Wednesday, July 01, 2015

“Jimmy’s Hall”–Movie Review

 

JHall

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Jimmy’s Hall”, directed by Ken Loach.

Synopsis

When an Irish refugee returns to his homeland during The Great Depression, he tries to reopen the old public hall he abandoned a decade ago – but when local authorities oppose him, can he keep it open or be forced to shut its doors forever?

Story

Between 1919 and 1921, the Irish battled the English to drive them out of Ireland.  After two years of fighting, Ireland finally agreed to a treaty – unfortunately, there remained a rather substantial contingent of Irish who opposed this treaty.  As a result, a civil war broke out in Ireland pitting the pro-treaty Irish against their anti-treaty countrymen.  Since the pro-treaty group was backed by England, they eventually won – but even with the internecine war over, hard feelings remained long thereafter.  Complicating matters was the onset of The Great Depression, which had an impact worldwide and, in parts of Europe, led to a “Red Scare” – people fearing the onslaught of Communism.

In a sense, James Gralton (Barry Ward) was a victim of all of this.  During the war between England and Ireland, Gralton opened a popular town hall where people from his county gathered regularly.  Forced out because of his political activism, Gralton migrated to America in 1922, settling in New York City.  A decade later, Gralton returned home, where he was warmly welcomed by friends, neighbors and former patrons of his famous hall.  Deciding to move in with his elderly mother, it is not long after his repatriation that Gralton is besieged by the townspeople to re-open the hall.  After initially refusing, Gralton soon changes his mind when he sees how desperate and hopeless everyone has been left due to the poor economy. 

But even after the hall is reopened, all is not well.  Even though people are flocking to the facilities to enjoy educational opportunities, sporting activities and especially nightly dancing, the town leaders are unhappy about its reemergence.  Leading the opposition is the parish priest, who fears that Holy Mother Church will lose its vice-like grip on the poor and under-educated villagers.  Not helping matters is the feeling that the hall’s mere existence alone is subversive in that Gralton will use it as a means to pollute the citizens with his Socialist beliefs.  But when the town’s council pressures Gralton to close the hall, will he succumb or can he change the councilmembers’ mind?

Review

What’s interesting about “Jimmy’s Hall” is that it provides something of a history lesson that has largely been buried in time.   Long forgotten – at least by non-Europeans – is not only the battle between England and Ireland following World War I, but also, the internal war between the Irish once the dispute with England was more or less settled (although history tells us that it never really was, at least not if you remember the terrorism that occurred in Northern Ireland decades ago).  This movie puts much of what happened subsequently in perspective.

As a movie, however, it does have some problems.  Of particular note is that much of it feels like a play – not so much because it’s static (although with the title “Jimmy’s Hall”, it’s quite possible that may have been the case in an earlier draft).  The reason it feels like a play is due to its very talky nature – the screenplay relies a little too much on dialog and long speeches at times.  This may be because the filmmakers had a particular perspective – or an ax to grind, depending on your viewpoint.  Loach is notorious for his Socialist agenda, which is abundantly obvious given the imbalanced way the two sides are portrayed.

If you can get past the occasional chattiness, then “Jimmy’s Hall” might prove worthwhile entertainment.  There is something of a forced romantic interest that is crowbarred into the story when Gralton attempts to rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend who married and started a family during Gralton’s absence.  Essentially, this is a very political film and if the politics offends your sensibilities, then perhaps it’s better to avoid the motion picture altogether.  However, if you can look at it from a historical perspective (e.g., consider the Communist paranoia of McCarthy-era America back in the 1950’s), then you might be hard pressed to do better than “Jimmy’s Hall”.   

Jimmy's Hall (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

“Trainwreck”– Movie Review

 

trainwreck

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy “Trainwreck”, starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader and directed by Judd Apatow.

Synopsis

When a profligate woman finally meets a man who wants a serious relationship with her, can she settle down enough to prove she’s worthy?

Story

Amy (Schumer) is an attractive, ambitious young lady who parties just as hard as she works -- in fact, maybe even more so. Nearly every night, she gets drunk and enjoys a one-night-stand with a different man; despite this, she half-heartedly has been regularly dating a man whom she considers her “boyfriend” -- however, once he learns that she’s been sleeping around, he breaks it off with her. As a staff writer for a men’s magazine, Amy is assigned a plum job: to interview Aaron (Hader) for an article in a future issue.  An up-and-coming surgeon specializing in sports-related injuries, Aaron is gaining a reputation for having operated on some of the more famous professional athletes.

