Thursday, July 30, 2015

“The End Of The Tour”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “The End Of The Tour”, starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.


When a journalist is sent to interview a best-selling author during his book promotion, how will spending several days together impact the life of both men?


In the mid-1990’s, the new novel “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace (Segel) created quite a cultural buzz around the country. Written in a unique voice and style, the book doesn’t take long to become a hit and as its author, Wallace himself is soon finding himself to be a celebrity. Working at Rolling Stone magazine around this time, David Lipsky (Eisenberg) pitches to his boss the idea of an extensive interview with Wallace; reluctantly, Lipsky’s editor consents and immediately sends his young reporter to Wallace’s home in Bloomington, Indiana to trail him as his promotional tour winds down.

Lipsky undertakes this assignment with great zeal, not just because he admires Wallace’s work, but because of more personal – arguably, more selfish – reasons: Lipsky himself is an aspiring author who seeks the level of notoriety Wallace is now gaining. Just a few years younger than the mid-thirties Wallace, Lipsky is eager to learn how Wallace’s mind works and what differences have occurred in his life, given how drastically it has changed with the sudden success. Observing how Wallace teaches his writing class at a local college, it is clear to Lipsky how Wallace’s students hold their instructor in high esteem.

Wallace has to head to Minneapolis-St. Paul to appear at a book signing at a local store, then be interviewed on a radio station. Lipsky tags along so he can glean even more information about the inscrutable novelist. Things seem to be going well; after being initially cautious, the two men eventually bond and appear to trust each other. Things go somewhat awry, however, when Wallace incorrectly interprets Lipsky’s conversation with an ex-girlfriend of Wallace as an attempt to pick her up. Despite Lipsky’s denial, the bond between the men has been broken and the trust violated. With Lipsky’s assignment nearing its conclusion, will he be able to resurrect the rapport the two previously had in order to ask his subject key questions essential to the interview?


“The End Of The Tour” is a curious amalgam of the popular Buddy Film and Road Trip Movie genres. If you liked a movie such as director Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre”, then there is an excellent chance you will appreciate “The End Of The Tour” as well; to some degree, the two are somewhat similar in that they’re both essentially about an extended, wide-ranging conversation between a pair of intellectuals. However, just as the main criticism of “Andre” was that it was very “talky”, the same complaint may be made about “The End Of The Tour”. Ultimately, what will determine whether or not you’ll enjoy this motion picture will rely considerably on how fascinating you find the conversation (again, not unlike “Andre”).

The story takes place in a flashback; having just learned of Wallace’s death by suicide in 2008, Lipsky replays the audio recordings of the original interview in order to reminisce about the experience. It then concludes with Lipsky reading from his book about the interview, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace”; it was this book on which is the movie “The End Of The Tour” is based. Largely, the success of the film will rest on whether you believe Wallace was a brilliantly talented writer or simply a kook (the author’s history of substance abuse, institutionalization and prior suicide attempts are all referenced to various degrees).

There is also the matter of Lipsky’s hero worship as portrayed in “The End Of The Tour”: either you share it or you don’t and if you don’t then it may prove difficult – if not utterly impossible – to truly and completely grok this movie. Neither of the characters in this film come across as entirely sympathetic, which of course makes it rather a challenge to root for either one. What both Lipsky and Wallace have in common with each other is their self-absorbed personality. Wallace was clearly a deeply disturbed individual; while Lipsky may not have had either his success or his talent in common with him, neither did he have Wallace’s demons in common either,

The End of the Tour (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“People Places Things”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new comedy, “People Places Things” starring Jemaine Clement at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When a man is confronted with an unforeseen divorce, can he resolve his feelings about his ex-wife while raising their children and trying to get on with the rest of his life?


During the fifth birthday party of his twin daughters Clio and Colette (Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, respectively), Will (Clement) is frantically trying to keep order, but he gets more than just a little bit distracted when he stumbles upon his wife Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) in flagrante delicto with Gary (Michael Chernus) in their own home. Confronting them, Will is understandably furious but Charlie informs him that she wants a divorce so that she can be with Gary; much to Will’s shock and dismay, it turns out that Charlie has been unhappy in their marriage for a very long time and now wants out.

