Friday, July 22, 2016

“Absolutely Fabulous”– Movie Review



This week, I attended  New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “Absolutely Fabulous”, starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.


When two women are accused of attempting to murder a top international model, can they prove their innocence or will they be forced to spend their lives as fugitives?


Finally, after all these years, both Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) find themselves at the end of their respective ropes.  They are bereft of the necessities (e.g., champagne) and their munificent benefactor refuses to support their lifestyle.  Now, both women must figure out a way to live out the rest of their lives.  Edina has lost what little business credibility she may have had previously – a publisher has unceremoniously rejected her barely intelligible autobiography and she is leaking clients in her Public Relations company. 

But it always appears darkest before the dawn – Patsy informs Edina that internationally famous model Kate Moss has fired her Public Relations firm and is now looking for someone else to represent her.  Sensing an opportunity, Edina attends a celebrity-laden party held by Patsy’s fashion magazine so she can offer her services to Moss, who is scheduled to attend.  Unfortunately, Edina inadvertently knocks Moss into The Thames; Moss is presumed dead by the media when she is not immediately found.  Once Patsy is fired for inviting her guest, both she and Edina now find themselves on the run. 

With the police in hot pursuit, Edina and Patsy escape to The French Riviera where they stumble upon an elderly woman who’s incredibly wealthy and can offer them the financial support they need to live the extravagant lifestyle they both require – unfortunately, this requires Patsy to pose as a man so that she can hastily romance and marry this geriatric Baroness.  Ultimately, Patsy relents when she realizes the alternative – but even when she succeeds in her deceit, will she be able to convince this woman to support them both or will the police find them and arrest these women for the murder of a beloved fashion icon?


For the hardcore fans of the AbFab television show, the movie version might be a pleasant reminiscence.  If, however, you are relatively unfamiliar with the British TV version, you won’t entirely feel lost, but you won’t entirely feel entertained, either.  While it may be a fun experience for devotees of Edina and Patsy’s to catch up with the gals after an extended hiatus, the joy may indeed be short-lived.  For those who aren’t familiar with the show, this will likely not be a good choice as an introduction.  Many jokes just don’t go over well, if at all.

Although “Absolutely Fabulous” is only an hour and a half – arguably the perfect length for a comedy – it inexplicably seems to plod along to the end, especially in its second act.    There isn’t a sense of momentum propelling the story to its climax, which renders it somewhat anticlimactic.  It appears that when an actual joke couldn’t be conjured up, they just chose to insert a random celebrity for a quick laugh (perhaps the only true amusement in the film is identifying all of the celebrity cameos).  Just as some of the story alludes to Edina and Patsy being well past their time, perhaps “Absolutely Fabulous” is itself well past its time, too.         

Before the screening began, it appeared that the audience was replete with some of Edina and Patsy’s biggest fans.  At some point during (and especially after) the screening, it felt as though the gathering  had been disappointed; there was no applause at end of the movie, precious few audible laughs during it and a number of folks sprung to their feet and bolted the theater the moment the credits began to roll.  Perhaps the final disappointment is the movie’s conclusion, which is either a homage to Billy Wilder’s classic “Some Like It Hot” or a blatant steal.  Either way, its punchline is missing the punch from the line. 

 Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, June 30, 2016

“Captain Fantastic”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Captain Fantastic”, starring Viggo Mortensen.


When a family living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest is forced to integrate into mainstream society, can they successfully adapt?


Ben (Mortensen) has taken his family of six children deep into the forest of the northwestern portion of The United States where they live off the land and off the grid.  Teaching them how to hunt for food and exist virtually without modern comforts, he homeschools them so that they are not poisoned by a corrupt society.  While they wind up getting an unusual – and in some ways better – education compared to most kids raised in a normal environment, their isolation from the outside world results in an absence of social skills, which can sometimes manifest itself as overt hostility towards outsiders whom they look down upon.

Eventually, tragedy strikes the family in a way that forever changes their world.  Ben’s wife – the mother of all these children – has been suffering from severe mental disorders for years, which resulted in her long-term hospitalization.  Ultimately, the family gets the news that while institutionalized, she has committed suicide.  As if that is not hard enough for Ben and his children to take, they are now confronted with the possibility of having to venture into society in order to attend a funeral which the woman’s Last Will clearly stated would be unwelcome.  Instead, however, Jack (Frank Langella), Ben’s wealthy Father-In-Law, is so angry over his daughter’s demise that he threatens Ben with arrest if he attends the funeral because he feels Ben’s unorthodox lifestyle brought this about. 

