Sunday, September 28, 2014

“While We’re Young”– Movie Review

 

whilewereyoung

Tonight, I caught what was billed as The Surprise Screening at The New York Film Festival – “While We’re Young”, a comedy starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried; it’s directed by Noah Baumbach.

Synopsis

When a 40-ish couple befriends a couple in their 20’s, their own relationship is immediately rejuvenated – but when they find out the younger couple may not be all they’re cracked up to be, will it end both the friendship and their marriage?

Story

Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts) appear to be a happy childless couple in their early 40’s, but they are increasingly feeling left out when their friends in a similar age-range have been having children. After a couple of miscarriages years ago, Cornelia no longer wishes to try and Josh claims to be content with not having children in exchange for having their freedom. Instead, they choose to concentrate on their respective careers: Josh is a documentary filmmaker and Cornelia is a producer who works primarily on Josh’s films as well as those of her father (Charles Grodin), who is also a documentarian. Although Josh has been making his films for quite some time, he’s finding himself stalled in his current project.

Teaching a filmmaking seminar, Josh meets Jamie and Darby (Driver and Seyfried), a married couple in their mid-twenties. Jamie expresses his admiration for Josh, adding that he has seen much of his work, including some of the more obscure documentaries; in their conversation, Jamie admits to being an aspiring documentary director himself and invites Josh and Cornelia to dinner so they could advise him on his career. The two couples seem to hit it off and soon become pals, hanging out with each other frequently; this younger couple has such an impact on Josh and Cornelia that they begin to change, becoming more like Jamie and Darby.  Their marriage, which seemed stuck in neutral almost as much as Josh’s film, is greatly revitalized.

Seeing that they’ve become good friends by that point, Jamie imposes upon Josh and Cornelia to assist him with the documentary he’s currently shooting; since Josh’s own film is somewhat in limbo as he’s had difficulty securing financing, Josh agrees to participate as a camera operator on Jamie’s documentary and Cornelia consents to be his producer. When Jamie shows people a rough cut of his film, Josh becomes jealous when it’s well-received. However, the closer Josh gets to both Jamie and his work, the more he sees the youthful aspirant as being a manipulative, conniving phony. Doing a little detective work, Josh finally has the goods on Jamie. But if Josh attempts to expose Jamie, will he be able to survive both the end of their friendship as well as the possible end of his marriage to Cornelia? 

Review

I’m glad I took the chance on purchasing a ticket to this Surprise Screening; it was definitely a surprise of the most pleasant kind. “While We’re Young” is not only very funny but also truthful as well. The movie opens in an odd way: with a snippet of dialog from Henrik Ibsen’s stage play “The Master Builder”. In the conversation, the title character expresses concern about the encroachment of young people in the town where they live and his concerned wife tries to allay his fears. This unusual choice turns out to be an excellent thematic setup for the story that is about to unfold; as both writer and director, Baumbach is at his creative best here.

Adam Driver’s portrayal of Jamie is what really stands out in “While We’re Young”; he plays this young man as the most affected, obnoxious, conceited person imaginable – he hypocritically decries ambition, yet he’s secretly ambitious himself. Of particular note are various physical mannerisms that Driver uses as Jamie; there are some scenes where he implements some rather unorthodox hand gestures and there’s one scene in particular in a restaurant where Jamie goes to embrace Josh but gives the impression that he’s almost trying to smother the man who’s been trying to serve as both his friend and mentor.

Following the screening, Baumbach and the cast held a question and answer session with the audience. Baumbach said that like Josh, he had a disappointment in one of his films, “Margot At The Wedding” and suggested that Stiller had a similar experience with “Cable Guy”. Driver said that he felt he learned a considerable amount by working with Grodin, who, he felt, was very honest and straightforward as an actor. When Baumbach was asked for advice by a teenager who also wanted to be a filmmaker, the audience groaned, but the writer-director cleverly responded by joking that the boy should follow in the footsteps of the character of Jamie by latching on to an established filmmaker and riding his coattails.

Some notes about this review:  this was not the world premiere of “While We’re Young”; that occurred at another film festival a few weeks ago – it had previously played at The Toronto International Film Festival.  So, I believe this may have been the U.S. premiere, but I could be wrong.  If you are interested in seeing this movie, I’m afraid you’re going to have to be patient – it won’t be released in this country until some time next year.  Because the exact release date here hasn’t been determined yet, I was unsuccessful in finding either a movie poster (which I usually like to include at the beginning of the review) or a trailer (which is typically placed at the end of my reviews).  So, instead of a movie poster, I found a still from the film; lacking a trailer, I instead was able to locate a recent interview with the film’s stars when they appeared at TIFF. 