Treating the assignment with some dread since she’s not a sports fan, Amy nevertheless sees this as an opportunity to advance herself at the magazine. She and Aaron wind up socializing one night; predictably, Amy has too much to drink at dinner, resulting in she and Aaron having sex at his place. He becomes smitten with Amy and the two continue dating with Aaron under the impression they are in a serious relationship that may lead to a permanent commitment. Amy, on the other hand, is bewildered by why this guy is hanging on to her and is just waiting for him to dump her.

Despite Amy’s behavior, Aaron sticks by her even through some of her toughest moments and proves to be the best friend she’s ever had. Eventually, Amy’s married sister meets Aaron and resoundingly approves -- but Amy remains confused about what Aaron is doing with a woman like her. Then, Amy shows her selfish, thoughtless side to Aaron, finally causing the break-up. This severely impacts their professional life as both suffer significant career setbacks. But when Amy eventually realizes she’s truly in love with Aaron, will she be able to change sufficiently to win him back?

Review

Amy Schumer is not only among the funniest of the currently active group of comediennes, she is also, arguably, the most courageous. If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing either her stand-up act or her Comedy Central television show, you understand just exactly how brave she is with her material. Perhaps this is what ultimately makes “Trainwreck” something of a disappointment -- she really plays it way too safe in her debut movie, possibly under the guidance and recommendation of director Judd Apatow. Schumer wrote the screenplay, but structurally, Apatow may have influenced the work to be more of a traditional story. 

If, as a Schumer fan, you were expecting something like a “Hangover”-style comedy, then there is a strong likelihood that you may be rather let down by “Trainwreck”; Schumer is not as edgy or taking as many chances as she does either in her stand-up or television show. The formula in the story is that of taking an obnoxious protagonist and have her undergo so much of an emotional or psychological beating that the audience will eventually wind up empathizing with her and as a result rooting for her. Where this can sometimes backfire is whether the audience is ready and willing to forgive her for her past transgressions, regardless of how funny some of them may have been (watch out for the Clevelend Cavaliers’ LeBron James stealing one scene after another) .

Part of what throws “Trainwreck” considerably off balance is that it takes rather dramatic turns after starting out as an outlandish comedy; this proves problematic especially when the story tries to get back on track as a comedy. Sometimes, when a movie that is primarily a comedy veers off in a more dramatic direction, an audience can feel a bit of resentment; the reaction that can happen is that of being sold a bill of goods (“Hey, you tricked me into thinking this was going to be some kind of off-the-wall comedy when much of it is so serious!”). Will you have that response? Maybe not. The audience attending this screening was predominantly young women and generally speaking, they seemed to find this film to be uproariously funny.

 

Trainwreck (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, June 25, 2015

“Amy”– Movie Review

 

Amy2

This week, I attended a sneak preview of “Amy” , a new documentary about the late singer Amy Winehouse, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.

Story

Video and audio recordings from her mid-teens made it clear Amy Winehouse was a talented singer; from a home video taken at a friend’s birthday party, some of the guests sang “Happy Birthday” -- when Amy joined, they quieted down so everyone could listen to her unique sound. Nicky, a slightly-older friend of Amy’s, was equally impressed by her ability and urged her to pursue it professionally – to prove his belief in her, he became Amy’s original manager. Seeing Amy enjoyed writing poetry, he convinced her to set them to music; with that, her career as a singer-songwriter was born.

Once Nick was able to start getting Amy gigs, she enjoyed her independence -- especially when it came to getting away from her parents so she could openly smoke marijuana. Despite that restriction, Amy’s parents were still too permissive; this is most true of her mother, who never gave her any boundaries and pretty much let her get away with anything.  The situation deteriorated when her parents separated. Following her father’s departure, Amy turned promiscuous and soon incorporated alcohol with her marijuana usage. As Amy’s career was beginning to gain traction, she met Blake; something of a wild man himself, he only helped to accelerate her substance abuse.

After a couple of albums and numerous music awards, Amy became a fully qualified star in the industry -- something for which she was not only ill-prepared but also truly never thought would ever occur. Now that she and Blake were married, he took this as an opportunity to step up the partying and turned on Amy to harder drugs -- namely, cocaine (including crack) and heroin. Insecure about her sudden fame, Amy self-medicated with increased alcohol intake. Following a scare from an overdose, she finally consented to professional treatment; but afterward, she could only stay clean for so long. Eventually, Amy was booked for a tour that started in Serbia, but when she took the stage, she was clearly in no shape to perform and was booed; shortly thereafter, she finally succumbed to her substance abuse issues, dying at the age of 27 in 2011.

