Thursday, June 08, 2017

“The Hero”– Movie Review


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


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


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?


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



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


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?


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?


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

Friday, May 19, 2017

“Dean”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Dean”, starring Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen. 


Dean (Martin) and his father Robert (Kline) are having difficulty dealing with the loss of their family member – Dean’s mother and Robert’s wife.  Suddenly, both men find their respective world turned upside down and without direction.  Robert decides he’ll sell the family’s New York house; it’s too big to live in by himself and besides, there are too many memories.  Dean, on the other hand, demurs; that house has memories he desperately wants to retain and neither wants nor needs more disruptions.  While Robert wants to meet with his son in order to discuss plans on how to proceed, Dean avoids it by taking this opportunity to make a business trip to Los Angeles.  

While in LA, Dean meets with an advertising agency that wants to hire him to make humorous illustrations for their client’s upcoming ad campaign.  Once he realizes the gig is not for him, Dean decides to return to NYC to finish his next book of cartoons.  But before he goes, Dean’s invited to a party where he runs into Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a gorgeous blonde who seems to be aggressively flirting with him.  In no hurry to return to New York, Dean extends his Los Angeles trip to spend time with Nicky.  Meanwhile, Robert has hired Carol (Mary Steenburgen), a real estate agent to help sell his house.  The two find themselves working closely and eventually a mutual attraction develops.   

Ultimately, Dean and Nicky get to spend time alone right before he has to return to New York; although they both felt a strong connection to each other, their future together remains uncertain.  In the meantime, Robert and Carol continue to enjoy each other’s company.  But are both ready to go to the next level in their relationship?  Upon Dean’s return, Robert sells the house and moves into a smaller apartment.  However, there are still unresolved issues between father and son.  Can the two put their differences aside to support each other in their grieving process or will they forever remain estranged?


While it may sound somewhat oxymoronic to describe the surprisingly pleasant “Dean” as a comedy about death, loss and grieving, that is precisely what it is.  Deal with it.  In fact, if that doesn’t sound sufficiently confusing, the movie is actually a romantic comedy.  Before you say, “You can’t do that!”, remember that people also said about “Hogan’s Heroes” that you can’t make a situation comedy about a Nazi prisoner of war camp.  Sometimes, “experts” are just plain wrong.  Let’s just stop right there lest a diatribe on the 2016 presidential election proceeds. 

The reason why “Dean” works as well as it does is precisely because the jokes are genuinely funny.  Judging from this movie alone, it would seem like writer-director-star Demetri Martin is a hybrid of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach as far as his filmmaking style is concerned.  While some may argue that it is unfair to Martin to make such a comparison, it is meant as a compliment – but this young man certainly has a very long way to go in order to be favorably compared to these men in his entire body of work.  We will just have to see what the future holds for Martin. 

One of the more amazing things about “Dean” is that not only did Martin write-direct-co-produce and star in this movie, he also took a credit for creating the illustrations as well – and arguably, these inventive and clever cartoons are worth seeing the film all by themselves.  While Martin doesn’t exactly seem to break any new ground as a director, his screenplay is truly just as funny and unique as the drawings themselves (that said, however, there are some moments that don’t ring true.  For example, are we really to believe that Dean’s father, a professional engineer, can’t figure out how to use a cell phone?).  Also, although it could be said that acting isn’t necessarily Martin’s greatest strength, the performances by Kline and Steenburgen are delightful. 

Dean (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

“Paris Can Wait”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new romantic comedy, “Paris Can Wait”, starring Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin.


When a married woman accepts an offer from a charismatic Frenchman to drive her to Paris, will she succumb to his charms or will she remain faithful to her husband?


