Sunday, April 26, 2015

“Maggie”– Movie Review

 

maggie

On the closing weekend of The Tribeca Film Festival, I caught a screening of the World Premiere of “Maggie”, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin and Joely Richardson. 

Synopsis

When a zombie plague takes hold of a small town, can a father save his daughter when she becomes infected?

Story

Sections of the Midwest are finding themselves as breeding grounds for zombies; this area of the United States is particularly hard hit because much of it is covered with farms and the zombie plague is being spread through much of the food that’s being grown there.  As a result, the government has required controlled burns of many farmers’ crops, causing them to see much of their livelihood literally go up in smoke.   But the problem doesn’t stop there.  People are also getting infected by the zombies – in particular, it seems to be the young people who are being targeted. 

Maggie (Breslin) is one such teenager.  In the small farming community where she and her family live, she’s seeing some of her high school friends similarly impacted.  Being recently hospitalized for infection herself, her father, Wade (Scharzenegger) isn’t about to let her rot away there; against medical advice, he signs her out and takes Maggie home to be with his wife Caroline (Richardson) and Maggie’s two step-siblings.  In doing so, however, Wade is fully aware that he’s taking an enormous risk – not only is he risking his own safety, but also that of Caroline and her children.  

Because of his decision, Wade winds up facing considerable resistance from the rest of the community.  A physician who happens to be a friend of Wade pulls him aside and gives him the straight story – he has three options, none of which are terribly desirable.  The first is to let Maggie return to the hospital, where she’ll get impersonal treatment; the second is to let her stay at home, but Wade will have to administer to her the same injections she would get in the hospital – and given how violently ill the shot would make his daughter, it would be hard for him as a parent to have to see.  The third option is arguably the hardest:  Wade would have to take immediate action to end Maggie’s suffering.  But can he kill his offspring?  Presented with this Hobson’s Choice, will Wade do what is best for the greater good or will he take the more selfish route? 

Review

It was the same old Arnold and it was a new “old” Arnold all at once.  While that statement may on its surface sound contradictory, once you see “Maggie”, it will all make sense.  On the one hand, fans of Arnold – that is to say, those who enjoyed many of the movies on which he built his successful career in Hollywood – will find much that is familiar in “Maggie”; in it, he plays the tough, rifle-toting bad-ass good-guy who will do whatever it takes to defend his family.  On the other hand, he does not make up the whole film; the story fundamentally focuses on the daughter Maggie and begs questions about whether teenagers are mature enough to make decisions based on moral or ethical situations. 

In “Maggie”, Arnold is not only allowing his muscle-bound ego to be considerably sublimated, he is also making a stab at a more dramatic, low-key character than what he has typically chosen to present to us.  The fact that the movie is ultimately more about his character’s daughter than his own character is rather telling; the fact that he’s now willing to take a backseat in addition to portraying himself as more human than cartoon character either suggests he is acknowledging his own aging or that he’s maturing creatively, much in the same way that Clint Eastwood has done in his own later years.

“Maggie” was directed by Henry Hobson, which was his first feature film.  In the context of this genre, Hobson has certainly done an extremely creditable job.  The look of “Maggie” is quite grim – scenes at the hospital are an institutional gray and the daytime skies are constantly cloudy and overcast with hardly any hint of sunshine ever.  For this movie, it works and was a perfect choice.  Also, Hobson never lets any of the performances go over the top; every one is subtle without allowing the film to be somnolent.  If you never thought you’d see an Arnold Schwarzenegger picture with nuanced characters, “Maggie” might surprise. 

 

Maggie (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, April 23, 2015

“Little Boy”– Movie Review

 

lilboy

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Little Boy”, with Emily Watson, Kevin James and Tom Wilkinson.

Synopsis

When a boy’s father goes to fight in World War II, he tries to will an immediate end to the war so his father will return – but will he be disappointed if his efforts fail?

Story

In the mid-1940’s, eight-year-old Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati) is doing his best to grow up in his small California town while World War II rages on overseas – the only problem is, his body isn’t complying.  Pepper is smaller than most of the kids around his age and as a result, he’s mercilessly teased and bullied.  Among the names he’s called, Little Boy is arguably the least objectionable.  Since Pepper doesn’t have many friends, he manages to form an unusual bond with his father James (Michael Rapaport) who winds up being more like his buddy than his parent. 

