Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Magician”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles”, directed by Chuck Workman.


The personal and professional life of filmmaker Orson Welles is explored to see how one influenced the other.


Attending The Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, Orson Welles was one of its most memorable students. As a chubby boy, he was never very athletic, but young Orson did manage to find other ways to excel as a student: cleaving towards more intellectual pursuits, he participated extensively in theater, writing and art. Orson eventually got tagged with the moniker of “prodigy” when his accomplishments gained considerable notoriety in the local newspapers; this would serve to be something of an albatross for the remainder of Welles’ life – his exceptionalism was accompanied by high expectations.

In college, Welles’ involvement in the theater intensified and he found his mission in life was to create and perform; whether acting or directing, he was most passionate about participating in Shakespearean plays and eventually created his own theatrical troupe where he could also write his own plays. Finding increasing success, the studios noticed Welles’ various talents and brought him to Hollywood.  There, he was introduced to filmmaking . Upon being offered work, he would turn down jobs in order to negotiate a better deal – not for more money, but more control over the work. If they wanted him to act, studios would have to let him direct and sometimes even write the screenplay as well.

Although Welles’ filmmaking efforts within the Hollywood studio system brought him even greater fame, it also proved to be his downfall as well. Insisting on greater power and gaining a reputation as a prima donna, opportunities became fewer and further between. As a result, Welles decided to continue making films, but would work outside of the traditional Hollywood system. Partnering with various production companies both in the United States and abroad, he wound up with the freedom and control he sought, but often realizing that he would have to sacrifice funding as a part of the trade-off. Needing money in order to make the type of films he wanted, he would wind up taking jobs which he felt were beneath him so he could continue with more artistic pursuits.


With the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth coming next year, this timely documentary reminds film devotees how driven and dedicated the filmmaker was to his craft; arguably, Welles may have been this country’s first and most notable independent filmmaker, even though both the concept and popularity of independent filmmaking was decades away. To say Welles may have been before his time in such progressive thinking only serves to buttress his stature as a creative genius and someone who took great pride in making motion pictures. Due to his intellectual interests, however, reaching a mass audience eluded him; this is something that Welles himself admitted vexed him throughout his life.

This documentary is clearly made with great love and admiration for its subject, but it is not lacking in objectivity. As its director, Workman does not sidestep the controversies in Welles’ life, many of which were often caused by Welles himself.  These controversies occurred in both his personal and professional life and to some extent, even continue to this day, nearly 30 years after Welles’ death at the age of 70.  Among them are the resulting chaos from the famed “Martian invasion” radio broadcast as well as Welles’ paternity issue regarding director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the documentary’s director, Chuck Workman. Workman was fascinated by the fact that Welles often had trouble completing much of the work he started, especially given that he was adamant about maintaining control all throughout the production. The director believes that this was part of Welles’ creative genius being a disadvantage; he maintains that once Welles got involved in a project, he would be initially fascinated by its various challenges.  However, once Welles felt he had conquered the obstacles, he would move on to the next mountain to climb and essentially lose interest in the task at hand – whether completing a shoot or post-production on his footage.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“Before I Go To Sleep”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new mystery, “Before I Go To Sleep”, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.


When a woman loses her memory after an injury, she tries to put the pieces of her life together – but in doing so, will she be able to trust either her therapist or her husband?


To say that Christine (Kidman) is facing an uphill battle is putting it mildly.  When she wakes up, not only is she unable to remember what happened the previous day, she can’t remember anything about her life.  Basically, she has to spend the entire day attempting to re-acquire her memories – but when she finally does so by the end of the day, it’s time to go to sleep and she’ll have to face the same challenges again the next morning when she awakens.  Not even her husband Ben (Firth) seems to be able to sufficiently jog her memory. 

Christine is surprised to learn that she is under the care of Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a psychologist who has been attempting some unorthodox methods to treat her amnesia; one of which is supplying Christine with a digital camera that he instructs her to use each day to record videos in which she talks about the information about her life that she has learned that day.  One thing that puzzles Christine, though, is the fact that Ben and Dr. Nasch have given her conflicting information about how she came to be an amnesiac:  Ben informs her she had a car accident while Dr. Nasch insists that she was attacked. 

Soon, Christine is provided with another link to her past – her best friend Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), who tries to help her fill in the gaps in her recollections.  With new knowledge about her background, Christine is not sure whether she is being deceived by either Ben or Dr. Nasch.  Added to the mix are rumors about her son Adam, whom Christine is given to understand may have perished in the same accident that caused her amnesia and Christine becomes further confused.  After being inundated with facts about her history from various sources, will Christine be able to believe any of them or is she destined to forever be left in the dark?


Here’s a question for you:  When was the last time you saw a dramatic movie in a theater and – in its final heart-wrenching scene that’s supposed to wrap up the story – hear a section of the audience laugh at its ending?  Well, while you mull that one over, perhaps seeing “Before I Go To Sleep” may be your next opportunity to do so.  At least, that is what happened at this evening’s screening.  To be sure, not everyone laughed; I certainly didn’t.  Neither did the guy sitting behind me; he simply snorted and exclaimed, “Oh, come on now!”. 

All of this should give you a reasonably good idea of what to expect from “Before I Go To Sleep”; not only is this not recommended to see in the theaters, it may not even be worth a rental.  If there’s anything good to say about this movie, it’s the fact that it’s thankfully short at only an hour and a half.  There is also a nude shot of Ms. Kidman early on, but given that we only saw her behind from her behind, it may very well be a body double.  Perhaps it may be best to leave that one for Mr. Skin to sort out for everyone. 

There is a direct correlation between the level of difficulty of writing a review and the quality of the movie being reviewed.  Writing these reviews gets more challenging the worse the reviewed film; at times like this, it can certainly turn into something of a chore, especially when you are passionate about motion pictures.  Enthusiasm rises when a particularly good picture is screened, making the review that much easier to write – and a considerably less sorrowful task, to be sure.  Fortunately, my duty for today has been fulfilled as my penance has been completed.   