A year after their divorce, Will finds himself living in a small apartment by himself – but when custody arrangements permit, the daughters periodically visit. Complicating matters is the fact that Charlie announced to Will that she and Gary are now making plans to get married -- and that she’s currently carrying Gary’s baby. This makes Will more than slightly uncomfortable because he was long holding out hope that they would eventually enjoy a successful reconciliation. Inconsolable at this news, Will’s work – both as a college instructor and a cartoonist – suffers greatly as he falls deeper into a depression.

With Will in obvious pain, Kat (Jessica Williams), one of his students, tries to set him up with her mother, Diane (Regina Hall). Initially, things do not go well: unbeknownst to Kat, Diane has been dating someone. Not only that, but, as a literature professor herself, she is also very dismissive of what Will does for a living. Despite all of that, they inadvertently wind up spending some time with each other and a mutual attraction develops. Although Will seems to be finding a degree of happiness in his newfound romance, he starts having questions as Charlie’s wedding draws near. Will he be able to put his past with Charlie behind him and concentrate on his relationship with Diane?


“Happiness is an unsustainable condition” is a favorite line in “People Places Things”; while it may be an incisive observation, it is not particularly funny. In that sense, at least it’s consistent with the rest of the movie. While trying to create dramatic situations that put Will in comedic predicaments, filmmaker Jim Strouse merely winds up planting the character in a jam that he clearly could have avoided; the plot points to move the story forward are contrived, to say the least. It may be believable for characters in “Dumb And Dumber” to find themselves in such pickles, but not the characters with such presumed intelligence as the ones in this film. Despite a good cast obviously quite comfortable in comedy, they are unable to elevate this material beyond the mere trite.

Another problem with “People Places Things” is the way in which the central characters are presented in the story.  As a protagonist, Will spends a considerable amount of screen time wallowing in his own self-pity for so long that it makes him decidedly unsympathetic; obviously, this doesn’t particularly help the film terribly much. Charlie, Will’s ex-wife, is set up to be such an unlikeable character at the outset of the motion picture that it’s hard to understand why an audience would root for she and Will to get back together.

Following the screening, the writer/director Jim Strouse was interviewed. Strouse talked about some of the challenges encountered working as an independent filmmaker; although he can make movies, he can’t rely on that as his sole source of income. Like the character Will in “People Places Things”, he teaches a college course (although his subject is screenplay writing, not cartooning). Strouse noted that while various technological changes have made filmmaking easier to a degree (e.g., digital cameras and delivery/distribution mechanisms via the Internet), it has gotten considerably harder to make any money as a filmmaker these days.

People Places Things (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Southpaw”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club special event: the premiere of the new drama “Southpaw”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Antoine Fuqua


When a champion prizefighter loses everything, can he return to the ring and recapture his former success?



In the ring, Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has a style that’s becoming increasingly dangerous: he allows his opponent to beat the daylights out of him for several rounds before retaliating and ultimately defeating him. The more fights he has, the more of a pounding he takes, but this unorthodox technique has given him an undefeated record and won him a championship belt. Not even his influential wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) can dissuade him from this method, although she is entrusted with advising him on other career matters, much to the dismay of his ruthless manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson).

Following a charity event, Hope is publically confronted by another boxer, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gómez), who hopes to take the championship from him. Creating a scene, he brazenly taunts Hope into a fistfight; Maureen unsuccessfully attempts to convince her husband to ignore him, but the urge to defend himself proves irresistible. During the donnybrook, a gunshot rings out -- Maureen is hit and fatally injured, leaving Hope to raise their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) alone. Unfortunately for the both of them, Hope is unable to show that he is up for the task and behaves irresponsibly, causing the court to remand Leila to Childrens Services.

Losing a subsequent match controversially, Hope reluctantly must relinquish his title and now finds himself suspended and unable to book any more fights for an extended period of time. Owing taxes and legal fees, Hope ultimately files bankruptcy and when the bank forecloses on his house, he’s homeless as well. With Mains abandoning Hope to ride the coattails of Escobar who seems destined for greatness, Hope desperately tries to regain his stature by seeking the help of gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) to be his new trainer. But can Hope return to the ring as a professional and retrieve his championship?