London (David Henrie), Pepper’s older brother, has reached draft age and is eager to do his duty during wartime – unfortunately, his flat feet cause him to be classified as 4F and he must remain at home with his family.  With London disqualified for service, James winds up joining the army and is sent to The Philippines.  Shamed by his rejection, London soon drowns his sorrows in alcohol as he tries to continue his father’s business as a car mechanic while his mother Emma (Watson) takes care of the family.  Emma, meanwhile, must fight off the romantic advances of the family physician, Dr. Fox (James).

Everyone’s worst fears are realized when the military notifies Emma that James is Missing In Action; they can’t be sure if he’s dead because they haven’t found a body, so it’s possible he may be in a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp.  Missing his father, Pepper is advised by the local priest (Wilkinson) that if he performs a series of good deeds, God might see fit to return James to the family.  With the help of Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) – a local Japanese-American who suffers the bigotry that arose from the war – Pepper is able to easily strike items off the list.  But with the end of the war imminent and no word about his father, will Pepper find that his faith has been misplaced or will his prayers be answered?

Review

With a title as uninspired as “Little Boy”, the filmmakers are certainly setting an audience’s expectations at a fairly low level – and they do not disappoint.  “Little Boy” is unapologetically manipulative and cloying in its attempts to justify Christian-based faith as the one true way in a bit of propaganda that could’ve just as easily been used during the era in which this movie was set.   What remains something of a quandary is how this screenplay managed to attract the recognizable names that it did; this arouses the suspicion that this might have been done as a way of repaying a favor to some of the producers. 

“Little Boy” is so utterly repugnant, it’s hard to believe it’s getting a release in theaters; this would’ve seemed certain to be destined as one of those straight-to-video movies.  Marketers might feel that this could be one of those family-friendly films that might find enough of an audience in the heartland that it will develop a cult following throughout the Bible Belt.  There is so much off the mark in its attempts to be profound and earnest as it tries to repudiate the same prejudices it inadvertently espouses in its own awkward way.  Shaking your head and pondering what they were thinking is ultimately the only response to this motion picture.

Unabashed as the filmmakers are in their attempts to get the audience to both like and help promote the movie, there was a short that was shown prior to the screening; it featured the film’s producers explaining to the audience why it should like “Little Boy” and that it was everyone’s duty to spread the word about how this motion picture is just so utterly wonderful.  As if this effort alone wasn’t sufficiently off-putting, they had to ensure they were starting on the wrong foot with the audience by sealing their fate with such obnoxious and desperate begging and pleading.   

 

Little Boy (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, April 18, 2015

“The Wannabe”– Movie Review

 

Wannabe

This weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival, I screened the World Premiere of the new drama “The Wannabe”, starring Vincent Piazza and Patricia Arquette. 

Synopsis

When an aspiring mobster tries to become a member of John Gotti’s gang, he gets rebuffed – but can he prove his worth by making a name for himself in a life of crime?

Story

In 1992 New York City, Tommy (Piazza) is obsessed with the ongoing trial of noted mobster John Gotti – not only does he post newspaper clippings on the wall of his modest Bronx apartment, but he also attends the trial on a daily basis, observing in the courtroom and cheering on his hero.  In fact, Tommy even crashes the homecoming party for Gotti in the mob boss’s Queens neighborhood.  Although not entirely welcome as something of an outsider, it presents an opportunity for Tommy – he meets a local woman named Rose (Arquette), and the two are immediately attracted to each other. 

Tommy confesses to Rose that he desires to be in the crime world with his hero; he has even memorized lines of dialog from famous movies about the underworld.  Unfortunately for Tommy, he’s small-time; he’s been to jail for robbing a video store and is currently on parole and unemployed.  Also, his family has no connections; his older brother (Michael Imperioli) is a Bronx florist and doesn’t even remotely share Tommy’s interests.  Rose, however, has her own dark side; with a history of serious drug abuse, the idea of having a boyfriend who’s a criminal appeals to her. 

When Tommy tries to make his way into Gotti’s group, they make it clear to him that they don’t think he has what it takes to be one of them.  Rejected, Tommy and Rose set out for their own adventures, even going to the extent of holding up known mobsters in their own hangouts while she drives the getaway car.  With increasing success, their money affords them luxuries that include drug abuse, which only fuels more stick-up jobs.  Eventually, Tommy becomes upset with Curtis Sliwa (Daniel Sauli), leader of The Guardian Angels, who has his own local radio show; Sliwa uses the show to be highly critical of Gotti during the trial.  Teaming with Rose, Tommy plans to take out Sliwa – but the job is botched and Sliwa, although shot, is not seriously injured and manages to survive the attempted hit.  But with mobsters upset at Tommy’s actions, can both he and Rose avoid their revenge?