Review

Oh, the Hot Mess that was once Amy Winehouse.

There is the old joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a lightbulb -- only one, according to the punchline, but the lightbulb has to want to change; clearly, the late great Amy Winehouse was one lightbulb who was determined not to change. Despite a near-death experience in the form of an overdose, a stint at a remote rehabilitation facility and importuning by friends, family and colleagues, Winehouse steadfastly resisted all attempts at help to stop a lifestyle that quickly spun out of control. Even on a Caribbean vacation with friends where no drugs were available, she spent a good deal of it drunk.

“Amy” is an incredibly informative and educational documentary by filmmaker Asif Kapadia, providing plenty of useful graphics to explain who’s narrating a particular video clip and when that clip or audio tape was recorded. This is important to both understand the relationship the speaker had to the movie’s subject and also supplements a context to appreciate the point in Winehouse’s life to better know when certain events occurred. Another clever implementation of graphics in the documentary is the director’s displaying the lyrics to some of Winehouse’s songs as she performs them onscreen. By reading the lyrics, we see she was blunt and open regarding her feelings about herself and others.

One of the things learned about Winehouse is the fact that she was a long-time bulimic. While some may have assumed Winehouse’s frail physique was a direct result of her various substance abuse, the truth is that she actually suffered from bulimia since her mid-teens; this carried on well into her twenties and likely continued until her death -- her parents (the mother, in particular) either unwilling or unable to get young Amy help with this struggle. A rather pleasant surprise that comes from watching so many video clips is what a terrific sense of humor Winehouse had.

Such attention to detail only serves to tell the singer’s story more clearly and connect the dots to see what events led to certain behavior. Kapadia’s research and ability to locate so many video and audio recordings from Winehouse’s teenage years is equally remarkable. While a bit long for most documentaries (it’s a little over two hours), it never contains a dull moment.

Amy (2015) on IMDb

 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

“Infinitely Polar Bear”– Movie Review

 

Polar_Bear

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Infinitely Polar Bear”, starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana.

Synopsis

When a man is diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, can he regain the trust of his wife and daughters or will he be destined to lose them forever?

Story

After exhibiting behavior that ranges from tons of fun to terrifying, Cameron (Ruffalo) is hospitalized by his wife, Maggie (Saldana) to protect herself and their two daughters, Amelia and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide).  Cameron is diagnosed as being bipolar and immediately prescribed Lithium.  Following his hospitalization, Cameron is transferred to a halfway house once his condition has sufficiently stabilized.  Missing his family after such a lengthy absence, his goal now is to simply go home – but can they trust him enough to take him back? 

An opportunity arises when Columbia University accepts Maggie to their Masters program in Business Administration.  The good news is that this gives Maggie a much-needed chance to advance her career and get a job that will help better support the family without having to rely on Cameron’s grandmother (a wealthy dowager who oversees his trust fund and very sparingly doles out money).   Where this becomes a problem is that the school is in New York City, which will require Maggie to leave her family behind in Boston.  Ultimately, she decides to take the accelerated program that will allow her to earn the degree in only a year and a half – but this will require her to have Cameron take care of Amelia and Faith in her absence.  While Cameron is enthusiastic about a chance at redemption, Maggie remains reluctant. 

Even though the daughters have missed their father, things don’t take too long to get a bit rocky.  For one thing, Cameron sometimes goes off his medication, resulting in occasionally erratic behavior.  Embarrassing his daughters in front of their friends, they soon become fed up and frequently fight with Cameron.  Although Maggie visits every weekend, she can’t do enough to fix the situation.  Finally, Maggie nears graduation and begins the job search; although most companies in Boston are reluctant to hire her, there’s one New York City-based organization that makes her a firm offer.  Will Maggie take that job and move the daughters to New York City or will she turn down the chance of a lifetime so her girls can stay near their father? 

Review

There are notable problems with “Infinitely Polar Bear” – the corny directing and sappy script (particularly some of the dialog) come immediately to mind.  However, one bright note here is the performance by Mark Ruffalo; he is able to capture the essence of Cameron’s manic behavior without going completely overboard and making the character look like a cartoonish Jim Carrey type of role.  On the other hand – and this goes back to issues with the screenplay – Cameron is mostly seen in his manic moments and very rarely in the depressive times, which makes the movie feel less realistic than it otherwise could. 

