Friday, December 09, 2016

“Office Christmas Party”– Movie Review

 

office-xmas

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new comedy “Office Christmas Party”, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. 

Synopsis

When a corporate CEO decides to close the branch run by her brother, he decides to throw a Christmas Party to please a potential client – but will doing so save his job or serve to seal his fate?

Story

With the impending holidays, the employees of Zenotek’s Chicago office are looking forward to their company’s modest party.  Unknown to them, though, this may be their farewell party.  After her father’s recent death, Carol (Aniston) has been named interim CEO and with the branch under-performing in revenue, she is going to close it, putting all of the employees out of work – including her own brother Clay (T.J. Miller), who is the branch manager.  This being the case, Carol orders the party cancelled, but Clay wants to hold it anyway to reward his workers. 

Given everyone’s jobs are in jeopardy, Clay gets an idea:  if he can land a big client, he can keep the branch open and everyone can remain employed.  Instead of cancelling the party, Clay decides to make it even more elaborate, including spending considerably to enhance the festivities with an excessive amount of alcohol.  Clay invites the prospective client to the party and things get out of hand when everyone gets drunk.  When they all have a good time, it seems that Clay may have won the new business – but when it turns out that this is not the case, he must face the consequences.    

This is where Josh (Batemen) steps up.  As the company’s Chief Technical Officer, he urges his Senior Software Architect Tracey (Olivia Munn) to resume working on her latest idea, which could save the branch.  As it turns out, Tracey is encountering challenges trying to finish her proof-of-concept in order to give a demonstration.  Meanwhile, when it is discovered that Clay is now broke because spent all of his own money on the party, Josh and Carol must set out to try to find him after he got drunk and disappeared.  But even if they can locate Clay, will Tracey be able to complete her project in time to ensure the future of the Chicago office?  

Review

With such a great cast – and unsurprisingly, Kate McKinnon from “Saturday Night Live” gives the funniest performance – it would be understandable to have high hopes for “Office Christmas Party”.  Unfortunately, it’s a very uneven comedy; many of the jokes fail to deliver the impact they intend, mostly because they’re already quite familiar to us.  “Office Christmas Party” tries to combine the magic of “Horrible Bosses” and “The Hangover” and winds up being a pale imitation of the two.  If you make it through the entire film, the end credits contain outtakes.  Déjà vu?

Aside from McKinnon, there are other good comic performances including her SNL cohort Vanessa Bayer as a recently separated single mom looking for a new love at the office and Rob Corddry as an employee fed up with the company’s overbearing rules as enforced by the Human Resources department.  Aniston’s role is reminiscent of the aforementioned “Horrible Bosses” in that she is a downright unpleasant and soulless executive, but her Carol is far from the other movie’s nymphomaniacal dentist.  As Clay, T. J. Miller seems like a natural fit cast as the irresponsible younger brother of Carol.    

A rowdy, raunchy, raucous comedy can be quite the welcome relief during the sometimes stressful holiday season; it’s just too bad that “Office Christmas Party” is nowhere near as clever as it would like to believe it is.  The film winds up as rather routine fare with the exception of some entertaining moments.  If you’re not attending your own office holiday party this year – or even if you did and it didn’t turn out to be much fun – then maybe “Office Christmas Party” is worth a try.  It could cheer you up, assuming you’re not asking very much from the movie because we’ve seen it all before.   

Office Christmas Party (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

“The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”– Movie Review

 

Jane-Doe

This week, I attended a Sneak Preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new horror movie, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe”, directed by André Øvredal and starring Brian Cox. 

Synopsis

When father and son coroners must perform an autopsy on a mysterious woman, will they be able to determine both the cause of her death and her identity?

Story

The police in a small Virginia town have quite a bit on their hands:  recently, an entire family was massacred in their own home and there are few clues as to how it happened or who committed the crime.  Amid this gruesome tableau, their most interesting discovery is in the basement where they discover the nude body of a young woman buried in a shallow grave beneath the house.  Although she cannot be identified, they do know that she was not a member of the family that was murdered; members of that family have been known to locals for decades. 

That night, they deliver this young woman’s corpse – which is referred to as “Jane Doe” since she cannot be identified – to The Tilden Morgue and Crematorium, where Tommy (Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) serve as coroners.  They are instructed to perform an autopsy on the body and provide the authorities with as much information as possible first thing the next morning – even if they have to stay up all night in order to complete their examination.  The father and son immediately get to work and find unusual and deeply troubling information upon initial inspection.        