Before I Go to Sleep (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“Laggies”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new romantic comedy “Laggies”, starring Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. 


When a young woman finds her life stalled, she befriends a teenage girl and winds up living with her and the girl’s father – but after an attraction develops between the woman and the father, how will this impact her relationship with the girl and others in her life? 


A decade after graduating from high school, Megan (Knightley) finds her life at something of a standstill.  Despite the fact that she’s achieved an advanced degree, Megan has suddenly become directionless in both her personal and professional life.  Her friends are either getting married, having babies or deeply ensconced in their chosen career path.  Megan, however, doesn’t know what she wants to do; she’s in no hurry to marry Anthony (Mark Webber), her long-time live-in boyfriend, nor is she especially driven to pursue any particular line of work – her current menial job is for the accounting firm operated by her father (Jeff Garlin). 

Having seen her friends pass her by, Megan decides to attend an out-of-town seminar that she believes will get her life back on track; in truth, she mostly needs some time and distance from Anthony, who’s just proposed.  Her plans get derailed when she meets Annika (Moretz), a teenager who comes from a broken home.  After her mother Bethany (Gretchen Mol) took off for a modeling career, Annika is now being raised by her single dad, Craig (Rockwell), a lawyer.  Megan and Annika hit it off immediately; becoming friends, Megan hits her up for a very odd favor:  she wants to move in with Annika and her dad for a few days until she can figure out her life.  Craig reluctantly grants her permission to do so once Megan cooks up a fib that sounds remotely feasible. 

Spending a considerable amount of time together, Megan and Annika eventually develop an almost sisterly relationship.  Complications arise when Craig and Megan find they have an irresistible attraction to each other; unable to ignore the opportunity that fate has presented them, they begin to pursue a romance.  Ultimately, Megan realizes she must come clean to both Craig and Annika.  Predictably, neither are terribly happy when they learn that Megan has been deceiving the two of them all this time and their friendship is fractured.  Will Megan have to return to Anthony and reluctantly get married or can she somehow find a way to seek forgiveness from both Annika and Craig? 


Although the genre of “Laggies” may be characterized as a romantic comedy, it might be more accurately described as a Young Adult Fairy Tale; there’s very little that occurs in this story that even remotely suggests verisimilitude, and would conceivably be a fantasy of the distaff segment of the under-30 market.  From a business standpoint, there is certainly nothing wrong with approach; it’s obviously proven financially viable, given the success of vampire flicks and “The Hunger Games” series.  Taking any of this film seriously, however, would be a mistake of immense proportions.

If “Laggies” had focused on male characters, it likely would have been made by Judd Apatow and starred Seth Rogan and would have instead been titled something like “Slackers”.  While “Slackers” would be more of a disparaging title, “Laggies” sounds almost cute and arguably less insulting; it suggests it’s more socially acceptable to be a “laggy” than a “slacker”.  Arrested development in females is apparently perceived as adorable in young women but buffoonish in young men.  Sexist?  Perhaps.  But this time at least, sexism works in favor of women instead of against them. 

“Laggies” was directed by Lynn Shelton from a script by Andrea Seigel.  Shelton’s previous directorial efforts in feature films earned a reputation of having more gravitas than “Laggies” possesses; by comparison, it seems “Laggies” is the soufflé compared to the director’s earlier work.  With that in mind, “Laggies” would either be a disappointment to fans of Shelton’s more serious films or a reasonably accessible entry-level introduction to her style for those unfamiliar with her movies.  By all accounts, Shelton appears to be a very talented filmmaker and hopefully, her next motion picture will be something more thoughtful. 


Laggies (2014) on IMDb

Friday, October 17, 2014

“Listen Up Philip”– Movie Review



This week at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, I saw the comedy-drama “Listen Up Philip”, starring Jason Schwartzman and Elizabeth Moss; the film is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry.


When an egotistical novelist anticipates success with his latest book, he becomes even more impossible to live with – but after he suddenly finds himself friendless, will he change his ways?


Philip (Schwartzman) is a jerk.  About to have his second novel published,  early signs indicate that it will be even more successful than his first.  Unfortunately, all of this good fortune seems to be going straight to his head; he treats his friends shabbily, ignores his girlfriend Ashley (Moss) and refuses requests by his publishing company to promote the book.  Because he’s being so self-involved and rude to everyone, Philip starts to find that they are all turning their back on him, which only supports his disdain for them.  He winds up blaming everyone else except himself. 

It is at this point that Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) reaches out to Philip; Ike, an experienced author with a long string of best-sellers to his name, befriends Philip and commiserates with him.  Although their friendship also includes some degree of Ike mentoring Philip, the problem is that Ike so sympathizes with Philip that he winds up feeding into Philip’s narcissism; this results in Philip feeling fully justified for his view of others, himself and the world in general.  With Philip experiencing greater isolation once Ashley has thrown him out of their apartment, Ike invites him to stay at his country house for a while. 

Ike suggests that Phillip take a job teaching creative writing at a nearby college; once Philip starts working there, however, he soon begins to develop the same set of problems all over again, but with a fresh set of people – he complains that neither the students nor the faculty like him very much.  One of the other instructors that indeed does dislike him is Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), also a young writer, who feels she is in competition with Philip.  As they get to know each other, Yvette softens her view of him and they become romantically involved. 

But when Philip’s naturally obnoxious behavior alienates Yvette also, will he finally learn his lesson?


Although “Listen Up Philip” is strongly recommended, it does come with an extremely severe caveat because this movie is definitely not for everyone.  It carries with it some very funny but very caustic and – what some people may understandably think – is rather cruel humor.  Simply put, Philip is not a very likeable character and there are certainly many people who have problems seeing a story about someone so bilious.  So why the recommendation?  The character of Philip is quite funny – albeit unintentionally – and thus is incredibly compelling to watch as he completely self-destructs.