Review

Piazza and Arquette completely knock it out of the park in their respective role as Tommy and Rose.  The two are perfectly matched and truly become their character.  Together, they are a joy to watch in this gritty, pre-Giuliani New York City drama about two lost souls who found each other, albeit for a short time only.  They are able to successfully access the nuances of these two comedic-tragic lovers desperately in search of direction and meaning in life.  While they both pursue a lifestyle that is neither enviable nor admirable, the audience can empathize with them as underdogs. 

“The Wannabe” is written and directed by Nick Sandow, who did a fine job shooting the scenes where the couple are in a drug-induced haze, as well as a Scorsese-influenced overhead shot in the last scene of the movie.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that it’s a small, independent low-budget film, some scenes do tend to have a cheap feel to them.  The screenplay has a distinct air of reality about it, interspersing actual television news footage from the time.  He seems to have a genuine understanding of who these characters are and how they speak.  One troublesome point, however, is some business about possible juror tampering that tends to get a bit murky. 

Following the screening, some of the filmmakers took questions from the audience.  Sandow said that while he did some research on the characters, he wanted to dramatize the story a bit more, so he did not adhere to all of the details; he said that he found about a half a dozen pieces of information about the characters which he used for the basis of his screenplay – other than that, the rest of the story was a fictional depiction.  Piazza said that his involvement in “The Wannabe” came about as a result of a series of coincidences; he had agreed to participate in a reading of an earlier draft of the script and later, ran into Sandow while shooting an episode of “Boardwalk Empire”.  Once he informed Sandow of his interest in playing this Rupert Pupkin-style pseudo-mobster, Piazza then passed the script along to his boss, Martin Scorsese, who became one of the film’s executive producers. 

The Wannabe (2015) on IMDb

“Bleeding Heart”–Movie Review

 

Bleeding_Heart

During the first weekend of The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new drama “Bleeding Heart” starring Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet.

Synopsis

When a woman finds a girl she believes may be her biological sister, they become acquainted – but when she learns the girl’s abusive boyfriend is also her pimp, can she be saved?

Story

Working as a yoga instructor in Los Angeles, May (Biel) is something of an anachronism – a spiritual type, others’ observations characterize her as something of a hippy.   Living with her boyfriend and business partner Dex (Edi Gathegi), they are trying to expand their yoga business.  Adopted as a child, May knows she has a biological half-sister somewhere out in the world and becomes committed to finding her.  Eventually, she locates Shiva (Mamet), a young lady living with her boyfriend Cody (Joe Anderson) in a cheap apartment complex in town. 

Reluctantly, Shiva agrees to meet with May, who manages to convince her that they are indeed related.  After a while, their guard drops and the two seem to hit it off as they both start to actually believe they are sisters.  As May gets to know Shiva, she comes to find out that Shiva’s career isn’t going quite as well as May’s; with Shiva encountering difficulty paying rent from month to month, May lends her some money.  Later, she learns that Shiva has been lying – instead of employment a “massage therapist”, she’s really a prostitute and Cody is the one who secures her johns. 

Ultimately, May discovers Cody is being both physically and emotionally abusive to Shiva and offers her a place to stay – much to the consternation of Dex.  When Cody arranges an appointment for Shiva, May decides she is the only one who can intervene.  Rescuing Shiva, May goes to her adoptive mother’s house, bringing Shiva with her.  Understandably, her mother is angry about this intrusion and doesn’t exactly make Shiva feel particularly welcome.  However, Cody becomes aware of Shiva’s whereabouts and shows up at the mother’s house to retrieve both his girlfriend and meal ticket.  But when Cody confronts the interfering May, will she be able to rescue Shiva once again or will both women be endangered by Cody? 

Review

Here’s a question for you:  If the protagonist in your movie behaves foolishly and makes irrational decisions, are they truly heroic characters?  And can an audience truly root for such a person?  Well, perhaps if the film in question is a comedy, a filmmaker might be able to get away with such a choice (e.g., “Dumb And Dumber”?).  But can it be carried off in a drama?  A viewing of “Bleeding Heart” may be able to answer that question for you.  The answer will be a resounding no, she is neither heroic nor can an audience make much of an emotional investment in her. 

