Thursday, August 10, 2017

“The Trip To Spain”– Movie Review

Spain

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “The Trip To Spain” starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Synopsis

When two long-time friends take an excursion throughout Spain, will the troubles in their personal life ruin their fun?

Story

Steve and Rob are hitting the road again – this time, to Spain.  Instead of going to all the major cities you might expect them to visit, Steve decides to literally take the road less travelled and check out some of the lesser-known locales.  The excuse this time?  The New York Times has hired Steve to do restaurant reviews and The Observer has asked Rob to do likewise.  However, Steve is planning to use this opportunity to start writing the book he’s been otherwise too distracted to write.  As might be expected from these two, the minute they set off on their getaway, both try to impress the other in how much they know about their destination.

Sensing they might be starting to get on each other’s nerves, they instead try to concentrate on the extraordinary food they’re experiencing at some of the best restaurants the country has to offer.  Along the way, they attempt to challenge each other with jokes and celebrity imitations; of course, they only wind up criticizing each other rather than simply allowing themselves to be amused by each other.  Only the fine meals they have appear to be what keeps them from breaking into fisticuffs.  By this point, it’s hard to believe that Steve actually invited Rob to accompany him.

When the two men are alone, they are forced to deal with the exigencies of real life.  With Steve, this means he’s lost his agent and the screenplay he’s been peddling is getting a polish by an inexperienced writer.  As if that isn’t bad enough, Steve’s girlfriend breaks up with him and his grown son, who was supposed to join him on the trip, bails out at the last minute.  For the happily married Rob, things are quite different; he’s being pursued by Steve’s ex-agent with promises of big Hollywood opportunities.  Growing increasingly homesick for his wife and children, Rob returns home.  Will Steve be able to resume his writing or will he be consumed by his own loneliness?

Review

A “silliot” is someone who is both silly and an idiot; don’t bother looking up the word, it’s totally made up.  In the best way possible, however, both Coogan and Brydon are the biggest pair of silliots.  When they share the screen, they are entertaining, informative and most of all very funny.  No doubt about it, it seems like it would be a ton of fun to hang out with these two, whether at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain or a dive bar in Brooklyn.  At least that’s true for most of the movie’s two hours; in the end, it takes a dark and rather disturbing turn.  

Much of “Trip To Spain” is a sheer delight, only occasionally broken up by more serious scenes that serve as each character’s subplots:  namely, the professional and personal life of both men.  For Coogan, it seems as though everything is falling apart all at the time time, whereas for Brydon, things couldn’t possibly be any better, both regarding his home life and career.  These subplots – and the way they are handled – are a useful device; without them, people would eventually grow tired of these men, if not find them both irritating.  The subplots serve to humanize them.

That third act is unsettling.  When Brydon returns home to his family, Coogan is left to work on his book; it is at this point, we see him melancholy without his friend around to distract him from his troubles.  Although Coogan is supposed to be writing, his brooding overcomes him, causing him to be blocked.  Was this the same movie we were laughing at earlier?  It comes across as a bit schizophrenic.  Without giving away the actual ending, it does come across as both unexpected not to mention startling.  One wonders if this is the final installment in the series.

The Trip to Spain (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

“Ingrid Goes West”– Movie Review

Ingrid

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Ingrid Goes West” starring Aubrey Plaza (who also Produced) and Elizabeth Olsen. 

Synopsis

When a young woman stalks an internet celebrity, will they wind up being friends or will this celebrity find herself endangered?

Story

Ingrid (Plaza) is a lonely and isolated young woman -- which has led to some rather disturbing behavior on her part.  Since her mother’s death after a long illness, she has been using various social media platforms as something of a crutch; having a dearth of real friends, she has been “friending” a considerable number of strangers on the Internet and “liking” their posts or photos in a rote fashion.  The problem comes when Ingrid reads way too much into these “relationships”, believing that these people are actually her friends.  This ultimately results in Ingrid having a mental breakdown and she is committed.  