As the two delve more deeply into their work, things become rather suspicious and unnerving; the closer Tommy and Austin get to finding the truth, the more they are aware that their lives may be endangered.  When outrageous events unfold, it eventually becomes evident that this young woman’s corpse may not be entirely what they thought it was – that she may in fact still be alive somehow and trying to interfere with their autopsy.  Upon trying to escape from their underground offices, they find themselves trapped when the electricity goes out and their back-up generator isn’t powerful enough to move the elevator.  Without any way to flee, can they survive the various threats when under relentless attack by paranormal forces?  

Review

At times, “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” seems to cross genres being not only a horror story, but also a story about the supernatural as well.  In its biblical references to Leviticus 20:27 and allusions to The 17th Century Salem Witch Trials, it contains potentially subversive hints regarding the alleged worthiness of religious beliefs.  Just as the classic Arthur Miller play “The Crucible” is seen as an allegory to the rampant McCarthyism of the 1950’s, so may “Jane Doe” with its similar Witch Trials plot points be compared to the paranoia of today’s pervasive Islamophobia that partially helped to elect Donald Trump. 

But what “The Autopsy Of Jane Doe” mostly appears to be about is forgiveness – specifically, forgiveness of family members who themselves may ultimately be forced to admit to their own imperfections.  Redemption, it seems to suggest, may only be possible once we recognize and acknowledge our human frailties.  Although Tommy and Austin seem to be close as father and son, there is an overriding feeling of tension between them; on some level, Austin blames his father for the suicide of his mother just two years ago.  Neither has yet gotten over her death, and just as Austin thinks his father is somewhat guilty of enabling it, so Tommy feels partially responsible as well.

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the two stars, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, and director André Øvredal.   Øvredal said that while actress Olwen Kelly played Jane Doe, a dummy was also used to substitute for her in certain scenes; he estimated that Kelly was before the camera 80% of the time while the dummy was in only about 20% of the shots.  Cox also marveled at Kelly’s performance throughout the shoot; while it may be true she didn’t have much dialog to memorize, he remarked she was able to perfect a shallow breathing technique so subtle it could not be picked up on camera.  Hirsch agreed that Kelly’s job was particularly difficult – not only was she nude all of the time, she had to lie still on a cold marble slab during most of her scenes.   

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

“Bleed For This” – Movie Review

Bleed

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “Bleed For This”, starring Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart. 

Synopsis

Just as a promising prize fighter's career is taking off, his neck is broken in a near-fatal car accident – but will his physical rehabilitation allow him to return to the ring?

Story

In November of 1988, Vinny Pazienza (Teller) loses his third straight fight and promoters think prospects for any future bouts are so dim they encourage him to retire.  Feeling he still has more boxing left, Vinny ignores them and instead hires Kevin (Eckhart) as his new trainer.  At this stage in their lives, they are made for each other; they are both seen as being washed-up – in Kevin’s case, his professional decline stems from alcohol abuse.  But both men feel as though they have something to prove to the world, so they engage in their new business relationship with a renewed sense of purpose. 

During th training sessions, Kevin notices Vinny is punching better when he maintains a higher weight, so he suggests that in his next fight, Vinny jump two weight classes; this is fine with Vinny, who always had a tremendous amount of trouble making the weight for his previous matches.  When his next fight is scheduled, it turns out to be for a title at the higher weight class; Vinny wins and now owns a championship belt.  With his boxing career now revived, Vinny is sitting on top of the world – but his celebration is short-lived when he winds up in a serious automobile accident that partially severs his spine. 

In the hospital, Vinny’s doctor encourages him to have spinal fusion surgery, but he opts for the other alternative:  attach a halo to stabilize his neck.  The device will have to remain intact for a period of six months – and after that, there’s no guarantee Vinny will ever walk again, so his boxing career, is effectively over.  Vinny disregards this; he asks Kevin to start training him again as part of his rehabilitation.  Once the halo is removed, Vinny resumes normal training for a return to the boxing ring; since this makes the news, promoters are easily able to secure yet another fight – but while Vinny is focused on winning, the real question is will he even survive?

Review

Boxing fans will easily recognize the names here, but for those unfamiliar with the sport, it should be noted that this is based on a true story.  Given that, the screenplay is helped significantly by having a natural structure.  Despite this advantage, the film is somewhat self-defeating because of the way the story is laid out.  It lacks a visual timeline; we start in late 1988 and sequential events happen but we don’t know how far afterwards they occurred; this directly impacts on the end of the movie because we can’t quite know exactly how long it took him from the time of his accident until the time when he got back in the ring. 

