Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“Woman In Gold”– Movie Review

 

WIG

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club for the premiere of the new drama, “Woman In Gold”, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

Synopsis

When a woman tries to recover her family’s artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II, she hires a young lawyer to represent her – but can this as-yet unproven counselor working on his own handle such a complex case?

WIG

Story

With the recent passing of Maria Altmann’s (Mirren) older sister, she’s suddenly overwhelmed with memories and possessions previously owned by her over the years. In the decades since they escaped Nazi persecution by leaving their home of Vienna, Austria to eventually settle in Los Angeles, California, they set out to live the type of happy, long life their Jewish relatives who remained behind could not. In going through her late sister’s belongings, she is reminded of a portrait of her Aunt Adele, which was absconded by the Nazis and has been hanging in a Viennese art gallery for many years; the painting, made by the noted Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, became famously known as “The Woman In Gold”.

Desiring to get the painting back, Maria engages one of Los Angeles’ biggest and most powerful law firms, who then assign recent-hire Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds) to her case. Upon meeting with Maria, Randy is overwhelmed by all of the information she’s dumping on him – but being the ambitious type and wanting to make his mark with a relatively new employer, he agrees to take the case. When they travel to Vienna for their initial research, Maria and Randy finally begin to get a sense of what an uphill battle this whole endeavor will be. Not only are they dealing with a challenging legal system in Austria, they also have the obstacle of a resolute and stubborn council from the gallery who are neither willing to surrender the painting, nor particularly open to negotiation.

Months later, after a bit of research, Randy finds a loophole which might allow Maria to bring legal action against the gallery in the United States instead of Austria, greatly facilitating her efforts. When a judge rules in her favor, she now finds that they will have the opportunity to take her case to The Supreme Court Of The United States. By now, however, Maria is not so sure she wants to go this far; it’s been a long battle and given all the effort and energy involved, she’s lost motivation to fight. But can Randy convince her to pursue the case to its logical conclusion? And even if he does, will such a relatively inexperienced lawyer have the skills to debate before the highest court in the land?

Review

Any movie starring Helen Mirren can almost certainly guarantee a worthwhile viewing experience. While Mirren definitely elevates “Woman In Gold” above what it might normally have been in the hands of a lesser actress, it nevertheless remains mediocre at best. The primary problem with this film has to do with its weak screenplay, which is a squeaky-clean version of this incredible true story that does a great disservice to the parties involved. Add to this the fact that the script seems to toss in just about every standard contrivance, cliché or trite dialog technique possible and it’s a wonder why it didn’t go through another draft (at least) prior to shooting.

Given Mirren’s recent work (specifically, as Queen Elizabeth in “The Audience” on Broadway and her character in “The Hundred Foot Journey”), it would seem the actress is being offered nothing other than the imperious older European woman roles lately. Ryan Reynolds as Mirren’s lawyer is hopelessly miscast in this role as the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. He is unconvincing as a man of Austrian descent connected to his Jewish heritage. Katie Holmes is vastly underutilized in her infinitesimal role as Reynold’s wife; the part seems like a mere placeholder and does precious little to substantially advance the story.

Liberties are taken with respect to the language spoken by Austrians when non-English speaking characters are present in the same scene; sometimes they speak subtitled German to each other and other times it appears not to be the case, presumably to make things more palatable for a primarily English-speaking audience. One example is a scene where Reynold’s and Mirren’s characters are conversing in her Vienna hotel room while the television is on and the news is being broadcast. When they stop to watch the TV, the Austrians being interviewed are speaking English instead of German. How this made sense to the filmmakers may forever remain a mystery.

 

Woman in Gold (2015) on IMDb

Sunday, March 29, 2015

“Christmas Again”– Movie Review

 

xmas

During the final weekend of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, I attended a screening of the new drama “Christmas, Again”. 

Synopsis

When a lovelorn Christmas tree salesman returns for a new season, will he be able to continue despite the loss of his girlfriend?

Story

Year after year, Noel (Kentucker Audley) makes the long trek down to Brooklyn from his home in upstate New York to sell Christmas trees during the holiday season.  With his usual work in the construction business on hold during the long winter months, he tries to make a few extra dollars selling and delivering trees each Christmas.  This year, however, will be different – not too long ago, Noel and his girlfriend broke up and he’s had a rather difficult time getting beyond that.  As a constant reminder of his heartache, Noel still has photographs of her hanging on the wall inside the trailer where he sleeps. 