Upon Ingrid’s discharge, she returns to her late mother’s house where she tries to figure out how to continue with the rest of her life.  One day, she’s struck with what she believes is a brilliant idea:  while reading a magazine article about Taylor Sloane (Olsen), a newly-minted Internet celebrity, she starts following her on Instagram; after considerable online interaction with her, Ingrid finally gets a response from Taylor.  It is at this point Ingrid believes she’s forming a real connection with this woman and makes a decision that will irrevocably alter both their lives:  she will move to Venice Beach, California, where Taylor lives. 

Taking the $60,000 in cash she inherited from her mother, Ingrid rents an apartment from Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), an aspiring screenwriter and Batman aficionado.  After finding out where Taylor lives, she uses some rather extraordinary and duplicitous means to meet and then befriend Taylor and her boyfriend Ezra (Wyatt Russell).  At the outset, they appear to be turning into the very best of buddies, at least until Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) shows up; no model of stability himself, Nicky learns of Ingrid’s obsession with his sister and coerces her to keep him from revealing it to Taylor.  Ingrid’s reaction to this is to have Dan beat up Nicky.  When Taylor finds out what happened, she informs Ingrid their friendship is over.  Following a major meltdown, can Ingrid win back Taylor or will she have to find a way to move on without her?

Review

After screening “Ingrid Goes West”, one thing remains abundantly clear:  Aubrey Plaza can really play crazy … maybe a little too well … This movie has many laugh-out-loud moments, but it takes a sharp and very dark turn late in the story; despite this, the filmmakers are able to resurrect the humorous elements and the jokes eventually return.  Screenwriters Matt Spicer (who also directed) and David Branson Smith have concocted a very sagacious and unique script that hits the bullseye on cultural commentary in this era of social media – and more specifically, peoples’ obsession with social media. 

Curiously, this is a movie that may have a protagonist, but it lacks a hero; while it is obviously Ingrid’s story, this character is hardly heroic.  In fact, none of the characters in “Ingrid Goes West” are particularly likeable; Dan Pinto may come the closest, but given the fact that he deals coke on the side even he’s pretty shady.  Normally, all of this would result in an unwatchable film, but once again, the savior here is the comedy.  The relentless stream of jokes make this an eminently watchable motion picture.  You find yourself in a world that is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. 

If there is a criticism about this movie, it would be with respect to its ending.  Without giving away too much, the story’s resolution seems to suggest that Ingrid’s egregious behavior may have been rewarded.  This is dangerous as it could potentially be used as inspiration for further inappropriateness online (as if this society hasn’t seen enough already).  The motion picture apparently wants us to believe that its protagonist has suffered enough and as a result is now worthy of redemption.  Whether or not she is in fact worthy may depend on how you view her previous misdeeds.     

Following the screening, there was an interview with Plaza, Olsen and writer-director Matt Spicer.  Instead of attempting to summarize the discussion, a video of the conversation has been posted below (caution – it’s a half hour in length); the trailer for “Ingrid Goes West” is just beneath. 

Ingrid Goes West (2017) on IMDb


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

“Wind River”– Movie Review

wind-river

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “Wind River” starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

Synopsis

When a rookie FBI Agent is assigned to investigate a murder on a Native American Reservation, will a local hunter be able to help her solve the crime?

Story

Winters in Wyoming are particularly brutal.  No one knows this better than game tracker Cory Lambert (Renner), a lifetime resident.  One day, he’s summoned to Wind River, the location of an Indian Reservation, where he’s asked to rid the community of a family of mountain lions which have been attacking (and in some cases killing) the steer that belong to the farmers there.  While following the paw prints of some animals, he happens upon an unexpected and unpleasant surprise:  the body of a young woman who has apparently died deep in the woods. 

After contacting the authorities, Lambert is introduced to Jane Banner (Olsen), a young FBI Agent who has been dispatched to look into the matter.  Before long, it is evident to all that her inexperience has her out of her depth.  Despite Banner’s severe disadvantage, she dutifully meets with the county Medical Examiner; after performing an autopsy on the deceased – an 18 year old, whose name was Natalie – the doctor informs Banner that although the woman appears to have been raped and badly beaten, her cause of death was actually exposure to the cold. 