Unfortunately, Ruffalo’s performance is not nearly sufficient to elevate “Infinitely Polar Bear” to the point that it can be recommended.  The story ends with the feeling that it just suddenly stopped because it ran out of steam, rather than because it reached a resolution.  Characters – especially Cameron, since he seems to be the focal point here – don’t really have an arc; they are somewhat flat and don’t truly change, although the situations around them certainly do.  Also, the fact that Cameron’s tendency towards poor judgment that periodically puts the two daughters in potentially perilous conditions is never made an issue.

Maya Forbes, writer-director of “Infinitely Polar Bear”, supposedly based the movie on her own life; her father was said to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and growing up in that environment obviously left a substantial impression.  Perhaps the problem here is precisely that – that fact that Forbes based it on true personal events may mean that she’s too close to the story to be able to tell it in a dramatic narrative that makes it a cohesive film.  The motion picture gets its title from what is intended as a joke in one scene when a daughter mispronounces “bipolar”.   

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014) on IMDb

Friday, June 12, 2015

“The Wolfpack”– Movie Review

 

wolfpack

This week, I attended the opening night screening of the new documentary “The Wolfpack” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.

Synopsis

When half a dozen brothers are raised by their father as shut-ins, what impact will this have on their personal development?

Story

There are millions of stories in The Big City, but perhaps none stranger than that of The Angulos.  The Peruvian father, a once-devout Hare Krishna follower, married an American woman whom he met while she vacationed in South America; they moved to New York City and had seven children -- one daughter, the rest sons.  He named each of them with words from the Sanskrit language.  As someone who was against working for a living because he felt that it made you a slave to society, the big plan was to eventually move to Scandinavia, a country whose government would be able to support his lifestyle choice.  However, when he was never able to scrape together enough money to travel there, the family wound up living in the squalor of a low income housing project.

As if things weren’t strange enough, the father developed acute paranoia, which was further fueled by his alcoholism.  Fearing for the well-being of his family, he home-schooled all of the children and refused to allow them go outside.  In a good year, they might go out on a family excursion as many as nine times -- mostly during the summer; there was one year, however, when they never went outside at all.  The way the brothers dealt with their forced confinement was to escape into the fantasy world of movies; they managed to amass an extensive DVD collection of well-known films, including classics as well as commercial hits. 

The boys wound up re-enacting scenes from the movies they loved most; they transcribed the screenplays, made their own costumes and props and videotaped scenes from “Reservoir Dogs”, “The Dark Knight” and many others.  Feeling particularly claustrophobic, one of the older brothers snuck outside; unfortunately, he got picked up by the police because he ventured out wearing a fright mask from a well-known horror film.  Taken to a hospital, he was assigned a social worker who then worked with his siblings as well.  Upon returning to his family, he realized he no longer wanted to obey his father and went outside with increasing frequency, eventually joined by his brothers.  But would these boys be able to adapt to a modern society completely unfamiliar to them?  

Review

What remains so remarkable about “The Wolfpack” is the fact that despite the bizarre upbringing these children have survived, they have all turned out to be seemingly well-adjusted.  They are intelligent, thoughtful and articulate.  Escaping into a rich fantasy life through movie viewing apparently is what helped them keep their sanity; they explored their own creative urges, which in turn was the glue holding them together.  That they were eventually able to think and act independently and ultimately evade the manipulative stranglehold their father had on them is nothing short of triumphant. 

The movie is flawed, however, because of choices made by the filmmaker.  One example is the fact that the brothers exist anonymously -- whenever one of them speaks on-screen, there is never a graphic to identify which one is talking.  There are also other scenes that are somewhat head-scratching.  When the brothers go to a theater for the first time, did they buy their own ticket or was it purchased for them by someone else (e.g., the filmmaker)?  The family has an extremely limited income so it’s hard to understand how all of these boys could not only afford the tickets but also the snacks we see them enjoying.  Susanne, the mother, makes a call to her mother on a cell phone; it appears they haven’t spoken in quite some time.  Her 88 year old mother makes plans to visit them in New York City.  Did she ever make it there?  Was that Susanne’s cell phone?  Why had they not spoken in so long?

Following the screening was a question and answer session between the audience and the documentary’s director Crystal Moselle, who was joined by the brothers and their mother.  Moselle said that she got the idea for the documentary when she was walking down First Avenue in Manhattan one day and saw the brothers on the street, all dressed alike; after gaining their trust, they invited her into their home to shoot the movie.  The shoot was conducted over a period of several years, Moselle said, because she specifically wanted to show the brothers’ development that took place over a long term. 