One night during his shift, Noel spots Lydia (Hannah Gross) passed out cold on a park bench.  Chasing away a homeless man who tries to steal her cell phone, Noel takes her back to his trailer and lets Lydia sleep it off; the next morning, despite missing one shoe and her wallet, an embarrassed Lydia sneaks out of the trailer while Noel is otherwise engaged with a customer.  The next day, Lydia returns, apologizing for her sudden disappearance and thanking Noel for his kindness; in order to show her appreciation, she gives him a home-baked pie. 

For the next few days, Noel goes about his business making sales and deliveries while simultaneously training a couple of new hires who take over the day shift.  During one sale, a mysterious man sneaks up on Noel and sucker-punches him; the next day, Lydia returns, requesting her pie pan be returned.  She informs Noel that she had a fight with her boyfriend who thinks she slept with Noel; he immediately does the math and realizes that’s who punched him the night before.  With Lydia realizing she’s increasingly drawn to Noel, will she ultimately leave her boyfriend for him?

Review

Despite being relatively short for a feature film (it clocks in at under an hour and a half), “Christmas, Again” feels much longer than its actual running time.  Perhaps the reason for this is due to the fact that it has a very slow pace at the beginning of the movie.  This results in the first act dragging along considerably and fails to give the audience a sense of forward momentum in the story; you keep waiting for the story to start and it never quite feels as though it does, primarily because it’s so episodic.  As customer after customer goes by in what seems to be an extended montage, you are left to wonder where the story is supposed to be and ask yourself if it already began and you simply missed it. 

The background behind the making of “Christmas, Again” is interesting and perhaps explains why it doesn’t quite work.  Writer/director Charles Poekel spent three years actually selling Christmas trees on the streets of Brooklyn.  Normally, such research would be commendable as it informs your story with a sense of authenticity.  In this case, however, it may have resulted in the downfall of the movie because Poekel is so close to the subject matter that he seems to have lost the objectivity needed to tell a coherent story.  While the film may possess a number of interesting visual images, you don’t really get a sense that its director has an idea for how to properly convey a narrative.

Following the screening, there was an interview with writer/director Charles Poekel, actor Kentucker Audley and cinematographer Sean Price Williams.  Poekel said that the shoot took a total of 15 days – that is to say, three five-day weeks.  Although he would not comment as to exactly how low the budget was, he did admit a portion of it was somewhat crowd-sourced.  Shooting in the trailer was one of the most challenging parts of making “Christmas, Again”, Poekel added; the space was very cramped and at times, he had to kick out non-essential members of the crew in order to film a scene. 

Christmas, Again (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, March 28, 2015

“Listen To Me Marlon”– Movie Review

 

marlon

The final weekend of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series began with a screening of the documentary, “Listen To Me Marlon”.

Synopsis

When the estate of Marlon Brando uncovers many boxes of audio tapes recorded by the late actor himself, they engage a filmmaker to incorporate them into a documentary to memorialize Brando’s life and legacy. 

Story

From self-hypnosis recordings to semi-coherent ramblings to reflective observations about his life, the late actor Marlon Brando left several hundred hours of audio tapes stacked high in cardboard boxes left to his estate; for nearly a decade after his death, they remained untouched and nearly discarded several times until his family decided they could be put to better use by a filmmaker who could somehow manage to stitch them together to create a fluid narrative about this legendary performer’s life.  It is with this in mind that we see a pastiche of clips from home movies, archival footage and snippets of Brando’s performances, narrated by the actor himself. 

Brando spoke extensively about his past, including his childhood and early struggles as a young actor.  From his childhood, recollections included strongly mixed feelings about his father as well as adoration of his mother, who passed away when the actor was still young.  This caused the difficult relationship with his father to only intensify and even after the young Brando matured and became an enormous success, their relationship was never repaired.  Stella Adler was Brando’s acting teacher when he arrived in New York City; he credits her immensely with developing his talent.

With respect to his many films, Brando maintained that “Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of the most difficult shoots he had ever endured.  His primary source of frustration came from the way his character, First Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, was portrayed; due to his strong beliefs, he was constantly embattled with both the producer and director.  “Apocolypse Now” was also problematic; in an interview with Francis Ford Coppola, the director claims that at the time Brando agreed to play Col. Kurtz, the actor was already overweight.  By the time Brando arrived on set for his first day of shooting, Coppola says that the actor had ballooned up even more, to the point that this forced the director to shoot him in the shadows for the most part.   

