Monday, September 15, 2014

“Tracks”– Movie Review



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.


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?


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?   


“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



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.


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?


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?


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



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.


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?


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?


“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



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.


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?


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?     


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



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


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?


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?


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


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“The Last Bohemia”– Book Review



Recently, I read, “The Last Bohemia:  Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn” by Robert Anasi

As a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn for over a quarter of a century, there was no way I was not going to read this book when I saw it on a stack atop a table at the Barnes & Noble in the Union Square section of Manhattan.  If nothing else, I yearned to compare notes with its author, who lived in Williamsburg for 14 years (from 1994 to 2008).  In the event you’re looking for a detailed historical account of this Brooklyn neighborhood, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.  On the other hand, if you’re interested in one man’s personal history of this bygone era about a place that’s developed into something of a Hipster enclave over the years, then Robert Anasi’s “The Last Bohemia” may very well hit the spot. 

Reading “The Last Bohemia” really took me back to the good old/bad old days of what is now considered The Hipster Haven (or is that The Hipster Heaven?) – days when rents, restaurants and yes, even life itself, was cheap.  The Dangerous Days – or the era before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had a chance to clean up New York City – are my earliest memories of this area, a time when Greenpoint (the neighborhood to the north of Williamsburg) was so crime-laden it was known as Gunpoint.  As I now look around and find myself surrounded by newly-constructed luxury condominium complexes with tax abatements aplenty, I am forced to come to the bitter realization that those days are long gone.  Anasi’s “The Last Bohemia” reminisces for those days, perhaps to the point of even romanticizing them – although if you managed to survive that time, I would hardly characterize it as romantic. 

Anasi’s tales of dive bars, easily available drugs and various illegal if not perilous activities are filled with characters so rich, you might swear it was a work of fiction if you had not actually lived here in Williamsburg during that period.  Ultimately, Anasi felt it was time to leave in 2008 when, after being a loyal denizen of 14 years, he was confronted by the  changing crowd and rising condos that resulted in this place no longer being the same Williamsburg he had come to adore and expect.  What was once a rough and tumble Bohemia had transformed into more of a Utopia – and a rather pricey one at that. 

But certainly the transmogrifying landscape in this small corner of The County Of Kings was not the only justification for the author’s relocation to California; it was inevitable, given time and the effects of aging.  Having moved here in his mid-twenties, Anasi woke up one day 14 years later and suddenly found himself on the cusp of real adulthood as he neared 40.  Somehow, life as a starving, struggling artist had worn out its welcome and lost whatever perceived luster it may have seemed to possess at some point. 

Williamsburg is no longer what it once was, but neither are we.  At least with “The Last Bohemia”, we have documented evidence of how some of us used to live. 


Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Love Is Strange”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Love Is Strange”, starring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei.


When a gay couple is forced to give up their longtime home, they wind up temporarily staying in separate locations – but will the friends and family putting them up lose patience before the couple is able to find a new place to live?


After nearly 40 years together, George and Ben (Molina and Lithgow) are finally going to get married in their home of New York City.  While their friends and family are positively ecstatic for them, not everyone is quite as pleased about their nuptials.  George, a music teacher at a Catholic school, is fired from his job once the diocese learns of his union.  With Ben on a small pension, the pair immediately realize that they can no longer afford their current living quarters; as a result, they will have to sell their co-op apartment and rent a smaller, cheaper space. 

But with a sale of their co-op imminent and in search of a new rental apartment as George remains unemployed, the two are in desperate need of a place to stay temporarily until they can get situated.   Unfortunately, no one they know has a place that’s big enough to accommodate the both of them; they will have to split up for the time being.  Ben winds up staying with family – nephew Elliot and his wife Kate (Darren E. Burrows and Tomei) while George rooms with a younger gay couple who are neighbors. 

Before too long, both Ben and George realize that their current arrangements are not working out terribly well.  Elliot and Kate’s teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan) grows resentful of Ben’s various intrusions into his life.  Meanwhile, George is having a difficult time adapting to his surroundings since this much-younger couple likes to stay up late and party hard.  With the two spending way too much time apart, their need to find a new residence grows even more urgent.  But will they find an affordable new home in New York before they’ve completely ruined the relationships with their gracious hosts?