While in Cannes joining her husband Michael (Baldwin) on a business trip, Anne (Lane) is suffering ear problems.  Michael is too preoccupied with the exigencies of his film production business, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to spend time with Anne, much less come to her aid regarding her ear problem.  Anne, meanwhile, has also been yearning for a vacation – something which Michael has been way too busy for in recent years.  When problems on a current production require Michael to head to Budapest before proceeding to Paris, Anne agrees to tag along – but when her ear condition precludes her from flying, she instead decides to head straight to Paris on her own.

Originally planning to take a train from Cannes, Anne changes her mind when Jacques (Arnaud Viard), Michael’s business partner, offers to drive her to Paris himself.  Not long into her trip, Anne believes she’s made an egregious mistake.  First, Jacques’ car is old, making it questionable as to whether or not it will survive the journey.  Also, it turns out Jacques isn’t exactly the world’s best driver.  Lastly – and most important – Jacques is not taking a direct route to Paris.  While Anne may be in a hurry to get there, he is obviously not.  Jacques takes her on quite a few side excursions along the way.

Jacques turns out to be quite the connoisseur on a great many things.  These detours open up Anne to a whole new world she would not have otherwise experienced:  great architecture, fabulous scenery and most of all, delicious food and wine.  But along the way, it becomes clear that Jacques may have some ulterior motives on this seemingly generous offer to drive Anne to Paris.  A lonely man who never married, it appears as though he may be trying to seduce Anne and possibly even steal her away from Michael.  Upon finally reaching Paris, Jacques makes Anne an offer to rendezvous with him.  Will Anne leave her husband of 20 years to have an affair with this man?


“Paris Can Wait” is certainly a pleasant enough little trifle, but if you are going to extend the food metaphor (albeit painfully), it is more of a light croissant rather than the heartier cassoulet; it is enjoyable in the moment, but quickly forgettable.  Lane seems to be trying to reprise her success in “Under The Tuscan Sun” with a Gallic twist, combining it with a bit of “Eat, Pray, Love” (with considerable emphasis on the eat).  The main reason to see “Paris Can Wait” – should you choose do to so – is for the breathtaking French sites (especially the countryside) and the mouthwatering shots of the sundry foods.

The biggest problem with “Paris Can Wait” is its flimsy script.  Its dialog can be a bit predictable, including and especially when it comes to the rather awkward and clumsy attempts to impart bits of exposition with the audience.  Additionally, the story lacks any real conflict; although the two face minor setbacks along the way, there is no true antagonist that must be overcome by the two leads either individually or collectively.  Therein lies a serious issue the movie cannot overcome; one never gets the sense of impending doom for either Lane’s character or her marriage. 

But of course the story behind the movie is what’s attracting the most attention.  “Paris Can Wait” was written and directed by Eleanor Coppola, the wife of Francis Ford Coppola; at the age of 81, she’s making her debut as both a screenwriter and feature film director.  Despite her familial connections, it’s nevertheless rather impressive that anyone of such an age would take on such a challenge.  At this point, it almost seems facetious to talk about her “career” as a filmmaker, but in the event she does attempt another motion picture, hopefully it would be something more compelling than a fantasy vacation.  

Paris Can Wait (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Aardvark”– Movie Review

Aardvark__AAD4044.tif Aardvark__AAD4044.tif

On the final weekend of The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended a screening of “Aardvark”, a drama which made its World Premiere earlier in the festival; it stars Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm. 


When an emotionally disturbed man seeks assistance from a therapist, can she help mend the relationship with his brother despite her romantic involvement with the brother?


Josh (Quinto) finds himself at something of a crossroads in his life.  That’s why he’s seeking assistance from Emily (Slate), a local Clinical Social Worker who’s set up practice out of her own home in this Queens, New York, neighborhood.  A troubled man, Josh is on multiple medications due to a prior diagnosis of schizophrenia.  In addition to that, he’s currently experiencing great anxiety over his relationship with his older brother Craig (Hamm), whom he hasn’t seen in years.  Through their sessions, Emily sets out to peel back the layers to understand the source of the conflict.  

