Thursday, December 24, 2015

Poll: The Golden Globe Awards 2016


Recently, the Golden Globe nominations were announced.  What do you think of the choices?  Do you have any favorites?  Are you rooting for someone?  Which picture do you think was best?  Submit your picks here; results will be posted after the holidays. If you like, feel free to add a comment below.  Note that choices for “Other” have been added in the event you feel someone/something got overlooked.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

“Concussion”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Concussion”, starring Will Smith. 


When a physician’s autopsies uncover mysterious deaths that may have been the fault of The National Football League, will he be able to inform the public before the league has him silenced?


As a pathologist in America’s Steel City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Nigerian-born physician Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) routinely performs autopsies in the office of The Medical Examiner.  His career starts to take an unusual turn when a disturbing pattern develops:  former players for the town’s local professional football team are suddenly turning up dead at a relatively young age and at an alarming frequency.  As Dr. Omalu performs each autopsy, he gradually uncovers a distressing pattern:  each cadaver is suffering from some form of brain damage. 

Facing mounting opposition from people who are of the opinion that this foreigner is trying to destroy the great American game of football, Omalu finds support from his boss,  Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who encourages him to to continue his investigations.  Despite other physicians questioning his findings, he is contacted by Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team physician for The National Football League. Dr.  Bailes tells Omalu that he feels somewhat invested in Omalu’s findings because he has personally known a number of NFL players, many of whom led difficult lives after retirement; he offers to help Omalu any way he can.

With the news of Omalu’s discoveries gaining greater media attention, the NFL is beginning to get nervous that their rather lucrative business is at risk.  As a result, the league chooses to fight back by discrediting Omalu’s findings by having their own experts speak out on the topic, effectively disproving his theories.  Ultimately, they threaten Omalu with legal action that may result in him not only losing his job, but also being imprisoned.  Finding both his livelihood and freedom at risk, will Omalu continue his research or can he be convinced to remain silent?   


Given that “Concussion” is a major Hollywood release, it’s truly remarkable how poorly written its screenplay is.  While it may forever remain a well-kept secret exactly how many drafts the script underwent, it’s hard to believe that the final draft was the version the producers found acceptable to commit to film.  Particularly noteworthy (for all of the wrong reasons) is the dialog, which is trite, obvious and predictable.  If you want a lesson on how to take a perfectly good story and ruin it in a big fashion, “Concussion” is a great example of doing precisely that. 

While this may have been Will Smith’s attempt at garnering acting awards (or at least nominations), there’s very little to recommend this movie.  Not that there’s much wrong with his performance, it’s just that the otherwise poor quality of the film proves to be a sufficient distraction to the point that all you can remember is its less-than-subtle attempts at laying out its case (especially embarassing is Smith watching the head-to-head collisions between high school football players in the final scene of the motion picture).  The inartfulness of the script hits you over the head so hard, you’ll feel as though you’re a victim of blunt force trauma – appropriately so, given the title “Concusion”. 

The subject of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy has been much in the news the past few years.  Omalu, the real-life physician whose remarkable story is partly chronicled in “Concussion”, is an incredible man with impeccable credentials.  It is truly a pity that neither subject got a better movie.  For those who really want to learn more about CTE, people might be better served by the PBS television series “Frontline”; they have an episode called “League Of Denial” which can be viewed online; it’s definitely worth checking out. 