While it’s certainly refreshing to see Mamet in a role so drastically different (and darker) than the goofy chick she plays on HBO’s “Girls”, neither her performance nor that of Biel can manage to elevate the weak material in “Bleeding Heart”.  This movie evolves into an updated version of “Thelma And Louise”, replete with the full complement of male-phobic screed.   “Bleeding Heart” is a female buddy film with female buddies that not only aren’t easily relatable but also not women you’d want to have as friends (much less see them as each other’s friends). 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with “Bleeding Heart”’s writer/director Diane Bell.  Bell said that the idea for the story came out of her own background as a yoga instructor; she eventually wound up teaching in Spain, where she came into contact with a number of prostitutes.  She said that these women were unhappy and not necessarily in their profession voluntarily.  In the original version of the screenplay, the two women were not sisters; according to Bell, one of the producers, who was adopted, suggested the idea that perhaps they were sisters – the idea took hold and remained in the script. 

Bleeding Heart (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, April 16, 2015

“True Story”– Movie Review

 

TrueStory

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “True Story”, starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones.

Synopsis

When a disgraced journalist learns an accused murderer is using his name, he authors a book about the experience – but will he inadvertently wind up helping to set free a dangerous killer?

Story

As a reporter for The New York Times, Michael Finkel (Hill) has contributed many important stories for the newspaper.  After writing a piece about slavery in Africa, some of his research is called into question; an embarrassed New York Times is forced to print a correction and as a result, Finkel is fired. With his reputation now in tatters, Finkel moves back to Montana with his wife Jill (Jones) and tries unsuccessfully to sell freelance pieces to various publications. During this period, he is contacted by a local journalist who informs him accused murderer Christian Longo (Franco) has been posing as Finkel. Stunned, Finkel heads to the Oregon prison where Longo is being held to meet with him.

In their meeting, Longo admits to a degree of hero worship for Finkel; having spent much of his life secretly wanting to be a writer of Finkel’s quality, he claims to have used Finkel’s name in order to protect his true identity – but he chose Finkel specifically because that’s who he truly wished he was. Seduced by the depth of Longo’s admiration, Finkel finds himself befriending Longo; he tries to ascertain Longo’s guilt and if so, what his reason was for killing his wife and all three children. Longo sends Finkel a lengthy handwritten letter detailing no only his background, but his relationship with his family. Suspecting the possibility of a book which could repair his reputation, Finkel successfully pitches the idea to a publisher.

Proceeding with a draft, the publisher promises Finkel a substantial advance, but Longo is assured that he will not see any financial gain from either its publication or sale. As Longo’s trial begins, however, Finkel is starting to suspect that Longo has played him like a violin. Seeing he has been manipulated, Finkel brings a draft of his book to the prosecution in the hope that it can be used to ensure a guilty verdict for Longo; they decline his offer, citing his relatively recent reputation for lack of honesty and accuracy in his reporting. Taking the stand on his own behalf, Longo gives a rather bizarre and fantastic but nevertheless sincere testimony, insisting that it was his wife who killed the children. But will this help to set Longo free or will he be found guilty of all the murders?

Review

“True Story” is a complicated and intriguing multi-layered story of redemption and deception – deception of others as well as the delusion of self-deception. As the characters reveal themselves, it seems Longo and Finkel get caught up not only in the lies they tell others but also the lies they tell themselves. The main reason to see this movie is because of the performances by Hill and Franco; it could be argued that while Finkel is seeking redemption through his book about Longo, Franco might just as easily be seeking redemption (possibly for the recent controversy of the ho-hum “The Interview”).

The film itself is a slightly different matter. What’s problematic is the manner in which its story is told – or perhaps more to the point, the omission of certain information, which is rather frustrating. While there may be movies that run on longer than necessary, the odd thing about “True Story” is that it’s too short – for a tale that’s so character-focused, it’s a little thin when it comes to background or motivations for either character. True, Finkel is in need of redemption – but why use Longo since it only reinforces the suspicion of Finkel’s narcissism? Why did Longo kill his family? Allusions are made to possible financial difficulties, but it’s so vague, it suggests that since the movie is based on Finkel’s book, once again his research is flawed.