Craig, by contrast, has gone on to enjoy a life of great success as an actor in Hollywood.  Having starred in a hit television series, Craig’s returned to his Queens neighborhood to sell the house that was left to him by his and Josh’s late parents.  Despite being in the vicinity, Craig is reluctant to visit Josh; Josh, however, believes he is being visited by Craig, but these are hallucinations that are merely a manifestation of his mental illness.  Sadly, when Josh sees a police officer or a homeless woman, he believes that this is his brilliant brother Craig as an actor in character. 

When Craig visits Emily to check up on Josh’s condition, they hit it off immediately and start dating.  Before long, they enter into a romantic relationship which both know to be wrong but irresistible.  Over time, Josh’s condition worsens and Craig becomes increasingly distant.  After suffering a beating from some locals, Josh is hospitalized; Emily visits him and is confronted with the realization it is imperative Craig gets over his hesitancy to see Josh – but when she finally convinces Craig to visit him once Josh is discharged, will their meeting patch things up or only prove to make matters worse?   


Based on the little amount of screen time the character gets, this is clearly not Craig’s story.  Therefore, simply by the process of elimination, it would seem that either Emily or Josh have the majority of time in “Aardvark”.  So which one of them is the protagonist here?  It can’t be Emily because she’s part of the problem – she is, arguably, the world’s worst therapist based on the many bad decisions we see her make throughout the story (including bad decisions she’s made in her past, given what eventually gets revealed about her). 

This leaves Josh as the only character who could possibly be perceived as the protagonist of “Aardvark”.  Therein lies the movie’s fatal flaw.  Josh, as sympathetic as he may be, is a difficult character to root for because his illness precludes him from being in control of his own life; as the protagonist, Josh should be the one with the character arc, but it is in fact his brother, Craig, who goes through the transformation.  This change is not voluntary; it is in fact forced upon him by Emily, which results in making Craig appear less heroic in the eyes of the audience because he did not embark on this change himself.  Ultimately, “Aardvark” is a film in search of a protagonist it never quite finds.     

Following the screening was a question and answer session with writer/director Brian Shoaf.  Shoaf knows Quinto from their days studying acting in college; over the years, they attempted to work together, but it never worked out.  Eventually, Quinto formed a production company with a mutual friend of theirs and wound up making several films.  Later, Shoaf sent Quinto the screenplay for “Aardvark” through his agent and Quinto decided he wanted to play Josh so much he agreed to co-produce.  Through Quinto, they were able to add Hamm and Slate to the cast, which made funding easier. 

Aardvark (2017) on IMDb

Monday, April 24, 2017

“Flower”– Movie Review


This weekend at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new comedy-drama, “Flower”, starring Zoey Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. 


When teenagers go too far in an attempt to seek revenge on a neighborhood man, will they eventually wind up in prison for his murder? 


Erica (Deutch) and her friends are a group of perfectly normal seventeen year olds from southern California – assuming, of course, you consider teenage girls extorting money from older men by taking photographs of them in compromising situations with the girls to be “perfectly normal”.  Otherwise, they’re a pretty out of control bunch.  As their leader, it’s understandable why Erica is so wild – her father is currently doing time in prison for armed robbery and her mother Laurie (Hahn) is so lax, she doesn’t have much in the way of parental skills.  

Laurie announces that her boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) is moving in with her and bringing with him his teenage son Luke (Joey Morgan).  Luke is a real piece of work.  Just coming out of a rehabilitation center, this obese teenager about a year older than Erica is emotionally fragile.  His story is that he got one of his teachers in trouble by accusing him of sexual molestation; when Luke’s story failed to hold up under further scrutiny, he only wound up getting himself in deeper tribulation.  With few friends to begin with, Luke has only served to make himself more isolated. 