Review

As much as Marlon Brando was something of an oddball for much of his life – especially true in his later years – the late actor comes across as incredibly thoughtful, articulate and endlessly fascinating.  At 100 minutes, this is one documentary you’ll wish went on for hours; the more you learn about Brando, the more curious you get.  Director Stevan Riley seems to have been fascinated by his subject matter and it certainly manifests itself in “Listen To Me Marlon”.  Riley’s ability to sift through hundreds of hours of audio recordings and find a cohesive narrative speaks well of his ability as a storyteller. 

While extraordinarily talented, Brando was also a very complicated and private man.  This comes across most poignantly during his later years, in particular, with the depiction of the personal tragedies two of his children – son Christian and daughter Cheyenne – encountered upon reaching adulthood.  Once Brando survived their loss, he could no longer be comforted even by his beloved getaway of Tahiti.  Although the documentary does not spend an extensive amount of time delving into the lurid details behind what happened, there remain enough facts for viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Following the screening was an interview with director Stevan Riley.  Riley said he did not seek out this project; as a documentary filmmaker, he was approached by a representative of Brando’s estate who wanted to see this film get made.  He mentioned there were so many audio recordings by Brando there wasn’t enough time to listen to all of them, but he did play somewhere around 200 hours of the late actor’s tapes.  Riley, a young documentarian, readily admitted that he wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about his subject matter prior to making the film. 

Listen to Me Marlon (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, March 19, 2015

“Danny Collins”– Movie Review

 

dcollins

This week, I attended a screening held by The New York Times Film Club of the drama, “Danny Collins”, starring Al Pacino. 

Synopsis

When a successful songwriter receives a letter written to him 40 years ago by John Lennon, will it motivate him to change his ways or will he remain his old shallow self?

Story

For the past four decades, Danny Collins (Pacino) has enjoyed an exalted career as a singer who writes his own songs.  True to the job description, he’s lived his life in an extravagant, self-indulgent manner, denying himself nothing, especially when it comes to women, drugs and alcohol.  On his birthday, his live-in fiancée throws him a birthday party, where his manager (Christopher Plummer) bestows upon him the ultimate gift:  a letter written to Danny some 40 years ago that never reached him – the only thing more amazing about it is the fact that it was from the late John Lennon, who wrote the then-young songwriter words of encouragement. 

Seeing this as a sign to take stock of his life, Danny decides to right his biggest wrong by attempting to restore the relationship between himself and his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale).  Upon arrival at Tom’s modest home in New Jersey, Danny finds himself immediately rebuffed by his pregnant daughter-in-law Samantha (Jennifer Garner); she makes it abundantly clear to him that Tom won’t be too pleased to learn of his visit.  When Tom finds Danny in his house, he doesn’t mince words; Tom lets Danny know that he’s not welcome in his life or his house. 

When Danny finds out about the learning disorder his six year old granddaughter has, he uses this as an opportunity to prove his sincerity to Tom and Samantha; pulling a few strings and committing to spend his own money, he gets the little girl into a special school that will be certain to change her life for the better.  But just when things look to be turning around, Tom reveals to Danny a tragic secret that may alter everyone’s plans.  Will Danny be able to repair the relationship with the family he never knew or will fate ultimately intervene before it’s possible? 

Review

If you look up the word “preposterous” in the dictionary, you’ll likely find a picture for the movie poster of “Danny Collins”.  To say that there are holes in the story would not only be an understatement, it would be akin to beating a man when he’s down.  Clearly, this was an opportunity for Pacino to do his mugging and overacting, which gave way for the remainder of the cast to jump on board.  The only truly good performance in “Danny Collins” is that of Bobby Cannavale, who plays the role of Tom, Danny’s son.  There are also corny subplots about a romance between members of the hotel staff and Danny’s cheating fiancée that completely misfire. 

On its surface, “Danny Collins” is supposed to be a story about redemption:  late in his life, the prodigal father tries to own up to the responsibilities he’s shirked for decades in favor of living the glorious life of a widely-adored (and ridiculously wealthy) rock star.  Unfortunately, the path it takes to tell that story is where it goes awry; there are things just a little too difficult to buy into, such as the fact that when Danny is presented with the letter from Lennon, he never once questions what happened that resulted in him never receiving it in the first place.   

