appearing in stage plays abroad.  When she meets Peter, her attention turns to snaring this much-younger man and they begin a very passionate affair.

When her time in England ends, Peter visits Grahame in America; the romance continues and he decides to put his acting career on hold just to be with her.  Although things pick up where they left off, Peter eventually begins to question his decision as Grahame slowly reveals her true self, albeit not necessarily by her own doing.  Grahame’s family reveals to him that she has a background of pursuing younger men.  Also, Peter sees her behavior as erratic when she instigates arguments with him and eventually forces him to return to England. 

A couple of years later, Grahame is back in England herself and Peter becomes aware of her return.  Going to visit her, she tells him that she’s sick and wants to live with Peter’s family so they can take care of her.  But after she moves in with his parents, Peter uncovers the truth:  Grahame was so unwell that she was hospitalized and left against medical advice.  It turns out that despite her attempts to trivialize her malady, she was quite ill – the doctor informs Peter that Grahame is dying from cancer.  Can Peter help to get Grahame the treatment she so desperately needs or is it now too late?

Review

Watching “Film Stars … “, it’s easy to feel a little disconcerted.  For one thing, despite the fact that Annette Bening is portraying the late actress, the filmmakers use the actual likeness of Grahame at various points throughout the movie.  When still photographs of Gloria Grahame are shown on screen, they depict Grahame herself – not airbrushed pictures of Bening (or a younger look-alike) made up to look like her.  Also, there are video clips shown; one of Grahame in an old movie (“Naked Alibi”) and the other a televised clip of her accepting an Academy Award (for “The Bad And The Beautiful” in 1953).  In both cases, once again, it is Grahame and not a simulated version with Bening as Grahame’s younger version. 

Why was this done?  It’s not an unreasonable question.  Perhaps the answer comes down to money.  It might be that the film’s budget could more easily accommodate paying for the rights to the clips than to re-enact them with Bening (who likely would’ve had to be shot carefully so as to appear younger).  But the problem with this choice is that it can easily throw the viewer out of the “reality” of the story it’s trying to tell; you have to wind up mentally re-adjusting your view and realizing what transpired (“What just happened here and why was it done that way?”). 

While “Film Stars … “ isn’t awful, it’s little technical details like that which tend to distract the viewer and detract from the movie.  Another example would be its soundtrack.  Elvis Costello fans might appreciate the use of his songs, but putting that aside for the moment, the songs by various artists are not necessarily judiciously used.  Once you start becoming aware of the music and when it’s being utilized in a scene, then you suddenly realize that you’re not involved in the story.  That’s too bad.  Because the story “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” is trying to tell is rather unique. 

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, December 07, 2017

“I, Tonya”– Movie Review

Tonya

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “I, Tonya”, starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. 

Synopsis

When Olympic skater Tonya Harding becomes embroiled in a scandal, what impact will this have on both her personal and professional life?

Story

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, little Tonya Harding is something of a skating prodigy.  At only four years old, she wins her first competition, somewhat pushed into it by her soulless mother, LaVona (Janney), who keeps her daughter under her thumb her entire life.  As her skating pursuits extend over the years, the teenage Harding (Robbie) grows to be a young woman defiant of her imperious mother.  This defiance culminates when she leaves home to marry the only boyfriend she’s ever had, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a rudderless young man who has few ambitions and arguably less education.

Tonya’s reputation in the skating community only grows when she becomes known as the only American female skater who has successfully accomplished the triple axel feat.  Now considered among the elite, talk begins of Olympic competition in 1992.  While she succeeds in making the team, she fails to bring home the gold medal.  Meanwhile, all of this focus on her skating combined with an ever-expanding ego causes her marriage to suffer.  She and Jeff are physically abusive to each other and eventually, they separate when she finally has had enough.

With her life in tatters, Tonya learns that she may have another opportunity to compete:  instead of waiting four years for the Winter Olympics, the IOC decides the next one will be in 1994.  This provides chance to reconnect with her childhood trainer and prepare for another competition.  But one thing stands in the way:  her main American threat is Nancy Kerrigan, a young woman who is more palatable to the skating community.  Now back with Jeff, they learn of death threats that may be coming from Kerrigan’s camp to play games with Tonya mentally.  When Jeff’s friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) hires a couple of goons to take care of the matter, things soon get out of hand – but will Tonya still be able to participate in the Olympics or will involvement in this stunt ruin her career?