The local bowling alley is a refuge for Erica and her pals; there, they swoon over Will (Adam Scott), a “hot” older guy Erica wants to add to her collection.  Erica’s feelings about Will change when she learns he’s the teacher Luke tried to report.  Together, they formulate a plan where Erica will seduce him and her friends would take photos of him with her, which they could use to bribe him.  However, the plans go awry; when Will passes out from a sedative, he falls down and seriously hurts himself.  Unaware as to the extent of his injuries, the teenagers proceed with their scheme to take compromising pictures with him.  But when it’s found out that Will died from his wound, can Erica and Luke escape justice or will they both wind up serving a prison sentence of their own?  


Simply put, the fundamental problem that “Flower” has is the fact that its protagonist is unsympathetic.  There is precious little – arguably nothing – that is done throughout much of the movie that changes the viewer’s opinion.  In a dramatic narrative such as this, the filmmaker essentially wants to have a protagonist in whom the audience can have some degree of an emotional investment.  Lacking this, the audience must reasonably wonder for whom are we to root in this film?  One might make the case that the most sympathetic characters are either the mother or her boyfriend, but it’s not their story.     

When a movie opens by presenting the protagonist in an unflattering light, there are certain things that must be done to change the audience’s view to make the protagonist’s story one worth caring about.  One way this can be done is by relentlessly punishing the character throughout much of the rest of the tale to the point that the viewers will feel that the protagonist has suffered enough and now is worthy of the audience’s support.  “Flower” rejects this notion and therein lies its failing; instead, it doubles down on reinforcing how evil the character is, then making an attempt at sympathy at the end.  It might be reasonably debated that a great motion picture like “Raging Bull” can be made when its protagonist is an unsympathetic character; a fair point, but remember that “Raging Bull” was a biopic while the protagonist of “Flower” is fictional. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with director Max Winkler.  Winkler said that what drew him to this screenplay was the fact that it reminded him of many of John Hughes’ movies from the 1980’s.  At 33 years of age, Winkler admitted that Hughes’ style of coming of age films was deep in his DNA and that’s why the story struck a nerve with him.  Since the story was about a teenage girl, Winkler said that he decided to hire an all female crew as well; he felt that maintaining the women’s perspective in the motion picture would help to keep him more honest in his storytelling. 

Flower (2017) on IMDb


Sunday, April 23, 2017

“One Percent More Humid”–Movie Review

1pcThis weekend at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new drama, “One Percent More Humid”, starring  Juno Temple and Julia Garner


When a pair of college age young women reunite for their last summer together, will their friendship be able to survive after a shared traumatic experience?


In a small New England town, Iris (Temple) and Catherine (Garner) decide to share a house with friends once their college semester has concluded; they hope to enjoy their summer together – which may in fact be their last as life could soon have them taking some unexpected turns.  For one thing, Iris has pursued post-graduate studies and is now working on a thesis; Catherine, however, may not have such certain directions with regard to her own future.  Nevertheless, they will make an effort to put their troubles aside and have fun for the next couple of months. 

As much as the two young women try to enjoy themselves, there is an unspoken secret between them:  the death of their mutual friend Mae, which occurred just a few months ago.  There was an automobile accident – Catherine was driving.  Although unimpaired by either drugs or alcohol, the accident was her fault because she took her eye off the road at a sharp turn; both she and Iris suffered injuries, but Mae was flung from the car and perished.  In the short term, both Iris and Christine suffer survivor’s guilt, but attempt to heal their emotional wounds through the bonds of friendship. 

That, however, is not the only way the two young women try to heal.  Iris has regular meetings with Gerald (Alessandro Nivola), the forty-something married college professor advising her on her thesis.  With Gerald’s wife stuck in New York City due to work-related matters, Iris seizes this opportunity to put the moves on Gerald.  Finding this an irresistible opportunity, Gerald engages in an affair with his student.  Guilty over the incident that killed Mae, Catherine seduces Mae’s brother, hoping to seek his forgiveness.  But when Mae’s parents sue Catherine over the wrongful death of their daughter, what impact will this have on her friendship with Iris?   