While We're Young (2014) on IMDb

“Maps To The Stars”– Movie Review

 

maps2stars

On the second night of The New York Film Festival, I saw the U.S. Premiere of the new David Cronenberg movie, “Maps To The Stars”, starring Julianne Moore, John Cusak and Robert Pattinson.

Synopsis

While a fading Hollywood star desperately tries to revive her career, she hires a young woman as her new personal assistant – but when the assistant’s hidden agenda gets in the way of her job, will the star’s life and career be at risk?

Story

Havana (Moore), is a beautiful and talented Hollywood actress whose career has been sliding downhill for the past few years.  A one-time award winner, her agent now finds herself struggling to find work for Havana.  Amidst all of this, Havana is also in great need of hiring a new personal assistant when she is introduced to Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who has left Florida in order to come to Los Angeles – for what reason, she’s not even sure; despite finding Agatha a bit quirky, Havana hires her immediately.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Agatha meets Jerome (Pattinson), an aspiring actor-writer who currently pays the bills by working as a chauffeur.  Over time, the two strike up something of a friendship and eventually wind up dating.  But beyond her work and romantic life, Agatha has other interests which she hasn’t chosen to share with either Havana or Jerome:  she wishes to reunite with her younger brother Benjie (Evan Bird), who is now, although only a teenager, a rather big star in his own right.  Unfortunately, their father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (Cusak), objects to this on the grounds that Agnes is mentally unstable and once tried to hurt Benjie; now that the boy is something of a goose laying the golden egg for his family, Dr. Weiss is being extra careful to make sure no harm comes to his son. 

Benjie has problems of his own as he is haunted by nightmares that may be focusing on his unusual and unnatural relationship with Agatha.  With images from his nightmares being so realistic, he begins acting out in ways that will very likely threaten his livelihood, negatively impacting his already fractured and dysfunctional family.  Later, when Agatha learns of how she was betrayed by a jealous and insecure Havana, she realizes that Havana can no longer be trusted – but with Agatha history of instability, does this mean that Havana’s life is in danger? 

Review

I’m not sure if “Maps To The Stars” is a drama, a comedy (there are some extremely funny moments in writer Bruce Wagner’s screenplay) or a horror movie (how could it not be, given director David Cronenberg’s track record?).  Whatever category it may be, there is one thing that’s for certain:  “Maps To The Stars” is a crazy, daring story that’s wildly entertaining.  When this film played at The Cannes Film Festival, its star Julianne Moore won the festival’s award for best actress; while it was much deserved based on her tragi-comic portrayal of an actress at the end of her rope – if not her career – I have to wonder how well it will be received here in the United States. 

As much of a fun ride as it is for the audience, distribution and acceptance in this country may be difficult due to the fact that it takes such a harsh look at much of Hollywood – both in terms of the show business industry that makes the town click and the narcissists who inhabit that business.  While there certainly have been some successful movies that send up Hollywood, most of them have been done by people who are internal to that system; Cronenberg, however, is something of an outsider – he’s a Canadian and the film is a German-Canadian production.  As outsiders, offense may be taken at the knocks against the American entertainment industry. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with Cronenberg, Moore, Wagner and Howard Shore (who composed the score); unfortunately, Shore didn’t get a chance to field too many questions – his music for “Maps To The Stars” was very understated and mysterious.  You barely notice it, which may be the best compliment you can give a soundtrack.  Cronenberg said he wasn’t sure what rating the film would get here in the United States; he was hoping for an R but wouldn’t be surprised if it got an NC-17 (there’s graphic sex and violence aplenty).  Despite many funny jokes in his screenplay, Wagner may have saved the best line of the night when discussing writing; he said that writers often re-visit their previous work, “like dogs circling their own vomit”.   

Maps to the Stars (2014) on IMDb

Friday, September 26, 2014

“Gone Girl”–Movie Review

 

gonegirl

Tonight, I attended the opening of The New York Film Festival for a screening of the world premiere of “Gone Girl”, a mystery starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and directed by David Fincher.

Synopsis

When a man’s wife goes missing, a search for her becomes a nationwide news story – but when public opinion of him goes from a sympathetic husband to murder suspect, will he be able to prove his innocence?

Story

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick (Affleck) discovers his wife Amy (Pike) is suddenly missing.  Upon immediately reporting this to the police, a thorough investigation takes place; in order to get the word out in the hope that someone may be able to help find Amy, the police have Nick do extensive publicity about the case.  Soon, he becomes something of a media darling with many people around his home state of Missouri – and eventually, around the nation – feeling sorry for him once they learn of his plight. 