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the movie’s writer/director Dan Fogelman.  Fogelman is best known for his screenplays, perhaps most notably “Crazy, Stupid, Love”; with “Danny Collins”, this is his first time as a director.  After “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, Fogelman said he was looking to get ideas for his next screenplay, but wasn’t particularly inspired by anything.  As a result, he spent most of his time surfing the Web.  It was at this point he found an article about a songwriter who was destined for success and in fact had been sent a glowing letter by none other than John Lennon himself; he wound up turning his back on fame and success for a much simpler life.  Fogelman wondered what this man’s life might’ve been like had he pursued his songwriting career and lost his soul in the process; thus, both the character and story of “Danny Collins” was born.     

Danny Collins (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, March 14, 2015

“Party Girl”– Movie Review

 

partygirl

This weekend, as The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous With French Cinema” series winds down, I attended the U.S. Premiere of the drama “Party Girl”.

Synopsis

When a retirement-aged woman is the recipient of an unlikely marriage proposal, will she finally be able to settle down or will her wild lifestyle prove too irresistible to surrender?

Story

Despite being around 60 years of age, Angélique (Angélique Litzenburger) continues employment as a hostess at a strip club located in a small town near the northeastern region of France.  Working nightly for tips from customers as she drinks and flirts with them, the money is far less during the infrequent times it does happen to find its way to her; Angélique’s meager income forces her to live in a tiny room above the nightclub.  Increasingly desperate, she visits Michel (Joseph Bour), who was once a regular at the club, to find out why he’s no longer patronizing the place.  Michel informs her that he’s so in love with her that he no longer wishes to see her only in that context and shocks Angélique by proposing marriage. 

Although taken aback by the proposal, Angélique is also intrigued as well.  Michel, a retired coalminer, is living well and can afford to care for her; this gives Angélique a second chance without having to worry about her future.  On the other hand, she still finds her crazy world at the strip club fun; she’s bonded with the young girls who dance there and between getting drunk every night and teasing the men, it would be difficult to turn her back on it forever.  She consults with her three grown children who agree to attend the wedding if there is one – but what about Cynthia?  Now 16 years old, Cynthia is the fourth and last of Angélique’s children, having been raised in a foster home. 

Seeing marriage as the best option available to her at this stage of her life, Angélique decides to accept Michel’s offer.  With the wedding now an inevitability, she pays a visit to Cynthia’s foster mother, where she also meets with her daughter to explain the situation.  Following a sorrowful admission to her shortcomings as a mother, Angélique begs Cynthia to come to her wedding.  By now, however, Angélique is beginning to get cold feet; her once-promising relationship with Michel is starting to sour and she’s missing the atmosphere at the club.  Will Angélique go through with the wedding or will she back out before it’s too late?

Review

As heartbreakingly tragic as the story of “Party Girl” may be, its plot is also full of holes – which is too bad, because at its core is an interesting idea.  For one thing, why would a strip club owner have a 60 year-old woman working there in the first place, much less as a hostess?  Looking at things from a purely business standpoint, will that really draw male customers – regardless of their age – to come in and spend their money?  Also, why does the prospect of marriage suddenly inspire Angélique to see her children, including and especially the one she had to give up?  And since she obviously wasn’t exactly Mother Of The Year, why do her adult children seem to have such a friendly relationship with her? 

It’s a shame that such an otherwise fascinating premise was squandered by obvious flaws in logic. (Oh, and by the way, how did Angélique know where one of the club’s regular customers lives?)  The mutable adherence to reality in this script is simultaneously confounding and infuriating.  In some respects, this is a story about Angélique seeking redemption, with the central question being whether or not it will occur.  Ultimately, Angélique proves herself to be an unsympathetic character not only because of all the poor choices she’s made (and continues to make), but also because of her utter indifference to how these choices negatively impact those closest to her.

Following the screening was a question and answer session with director Claire Burger, speaking through an interpreter.  Burger gave considerable insight into the choice of location; this particular town shares a border with Germany and was either controlled by the French or the Germans, depending upon what point World War II was in at any given moment.  Most of the town is populated by miners who work at nearby coalmines; over the years, the town has seen more than its fair share of economic woes.  These strip clubs – called “cabarets” by the inhabitants – are located on the German side of the border and frequented by both present and former coalminers.    