 

The Wolfpack (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, June 06, 2015

“The Nightmare”– Movie Review

 

nightmare

This week, I attended the opening night of the new documentary “The Nightmare” at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.

Synopsis

Sufferers of a sleeping disorder known as “sleep paralysis” are interviewed about their condition – and how they have learned to deal with it over the years. 

Story

Around the country – and around the world – there are many people who suffer from something that is commonly known as “sleep paralysis”.  Individuals with sleep paralysis experience frightening illusions that seem all too real to those who live through them but sound like ordinary nightmares to the uninitiated who can’t understand the depth of realism from these occurrences.  In fact, according to the stories reported about some people around the world who have had sleep paralysis, some of the events have been so treacherous that they have even resulted in death. 

While interviews with each of the eight participants reveal unique experiences with the disorder, there are also quite a few similarities as well.  One of these similarities happens to be the fact that there is the existence of what many of the interviewees referred to as “The Shadow Man”.  The Shadow Man is a being that exists in the sleep paralysis of all sufferers; he is basically an individual who may appear as somewhat human but not exactly.  Shadow Man often appears in the bedroom of the one suffering from this disorder or he can be an apparition that is outside of the home but peers into the bedroom.  The term Shadow Man comes from the fact that details or their appearance are indistinguishable due to the fact that they are mere silhouettes. 

Another characteristic shared by sleep paralysis sufferers is the fact that none of them can either speak or move when they are experiencing these perceived threats.  Thus the term paralysis – they are unable to scream or fight off these Shadow Men who appear to them for the sole purpose of torturing them during their sleep.  Many of the sleep paralysis sufferers started to have these visions when they were children; while some can point to specific childhood traumas that may have been the trigger for all of those, others cannot – and as a result, the reason remains a mystery to them until this day. 

Review

Sleep paralysis is certainly a fascinating concept for a documentary, yet the filmmaker manages to make its story so boring, the documentary itself induces oscitancy.  Over and over, the audience is treated to interviews with sufferers of this sleeping disorder to the point that you just want to jump up and scream, “OK, I get it!  Let’s move on, already!”  Instead, we are forced to hear more and more about each individual’s experience to the point that the movie itself seems like its own nightmare.  The story is ultimately very flat and goes absolutely nowhere; one gets the sense that any given scene could be easily edited to appear in a different portion of the movie and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

The redundant nature of “The Nightmare” begs the question, “What do the experts think?” not too long into the documentary.  Sadly – and this may in fact be the reason why it fails as a film – there are absolutely no interviews with physicians or psychologists on this matter.  This results in a very self-indulgent vanity piece that feels much longer than its hour and a half.   Infusing the documentary with professional commentary would have ultimately made all the difference in the world.  There needed to be a balance in telling this story and such balance is noticeably lacking.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session between the audience and the director of “The Nightmare”, Rodney Ascher.  Ascher had previously done a very well-received documentary called “Room 237”, an analysis of the horror movie “The Shining”.  He admitted that the reason why he did “The Nightmare” was because he himself suffered from sleep paralysis for many years.  The reason for the absence of expert commentary, according to Ascher, was due to the fact that he wanted his documentary to consist solely of first person experiences about this disorder. 

 

The Nightmare (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, June 04, 2015

“Me And Earl And The Dying Girl”– Movie Review

 

me-earl

This week, The New York Times Film Club had a screening of the new comedy-drama, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl”, a comedy-drama which won multiple prizes at The Sundance Film Festival.

Synopsis

When a high school senior befriends a classmate with leukemia, he tries to make a film for her -- but when it takes longer than expected, will he be able to finish it and show her the movie before it’s too late?

Synopsis

As he begins his Senior year of high school, Greg (Thomas Mann) just wants to have a good time and cruise through with his buddy Earl (Ronald Cyler II) by his side. Having known each other since early childhood, they were raised watching all of the classic films, which has resulted in them wanting to make their own movies -- except the ones they make are parodies of the motion pictures they’ve viewed over the years. Examples include, “Senior Citizen Kane” and “Brew Velvet”. Other than that, however, they’re not terribly motivated to do very much else with their life. Although college may not be in the cards for Earl, Greg’s parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) are pushing their son to apply to a local university near their home in Pittsburgh.