Learning that Natalie’s boyfriend belonged to a crew of roughnecks working at an oil drilling site, Banner – joined by the local sheriff and his deputies – ventures out to the rig to ask some questions of the men there.  Panicking as they anticpate an imminent arrest, the roughnecks exchange gunfire with Banner, the sheriff and his men.  Banner is badly hurt and must be medevac'd out; when she tells Lambert that one of the roughnecks got away, he begins pursuit.  But can even a skilled hunter like Lambert find his prey in the vast snowy mountains of Wyoming?    

Review

Almost exactly one year ago, this Web site reviewed the movie “Hell Or High Water”; its screenplay went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.  The writer of that screenplay was Taylor Sheridan, who both wrote and directed “Wind River”.  While this is not the first time he’s directed a film, it does mark the first time that Sheridan has directed his own screenplay.  It’s an impressive start for an aspiring auteur.  “Wind River” is both visually and dramatically a top-notch crime drama with solid action – some of which contains rather brutal violence (be warned).

Many of the same qualities that made “Hell Or High Water” such a compelling movie are visible in “Wind River” as well.  This well-crafted screenplay is buttressed by some fine acting from both Renner and Olsen, as well as Sheridan’s own directing.  He has chosen images that tell the story perfectly; in particular, the opening scene with Lambert where we see him protect a herd of sheep from a predatory pack of wolves.  It tells us exactly who Lambert is – both professionally and personally – as well as sets us up for the savage nature of the story. 

If there is a criticism about “Wind River”, it would be that late in its third act, it almost seems to be in a rush to fill in the gaps in its story so that viewers will fully comprehend the truth about what happened leading up to Natalie’s death.  On balance, while it does make the story more satisfying once we have this information, perhaps it might have been better to layer a bit at a time throughout the movie, with the big reveal coming at the end.  Granted, this might be quibbling on an otherwise deft script, which, we are told, was inspired by true events; its epilogue informs us that crimes regarding missing Native American women go severely underreported to the authorities.     

Wind River (2017) on IMDb

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Good Time”– Movie Review

Good Time

Recently, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new crime drama “Good Time”, starring Robert Pattinson.

Synopsis

Can a thief free his brother who was wrongly jailed for a botched bank robbery?

Story

Constantine (Pattinson) wants to have a close relationship with his brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but that’s easier said than done.  Given their background of being raised in a highly dysfunctional family and the fact that Nick is developmentally disabled, developing such ties is a bit of a challenge.  With this in mind, Connie devises something that, in his own twisted way of thinking, will be a bonding experience between the siblings:  he will include his brother in a bank robbery he’s been planning.  Needless to say, this doesn’t turn out very well; although they make it out of the bank with a bagful of money, much of their loot becomes tainted when the dye pack explodes, coloring many of the bills (and the both of them) in bright red.

The other problem is a considerably bigger one:  while being pursued by the police, Connie is able to escape but Nick winds up being caught.  Learning of Nick’s arrest, he brings the cash to a bail bondsman who informs Connie he will be unable to use much of the take for Nick’s bail as the bills were stained from the dye pack.  Being $10,000 short on his brother’s bail, Connie turns to his girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for help.  Corey isn’t exactly in the best shape financially either; she’s living with her mother because she can’t afford her own place.  Not only that, but she doesn’t even have credit cards; instead, she has to use an extra card from her mother’s account. 

Upon returning to the bail bond office with Corey, they discover that Corey’s mother has already cancelled the card so it can’t be used.   Not only that, but Connie is now notified that even if they could use the card, they wouldn’t be able to bail out Nick; it turns out that Nick’s been hospitalized following a severe beating resulting from a jail brawl.  The bondsman explains to Connie that until Nick is discharged from the hospital and returned to jail, the bail money is useless.  This being the case, Connie decides that instead of actually doing something sensible, he’ll sneak Nick out of the hospital to prevent him from being returned to jail.  But can this crazy plan succeed or will it only lead to greater problems that will cause the police to intensify their chase?

Review

When it comes to an analysis of “Good Time”, the challenge is this:  it is just as easy to praise it as it is to deride.  On the one hand, Pattinson gives a remarkable performance as the type of character he rarely gets an opportunity to play.  On the other hand, Connie is such a low-life and an idiot, it gets increasingly difficult for the audience to root for him.  While Connie’s character may indeed be the protagonist in a technical sense, he is more of an anti-hero; the only thing that could be considered a redeeming feature is his desire to help his brother – although his motives might be more selfish than selfless.