How you view eroticism may very well determine how you experience “One Percent More Humid”.  There is plenty of sex and nudity; the majority of this is young female nudity, it’s a bit surprising that it comes from a female director.  If it came from a male director, would it have been considered exploitative?  Although slightly over an hour and a half in length, it feels long and languid due to its overwhelmingly dour tone.  While there are attempts at lighthearted moments to break up the mood, one never loses the sense that there is a dark cloud hanging over the entire movie as well as the characters themselves.  No matter how much partying any of them may do, their lives are irrevocably headed for a derailment. 

The performances – especially by the two girls – are quite convincing and passionate.  To a degree, it’s the screenplay that lets them down because for a movie of a reasonable length, it takes a bit too long to get its story started – and the reveal for its angst is somewhat drawn out.  It needed to get to the point a little more quickly.  The fact that the future of the friendship between these girls remains somewhat up in the air at the end is not a problem; what is a problem, however, it the fact that we don’t learn earlier in the film why it will eventually and inevitably come to that conclusion. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with most of the cast and the director/screenwriter Liz W. Garcia.  Garcia is a staunch advocate of more women in filmmaking and believes that women’s voices need to be heard from with increasing frequency in the movies; while Garcia believes that women have made progress, she concedes that there is still a long way to go to attain equality.  Much of the system in the film industry, she maintains, is not entirely supportive of this – whether this is an anti-feminist backlash or the belief that the movies are not marketable is not entirely clear. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

“Gilbert”– Movie Review


This week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new documentary “Gilbert”, starring Gilbert Gottfried and a variety of other comedians.


When the notorious stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried finally starts a family in his 50’s, how will this change his comedy and his personality?


Back in the 1980’s when Gilbert Gottfried broke in as a stand-up comedian, his zany style and loud, raspy voice helped to make him stand out among his peers.  The fact that his material reflected a unique view of the world didn’t hurt, either.  But Gottfried’s road to success began with a difficult relationship with his father while growing up in Brooklyn.  Gottfried’s father, a handyman, browbeat his only son to “be somebody”, whatever that meant – perhaps by learning a trade of some kind so he would always be able to make a living.  Instead, Gottfried responded to his father’s demands by dropping out of high school to pursue his dream career as a stand-up comedian.

Although Gottfried initially encountered resentment from audiences unfamiliar with him and his unusual manner, many of his fellow comedians immediately recognized his talent and were fully supportive and encouraging.  Eventually, the audience caught up to what he was doing and his popularity grew exponentially.  Soon thereafter, he began making television appearances and earning movie roles, which raised his visibility to the point that he could demand more money when performing at comedy clubs.  Despite his success, his friends knew him to possess some rather quirky behavior, which limited him socially. 

Late in life, Gottfried fell in love with Dara, whom he would subsequently marry; they had two children, one daughter and one son.  While Dara dotes on him, Gottfried appears more distant and emotionally unavailable; in typical Gottfried fashion, he’ll give her Anniversary or Valentines Day cards that have “GO F*** YOURSELF!” scrawled above the romantic poem on the inside of the card.  When Dara tells him, “I love you”, his response is, “That’s your problem”.  With their two children craving their father’s attention whenever he’s not on the road, will this newfound family life have any impact on Gottfried either personally or professionally?


If you’ve ever laughed until you’ve become light-headed, then you know exactly what it’s  like to watch the hour and a half long documentary “Gilbert”.  The movie includes many old clips from Gottfried’s television and film appearances, as well as excerpts from his stand-up act.  For long-time fans of this controversial comic, it is a fond trip down memory lane to remind admirers what drew them to this nut in the first place.  But the film is not all laughs as we learn about Gottfried’s parents and siblings as well as his wife Dara and their two children.  In those times, the comedian is uncharacteristically sullen.