Defiantly, Ben packs his brood into a tricked-out school bus and and drives to New Mexico for the funeral.  Expectedly, he interrupts the church services by making a speech about his late wife and reading her true wishes from her Will; while Jack stops short of having him arrested, he does have Ben forcibly removed from the church.  Reunited with his grandchildren – some of whom he’s never met – Jack decides he now wants legal custody of them when one of the boys rebels and refuses to return to live with Ben.  In an attempt to rescue his son, Ben winds up putting one of his older daughters in physical jeopardy, resulting in her hospitalization.  With all these events occurring and his oldest son entertaining the prospect of going away to study at college, will Ben be forced to change his ways or will he remain stubborn?


It is difficult to choose what’s most objectionable about “Captain Fantastic”.  Is it the fact that protagonist leads his family in defiling a human corpse?  Or is the unreasonably demanding suspension of disbelief in multiple plot points an insult to the intelligence of the audience?  (Specific citations might include the woman’s suicide itself, or absence of allusions to suing the hospital over this.  Lets toss in the question about how the oldest son got a passport all of a sudden, which raises questions about what he used for a birth certificate.  There are really too many more to mention) 

Basically, Ben is a crackpot who comes across as barely more mentally stable than his late wife.  The question then becomes whether the audience is supposed to root for him to become a better father or if we are to root for the children to escape his clutches.  At various points, it is unclear which.  Is the father evil or merely foolish?  Either way, he seems utterly incompetent as a parent and too much of a risk taker who frequently puts his children in great danger, deserving of having them taken away for their own safety. 

The audience is given to believe that the hirsute Ben is ready, willing and able to change by virtue of his shaving his unkempt beard and mustache near the conclusion of “Captain Fantastic”.  Given how adamant (or obnoxious) he’s been regarding his own personal philosophy, it may be difficult for audiences to buy into this attempt at a character arc.  Morphing from the Grizzly Adams version of Bernie Sanders to the dad from “Leave It To Beaver” within the span of the movie’s two hours is hard to swallow, to put it mildly.

Although Frank Langella’s Jack is intended as the role of antagonist, he is a genuine breath of fresh air in this film – not to mention an all too rare oasis of sanity.  His presence is a relief for viewers given the anxiety built by witnessing the treacherous situations in which the children have been placed.  While it may be an overstretch for him to accuse Ben of his daughter’s death, he’s justified in his efforts to protect his grandchildren by all means at his disposal.  The title “Captain Fantastic” may be seen as either ironic or sarcastic, but its protagonist is definitely far from heroic. 

Captain Fantastic (2016) on IMDb


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Eat That Question”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a Village Voice screening of the new documentary “Eat That Question:  Frank Zappa in His Own Words”.


Through a series of interviews and performances, Frank Zappa either talks about or demonstrates his musical background and creative process. 


Frank Zappa characterized himself as an entertainer.  In some ways, that seems appropriate since he was, indeed, entertaining.  But it was also an accurate description because he was so much more than merely one thing:  he was a musician with a strong background in classical music who wound up expressing himself in the rock genre.  He was also a composer, who not only wrote and performed his own songs, but also worked on expansive orchestrations which he sometimes conducted.  Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic was as a gadfly. 

One particular way in which Zappa was considered a nuisance was in his ongoing fights against censorship.  This battle appeared to come to a head when Zappa had to appear before The United States Senate in the late 1980’s in order to defend the lyrical content of his records.  Tipper Gore – the wife of then-Senator Al Gore – started an organization which became known as The Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC).  Basically, this was a self-proclaimed censorship group backed somewhat by the potentially-intimidating authoritative nature of the federal government.  The PMRC claimed the purpose of their existence was to help fellow parents in protecting children from popular music which contained “obscene” lyrics.  In his testimony, Zappa crushed them.