We know the halo removal came six months after the accident, but how long was the accident after Vinny won the belt?  How long after the accident did he fight Duran?  If you’re a fight devotee, you probably already know the history.  However, for an audience new to this story, there’s a feeling something is missing.  Also, the end is problematic; it’s an interview where Vinny is supposedly saying something profound, but it simply falls flat.  There is no epilogue at the end of the movie; perhaps this is done because it’s become trite.  Ironically, this is one of those movies that actually would benefit from an epilogue because the viewer is left hanging as to what happened to Vinny afterwards. 

If there are any bright spots in “Bleed For This”, it is the performances by Teller and Eckhart.  For one thing, Teller did an extraordinary job of sculpting his physique into that of a boxer in such a way that it is somewhat vaguely reminiscent of what De Niro did in “Raging Bull” (perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that one of the film’s executive producers was Martin Scorsese).  As for Eckhart, he is unrecognizable as the trainer; he completely disappears into that role and you often forget who the actor is, which is quite a remarkable feat.   

Bleed for This (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

“Allied”– Movie Review

 

allpitt

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new historical drama “Allied”, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard and directed by Robert Zemeckis. 

Synopsis

During World War II, a military officer learns his wife may be a Nazi spy – but can he prove her innocence or will she have to suffer the consequences?

Story

In 1942, Max (Pitt), an officer in the Canadian military, is dispatched to Nazi-occupied French Morocco on a dangerous mission:  to assassinate the German Ambassador stationed there.  Working undercover, he’s instructed to meet with Marianne (Cotillard), a member of The French Resistance, who will pose as his wife and work closely with him on this assignment.  When the time comes, they succeed in their operation, but now comes the hard part – they must escape.  Having developed a mutual attraction while preparing for this undertaking, they decide to flee to England, where they marry.

More than a year later, they are settled in London, happily married and with a daughter.  Their idyllic lifestyle is disrupted when Max is informed by his superiors that Marianne is suspected of being a spy; naturally, he vociferously denies the accusations, but when confronted with mounting evidence, he relents.  His wife will be tested in order to confirm their suspicions:  Max is provided with phony intelligence, which he will  leave out in the open.  The message will be tracked and if it in fact does get forwarded to The Nazis, then Marianne must be executed. 

Shaken, Max sets out to determine the truth for himself.  Is this some kind of tragic mistake?  Are his superiors merely testing his loyalty in order to decide whether or not he deserves a promotion?  Or is Marianne not who she has claimed to be all this time?  Their relationship suffers as he looks at her differently now.  As he investigates further, Max only becomes more confused because he’s getting conflicting information.  At this point, he realizes he must hatch a back-up plan:  If it does in fact turn out that Marianne is guilty, can Max smuggle the three of them out of the country?

Review

Throughout his long and successful career, Robert Zemeckis has proved time and time again that he is a talented filmmaker; this is what makes his decision to direct “Allied” all the more puzzling.  In this movie, Zemeckis appears to have succumbed to the ultimate in narcissism – an attempt to remake the classic “Casablanca”.  In fact, that is arguably the most cringe-worthy aspect of the film – its attempt is so blatant that at times, you don’t know whether to feel insulted or to laugh at what may be some kind of perverse parody.  If the joke is on us, few may be laughing. 

Zemeckis is in no way subtle about his parallels between the two movies.  A woman with a foreign accent falls in love with an English-speaking man early in World War II (actually in Casablanca, no less!), then find their fateful relationship may culminate in the two of them being separated as the result of a noble act.  The final scene also takes place where airplanes are taking off and Pitt’s character is even provided his own version of Claude Rains.  When Hollywood runs out of ideas, they start recycling old ones – it’s just that they won’t always admit to doing so. 

Ultimately, it may be the case that “Allied” finds an audience and becomes somewhat successful.  Folks who like a tearjerker with an old-fashioned story might embrace this movie.  On the other hand, with the divorce between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie so much in the news recently, this film could get something of a lift – especially when you consider the rumors that Cotillard, Pitt’s co-star, is believed to have been the woman who assisted in breaking up their union as a result of having met Pitt during the shoot.  Somewhat fitting, considering Jolie was believed to have broken up Pitt’s relationship with Jennifer Aniston when the two shot “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”.  Et tu, Angelina?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”– Movie Review

 

BillyLynn

On the closing weekend of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new war drama, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, directed by Ang Lee. 