So what makes “Good Time” worth recommending beyond merely Pattinson’s performance?  For one thing, the fact that it is an unusual story.  On the surface, it may seem like a typical heist tale, but on deeper inspection, it is truly a story of familial obligations and ties, even when that family is exceedingly dysfunctional.  Given the fact that Connie and Nick come from such a background makes Connie’s consistently poor decisions all the more plausible – almost to the point where it becomes comical (and his base incompetence does appear occasionally risible).   

Following the screening, there was an interview with Pattinson, co-directors The Safdie Brothers and co-screenwriter Ronald Brownstein.  Pattinson said that he appreciated the chaotic environment created on the set by the directors because it brought a considerable amount of energy to the shoot and to his performance.  He added that while many people view “Good Time” as very much a New York movie, to him, it looks like more of a horror film.  Brownstein said that he worked extensively with Ben Safdie to create a backstory for both Connie and Nick by emailing him as if he was the character Connie.

Good Time (2017) on IMDb

“From The Land Of The Moon”– Movie Review

Land_Moon

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “From The Land Of The Moon”, starring Marion Cotillard. 

Synopsis

When a married woman’s health forces her to recover at a spa, she falls in love with one of the other patients – but will she leave her husband for this man?

Story

Gabrielle (Cotillard) has never been lucky at love.  Living on a farm in a rural area of France in the 1950’s, a crush she has on a married schoolteacher goes awry when she misinterprets his friendly gesture for a romantic overture.  As she recovers from her bout with unrequited love, her mother realizes that she must somehow find a way to get her daughter married.  The mother notices that José (Àlex Brendemühl), an itinerant worker who has been toiling on the family farm, has had his eye on Gabrielle for a while now.  Gabrielle, on the other hand, could not be less interested in José.  As a result, her mother makes her an offer she can’t refuse:  either marry José or she’ll have Gabrielle committed based on the unorthodox behavior she’s exhibited.

To say that their marriage is loveless is a major understatement; she refuses him sex, so he goes off to be with prostitutes.  Realizing this, Gabrielle offers herself to José on the condition that she be paid for providing him marital services.  Despite her best efforts, she winds up getting pregnant.  However, she has a miscarriage which uncovers a serious medical condition; while surgery can treat this, Gabrielle goes with the less radical option of spending a month and a half at a spa in The French Alps where she will receive an alternative form of treatment which is believed will heal her.

Once there, however, she is introduced to André (Louis Garrel), a lieutenant in the French army who, until recently, was serving his country in Indochina.  The reason why he is a patient in the spa is because while overseas, he developed a rather severe case of uremia, which now leaves him mostly bedridden.  Not particularly caring that she’s got a husband back home, Gabrielle falls hard for this dreamboat and is none to subtle when it comes to putting the moves on him.  As sick as he is, André nevertheless appreciates all of the attention by a pretty young woman.  But will Gabrielle run off with André once they’re both discharged or will pangs of guilt ultimately force her to return to José?

Review

It’s understandable to be deceived into thinking that “From The Land Of The Moon” would be a movie of high quality.  After all, it’s a romantic French film that stars the brilliant actress Marion Cotillard, so that would lend it a certain degree of gravitas and credibility, wouldn’t it?  Sadly, the only who will appreciate it are the hardcore fans of Cotillard; the rest of the public will likely see “From The Land Of The Moon” for what it truly is – a muddled mess that is a filmic version of one of those Russian nesting dolls in that it is melodrama within a melodrama within a melodrama. 

This movie is based on a book; perhaps readers of that novel can understand the reason why this adaptation is titled “From The Land Of The Moon”, because it’s never quite made clear in the film itself.  But that is the least of the things which aren’t quite clear.  With all of the physicians Geraldine has seen over the years in which the story covers, it is amazing that not one of them is a psychiatrist capable of accurately diagnosing her rather disturbing behavior.  Suspend your disbelief at your own risk; caveat emptor has never been so wise a piece of advice when it comes to this motion picture.