In the early 1990’s, Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Given the severely limited treatment options in those days, there wasn’t very much that could be done to help him, except attempts to impede its progress.  Over time, the illness took its toll on the great man; he became weak and tired.  Despite his lifelong reputation as a workaholic, he found that he now had to work less.  One of his final projects was an ambitious orchestral arrangement he hoped to conduct, but due to the debilitating nature of his cancer, he was forced to seek out another, younger conductor.  Zappa finally succumbed to the cancer in 1993.   


The word “genius” is frequently tossed around recklessly, but in the case of Frank Zappa was extremely  appropriate, if not a total understatement.  Zappa was not only a brilliant musician who composed songs that occasionally had intricate and complex melodies, but he was also a keen observer of culture and society at large, capable of making the most incisive (and often humorous) commentaries.  The documentary about his life, “Eat That Question”, however, is not nearly up to the level of his brilliance.  Although director Thorsten Schütte claims this was his passion project for the past eight years, it doesn’t seem that enough effort was made in compiling these clips given that amount of time.

For one thing, the documentary lacks structure.  “Eat That Question” is a bunch of interviews with Zappa done over the years; they are strung together, periodically broken up by performances on television or in concert.  The viewer doesn’t know where in Zappa’s life we are until the end where the final interview shows him gaunt, pale and drawn while he’s dying of prostate cancer.  It would have been informative if the date (or at least the year) and location of the various interviews and performance footage had been provided via superimposing it on the screen or by using title cards in between. 

That this information is absent suggests a certain degree of lackadaisical attitude or carelessness on the part of the filmmaker.  Clearly, there is some black and white television footage from the 1960’s and 1970’s, but exactly when or what the title of the show was or the name of the host doing the interview are pieces of information that are inexplicably omitted.  In addition, while we see Zappa playing with his band, The Mothers Of Invention, we learn nothing about who these people were or how Zappa formed the band.  Yes, this documentary literally is just Frank Zappa in his own words – but maybe a few more words here and there might have come in handy. 

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) on IMDb

Monday, June 13, 2016

“The Witness”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new documentary “The Witness”, about the infamous Kitty Genovese murder.


When a young woman is murdered, the media reports that 38 witnesses to the crime did nothing to help – but what happens when this all turns out to be a lie?


On a cold March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered on a street in the New York City borough of Queens.  Much was made of this because it was so widely reported in the news not only in New York City, but around the country, as well.  The nation was horrified to learn through media reports that despite this 28-year-old young woman’s cries for help in the street, no one was willing to help her.  According to newspaper articles, there were 38 witnesses to the crime and none of them either came to her aid or called the police. 

Some 40 years after the crime, The New York Times published an article that re-examined the crime; based on the reporter’s investigation, the conclusion was that the version of the story originally reported by The Times was factually incorrect, either accidentally or intentionally.  While the story suggested there were 38 eyewitnesses, they may have really been “earwitnesses” instead – that is to say, they only heard the crime rather than saw the crime.  Upon reading this, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, decided to do some investigation of his own; still bothered by the crime that essentially ruined his family, Bill found it hard to believe that there were 38 people who refused his sister help. 

However, there were several matters that hampered Bill’s investigation.  For one thing, since so much time had elapsed since the killing, many of the supposed witnesses had died; also, again due to the passage of time, those who were still around and willing to speak had some trouble remembering many of the exact details of this night.  Perhaps the most daunting challenge Bill faced was his own physical limitation; having joined the Marines during the Vietnam war, he had both of his legs blown off and had been confined to a wheelchair for decades.  Despite all of these obstacles, can Bill get to the bottom of this incident?       


Remarkable, painful and informative – these words are perhaps the best fitting description of “The Witness”.  What little most of us know about Kitty Genovese is only regarding the last half hour of her life when she was stabbed and lay dying in a pool of her own blood.  Through this documentary, we learn what a full and happy life she was leading right up until its premature end.  Astounding revelations include her brief marriage and lesbian relationship, not to mention the fact that she had been previously arrested for her involvement in bookmaking.  Shocking to watch is Bill’s meeting with the adult son of the man who spent his life in prison for Kitty’s murder; it turns out his father filled his head with misinformation about what happened that night. 