Under the scrutiny of intense media glare, Nick’s heroic mantle gradually erodes when certain facts about him and his marriage become known.  Is Nick keeping secrets from everyone?  Does he know more about Amy’s disappearance than he’s letting on?  Slowly, the tide of public opinion begins to turn against him and in the middle of trying to learn the whereabouts of his wife, Nick now finds himself put on the defensive thanks to the very same media that made him a star.  This causes the police to have their own doubts as well as they steadily uncover various forms of evidence that don’t exactly make Nick look as innocent as he wishes everyone to believe he is. 

Drowning in bad publicity and increasingly becoming the focal point of the police investigation, Nick winds up having to hire a very famous and expensive attorney to defend him.  However, with a seemingly non-stop barrage of tawdry personal information about Nick becoming yet more fodder for an ever-hungry public, the lawyer is finding his job increasingly challenging.  When the police eventually gather enough evidence to arrest Nick, things look particularly ominous.  But when he learns of some new information that may clear his name, will he be able to prove he’s not a murderer? 

Review

This year’s New York Film Festival really got off to an incredible start with “Gone Girl”, a motion picture I highly recommend you see in the theater as soon as possible – especially if you’ve got a significant other (and oh, the discussion that will follow!).  If you’re not in a serious relationship, you should probably see it anyway – and after viewing it, be thankful that you’re not married.  Although Affleck is the star of this movie, it’s actually Rosamund Pike who steals the show from him; her portrayal of Amy will likely and deservedly set her career on an entirely new and spectacular trajectory.  As far as director David Fincher is concerned, he may very well have made a valid argument to support the assertion that he’s this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock. 

“Gone Girl” takes the audience on quite a wild ride; it’s wicked, twisted and ultimately also very funny.  Novelist Gillian Flynn did an excellent job of adapting her book into this screenplay – something which is rarely an easy task for any author.  What should also not be overlooked is the soundtrack by Trent Reznor; his music sets an intensely ominous mood in many scenes.  There is very little in “Gone Girl” to find fault with; along with its commentary about the state of present-day romantic relationships, it also drives home the point about how we as a society are quick to unquestioningly gobble up anything the news media decides to tell us. 

As much as it is a relationship movie, it’s also yet another story about how the economic recession of recent years ruined the lives of many Americans, as this is what set into motion much of the action that follows.  Ultimately and unsurprisingly, Fincher reminds us that while we may think of ourselves as being heroes in the movie that is our life, we may also simultaneously be villains in the movie that is someone else’s life.  Who is the hero and who is the villain in “Gone Girl”?  That’s a very interesting question and one that may be difficult – if not impossible – to answer.  It’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself – and that’s much of the fun in “Gone Girl”.   

 

Gone Girl (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

“The Equalizer”– Movie Review

 

equalizer

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “The Equalizer”, a crime thriller starring Denzel Washington. 

Synopsis

Russian mobsters seek revenge against a man who single-handedly ruined their business – but when they learn that he may be more dangerous than they are, whose life may be more in danger?

Story

Robert McCall (Washington) is something of a nondescript man who lives a simple life alone in his modest East Boston apartment, working in the warehouse of a home improvement supplier.  To his co-workers, however, he is a man of mystery because his background is a bit unclear – and as far as McCall is concerned, he’s just fine keeping it that way.  Recently, he’s made the acquaintance of Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young woman who aspires to be a singer – but until her career takes off, she has to make a living in a considerably less glamorous profession, working as a prostitute. 

When McCall learns that Teri has been hospitalized as the result of a beating from her pimp, McCall takes vengeance by killing him and several of his associates.  Although McCall thinks that all problems have been solved by this, he soon learns that his troubles are just beginning.  The escort service is owned by a wealthy and influential Russian mobster named Pushkin who runs a crime syndicate involved in variegated illegal businesses.  This causes Pushkin to send Teddy (Marton Csokas), his main troubleshooter, to Boston to fix the problem – in this case, finding McCall and killing him.

Upon investigation of the situation, Teddy is surprised to learn that the entire source of the grief comes from McCall, apparently acting independently in a vigilante-like role.  Trying to intimidate McCall, Teddy soon finds that this man isn’t so easy to scare, even though he’s seemingly on his own.  After conferring with some former colleagues who previously worked in a law enforcement branch of the federal government, McCall finally understands just who Teddy is and exactly how far this crime network extends.  Armed with this new information, McCall sets out not only to defeat Teddy but also to destroy the entire gang of mobsters.  But when Teddy kidnaps several of McCall’s co-workers, will he be able to confront Teddy without endangering the hostages?