Synopsis

When an American soldier is hailed as a hero, he’s invited to appear at a football game’s halftime show on Thanksgiving Day – but with the loss of his sergeant still haunting him, is he suffering a psychological trauma?

Story

After a long, hard tour of duty in Iraq, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is finally back in his small town Texas home.  Thanks to a video being extensively repeated by the national news media, the American people see Billy as a hero because he tried to save his sergeant (Vin Diesel) during a fierce firefight.  The story being told was that although the sergeant ultimately perished, Billy risked his own life in an effort to attempt to rescue him.  But does Billy himself really believe this story?  Do his fellow soldiers believe it?  For the time being at least, it’s irrelevant since it wound up getting them off the battlefield. 

Billy and his squad are in Dallas to participate in the halftime show on Thanksgiving Day; they’re represented by a Hollywood agent (Chris Tucker) trying to work out a deal for turning their story into a movie that is expected to bring them all a tremendous payday.  Unfortunately, there are not that many fish biting, much to everyone’s surprise given how popular this story has become.  The only deal that seems viable at this point is one being offered by the owner of the football team (Steve Martin) who is lowballing all of the soldiers, despite his alleged patriotism and admiration for their service to the country. 

Meanwhile, Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) is deeply concerned.  In their private chats, she realizes he’s still extremely disturbed and might benefit from professional help.  She convinces him this option is worth considering, but part of Billy feels that even though it might be of some use to him, he’s still got some unfinished business back in Iraq that he must confront.  Also, what is there for him to come home to aside from a fractured family and grim prospects for employment?  When time comes for his squad to be re-deployed, will Billy return to Iraq with them or will he take his sister’s advice and see a VA doctor?

Review

There are two points worthy of discussion here:  one, of course, is the movie itself; the other is the cutting-edge technology used to shoot the motion picture.  Let’s take them on separately starting with “Billy Lynn” as a film:

The central question it appears we are left with at the conclusion of “Billy Lynn” is whether or not Billy will get the help he so desperately (and so obviously) needs.  Will he ultimately choose to return to Iraq for yet another battle (from which he may or may not return)?  On the surface Billy seems happy to be home because he’s with family and in familiar surroundings.  But have his experiences in Iraq changed him so much that home no longer feels like home?  Perhaps for Billy, “going home” really means returning to fight in Iraq. 

Much of the movie is told not only through Billy’s viewpoint, but also via his own personal flashbacks as well.  We see his recollections of the combat that made him famous and how it differs from the video of that same incident which was shown repeatedly on the news.  While we get a taste of how veterans are sometimes mistreated and given lip service for their sacrifices, the film lacks a significant emotional impact.  It might be that “Billy Lynn” is ultimately undone by its own equanimity; the motion picture is almost as impassive as a freshly lobotomized psychiatric patient. 

Now, for the technology:

“Billy Lynn” was shot in 4K, which is a first for a full length feature film; it is native 3D at the ultra high rate of 120 frames-per-second.  This was the first time ever that The New York Film Festival publicly screened a film in this format; 3D glasses were distributed to attendees.  For those of you who are interested in learning more about the background of “Billy Lynn” and its technology, please check out this New York Times article

Although the movie is merely good, the technology used to make it is much better – truly extraordinary, in fact.  It would in no way be an overstatement to call it groundbreaking.   The technology really makes you feel as though you are right there in the movie itself, standing next to the characters, effectively in the scene with them.  Without a doubt, it’s the most immersive experience you can ever hope to achieve as a moviegoer. 

After watching a film utilizing this technology, it makes you feel as though the use of 3D prior to this has been a complete and total waste of time up to this point.  However, 4K is no gimmick.  If you do go to see this movie, make sure you see it in a theater that supports this technology.  You definitely won’t regret doing so even if you have to pay a few extra dollars for the privilege – it is without a doubt worth it for the sheer other-worldly experience.  Even though the movie is a bit flat, “Billy Lynn” is unequivocally a superior technical achievement by director Ang Lee. 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“The Lost City Of Z”– Movie Review

 

Z

On the closing night of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended The World Premiere of the new action-adventure “The Lost City Of Z” starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson. 

Synopsis

When a British adventurer becomes obsessed with finding an ancient South American civilization, will it cost him his life?

Story

Early in the 20th century, Percival Fawcett (Hunnam), a Major in the British military, is called upon for a special assignment by his country’s Geographical Society:  he is to venture to a remote jungle between Bolivia and Brazil where his experience as a surveyor will come in handy to map out the area.  Initially finding the assignment ordinary, Fawcett is informed that he’s actually doing much more – he’s staking out the territory for the British government.   It is believed that many rubber trees grow there and if the British can control access to them, it will bring great wealth to The United Kingdom. 