If there is any criticism of this documentary, it would be the way in which its ending was handled.  First, the only person who actually came out to help Kitty was a woman named Sophie, who lived in the same apartment building and was her good friend.  Bill was able to meet with Sophie, but the meeting was somewhat anticlimactic.  The other scene had to do with Bill hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s attack where she was in the street screaming for help at 3AM.  In the context of the movie, it was a little difficult to understand exactly why Bill did this; it wasn’t until afterwards in the question and answer session (below) that he explained the people in the neighborhood had been previously informed the filmmakers were going to do this so as not to alarm residents.  He further clarified that it was done so he could personally witness what his sister must have gone through in her final moments. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the director and Bill.  Bill said that although the early portions of his investigation were emotionally taxing, the longer he continued, the more he was able to accept closure on his sister’s story; he felt that in some way, this documentary keeps Kitty alive, at least in his own mind.  Director James Solomon said that while most people see this as a mystery, he sees the film as something of a sibling love story; Solomon added that he was able to commiserate with Bill’s sense of loss because during the shoot, he lost his own brother to leukemia.   

The Witness (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

“Diary Of A Chambermaid”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new French drama “Diary Of A Chambermaid”, starring Léa Seydoux and directed by Benoît Jacquot. 


When a young chambermaid seeks to escape her demanding employers, will she be willing to break the law in order to do so?


At the turn of the 20th century in France, Célestine (Léa Seydoux) is having a hard life working as a chambermaid for various wealthy families.  Poor but quite beautiful, she is pursued by her male bosses; both her male and female employers end up taking advantage of her, but in very different ways.  Having recently left a plum assignment in Paris under some mysterious circumstances, Célestine winds up taking a job in the provinces where she works at the mansion of a the Lanlaire family; sadly, her fortunes turn out to be no different there as Mrs. Lanlaire is nasty and Mr. Lanlaire is constantly trying to get her into bed (just as he has previously with other female servants). 

Trying to adapt as best she can, Célestine attempts to befriend Marianne, the family cook, and Joseph, their gardener and coach driver.  Although she seems to be hitting it off well with Marianne, Joseph is another matter; he is quite aloof and a bit spooky, staring menacingly at her while on the grounds or at church.  Nevertheless, Célestine does her level best to navigate through the treacherous waters between the lady and gentleman of the house, resenting them both.  All the while, she dreams of a better life somewhere else doing something else – the only question is where and doing what?

Eventually, Joseph warms up to her and makes an effort to engage Célestine.  Joseph admits to her that he wants to be with her; he has a bit of money saved and they could leave for a big city where the two could earn a tidy income – basically by Joseph serving as her pimp while she got paid to sleep with strange men.  Initially, Célestine is turned off to the idea, but after suffering with The Lanlaires, she gets fed up and decides to accept Joseph’s offer.  But when he reveals a scheme of how they’ll rob The Lanlaires before they quit, will Célestine go along with the plan or back-out in the end?


“Diary Of A Chambermaid” is based on a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau, which was published in 1900.  Since then, it has seen three film adaptations:  the original in 1946 (directed by Jean Renoir), then in 1964 (Luis Buñuel’s version) and again now (as interpreted by Benoît Jacquot).  In that regard, you might say that the current one is a copy of a copy; as often happens when you make a copy of a copy, its clarity and quality suffers.  Such is the case with the new version of this adaptation.  The episodic nature of the storytelling combined with an ending that screeches to a halt with many questions left unanswered causes this effort to suffer immensely. 

Why does Celestine suddenly team with Joseph after having such negative impressions of him?  The film chooses to ignore this.  Narratively, the movie abruptly switches to what turn out to be flashbacks without clearly identifying them as such, ultimately confusing the viewer.  On a technical note, the film is in French with English subtitles that are in white; as a result, they can occasionally be hard to read when superimposed over light backgrounds.  Why filmmakers don’t get the hint and start subtitling in the easier to read yellow may forever remain a mystery.  Inattention to these kinds of details speak to either the arrogance, apathy or ambivalence of the international distributors – it’s unclear which, or perhaps a combination of two or more of these. 

After the screening, director Benoît Jacquot appeared for a brief question and answer session with the audience.  Through an interpreter, Jacquot said that he came to make this movie through a recommendation from a friend; although he had never previously read the Mirbeau novel, he did admit to seeing the previous two film adaptations.  He felt that the Renoir version was very different from Buñuel’s and with that in mind, he wanted to take a stab at his own view.  Another reason why Jacquot claimed he was motivated to do this motion picture was due to the fact that some of the political issues informing France from a century ago continue to resonate today.      