Director Neil Berkeley avoids the bane of such movies of this genre, namely The Talking Heads Syndrome, which besets many documentaries.  Berkeley accomplishes this by breaking up the interviews with Gottfried’s film/TV/performance clips; in this way, he winds up having the interviewees provide voiceover narrations, so they come across less as straight interviews.  Where the documentary may fall a little bit short is with scenes that appear that they may have been staged specifically for the movie:  examples include Gottfried ironing his shirt, playing with his children and visits to one of his older sisters. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with director Neil Berkeley and Gottfried – or at least there was an attempt to interview Gottfried.  As usual, he took over and started going into a portion of his stand-up act.  Singer-songwriter Paul Williams is a friend of Gottfried’s and attended the screening.  In his honor, Gottfried went into a routine, the premise being, “What if Paul Williams and Shirley Temple shared an intimate moment?”.  As you might expect (a) none of it can be repeated here and (b) it’s terribly funny.  Berkeley said he pitched the idea to Gottfried while they had coffee at a diner; he asked Gottfried if he still loved doing stand-up comedy and Gottfried responded no, that he in fact hated still having to perform his act.  It was at this point, Berkeley noted, that he knew Gottfried would make a good documentary. 



Friday, April 14, 2017

“Norman”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Norman”, starring Richard Gere.


When a New York man worms his way into the life of the Israeli Prime Minister, can his newfound influence help him get out of an international corruption scandal?


Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is what they call a “fixer” – a person who is capable of getting certain types of things done for people, especially for people who are perceived to be somewhat influential.  These things, of course, are done for a price – but not necessarily something that is immediately paid for.  Instead, they might be considered a favor that will need to be repaid at some point in the future.  Norman is such a person who is perfectly willing and able to bend over backwards for people, believing he can call in a favor from them if and when he is in such a need.

So far, Norman’s favors have tended to go to people who are of more modest accomplishments in life.  One day, however, Norman succeeds in catching his White Whale.  Micah Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a member of the Knesset currently visiting New York City on a business trip.  Norman, a Jewish man with interests in Israel’s political scene, essentially stalks Eshel; befriending him, Norman buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes that Eshel covets.  They cost Norman around $1200, but he hopes it will turn out to be a worthwhile investment in the long run. 

Over the next several years, Norman and Eshel keep in touch; Norman continues to do a number of small favors for Eshel along the way and Eshel’s political career blossoms.  Eventually, he is elected Prime Minister of Israel.  On Eshel’s first trip to New York since becoming Prime Minister, Norman looks him up and they quickly renew their friendship.  But things do not evolve as Norman thinks; the opposition party in Israel soon accuses Eshel of accepting gifts from a powerful foreign businessman – who astonishingly turns out to be Norman himself!  When Norman finds himself in trouble, can this master manipulator somehow extricate himself without causing problems for his pal?


Once upon a time, we lived in a society where people were not as politically correct as they are now.  During this ancient period, people were not outraged when non-traditional casting was used and actors who were of European descent played Asians and Caucasians might play Mexicans or Indians.  It would be difficult to get away with such things today without getting scathingly criticized, especially in social media.  With that in mind, one must wonder if there will be a backlash over the fact that gentile Richard Gere plays an older Jewish man from Manhattan?

If that happened, it would most certainly be a shame because “Norman:  The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (the movie’s full title) is full of surprises.  Not only is “Norman” a supremely entertaining film (the first surprise), but Richard Gere is excellent in the title role (the other surprise).  In fact, it would not be going too far to say that this may very well be Gere’s best performance in a very long time.  “Norman” can brag of a great cast, but Gere is uncannily believable as a Jewish man, even if his performance does at times seem reminiscent of a Woody Allen imitation. 