As a novel, “From The Land Of The Moon” was probably quite the page-turning yarn.  However, aside from allusions to the French involvement in Indochina, there is precious little in this utterly preposterous tale that even remotely resembles reality.  Not the least of which is the record-scratch of an ending when something is revealed (Welcome To The No Spoiler-Zone) that calls into question much of what we just saw in the previous hour.  It is something of a cheesy filmmaking trick to hook an audience in only to pull the rug out from under them in the end.         

From the Land of the Moon (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, July 20, 2017

“Landline”– Movie Review

LL2

This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new comedy, “Landline”, starring Jenny Slate, Edie Falco and John Turturro.

Synopsis

When sisters discover that their father has been unfaithful, what impact will this have on the life of their family?

Story

In the mid-1990’s, life is good for Dana (Slate) and her family.  She’s engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), a sweet but dull young man who’s very much in love with her.  Ali (Abby Quinn), her teenage sister, has an impending high school graduation; while her parents are pushing her to attend college as they did, she is not quite so sure.  As for their parents Alan and Pat (John Turturro and Edie Falco), both siblings appear to get along splendidly with them, even if their own relationship with each other can cleave toward being a bit fractious, so put it mildly.  Alan and Pat, on the other hand, seem to have grown a bit distant over their years together.

At a party, Dana runs into Nate (Finn Wittrock), an old college flame with whom she winds up re-igniting their passionate relationship behind Ben’s back.  Meanwhile, Ali stumbles upon evidence that Alan is having an affair of his own.  Does Pat know about this?  If not, should Ali be the one to blow the whistle on her father?  On this matter, Ali is a bit conflicted; while she sees Alan’s unfaithfulness as wrong, she has also witnessed her mother’s behavior toward him as deliberately driving him away.  Unsure how to properly handle this awkward situation, Ali spills the beans to Dana and seeks her advice on the matter.

Before either of the sisters have the opportunity to confront Alan or Pat regarding this troubling news, Pat reveals to Alan that she in fact knows what he’s been up to.  The two separate and plan to divorce.  In the meantime, Ben is growing increasingly concerned about Dana; she moved in with her parents shortly after things started heating up with Nate and Ben has barely heard from his fiancée in the intervening period.  Ultimately, Dana confesses to Ben that she’s been seeing Nate, which causes Ben to break up with her.  Realizing that she needs to settle down with Ben, can Dana convince him that she’ll be faithful in the future?  Also, with their family on the verge of breaking apart, can the two sisters put their differences aside (at least temporarily) to try to unite their family?

Review

It’s hard to tell if the gifts of Gillian Robespierre as a filmmaker inspires the performance delivered by actress Jenny Slate or if it’s Slate’s acting that inspires Robespierre’s directing choices.  Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.  Regardless, they make an incredible collaborative team, proving that their previous work together, “Obvious Child”, was no fluke; “Landline” shows that the team of Robespierre and Slate do not suffer from the dreaded Sophomore Jinx.  Once again, they are able to present a story full of both mirth and sorrow, often simultaneously.

A great deal of credit also must go to Elisabeth Holm, who shares the screenwriting credit with Robespierre.  This duo also co-wrote “Obvious Child”, their breakout movie from several years ago.  They have a sensibility and storytelling style that appears to bring out the very best in each other; remarkably, the pair are able to find humor in truth and truth in humor.  The characters they have delineated are rich and, as heartbreakingly real as they may be in their flaws, are also deeply funny, even when they don’t realize their own ridiculous behavior. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Robespierre, Slate, screenwriter Holm and Slate’s co-star Abby Quinn.  Robespierre said that the story came about because she and Holm share a similar background; not only did they grow up in New York City during the 1990’s, they also both saw their parents divorce during that same period.  In their case, this shared trauma only served to strengthen the familial bond that both had with their respective parents and siblings.  Slate said that following “Obvious Child”, she and Robespierre kept in touch and were eager to work together again.  

Landline (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

“Valerian”– Movie Review

val

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science-fiction/adventure “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”.

