Sunday, November 23, 2014

“Monk With A Camera”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new documentary “Monk With A Camera”. 


When a man from a privileged background turns his back on his family’s wealth in order to become a monk, can he find a rewarding life in work that is foreign to most in the western world?


Nicky Vreeland seemed to have the perfect life.  As the grandson of Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue Magazine, he developed an acute awareness of fashion; growing up, he turned into something of a fop.  Nicky’s father, Frederick, was a diplomat; as a result, he had a childhood that provided the rare opportunity for him to live in a number of different countries around the world.  Eventually, his family settled down; when they returned to America, they lived in New York and Nicky was sent to a boarding school.  Even though Nicky was around boys his own age, he was still something of an outsider, being unfamiliar with the culture and lacking the frame of reference within which they were raised in this society.

In his adolescence, Nicky was also fortunate in the regard that he had a great many female friends who enjoyed his company.  As far as his career, however, he developed an interest in photography and, thanks in no small part to his grandmother, was able to secure work as a photographer through a connection to Richard Avedon, the renowned fashion photographer whose work frequently appeared in Vogue Magazine.  It would seem that Nicky’s life was all set, except for one thing:  he was restless.  Nicky believed that there was something more to be experienced in life and that’s what set him out to seek a life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. 

From the late 1970’s, Nicky served as a monk at a monastery located in India; exhibiting an earnest discipline rare among westerners, he soon gained respect by both his peers and superiors alike.  Many years later, when his monastery needed to expand, he sought out his family’s friends to make generous contributions – but when The Great Recession hit in late 2008, they found they were no longer able to honor their pledges.  Needing money with the monastery partially built, he returned to his love of photography; Nicky took pictures of various locations and put them in an exhibit to raise money to complete construction.  Having raised $400,000 to complete the job, The Dalai Lama named him Abbot of the monastery. 


No doubt about it, the story of Nicky Vreeland forsaking his family’s wealth in favor of a substantially more modest and spiritual lifestyle is certainly compelling.  This, of course, begs the quite reasonable question of what in the world Richard Gere has to do with any of this?  Gere, allegedly a devout Buddhist, appears in the film and granted an interview about Vreeland.  Originally, he agreed to appear at one of the screenings to help promote the movie, but subsequently (and mysteriously) withdrew.  Whether that’s because he saw a final cut of the documentary and didn’t care to lend his support to it or because he had a better offer, we’ll never know. 

As a documentary, it is a story well told, with a beginning, middle and end.  How much footage was shot in order to tell this story (and how much was discarded in the editing process), would be interesting to know.  Nevertheless, it is well-structured; we are given a clear understanding of Vreeland’s not-so-humble beginnings as well as his introduction to Buddhism; as he displays a deep commitment to this lifestyle and beliefs, he acquires greater “street-cred” in this community.  Upon showing how he could muster the finances required to complete the monastery and temple, The Dalai Lama meets him at a swank hotel room in Long Beach, California (crashed by Gere) and bestows upon him the title of Abbot in a fitting conclusion to the story. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session between the audience and the film’s co-directors, Tina Mascara, Guido Santi and Vreeland himself.  When asked about Gere’s appearance in the documentary, Mascara said that he was attending a class instructed by The Dalai Lama, who invited him to attend the ceremony where Vreeland was made an Abbot.  She claimed that originally, they did not set out to make a movie about Vreeland himself; rather, their intention was to shoot a documentary about Westerners who became monks – when they kept coming upon Vreeland’s name, they knew that was where there story had to be. 


Monk With a Camera (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“Take Care”– Movie Review


take care

This week in my movie class, we saw the romantic comedy “Take Care” starring Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski.


Following an accident, a woman is forced to ask her ex-boyfriend to look after her until she recovers – but will their renewed friendship threaten his new relationship?


Incurring injuries after being hit by a car, Frannie (Bibb) returns home only to find that with a broken arm and leg she’s unable to care for herself.  Although she has friends and family not far away, Frannie quickly comes to the bitter realization that she cannot rely on them to help her.  Running out of options, Frannie reluctantly calls on Devon (Sadoski), her ex-boyfriend who now lives with his new girlfriend, Jodi (Betty Gilpin).  Although Devon is hesitant to agree, Frannie finally convinces him to do so when she reminds Devon that when they were together,she dutifully cared for him when he was ill. 