From a technical perspective, it’s also an interesting film to watch because it very much has to it the look and feel of a motion picture straight out of the 1970’s.  Starting with the style of the titles at its opening to the grainy quality of its appearance, it could have easily been made as an independent movie back in 1972 or so.  This is because “Listen Up Philip” was shot using a Super-16mm camera, quite a bit of it being hand-held.  One criticism of this is the over-reliance on close-ups – in fact, extreme close-ups, quite often.  (With no zoom, some actors were reportedly slightly distracted by having the camera literally in their face)

Following the screening was a question and answer session with Schwartzman and writer/director Alex Ross Perry.  A young filmmaker (this is only Perry’s third feature), Perry admitted to modeling the Ike Zimmerman character after author Philip Roth. Schwartzman said that one of the reasons why he was drawn to play the role of Philip was due to being impressed by the fact that the character pretty much just said whatever was on his mind and didn’t particularly care what others thought about him. 


Listen Up Philip (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“Rudderless”– Movie Review


This week in my movie class, we saw “Rudderless”, a drama with Billy Crudup and Selena Gomez and Directed by William H. Macy.


When a man drops out of society after his son dies, he discovers the boy’s collection of music – but once he starts performing his son’s songs publicly, will this prove therapeutic or only serve to make his life even worse?


Sam (Crudup) is hit with the news that his son Josh tragically died as the result of a shooting at his college.  Inconsolable, he self-medicates by binge-drinking, then quits his high-powered job as an advertising executive and moves out of his fancy house. Two years later, Sam lands a job as a house painter and winds up living on a boat.  After a while, he is found by Emily (Felicity Huffman), his ex-wife, who drops off some of Josh’s belongings – a bunch of music Josh composed and CD’s on which Josh recorded the performance of his own material. 

Sam starts listening to Josh’s recordings and is surprised to discover that his son was an extremely talented musician.  Inspired, Sam learns the boy’s songs and begins performing them before an audience at a local bar.  One night, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a young man who would’ve been a contemporary of Josh’s, hears one of the songs and is impressed; he invites Sam to join a band made up of some of Quentin’s friends and together, the group performs the collection of songs.  Now known as Rudderless, the band becomes so popular that they are hired to perform regularly at the bar; word spreads and soon the bar is filled with their new-found fans. 

When news of the band’s popularity gets out, Sam is visited by Kate (Gomez), Josh’s ex-girlfriend; she confronts Sam, infuriated he’s performing his son’s songs while passing them off as his own.  Angered at Sam’s deceit, Kate reveals Sam’s secret to the band, forcing Sam to leave the group.  Quentin and Sam are both at a loss; the band revived Quentin’s love of music while also providing Sam with some closure about the loss of his son.  With the two men now unable to act as each other’s emotional support system, will they wind up with unfulfilled lives or can they make something positive from this?


Let’s just get this out of the way: An event occurs well into “Rudderless” – around the end of the second act – that alters the audience’s perception of certain characters and drastically changes the overall tone of the story. The above story description assiduously avoided including it to be spoiler-free; an earnest attempt is made to balance this against providing sufficient detail about the story. While other reviews may wind up including that “spoiler”, it does something of a disservice to people considering seeing the picture: it unnecessarily influences the experience of viewing the movie.

Writing about “Rudderless” while side-stepping that significant plot point may be a bit difficult since it directly impacts the review. When the movie does this big reveal so late, it is intentionally trying to pull a fast one; the way in which it does so is rather manipulative, to the point where the audience can feel understandably resentful for being sucked-in by the filmmakers. Why not provide the information up front? One possible answer is that they did not have enough faith in the material being presented in a more straightforward manner, so a better dramatic impact would be to pull the rug out from under the viewers.

Upon watching “Rudderless”, it may not be unreasonable for a viewer to feel a sense of betrayal by the filmmakers; a contract between them and the audience has been broken because the time and emotional investment in the movie has been misspent – while you may start out rooting for certain characters, you realize approximately two thirds of the way through the story that you may have made an egregious mistake. Everyone – not just the filmmakers, but the characters in the story – knew you were making that mistake all along and kept you in the dark until the last possible moment.

Rudderless (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

“Fury”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club held a screening of “Fury”, a war drama starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf.


When a tank crew is sent on a mission to battle the Nazis deep in German territory during the end of World War II, will they be able to defeat their troops despite being outmanned and underequipped?


In April of 1945, both Wardaddy (Pitt) and his tank called Fury are a little worse for wear after many battles; he and his crew have been fighting the Nazis in Africa, France and England – finally, they find themselves in Germany, with orders to go behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately, they lost a man in a recent fight and are now forced to train their new man, Norman (Logan Lerman), who’s only been in the army for about two months.  With Norman’s only experience being as a clerk-typist, he’s ill-prepared for the rigors of combat. 

When Norman accompanies Wardaddy and the rest of the tank crew on his first encounter with the enemy, his colleagues come to realize that Norman’s quite a liability.  Immature and something of a pacifist, Norman is both unwilling and unable to shoot at German soldiers.  Seeing that if Norman continues down this path he will endanger everyone in the tank, Wardaddy teaches him how to kill in the most brutal way imaginable; the intense instructions may not necessarily make a man out of Norman but they do wind up turning him into a soldier.  Ultimately, Norman is somewhat mentored by Wardaddy’s corporal, Bible (LaBeouf).  

Wardaddy is given an assignment to locate and rescue some American soldiers who were recently captured by the Nazis.  While en route to their whereabouts, other battles take place where soldiers die due to the superiority of the German tanks; as a result, Fury is the only tank left from that platoon and they must forge ahead alone.  Eventually, Fury breaks down just as a platoon of several hundred SS soldiers are headed their way.  Outnumbered and immobilized with their radio communications wiped out and ammunition running low, will Wardaddy and his crew be able to survive an attack by this platoon?