“Norman” is a true gem of a motion picture that deserves as wide an audience as possible.  It’s a truly original story about the meaning and value of friendship as well as the perfidy that is the very nature of politics.  Joseph Cedar wrote and directed; both the script and the visual style of the movie are quite clever in the way Norman’s story unfolds with unexpected moments that really pull in the viewer.  Will “Norman” be perceived as either too Jewish, too New York or too both to get people not of that ethnicity or geography to be interested?  It is far too worthy a film to suffer such a fate.   

Norman (2016) on IMDb

Friday, April 07, 2017

“Colossal”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science fiction comedy, “Colossal”, starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. 


When a woman realizes her drunken behavior turns her into a monster that wreaks havoc on humanity, can she both curb her behavior and seek redemption?


If you were to look up the term “hot mess” in the dictionary, there’s no doubt you’d find a picture of Gloria (Hathaway).  Having recently lost her job writing for an online magazine, she’s taken her imbibing up to the next level, partying daily and staying up all night before passing out.  Her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) has had enough; when Gloria finally returns home after her latest Bacchanalia, she finds he’s packed her bags and is throwing her out.  With no place left to go, she leaves New York City and heads for the only other place she’s ever known as home:  the small town in New Hampshire where she grew up.

Once there, Gloria stays in her parents’ old house, which remains barren of furnishings of any kind since they left.  In the process of getting settled, she runs into Oscar (Sudeikis), her childhood friend, who is now running his late father’s bar.  Upon learning of Gloria’s situation, he offers her a job bartending and waitressing at his establishment.  While this may initially seem generous, Gloria eventually learns Oscar’s motivations aren’t entirely what they seem.  In reality, he’s forming a group of drinking buddies and feels the more the merrier, which is why he now wants to include Gloria.

Socializing with her new friends, Gloria is horrified to learn that she turns into a gigantic lizard-like monster that terrorizes Seoul, South Korea whenever she gets drunk.  This monster wreaks havoc, destroying buildings and killing people.  Even worse, soon Oscar develops his own alter ego when inebriated:  it is that of an enormous robot that likewise causes untold mayhem in Seoul.  While Gloria struggles to remain sober so she no longer hurts anyone as the monster, Oscar discovers a newfound sense of power that he finds exhilarating.  Can Gloria somehow manage to remain sober while finding a way to stop Oscar’s rampages on innocent people? 


“Colossal” hits all of the major “W” words:  Weird, Wild and most of all Wonderful.  It’s a crazy trip, basically a portmanteau of an old style Japanese monster movie and a dark comedy.  You’ll either be willing to suspend your disbelief for this frenzied madhouse or not.  If not, too bad because you’ll miss one of the most fun movies you’ll see in a very long time.  It is a creative, imaginative, unique experience that also makes some rather salient points about human behavior.  This may only be Spring, but if you’re making a list of best films of 2017, “Colossal” will at the very least deserve honorable mention. 

If there is a criticism, it may be in its casting, but it’s not necessarily that huge a problem.  While both Hathaway and Sudeikis are fine, it’s a bit of a stretch buying into Hathaway as a party gal; she seems a little too clean for all of that behavior and also has difficulty in exhibiting a dark side.  Sudeikis, on the other hand is very convincing when he turns evil; the change is abrupt, but given the fact that it comes about as a result of alcohol, that makes it more realistic.  When she’s drunk, she still nice; when he’s drunk, he’s angry and vindictive.  Her behavior is accidental while his is deliberate. 

Writer/Director Nacho Vigalondo does a sensational job in both tasks, but especially so toward the end of the movie as the story wraps up with its unexpected ending (which also turns out to be quite funny itself).  Vigalondo brilliantly wrings out twist after twist in this story; the audience never sees what’s coming next.  Without qualification, “Colossal” is worth seeing in the theater, rather than waiting for a rental.  If you do manage to see it with someone, it’s certain to spark a great deal of fascinating conversation afterwards.  As a matter of fact, bringing a friend with an alcohol problem may be an interesting way to instigate an intervention.   

Colossal (2016) on IMDb