A quirky aspect to “True Story” – but something that is consistent with real life – is the fact that neither of the main characters is a true protagonist; there is very little that could be considered heroic about Finkel and absolutely nothing heroic about Longo. While Finkel may not be as evil as Longo, neither is he the most sympathetic character – if anyone, an audience’s sympathies would most likely go to Jill. In the end, did Finkel acquire the redemption he so desperately sought? Well, HarperCollins published his book and Hollywood purchased the rights to said book in order to produce a major motion picture based on its story. Draw your own conclusion. 

 

True Story (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“The Water Diviner”– Movie Review

 

waterdiv

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the drama “The Water Diviner”, starring Russell Crowe, who also directed.

Synopsis

When a man believes he’s lost his three sons to a war, he heads overseas to try to locate them – but will he find them alive or have they all perished?

Story

A century ago, The Battle Of Gallipoli took place in Turkey; The ANZACs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) spent months fighting the Turkish military before eventually retreating, thus ceding victory to the Turks. Both sides incurred substantial losses, but there may be no Australian family that suffered more than The Connors; Connor (Crowe) and his wife surrendered all three of their sons to the war and none of them returned. Years after the war’s end, Connor’s wife is still so traumatized by the loss of her children that she commits suicide. Now a widower, this becomes Connor’s motivation to venture to Turkey; his mission is to either find his sons and bring them home or secure their remains and give them a proper burial back in Australia.

Once in Istanbul, Connor sees he will not easily accomplish his goal. For one thing, the British military refuse to provide him with the necessary pass to reach Gallipoli. Another problem is resistance from the Turkish people themselves; although several years removed from the war, memories of hatred for the Aussies remains rather fresh. Stuck, Connor takes a room at a hotel run by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko); Ayshe is openly hostile to Connor when when discovering he’s Australian – her husband was killed in the war and she’s now forced to raise her young son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) alone.

Eventually, Connor finds a way to circumvent the British military’s regulations and reaches Gallipoli – much to the consternation of the Australian military officer there. It seems the Australian military are also struggling to recover the remains of their fallen and have been forced to enlist the aid of their Turkish counterparts in order to do so. After believing he may have uncovered some identification belonging to two of his sons, Connor learns his oldest son may have survived at a Prisoner Of War camp. With this information, Connor begins a dangerous trek across Turkey, which now finds itself engaged in a war with Greece. Upon arriving at the location where his son is believed to be living, will Connor be able to find him and convince him to return to Australia? 

Review

“The Water Diviner” is based on a true story; released in Australia, it won several awards. This may have come out of a sense of patriotism – in some respects, it feels like their version of “American Sniper”. The dour tone of the story put into place at the movie’s opening tries to be somewhat offset by the suggestion of Connor’s romance with Ayshe and his paternalistic friendship with Orhan. As far as the action scenes are concerned, Connor is portrayed as something of an Australian version of Indiana Jones. These unrealistic representations tend to undercut what is, at its essence, an otherwise remarkable tale of fatherly devotion.

Viewers both willing and able to substantially suspend disbelief during this highly sensationalized version of these events may find “The Water Diviner” to be an entertaining adventure. Unless the story is thoroughly researched before viewing the movie, it will be difficult to separate reality from fiction – and therein lies part of the problem with “The Water Diviner”. There is a title card at the beginning of the film which states upfront this is based on a true story, but which parts are actually true and the rest the product of the imagination of the picture’s screenwriters is just about anyone’s guess.

There is also the matter of Crowe’s ego that appears to be imbued in nearly every shot; he seems to be dedicated to branding himself as the aging action-adventure hero type in the style of Liam Neeson. Crowe’s directorial choices are curious.  For example, why is the audience treated to seemingly random shots of whirling dervishes at various points? Without giving away much, the ending is a little too perfect; all of the characters’ stories are tidily resolved and while this may be fitting in a work of fiction, seeing it in a movie supposedly having its basis in fact may be a bit hard to take.

The Water Diviner (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, April 09, 2015

“Clouds Of Sils Maria”– Movie Review

 

silsmaria

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the drama, “Clouds Of Sils Maria”, starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. 

Synopsis

When a famous actress agrees to star in a revival of a play she appeared in when she was young, will she be able to adapt to the role of the older woman?

Story

Maria (Binoche) is on her way to the Swiss Alps to honor Wilhelm, a long-time colleague; accompanying her is Valentine (Stewart), her frazzled personal assistant who frequently goes above and beyond the call of duty.  With a successful acting career for many years, Maria is currently undergoing a personal crisis as she’s in the middle of a divorce – but things only get more stressful when she learns that en route to Wilhelm’s ceremony, he has died.  Although at first a heart attack is suspected, the truth is learned:  Wilhelm was diagnosed with a terminal illness and chose to take his own life. 