Around this time, Greg’s mom informs him that Rachel (Olivia Cooke), one of his fellow students, was recently diagnosed with leukemia; she strongly urges him to strike up a friendship with the girl and pay her a visit. Understandably, Greg is quite reluctant to do so because the two barely knew of each other’s existence in the years they’ve been attending the same high school and he feels suddenly becoming friends with her at this point would seem suspicious and reek of pity. Nevertheless, she nags her son into submission; after failed attempts at trying to schedule a get-together via the phone, Greg decides to just drop by Rachel’s house, where he is greeted by Denise (Molly Shannon), Rachel’s mother, who’s drowning her sorrows in many glasses of wine. Despite Rachel making it clear that she’s not interested in Greg’s sudden interest in her, he persists and eventually she finally acquiesces, allowing him a visit.

Overcoming a rough start, the two somehow manage to carve out some semblance of a friendship; in spite of Greg’s efforts to keep secret from Rachel the films he made with Earl, Earl spills the beans, causing her to become curious. As a result, an embarrassed Greg is forced to show her their movies and it turns out she loves them! When a mutual friend learns about this, she suggests to Greg that he and Earl work on an original piece just for Rachel in the hope that it would cheer her up during her illness. Reluctantly, Greg begins work on this with Earl’s help; unfortunately, his school work is left to suffer from this because he dedicates all of his time to filmmaking instead of doing homework. This results in the college Greg applied to rejecting his application; nevertheless, at the urging of others, he presses on with continuation of the video. But by this time, Rachel has quit chemotherapy and entered the hospital. Will Greg be able to show Rachel his tribute to her before time runs out?

Review

The screenplay for “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” was written by Jesse Andrews, who adapted it from his own novel. If the self-conscious cuteness from the movie also existed in the book, then translating that mood into the film may not have been the best choice; after a while, the smug attitude has a magical way of getting on your nerves the same way that it did in another teenage movie, “Juno”. Are the filmmakers out to remake that motion picture with a boy in the lead or was this a stab at their version of a John Hughes work? There was only one person who was ever good at producing a John Hughes story and sadly, he’s gone on to his great reward a few years back.

One noteworthy item about “Me And Earl” is the direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. There are a few very interesting animation sequences in the film that were cleverly shot; in addition, the way in which the “movies” made by Greg and Earl are presented were also extremely well done. As far as the performances are concerned, Offerman and Cyler are the two stand-outs here. Offerman, as Greg’s spaced-out dad, is a perfect fit and we understand why, with him as a father, Greg turned out to be the mess that he is; Cyler is so understated as Earl, he serves as the much-needed counterpoint to the too-hip-for-the-room portrayals of Greg and Rachel.

As the character of Greg is written, he’s largely unsympathetic and unlikeable. Although it’s supposed to be his story since he’s clearly the protagonist here (the tale unfolds from his viewpoint through narration), there’s little that’s admirable about him until near the very end of the movie when he seeks some form of redemption by visiting Rachel in the hospital. Other than that, he mostly wanders around being an obnoxious, self-centered adolescent who deserves every bit of misery life sees fit to pile upon him. Throughout “Me And Earl”, we are rooting more for Rachel than for any other character -- and with her as the protagonist, we might have had a better film.

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

“Spy”– Movie Review


spy
This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Spy”, a new comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and written and directed by Paul Feig.
 
Synopsis
 
When an administrative worker is suddenly called upon to become a spy to prevent a dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands, can she overcome her mild mannered nature in order to save the world?
 
Story
 
At the age of 40, Susan (McCarthy) is a little disappointed in her life thus far.  After spending the past decade working at a desk job for the Central Intelligence Agency, she’s neglected her personal life and now finds herself alone and lonely; her only hope at romance is the crush she has on Bradley (Jude Law), one of the star agents she assists – alas, her love is unrequited.  Susan’s worst fears are eventually realized:  when guiding Bradley through a mission, he is ambushed by Rayna (Rose Byrne) – a treacherous woman out to make a fortune by dealing dangerous weapons to evil-doers.  Aware of who Bradley is and why he’s after her, Rayna kills him. 
 
Learning that Rayna already knows who all of their top agents are, Susan’s boss Elaine (Allison Janney), realizes that she can’t send any of them after Rayna.  Instead, she must pluck someone from obscurity who will go undetected in the mission -- that’s when she decides on picking Susan, even though she lacks experience doing field work. Despite being a bit hesitant as she’s admittedly rusty, Susan is motivated to seek revenge for Bradley’s death.  Elaine reminds Susan that she is not being sent to directly engage Rayna; for her, it’s merely a tracking mission where she needs only to observe and report so other, more experienced agents can follow-up as necessary. 
 