With the warning that his trip may take a couple of years – after which he either may or may not return – Fawcett heads off, leaving his wife and young son home alone to fend for themselves.  He is aided by Henry Costin (Pattinson), a fellow officer, who helps him along the way by documenting their adventures and encounters.  While there, Fawcett stumbles upon something he hadn’t considered:  proof that these so-called “savages” may have an ancient civilization more advanced than anyone believes – and one which could possibly pre-date the existence of the English themselves. 

Upon his return to England, Fawcett is initially hailed as a hero – until he reports his findings about this ancient Amazonian civilization he may have uncovered, at which point he’s scoffed.  Despite this, he and Costin return a few years later to locate what Fawcett now refers to as “The Lost City Of Z”, but after a new member of his party derails the expedition due to his incompetence, Fawcett and Costin are forced to abort their mission before completion.  By now, The Great War has broken out and both Fawcett and Costin are sent to the front; they survive and Fawcett is promoted to Colonel.  But when his now-grown son Jack (Tom Holland) convinces his father to take him back to the jungle to find this civilization, will they live long enough to come back with their findings?

Review

If you manage to see “The Lost City Of Z”, it is entirely likely that afterwards, you’ll utter something like, “Well, they sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore!”.  A major understatement.  First of all, at nearly two and a half hours, it’s one of those epic action-adventures – a serious version of an Indiana Jones-type tale that demands a bit more from its audience.  For another thing, there’s the old-school shooting style:  unlike the overwhelming majority of movies, this one was shot on 35-millimeter film stock rather than on the more convenient (not to mention ubiquitous) digital video. 

In the digital age, labs that process 35-millimeter film are few and far between – over the past few years, many of them have simply gone out of business for lack of clientele.  This also makes for quite an experience when watching the movie if it is shown on a true 35-millimeter projector; it’s a genuinely nostalgic moment when you see cue blips flashing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, preparing the projectionist that one reel is about to end and the other projector must start rolling in order for the next reel to begin.  Another thing that will likely not be wasted on motion picture aficionados is the quality of the cinematography by Darius Khondji, especially in the lush jungle shots. 

But enough of the technical aspects of “The Lost City Of Z” – what of the movie itself?  Well, that’s where it’s slightly less spectacular.  Based on a true story – as recorded in the best selling non-fiction book of the same title by David Grann – the adaptation of this story does not entirely paint Fawcett as the hero viewers might expect him to be.  While it might be argued that he was a man preoccupied with his mission, he comes across as something of an egotist who abandoned his family and caused some resentment by his wife (a feminist who unsuccessfully argued to accompany him on his journey) and children.  Ultimately, the emotional impact of this motion picture is substantially more subdued than one might expect it to be, especially considering its length.    

The Lost City of Z (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Elle”– Movie Review

 

elle

At the beginning of the final weekend of The 54th New York Film Festival, I attended the United States Premiere of the new thriller “Elle”, starring  Isabelle Huppert and directed by Paul Verhoeven. 

Synopsis

When a woman gets raped, will she bring her attacker to justice or find a different way to deal with him?

Story

Michèle (Huppert) is a strong, smart and successful founder of a software company that develops computer games.  Divorced and with a grown son who has yet to find much direction in life, she always has plenty going on in both her professional and personal life – she is never without male companionship, even if that man may be married.  She is a powerful woman in total control of her life and largely unfazed by much of anything that life may throw her way.  However, her fortitude is tested one day when she is brutally raped in her own home after a masked intruder breaks in. 

Rather than report the crime to the police, Michèle instead chooses to ignore the incident and continue with the rest of her life, only revealing the truth to a few close friends; as shocked as they are to hear about what happened to her, they are even more shocked about her casual nature.  As Michèle tries to move forward, she is still haunted by her attack and the identity of her ski mask wearing perpetrator.  Was it someone she knew?  Or was the rapist a complete stranger?  Between all the men she knows in her life, she can’t rule out that she might know her attacker.  On the other hand, it’s entirely possible it could have been a stranger; Michèle is widely hated by her community because of a notorious crime committed long ago by a family member – a crime for which others insist she and her entire family must be ceaselessly punished. 