Upon Maria’s arrival, the mood is understandably somber due to the unexpected turn of events.  However, Maria is approached by a director mounting a new production of a play by Wilhelm, in which she starred as the ingénue two decades ago; this time, he wants her to play a different role – an older woman who is the ingénue's boss.  The role of the young woman is going to be played by Jo-Ann (Moretz), a Lindsay Lohan type better known for her scandals than her acting.  Maria agrees and proceeds to prepare for the play by having Valentine help – she keeps Maria company and runs lines with her. 

In the secluded mountainous region of Sils Maria, Maria and Valentine spend equal amounts of time working and socializing.  Tension develops between them when the pressure of this role begins to frustrate Maria, who then winds up taking it out on a severely overworked and grossly underpaid Valentine, who by now is feeling more like a slave than an employee.  Eventually, Valentine gets fed up, leaving Maria to fend for herself.  But once rehearsals begin, will Maria be able to get along with Jo-Ann or will their unwieldy egos get in the way?

Review

No doubt about it, “Clouds Of Sils Maria” has some terrific performances by Stewart (surprisingly) and Binoche (not surprisingly).  Where the movie somewhat fails is in its static feel; in many respects, it appears as though it could’ve been better done as a play because much of its action takes place in virtually one set in each act (specifically, Wilhelm’s place in the first act, Maria’s house in the second act and the theater in the third act).  But it’s not only static in terms of its setting; it’s static in terms of a seeming lack of forward progress in the story.  At two hours, it feels so much longer. 

Speaking of the act breaks, the director has chosen to use title cards to inform the audience when each act ends and a new one begins; the beginning of the second act displays a title card of Part Two and the final act is introduced with the title card of Epilogue.  It is rather odd that it’s titled Epilogue because by definition, an epilogue is supposed to be short; this one goes on quite a while – it is really the story’s third act, so to characterize it as an Epilogue is confusing, misleading and downright inaccurate.  As long as the second act is – and it seems like a drawn out battle of wills between Maria and Valentine – the third act is longer than it needs to be as the audience is ready for a resolution.

While Binoche and Stewart at odds with each other can be entertaining because their acting both individually and together is so fine, the movie can be recommended more for that than its underlying story which plods along rather than supporting its actresses.  “Clouds Of Sils Maria” touches on some interesting ideas which are never quite fully developed.  One is the question of how a successful actress deals with past success in the face of aging.  The other is the worthiness of the big-budget Hollywood spectacles versus the merit of small independent films and whether the name actresses are selling out by appearing in the former in favor of the latter.   

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

“Lambert & Stamp”– Movie Review

 

lambert-stamp

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new documentary, “Lambert & Stamp” about the men who managed the rock band The Who.

Synopsis

Two men who start a career as documentary filmmakers wind up meeting a rock band that changes their life and the future of popular music.

Story

In the early 1960’s of London, Chris Stamp was something of a burgeoning cinephile. Longing to make his own films, he decided that as a young man from a working class background and little source of funding, documentaries would likely be the best way to get a foothold in this business as they could be made inexpensively. Networking himself around town, he ran into Kit Lambert one day at a coffee shop; the two struck up a conversation about movie making and found common ground as Lambert was as much a film buff as Stamp. After that, however, they were completely different people – Lambert came from a wealthy family (his father was a classical music conductor and his mother a ballerina) and was well educated (he was a graduate of Oxford University).

For one of their early films, they decide to shoot a story about an up-and-coming rock and roll band that has developed a loyal but growing following among the teenagers. The name of the band is The High Numbers and its members are Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and John Entwhistle. Since this band seems to largely reflect the post-World War II English youth of the working class, The High Numbers seemed like the perfect choice as the subject for their documentary. As the band gained notoriety, Lambert and Stamp eventually abandoned their movie idea in favor of acting as the band’s managers, subsequently changing their name to The Who.

Just as it seemed as though The Who had exhausted itself creatively, they rejuvenated their career with the album “Tommy”, which came to be known as the first so-called “rock opera” as it was the musical narration of a story about an eponymously named boy. While success followed, so did controversy; Lambert maintained that Townshend wrote the music based on a screenplay he wrote, but Townshend denies this. Regardless, this album cemented The Who’s reputation for original and dramatic work that has lasted decades. Many years later, the surviving members of the group were honored by The United States government for their contribution to the performing arts; the ceremony was also attended by Stamp, at Daltrey’s invitation. Lambert did not live to see this tribute, having died from years of abuse long ago.