As a war movie with plenty of fun and suspenseful fight scenes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Fury”; particularly interesting is the use of CGI to simulate the use of tracers during the gunfire exchanges.  That said, however, there’s nothing particularly special about “Fury” either, which means I can only give it a mild recommendation.  Guys will like the action scenes and the ladies will drool over the shirtless Brad Pitt; but whether or not it’s worth up to $15 to see it in a theater may depend on how limited your entertainment choices are. 

Much of the story in “Fury” centers on the character of the neophyte Norman, through whom we as the audience see and learn about war.  Between his education and maturation as a soldier, we are treated to many tank fights with a hint of romance thrown in apparently just to break things up a bit.  Other than that, the movie is fairly flat, plot-wise with very little in the way of momentum driving the story forward; it isn’t until Fury breaks down with the impending arrival of the SS platoon that we feel the stakes have been raised sufficiently to be drawn in emotionally. 

In many ways, “Fury” is less a war story than a coming of age story; not only does Wardaddy teach Norman about how to be a soldier, he also teaches him the nature of war (in order to appreciate peace, whenever it comes) and teaches him about love; in an unlikely moment, Wardaddy introduces Norman to a young Fräulein with whom there is the possibility of a brief romantic interlude.  While governments may send boys into the armed forces, it is men who fight the war; how,when and where that metamorphosis occurs is different for each of us, but clearly war expedites it, sometimes before you’re even ready. 

Fury (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, October 12, 2014

“Birdman”– Movie Review



On the closing night of The New York Film Festival, I caught a screening of “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”, a comedy-drama starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton; it is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who also co-wrote the screenplay. 


When a once-successful movie actor tries to regain his popularity by doing a Broadway play, can he overcome personal and professional obstacles in order to attain his goal?


Riggan (Keaton) finds himself at something of a crossroads in his life.  While once a successful movie star best known for his role of playing the superhero Birdman in a series of franchise movies, his career has been on the skids since that series concluded after three films.  Not only that, but his personal life went into crisis mode when his wife divorced him and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) was forced into a rehabilitation program for substance abuse.  Desperate, Riggan devises a plan:  he will adapt Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage, as a vehicle for him to both direct and star. 

When the play manages to reach Broadway, Riggan’s troubles are just beginning.  For one thing, one of the play’s stars is unable to make the beginning of previews when he’s injured during rehearsal.  Seeing he’s in a jam, Lesley (Naomi Watts), a fellow cast member, suggests Riggan offer the role to her boyfriend, Mike (Norton) to fill-in for the role.  Despite knowing Mike’s reputation for being a bit nutty albeit a good and popular actor, Riggan hires Mike to play the part.  From the moment Mike arrives at the theater for rehearsal, he begins a whirlwind of chaos with his egotistical behavior. 

Further complicating matters is Sam, who may be relapsing.  Although Riggan hired Sam to work as his assistant during the mounting of this play, she continues blaming her problems on the dysfunctional relationship she had with her father when she was a child.  The pressure is finally starting to get to Riggan; as he starts having delusions and engaging in conversations with an imaginary Birdman who continues to haunt him, it’s clear that he’s becoming unglued when beset by all of these problems at once.  With disastrous previews that may lead to negative reviews once the play officially opens, can Riggan keep both his personal and professional life together long enough for the play to be a success?


Prior to the screening at Alice Tully Hall, Iñárritu said a few words, then introduced two of the stars of “Birdman”, Galifianakis and Keaton.  When Keaton took his turn at the microphone, he said, “I feel as though I stumbled into a masterpiece”.  Indeed you did, Mr. Keaton, indeed you did.  “Birdman” is, in fact, an unqualified masterpiece and a film very much unlike any other I can ever recall seeing, stylistically speaking.  Hilariously funny at times, yet deeply touching at other moments, Iñárritu has succeeded in creating a great work of art with “Birdman”. 

This then begs the not unreasonable question of whether or not a comedy can in fact truly be considered art.  In the case of “Birdman”, I would respond with a resounding “Yes”.  It has been the habit of Hollywood to consider comedies to be a trivial genre; with the possible exception of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”, they are rarely if ever recognized come awards time.  Certainly “Birdman”, is equally deserving of such recognition for a great many reasons.  Clever direction by Iñárritu, an outstanding performance by the entire cast (especially Keaton, who perhaps gave the best of his career) and a richly complex screenplay are easily sufficient justification. 

One of the things that makes “Birdman” so remarkable is the way in which it has been shot.  Most – if not all – of the film is done with a steadicam and the editing that was done is virtually seamless, giving the uncanny impression that all of the scenes occur in immediate sequence where the fluidity of time and space are used as a toy.  No less than a total of four people are given credit for this screenplay (including director Iñárritu himself).  Given the intricacies of the story, it is no wonder that it took such an unusually large team to put this work together.  Iñárritu has set the bar astoundingly high for aspiring filmmakers, who will either be inspired or discouraged when they see “Birdman”.


Birdman (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, October 11, 2014

“CitizenFour”– Movie Review



On the final day of The New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of “CitizenFour”, a new documentary about Edward Snowden, directed by Laura Poitras. 


When a documentarian is anonymously contacted by someone who claims to have information about United States spying operations, she agrees to meet with him to record an interview – but little does she know that her filming of Edward Snowden will result in a major news story worldwide. 


At the outset of 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras was working on a movie about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  During that time, she started receiving anonymous e-mails from someone who identified himself merely as CitizenFour; this person claimed to have some degree of detailed inside information about the spying practices carried out by the United States.  Exactly how he knew about this wasn’t immediately clear to her, but since he was communicating with her in encrypted e-mails which she then needed to decrypt in order to read them, she felt that this individual had some degree of credibility. 