Review

Oy, Tonya!  For those of us that are old enough to remember this too-good-to-be-true story about the soap opera that was Tonya Harding and company, it is something of a guilty pleasure to take a stroll down memory lane with “I, Tonya”.  Prior to 1994, few of us knew that the world of women’s professional skating was a full-contact sport.  Or maybe blood sport would be more accurate.  Such a genteel activity suddenly took on the verisimilitude of professional wrestling.  If this had been written as purely a work of fiction, no one would believe it because it was so utterly ridiculous.

With respect to the performances in this movie, the depth and breadth of Robbie’s acting skills are remarkable (she is also a co-producer of “I, Tonya”).  This often-glamorous actress truly comes across as the trailer trash the film’s subject truly is; while Robbie is a true beauty, the make-up artist successfully manages to transform her to look disturbingly heinous, possibly bordering on monstrous.  As good as Robbie is (and she’s great), Janney is that much better.  It’s foolish to try to predict acting nominations, but it would be a travesty if Janney was completely overlooked.  Yes, she’s just that awesome.

Technically, “I, Tonya” also gets high grades.  The movie is shot documentary-style, with interviews of the people involved many years after the fact (more accurately, interviews with the characters who are portrayed by the film’s actors).  This gives the motion picture something of a “Rashomon Effect” in the sense that each of the characters remembers things through the filter of their own reality.  Additionally, the camera is well-positioned in the skating scenes; rather than shooting it wide, we are actually on the ice with Harding, nearly giving the feeling that we are skating along side her.  One minor criticism is the too-frequent use of popular music from that era; it’s so intrusive (and at times, too on-the-nose) that you notice it and maybe even cringe a little.   

I, Tonya (2017) on IMDb

Friday, November 17, 2017

“Darkest Hour”– Movie Review

DKHR

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City Premiere of the new historical drama, “Darkest Hour” starring Gary Oldman.

Synopsis

When Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister of England, will he order his military to combat Hitler or will he choose to negotiate a peace treaty?

Story

In early May of 1940, Adolph Hitler is encroaching throughout Europe.  It looks like he will take Belgium – and if he does that, is France far behind?  The citizens of England are understandably worried; they are beginning to lose faith in their Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.  Seeing the tide turning against him, Chamberlain steps aside and King George installs Winston Churchill (Oldman) as the nation’s new Prime Minister.  But it is not without some controversy; the King has reservations about Churchill.  Professionally, the man is something of a hawk and personally, he’s known to be a bit of a lush. 

Now in charge, Churchill soon finds he’s inherited no bed of roses.  Visiting France, he’s stunned to learn that they have no plan to confront Hitler’s troops.  Seeing he may have to support France in addition to defending his own country, the nascent Prime Minister is alarmed to find that his nation’s military will be no match against Germany’s and they will be spread particularly thin if they are forced to fight for two countries.  Desperate, he asks United States President Roosevelt for some assistance, but this proves fruitless.  Just weeks into his term, Churchill is hearing rumblings of dissent in his Parliament.

Against his best instincts, Churchill starts listening to some of his advisors who strongly recommend they take up Italy’s Mussolini on his offer to serve as a broker between England and Germany to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler.  As loathe as Churchill may be to this notion, the reality is that if his soldiers try to fight Germany, they will suffer massive casualties and the nation will wind up losing faith in its new leader.  Once word comes that Belgium has fallen, Churchill must make a decision:  either concede or talk the Parliament into putting up a fight against the German forces.  Is this something that Churchill is worth risking at this point in his political career? 

Review

It is rare to have multiple biopics about the same historical figure in one year.  This past Spring, “Churchill” was reviewed; over the summer, “Dunkirk” was released (not directly about The British Bulldog himself, but close enough); now, we have, “Darkest Hour” – which wags will likely refer to as “Darkest Two Hours”.  But make no mistake:  both the Prime Minister and that point in the history of the world are quite rich with material for many motion pictures, books and even television mini-series.  Churchill himself was legendary for many reasons, including being quite a character (for better or worse).   