Review

For truly hardcore fans of The Who, there may be little to be learned from “Lambert & Stamp”; however, for lovers of classic rock and more casual fans of this band, the documentary is a treasure trove of valuable information about not only the history of the band but the background of their management team and how they all collaborated to make The Who one of the most successful and respected rock bands in the history of that genre. What is made still more compelling about this story is the human drama involved – the secrets that Lambert had to keep that likely led to his substance abuse and ultimately his tragic demise.

The story of this band and its management is long and complex and the documentary definitely makes an effort to include as much as the filmmaker felt important. That said, this two hour work probably could’ve been trimmed by a good 20-30 minutes because it seemed to run a bit longer than necessary. While a good deal of the archival footage is quite impressive (combined work of Daltrey’s assistance and researchers hired expressly for this purpose), some of it seems a bit repetitive as we see shots that are easily recognizable from earlier in the movie. Of course, depending on your level of interest in The Who, this may be forgivable or even unnoticeable.

Following the screening was an interview with the director of “Lambert & Stamp”, James D. Cooper. Cooper said that the idea for the film came about a decade ago, although he’s known Chris Stamp for over 20 years; he initially met Stamp in the early 1990’s when Stamp and Daltrey wanted to make a documentary about the late Who drummer Keith Moon. Although the project eventually fell through, they remained friends. Later, Cooper pitched the idea of the documentary to Stamp; because he maintained a friendship with Daltrey, Stamp was certain he would sign on, but the documentary didn’t become a reality until Pete Townshend agreed to participate.

Lambert & Stamp (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“Woman In Gold”– Movie Review

 

WIG

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club for the premiere of the new drama, “Woman In Gold”, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

Synopsis

When a woman tries to recover her family’s artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II, she hires a young lawyer to represent her – but can this as-yet unproven counselor working on his own handle such a complex case?

WIG

Story

With the recent passing of Maria Altmann’s (Mirren) older sister, she’s suddenly overwhelmed with memories and possessions previously owned by her over the years. In the decades since they escaped Nazi persecution by leaving their home of Vienna, Austria to eventually settle in Los Angeles, California, they set out to live the type of happy, long life their Jewish relatives who remained behind could not. In going through her late sister’s belongings, she is reminded of a portrait of her Aunt Adele, which was absconded by the Nazis and has been hanging in a Viennese art gallery for many years; the painting, made by the noted Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, became famously known as “The Woman In Gold”.

Desiring to get the painting back, Maria engages one of Los Angeles’ biggest and most powerful law firms, who then assign recent-hire Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds) to her case. Upon meeting with Maria, Randy is overwhelmed by all of the information she’s dumping on him – but being the ambitious type and wanting to make his mark with a relatively new employer, he agrees to take the case. When they travel to Vienna for their initial research, Maria and Randy finally begin to get a sense of what an uphill battle this whole endeavor will be. Not only are they dealing with a challenging legal system in Austria, they also have the obstacle of a resolute and stubborn council from the gallery who are neither willing to surrender the painting, nor particularly open to negotiation.

Months later, after a bit of research, Randy finds a loophole which might allow Maria to bring legal action against the gallery in the United States instead of Austria, greatly facilitating her efforts. When a judge rules in her favor, she now finds that they will have the opportunity to take her case to The Supreme Court Of The United States. By now, however, Maria is not so sure she wants to go this far; it’s been a long battle and given all the effort and energy involved, she’s lost motivation to fight. But can Randy convince her to pursue the case to its logical conclusion? And even if he does, will such a relatively inexperienced lawyer have the skills to debate before the highest court in the land?

Review

Any movie starring Helen Mirren can almost certainly guarantee a worthwhile viewing experience. While Mirren definitely elevates “Woman In Gold” above what it might normally have been in the hands of a lesser actress, it nevertheless remains mediocre at best. The primary problem with this film has to do with its weak screenplay, which is a squeaky-clean version of this incredible true story that does a great disservice to the parties involved. Add to this the fact that the script seems to toss in just about every standard contrivance, cliché or trite dialog technique possible and it’s a wonder why it didn’t go through another draft (at least) prior to shooting.