Eventually, after months of e-mailing, they agreed to meet for an interview along with Glenn Greenwald, a political blogger for the Web site  The interview would take place at the source’s hotel room in Hong Kong.  When Poitras and Greenwald meet him there, they learn his true identity:  Edward Snowden, an IT contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton who worked for the National Security Agency, an intelligence branch of the United States government.  Over the course of eight consecutive days in this Hong Kong hotel room, both Greenwald and Poitras would interview Snowden concerning what he knew about how the American government conducted its intelligence operations. 

When Greenwald started publishing his interviews with Snowden, they immediately made big news internationally, but especially in the United States.  Soon thereafter, it became obvious that Snowden’s cover had been blown and that these secret meetings would soon have to come to an abrupt end, else everyone would be in danger.  Through the aid of some lawyers who are advocates for victims of people who have suffered civil liberties violations, Snowden is whisked out of Hong Kong by way of Moscow.  However, by the time he reaches the airport there, he discovers that his United States passport has been revoked and he now finds himself stuck in Russia. 


While a captivating, gripping story, the main problem with “CitizenFour” has to do with its perspective – that is to say that it lacks objectivity.  Documentarian Laura Poitras clearly has her own personal agenda with this documentary and she makes no attempt whatsoever to keep it hidden.  Nor did she keep her politics hidden when she did her previous documentaries on the Iraq war.  Having a point of view on a documentary is one thing, but trying to pass yourself off as a news reporter is another, especially when it’s clear that you’ve got an axe to grind (which is why the government has made her life difficult). 

The fatal flaw in “CitizenFour” has to do with the lionization of its subject, Snowden, as well as his facilitator Greenwald, not to mention the self-aggrandizing attention drawn to the filmmaker herself while caught up in the midst of this catastrophic whirlwind of national security breaches.  Presenting the story the way in which it has been done, Poitras merely succeeds in preaching to a choir that is all too willing to buy whatever it may be she wants to tell them.  Ultimately, it would appear that the director will not be satisfied until and unless she has completely destroyed the United States of America. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the director.  Poitras said that funders of the documentary had to travel to Berlin (where she lives and works) in order to see a rough cut of the film in order to avoid interference from the U.S. government.  They viewed that version without knowing what the final cut would be like – mainly done for purposes of security.

Regarding shaping the interview scenes in the hotel room, she deferred to her editor, who added structure to the footage.  During the course of the interviews, the editor said that they shot something like 20 hours of footage.  She found it hard to cut down because there was so much valuable information and was constantly perplexed about where to make the choices.  Ultimately, the decision was made to follow a very clear narrative line.  She could not get in certain interesting details, such as Snowden’s opinions which, while eloquent, were not appropriate for the narrative they chose to follow. 

When asked about why there was a sense of urgency to break the story during the interview process in the safety of the hotel room, Poitras  said that she didn’t know Snowden was leaving until he had already left.  Additionally, the NSA would notice his absence for such a long period of time; that alone made the matter of breaking the story immediately more urgent. 

Citizenfour (2014) on IMDb

“Foxcatcher”– Movie Review



To start off the final weekend of The New York Film Festival, I saw the drama “Foxcatcher”, starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. 


When an eccentric multi-millionaire hires a pair of Olympic Gold Medalist brothers to create and train an American wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics, the brothers soon find their sponsor’s erratic behavior to be a distraction – but will it also endanger their lives?


Mark Schultz (Tatum) should be proud of the Olympic Gold Medal he and his older brother David (Ruffalo) won as wrestlers at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.  But what troubles Mark is the fact that he can’t seem to figure out a way to get out from the large shadow his brother casts.  One day, he gets a telephone call that will change his life forever; a multi-millionaire wants to hire Mark to train a team of wrestlers to compete in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.  Seeing this as his big opportunity, Mark immediately accepts the job offer from John du Pont (Carell) and moves to the sprawling du Pont estate known as Foxcatcher. 

Once there, Mark starts seeing signs that he may have made a huge mistake.  For one thing, du Pont’s deportment grows weirder by the day; not wanting to ruin what otherwise seems like a pretty good arrangement, Mark chooses to ignore du Pont’s eccentricities for as long as he possibly can.  During this time, they initially seem to become close friends, but du Pont’s sudden personality changes eventually ruin both their personal and professional relationship; when du Pont finally loses confidence in Mark’s abilities, he hires David to coach his wrestlers, leaving Mark both humiliated and infuriated. 

While David shows he’s able to successfully build and train a team of wrestlers, du Pont really wants to take all of the credit for himself, mostly to impress his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who apparently doesn’t think much of her oddball son.  Once the Olympics are over, du Pont goes out of his way to make Mark feel unwelcome, so he winds up moving out.  With David and his family remaining at Foxcatcher, du Pont’s demeanor takes a decided turn for the worse, becoming disturbingly paranoid in the midst of his own irrelevance.  But should David and his family fear for their well-being amidst all of du Pont’s craziness?


Creepy is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe “Foxcatcher” – likewise, it is both inadequate and insufficient for the accolades of its star, Steve Carell.  In all of his make-up, Carell is almost unrecognizable – upon initial glimpse, you have to actually squint a bit just to make sure it’s really him.  But be sure, Carell does not let his prosthetics do the acting here – his mannerisms, his speech, all of his body language capture the sociopathic du Pont making this film scary from the first time you see him on screen; “Foxcatcher” comes closer to being a horror movie than most horror movies do.

Don’t be misled by the characterization of a horror movie – much of the credit to its success in this regard must be given to the director of “Foxcatcher”, Bennett Miller, who lays it out before us in a very Spartan, understated style that totally works for a story that is based on true events.  From the moment that the character of Mark arrives at Foxcatcher, there is an impending sense of foreboding, raising overall questions about whether or not things will end well.  Perhaps the scariest part of this story remains the fact that it’s all too believable and that it really did happen. 