Synopsis

In the future, a planet with peace-loving people is destroyed – but can the agents charged with investigating the attack find out who did it and why?

Story

The society that exists on Alpha 400 years from now is a collective of humans and aliens who both live and work together in collaboration in order to improve each other’s life.  This is especially true in the demographically diverse City Of A Thousand Planets, which contains the largest population in all of Alpha.  However, the long-standing peace in the universe is disrupted when a planet is unexpectedly attacked and destroyed; only a small group of its inhabitants survive by escaping in a pod.  Slowly, over a course of many years, they try to rebuild their society – and all the while, plotting revenge.

With the universe’s peace disrupted, The United Human Federation is called into action.  The Federation is an organization of humans responsible for maintaining order and vanquishing possible threats to all of society.  Two of The Federation’s top agents are Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who work as partners on all their missions.  They are assigned the task of investigating who attacked the planet and why.  In the meantime, The Federation Commander (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by the alien survivors of the destroyed planet so Valerian and Laureline are sent to rescue him. 

Upon finding The Commander, Valerian and Laureline are unable to free him without themselves confronting the aliens first.  Instead of being engaged in a fierce battle, the aliens relate their story to the agents; the new information they get from the aliens is alarming and forces the agents to view their situation in a whole new light.  With better insight into the aliens’ background and the motivations for their actions, the agents realize the objective of their mission must be altered.  Are the aliens justified in their capture of The Commander?  Did The Commander have prior knowledge about the attack and destruction of these aliens’ planet?  Can the agents help the aliens to restore their society?

Review

One might forgive a viewer who anticipates fun while watching the opening credits of “Valerian” – it’s quite a visual spectacle with musical accompaniment.  Unfortunately – between the special effects and the relentless action scenes – the movie as a whole winds up feeling like more of an assault on the senses rather than a coherent story featuring protagonists about whom we can invest our emotions or time.  Ultimately, at two and a quarter hours, the film is something of a slog rather than the fast-paced adventure to which it aspires.

By the end of “Valerian”, the viewer is left caring neither about the fate of the survivors of the destroyed planet nor about the future of the possible romance between Valerian and Laureline.  It is, in fact, the aliens who seem considerably more human than the actual humans themselves – and considering it’s the humans who are the protagonists, that’s not something that bodes well for the movie itself.  Also, these members of The United Human Federation of the future appear to sustain the racism and sexism of the present:  very few non-white faces are seen among them and there seem to be no women in positions of authority. 

What little there is of entertainment value in “Valerian” comes from being able to quickly identify the famous faces, many of whom appear only in cameos.  In addition to Clive Owen, they include Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke and (as has been widely publicized already) Rihanna as a character called Bubble – a shape-shifting alien who performs a seductive dance for Valerian.  Although their characters do indeed move the story forward, their presence it not enough to elevate this film.  We can hope that there will be no sequel to this motion picture – or if there is, it’ll be at least a half hour shorter. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, June 29, 2017

“The B-Side”– Movie Review

Bside

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “The B-Side”.

Synopsis

Retired portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman reflects on her long career

Story

For decades, Elsa Dorfman made a career as a photographer specializing in portraits.  Before her retirement, Dorfman was considered a pioneer because she was one of the few female professional photographers.  What further set her apart from others was the fact that she was using a relatively new camera at the time:  The Polaroid Land Camera, which was considered revolutionary at the time because it generated instant photographs without having to be processed through the traditional development process.  While the cameras were sold in the retail market and turned out to be a big hit with consumers, the company also manufactured specialty cameras as well.

One such specialty camera was a model which was capable of producing 20” x 24” photographs.  Dorfman was able to get one of these cameras despite the fact that they were in limited supply; using this for her portrait photography caused her career to take off.  Since there were few people at the time who could market portrait photographs to the general public of this size, she was considered one-of-a-kind.  As this set her apart from most other photographers, she was in high demand for her portraits -- by both the public and celebrities alike.   

Years later, Polaroid started making cameras that could produce even larger photographs; these were 80” x 40” in size and came out of an enormous printer.  These cameras were intended for use by professionals who were seeking “life-size” pictures as well as photos that could be mounted on a wall in a gallery.  Dorfman used this device to take shots of celebrities, especially her close friend, the controversial poet Allen Ginsberg.  But eventually, technological advances became such that film was no longer used in cameras and Polaroid found itself out of business.  It was not long thereafter that Dorfman decided it was time for her to retire.     