“Love Is Strange” is certainly an interesting title for this movie; it could just as easily have been “Life Is Strange”, given the weird twists and turns of various events here.  Perhaps “Love Is Strange” was chosen because the film is about various forms of love, beyond just the obvious.  Certainly, there is the romantic love of the motion picture’s newlyweds, but I would suggest that there is much more to it than merely that; there is the familial love that’s put to the test as well as the love for loyal friends when you are in need.  But there is another strange kind of love that I think the picture touches on:  the love of New York City.

There are a couple of reasons why I say this.  First of all, when Ben and George initially realize they can no longer afford their apartment, an opportunity arises for them to move out of New York City – an option which they reject right off.  These two have spent their entire life together in this city and they are not about to leave it this late in life.  Another reason why I believe the love for New York City is one of the key themes here is due to the way in which the movie is shot; New York is made to look so beautiful and so romantic at times that you would almost think you were watching a Woody Allen film. 

If I had any reservations about “Love Is Strange”, it would have to be with the way the camera is pointed during some of the musical scenes.  There are a couple of scenes where someone is supposed to be playing a piano, but their hands appear in the shot and it doesn’t look like they are actually playing; why the director felt it was necessary to include the actors’ hands in the shot will forever remain a mystery to me.  Also, while the script is generally quite good, there are occasional moments where a scene will fall a bit flat because of certain dramatic contrivances that might be difficult for some to overlook. 


Love Is Strange (2014) on IMDb


Monday, August 18, 2014

“Abuse Of Weakness”– Movie Review



Recently, I attended the opening night of the new French drama starring Isabelle Huppert, “Abuse Of Weakness”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, . 


After suffering a stroke, a filmmaker begins a seemingly professional relationship with a known con artist – but when he becomes a financial drain on her, will she be able to put a stop to him?


Hospitalized as the result of a severe brain hemorrhage, Maud (Huppert) is discouraged to learn that the entire left side of her body has betrayed her.  During her extended stay, she is forced to undergo extensive physical therapy in order to re-learn how to walk, talk and dress, among other daily activities she previously took for granted.  Finding herself permanently debilitated, this fiercely independent woman is eventually discharged and tries diligently to return to life as usual – although once home, she quickly realizes that life as she used to know it is no more and she must adjust to a new version of “normal”. 

Recuperating, Maud plans a return to work; developing her next film, she becomes enchanted by Vilko (Kool Shen), whom she sees interviewed on a television show.  Promoting a new book about his previous career as a con man, he now claims to have been reformed, thanks in no small part to a long prison sentence.  Newly free, he renounces his past and insists he will devote his future to educating others about how to avoid being swindled by professional crooks who have no compunction about stealing someone else’s hard-earned money. 

Maud arranges to meet Vilko, whom she would like to cast in an upcoming movie – or at least, so she says.  During their working relationship, Vilko conjures some rather creative excuses for Maud to lend him money so he can get back on his feet.  After pretty much reaching the outer limits of the credit line her bank will extend and having almost completely exhausted her own personal savings, Maud finally comes to the bitter realization that Vilko will never repay her – nor, apparently, did he ever have the intention of doing so.  Confronted with this, will she be able to summon the will to call an end to his scam once and for all?


The main reason to see “Abuse Of Weakness” is for Isabelle Huppert; throughout much of the film, her physically challenging performance as a stroke victim with the entire left side of her body virtually useless is truly amazing to watch.  Beyond that, I’m afraid, the movie is a bit wanting in a number of ways – not the least of which being the ending, which I found somewhat unsatisfying.  Although concluding with an “intervention” of sorts involving Maud’s family – including her adult children, demanding an explanation of how their potential inheritance managed to be squandered so easily – it does precious little to resolve all of the motion picture’s preceding events. 