Since Susan must go undercover, she is sent overseas disguised and assuming a fake identity.  However, Rick (Jason Statham), an agent who went rogue after being refused the opportunity to go after Rayna himself, follows Susan abroad; he resents that Susan has been awarded the mission because he feels she’s an inferior agent -- as a result, Rick desperately tries to show her up and crack the case all by himself.  In the meantime, however, Rayna is busy trying to sell the bomb to De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), an international arms dealer  who plans to re-sell it at a substantially higher price to a terrorist.  Can Susan somehow manage to disrupt the plan herself or will the world be endangered once the bomb is sold?
 
Review
 
Let’s just get this out of the way upfront:  when it comes to movie and television comediennes, Melissa McCarthy is an out-and-out rock star with few contemporaries who can compete at her level -- including and especially when it comes to physical comedy.  Fans of hers will be delighted to learn that all of her best talents are on full display in “Spy”, a comedic tour de force that once again teams her with Paul Feig (who previously worked with her on “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat”).  Feig’s script provides abundant jokes that just about always seem to hit the bullseye – and even a number of the action scenes are quite amusing as well.
 
“Spy” generously supplies wall-to-wall laughs; it is hard to imagine a comedy being released this summer that will be funnier.  One of the more pleasant surprises, however, is the performance by Statham, hilarious as a disturbingly intense agent who appears to have gone over the edge.  Additionally, Byrne’s character of Rayna is astonishingly funny; she’s foul-mouthed, sarcastic, insulting and ill-tempered -- her Rayna hits all of the right notes for this James Bond send-up.  Miranda Hart is also quite good as Susan’s colleague, Nancy; she adds the perfect amount of goofy sidekick that complements Susan. 
 
Those looking to enjoy outtakes during the end credits of “Spy” will be greatly disappointed; there is one shot tacked on from the last scene in the movie, but that’s about all you’ll find.  One hopeful (if unsurprising) note:  the movie ended in a way that definitely suggests a sequel will be in the offing.  With high expectations for this film to be a deserved smash hit, McCarthy fans may have “Spy 2” to look forward to in the not-too-distant future.  When this motion picture opens, be sure to head out to the theater immediately -- this is definitely not one you want to wait to reach cable TV or Netflix. 
 
Spy (2015) on IMDb

Friday, May 29, 2015

"Testament Of Youth" -- Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama from The United Kingdom, “Testament Of Youth”, based on the memoirs of British writer Vera Brittain. 

Synopsis

When a young woman’s life is disrupted by the onset of World War I, how will the war’s events impact the rest of her life?

Story

As a young woman in early 20th Century England, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is more concerned about her career than landing a husband.  Working hard to get into a university, she earns acceptance by Oxford, much to her father’s consternation.  Although Mr. Brittain (Dominic West) is worried about his daughter being alone, he’s convinced to pay for her education by Roland (Kit Harington), a young man who’s very much smitten with Vera.  Determined to become a writer, Vera studies hard once at Oxford, but gets sidetracked once “The Great War” begins. 

It seems like everyone close to Vera suddenly joins the army – her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and her now-boyfriend Roland.  With all of them off to fight the war, Vera feels guilty remaining in school, so she leaves Oxford in order to become a nurse as a way of assisting in the war effort.  Despite a rocky start, Vera grows into the job.  When Roland is given a leave, he and Vera are briefly reunited; while he remains aloof at first, Vera persistently shows her devotion to him and he softens.  When it’s time for him to return to the front, they agree that when he gets his next leave around Christmas, they will marry. 

The war, however, cruelly intervenes once again; Roland is killed in action before they can wed and soon thereafter, Victor, while under Vera’s care at the hospital where she’s stationed, also passes away from injuries incurred during battle.  Vera then requests and receives a transfer to the front in France where Edward turns up as a patient; badly wounded, she gets him some much-needed medical care before sending him back into action.  Once Vera is forced to return home by her frantic mother (Emily Watson), she is informed that Edward, too, was killed.  Returning to her nursing duties, Vera is less celebratory than most upon announcement of the armistice.  But with the war’s end, can she simply resume with pursuing her chosen career as though nothing happened? 