Review

Well, let’s just put it this way:  if you’re looking for a simple-minded action thriller starring one of America’s most popular movie stars, then look no further, “The Equalizer” is for you.  On the other hand, if you’ve been hoping for a movie version of an old television series from the 1980’s with one of the country’s best actors, then allow me to completely dash your hopes.  The original TV show was considerably better and more clever than this cinematic reboot; the material isn’t up to star Denzel Washington, who does his best with a rather uninspired script. 

“The Equalizer” isn’t much helped by director Antoine Fuqua’s choices, either.  Fuqua, who worked with Denzel Washington on “Training Day”, tries to suggest action by quickly cutting from shots before we’ve had a chance to see what he presumably wanted us to see.  Add to that the frequent extreme close-ups of Washington’s eyes (one would guess to show his intensity) and slow-motion fire sprinklers to enhance dramatic effect during a confrontation near the end of the movie, and it’s pretty clear he’s trying to dazzle the audience with stunning visual images to take our attention away from a screenplay that lacks substance. 

This movie turned out to be a major disappointment which is why I can’t recommend you see it in the theater.  At a little over two hours, its plodding pace makes it feel much longer; after the first hour, I started checking my watch a few times.  Also, it’s not anywhere near as much fun a film such as this one is supposed to be.  The TV series on which it was based was intelligent and unusually well-written for television from that time; the cinematic version, unfortunately, comes nowhere near this level of quality.  This being a motion picture produced by Sony, the one thing they did manage to get right was the product placement of a Vaio laptop used by the protagonist.   

 

The Equalizer (2014) on IMDb

 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

“Hector And The Search For Happiness”– Movie Review

 

hector

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Hector And The Search For Happiness”, starring Simon Pegg, Jean Reno and Toni Collette. 

Synopsis

When a psychiatrist leaves his girlfriend behind so he can globetrot in order to find out the keys to being happy, will she still be there upon his return?

Story

Hector (Pegg) is a London-based psychiatrist whose day-to-day life is fairly predictable – and he seems to like it that way.  In fact, there’s very little that’s changed for him over the years – his clothing, his daily routine and the rate he charges his clients.  But all the while, he listens to the people whom he treats and only hears how miserable each of them are.  Frustrated because he doesn’t have an answer as to how he can improve their situation, he soon begins to suspect that perhaps he’s suffering from a similar malady.  Is he happy?  Is anyone happy?  Is his girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) happy?  How do you even know if you’re happy?  Most of all, how do you become happy?

Coming to the realization that he won’t find the answers to these questions by staying in the office of his private practice, Hector decides that he must travel the world to see how other people live and maintain a happy lifestyle despite the obstacles fate throws in their path.  When he breaks the news to Clara, she is mildly supportive, but also worried since it’s clear that she won’t be able to accompany him on this trip.  Is he dissatisfied with their relationship?  Will this be the first step in the process of a break-up?  While not trying to talk him out of it, she anticipates the experience with great trepidation.

Starting off in China, Hector meets Edward (Stellan Skarsgård), a multi-millionaire, during the plane ride; using his deep pockets, Edward shows Hector the time of his life, giving him some clues as to the source of happiness.  Hector then moves on to Africa, where he unexpectedly makes the acquaintance of Diego (Reno), a dangerous drug lord whom he happens to befriend – inadvertently teaching him about happiness.  Finally, Hector winds up in Los Angeles, where he looks up Agnes (Collette), an old flame from college, so he can get some closure on their relationship.  All during his travels, he keeps in touch with Clara, who is becoming increasingly nervous about whether or not Hector will return to her.  But by the time Hector decides to come home, will Clara still be there or will she have moved on by now?       

Review

In movie viewing, one of the most uncomfortable things you can experience is when a comedic actor makes an awkward stab at grabbing the ever-elusive brass ring known as gravitas.  Perhaps the last time I can recall seeing this is when I attended a screening of Ben Stiller’s “Walter Mitty” at last year’s New York Film Festival (reviewed here).  Once again, it occurs with Simon Pegg in “Hector And The Search For Happiness”.  The irony is not lost that these two films are very similar in that the theme is two men who traverse the globe in the hope that each will find himself. 