For those who enjoy formulaic movies, “Southpaw” may provide adequate entertainment value. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a formula; if it’s done well, the formula can yield a fun, engaging or suspenseful movie-going experience. In order for that to happen, however, the film has to have a good story (screenplay) which is well-told (directing) with convincing portrayals (acting). Unfortunately, “Southpaw” contains very little of the above. The screenplay by Kurt Sutter (“Sons Of Anarchy”) is trite and clichéd; Fuqua’s directing is uninspired, at times seeming to borrow shots from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”; and the acting by Gyllenhaall lacks verisimilitude -- his mumbling is a poor substitute for a real portrait of an uneducated kid from the streets.

One of the problems surrounding the formulaic aspects of “Southpaw” concerns its predictability. It doesn’t take ESP to anticipate which types of scenes will follow certain other scenes. For that matter, a good number of lines of dialog could probably be guessed by audience members before characters have a chance to emote them. Neither of these are a good sign. Another issue is that some events in the film just don’t ring true. For example, the investigation of the shooting itself: the police suspect the shooter may be someone from Hope’s entourage who could have been carrying an unregistered weapon. Couldn’t that be verified by having their forensics team perform a ballistics test on the pistol to determine when or even if it was fired? Also, a text messaging scene by Leila is almost unintentionally laughable.

On a more positive note, the soundtrack by Eminem, although sparsely integrated in “Southpaw”, is quite appropriate given the story; Mr. Mathers’ music actually does a better job of creating the gritty street-fighter atmosphere than anything else in the movie. Given that, it’s a bit of a shame that it is so under-utilized in this film. Obviously, that’s not going to be enough to save this motion picture. As for the acting, Rachel McAdams fans will be disappointed in her early exit; Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, gives his reliably realistic and solid performance as Hope’s new trainer -- but just as McAdams’ character leaves early, his character arrives late.


Southpaw (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, July 16, 2015

“Irrational Man”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of Woody Allen’s new comedy-drama, “Irrational Man”.


When a college professor finds something he believes may cure his depression, will it actually enhance his life or will it be ruined beyond repair?


With the Spring Semester recently concluded for a University in a small Rhode Island town, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) has accepted a job there to teach philosophy during the Summer Semester; since Abe has some degree of notoriety for having published rather controversial work in academic periodicals, both faculty and students alike have greatly anticipated his arrival.  But that isn’t the only reason for the chattering – gossip abounds regarding Abe’s reputation as something of a womanizer as well as rumors concerning his possible alcoholism.

Unfortunately, Abe is not quite as enthusiastic about his upcoming assignment as everyone else seems to be.  Professionally, he’s a burn-out case and personally, he’s a bit rudderless.  Having lost his way and left to question his life, Abe finds himself without purpose and not particularly enjoying his existence, whether in the classroom or out.  Despite this, Abe finds a pair of romantic opportunities unexpectedly crossing his path:  one is with Rita (Parker Posey), a fellow teacher at the same school.  The other is with Jill (Emma Stone), one of his students. 

While out with Jill, Abe overhears a woman talking about how a corrupt local judge has wrecked her life by awarding custody of her children to her irresponsible ex-husband.  Abe sees this as a chance for redemption:  if he can murder this judge, Abe believes his life will suddenly have the meaning that has been lacking thus far.  Devising an evil scheme which initially appears to succeed, Abe is confident he will get off scot-free.  However, things start to fall apart when Jill figures out Abe killed the judge.  But when Jill threatens to go to the authorities after Abe confesses to her, will he be able to prevent her from turning him in to the police?    


“Irrational Man” will neither be viewed as one of Woody Allen’s worst films, nor will it be considered one of his best; instead, it is somewhere in the middle.  As the filmmaker turns 80 at the end of this year, we may not know if he’s completely run out of ideas until his next motion picture – assuming there is one.  This is far from the first time that Allen has been self-derivative in his work – but as we have seen in the past, being self-derivative is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Woody Allen.  Sometimes, a mediocre Woody Allen movie can be better than most of the other choices in theaters; when it comes to “Irrational Man”, however, this may not be one of those times.