Diary of a Chambermaid (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

“Money Monster”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Money Monster” starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts and directed by Jodie Foster.


When a poor man loses his life savings in a Wall Street investment, he takes hostage the television host whom he feels gave him poor advice – but when it turns out they’ve both been swindled, can they bring the real culprit to justice?


Lee Gates (Clooney) is The Money Monster – or perhaps more accurately, he’s the host of a television show called “Money Monster”.  As the controversially garish star of a show that frequently blurs the lines between information and entertainment, his success has caused his massive ego to grow out of control, resulting in considerable friction between himself and his long-time producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), who is secretly planning her exit strategy.  On his show, Gates provides viewers with stock tips and various investment advice.  One of his telecasts included a solid buy recommendation for a financial services company called Ibis, which showed considerable growth potential. 

Kyle (Jack O'Connell), a blue collar deliveryman whose means and education are both limited, took Gates’ recommendation to heart.  With a $60,000 inheritance from his recently deceased mother, Kyle poured the entire amount into Ibis, hoping that it would provide him a secure future upon retirement.  Unfortunately for Kyle and his fellow Ibis investors, the stock took an unexpected downturn; its price dropped from $75 per share to only $8 with little sign it would reverse quickly, if ever.  When questioned about this unforeseen disaster, executives at Ibis would merely say the issue occurred due to a glitch in the software that handles its trades. 

Furious over having lost his nest egg, Kyle sneaks into Gates’ studio during a live broadcast, armed with both a handgun and explosives.  Interrupting that day’s episode of “Money Monster”, Kyle holds both the host and his show hostage until and unless he can get better answers about how such a seemingly secure company could somehow manage to lose $80 million in investors’ money.  As Patty reaches out to Ibis executives to have a representative address Kyle’s concerns and save everyone’s life, she soon learns the company’s CEO may have personally manipulated his company’s fortunes for nefarious purposes.  With that being the case, can Patty risk angering Kyle even further once he discovers the truth or can she and Gates find a way to turn the tables in such a way as to arrive at a safe outcome? 


Acolytes of Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will likely flock to see “Money Monster” because it resonates on the theme that the United States economy is a rigged system that benefits only the very rich while punishing The Average Joe.  However, whether or not they will like the movie is an entirely different matter indeed.  The trite dialog and unlikely situations in this film render pedestrian entertainment at best, only given credibility by virtue of the big names attached to the project. 

The film’s show “Money Monster” is clearly based on CNBC’s “Mad Money” with Clooney’s Gates being a considerably more glamorous version of its host Jim Cramer.  The twinkle of that glamor is soon tarnished by a rather drab script with a suspect set-up and predictable ending.  In this post-Great Recession era where movies like “Wolf Of Wall Street” and “The Big Short” are venting the anger and resentment of the hoi polloi who were victimized by greedy Wall Street financiers in the recent past, “Money Monster” will probably not be remembered as among one of the best of that ilk. 

Those expecting to see a romantic involvement between Clooney and Roberts will be severely disappointed; instead, their characters are more like collaborators and effectively business partners who speak in a shorthand only they understand – as such, “Money Monster” is more of a buddy movie for these two mega-stars and any sense of love between them is purely platonic.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with this – except for the director’s uneasy presentation of Clooney’s character as sleazy by tarring him as quite the lothario. 

Money Monster (2016) on IMDb

Monday, May 02, 2016

“A Bigger Splash”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “A Bigger Splash”, starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson.


When a rock star and her lover have their vacation ruined by her former boyfriend who unexpectedly arrives with his daughter, tensions rise between the two men – but will she be forced to pick one over the other?


Following a grueling tour, rock singer Marianne Lane (Swinton) goes on vacation with her partner, documentary filmmaker Paul (Schoenaerts).  Their vacation, however, is anything but carefree:  it is being taken as per her doctor’s orders.  It seems that her excruciating schedule has taken its toll on Marianne’s voice; if she doesn’t give it a rest for a minimum of two weeks, she may never be able to sing again.  While lounging quietly on a small Italian island, they are surprised when her ex-boyfriend Harry (Fiennes) shows up along with his once-estranged daughter Penelope (Johnson). 

