Wednesday, May 11, 2016

“Money Monster”– Movie Review

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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.

Synopsis

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?

Story

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? 

Review

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

 

splash

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.

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

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

Hologram

 

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

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

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

E-Nix

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.

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

“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

familyfang

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. 

Synopsis

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?

Story

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? 

Review

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

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

“Demolition”– Movie Review

demo (1)

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Demolition”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper. 

Synopsis

When a man suddenly becomes a widower, will his mourning drag him down into a life of self-destructive behavior or can he overcome his sorrow?

Story

After Davis (Gyllenhaal) survives a horrific automobile accident, he learns his wife has perished.  Now a widower, he finds himself being forced to face life without her and figure out how to move forward.  As a successful financier who works for his father-in-law, Phil (Cooper), their tenuous relationship is now put to the test even further.  Emotionally a bit ragged, Davis is not exactly in the healthiest state of mind and becomes inexplicably drawn to a life of destruction and damage – whether it’s concerning himself, other people or inanimate objects. 

Phil soon picks up on Davis’s oddball behavior – dismantling fixtures in the men’s room at their office, taking apart a leaking refrigerator at home and working (for free) with a demolition company in order to take down a neighborhood house where a rebuilding project is set to commence.  What little trust Phil may have had left in his one time son-in-law is now out the window.  Instead, Phil starts a scholarship fund in his daughter’s name and tries to get Davis involved so he can have some say in how his late wife will be remembered; Davis, however, appears less than fully committed to the idea.

When at the hospital awaiting word on his mortally injured wife, Davis has an unsatisfactory encounter with a vending machine.  This leads him to an obsession where he writes to the customer service department of the company that rents out the vending machines; eventually, he hears from their customer service representative Karen (Watts), with whom he develops an epistolary relationship.  Eventually, this leads to their meeting – an unfortunate one because she’s in a relationship with the owner of the vending machine company and Davis is forced to mentor her troubled adolescent son.  Will these experiences lead to further pain for Davis or can he use them to find his way out?

Review

It is arguable whether or not “Demolition” is intentionally overwrought – but overwrought it most definitely is.  Clearly, the movie is trying to show how difficult a mourning period can be after the loss of a loved one, but Davis is such an unsympathetic character that it gets increasingly difficult to muster very much compassion for him; this is due not only to the odd behavior he exhibits but also because of what viewers learn about him through the course of the film.  There have long been imperfect protagonists, but Davis is more imperfect than some others.

Problems with the script include dramatic contrivances and convenient coincidences that challenge the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief.  Among the conceits is the use of letters (yes, that’s actual letters, not e – mails or Tweets or Facebook posts) to the customer service department of the vending machine company; this is done for two reasons – one, to provide us with a bit of backstory about the protagonist and the other, to set up the potential romantic involvement with Karen.  This is not easy to pull off because it’s so obvious it’s hard to ignore the attempt to hoodwink us all. 

The movie played at this year’s South-By-Southwest festival and was well-received, winning The Audience Award.  Gyllenhaal’s performance has also garnered positive reviews, despite the fact that it dances precariously close to the border of chew-the-scenery before a subsequent scene reins him.  Moments where Davis is seen destroying things are certianly intended to illustrate how he can be in control of destruction as a reaction to his own life being destroyed; yet these scenes that are supposed to leave us exhilarated and enthusiastic merely wind up making us feel exhausted and enervated.   

Demolition (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

“Green Room”– Movie Review

Green_Room

This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new thriller, “Green Room”, starring Alia Shawkat and Patrick Stewart.

Synopsis

When a punk rock band witnesses a crime at the club where they’re playing, can they escape the clutches of the evil club owner who’s trying to prevent them from going to the police? 

Story

Punk rockers The Ain’t Rights are struggling. While their gigs are sometimes hard to come by, the few that they do get frequently don’t pay very well – when they don’t have enough money to pay for refilling their van to get them to the next performance, they just wind up siphoning gas from other cars. During their tour throughout Oregon, they manage to get a booking at a club outside of Portland; although it appears to be paying a bit better, there’s one drawback: the club is known to be run by neo-Nazi skinheads who draw similarly-minded crowds.