Concussion (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"The Hateful Eight" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City Premiere of “The Hateful Eight”, the new Western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
When a group of treacherous roughnecks from either side of the law are forced to share a cabin while waiting out a blizzard, will tempers flare or can they get along until the storm subsides?
A few years after America’s Civil War, noted bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) has captured his latest prisoner:  Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a murderess whom he must return to Red Rock, where she’ll be hung by the neck until dead.  While taking a stagecoach during a raging snow, they are confronted by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), an African-American Army Officer famed for leading Northern troops during the war.  Warren, also having taken the bounty hunting route, has killed his prisoners and must bring them to Red Rock to collect his money.  Reluctantly, Ruth allows a forcibly-unarmed Warren to join him, loading his prisoners atop the coach.
As the snow intensifies, they cross paths with Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims to be the new sheriff at Red Rock; he also requests permission to board the already-crowded coach, but Ruth again demurs.  Once Mannix explains that neither men will be paid until and unless he reaches Red Rock to get his badge, they allow him to join them.  By now, the storm has become an outright blizzard and it is no longer safe -- or possible -- for them to continue.  The group is forced to delay their excursion by taking refuge at Mimi’s Haberdashery, a cabin where they can rest, eat and wait for the storm to pass.  
Arriving at the stagecoach house, things immediately get a little claustrophobic when they discover that there are others already present, apparently waiting out the storm also:  Bob (Demian Bichir), a Mexican Mimi left in charge to run the place while she was out of town; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who turns out to be The Executioner being sent to Red Rock to hang Daisy; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowhand en route to visit family just a few miles outside of Red Rock; and the elderly General Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate soldier there to bury his recently-deceased son.  
Before long, these men get on each other’s nerves and things begin to take a turn for the insanely violent.  With memories of the war still fresh, Warren and Smithers continue the feud, further exacerbated by their different races.  Ruth, continually arguing with a belligerent Daisy, grows increasingly paranoid that someone is going to deny him the bounty he’s due; afraid that one of these strangers may run off to Red Rock with Daisy in order to collect the bounty himself, he argues with just about every man in the cabin.  Since no one seems capable of calming any of these hotheads, will cooler heads prevail or will things become irrevocably deadly?
If a Grand Guignol ballet featuring a collection of borderline psychotic killers set out to maim, torture and/or murder  each other is something that will put you in the holiday spirit, then “The Hateful Eight” is your Feel-Good Movie Of The Year.  In many respects, “The Hateful Eight” is vintage Tarantino, with the proper recipe of savage bloodlust mixed with black humor that has deservedly provided the filmmaker an extraordinarily successful career.  The entire cast embraces their cartoonish characterizations; Jennifer Jason Leigh deserves an award of some kind for blowing a massive snot-rocket from her right nostril.  
The problem with “The Hateful Eight” is the same that vexed Tarantino in certain of his other works:  it’s too damned long.  In some regards, it feels like Tarantino has crafted a stage play rather than a screenplay.  For one thing, the story mostly takes place within a single set -- the cabin where these people are trapped by the inclement weather.  Another reason is due to the script being dialog-laden.  This may sound peculiar given that there’s so much action, but consider this:  it’s what contributes to “The Hateful Eight” getting to a length of three hours.    A number of long sequences of dialog reveal both exposition and character background. Normally, not necessarily a bad thing, but one must question whether it justifies the film’s length.
There are many clever moments in “The Hateful Eight”.  These are not just the jokes (both visual and verbal) but also the plot twists that are intricately and logically weaved into the main story.  The characters never see them coming and neither will you.  In some ways, “The Hateful Eight” feels less like a Western and more like a Hitchcockian suspense movie; in his own way, Tarantino has invented a means to pay a homage to both genres in one film.  Nicely played.  “The Hateful Eight” is incredible fun albeit oppressive in its length; it’s a movie worth seeing in theaters, provided you both take your bathroom break and buy your snacks before it begins.
A discussion of the screening itself may be in order.  At the outset, Harvey Weinstein introduced Tarantino, who in turn introduced most of the major players in the cast (Jackson was MIA).  The version of the film we saw was the 70mm print Tarantino has been touting; the filmmaker asked the audience who had seen a film in 70mm and who had not -- not too many hands went up in response to either question.  This so-called “Roadshow” screening was done in grand style:  it began with an Overture of the movie’s sensational Ennio Morricone score and also contained an intermission (despite the opportunity to bail out at that point, most stayed).  If you do decide to see this motion picture, definitely make the effort to find a theater featuring it with 70mm projection -- it’s more worth it than most 3D films that have recently been released.  

The Hateful Eight (2015) on IMDb

Friday, December 11, 2015

"Sisters" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, "Sisters", starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  


When two embattled adult sisters learn their parents have sold their childhood home, they throw a party -- but will this resolve their issues or only serve to create new ones?


Having immersed herself in her nursing career following her divorce, Maura (Poehler) hears from her parents that they are selling their house as they've moved into to a retirement community for senior citizens.  Maura is devastated because this was the childhood home she shared with her older sister Kate (Fey) and the place holds many memories.  Nevertheless, she is instructed by her parents that she and Kate must clean out the belongings from their rooms.  Knowing how emotionally immature Kate can be at times, Maura informs her parents that she will assume the responsibility of breaking the news to her big sister and that they should not say a word to her.