Review

While all of the performances are fine, “Testament Of Youth” suffers from some occasionally overwrought direction by James Kent, who opts for a rather heavy-handed approach during revelation at some of the major plot points, relegating the movie into what sometimes appears to be a sappy melodrama.  It’s unfortunate because the story did have so much promise; unfortunately, it isn’t until late in the film – during the middle of its third act, to be precise – that it takes a stab at trying to redeem itself.  Here, the motion picture shows what it’s really about – an independent suffragette who turns devout pacifist as a direct result of having personally witnessed the ravages of war.

At the end of "Testament Of Youth", there are title cards shown informing the audience that Brittain's book was a best-seller in England and remains in print to this day.  While the book itself may be impressive, the movie version on which it is based is not.  In fact, learning how impacting this book was on British culture comes as something of a shock, at least if you're basing your opinion on this film without having read the book as a precursor to seeing the motion picture.  "Testament Of Youth" seems more about seeing how much it can beat up on its own heroine before someone from the audience screams "Uncle". 

Vera certainly comes across as virtuous, that's no doubt.  Further, the fact that she was able to -- at least to some degree -- survive The War To End All Wars relatively intact (despite having suffered many psychological and emotional scars) is also nothing short of admirable.  But the bigger story here is what she made of that experience and what she did with her life as a result; sadly, it comes across as nothing more than an afterthought in "Testament Of Youth", tacked on at the last few minutes near the end of the movie.  The real tragedy here is not so much the story that was told, but instead, the story that went untold in this film. 



 
Testament of Youth (2014) on IMDb
 
 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Two Shots Fired”– Movie Review

 

2shots

This week, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new comedy-drama from Argentina “Two Shots Fired” (or “Two Gunshots”, depending on the translation). 

Synopsis

When a young man survives a suicide attempt, will his relationship with his family also be able to survive?

Story

One day while trying to repair the family lawnmower, Mariano (Rafael Federman) finds a pistol in the backyard’s toolshed.   Fascinated with the weapon, he brings it back to his room and fires it – once at his head and once at his stomach.  As it happens, the first shot just grazed his skull and he managed to recover from the shot to his stomach; after spending only a week in the hospital, he returns home where his mother Susana (Susana Pampin) and older brother Ezequiel (Benjamín Coehlo) take care of him while he recuperates. 

While it remains unclear as to why Mariano did it – much less how he managed to live through it – his family seems not to want to press the issue with him and instead prefer to just let him try to return to his life as normal, which includes playing a recorder as part of a quartet.  Meanwhile, Mariano’s family makes an effort to return to their own life as well; in the case of Ezequiel, it means driving around the neighborhood looking for the family dog, which recently ran away.  For Susana, it means a great many things, not the least of which being keeping an eye on Mariano. 

After taking some sleeping pills, Susana sleeps for three straight days; once she wakes up, she decides to take a vacation with a few acquaintances.  Staying at a small house by the beach, Susana soon finds that she’s with a group of people she simply can’t stand.  Nevertheless, the group at least make an effort to get along as best they can during their stay.  But upon returning home, will Susana find everything back to normal or will there be yet another unpleasant surprise from Mariano awaiting her?   

Review

There are some novels which, while you read them, you might wonder to yourself, “Gee, I can’t see how they could ever make a movie out of this thing!”.  One example might be “Catch-22”; while the book by Joseph Heller was very successful, the film on which it was based was not.  “Two Shots Fired” is not based on a novel; it is instead an original screenplay by longtime filmmaker Martín Rejtman.  If anyone who ever read this screenplay gave an honest appraisal to Rejtman (which apparently never happened), they likely would have similarly told him you can’t make a movie out of that thing. 

It certainly doesn’t help when the person charged with making the film doesn’t understand its genre or when both the characters and the story line are so horribly disjointed (see below for a more detailed explanation on this).  When the filmmaker feels no obligation to commit to telling a story with interesting characters, it’s hard for viewers to make the necessary emotional investment necessary to maintain an interest in the story. If the screenplay had been written by Pirandello, it likely would’ve been titled, “A Bunch Of Oddball Characters In Search Of A Plot”. 

Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with the writer-director of “Two Shots Fired”, Martín Rejtman.  Rejtman said that he seems genuinely surprised that a number of people see his movie as a comedy because he sees it as something more in the genre of a thriller.  He was asked about the characters’ lacking of interaction with each other; Rejtman claimed that he doesn’t really see the world that way, but rather, that is how he sees the world of those characters and no deeper meaning was intended beyond that. 

Two Shots Fired (2014) on IMDb