Review

There is no doubt that “The B-Side” contains a certain sweetness to both the documentary and its subject.  However, that alone does not necessarily make a good documentary.  One of the most common problems in documentaries is what’s known as The Talking Heads Syndrome; this is where the documentary consists solely (or primarily) of interviews with people about the subject of the documentary.  In the case of “The B-Side”, it’s much worse than that – there is only one talking head, that of Dorfman herself.  The fact that this filmmaker, a veteran documentarian, fell into what would be considered “rookie mistakes” is a bit startling. 

Another problem is with the subject herself.  Unless you are a photography buff, you may not be familiar with Dorfman’s work.  What we are given to understand from this documentary is that her photographs are not remarkable so much because of her subjects themselves but more because of the technology she used, which was cutting edge at the time.  This is interesting only up to a certain point (getting former Polaroid employees to expound on the cameras themselves might have been useful to include in the documentary).  Dorfman herself admits that while she did photograph famous people (Bob Dylan and Ginsberg), she was never looking to capture the inner person, just their external shell. 

Curiously, when Dorfman shows off her photography, she often holds up the pictures in a way that completely obscures her face while she talks about the photo; it is almost as if to say, “My work is more important than I am”.  While making the subject appear humble and serve to further ingratiate her to the viewing audience, it isn’t necessarily good filmmaking; this could have been shot in a more elegant (professional) manner.  Why the director made this choice is unclear.  What is perhaps a saving grace of “The B-Side” is its length; its running time is barely over an hour. 

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, June 08, 2017

“The Hero”– Movie Review


Hero

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “The Hero” starring Sam Elliott.

Synopsis

When an actor learns he is dying, will he be able to resolve family conflicts before it’s too late?

Story

Hollywood is known to be a cruel town – and especially cruel to those unable to resist aging.  This is precisely the problem Lee (Elliott) is facing now; as a senior citizen, the roles he used to get acting in Westerns on television and in movies have dried up considerably.  But things are about to get much worse for Lee; upon meeting with his doctor, he learns some rather unfortunate news about his biopsy – at the age of 71, he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the prognosis is none too promising.  Lee is now forced to confront his new reality and limited future. 

Lee has initial difficulty internalizing his diagnosis; this manifests itself in his inability to tell his neighbor Jeremy (Nick Offerman), his ex-wife Valarie (Katherine Ross) and their daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), from whom he has been long estranged.  One day while visiting Jeremy to purchase weed, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), another of Jeremy’s “customers”; they hit it off immediately and shortly thereafter start dating.  Insecure about why such a young woman would be interested in him, Lee attends Charlotte’s stand-up act at a comedy club; immediately feeling humiliated when she makes jokes about the hazards of dating an older man, he exits, convinced they are over.

Charlotte apologizes and tries to make amends; reunited, it is at this point that Lee finally is able to summon up the courage to reveal his diagnosis.  This being a much-needed breakthrough, Lee now decides to meet with Valarie and Lucy separately in order to break the news to them.  Although Valarie responds sympathetically, Lucy is more of a challenge; having been disappointed by her father countless times over the years, she sees this as yet another side of his absentee fatherhood.  With time running out, will Lee be forced to spend his remaining days alone or can those closest to him provide the necessary support until the end?

Review

As much of a pleasure Sam Elliott is to watch (and hear) in “The Hero”, it is not necessarily enough to recommend seeing the movie – unless, of course you’re such a hardcore fan of Elliott that skipping one of his works would be unthinkable.  As his girlfriend, Prepon’s Charlotte seems unworthy of Lee (who apparently was no angel himself in his earlier years); after insulting him in her stand-up comedy act while he’s in the audience, she unconvincingly tries to explain her reasoning for doing so.  It seemed the perfect opportunity for Lee to invoke the maxim, “Many a truth is often said in jest”. 