Once the two arrive back home, Maura tells Kate the news, but both are shocked to learn that the house has already been sold to a young couple who wish to perform extensive renovations on the old place.  Totally distraught by the sudden realization that they will lose their childhood memory to strangers, Maura and Kate decide to throw the party to end all parties in order to bid farewell to the house and symbolically, their childhood.  They quickly get in touch with former neighborhood friends and some of their ex-schoolmates; the reception is overwhelming and before long, the house is filled to the rafters with people -- many of whom they know and others who've somehow managed to crash the party.

Eventually, the truth comes out about Kate's situation:  Kate was hoping that both she and her estranged daughter could move into the house because she was recently thrown out of the apartment she shared with a roommate.  It turns out that Kate has never developed a stable, responsible lifestyle as she can't hold down a job, which is what caused the distance from her daughter.  Meanwhile, Maura has developed something of a crush on a new neighbor, James (Ike Barinholtz), who is among the many partiers.  The only problem is that she's still feeling a bit stung by her divorce and is unable to get on with her life.  The guests get crazy, causing the party to spin quickly out of control, essentially ruining the house.  With the closing of the house imminent, can the sisters repair it in time or will their parents' sale fall through?


Just about the only thing wrong with “Sisters” is the fact that it eventually ends -- that’s how much fun this movie is. The party these two women throw is so out of control wild, you’ll wind up wishing you would have been invited. For those of us who believe Tina & Amy can do no wrong, “Sisters” is two hours of unbridled pleasure. While they are not credited with writing the screenplay, you definitely get the sense that there may have been a good deal of improvisation during the shoot because so much of the humor has the feel of the Fey-Poehler touch (they are, however, credited as being co-Executive Producers, so that may be the answer right there). In any event, whatever they did here worked out wonderfully and shame on you if you don’t see this one right away.

A successful film director once said that casting is 90% of the job -- if you get the casting right, you greatly enhance the chances that you’ll make a good movie. “Sisters” really does get the casting right; there are plenty of familiar faces both from current and past “Saturday Night Live” casts. Thanks to that and some really top-notch jokes, “Sisters” provides plentiful opportunities to laugh yourself silly. If there is anything negative about “Sisters” -- and this is splitting hairs, somewhat -- it’s the outtakes that they include during the end credits. First of all, this practice has become stunningly trite to the point that it’s either boring or annoying. Secondly, the outtakes themselves are extremely hit-or-miss (to put it mildly), so they’re not exactly worth sitting through the credits.

Is this movie opening at the right time? An argument could be made either way. In one sense, it’s coming out at the perfect time; given the stress people tend to experience during the holidays, this is tailor-made to allow you to laugh and let off steam. On the other hand, its release could not come at the worst possible time because it opens on the exact same day as the new “Star Wars” film; “Sisters” will likely do little business that weekend, if any at all -- which is a genuine shame because it’s so wonderful. Folks connected with “Sisters” are promoting their movie by saying, “See our movie on opening weekend -- you can always see ‘Star Wars’ the following weekend when the theaters are less crowded”. They’re absolutely right. The new “Star Wars” is certain to be in theaters for a while; check out “Sisters” before you start counting the wrinkles on Han Solo’s neck.

Sisters (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

“In The Heart Of The Sea”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new adventure drama “In The Heart Of The Sea”, directed by Ron Howard.


When sailors head on a whaling expedition, will they be able to survive after their ship is sunk by an immense whale?


In 1850, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) was well into writing his epic novel “Moby Dick” when he researched his story by interviewing a man who worked on a whaling ship as a teenager.  He tells the author about the Essex, a whaling vessel that set sea in the winter of 1820 in search of whales they could kill and process for their oil, which was used for lighting street lamps and heating homes, among other things.  The Essex was led by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced Captain, but the real brains on board was First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who resentfully took the job only because he was promised a Captain’s assignment subsequently.