Other irritations serve as a distraction to Michèle:  her staunchly religious neighbors, the obnoxious employees at her company and her son, who’s moving in with his pregnant girlfriend (even though he may not be the father).  When Michèle suspects a seemingly-unlikely person as the one who may have raped her, she uses her cunning to play a potentially dangerous mind game with him – leading him to believe that she may in fact be in love with him.  But is she right about the identity of her attacker?  And even if she is, will he pay for his crime or will her attempts at manipulating him cost Michèle her life?

Review 

Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to make a black comedy about rape.  This might be one of the most controversial movies you’ll ever see on this subject.  “Elle” is sick, twisted, hilarious and tremendously fun.  Will it cause Verhoeven to be forgiven for “Showgirls” or further reviled?  Time will tell, but this is one of the more undeniably original films not only thematically but also because the director is so successfully able to combine genres; additionally, its plot is so intricately textured, each layer peeled back slowly.  The motion picture is over two hours long but you’ll find yourself so involved you likely won’t be looking at your watch. Finally, the cherry on top of this cinematic sundae is its deeply satisfying ending.

It’s noteworthy that “Elle” has an incredible soundtrack, particularly so with multiple uses of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”.  Verhoeven cleverly finds ways to resonate the theme of violence in various scenes – “Do you feel anger or fear?” one developer asks another after viewing a portion of their newest video game.  Michèle catches her cat attacking a sparrow and tries to come to the bird’s rescue (albeit too late, as it turns out).  Of course, there is always the violence inherent in video game they are designing.  Violence, it seems, is irrevocably in Michèle’s life forever – her past, present and likely her future.

As the secrets of Michèle’s past are discovered, it explains so much about why her actions and reactions are the way they are.  She utters the line that best summarizes the story:  “Shame is not an emotion that’s strong enough to prevent you from doing anything”.  The woman is no angel and isn’t making any apologies for that.  Michèle has brilliantly used men arguably more than they have used her and she’s all the better for that.  She stands her ground and remains in control at all times – in control of herself, her given situation at the time and in control of others, too.  She is not a victim of rape, she is not a survivor of rape, she is a conqueror of rape.  Huppert’s portrayal of Michèle is nothing short of perfection.

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the movie’s star and director.  Huppert said that she had read the book a number of years ago and very much wanted to play the role, communicating this to the French producer.   Verhoeven said the producer gave him the book and he was interested in shooting it although it was a difficult novel to adapt for the screen.  He wanted to do the film in America but every famous American actress turned him down flat – Verhoeven is unsure exactly why but suspects that it is likely due to the many controversial aspects to the story.  Huppert mentioned that it’s very much a woman’s movie because the men are weak or failures.  Verhoven added the religious tones and imagery are intentional – he’s an atheist who admires Jesus so much that he once wrote a book about him. 

Elle (2016) on IMDb

Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Jackie”– Movie Review

 

jackie

This week, I attended the United States Premiere of the new biographical drama  “Jackie”, starring Natalie Portmanat The 54th New York Film Festival:  . 

Synopsis

Following the murder of her husband, can Jackie Kennedy figure out how to move forward in her life? 

Story

In the days after President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was buried, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) consents to a print interview with a reporter (Billy Crudup).  With the horrifying events of her husband’s assassination still fresh in the country’s mind, she is obviously in a very delicate emotional state.  Chain-smoking, Mrs. Kennedy answers questions about herself and about the events of the past few days, but comes across as quite defensive while doing so.  Is she uncomfortable dredging up these memories, even though they are still rather recent?  Or was she always uncomfortable about having to be The First Lady Of The United States? 

Jackie, as she was frequently called, recalls her tour of The White House which was televised back in 1961; in this telecast, she was given an opportunity to show off how she’s customized her surroundings, despite being publicly criticized for spending so much of the taxpayers’ money.  As the interview progresses, she also remembers not only the shooting but its aftermath as well and how she felt belittled by her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who seemed not only overprotective but also trying to squeeze her out of some of the decision making process regarding the funeral and burial. 

As Jackie peels back each layer of her memory, she is also self-censoring – she reveals details to the interviewer, then tells him it’s not to appear in the final article.  But as painful as the incident itself was, the act of remembering it and being forced to deal with the aftermath are nearly as painful, if not equally so.  As she struggles to deal with the exigencies of the day, she also seeks solace from a Catholic priest.  Is it confession or merely to vent?  Not even they seem to know.  With her faith dwindling and her future and that of her children uncertain, can she successfully proceed with the rest of her life? 