Other members of the cast – namely, Tatum and Ruffalo – are excellent here; Redgrave, unfortunately, has a small part and as a result, doesn’t have very many scenes in “Foxcatcher”.  If there is a mistake in this film, it could be that relationship; clearly, du Pont had issues with his mother, but this is never fully explored or explained in “Foxcatcher”.  Allusions to their problems are definitely made, but where and how it developed remains a mystery; perhaps, for the sake of brevity, it may be better that the movie never went down that road – but it would be a compelling story on its own. 

Foxcatcher (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

“The Judge”– Movie Review



This week, the Fall Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new drama, “The Judge”, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall.


When a defense lawyer’s estranged father is accused of murder, the lawyer agrees to represent him at his trial – but will their long-unresolved differences prevent him from keeping his father out of prison?


As a successful defense attorney in Chicago, Hank (Downey) makes a great living for himself and his family – but his marriage is falling apart once he learns his wife has been cheating on him because he spends so much time working. When Hank is notified that his mother has passed away, he must return to his home in Carlinville, Indiana to attend her funeral; to make matters worse, this means he’ll have to deal with his father Joseph (Duvall), a powerful and well-known judge in that town, from whom he has been estranged for many years. Hank’s plan is to attend the funeral and return to his Chicago practice as soon as possible in order to minimize contact with his father.

Just as he’s about to leave, the local police inform Hank that Joseph is now the subject of a murder investigation. The previous night, a man on a bicycle was struck by a car and killed; with evidence on Joseph’s car strongly suggesting he was involved in the incident, the police officers wish to question him. What further points to Joseph’s possible guilt is the fact that the victim was an ex-con who got a light sentence by Joseph when he was originally convicted; shortly after his release from prison, the man murdered someone else and Joseph has long since regretted the light sentence he had previously given.

When Joseph hires a local lawyer who lacks significant courtroom experience (Dax Shepard), Hank becomes concerned that his father may not be getting the best defense possible, especially given the fact that the slick prosecuting attorney (Billy Bob Thornton) appears to be acquiring mounting evidence indicating Joseph’s guilt. As a result, Hank convinces a reluctant Joseph to allow him to be co-counsel on the case so that Joseph can at least have a decent shot at earning his freedom. But when Hank becomes aware of his elderly father’s increasingly failing memory that produces certain lapses in his alibi, will even he be able to keep his father from a long prison sentence?


With a fairly high-powered cast (including the luscious Vera Farmiga who plays Hank’s ex-girlfriend and Vincent D’Onofrio as Hank’s older brother), it’s a shame that the script isn’t better; at nearly two and a half hours, “The Judge” has far too many scenes that telegraph events that are going to occur further down the road. This predictability detracts from some really fine performances by the talented ensemble. “The Judge” might be better appreciated as a rental, but it’s in no way a must-see unless you are curious about what the actors can do with these parts (Downey’s separate scenes with Duvall and Farmiga are particularly good).

One thing some viewers might find fairly annoying – it’s certainly something that gets under my skin whenever I watch one of these crime dramas – is the phoniness of the courtroom scenes. Basically, the Hollywood set that’s built for the courtroom is usually not an accurate representation of what they resemble in real life. Specifically, what’s missing here is the podium at which the attorney stands when addressing the individual in the witness booth. The way it is portrayed in most movies – including “The Judge” – is that the lawyers are standing directly in front of the witness and we are expected to believe that everyone else in the courtroom (including and especially the jury) are able to hear the conversation.

Following the screening, David Dobkin, director of “The Judge”, was interviewed by our instructor. Dobkin said that the film was considerably longer – nearly four hours once he was ready to start editing – and what was particularly painful for him was that he needed to cut some of the actors’ best performances from the movie (including a scene between Downey and D’Onofrio which he felt was especially powerful). According to Dobkin, Duvall didn’t want to take the role of Joseph due to a scene in the bathroom where he gets sick and Downey’s character has to take care of him. Ultimately, Dobkin was able to convince Duvall that he would shoot it in a way that would not make him feel uncomfortable, so Duvall changed his mind and accepted the part.


The Judge (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

“Whiplash”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club screened “Whiplash”, a drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. 


When a promising young drummer is selected by one of his school’s toughest teachers to join a group to compete in music competitions, he works hard to earn his teacher’s respect – but after the teacher’s intimidation tactics prove a bit too rough for the young man, will he quit or does he have what it takes to stay with the band?


At the tender age of 19, Andrew (Teller) already has his life’s career path planned:  he’s going to be a jazz drummer – in fact, not just any jazz drummer, but the very best jazz drummer, rivaling his hero Buddy Rich.  Towards that end, he has enrolled in New York City’s Schaeffer Conservatory, which many consider to be the best music school in the entire country.  While practicing his drumming in an empty studio, Andrew’s talents are overheard by Fletcher (Simmons), a notorious teacher within the school; Fletcher likes what he hears and invites Andrew to join his jazz ensemble, comprised of other students at Schaeffer. 

From his first day in the group, Andrew begins to wonder if he made a mistake; Fletcher turns out to be a tough taskmaster, being emotionally and sometimes even physically abusive towards the students.  Tormenting his students to the point that they burst into tears, Fletcher is very competitive – the school regularly sends his music groups to competitions and he hates not coming in first place.  Fletcher’s philosophy is that if these young men really have what it takes to be great, then they will put up with even his most outrageous tactics. 

When Fletcher humiliates Andrew at a public performance, the young man erupts and attacks the teacher, which results in his expulsion from the school.  Later, he learns that he can get revenge on Fletcher and winds up having him fired.  Some months thereafter, Andrew learns that Fletcher is playing at a small jazz club in Manhattan and stops by to hear his former mentor play; the two chat after his set and Fletcher offers him the opportunity to be his drummer at an upcoming jazz festival.  But when he realizes Fletcher has tricked him, does Andrew have the courage to hang in there and do his best to prove his worth or will he concede victory to Fletcher?