“Abuse Of Weakness” is based on true events that occurred a decade ago to its writer-director Catherine Breillat, who somehow found a way to survive her ordeal.  Despite all of this, it feels very difficult to believe.  Why a successful woman would allow herself to be so obviously manipulated to such an extreme and for so long is hard to fathom; were it not based in reality, it would’ve seemed too fantastic to be believable in any movie.  Perhaps therein lies the main problem with “Abuse Of Weakness” – reality does not always make for the best story. 

It may be the flaw here is that Breillat fell victim to her own vulnerability – so much so that she wished to dramatize it in a movie.  Since it actually happened to the filmmaker herself, rather than to a close friend or relative, she lacked sufficient objectivity to be able to make a dramatically compelling film on the subject matter; “this really happened to me and therefore it’s interesting” isn’t enough.  Breillat wasn’t making a documentary here; a bit of embellishment was necessary in order to make the audience more emotionally involved in this motion picture. 

Abuse of Weakness (2013) on IMDb


Monday, August 11, 2014

“The Giver”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club invited its members to attend the New York City premiere of the new science-fiction drama, “The Giver”, based on the award-winning, best-selling young adult novel of the same name by Lois Lowry; it stars Jeff Bridges (who also co-produced) and Meryl Streep.


In a futuristic society where citizens have no memories after an apocalypse, a young man is given the duty to learn all about the past so he can help guide the citizens of this new community – but once he discovers the secrets from their history, his life and the life of those close to him are endangered.



In the re-populated society that follows an event called The Ruin, the survivors live in a dystopia that they are led to believe is more of a utopia.  People here are not allowed to have emotions or memories of occurrences prior to The Ruin; the good news – if you can call it that – is the fact that The Elders, a collection of older citizens who run the community, make sure that everyone is clothed, sheltered, fed and employed.  The only problem is that no one has any choice in the matter – The Elders are the lone body responsible for making those decisions.   

When he comes of age, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is specially chosen by The Chief Elder (Streep) to assume a job known simply as The Receiver; he must study under The Giver (Bridges), who will impart knowledge and memories to Jonas about the past.  All of the history of the time before The Ruin will become known to Jonas, but he is not allowed to share this information with anyone else.  The purpose of him learning about it in the first place is to be able to ultimately assume the role of The Giver when he matures; in doing so, he will eventually be tasked of using the understanding of the past to share wisdom he has learned with the citizens of this new community in order to advise them. 

Jonas does not fit well into this unusual occupation – something that his parents (Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes) as well as his childhood friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) are quick to suspect when they start noticing substantial personality changes.  When Jonas learns about a failed attempt at training Rosemary (Taylor Swift) as a new Receiver a decade ago, he has reason to believe that he may be imperiled.  After Jonas manages to escape to an area known as The Boundary of Memories, he tries to make it to the next region, where all of the memories of the past will be revealed to the citizens of his community.  But after The Chief Elder learns of his plan, will she be able to stop him before everyone in this society becomes informed of the history behind their culture? 


In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to never having read the novel on which this film is based (nor do I even recall hearing of it before getting the invitation to this screening).  While I did overhear other members of the audience heaping some praise on “The Giver”, I got the impression that they might have been familiar with the movie’s source material; if you read the book, you might like the adaptation – however, if, like me, you are unfamiliar with this particular literary work, then it’s quite possible (if not likely) that you’ll be left a bit dissatisfied with the film version. 

Although the story of “The Giver” could easily be dismissed as a new-age Orwellian drama that should be popular with the crowd that gave “The Hunger Games” so much success, it at least has to be given credit for trying to spread its message of humanity and individualism to teenagers willing to listen.  Unfortunately, putting such a story on the screen is a bit of a challenge to say the least; it is rather difficult for actors to portray characters that have no emotion since by their very job description, actors are supposed to emote.  The sum total of “The Giver” is a muddled mess of ideas that are never fully explained, much less realized. 