The problem for some who try dramatic adaptions to their chosen medium  is this:  in real time, the events were thrilling moments but condensing them to movies while keeping the dramatic tension can prove a challenge when the outcome is already known.  This is the main problem with “Darkest Hour” – while there’s a war raging on in Europe, the conflict has to do with the internecine battles within the British Parliament as well as Churchill’s own personal doubts.  Conveying that on-screen is difficult to say the least and the way the story arrives at its resolution is hard to swallow; the final scene where Churchill speaks before Parliament tries to be exhilarating but winds up more underwhelming.    

Regarding the performances, Oldman is being touted as a possible award nominee for his portrayal of Churchill.  Much of the time, however, it appears as though he is letting the extensive make-up do a substantial amount of the work.  His gravelly utterances at various points can be hard to comprehend, especially when he is mumbling – particularly odd since the character was known as a great orator.  Kristin Scott Thomas, on the other hand, goes sorely under-utilized as the Prime Minister’s wife; although she portrays Mrs. Churchill as a doting and dignified supportive influence, her role is distressingly minor.  However, the classic, fragile beauty of this actress never goes unnoticed.       

Darkest Hour (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

“Murder On The Orient Express”– Movie Review

MOTOE

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new mystery, “Murder On The Orient Express”, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Synopsis

When a passenger is killed during a long train ride, can a legendary detective determine which one of the others committed the crime?

Story

In 1934, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) boards the Orient Express in Istanbul to embark on a vacation – or so he thought.  The train is packed with a motley collection of fellow travelers – all of whom are quite idiosyncratic in their own right.  Along the way through the wintry mountains, the train gets stalled when it is derailed by a substantial snowdrift.  Once the train misses its schedule at the next station, an excavation crew is sent out to locate the train and dig it out so that it can proceed along its route.  Stuck in the snow, some of the passengers get acquainted with each other – in particular, Poirot meets a man named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who turns out to be something of a scoundrel.   

While onboard this luxury transportation, one of the passengers is murdered – and to the surprise of few, it turns out the victim is Ratchett.  At this point, everyone looks to Poirot to find the culprit.  Poirot then begins his investigation in his own inimitable way, looking for clues in places where no one would think to find them.  His powers of deduction cause him to interview each of the passengers, asking some very pointed questions, infuriating and insulting some of them.  Furthermore, Poirot’s observational skills allow him to see things about each passenger which arouses his suspicions.     

With the excavation crew making inroads in their ability to free up the train, the Orient Express will soon be on its way.  Time is of the essence and if the train arrives at its next stop before a malefactor can be uncovered, they will likely get away with the crime.  Poirot is now under pressure to narrow down the suspects.  But who can it be?  Each one of the dozen passengers has shown themselves to be deceptive in their own way and a number of them even seem to have their own motive to want to take out Ratchett.  Can Poirot figure out who done it before it’s too late or will this prove to be the first time the great expert is outsmarted?

Review

It would be understandable to roll your eyes at the thought of yet another remake of this Agatha Christie classic novel.  But the filmmakers do seem to get it right this time around (unless of course you’re faithful to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974, which would be quite understandable as many consider it The Gold Standard).  The entire production design – including and especially the CGI that shows the locomotive wending its way through the snow-capped mountains – is quite something to behold.  But what really pulls the whole thing together is Branagh – both with his directing and his acting.  

The screenplay by Michael Green also deserves some notice as well.  He has allowed Poirot to have humor – including that of the self-deprecating variety which illustrates the detective’s immense ego (not to mention his larger-than-life mustache).  Also, the characters are reasonably well delineated, but not with so much detail that the audience can’t see the forest for the trees; in the two hours of the movie, you get just enough backstory about them that you have a good enough idea who each one is without clogging the forward progression of the main story.

As a director, Branagh finds some interesting shots on the train, shooting a conversation with one passenger through a window that almost acts like a cross between a prism and a fun house mirror.  Seeing him as Poirot march confidently across the snow-covered roof of a train car without concern for his footing is humorous in itself.  But as an actor, it’s the intensity he gives Poirot that truly hits the spot here; we almost see Poirot as vulnerable and fallible as he tries to come to the conclusion of just exactly who did away with Ratchett. 

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) on IMDb