Despite having seen a good number of movies thus far at this year’s New York Film Festival, I somehow managed to miss “Whiplash” when it played recently in late September; that was my loss, but now I’m glad I had the opportunity to make up for missing it previously.  It is rare when I can still get excited over a film, but that’s precisely how I reacted to the very intelligent and enthralling “Whiplash”.  Excellently conceived and executed, some critics understandably referred to it as “Full Metal Juilliard” when it was originally screened at The Sundance Film Festival. 

Enthusiastically, I can recommend “Whiplash” for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the performances by its two leads, Teller and Simmons; Teller supposedly wound up learning a bit of drumming for his role and Simmons is perfectly cast as the sadistic teacher.  In this movie, Simmons may have given the performance of his career and it would not surprise me if he was nominated come awards time; he is most certainly deserving of winning for his portrayal of Fletcher.  Obviously, credit must also be given to the film’s writer/director Damien Chazelle, who created a fascinating screenplay with many clever plot twists; his direction is also quite commendable as he is unafraid to move the camera to create dramatic effect, not unlike Scorsese. 

“Whiplash” asks quite a few valid questions:  “What price is success?”, “Where does commitment end and obsession begin?” and “How far can talent alone take you?” are just a few.  I would suggest that another question would also be if the character of Fletcher is really the bad guy here?  It might be a facile response to answer in the affirmative, thinking it through a bit more before replying may be in order here.  Arguably, Fletcher could be seen as being on Andrew’s side, trying to wring every drop of talent out of this boy’s body.  Likewise, one could make a case that Andrew is his own worst enemy as he makes sacrifices for his art that immensely diminish his own humanity in other ways. 


Whiplash (2014) on IMDb

Monday, October 06, 2014

“St. Vincent”– Movie Review



Tonight, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club, the New York City Premiere of “St. Vincent”, a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts.


When a scurrilous old man befriends a boy with recently-divorced parents, both wind up being each other’s best friends in a desperate time of need – but will their friendship jeopardize the custody battle the boy’s mother is fighting?


Fresh from a divorce, Maggie (McCarthy) is looking for a fresh start when she and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move into a house in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn – unfortunately, they’re right next door to Vincent (Murray), a grumpy, reprobate who lives by himself.  Right from the first day, their paths cross in the most unfortunate of ways and it seems they are doomed to forever be mortal enemies with each other.  But when Maggie’s job as a nurse requires her to work frequent overtime, she realizes she has no choice but to leave Oliver with Vincent and pay him to be her boy’s “babysitter”.

Unknown to Maggie, Vincent is teaching Oliver all of his bad habits:  they hang out in bars so Vincent can drink all day, they go to the racetrack so Oliver can watch Vincent lose what little money he has left and the boy even gets introduced to Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant stripper Vincent occasionally hires to perform “personal services” when he requires an outlet for female companionship.  When Oliver isn’t hanging around Vincent, he’s having a tough time at school – as the new kid, he’s encountering trouble adjusting and winds up being bullied by his classmates. 

Maggie learns that her ex-husband wants to take her to court to battle for custody of Oliver.  Just when she thinks she’s well on her way to having sole custody of the boy, Maggie discovers the truth about what Vincent and Oliver have been doing together while she’s at work.  Furious about having been scammed, she hires a real babysitter and forbids Oliver from ever seeing Vincent again.  But has Maggie acted in time or will she wind up losing custody of Oliver despite her best efforts? 



Despite being able to boast a noteworthy cast, there’s not much to recommend when it comes to “St. Vincent”, which was written by Theodore Melfi, who is also directing his first feature film.  With a witless, trite screenplay that strings together one predictable scene after another, no one in the cast – or Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced this tripe – will be able to seriously brag about “St. Vincent” being among their best work.  In fact, perhaps the less said the better.  Given the major acting talent at play here, it’s a shame they didn’t get material worthy of their talents. 

Fans of Melissa McCarthy will be disappointed in knowing that her part is very serious; she does not get a chance to do the comedy for which we all know and love her and she seems constricted in her scenes.  Murray gets to alternate between dramatic turns and the slacker type that he has played so well over the years.  Watts appears to be in this primarily for the opportunity to play a character with a Russian accent.  Maybe they were doing Weinstein a favor by being in this movie or perhaps there were other reasons for this choice.  Either way, they should be grateful that this is an immensely forgettable film.

Following the screening, there was an interview with the writer/director and most of the cast (McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd – who plays a priest – were not present).  Several times, Murray made the point of stating how easy it was to push around first-time director Melfi – and to make things even more awkward, he did not appear to be kidding.  Murray seemed annoyed at being forced to be present for this event and even went on to insult Melfi to his face by saying, “[Melfi] has a lot of energy and it takes a lot of energy to make a movie, even to make a really bad movie”. 

St. Vincent (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, October 05, 2014

“Time Out Of Mind”– Movie Review



This weekend at The New York Film Festival, I caught the United States Premiere of “Time Out Of Mind”, a drama starring Richard Gere.


When a homeless man tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter, will he be rebuffed or can she forgive him for abandoning her years before?


With his life having been in something of a free-fall for the past number of years, George (Gere) is scuffling to survive in New York City – whether it’s living in an abandoned apartment or sleeping on a park bench, he’ll do whatever he must in order to make it to another day.  Alcohol being at the heart of his downfall, George will literally sell the clothes on his back in order to get a six-pack of beer or a bottle of vodka.  After having his fill of not knowing where he’ll be able to live from day to day, George relents and seeks help from the city to place him in a homeless shelter. 

Once he’s situated, George sets out on a task equally if not more important to him – to reunite with his grown daughter Maggie (Jena Malone).  Tracking her down to the pub where she works as a bartender, he asks a stranger to hand her some old photos from her childhood – but upon seeing them, she immediately knows where they came from and is not interested in seeing her father.  Eventually, George sees her at a neighborhood laundromat and musters the courage to confront her in person.  Angered that he would have the nerve to seek her out, Maggie informs George in no uncertain terms that she is completely uninterested in having a relationship with him since he seemed unconcerned with having a relationship with her when she was a child. 