Occasionally, Woody Allen makes interesting musical choices in his movies and with “Irrational Man”, he uses Ramsey Lewis’ version of “The In Crowd” extensively – maybe too much, depending on your perspective.  Whether this is because he believes the song resonates a theme in his film or simply because he likes the tune is difficult to say.  The soundtrack is certainly varied as it ranges from this jazz standard (as well as others by Lewis) to classical music to the old standard, “Darn That Dream”.  Even if you don’t particularly care for the picture, it’s a pleasure to listen to its music.

Deserving special mention is cinematographer Darius Khondji, who has made this quaint Rhode Island location look so much like a commercial to vacation there that its Chamber of Commerce should thank him profusely; he’s shot the place beautifully, especially in scenes by the water.  Khondji has worked with Allen several times before on some of his previous films – Allen may feel he’s found the next Gordon Willis and he might just be right.  So, we’ve established that “Irrational Man” is nice to listen to and pleasant to look at, but is it entertaining to watch?  Maybe, but only if you’re interested in a rehash of themes the filmmaker already covered in “Crimes And Misdemeanors”. 

Irrational Man (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, July 09, 2015

“Tangerine”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview of the new comedy, “Tangerine”, at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center.


When a transgender prostitute finds out her boyfriend has cheated on her, she immediately sets out for revenge – but at what price?


On her first day of freedom after spending a month in jail, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender prostitute who works the streets of Los Angeles, is spending Christmas Eve with her best friend and co-worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) instead of with her pimp-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone), who’s suddenly turned up missing in action.  When Alexandra accidentally lets it slip that Chester cheated on Sin-Dee while she was locked up, this causes Sin-Dee to go understandably ballistic and she heads off to try to find her man and confront him about his alleged infidelity. 

Marching down the long streets on foot, Sin-Dee makes stops at many points along the way where she either spots other working girls or suspects Chester may be hanging out.  Alexandra, always by her friend’s side, uses these opportunities to promote her singing engagement that evening at a local nightclub.  When not earning a living by picking up fares in his cab, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), is picking up transgender streetwalkers – unbeknownst to his family; as such, he is a particularly frequent customer of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee.  Spotting Razmik in his cab, Alexandra takes a break from accompanying Sin-Dee to earn some quick cash for the holidays. 

Although Sin-Dee hasn’t been able to track down Chester, she does learn the whereabouts of Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), the other prostitute (and a biological female, at that!) under Chester’s employ – in fact, she was the one Chester was with during Sin-Dee’s incarceration.  Sin-Dee beats up Dinah and drags her all around town (including to Alexandra’s performance) while still in hot pursuit of Chester.  Once Sin-Dee discovers where Chester is hiding out, she brings Dinah with her to let Chester know she’s on to his hijinks – but when Razmik shows up looking for a date, chaos erupts.  As the argument rages on, it comes out that Chester has been cheating with other people aside from just Dinah.  After Sin-Dee is informed of this, will she still be able to trust others or will she lose all of her friends for good?  


For anyone not already aware, “Tangerine” was shot entirely on a mobile telephone – specifically, an Apple iPhone 5S.  Because of this – and because the movie was reported to have been well-received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – “Tangerine” has gotten quite a bit of buzz, a considerable amount of it positive.  Using multiple phones/cameras, specially-adapted lenses and Steadicam-like devices to prevent excessive shaking, the director and cinematographer shot the entire motion picture.  If you are interested in reading more about the technical aspects behind this film, there is this recent article from The New York Times.   

Considering the equipment used, “Tangerine” is a remarkable achievement in independent filmmaking.  The ability to capture the vivid colors alone (the glaring Los Angeles sunlight being especially noteworthy) is something that will immediately grab a viewer’s attention.  Simply put, it’s a great-looking film.  But there is also the danger of spending too much time awestruck by the technology used to make “Tangerine” and not enough analyzing it as a movie.  Regardless of how this motion picture was shot, it remains an interesting, well-told story with a deeply satisfying ending; add to this the fact that, as a comedy, it succeeds in being consistently funny, and “Tangerine” is definitely worth your time and effort to see.  All of that said, it’s still a little unclear where the title comes from; please feel free to chime in with any suggestions or observations. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with “Tangerine”’s director and co-writer, Sean Baker as well as a few members of the movie’s cast and crew.  Baker, a New Yorker, said that he got the idea for “Tangerine” as a result of moving to Los Angeles.  The corner where many of these prostitutes work is on Santa Monica Boulevard and Hyland Avenue, which, Baker eventually came to learn, had long been considered something of an unofficial Red Light District in the city.  Since this spot was only about a half mile away from where he lived, Baker decided it would make the perfect subject for his next motion picture. 