Every day for weeks, Devon checks in on Frannie, feeding her, taking her to doctor appointments, shampooing her hair and performing various other tasks.  During this time, Jodi grows increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of her boyfriend spending so much of his spare time with his ex-girlfriend; becoming understandably insecure, she expresses great concern that they are drifting apart the more Devon is with Frannie, depriving Jodi of his companionship.  Eventually, the inevitable occurs; with Devon and Frannie being around each other so much, they start to rekindle romantic feelings once again. 

Ultimately, Jodi finds out that this whole thing is rapidly spinning out of control and she is genuinely in danger of losing her man.  Finally, Jodi confronts Frannie about this and accuses her of delaying her recovery in order to steal Devon away from her.  Although Devon strenuously denies that Frannie is doing any such thing, Jodi doesn’t believe him; seeing how this arrangement is apparently driving a wedge in between Devon and Jodi, Frannie tells Devon that it is probably in everyone’s best interest if he were to stop immediately.  But as Frannie gradually recuperates, will Devon and Jodi be able to resume their relationship or have things gone too far by now?


While there may be women who cringe at the term “Check Flick”, would it be any better to refer to a movie like this as “Girl Porn”?  Either way is an accurate description of “Take Care”.  Although a film that would obviously have great appeal for a female audience, you might not want to force your man to sit through this because there’s very little there that would appeal to him.   For something that is categorizing itself in the genre of Romantic Comedy, there’s a surfeit of “romantic” and a dearth of “comedy”; “Take Care” is either not very funny or not funny frequently enough, depending on your perspective. 

Why “Girl Porn”?  Thematically, “Take Care” focuses on an idea that captivates a number of women:  payback for a perceived injustice by a former lover.  Here, not only does Frannie get Devon to admit that he did her a disservice, she tries to win him back, effectively attempting to take him from another woman to whom he has been rather loyal thus far.  These are not exactly the most admirable characteristics of your protagonist.  Add to this the fact that Frannie is made out to be a needy, vulnerable and burdensome heroine and one must reasonably ask why the audience should be rooting for someone so weak and lacking in character. 

Following the screening, the instructor interviewed the writer-director of “Take Care”, Liz Tuccillo.  After directing her first feature, Tuccillo said that before she directs another, she would first like to take a course to learn technical information about cameras work.  She added that one of the most frustrating aspects of shooting had to do with filming in the streets of New York City – there were so many outdoor shots that got interrupted because of noises beyond her control (e.g., airplanes, ambulances, etc.) that they wound up having to do many takes.  A small budget independent film, they were scheduled to shoot for only 18 days, but wound up spending 19 because of rain on one day. 


Take Care (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

“Horrible Bosses 2”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the comedy “Horrible Bosses 2”, starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. 


When three friends start their own business, they are swindled out of their company by a dishonest investor – but after an attempted kidnapping, will their poorly-planned scheme earn them the revenge they seek?


Nick, Kurt and Dale (Bateman, Sudeikis and Day) have finally had it with working for other people:  they’ve finally quit their jobs in order to start their own business manufacturing Dale’s invention, The Shower Buddy – a device that gives the user a thorough and expedient washing.  Not the most business-savvy types – and seemingly lacking an entrepreneurial bone in their body – the three men promote their new idea in order to get venture capitalists interested in their endeavor.  The men think they’ve found the angel they’ve been looking for when they are contacted by a top executive at a major company (Christoph Waltz). 

Meeting with the executive, they are given what initially appears to be a generous offer of a large order in their device in addition to assistance in securing a business loan that will help them grow their company.  At the last minute, however, the executive pulls the plug on the deal, which results in the men losing ownership of the company they started.  Humiliated and furious, the group come up with an idea to try to reclaim at least some of their money:  they will kidnap Rex (Chris Pine), the executive’s son, and collect a tidy ransom in exchange for his safe return. 