Party Girl (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

“Stubborn”– Movie Review

 

stubborn

This week, I attended the North American Premiere of the comedy-drama “Stubborn” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous With French Cinema” series.

Synopsis

When a Frenchman falls in love with an American woman and follows her home to New York City, will he be able to win her over or will she be able to resist his attempts?

Story

Vincent (Vincent Macaigne) is a Frenchman so deeply in love, he’s left his home country in order to pursue Barbara (Kate Moran), the woman whom he believes is the love of his life.  Following a brief affair while she was in France, Barbara returned to New York City to live with her boyfriend; unfortunately for both of them, Vincent refuses to move on with his life.  Instead, he is determined to prove his love for her in the hope that she’ll leave her boyfriend for him.  Towards that end, Vincent has moved to New York, where he basically stalks Barbara. 

Feeling sorry for Vincent, Barbara agrees to meet with him upon his arrival.  Nonplussed at his sudden appearance, Barbara tries to get Vincent to understand she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings; she buys him an airplane ticket back to France and tells him to use it before he wastes further time on this folly.  Bothered that Barbara doesn’t change her mind based on his obvious sincerity, Vincent nevertheless keeps hounding her until her boyfriend informs him that neither of them appreciate his intrusion on their life and he should make quick use of that plane ticket.

Realizing Barbara wants nothing to do with him, Vincent decides it’s time to leave her alone – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t stop thinking about her periodically.  Instead of returning to France, Vincent stays in New York City.  When his family pays him a visit, they try to talk Vincent into coming home with them; his father even offers to help set him up in the family business.  Vincent, however, believes that if he stays in New York, he’s still got a chance at being with Barbara.  Will Vincent spend the rest of his days chasing after this dream or will he realize he’s wasting his time?

Review

While “Stubborn” (or, as its French title, “Une Histoire Américaine”) may ostensibly be something of a romantic comedy, it eventually evolves into more like a character study of Vincent, a truly mentally disturbed man.  Although some may wind up laughing at him out of relief because Vincent is so unusual, others may laugh precisely because they do know a man exactly like Vincent.  Whether the humor is derived from Vincent’s audacity or from recognition, many audiences will certainly find him funny – which perhaps says more about us than about him. 

If you in fact do look at this as a character study, Vincent might seem like a sociopathic narcissist.  He may claim to be in love with Barbara, but it’s clearly all about his feelings because he’s completely disassociated from other people’s feelings about him or his behavior.  Does “Stubborn” sound like it may be your type of movie?  Those that do will probably find it worthwhile simply because of what will henceforth be referred to as The Orange Juice scene.  Without a doubt, this may well be one of the most uncomfortable scenes you’ve ever witnessed in a movie – admittedly, though, Macaigne plays it brilliantly. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with the director and others associated with the film. Director Armel Hostiou said the opening shot of the movie – a fascinating tracking shot over 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and across the Queensboro Bridge – was done using a palm-held video camera while he rode the suspended tram going from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. He also stated the idea for the motion picture came from a short did previously; he wanted to work with the same actor again, so when Macaigne became available, Hostiou developed the idea into a feature-length film. A couple of the actors were present and they agreed the hardest part of the shoot was the considerable amount of re-writing of the script and improvising on the set.

Une histoire américaine (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, March 07, 2015

“3 Hearts”– Movie Review

 

3_hearts

This week, I attended the opening night of “Rendez-vous With French Cinema” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center and screened the United States Premiere of the drama “3 Hearts”, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni.

Synopsis

When a man marries a woman only to discover he had unknowingly fallen in love with her sister before they met, can the marriage survive or will he leave his wife for her sister?

Story

Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) has had a bad day.  A tax inspector in town on a business trip, he has not only lost his cell phone but also missed the last train to Paris.  In need of a hotel room for the night, he runs into Sylvie (Gainsbourg) at a local bar and she offers to help him find a place.  During their search, they spend an evening walking and talking; the two seem to be hitting it off and they stay up all night chatting until he has to catch his train the next morning.  When Sylvie sees him off, they agree to meet again in Paris a few days later; unfortunately, life intrudes on this Friday afternoon and Marc misses his appointment with Sylvie who, believing she was stood-up, dejectedly returns home. 