The Essex was out for many months before they finally captured a whale, which they gutted and stored on board.  As they sail further south near Argentina, no whales are sighted and by now, the frustrated, homesick crew merely wants to go home.  Not wanting to disappoint his employers, the Captain decided to take a tip obtained while ashore and changed direction of the Essex to far off its original course in the hope that more whales would be found.  Although the tip proved correct, Pollard and his crew got more than they bargained for; while on their mission, the Essex is attacked by a massive sperm whale.  The ship sinks and the crew is forced to take to lifeboats and hope they can find land before long. 

As it turns out, the sperm whale trails their boats all the way as they head to a small unpopulated island; it attacks their boats, damaging them to the point that they are no longer seaworthy.  Upon reaching the island, they do their best to repair the boats so they can set out to find either a rescue ship or civilization.  Once in the sea again, their supplies run out after several months; starving and dehydrated, the men get desperate and must resort to cannibalism in order to survive.  After three months stranded, with things not looking terribly promising and another attack by the sperm whale looming on the horizon, will they die at sea or can they live long enough to survive this disaster?


Is this supposed to be Director Ron Howard’s period-piece version of “Jaws” or simply his “Moby Dick”?  Regardless of whatever it may be, its impressive special effects will still leave you feeling a bit empty; at times, it’s a bit unclear exactly what story it is that Howard wants to tell.  “In The Heart Of The Sea” starts off being a story about the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s legendary novel “Moby Dick”, then becomes a survivalist tale before morphing into a fable about morality and ethics.  Therein lies the problem – it tries to be all things to all people and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them. 

One of the reasons why an audience may find it difficult to get drawn into the movie is because there’s not always a clear protagonist for whom they can root.  Initially, it seems like it’s going to be Melville’s tale, then the story behind the man who survived the Essex as a teenager, and finally looks like it’s about Chase’s heroics.  Because your attention is shifting from one protagonist to another at various points throughout the film, there is no single individual the audience can easily follow.  On the other hand, maybe it’s just the whale’s story, in which case Howard completely missed the bullseye on that one. 

This is a Ron Howard movie being released around the holiday season, so it must be family-friendly, right?  Well, maybe not.  There are some scenes that you might not want small children to see, or at least they wouldn’t understand them even if they did see them.  Mainly, there’s the whole cannibalism subplot that comes into play once the crew is stranded.  Also, there’s attacking and gutting the whales as well as watching one distraught crew member commit suicide by blowing his brains out after too many days at sea – which, all things considered, is one perfectly valid way to escape this film. 

In the Heart of the Sea (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, December 03, 2015

“Macbeth”– Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the latest adaptation of the Shakespearean drama, “Macbeth”, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. 


When a member of Scottish nobility murders the king to take the throne himself, will he be able to hold on to his new-found power once his life and monarchy are threatened?


After defeating a horde of troops sent to overthrow the besieged King Duncan of Scotland, it is a general by the name of Macbeth (Fassbender) who is rewarded for his victory by being promoted to thane, a rank of Scottish nobility.  While he should be exhilarated by this, he is instead haunted by the memory of a trio of witches who confronted him after the battle, predicting that he will eventually become King Of Scotland.  Upon returning home, his wife, Lady Macbeth (Cotillard), goads him into murdering the king so he can rise to power. 

She concocts an elaborate plan where the king’s guards are made so drunk that they pass out, allowing Macbeth to sneak past them and stab Duncan to death.  The next morning, when Duncan is found dead, the guards are suspected of the crime and murdered forthwith.  Now being a member of nobility and the memory of his heroics still fresh, Macbeth is made king.  However, the premonitions by the witches stalk him to the point that his behavior turns most erratic and before long, Lady Macbeth is convinced that her husband has indeed Lost The Royal Marbles. 

Things go south rather quickly thereafter.  Lady Macbeth, perhaps laden by guilt from what they’ve both done, decides it’s time to make a hasty retreat so she commits suicide.  When her husband learns of this, he spirals even more out of control (if it’s possible to imagine such a thing by this point).  When English forces led by Duncan’s son try to overtake Macbeth’s castle, Macbeth must do battle with Macduff, his former compatriot who previously helped him defend Duncan.  With his world in disarray and even his own people questioning his wisdom, can Macbeth defeat his old friend to retain the throne?  