Unfortunately for them, the kidnapping plot goes hopelessly awry; when Rex learns of the scheme, it gives him an idea for how to get back at the father with whom he’s long had a difficult relationship.  Rex offers to collaborate with the trio on the plan and split the ransom with them; desperate and still with nothing to show for their efforts, they reluctantly agree to allow Rex to join them.  But as they proceed, the men begin to suspect that Rex’s erratic behavior will cause their new plan to fail just as badly.  Finally, when it seems that Rex has double-crossed them, will these three wind up doing time or will they be able to avoid arrest and have the truth about Rex revealed to the police?   


Nick, Kurt and Dale from “Horrible Bosses 2” may be the most imbecilic three men to star in the same film since The Three Stooges; depending on your opinion of The Three Stooges, that may or may not be a good thing. What’s promising about “Horrible Bosses 2” is the fact that there are a few good laughs and some of the best characters from the original movie – namely M-F Jones (Jamie Foxx), Dave (Kevin Spacey) and Julia (Jennifer Aniston) – all reappear in the sequel, to varying degrees.  Arguably the funniest character from the first film, Aniston’s Julia supplies some of the biggest and most raucous laughs from her bawdy antics. 

For those that never saw the first “Horrible Bosses”, this may very well be a pleasant find – however, there were quite a few members of the class that walked out on this movie long before it was over (the outrageous humor certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea).  On the other hand, if you were a fan of the previous installment, this sequel may prove something of a disappointment; the favorite characters – especially Aniston as the horny dentist – aren’t in this as much as the first film, and as a consequence, it isn’t quite as funny.  Also, the plot in this one isn’t quite as clever as in the first and sometimes feels a bit convoluted; in some ways, it feels as though the filmmakers wanted to make a carbon copy of the first “Horrible Bosses”, especially when it came to the resolution of the story.

While “Horrible Bosses 2” certainly isn’t terrible, it doesn’t quite stand up to the original; you may want to hold off on seeing this in the theaters unless you’re looking to escape the family during the holiday (it opens around Thanksgiving); renting it might be a better option – it’s definitely got some entertainment value, but nothing worth rushing out at your earliest opportunity.  The possibility of another sequel may depend on the success of this movie; although that may not be in the cards, if it does happen, hopefully the next one will focus on Aniston’s hilarious character. 


Saturday, November 08, 2014

“Actress”– Movie Review



This week at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center, I attended the opening night screening of the new documentary “Actress” starring Brandy Burre.


Following a hiatus to start a family, an actress attempts to resume her career – but when personal problems arise, will they hamper her efforts?


Arguably, Brandy Burre’s big break as an actress came when she appeared on the noted HBO television series “The Wire”; prior to that, most of her résumé included theater work.  Once that ended, she decided to take time off from her career in order to start a family with her partner, Tim.  Together, they wound up moving to the New York City suburban community of Beacon, New York where they purchased a house and had a son and daughter; additionally, they also co-own a pair of restaurants in the area.  All seems well for the first few years until Brandy begins to get the itch to act once again. 

As Brandy seeks auditions and sings at New York City cabarets, she senses Tim’s lack of support in this endeavor and feels he may be withdrawing; she then becomes romantically involved with Chris while she continues to live with Tim and raise their children as Tim focuses on running his businesses – all the while, completely oblivious to the fact that Brandy has a little something on the side.  Brandy admits that she and Tim did not know each other for a very long time before they decided to settle down; she became pregnant after they were seeing each other for about three months, confessing that she wasn’t terribly well thought out when it came to the matter of family planning. 

Eventually, Tim discovers Brandy’s secret and is understandably furious; he moves out of their house and rents a small apartment in town.  Although he occasionally comes by their house to perform routine maintenance and keep an eye on the kids while Brandy is otherwise occupied, the couple have worked out at least a temporary joint custody agreement, where she drops off their children at Tim’s place for overnight stays.  While all of this turmoil plays itself out, Brandy remains committed to finding acting work of almost any kind.  But will she be able to step back into her career after such a long time away from acting and all of the distractions in her family life?     