Review

While watching “Jackie”, there are two striking observations:  one is the movie’s soundtrack and the other is the performance by its star, Natalie Portman.  As far as the soundtrack is concerned, director Pablo Larraín (in his first English language film) makes an interesting use of combining both original score and source music.  Of particular note with respect to the source music is Richard Burton’s Broadway performance of “Camelot” in the closing minutes, effectively  providing viewers with the appropriate goose bumps moment many filmmakers seek but don’t always achieve.

Portman’s performance is truly remarkable; outside of clothing and hairstyle,  the actress doesn’t make an effort to resemble the protagonist but certainly does amazingly sound like her.  Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a physically beautiful woman, just as Portman is.  However, they don’t really resemble each other.  Nevertheless, Portman finds other ways to inhabit this character – or perhaps more accurately, to allow the character to inhabit her.  Either way, her portrayal of the woman’s understandably emotionally fragile state is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.     

Both the movie and the acting by Portman lend a deeply personal experience to the story, almost to the point the audience may feel as though they’re intruding on an incredibly private moment in someone’s life.  We see almost everything through Jackie’s eyes, even in the most intimate of times when she’s alone and self-medicating with bottles of wine as she tries on gown after gown as though she’s preparing for some kind of gala. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with Portman, Sarsgaard, screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and Larraín.  Portman admitted that she had trouble with getting Jackie’s accent right.  In researching the role, she said that she felt overwhelmed by the extensive amount of material she uncovered; instead, she wound up focusing on watching a video of the former First Lady’s televised tour of The White House, which ultimately assisted her in nailing the accent.  Larraín said that director Darren Aronofsky, one of the producers, wanted to get “Jackie” made and sent Portman the script.  He added that the iconic shot of Kennedy’s son saluting his father’s casket as it rolled by was filmed but ultimately edited out precisely because of the fact that the image is so famous; the scene containing The White House tour was not originally in the screenplay – it was added later to show Jackie early in her uncomfortable role as First Lady.  Sarsgaard also had trouble with creating Bobby Kennedy’s accent; he finally got it down by listening to recordings of Bobby and JFK having a telephone conversation (apparently, the brothers spoke their own shorthand language to each other, which was difficult to interpret).  Oppenheim mentioned that his goal was to focus on just that specific area of Jackie’s life (rather than doing the traditional cradle-to-grave biopic) because he’s an incredible  political junkie. 

Jackie (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“The Accountant”– Movie Review

 

acc

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “The Accountant”, starring Ben Affleck. 

Synopsis

Once The Treasury Department pursues an accountant with underworld ties, he evades them by taking a legitimate client – but when he learns millions of dollars are missing from the company, can he uncover the culprit before the authorities catch up with him?

Story

Christopher Wolff (Affleck) runs a rather non-descript accounting firm in a strip mall in the Midwest; it returns a modest profit, but where he really gets most of his extremely substantial income is by plying his trade for some very high-powered international criminals.  Wolff works for many dangerous men and given his own extensive training in martial arts and weapons, he happens to be pretty dangerous himself.  Why is Wolff able to command such high prices for his services?  Obviously, it’s because he’s quite good.  However, he’s so good at his chosen occupation because of his disability:  he’s a mathematical genius who’s been treated for autism since childhood.

But Wolff’s life is far from trouble-free.  The United States government is hot on his tail.  In order to prosecute these criminals, they have to follow the money – and all of their money leads to Wolff.  As a result, the Treasury Department is tasked with investigating; lead officer Ray King (J.K. Simmons) recruits Special Agent Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to head up the case, which could turn out to redefine their careers if it’s handled properly.  Medina immediately gets to work on trying to find who exactly is helping these malefactors launder their money. 

Once Wolff learns the government may be pursuing him, he tries to drop off their radar by taking a more standard consulting job at a robotics firm.  The owner of the company (John Lithgow) hired him to ascertain where and how millions of his organization’s dollars disappeared.  Helping Wolff in his research is an employee (Anna Kendrick) who initially reported the discrepancy.  But when Wolff figures out that the root cause of the missing funds is something more nefarious than just a simple bookkeeping error, will he be willing to risk his life to bring the real culprit to justice?    

Review

There was a great outcry from movie fans when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman; some felt he would not be believable in that role.  It’s not unlike Tom Cruise playing the Jack Reacher character; in the novels, Reacher is supposed to be somewhere around 6’4” tall – Cruise, however, is a bit more vertically challenged.  Despite height discrepancy, the original flick was a success and a sequel is due out shortly.  So, is it any wonder that Affleck has now been cast to play an accountant?  Perhaps the film should have been titled, “The Bean-Counter With The Six Pack Abs”.