A few unusual notes about this premiere that I thought were worthy of inclusion in this review:  Prior to the viewing, the audience in the theater was treated to a live-video streaming from right outside the theater, which featured the red carpet interviews with the stars.  Things took something of a strange turn when Jeff Bridges was interviewed because he alluded his friend Robin Williams, which caused him to burst into tears; in this awkward moment, the interviewer was forced to explain to the everyone viewing that it had been reported earlier that Robin Williams had died.  Audible gasps were heard from the audience, as this was clearly the first everyone was learning of the incident.  Right before the movie was shown, the musical group One Republic appeared live in the theater and performed their song, “Ordinary Human”, which can be heard during the end titles of “The Giver”. 


Saturday, August 09, 2014

“The Dog”– Movie Review



This week, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center began a showing of the documentary “The Dog”, about the man whose story was depicted in the movie “Dog Day Afternoon”.


When a man discovers his homosexual tendencies, he finds himself on a long, destructive road which leads to both personal tragedy and an odd sort of fame. 



By all accounts, John Wojtowicz had a fairly normal childhood growing up in Brooklyn, New York.  Upon graduating from high school, he took a job as a bank teller and began dating his co-worker Carmen Bifulco; with the Vietnam war escalating and John being a self-described conservative Goldwater Republican, he joined the army and participated in some combat efforts overseas.  During his time in the service, however, he had an experience that would forever change his life:  he and a fellow soldier engaged in a homosexual encounter.  Despite being introduced to this alternative lifestyle, he nevertheless made good his promise to Carmen and married her upon his return. 

Although John and Carmen wound up having two children, their marriage was not as stable as it appeared.  John’s homosexual desires increased and this caused the two to separate.  Spending more time in the gay community, he became a member of The Gay Activists Alliance; soon, this led to him meeting Ernie, a transvestite who chose to assume the name of Liz.  The two ended up falling in love and were able to have an unofficial marriage ceremony, even though John hadn’t divorced Carmen and gay marriage was not yet legally recognized in New York State. 

This union was similarly unhappy; the two fought over the fact that Ernie wanted to make more of a commitment to being Liz by having a sex change operation.  After opposing the procedure for a long time, John finally consented to it, if for no other reason than it would simply make his partner happy.  Unable to pay for the surgery, he decided to rob a bank in order to get the money; he enlisted the aid of a couple of allies in the gay community and together, the three men set out to rob a Brooklyn bank on a steamy afternoon of August in 1972 – but when the job was botched and they were cornered by police, the gang took hostages.  The story made the news in New York City, then, due to its length and inherent drama, extended to make a national news story throughout the United States.  In 1975, the story was made into the Academy Award-winning movie “Dog Day Afternoon”, starring Al Pacino. 



No doubt about it, John Wojtowicz was certainly a real character.  If you thought the movie “Dog Day Afternoon” was compelling, you need to see “The Dog” to hear the real life story told directly from the man about whom the film was made.  His mother, Terry, is also interviewed; she gives a considerable amount of background and insight about John, which helps to fill in the gaps a bit.  One interesting technical note is that Terry’s Brooklyn accent is so thick that subtitles appear during her scenes; this, however, is not done with John’s narration. 

Normally, a major criticism of most documentaries is The Talking Head syndrome – too many people being interviewed on-screen.  In the case of “The Dog”, it works; hearing and seeing John and Terry – in addition to certain other key players – telling their side of the story in the manner in which they tell it is part of the pleasure of watching this documentary.  These people are as simple as they are complex and that’s what makes them so endlessly fascinating.  There’s plenty to be learned about them that never made it into “Dog Day Afternoon”. 

Prior to the screening, I viewed a showing of photographs of John that were on display in an anteroom of the theater that had been converted in to a gallery for the week.  The photos were taken by fellow Brooklynite Marcia Resnick, whose specialty during the 1970’s was using the various stars of the Punk Rock scene as her subjects.  The photos were as much of a trip as the documentary because they gave you a great view into who John was – basically, an attention-seeking egomaniac who loved being photographed.  Basically, this guy was a filmmaker’s dream – too good to be true, even the most creative screenwriter couldn’t have enough of an imagination to invent someone like him. 

The Dog (2013) on IMDb