“Hector” runs a wide range from broad comedy to tragic and dangerous moments; the film makes an attempt to run the gamut of emotions, never quite making us genuinely feel any of them.  The jokes are clownish and it can be a bit of a challenge to take Pegg’s character seriously when the scenes call for the audience to do so.  Rosamund Pike is as good as she can be in the role of Clara, which is really little more than mere window dressing for Pegg’s Hector; she is made to look more desperate than in love as she patiently but neurotically waits for her boyfriend’s return.

The clown always yearns to be taken seriously, and it is painfully obvious while watching “Hector And The Search For Happiness” that this was likely Pegg’s motivation for doing the motion picture in the first place.  Although the picture was based on a best-selling novel of the same name by François Lelord, the story does not translate well to the screen – at least not in this adaptation; while I’ve never read the source material, it might be the case that adapting this to the big screen was too ambitious of an undertaking. Ultimately, the character of Hector travels the world while the movie “Hector” goes absolutely nowhere. 

 

Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) on IMDb

 

Monday, September 15, 2014

“Tracks”– Movie Review

 

tracks

This week, The New York Times Film Club invited its members to see a screening of the new drama “Tracks” with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver.

Synopsis

A young woman sets out on a 1700 mile journey across Australia – but when she decides to make the trip on foot and unaccompanied, will she be able to survive the experience?

Story

In 1975, Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) arrives in Alice Springs, Australia to find the adventure of her life:  she plans on making a 1700 mile journey across Australia, travelling west from Alice Springs to The Indian Ocean.   To make it even more challenging, she’s going to do it by walking and she decides to go it alone, despite the fact that she is far from an expert on such matters; all the while, many people try to discourage Robyn from what now seems to be an obsession, pointing out that not even more experienced male explorers would attempt such a feat, considering the effort foolhardy and dangerous.

Ignoring the warnings, Robyn immediately sets out to get herself an education.  Figuring that it would be best to travel with several camels to act as beasts of burden for carrying luggage, food and other supplies, Robyn offers to work at various camel ranches where she can be trained about the animals and learn how to handle them on her own.  After various setbacks and almost two years, Robyn completes her schooling and secures four camels who will accompany her and her dog on this trek which is expected to last over six months. 

Realizing that she may not have enough money to make the trip she envisions, Robyn contacts National Geographic magazine to see if they will sponsor the odyssey; they agree to do so on the condition that they send their photographer Rick Smolan (Driver) to visually document her experience for their publication; in exchange, Smolan will check-in on her periodically and deliver fresh supplies on each visit.  But with relentlessly hot weather across the deserts of western Australia and dangerous encounters with various forms of life indigenous to the area, will Robyn be able to survive long enough to make it to the west coast of Australia?   

Review

“Tracks” is the true story of Robyn Davidson, based on her book of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the photographs taken by Rick Smolan that appeared in National Geographic magazine.  Despite what might seem like a dreary, boring single-character story not terribly well suited to a film, director John Curran does a fine job of compressing time and keeping the pace crisp; various interesting characters are introduced throughout the movie so the audience is never bored by spending way too much screen time watching Robyn interacting with her animals. 

It should be noted that if you are a fan of Adam Driver and planning to see this film simply because he’s in the cast, be warned that his character is not in too many scenes; this is definitely Wasikowska’s movie – Driver is about as scarce as flora in the deserts of western Australia.  That said, however, Driver plays his role of Smolan very close to the character he plays on the hit HBO television series “Girls”; here, the photographer is goofy and immature, while Robyn comes across as adult and grounded albeit somewhat anti-social. 

Following the screening, a journalist from The New York Times interviewed director John Curran.  Curran said that the shoot lasted approximately two months but that the pre-production took much longer.  He said that back in the 1980’s, he spent a few years living in Australia and that’s where he first learned about Robyn Davidson’s story; her book “Tracks” was something of a cult classic in those days – a copy was owned by nearly every young woman he met.  Robyn Davidson was very much involved in the making of the film; Curran mentioned that she had been trying to get the movie produced for almost 30 years, before all of the pieces finally fell into place. 

 

Tracks (2013) on IMDb

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

“The Drop”– Movie Review

 

drop

This week, I caught a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama, “The Drop”, starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini.

Synopsis

When a bartender finds himself caught in the middle of a scheme to steal money from the gangsters who own the bar where he works, will both his job and his life remain intact?

Story

Despite the makeover that hipsters have given Brooklyn over the past number of years, there remains a sinister underworld that’s still largely unseen by most people – except for Bob (Hardy), a bartender at a pub run by his older cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Bob has spent his entire life living in this part of the borough and has pretty much seen it all, somehow managing to keep himself out of trouble. In recent years, Marv’s bar came to be owned by Chechen gangsters, who periodically use the business as a delivery point for money owed to them – in the vernacular of their world, when Marv’s bar is the delivery location, it is then known as The Drop.