As a grown man struggling with autism, Affleck’s affect-free performance is sometimes reminiscent of a cross between Leonard Nimoy’s Spock from “Star Trek” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.  At least if critics say that Affleck’s acting is robotic, this time it’s a compliment.  There’s a hint of a romance with Kendrick’s role, but it never develops; sadly, her talent is wasted in “The Accountant”.  She’s supposed to be the character who mirrors the audience – seeing Wolff’s world as an outsider, but the actress is relegated to nothing more than a number of “Oh Gosh!” moments. 

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment with plenty of violent fight scenes and explosions, then “The Accountant” could be just as good a popcorn movie as any.  On the other hand, if you expect to find an interesting story, it might be a bit of a disappointment.  While the film tries to be mysterious by withholding information until late, it only winds up making the story as a whole a bit of a challenge to follow at times.  It could successfully be argued that Affleck is once again being fobbed off to the public as another type of super hero character.  If that’s the case, however, it appears that we’re given to believe Wolff’s true super power is his disability of autism. 

Sunday, October 09, 2016

“20th Century Women”– Movie Review

 

20th

This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece of The 54th New York Film Festival, screening the World Premiere of “20th Century Women”, a new comedy-drama starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. 

Synopsis

A pair of young women collaborate to help a mother raise her teenage son – but can this form of group female parenting succeed?

Story

In 1979, 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is trying to grow up under some less than ideal circumstances in Santa Barbara, California.  For one thing, his mother, Dorothea (Bening) gave birth to him when she was 40; at 55, she’s having a particularly difficult time keeping up with all of society’s changes.  Also, she and her husband are divorced; he moved to the east coast and remains both geographically and emotionally distant from Jamie.  Despite the fact that a boarder named Willie (Billy Crudup) is there to help with renovations on her house, Dorothea is concerned that her son has no male role model around to help him reach adulthood.

Inspiration strikes Dorothea through two unlikely sources:  Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning).  Abbie is an aspiring photographer in her mid-20’s who also rents a room in Dorothea’s expansive house.  A punk rocker, she is a grown woman still young enough to mentor Jamie in male-female relationships.  Julie, however, is closer to Jamie’s age – in fact, they have known each other since childhood.  Given Julie’s friendship with Jamie, Dorothea believes she would also be an ideal choice to lend a hand.  Dorothea asks them both to help her with an increasingly aloof Jamie – they agree, albeit reluctantly. 

Over time, it appears Dorothea’s plan is working – but maybe a little too well.  For one thing, Abbie introduces Jamie to a world he may not yet be ready to deal with; she’s taking him to punk rock nightclubs and has him read books about feminism and female sexuality.  Julie, on the other hand, may be a different problem altogether.  It turns out that she has her own issues with her mother and winds up sneaking into Dorothea’s house to spend time with Jamie – in fact, Julie sleeps with Jamie in his bed, despite the fact that they have a platonic relationship (and despite the fact that she otherwise leads a rather promiscuous lifestyle).  With Jamie under the influence of all these women, will he turn out a well-adjusted man or has Dorothea made a huge mistake? 

Review

In a way, watching “20th Century Women” recalls some of Woody Allen’s movies – specifically, “Radio Days” and “Hannah And Her Sisters” come to mind.  Although “20th Century Women” is set in Santa Barbara, it’s like “Radio Days” in the sense that a narrator reminisces fondly about his youth; the similarity to “Hannah” is clearly because it’s a story about women, lovingly told from a man’s perspective.  The film is more episodic than plot-driven – a risky undertaking which only works in this instance because the audience can find authenticity in both the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.

The excellent cast of “20th Century Women”, headed by Bening, is worthy of boasting; the finely crafted screenplay by director Mike Mills gives them rich characters on which to build their superior performances.  Both the times and the narrator’s memories of these women are highly romanticized, but things are not always rainbows and lollipops; health scares, political problems, cultural evolution and feminism’s societal impact add textured overtones to the story.  These are welcome additions – without them, “20th Century Women” would almost be mistaken for a fairy tale. 

What’s so striking about this movie is how adoringly and respectfully the narrator recollects the women who had a strong hand in raising him to be the man he became.  The film, at its essence, is basically a tribute to women – especially, women who served as a support system during the crucial period in the time of an adolescent young man.  Sometimes, the timing of when you see a movie can be an interesting coincidence.  Given fairly recent events by the Republican candidate for president, it’s reassuring to remember that some men do indeed appreciate women for who they are rather than simply how they look.      

20th Century Women (2016) on IMDb