Returning to his job, Marc winds up meeting Sophie (Mastroianni), whom he agrees to take on as a client.  After their business is completed, Marc and Sophie develop a romance and ultimately marry; but during the wedding plans, Marc learns that Sophie’s sister is Sylvie.  At the reception, he and Sylvie meet; what Sophie doesn’t know is that this wonderful man she had told her sister she was marrying was the same one with whom Sylvie had fallen in love some time earlier.  Since Sylvie having a close relationship with her sister, she refuses to disclose their secret to Sophie.   

Over time, Marc and Sophie eventually have a child; Sylvie, however, remains distant from them, both emotionally and geographically – she has in fact decided to follow her boyfriend to live in The United States.  When their mother (Deneuve) is about to celebrate her 60th birthday, Sophie plans a big party and invites Sylvie.  Upon finally returning home, she is conflicted; while glad that her sister has found happiness, she is also resentful – Sylvie feels that it is she who should’ve wound up with Marc.  When Sylvie and Marc are finally reunited after all this time, their affair is rekindled.  But will they be able to keep this a secret from Sophie or will Marc leave her for her sister? 

Review

In a sense, “3 Hearts” could be considered a typical French film; it is a story about a complicated romantic relationship that neither portends nor pretends to supply its audience with a conveniently comfortable happy ending.  Having said that, however, it is ultimately a movie that expects its audience to suspend its disbelief to extraordinary limits and in doing so, sacrificing a significant amount of credibility from what could have otherwise been an interesting tale.  What saves it, at least to some extent, are the performances from its cast, who struggle to elevate the material they have been supplied. 

Looking at “3 Hearts” from the perspective of each individual performance of its cast, there’s precious little with which to find fault.  Specifically, the women – Gainsbourg, Mastroianni and Deneuve – fail to disappoint; it is their movie and they are in no way shy about taking the spotlight from Benoît Poelvoorde’s character, who appears to be not only physically debilitated with coronary problems but also psychologically debilitated by lack of a spine.  Gainsbourg is particularly wonderful in displaying a sad woman whose life – both professionally and personally – has proved to be disappointing.

Where “3 Hearts” collapses, however, is from its own story; if you don’t buy into the premise, you won’t buy into the rest of the movie and it’s terribly difficult to buy into the premise that this film provides.  Modern technology seems to be a running theme here – Marc can’t exchange telephone numbers with Sylvie because he’s lost his cell phone and inadvertently, the two realize the coincidence when Marc answers the Skype call from Sylvie on Sophie’s laptop.  Why didn’t the two exchange names at the outset?  Also, couldn’t Marc have given Sylvie a business card so she could contact him?  Additionally, there attempts to be a theme of cheating brought in as a subplot to resonate the main story; Marc audits the town mayor (who performed the marriage ceremony between he and Sophie) because of some questionable monetary practices.  Ultimately, however, it is the audience that is cheated.   

3 Hearts (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, March 05, 2015

“Merchants Of Doubt”– Movie Review

 

merchants

 

This week, I attended a screening held by The New York Times Film Club of the new documentary “Merchants Of Doubt

Synopsis

When the mainstream media presents experts to debate an issue, what happens when one of the so-called experts is merely a shill employed to refute the opposing viewpoint for a hidden agenda?

Story

Over the last few decades, scientists’ independent research have consistently shown that society faces certain hazards, many of which have been brought about by man. But once aware of these hazards, what is being done, if anything, to preserve and protect the way of life enjoyed by people around the country and around the world? Well, if action taken winds up negatively impacting the bottom line of big business – and it usually does – there will likely be precious little done. Where it also becomes difficult to take action is when certain information severely conflicts with the personal and political beliefs of others.

Regardless of whether it’s called Global Warming or Climate Change, there has been overwhelming scientific evidence showing an alarming increase of CO2 which has in turn had a direct impact on the planet’s environment. Despite this, there have been individuals who have vociferously denied this and have consistently disregarded facts presented as proof. As it turns out, many who have refuted the charges of environmental issues may in fact either not possess the expertise they claim or are merely serving as a paid mouthpiece to convince the public that the charges are not true; often, they are employed either by businesses or lobbyists who represent a politically-motivated faction.

Similar behavior is seen regarding cancer and fire safety; ultimately, science winds up identifying the root cause being directly related to smoking, but the tobacco industry has stood up to these claims by propping up their own supporters who receive a paycheck for either espousing the virtues of the industry or decrying the claims by painting those who make them as having questionable credibility. Even when people who start out as skeptics of claims perform their own research and change their mind, they are soundly discredited by the opposition. Could it be possible that all of these claims are being made by Communists looking to destroy the American economic foundation?