Once at the dingy, run-down club seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the band somehow manages to finish their set amidst a hostile audience that shouts abusively at them, spits on them and tries to injure band members by hurling various objects towards the stage. Packing up to leave for the night, Sam (Shawkat) suddenly realizes she forgot her cell phone in their dressing room. When one of her fellow band members goes back there to retrieve it for her, he finds a number of people occupying the room – one of them being a young woman who has been stabbed in the head and is apparently dead.

Although he didn’t see who stabbed her, he found the body – as a result, club owner Darcy (Stewart) decides to hold the entire band members at his club to prevent them from going to the police. He tells the band they won’t be hurt and will let them go once his henchmen dispose of the body. Given the circumstances, however, it is understandable that none of them believe Darcy. Learning that the club also houses a drug lab in its basement, the band members fear for their safety even more and try to bolt – but with Darcy’s team of armed and maniacally violent workers keeping guard, will the band succeed in their plans to flee? 

Review

Calling “Green Room” an exploitation flick wouldn’t necessarily be a pejorative term – in fact, the filmmaker would probably wear that appellation like a badge of honor.  For fans of slasher films with lots of gruesome gory visual images consummated with a classic Grand Guignol-like denouement, “Green Room” will fail to disappoint.  Of course, in movies such as this, the plot generally tends to take something of a backseat so expectations of nuanced character development and intricate storytelling devices with be dashed rather severely. 

“Green Room” is one of those “who will survive?” guessing games with the obligatory scenes where the various protagonists make bad decisions along the way.  But that’s all part of the fun when it comes to slasher porn.  While Alia Shawkat is somewhat wasted in this film, Patrick Stewart is a joy to behold as the villainous Darcy; in fact, he’s not in the movie nearly enough.  In some ways, it might’ve been more of a fun experience if we had seen the band members directly trying to overcome Darcy alone rather than attempting to defeat his henchmen. 

Following the screening was a brief question and answer session with “Green Room”’s writer/director Jeremy Saulnier.  Saulnier said that he started writing the screenplay for “Green Room” towards the end of the time he was taking his previous film, “Blue Ruin”, around the film festival circuit.  He recalled choosing this story because it was an idea that had been on his mind for the past decade or so; he felt that the concept was substantially different from that of “Blue Ruin”, a tale of revenge.  What also appealed to him about “Green Room” is that he could incorporate his love for punk rock music.    

Green Room (2015) on IMDb

Sunday, March 27, 2016

“Weiner”– Movie Review

AW

In the closing weekend of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, I attended a screening of the new documentary “Weiner” about disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. 

Synopsis

When politician Anthony Weiner attempts a professional comeback, will he succeed?

Story

As a United States Congressman from New York City, Anthony Weiner was a progressive Democrat in The House Of Representatives who worked hard for his constituents and was unafraid to mix it up with various members of The Republican Party, going toe to toe with them both in The House and on political television shows.  Perhaps his best or most famous moment came in 2010 when he vehemently argued in favor of funding medical assistance for the heroes of September 11th when the Republicans tried to block it due to the fact that they opposed a corporate tax increase.  A deeply flawed human being, it eventually became evident that his passions were in no way confined to politics alone. 

When it was uncovered in 2011 that Weiner, a married man whose wife was then expecting their first child, had been sexting with young single women, he was forced to resign from Congress.  Weiner had resisted this from the beginning of the scandal, initially denying any wrongdoing – but when growing evidence mounted, it could no longer be denied.  His wife, Huma, had been publicly embarrassed; a successful woman who works as Hillary Clinton’s loyal and trusted aide, she is a deeply private person who never seeks the spotlight – unlike her meretricious and ambitious husband. 

Two years later, Weiner decides he can revive his political career by running for Mayor of New York City.  Believing New Yorkers will be willing to forgive if not forget, Weiner is convinced the people of the city will give him the second chance he so sorely feels he deserves.  But in order to do so, he must make Huma, normally a behind-the-scenes type of person, go out front-and-center in his campaign.  Surprisingly, Weiner takes an early lead among the many candidates in a crowded Democratic field.  But when news breaks of a second sexting scandal with another young woman, can Weiner’s campaign and marriage survive yet another humiliation?