Late one night after a drop at Marv’s place, the bar is held up by a couple of armed men wearing masks shortly before closing time; when the police are called, Bob gives the Detective in charge plenty of details, but Marv remains mysteriously silent. The next day when the Chechen mobster arrives for his pickup, he’s informed of the robbery; infuriated, he demands Marv come up with the money any way he can. Later, unknown to Bob, Marv meets with Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), one of the men who stuck up the bar – apparently, the robbery was Marv’s idea and he hired Deeds to do the job.

Subsequently, a possessive Deeds begins to harass Bob, whom he discovers now owns Deeds’ former dog and has been hanging around Nadia (Rapace), Deeds’ ex-girlfriend. Marv learns that another drop will be made at his bar on one of the busiest and most lucrative nights of the year – Super Bowl Sunday; he then instructs Deeds to pull another job there that night before closing. Meanwhile, Deeds coerces Bob to give him $10,000 for the dog so he’ll leave Bob alone; Bob agrees and Deeds arranges to come by Marv’s to pick up the money on the night of the big game – the same night he’s supposed to hold-up the place again. But when Deeds surprises Bob by showing up with Nadia, will Bob hand over the money or will Deeds have to kill him?

Review

If you’re in the mood for a good crime drama, “The Drop” is likely to satisfy your needs. However, do note that I said “good”, not “great”. On balance, while I enjoyed “The Drop” substantially, it is far from perfect. Reason alone to make “The Drop” worth seeing is James Gandolfini; even though he’s not the star of the movie, he’s still quite good, especially if you were a fan of his work on HBO’s “The Sopranos”. In “The Drop”, Gandolfini’s Marv is basically Tony Soprano with a goatee – except for the fact that Marv isn’t quite as violent as Tony was. It is bittersweet watching Gandolfini since you can’t escape the realization that we’ll never see him in a new role again.

Visually, director Michaël R. Roskam does an excellent job of setting a proper mood for this type of story – dark and brooding, he finds clever angles for shots and makes judicious use of his soundtrack to set the mood musically.  The performances are quite good, despite occasional problems with the script by Dennis Lehane, who based the screenplay on his own short story, “Animal Rescue”.  The story has scenes that take you out of the moment (e.g., no one I know in Brooklyn will let a complete stranger into their house.   Also, in this era of cell phone ubiquity, who exchanges telephone numbers by scribbling them on a scrap of paper?). 

The details of some of the key relationships in the story are also a bit muddled and at times, it can be a little difficult keeping track of who was whom and what their connection was to other characters; also, there’s a character whose existence is a major plot point, but since he’s long ago passed away, he never appears onscreen.  One positive note about the script, though, is its ending.  What would any Dennis Lehane story be without a nice twist ending?  “The Drop” most certainly has one.  It’s worth putting up with some other nonsense to wait for the final confrontation between Bob and Deeds, not to mention the how the detective wraps up the case. 

 

The Drop (2014) on IMDb

 

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

“This Is Where I Leave You”– Movie Review

 

whereIleaveu

This week, the bonus screenings for the Fall Semester of my movie class began with the comedy-drama, “This Is Where I Leave You”, starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.

Synopsis

When the patriarch of a large family dies, his children rush to the side of his widow to mourn and bury him – but after they learn that they are being forced to stay together for an entire week, can they all remain civil to each other for that long?

Story

Just as life appears to be going well for Judd (Bateman), he suddenly finds himself in the midst of several personal crises:  First, he loses his wife when he discovers she’s been cheating on him; second, he loses his job when it turns out that his wife has been cheating on him with his boss; lastly, when he gets a telephone call from his sister Wendy (Fey), he learns that they’ve lost their father, who has finally passed away after a long illness.  Judd then heads back to his family home to help his siblings and their mother Hillary (Fonda) with the funeral. 

Afterwards, Hillary announces to her adult offspring that their father’s dying wish was that they all sit shiva – a ceremony typical of Jewish families where everyone gathers for a week to mourn the loss of the deceased.  Upset that they have to put their life on hold for the next seven days, Hillary convinces her brood to stay out of respect to their late father.  Soon thereafter, everyone’s patience is tested as they are all forced to live together under the same roof – the first time they have ever had to do that as adults.  It becomes immediately apparent that their lives and relationships are broken and dysfunctional in various ways. 