Review

“Merchants Of Doubt” is a slickly-produced documentary – which may be taken as a compliment just as easily as it could be a criticism. The movie starts with a professional magician showing how he can deceive people through the powers of misdirection – which cleverly sets up the audience for how people presented as experts are shrewdly able to change any given conversation in a way that will best suit whoever it is that has hired them to produce the much-needed Public Relations spin. Director Robert Kenner ambitiously shows how these bogus pundits are paid to take on climate change, the tobacco industry, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

One problem here is that this is a documentary that will only preach to the converted – which is also the point of the movie. People who agree with the viewpoints set forth here will likely be the sole audience; those who should see it probably never will. This is because, as the film itself states, people don’t want their values questioned and will consistently refuse to support anything that fails to buttress their own opinion. They basically take the stand, “Please don’t confuse me with the facts because I’ve already made up my mind”. Those secure enough in their thinking that can be sufficiently open-minded to view “Merchants Of Doubt” will most surely be in the minority.

If there is any value to this documentary, it is that it shows how easily facts – and the general public – can be manipulated. However, where it fails is that it only blames the conservatives for doing this. Are we to believe that liberals do not pull the same trick? Furthermore, if that’s the case, isn’t the movie itself guilty of what it’s accusing others of doing – manipulating the facts to suit their own purposes? To be sure, “Merchants Of Doubt” is by no means either objective or even-handed in its approach to telling its story. Should the documentarians aspire to be truly journalistic in their practice, they would do themselves well to avoid merely contributing to the propaganda machine.

Merchants of Doubt (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

“Cymbeline” (“Anarchy”) – Movie Review

 

cymbeline

This week, I attended The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects series with a screening of “Cymbeline”, starring Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich and Ethan Hawke

Synopsis

When the leader of a biker gang splits up his daughter from the husband she secretly married, will the couple be able to survive the violent retribution of others so they may eventually reunite?

Story

Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has angered her father Cymbeline (Harris), the leader of a violent motorcycle gang, by marrying Posthumus (Penn Badgley), a poor young man who was once mentored by Cymbeline. Feeling his daughter is worthy of a better spouse, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s second wife, The Queen (Jovovich), has other plans; she came into this marriage with her own son and wants Imogen to marry him so he’ll be part of the upper echelon of the gang. Posthumus and Imogen, however, wish nothing more than merely to live their lives together once again.

While banished, Posthumus accepts a challenge by Iachimo (Hawke): Iachimo tells Posthumus that Imogen is not as loyal to him as he believes; in fact, he suspects that he can easily seduce Imogen himself. So, he bets that if he can prove to Posthumus that he bedded Imogen, he will win Posthumus’ ring; if, on the other hand, he strikes out with Imogen, then he will be forced to fork over $10,000 to Posthumus. With Posthumus desperately in need of the money – and truly believing Imogen will remain faithful to him – he gladly takes the bet, then sits back waiting to collect the money.

Iachimo falsifies the results of his attempted tryst and fools Posthumus into thinking that Imogen slept with him. Discouraged, Posthumus asks his aide Pisanio (John Leguizamo) to murder Imogen; but when confronting her, he doubts her infidelity. As a result, he hatches a plot to have Imogen masquerade as a boy while she searches for her husband to convince him she did not cheat. All the while, The Queen’s son, angered by Imogen’s rejection of him, goes out to find her and possibly exact some degree of revenge. But will Imogen survive long enough to get back with Posthumus?

Review

“Cymbeline” (or “Anarchy”, depending on how you come to know this movie – see below) has been described as a combination of two television shows: “Sons Of Anarchy” and “Game Of Thrones”. While this may not be an entirely inaccurate comparison, perhaps a better characterization would be a second-rate “Romeo And Juliet”. Based on one of Shakespeare’s later and lesser known plays, The Bard was apparently becoming self-derivative in his later years as he once again revisits the theme of lovers forced apart by internecine turmoil. Perhaps watching episodes of “Sons Of Anarchy”, “Game Of Thrones” and a production of “Romeo And Juliet” back-to-back-to-back might be a better alternative than sitting through this abridged version of “Cymbeline”.