Review

When watching the crash and burn of what had otherwise been the promising political career of Anthony Weiner, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or gasp in horror.  Perhaps both reactions are appropriate.  By the end of this documentary, Weiner has no one to blame but himself, which he seems to know.  One question that the film never adequately answers is why his wife Huma stayed with him even after the second scandal.  It might be because she doesn’t know herself.  Possibly the only thing keeping the marriage intact at this point is the fact that she’s out of the home much of the time working on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

The discomfort viewers may feel watching this documentary is deserved; you are always aware that you’re observing a sleazy soap opera – a car wreck from which you cannot turn away precisely because you don’t want to turn away.  While horrified by it, it is also simultaneously entertaining.  Weiner should be ashamed, of course, but perhaps, we also share in that shame because we have allowed his personal misfortunes to be a source of amusement for all of us.  If he is in fact nothing more than the punchline to a joke at this point, both the media and the public are complicit in putting him in that position. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with the documentarians Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.  Kriegman said that he had worked as Weiner’s Chief Of Staff during a couple of his years in Congress; leaving politics to pursue a filmmaking career, he reached out to Weiner after the initial scandal that forced him out of office in 2011 and proposed a documentary to allow his former boss to give his side of the story.  Ultimately, Weiner declined, but when announcing his intention to run for Mayor in 2013, he contacted Kriegman to shoot the documentary about what he assumed would be his resurrection – but instead resulted in another crushing fiasco. 

Weiner (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, March 20, 2016

“Donald Cried”– Movie Review

doncry

As The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series continues, I attended a screening of the comedy-drama “Donald Cried”. 

Synopsis

When a man returns to his hometown for his grandmother’s funeral, he calls on an old high school buddy once he finds himself in a bind – but when that buddy tries to rekindle their old friendship, can he avoid it without seeming rude?

Story

Returning to Warwick, Rhode Island in the dead of winter, Peter is very focused on his mission:  to collect the ashes of his late grandmother, sell her old house and gather the belongings from the nursing home where she spent her last days.  Although it’s been about 20 years since he was last there, he’s not feeling terribly nostalgic; as a New York City resident who now works in the financial sector, he merely wants to do what’s necessary and return home as soon as he possibly can.  However, his plans have hit a major speed bump:  during his bus ride from New York, he’s managed to lose his wallet.  Now, he has no cash, no credit cards and no drivers license. 

After meeting with Kristin, the real estate agent who’s taking on the task of selling his grandmother’s house, Peter realizes that she’s someone who he vaguely knew back in his high school days – Kristin is the younger sister of one of his classmates and had a huge crush on Peter back in the day.  Since Peter’s grandmother was cremated, he must now make his way to the funeral parlor to pick up the urn containing her ashes.  Unfortunately, he now has no transportion, so he’s stuck.  Suddenly, next door neighbor Donald appears – a friend from high school whom he hasn’t seen in years.  Although a bit of an oddball, Donald agrees to help his old chum by giving him a lift to the funeral parlor. 

The more time Peter is forced to spend with Donald, the more he comes to realize that his obnoxious behavior may be symptomatic of the fact that Donald may be suffering from a severe case of arrested adolescence; despite the passage of a significant amount of time, it would appear as though Donald never really grew up.  Donald, sadly, is still stuck in his teenage years and wishes to relive what he thinks of as his glory days from long ago.  Peter, on the other hand, is desperately trying to ditch Donald so that he can get on with the rest of his life.  But can he do it without looking like a jerk?

Review

The character of Donald (played by director and co-writer Kristopher Avedisian) is the kind of guy you either want to stab in the ear with an ice pick or strangle with piano wire.  Either way, you get the idea.  Obnoxious doesn’t even begin to cover the problems this guy has.  As far as Peter is concerned, he’s not much better; as someone who allegedly has a responsible job, exactly how does he manage to lose his wallet on the bus ride from New York to Rhode Island?  The answer, apparently, is that he is just as irresponsible as Donald.  Or maybe it’s just a dramatic conceit. 