Haley’s screenplay is somewhat hackneyed; we’ve pretty much seen this story before and in considerably better movies.  As a storyteller, he really doesn’t seem to be able to explain things terribly well (e.g., a big deal is made of Lee losing his cell phone and then in the very next scene, it is apparently recovered – but how and when, we have no idea).  For another thing, Haley seems to overuse shots of Lee standing on the beach staring at the ocean.  It puts in the viewer’s mind the thought that one of those “A Star Is Born” types of moments might be coming. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with both writer/director Brett Haley and Elliott.  Haley said that he came up with the idea for “The Hero” after working with Elliott on a previous project ("I'll See You in My Dreams") and they wound up shooting this movie in only 18 days.  Elliott said that one of his reasons for doing the film was because he felt that the character exemplified a problem he himself ran into as an actor:  the fact that he gets known for a certain type of role and winds up being “boxed in”.  Despite wanting to star in Westerns since childhood, after a while, he felt a desire to do something different but found it difficult to get cast in any other type. 

The Hero (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, June 01, 2017

“Churchill”– Movie Review

 

cox

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Churchill”, starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson. 

Synopsis

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill grows increasingly depressed over the impending Battle of Normandy on D-Day, can his wife set him in the right frame of mind to successfully lead the country?

Story

At the beginning of June 1944, the world was in the thick of its second war and it was just days before Operation Overlord would commence.  It was at this time that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Cox) met with the generals from The Allied Forces – Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) – to review the final version of their plan for The Battle Of Normandy.  To their surprise, Churchill informs them he thinks the plan will not work; while ambitious, it is far too risky and The Allies will incur many casualties.

In a private meeting, Ike tells Churchill that regardless of what he thinks, they are going forward with the plan – it’s just a matter of when, depending on favorable weather conditions.  Churchill warns him there was a similar plan in The Battle of Gallipoli during The Great War and it failed miserably; Ike tries to reassure him that there have been great advances in the past 30 years, but Churchill remains unconvinced.  Realizing the generals will go against his wishes, Churchill then counters by saying he will be accompanying the troops to Normandy; but after Ike has a conversation with the King of England, he tells Churchill he cannot go.

As all of this unfolds, Churchill’s drinking increases and his mental state declines.  Becoming increasingly depressed, he begins to exhibit erratic behavior and poor temperament around colleagues and his wife Clementine (Richardson).  Finally, Clementine has enough; she feels that her husband has been marginalizing her and it’s time that she leave him.  But after Churchill’s colleagues try to persuade Clementine into staying for the benefit of the country, will she be able to drag her husband out of the deep depression in which he’s mired?

Review

It may be better left to history buffs – either those of World War II or, more specifically, experts on Churchill himself – to fact check much of what it set forth in “Churchill”.  Regardless, it must be noted that flaws in the movie are of the cringe-worthy variety – whether we’re talking about heavy-handed imagery or dialog (particularly of note is the scene where Churchill is supposedly praying, but his supplication evolves into oration to The Almighty).  There are plenty of aspects about this that challenge your disbelief, including the fact that a secretary turned Churchill around on his views and that he only voiced disagreement about the Operation Overlord plans days before their execution when in fact they had been in the works for months. 

As a historical work, “Churchill” could hardly be considered a hagiography; quite the opposite, in fact – The British Bulldog comes across not only as quite fallible but also leaves the audience wondering if he should have been fit for a straitjacket.  That becomes problematic because it results in the audience having a protagonist for whom it is difficult to root.  Add to that the fact that since this is obviously a slice of history, we all know how it turns out so there is very little left in the movie that creates any requisite suspense for viewers. 

While the film may have been something of a disappointment, what saved the evening was a post-screening question and answer session with its star, Brian Cox.  Cox said that he had to gain around 30 pounds in order to play Churchill and he is still battling to lose that weight.  He maintains that while there are many factual elements to the movie (it was written by a historian), there are elements that were manufactured – the secretary portrayed in “Churchill” is actually an amalgam of multiple Churchill secretaries.  Also, Cox noted that while his character was seen smoking many cigars, he doesn’t smoke them himself; during the shoot, they utilized what were basically electronically-operated cigars – basically, he was vaping. 

Churchill (2017) on IMDb