For Shakespeare purists, director Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of “Cymbeline” may be painful to watch; however, those who admire creative perspectives of an ancient tale, may find both the setting and wardrobe sufficiently entertaining. There is also the issue of the language, which may be no trivial matter for those who struggled with any of Shakespeare’s plays; all of the dialog in this adaptation is from the original play, so it can sometimes be difficult to understand or follow along with the story (particularly when some actors either mumble their lines or recite them so quickly that you can barely make out the individual words, much less properly interpret the inscrutable phrasing).

Following the screening was an interview with director Michael Almereyda. Originally, the movie was to be released under the title “Anarchy”; this came at the recommendation of its distributor and against Almereyda’s wishes (he wanted to keep the original Shakespearean title). Reconsidering, the distributor renamed it back to “Cymbeline”, pleasing Almereyda, but potentially causing confusion; therefore, if you are interested in seeing this film, you may have to expend the extra effort of looking for it under either title. Almereyda said that he began adapting this play after his previous project – an adaptation of “Merchant Of Venice” – was cancelled when the money fell through.

Cymbeline (2014) on IMDb

Friday, February 27, 2015

“The Smell Of Us”– Movie Review

 

smell

This week, I attended a screening of “The Smell Of Us”, a French drama by Larry Clark at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series.

Synopsis

When a pair of teenage skateboarders take a job as escorts, what impact will this have on their personal life?

Story

Math and JP (Lukas Ionesco and Hugo Behar-Thinières) are teenagers who live in Paris and spend much of their day skateboarding with friends; nights, however, are spent working as escorts – their customers are generally either gay men or old women. While they may find the work objectionable, it is also quite lucrative.  Escorting keeps the boys in nice clothes, an abundant supply of drugs and, of course, the latest model skateboard. The lure of money, however, is wearing a little thin; after a while of being used and abused by clients, the boys find escorting considerably less glamorous than anticipated.

Complicating matters is the fact that JP is gay while Math is not – or at least, that’s what he claims. JP is falling in love with Math; while Math considers JP to be a good friend, he doesn’t go that way and thus rebuffs his friend’s advances. This, of course, frustrates JP to no end; JP refusing to stop coming on to him is equally frustrating to Math. Due to their circumstances however, they remain close because they can relate to each other’s predicament. One thing that makes the job less repugnant to Math is that a number of clients offer him drugs or alcohol, which he uses to self-medicate to get through a “date”.

Eventually, JP’s life starts unraveling even further when his father and stepmother learn of his work. JP’s father is enraged when he discovers what his son is up to; JP, in turn, is furious at his stepmother because upon finding out about the boy’s work, she informed her husband without first consulting JP. Between his unrequited love for Math and a home situation that has become unmanageable, JP falls into a deep depression and winds up seeking revenge on his stepmother. But when JP finally confronts her, will he actually be able to carry out his plan or will a cooler mind prevail in the end?

Review

When there is a film with such a curious title (any bets on which critic is going to call “The Smell Of Us” something like “We Stink”?), it’s basically setting itself up for some nasty jokes. However, director Larry Clark, who brought us “Kids” 20 years ago, has delivered such an unpleasant and unsavory work that’s uncomfortable to watch on multiple levels, jokes about its title may wind up being the least of its problems. Clark continues his voyeuristic, borderline pedophilic obsession with the sex lives of adolescents and has precious little of value to show for everyone’s efforts. In some ways, the story feels somewhat schizophrenic because it appears to start off in one direction, then goes another way.

Its story is about as good a place as any to start. As a movie, “The Smell Of Us” seems very episodic and feels like a film in search of a plot. Initially, we are introduced to this gang of idiots and are set up to believe we are about to follow the individual exploits of each one. Instead, two of them – the young escorts – suddenly become the focal point of the motion picture; the justification for this appears to be merely so that Clark could shoot some rather provocative (and realistic) sex scenes. “The Smell Of Us” has more the look and feel of kiddie porn that hopelessly tries to fob itself off as art.

Following the screening was an interview with Diane Rouxel, who played Marie in the movie; since her English was a little shaky, an interpreter translated on her behalf. Initially an art school student, she didn’t have acting experience prior to shooting “The Smell Of Us”. She loved the script Clark originally gave her; however, when seeing the finished product, Rouxel said she was quite upset because the film turned out to be drastically different from the screenplay. One of the things she found very disconcerting during the shoot was the fact that Clark would frequently veer off the script and improvise scenes and dialog; this was particularly awkward in some of the graphic sex scenes.  

The Smell of Us (2014) on IMDb