Are we being hoodwinked here?  Is “Actress” truly a documentary?  Or is this just the next manipulative and opportunistic step by Brandy Burre in some kind of pathetic attempt to jump-start a stalled career?  It would seem that the events of this documentary may be true, but given the degree of attention this film has been receiving, Burre’s scheme – if indeed it is that – seems to be working.  Ultimately, an actress (or actor) is always performing – and that is especially true when there is a camera being pointed at him or her. 

While much of the documentary covers some of the more mundane aspects of Burre’s life – cleaning and traveling to auditions – there is also a great deal of footage captured of her talking directly to the camera; in these monologues (soliloquies?), she is provided an opportunity to give her side of the story.  On the other hand, Tim, her former partner, has no such scenes, despite the fact that he obviously consented to appear in this film.  Why is he not interviewed?  Well, perhaps because he’s not an actor and as a result, is less dramatically compelling on camera and has less of a presence.  Or perhaps it is because the filmmaker only wanted to present one side of the story. 

Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with Burre and the documentary’s director  Robert Greene.  Greene said that he shot for a period of about three to four months and ultimately acquired somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 hours of footage which he eventually edited down to this hour-and-a-half documentary.  He added that none of those who appeared in his documentary signed a release form; Greene claims he chose to go that route because since he was friends with Brandy and Tim, he always wanted to give them the chance to back-out of the situation at any time. 


Actress (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

“The Theory Of Everything”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new biographical drama, “The Theory Of Everything”, the story of Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane; it stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. 


After Stephen Hawking is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he gets married and starts a family while continuing his work as a physicist – but when he outlives predictions of his death, will his debilitating disease also debilitate his marriage?


In 1963, Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) is studying at England’s Cambridge University to earn a PhD in physics when he meets Jane (Jones), a student focusing on poetry.  Impressed with Stephen’s intelligence, Jane finds herself drawn to him and they wind up spending an increasing amount of time together.  One day, Stephen suffers a fall and is hospitalized; after physicians run a battery of tests on him, Stephen is told that he has an incurable progressive neurological disorder and the grim prognosis is that he will succumb to it in approximately two years.

Jane remains undaunted by the tragic news and convinces him that they should marry; shortly thereafter, they begin a family and Stephen lives long enough to see his children reach school age – proving the doctors’ estimates of his life expectancy wrong.  Over time, however, Stephen’s health deteriorates; between caring for him and their children, Jane is understandably worn down.  They agree to take in Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a local music teacher, to help Jane take care of Stephen while she tends to the children.  Eventually, the arrangement is forced to end when suspicions arise that Jane and Jonathan are having an affair. 

When Stephen is hospitalized with pneumonia, he must undergo a tracheotomy, which results in the loss of his ability to speak.  Needing professional help with her husband’s worsening condition, Jane hires Elaine (Maxine Peake), a nurse who teaches Stephen how to communicate despite his lack of speech.  Inspired to write the book that will eventually become “A Brief History Of Time”, Stephen ultimately finds that he is falling in love with Elaine.  But will Stephen’s new-found feelings for Elaine cause the end of his marriage to Jane or will their love overcome Stephen’s temptation?



The performances of Redmayne and Jones make “The Theory Of Everything” worth seeing, but it is Redmayne, contorting his face and body as he portrays an ever-diminished Hawking, that really stands out.  Part of the problem, however, is that as Hawking’s motor skills deteriorated, so did his ability to speak; as a result, Redmayne is periodically difficult to understand when he articulates his lines.  Jones’ version of Jane doesn’t appear as a saint so much as a strong-willed woman who knew early on what she wanted then went out to get it and remained dedicated even in life’s bleakest moments.  

That said, it is worth questioning how true the movie is to The Hawkings’ real life, especially when considering that it is based on a book written by the former Mrs. Hawking.  Neither Stephen nor Jane come across as flawless, but they do seem almost blameless even in their personal shortcomings.  While both are presented as heroic, it is Jane who is conveyed even more so because it was her choice to remain with her husband; her self-sacrificing nature makes her loyal to a fault.  Again, based on her book, how could Jane be otherwise?