During his stay at the homeless shelter, George is befriended by a fellow resident named Dixon (Ben Vereen), an incessantly chatty old man who claims to have been a successful jazz pianist in his day.  Dixon has been in the business of being homeless for a long time and has learned how to work the system to his advantage; seeing George is a bit naïve when it comes to how to play the game, Dixon decides to take George under his wing and teach him how he gets what he needs.  Unfortunately, George runs into the brick wall of bureaucracy since the city cannot proceed with assistance until and unless he is able to present them with some documentation regarding his identity.  When he gets a letter from the city’s homeless advocate to facilitate the necessary paperwork, he brings this to Maggie in the hope this will prove to her that he’s at least making an effort to get back on his feet again.  But will this cause Maggie to resume a relationship with George or will she continue to reject him at every opportunity? 


Consider the plight of the homeless:  drifting about aimlessly, they are without direction and stumble about doomed by their own befuddled logic.  This might also serve as an apt description of this film about the homeless.  “Time Out Of Mind” is undone by its meandering screenplay by its director Oren Moverman, which seems to have a hard time getting its story started; at two hours, this movie feels as though it’s far longer in its running time.  Having more of the look and feel of a documentary, this has no perceptible dramatic momentum that would propel the story forward. 

There is a certain flatness to the story structure of “Time Out Of Mind” and the characters seem to lack a clear reason for doing what they’re doing – except for Maggie, who makes it clear why she’s against the idea of re-establishing a familial relationship with her father.  We have very little idea of who George was before he became homeless and when we see him digging his hole ever deeper, it is impossible to have very much sympathy for him; when you have a protagonist that an audience cannot root for, your film is in plenty of trouble. 

Following the screening, the director and cast members were interviewed.  Gere said that his initial involvement came about a decade ago when he was originally sent the script; he vacillated when it came to committing to make the movie – his reluctance was due to the fact that he felt the script as originally written did not work.  When he worked on “I’m Not There”, he liked Moverman’s screenplay so much that he wound up asking him to do a rewrite of his script about the homeless.  Jena Malone mentioned that she did not have to do very much research about being homeless because she herself was homeless early in her career, being forced to live in her car for an extended period of time.  


Time Out of Mind (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, October 04, 2014

“Inherent Vice”– Movie Review



Tonight, I attended The Centerpiece screening at The New York Film Festival, seeing the World Premiere of “Inherent Vice”, starring Joaquin Phoenix and written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; it is based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon. 


When a private investigator is hired by his ex-girlfriend to locate her new billionaire boyfriend who’s mysteriously disappeared, he winds up also being forced to explore her own sudden vanishing – but after he uncovers an Asian drug cartel and possible police corruption, will he live long enough to locate the missing persons?


In 1970, hippy private investigator Doc Sportello (Phoenix) is pretty much doing what his peers of this era are doing:  hanging out at a beachside Los Angeles community and spending more time getting high than working.  One night, however, he is asked to go to work by his ex-girlfriend whose new boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), has turned up missing.  Mickey is a wealthy real estate developer who is married, but he and his wife have something of an open relationship (she has a boyfriend of her own); Doc’s ex suspects that Mickey’s wife has hatched a plot to get her husband out of the way so that she can have his money. 

Reluctantly, Doc takes the case, but mostly because he’s still in love with his former flame.  Once he gets started in his investigation, he realizes there’s more to this case than meets the eye and things get increasingly complicated.  For one thing, Police Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) is behaving oddly, causing Doc to become suspicious that maybe he’s in on the plan.  Checking out some of Mickey’s background, he stumbles upon a massage parlor that may be used as a money laundering business for an Asian syndicate called Golden Fang which smuggles heroin into the United States. 

Using his network of connections, Doc digs a little deeper into the situation, which only becomes increasingly confusing the more he uncovers.  Eventually, Doc gains access to an insane asylum where it is believed Mickey has been cloistered.  But when he succeeds in finding Mickey there, it appears that the billionaire is completely satisfied with being held in these peaceful surroundings.  Instead, Doc happens upon another resident of the asylum, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who is believed to have a connection to Golden Fang.  Can Doc successfully free Coy and locate his ex-girlfriend while surviving the wrath of the drug cartel? 


With director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous feature film “The Master”, many critics took issue with the movie itself but were captivated by some of the performances – including that of Joaquin Phoenix.  Déjà vu.  While “Inherent Vice” may have been highly anticipated by fans of both Anderson and the Pynchon novel on which it is based, this film adaptation is nothing short of an incoherent mess that has precious little going for it that is worth recommending.  Although Phoenix and Brolin have scenes both together and separately that are very funny, they are hardly a reason to see “Inherent Vice”. 

When word circulated that Anderson was making “Inherent Vice”, there was great curiosity; not only would this be the first film adaptation of a Pynchon novel, but also, people familiar with the book wondered how this could be made into a movie.  The end result, it would appear, is that this apprehension was completely justified; adapting the work was clearly a task too difficult for even a filmmaker as talented and experienced as Anderson.  Although “Inherent Vice” will not be considered among Anderson’s best, it may ultimately be considered something of a noble failure.

Prior to the screening, Anderson was brought on stage to introduce the movie.  Behind him, a slide with the logo for the Film Festival was being projected on the same screen on which the film would be shown; below the logo was the slogan for The Film Society Of Lincoln Center:  “Film Lives Here”.  Anderson pointed to this and announced with pride that the slogan was more than merely words:  the experience we were about to share would be viewed on a 35mm print, rather than on DCP.  In this era of new technology, Anderson was rightly proud to have gone old school in shooting this motion picture. 


Inherent Vice (2014) on IMDb