Shakespeare’s works have long been considered timeless and rightly so.  One reason why “Macbeth” falls into the timeless category is because of its theme.  Whether you’re attending a production of “Macbeth” or viewing an episode of the Netflix series “House Of Cards”, everyone likes a good, juicy story about blind ambition for absolute power and its accompanying greed.  When we see how evil these people are, it makes us feel as though we are above that sort of behavior, even though deep down we like to think we are capable of doing whatever it takes to achieve such rarefied levels of success.

Whether or not the performances by Fassbender and Cotillard are up to snuff may be best left for Shakespearean scholars to debate.  For the rest of us, however, they seemed flawless.  As far as the movie itself, it will be less appealing to people who enjoy costume dramas than it will be to those who like bloody, gory violence.  The fight scenes should be enough to satisfy almost anyone’s bloodlust for the sanguine grume.  There is, however, some discretion used when a woman and her children are tied to pillars and set on fire – apparently done to avoid a more extreme rating. 

When remaking a classic, you’re putting yourself in an extraordinarily vulnerable position because others before you have had various interpretations of the same work; yours will inevitably be compared to theirs, either favorably or unfavorably.  In that regard, it’s either unbelievably daring or unforgivably narcissistic to take a whack at “Macbeth” once again.  For both directors and actors, ego demands that you try your hand at it with the hope that yours will be the definitive interpretation.  For some of us, however, the definitive “Macbeth” won’t occur until Andrew “Dice” Clay is cast in the title role. 


Macbeth (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

“45 Years”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new drama, “45 Years”, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.


As a couple prepares to celebrate their wedding anniversary, will their marriage be able to survive after shocking news about his past surfaces?


In the expansive countryside of Norfolk, England, the childless couple Geoff and Kate (Courtenay and Rampling) are enjoying their retirement.  While Kate busily plans the big party that will be a celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff gets a letter from Switzerland which contains some rather disturbing news:  the body of his ex-girlfriend, who was reported dead during their vacation there in 1962, has been discovered.  Thought to have perished as the result of an accidental drowning, her body was found fully preserved, encased within a glacier. 

Geoff is overwhelmed by this news, forcing him to dredge up old memories he had long ago buried.  Kate is also devastated because she’s only learning of this woman now; in the decades they’ve been married, he’s never once brought her up in conversation.  Suddenly, with their wedding anniversary on the horizon, they must deal with this incident from before they met each other.  As Geoff continues to reveal details about his relationship with this other woman, Kate soon believes he is now concerned more with reviving her memory than their present life together. 

Understandably, Kate loses enthusiasm for planning their anniversary party.  Geoff’s becoming increasingly distant emotionally and Kate learns he’s secretly planning a trip to Switzerland to identify the body.  Kate is left to wonder if she’s losing her husband or if she never really had him in the first place.  She suspects Geoff has been living in this woman’s memory all along and that she’s unknowingly been living with her ghost for the past several decades.  Now, with everything out in the open, will their marriage survive this new information?


“45 Years” is one of those movies that has an ambiguous ending.  You may either see that as good news or bad news.  Director Andrew Haigh (who also wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine) apparently felt that the end should be left open to interpretation by the audience.  Here’s the problem with that:  it’s lazy storytelling.  Whether you attend a play, read a book or see a movie, you are investing your time and money in the people telling you this story.  When they provide an ambiguous ending, they are abdicating their responsibility as the storyteller, willfully deciding to violate the social contract in which they chose to engage. 

Some may maintain it’s all about the journey, not about the destination.  Arguably, if the destination is unknown, then you can’t appreciate the journey;  it’s called being lost.  The movie doesn’t so much end as much as it comes to an abrupt (some might say arbitrary) halt.  If you’re looking for a resolution, you’ll be waiting a long time.  Having said all of that, however, Rampling and Courtney are solid professionals with a seeming chemistry that makes the idea of them being a long-time married couple totally believable.   

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Haigh and Rampling.  Haigh said that when he was in post-production for his previous movie, someone had given him this short story to read; once he was finished, he knew that an adaptation of that piece of fiction would be his next project.  Rampling experienced very much of a personal investment in this story; when she read Haigh’s script, she felt as though he had written the screenplay just for her.  Haigh admitted that his film is very much in the style of Ingmar Bergman (particularly, “Scenes From A Marriage”) and he had the privilege of screening it at a film festival held in Bergman’s hometown. 

45 Years (2015) on IMDb