Crashing at Marianne’s villa, Paul is immediately uncomfortable with their presence.  At first, Marianne seems pleased to see Harry again, but his personality soon wears on her nerves, especially when she sees he has an unusual relationship with Penelope since they’ve reconciled.  While Harry tries to smooth over Paul’s hurt feelings, he’s simultaneously trying to find ways to be alone with Marianne for the purpose of stealing her away from Paul.  Meanwhile, Penelope, who’s been a little hostile towards Marianne, seems to have her sights set on seducing Paul. 

One night, when the women go to bed early, Paul and Harry confront each other about what has been unsaid all along:  Paul accuses Harry of trying to push him out of the way in order to win back Marianne and Harry accuses Paul of trying to hook up with Penelope behind his back.  Before long, it escalates into a physical contest with the men stumbling into the backyard pool; continuing their fight in the water, Paul drowns Harry.  Horrified at finding Harry dead the next morning, Marianne calls the police and their investigation begins.  With Marianne suspecting Paul of the murder, will she convince the police of his innocence or can they find sufficient evidence to charge him with the crime?


Although there are a few promising ideas and potential plot twists hinted at in “A Bigger Splash”, none of them are ever fully realized.  Instead, this plodding movie feels considerably longer than its two-hours.  Its biggest problem is that the story doesn’t really start until the end of the second act; before that, there are other elements teased but they all wind up being nothing more than misdirection.  If all you want in a movie is pretty people in a beautiful setting with gorgeous scenery, “A Bigger Splash” will suit nicely.  On the other hand, if you are looking for a film with a compelling story, you’ll be forced to look elsewhere. 

It seems the filmmakers are only interested in spending the first hour and a half faking out the audience – essentially, wasting everyone’s time.  Its screenplay’s structure is in a serious imbalance.  The initial 90 minutes of this motion picture meanders as if the movie itself is on vacation – not in a particular hurry to go anywhere.  It’s not until the final act – and fairly late in that act – that we learn some astounding facts regarding certain characters.  If only these had been introduced earlier!  Impatiently, an audience will understandably ask itself at some point, “Where is this story going?”.  The answer, unfortunately, is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

The only way “A Bigger Splash” will have you on the edge of your seat in a movie theater is if you are contemplating leaving.  In fact, during this screening, approximately a half dozen audience members walked out about half-way through.  They cannot and should not be shamed for this.  Instead, they should be commended for their excellent judgment and time management skills.  One can only imagine how much more interesting this motion picture would have been if its story had gotten started earlier.  As it is, “A Bigger Splash” winds up drowning itself in its own aimlessness. 

A Bigger Splash (2015) on IMDb

Friday, April 22, 2016

“A Hologram For The King”– Movie Review



This week at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended The World Premiere of the new drama, “A Hologram For The King”, starring Tom Hanks. 


When an American salesman travels to Saudi Arabia to sell technology to The King, can he overcome significant cultural differences in order to make the deal?


Alan (Hanks) has both his career and personal life on the line:  his employer is sending him on an extended trip to Saudi Arabia in order to pitch their new cutting-edge hologram technology for online conferencing.  Given that his own boss doesn’t even have a great deal of confidence in Alan’s ability to make this deal, he’s under considerable stress.  At the same time, he’s recently divorced and experiencing some financial setbacks that, among other things, have forced his daughter to put her college education temporarily on hold, much to Alan’s consternation and embarrassment. 

Once in Saudi Arabia, Alan encounters all kinds of problems.  To start with, he consistently misses the shuttle that would take him to the government offices he’s supposed to visit and must therefore hire a driver (Alexander Black) to transport him.  But even when Alan is at the office, he faces substantial resistance:  his IT Team isn’t being treated particularly well and the executives that are his points of contact constantly evade him, either intentionally or coincidentally; of particular concern is the Saudi King, crucial to making the final decision, and he’s nowhere in sight.  The best Alan can manage is to befriend the company’s payroll manager Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who apparently has the hots for him.  

And just what exactly is that lump on Alan’s back, anyway?  Showering in his hotel room, he’s alarmed by this growth.  As if he doesn’t already have enough to worry about, now his health is at issue.  Alan sees a local physician, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), who assures him it’s only a cyst, which she can easily remove.  After follow-up visits, they soon form an affinity and start seeing each other outside office hours.  Meanwhile, with the whereabouts of the Saudi King still very much up in the air, will Alan’s presentation ever actually occur or has this entire venture been a colossal waste of time?