“The Theory Of Everything” is both a biography and a romance – albeit one that may challenge the traditional notion of what a happy ending might be.  What makes the story so unbelievable is the fact that it is true; if this had been based on a novel, an audience’s suspension of disbelief would likely be tested, to say the least.  While no one could question Hawking’s brilliance, it would not be out of order to question his ethics, especially when his notoriety grew.  The fact that the movie relentlessly holds this extraordinary scientist in the highest esteem may be its greatest failing – that he is never colored as a villain at any point doesn’t necessarily ring true. 

The Theory of Everything (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, November 02, 2014

“Goodbye To Language”– Movie Review



This weekend, I saw the new 3-D movie by Jean-Luc Godard, “Goodbye To Language” starring Roxy, the director’s dog (yes, you read that right).


The legendary director’s experiment with 3-D filmmaking, implementing some rather unorthodox techniques.


The film is told in two parts:  “Nature” and “Metaphor”.  In each part, the director ventures into various uses of visual and audible trickery to fool both the eye and ear of the viewer.  The visual images include the use of 3-D, but also use brilliant colors that almost seem to explode on the screen in each shot; scenes vary from feelings of hallucination to dreams – and sometimes even nightmares.  The audio is used to vary in volume during different points in the movie and at times, even varying within a single scene; the use of distortion is also occasionally applied to alarming effect.

The story – to the extent that there is one – appears to be about the struggling relationship of an incessantly bickering couple who are prone to inscrutable dialog ranging from philosophical, to political to religious in nature.  In addition to the new footage shot for the film are stock footage and scenes from documentaries as well as scenes from old movies interspersed all throughout.  While there is occasional full-frontal nudity, it seems to mostly concentrate on the female, who proudly sports full bush; the male, on the other hand, is often seen (and, to be sure, heard) on the toilet – even his evacuations have political overtones, or so Godard would have us believe.  

Roxy the dog plays a part in the couple’s life as not only their pet, but their surrogate offspring.  Ambivalent about bringing a new life into the world, they instead decide to adopt a dog, which they bring on their outings and vacations.  The ever-obedient pet is playful, loyal and loving but is never actually seen with its owners; instead, we only ever see Roxy joyously running about the countryside, rolling around in the snow and in a rare moment of repose, gazing pier-side upon a lake.  In a movie of many unsettling moments, this is one of the more tranquil scenes. 


Normally, I don’t write movie reviews about films after they’ve already opened, but I decided to make an exception with “Goodbye To Language” for reasons I’ll get into later.  In fact, there’s a good chance that by the time you read this, it may no longer be available (it ends its run at New York City’s Lincoln Center on Thursday, November 6th). However, despite the fact that it’s by the frequently divisive Jean-Luc Godard, it’s interesting to see how new technology can be used in an old medium by a veteran filmmaker. 

For people far more knowledgeable about art than I am, they may detect a sense of Impressionism in Godard’s “Goodbye To Language”.  Whether you see Godard as a genius or a buffoon, he has made it clear that storytelling is subordinate to the creativity of filmmaking.  Rather than lay out a clear-cut narrative, the director instead chooses to toy with the audience via both sights and sounds that may disturb, amuse or confuse – sometimes, a combination of all three.  Should you choose to see “Goodbye To Language”, don’t bother trying to figure it out or find a story; instead, treat it as though you are viewing a type of performance art or are at a museum of surrealist paintings. 

So why did I bother writing a review of this movie?  The press that covers motion pictures have created a considerable amount of buzz around “Goodbye To Language” and it got me curious, which is why I decided to see it in the first place.  For another thing, since I’m fortunate enough to live in New York City, one of the few places showing the film, I felt as though I owed it to myself to see the picture.  But therein lies another reason:  “Goodbye To Language” may be the most fascinating movie you’ll never see simply because it’s so unusual.  For a more detailed explanation of why this is so, you might want to read the Indiewire article, “Why Theaters Are Refusing to Book Godard's Moneymaking 3D 'Goodbye to Language'”.

Goodbye to Language 3D (2014) on IMDb