Given Mirren’s recent work (specifically, as Queen Elizabeth in “The Audience” on Broadway and her character in “The Hundred Foot Journey”), it would seem the actress is being offered nothing other than the imperious older European woman roles lately. Ryan Reynolds as Mirren’s lawyer is hopelessly miscast in this role as the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. He is unconvincing as a man of Austrian descent connected to his Jewish heritage. Katie Holmes is vastly underutilized in her infinitesimal role as Reynold’s wife; the part seems like a mere placeholder and does precious little to substantially advance the story.

Liberties are taken with respect to the language spoken by Austrians when non-English speaking characters are present in the same scene; sometimes they speak subtitled German to each other and other times it appears not to be the case, presumably to make things more palatable for a primarily English-speaking audience. One example is a scene where Reynold’s and Mirren’s characters are conversing in her Vienna hotel room while the television is on and the news is being broadcast. When they stop to watch the TV, the Austrians being interviewed are speaking English instead of German. How this made sense to the filmmakers may forever remain a mystery.

 

Woman in Gold (2015) on IMDb

Sunday, March 29, 2015

“Christmas Again”– Movie Review

 

xmas

During the final weekend of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, I attended a screening of the new drama “Christmas, Again”. 

Synopsis

When a lovelorn Christmas tree salesman returns for a new season, will he be able to continue despite the loss of his girlfriend?

Story

Year after year, Noel (Kentucker Audley) makes the long trek down to Brooklyn from his home in upstate New York to sell Christmas trees during the holiday season.  With his usual work in the construction business on hold during the long winter months, he tries to make a few extra dollars selling and delivering trees each Christmas.  This year, however, will be different – not too long ago, Noel and his girlfriend broke up and he’s had a rather difficult time getting beyond that.  As a constant reminder of his heartache, Noel still has photographs of her hanging on the wall inside the trailer where he sleeps. 

One night during his shift, Noel spots Lydia (Hannah Gross) passed out cold on a park bench.  Chasing away a homeless man who tries to steal her cell phone, Noel takes her back to his trailer and lets Lydia sleep it off; the next morning, despite missing one shoe and her wallet, an embarrassed Lydia sneaks out of the trailer while Noel is otherwise engaged with a customer.  The next day, Lydia returns, apologizing for her sudden disappearance and thanking Noel for his kindness; in order to show her appreciation, she gives him a home-baked pie. 

For the next few days, Noel goes about his business making sales and deliveries while simultaneously training a couple of new hires who take over the day shift.  During one sale, a mysterious man sneaks up on Noel and sucker-punches him; the next day, Lydia returns, requesting her pie pan be returned.  She informs Noel that she had a fight with her boyfriend who thinks she slept with Noel; he immediately does the math and realizes that’s who punched him the night before.  With Lydia realizing she’s increasingly drawn to Noel, will she ultimately leave her boyfriend for him?

Review

Despite being relatively short for a feature film (it clocks in at under an hour and a half), “Christmas, Again” feels much longer than its actual running time.  Perhaps the reason for this is due to the fact that it has a very slow pace at the beginning of the movie.  This results in the first act dragging along considerably and fails to give the audience a sense of forward momentum in the story; you keep waiting for the story to start and it never quite feels as though it does, primarily because it’s so episodic.  As customer after customer goes by in what seems to be an extended montage, you are left to wonder where the story is supposed to be and ask yourself if it already began and you simply missed it. 

The background behind the making of “Christmas, Again” is interesting and perhaps explains why it doesn’t quite work.  Writer/director Charles Poekel spent three years actually selling Christmas trees on the streets of Brooklyn.  Normally, such research would be commendable as it informs your story with a sense of authenticity.  In this case, however, it may have resulted in the downfall of the movie because Poekel is so close to the subject matter that he seems to have lost the objectivity needed to tell a coherent story.  While the film may possess a number of interesting visual images, you don’t really get a sense that its director has an idea for how to properly convey a narrative.

Following the screening, there was an interview with writer/director Charles Poekel, actor Kentucker Audley and cinematographer Sean Price Williams.  Poekel said that the shoot took a total of 15 days – that is to say, three five-day weeks.  Although he would not comment as to exactly how low the budget was, he did admit a portion of it was somewhat crowd-sourced.  Shooting in the trailer was one of the most challenging parts of making “Christmas, Again”, Poekel added; the space was very cramped and at times, he had to kick out non-essential members of the crew in order to film a scene. 

Christmas, Again (2014) on IMDb