Without a doubt, the best part of “A Hologram For The King”, is its opening sequence where Hanks performs his own version of The Talking Heads’ classic, “Once In A Lifetime”.  It is a promising start on a number of levels; for one thing, it’s surreal and a naturally funny Hanks really takes advantage of its inherently humorous aspects.  Also, the lyrics to the song portend the overarching theme of the movie itself.  While it may be a bit harsh to say that the film goes downhill from there, it’s certainly fair to say that nothing that comes thereafter quite lives up to that first scene. 

If “A Hologram For The King” is salvageable at all – and there’s a debate for you – it is through the performance of Hanks, The Everyman of American motion pictures.  There is a substantial dark side to this movie, but Hanks’ comedic talents are able to balance it throughout.  The film tries to pose the question of how to successfully overcome a culture clash.  However, the bigger question is one that is asked both by and about the protagonist:  “What happens when you’re nearing retirement and you suddenly realize your life has turned you into the loser you never thought you’d be?”  Combine that with the fish-out-of-water theme and it’s difficult not to root for Hanks’ character. 

Because there are multiple plotlines in “A Hologram For The King” – the various conflicts in Alan’s personal life as well as the goals set in his professional life – they all need to get resolved to one extent or another by the conclusion.  Although this happens, the plausibility of some of the resolutions may be called into question.  While some may appear realistic on one hand, there are others that come off as a little too contrived and convenient.  It may be something of a stretch to say that all the various messes get cleaned up in the end, how they get cleaned up may be dubious – once again, perhaps the only thing that could allow viewers to suspend their disbelief is the mere fact that it is Everyman Tom Hanks.   

A Hologram for the King (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

“Elvis & Nixon”– Movie Review


This week, I attended The Centerpiece screening at The Tribeca Film Festival:  the World Premiere of the new comedy, “Elvis & Nixon”, starring Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon.


When rock star Elvis Presley decides to become a federal narcotics agent, he requests a meeting with President Richard Nixon – but if Nixon consents to the meeting, will he also agree to making him an agent?


In 1970, rock and roll legend Elvis Presley (Shannon) was discouraged by the current events of the day:  American youth protested against the Vietnam war, pervasive lax morality and most importantly, rampant drug usage.  Having enjoyed immense success for many years, Elvis felt a sense of duty; he decided he needed to lobby then-United States President Richard Nixon (Spacey) to make him an undercover drug enforcement agent.  Elvis called upon his good friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to accompany him on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he would deliver a handwritten letter to Nixon requesting a meeting.  

Things, however, do not go as planned.  Although the letter eventually makes its way to Administration official Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and is granted permission to pitch it to The President, Nixon flatly rejects the idea.  When Elvis gets the news, he’s crestfallen and decides to return to his Graceland mansion in Tennessee until Jerry convinces Krogh to appeal to Nixon’s daughters.  Once they learn their father has a chance to meet The King Of Rock And Roll, they beg him for autographs and photos.  Learning this, Nixon reconsiders his original position and grants Elvis a brief meeting.

With preparations for the meeting underway, it becomes clear this is turning into a power struggle between these two different men.  Initially planning to keep the meeting to five minutes, Nixon is cajoled by Elvis, allowing him to extend his stay.  Eventually, however, Elvis hits Nixon with The Big Ask:  an official badge from the Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs making him an undercover agent.  Seeing Elvis is delusional, Nixon tries to dissuade him – but can Elvis talk The President into awarding him a badge?


“Elvis And Nixon” is hardly a movie anyone needs to see immediately – if ever. For all of its oddities, however, the film’s daffiness and congeniality renders it as an occasionally entertaining experience in its own cumbersome way, sometimes overcoming a cumbersome script with performances that are really out there.  Why such gifted actors as Spacey and Shannon consented to it may forever remain a mystery.  Spacey refuses to act behind make-up – he only remotely resembles Nixon and his imitation of the disgraced President is adequate (those who’ve seen his impressions of Al Pacino or Johnny Carson know just how good a mimic he can be).  