Tangerine (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

“Jimmy’s Hall”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Jimmy’s Hall”, directed by Ken Loach.


When an Irish refugee returns to his homeland during The Great Depression, he tries to reopen the old public hall he abandoned a decade ago – but when local authorities oppose him, can he keep it open or be forced to shut its doors forever?


Between 1919 and 1921, the Irish battled the English to drive them out of Ireland.  After two years of fighting, Ireland finally agreed to a treaty – unfortunately, there remained a rather substantial contingent of Irish who opposed this treaty.  As a result, a civil war broke out in Ireland pitting the pro-treaty Irish against their anti-treaty countrymen.  Since the pro-treaty group was backed by England, they eventually won – but even with the internecine war over, hard feelings remained long thereafter.  Complicating matters was the onset of The Great Depression, which had an impact worldwide and, in parts of Europe, led to a “Red Scare” – people fearing the onslaught of Communism.

In a sense, James Gralton (Barry Ward) was a victim of all of this.  During the war between England and Ireland, Gralton opened a popular town hall where people from his county gathered regularly.  Forced out because of his political activism, Gralton migrated to America in 1922, settling in New York City.  A decade later, Gralton returned home, where he was warmly welcomed by friends, neighbors and former patrons of his famous hall.  Deciding to move in with his elderly mother, it is not long after his repatriation that Gralton is besieged by the townspeople to re-open the hall.  After initially refusing, Gralton soon changes his mind when he sees how desperate and hopeless everyone has been left due to the poor economy. 

But even after the hall is reopened, all is not well.  Even though people are flocking to the facilities to enjoy educational opportunities, sporting activities and especially nightly dancing, the town leaders are unhappy about its reemergence.  Leading the opposition is the parish priest, who fears that Holy Mother Church will lose its vice-like grip on the poor and under-educated villagers.  Not helping matters is the feeling that the hall’s mere existence alone is subversive in that Gralton will use it as a means to pollute the citizens with his Socialist beliefs.  But when the town’s council pressures Gralton to close the hall, will he succumb or can he change the councilmembers’ mind?


What’s interesting about “Jimmy’s Hall” is that it provides something of a history lesson that has largely been buried in time.   Long forgotten – at least by non-Europeans – is not only the battle between England and Ireland following World War I, but also, the internal war between the Irish once the dispute with England was more or less settled (although history tells us that it never really was, at least not if you remember the terrorism that occurred in Northern Ireland decades ago).  This movie puts much of what happened subsequently in perspective.

As a movie, however, it does have some problems.  Of particular note is that much of it feels like a play – not so much because it’s static (although with the title “Jimmy’s Hall”, it’s quite possible that may have been the case in an earlier draft).  The reason it feels like a play is due to its very talky nature – the screenplay relies a little too much on dialog and long speeches at times.  This may be because the filmmakers had a particular perspective – or an ax to grind, depending on your viewpoint.  Loach is notorious for his Socialist agenda, which is abundantly obvious given the imbalanced way the two sides are portrayed.

If you can get past the occasional chattiness, then “Jimmy’s Hall” might prove worthwhile entertainment.  There is something of a forced romantic interest that is crowbarred into the story when Gralton attempts to rekindle a relationship with an ex-girlfriend who married and started a family during Gralton’s absence.  Essentially, this is a very political film and if the politics offends your sensibilities, then perhaps it’s better to avoid the motion picture altogether.  However, if you can look at it from a historical perspective (e.g., consider the Communist paranoia of McCarthy-era America back in the 1950’s), then you might be hard pressed to do better than “Jimmy’s Hall”.   

Jimmy's Hall (2014) on IMDb