Judd quickly discovers that he is not the only one of his siblings experiencing personal problems; Wendy’s marriage may be in its last stages as her husband grows increasingly distant as he becomes more focused on his professional life.  Feeling alone, she rekindles a relationship with her ex-boyfriend, a neighborhood man who suffered a debilitating accident when they were together.  Judd, meanwhile, runs into Penny (Rose Byrne), an old acquaintance who still lives in the same town where they both were raised.  Learning of Judd’s marital woes, she quickly moves in to try for a second chance at romance with him.  But when Judd’s wife mysteriously returns with a surprise of her own, will this cause him to reconcile or will he continue to pursue a relationship with Penny?

Review

“This Is Where I Leave You” is probably being categorized as a comedy-drama by the process of elimination:  it’s not funny enough to be a comedy and it’s not serious enough to be a drama.  Although some of the jokes are mildly amusing, most are hackneyed and as a result, fall completely flat; on the other hand, if you’re not terribly demanding as far as your comedic needs are concerned, it’s entirely possible that you’ll find this movie satisfying, as it appeared to be for most of those in attendance.  For me, however, this was ultimately just a waste of what was otherwise a perfect cast of actors. 

One of the problems I had with “This Is Where I Leave You” – and it’s a big one – has to do with its screenplay; specifically, the awkward, thoughtless way in which the exposition was written.  A pet peeve of mine is when one character tells another something that both of them already know all too well, especially when it is clearly done in such a way as to supply the audience with information about one of the characters.  This is a major problem in the movie which the screenwriter never seems able to overcome; each attempt is ham-handed in its execution, effectively being as subtle as a blow to the head with a sledgehammer. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed Jonathan Tropper, who wrote not only the movie’s screenplay, but also the novel on which the film is based.  Tropper said that the book came about in an odd way – he has previously published several successful books which have been optioned by Hollywood to be adapted into a motion picture.  His intention with the novel version of “This Is Where I Leave You” was to write a book that most major motion picture studios would be averse to optioning; he did this by having most of the action remain internal to his protagonist, the narrator.  Despite Tropper’s best efforts, however, an option was nevertheless purchased on the novel and he was then hired to adapt its screenplay as well. 

 

This Is Where I Leave You (2014) on IMDb

 

Monday, September 08, 2014

“My Old Lady”–Movie Review

 

oldlady

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “My Old Lady”, a comedy-drama starring Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith.

Synopsis

When a man inherits his late father’s Paris apartment, he tries to sell it in order to get some ready cash – but when he learns that an elderly woman and her adult daughter live there, will they be able to prevent him from putting their home on the market?

Story

At nearly 58 years of age, Mathias (Kline) finds he has very little to show for his years on this earth.  Having been married and divorced multiple times and suddenly finding himself nearly penniless, he believes he may have been posthumously saved by his late father; inheriting a Paris-based apartment his father owned, Mathias heads to France from his home in New York City to sell the place and pocket the much-needed infusion of finances.  Upon arrival, Mathias explores the expansive flat and happens to stumble upon Mathilde (Smith), an elderly woman who maintains that she lives there along with her daughter Chloé (Scott Thomas). 

These two women aren’t the only surprises awaiting Mathias.  It turns out that his father purchased the apartment from Mathilde through a special type of real estate transaction common in France known as a viager; under such an arrangement, the seller is permitted to collect monthly payments from the buyer over a period of time – all the while, the seller is permitted to continue living in the residence until either moving or dying, at which point the buyer may pay off the balance of the dwelling prior to occupying the space.  Given that Mathilde is in her nineties, Mathias is confident that he won’t have to wait too long before the place is his; as a result, he starts the ball rolling to secure a buyer.

Panicking, Chloé tries to implore Mathias not to sell the place, since it would leave her homeless; Mathias rejects her pleas and a bitter fight between them ensues.  With Mathias forced to share the space with these women until a deal can be struck, some long-hidden secrets about both Mathilde and Mathias eventually surface – revealing a past that each wish the other never discovered.  When Mathilde discloses to Mathias that she may have had a relationship with his father that was something other than strictly business, the question arises whether he and Chloé may be half-siblings.  Knowing the truth, will Mathias nevertheless proceed with selling the women’s living quarters?     