Shannon, perhaps to his credit, resists the temptation to go Full Metal Elvis; his only resemblance to Elvis is in his unorthodox dress and hairstyle and he does not appear to even attempt some semblance of an impersonation.  Instead, he seems to be making a considerably more nuanced acting choice by presenting Elvis as almost likeable despite The King’s gullible nature (or naiveté).  By contrast, Spacey seems to have chosen to make a mockery of Nixon; he is intentionally playing the President for laughs whereas Shannon’s Elvis is completely unaware of how ridiculous he truly was.  

Together, the two make for some amusing moments during the actual meeting, although you may feel ashamed of yourself for laughing; these two egomaniacs are so impressed with their own sense of self-importance they just can’t seem to get over themselves –which is part of what makes their pairing so curious.  Clearly, “Elvis And Nixon” is merely an imagining of what happened not only during the meeting, but in the events leading up to it as well; much of what is here is taken from Elvis’ long-time friend Jerry Schilling, who wrote a book about his relationship with The King Of Rock And Roll.    

Elvis & Nixon (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“The Family Fang”– Movie Review


This weekend, I attended a screening at The Tribeca Film Festival of the new comedy-drama, “The Family Fang”, directed by Jason Bateman, in which he co-stars with Nicole Kidman. 


When adult siblings seek their parents who have turned up missing under mysterious circumstances, will it turn out to be yet another one of their hoaxes?


Annie and younger brother Baxter Fang (Kidman and Bateman) have been doing the best they can to carry on with their lives despite their unusual upbringing.  As children, their parents Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunket) were notorious performance artists known for filming the pranks they pulled on an unsuspecting public – pranks which usually included the participation of their offspring Annie and Baxter.  Eager to please their parents in exchange for the implicit understanding of unconditional love, Annie and Baxter allowed themselves to be used in their parents’ warped form of home movies, which made them famous.

As an actress starring in small, independent films, Annie’s career is stalling; due to a personal history of unpredictable behavior and substance abuse, many studios are now reluctant to hire her and her own agent is losing confidence.  Baxter, on the other hand, became a writer; after getting a couple of novels published (one to great acclaim), he now finds himself stuck on his current project due to severe writer’s block.  He is then forced to accept various freelance journalism assignments wherever he can find them in order to make ends meet. 

After a freak accident forces Baxter to grudgingly reunite with his sister and parents, he and Annie are soon awash with memories of their disruptive and unorthodox upbringing.  Eventually, Caleb and Camille must take off, leaving Annie to care for Baxter in the upstate New York home where they were raised.  Later, police notify the siblings their parents’ car was abandoned at a rest stop – Caleb and Camille are nowhere to be seen, but the car is covered in blood stains that are believed to be Caleb’s.  With their parents presumed dead, Baxter is determined to move on – but when Annie suspects this may be yet another elaborate con being pulled by their parents to reestablish themselves as society’s pre-eminent performance artists, can she prove Caleb and Camille are both still alive or will the police provide evidence otherwise? 


Jason Bateman showed off his skills as a director in the hilarious comedy “Bad Words”, in which he also starred; he has scored yet another major triumph in this unusual film, “The Family Fang”.  It is difficult to pull off a balance between the two extreme ranges of black comedy and serious drama, yet somehow, Bateman has managed to succeed, intermingling flashbacks between Baxter and Annie’s childhood juxtaposed against present day.  “The Family Fang” is a wild ride, but one with a cohesive structure and deeply satisfying conclusion.

This movie is based on the novel of the same title by Kevin Wilson and its screenplay adroitly adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire.  The movie is greatly assisted by some excellent casting choices, not the least of which being Walken as the oddball father who coerces his family into satisfying his own egotistical needs.  Kidman herself is also quite good as the rightfully suspicious Annie, who’s at the end of her rope both professionally and emotionally.  Maryann Plunket is believable as the mother who seems to go along to get along, sublimating her own artistic career goals in the process. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the cast and screenwriter.  Bateman was brought into the project by Kidman, who originally owned the property and was interested in hiring him both as director and co-star; he added that part of his decision to do this movie was that following a broad comedy like “Bad Words”, he wanted the opportunity to do something weightier.  Kidman told attendees that what she found gratifying about the project was bringing a novelist like Wilson to a larger audience.  She lives in Tennessee with her husband and Wilson is an author also from that state. 

The Family Fang (2015) on IMDb