“Donald Cried” (a terrible title) might be considered something of a combination of a buddy movie and a road movie.  A buddy movie, with at least one of the buddies being a reluctant buddy; a road movie, if you are willing to accept the various extents of Warwick, Rhode Island as the “road” in this case.  Nevertheless, it is episodic and lacking in much of what might be seen as a resolution – that is to say, the film ends with little of the story’s loose ends tied up.  Although the relationship between Pete and Donald somewhat gets resolved, how this happens may not be believable. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with Avedisian and a couple of the actors from the movie –  Jesse Wakeman, who played Peter and also co-wrote the screenplay and Louisa Krause who played Kristin.  Avedisian said that “Donald Cried” came about from a short film he directed with his collaborators; he decided to develop it into a longer form because he felt that he wanted to explore how society dealt with people who were like Donald – that is to say, people who were on the outer fringes of society and how people lacked a certain degree of empathy for them. 

Donald Cried (2016) on IMDb

Friday, March 18, 2016

“Kill Me Please”– Movie Review

KMP

With the beginning of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series this week, I attended a screening of “Kill Me Please”, a new drama from Brazil. 

Synopsis

When a group of high school girls become obsessed with a series of murders in their community, how will their personal lives suffer as a result?

Story

Barra da Tijuca is an upscale neighborhood located in the West Side Zone of Rio de Janeiro. The otherwise pleasant life of its residents is intruded upon when a series of grisly murders occurs, with most of the victims being pretty young brunette women. A group of adolescent teenage girls become captivated by this increasingly visible news; their obsession with boys competes with their obsession over these serial killings. Bia is one girl who gets particularly swept up in all of this; with plenty of free time on her hands since her mother is out of town and her older brother João ignoring her, Bia’s thoughts turn increasingly dark when she realizes the victims bear a striking resemblance to her.

Perhaps to take her mind off these horrors – or perhaps she’s just got a prodigious libido – Bia gives her boyfriend growing attention. She pressures him for physical intimacy but being religious, he declines. Frustrated, Bia focuses her attention on the murders; the thought that she might be one of the next victims appears to simultaneously scare and excite her. Ultimately, this has a negative impact on her friendships, particularly when one of the girls displays a romantic interest in João – who’s completely indifferent to her since he’s lamenting the loss of the girlfriend who apparently recently dumped him.

Bia gets too close for comfort with these killings; when going home after school, she happens upon a young woman who appears to have been the latest victim of this serial killer. Badly bruised, bloody and beaten, she’s barely alive. Bia sends her friends to get help while she stays with the girl, encouraging her to hang on – given her condition, it doesn’t look like she’s going to last much longer. Eventually, Bia’s macabre behavior alienates what remains of her friends, leaving her virtually alone. Will Bia’s fetishistic preoccupation with these killings permanently isolate her from society?  

Review

Is “Kill Me Please” a coming of age story or a slasher flick? Curiously, the answer may be both. The film has a compelling opening – for the first minutes, there is absolutely no dialog and each gloomy, foreboding shot wonderfully sets the tone for the story to follow. For much of the movie, the audience is invited into an unfamiliar world and we hang in there wondering where all of this is going. The problem is that by the third act, the main spine of the story seems to have been either lost or intentionally discarded along the way; what results is a deeply unsatisfying ending which is about as clear as mud.

While the idea of “Kill Me Please” is certainly unique – combining a murder mystery with the angst of teenage females – it may have been too much for a first-time feature filmmaker to attempt. It’s too bad because each story unto itself would have made an interesting film. What’s particularly unusual is the fact that Bia is a young woman of multiple lusts: one for sex and one for blood. Both appear to be equally as strong. Religion takes quite a beating, too: evangelicals are made out to be morons and prayer services come off looking and sounding more like a Rave Party.  

Following the screening was a question and answer session with “Kill Me Please” director Anita Rocha da Silveira. With this being her first feature film, she said it was based on one of her earlier short films which had a similar theme. Both movies were inspired by a true incident: when she was a teenager, one of her closest friends committed suicide and she wound up having a tremendous amount of difficulty coming to terms with her loss. The director admitted that much of the visual style of this motion picture was inspired by David Lynch’s short-lived television show,“Twin Peaks”.

Kill Me Please (2015) on IMDb