Review

Writer-director Israel Horovitz, better known as a playwright, makes his cinematic directorial debut with the film “My Old Lady”, which is an adaptation of his own play of the same name.  Given Horovitz’s extensive and impressive track record, it’s no wonder he was able to assemble such a superior cast, each of whom give fine performances.  Unfortunately, the material is not up to the cast and as a result, the motion picture as a whole suffers from trite dramatic conceits and contrivances that are painfully obvious (e.g., Is it really possible to hold a conversation while playing the piano?  When sharing an apartment with other people, wouldn’t it dawn on you to knock on a closed bathroom door before entering?).

Although the adaptation of the play is successful in its attempt to make it more filmic – the scenes are considerably opened up to show off the streets and architecture of The City Of Lights to their best advantage – Horovitz seems to have a tendency to fall back on convenient theatrical tropes intended to drive the momentum of the story forward.  These techniques only have the impact of being overtly manipulative.  When the screenwriter resorts to tricks in an effort to fool the audience, one has to question if he truly has faith in his own material. 

While there are moments throughout “My Old Lady” which intend to be amusing (and occasionally succeeding), it might be something of a stretch to consider this to be in the comedy-drama genre due to the fact that the serious moments are so dismally dark that it can be difficult to bounce back from them too quickly.  Additionally, the language of the script remains far too theatrical; even though Horovitz may have succeeded in taking the story outside of the constraints of the apartment setting, the dialog still has very much the feel of belonging in a stage play. 

 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

“Starred Up”– Movie Review

 

starred-up

This week, I attended a screening of the new prison drama from The United Kingdom, “Starred Up”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.

Synopsis

When a young man is transferred to an adult prison, he struggles to adapt – but with his father also serving a sentence there, will their fractious relationship threaten them both?

Story

Despite being only a teenager, Eric (Jack O’Connell) is sent to a prison populated with hardened criminals after he becomes too violent to be able to stay at the youthful offenders facility where he was previously.  In their vernacular, he’s been “starred up” – recognized as an up-and-coming criminal that he’s deserving to stay with the more serious career criminals.  The only problem is that the prison authorities and correctional officers have underestimated just how incredibly violent Eric can become; a young man full of pent-up rage, he is a constantly ticking time bomb awaiting to explode at a moment’s notice. 

Once Eric has been set up in his cellblock, the inevitable occurs – he runs into his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) in the prison yard.  It is hardly a heartwarming family reunion.  Neville is perhaps one of the few people in life who can even come close to intimidating Eric.  Never having had a particularly good relationship with his father, Eric mostly tries to avoid him, but Neville goes out of his way to seek him out when he learns of his son’s arrival.  Is Neville trying to threaten Eric to prove to him once and for all that he’s the biggest badass in the family or is he instead trying to scare him enough to force him to behave and do his time with minimal problems?

Neville pulls a few strings and arranges to have Eric entered into a group therapy for inmates with anger management issues – much to the consternation of the prison authorities.  When it appears that the therapy is doing Eric no good, the warden has him removed from the sessions and the therapist is fired.  More enraged than ever before, Eric now sets out on a violent path, making enemies of his fellow inmates and prison authorities alike.  Some of the more influential inmates collaborate with the prison guards to have Eric murdered.  But by the time Neville learns of the plan, will he be able to save his son in time?

Review

With a compellingly realistic performance by Jack O’Connell, “Starred Up” is one of the more intense prison dramas.  O’Connell portrays Eric possessing an innate animalistic brutality that verges on erupting in nearly every scene, regardless of who the other character may be.  Director David Mackenzie excellently sets up Eric’s introduction to the facility relies on visual depictions with a minimal amount of dialog for an extended period of time at the beginning of the movie, creating a palpable sense of tension that never quite lets up until the film’s conclusion. 

Jonathan Asser, who wrote the screenplay, offers an intriguingly original story, based on his years working in a prison.  With this in mind – as well as the fact that the story takes place in The U.K. – there are some things that didn’t seem to make sense to an American viewer in terms of how the prisoners were handled; this could be due to the cultural differences, so it may be petty to make a big deal of such matters.  For example, it struck me as odd that a guard escorted an inmate out of his cell without handcuffs.  Also, the correction officers did not seem to be particularly well-supplied in terms of weapons.  Again, this may be the difference with the American penal system. 

Following the screening, director David Mackenzie was interviewed.  He mentioned the entire picture was shot in an actual prison, but one which was not active at the time of the shoot; the dismal, drab surroundings informed every scene, he said, so he tried to use this to his advantage when planning each shot.  During the 24 day shoot, Mackenzie found that some days were more tedious than others due to so many action scenes; all of the fights needed to be choreographed in detail so as to figure out where the camera needed to be placed and also, of course, for the safety of the actors involved. 

Starred Up (2013) on IMDb