Friday, August 26, 2016

“The Hollars”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama  “The Hollars”, starring John Krasinski, who also directed.


When a dysfunctional family is united after one of them falls ill, can they use this opportunity to resolve their issues with each other?


John Hollar (Krasinski) is undergoing something of a crisis – and things aren’t about to get better anytime soon.   To begin with, John’s career isn’t on the trajectory he’d hoped it would be at this point in his life; for another thing, his fiancée Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) is pregnant with their first child, which is merely serving to compound his stress.  Add to that the latest news:  Sally (Margo Martindale), his mother, is quite ill and in the hospital.  Upon hearing this news, John immediately takes a temporary leave from his cartooning job in New York City to return to his family’s small hometown where he can support his mother. 

Arriving back home, John finds that he’s stepped into more controversy than he expected with his dysfunctional family members.  For one thing, his recently divorced brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) has been living at home with their parents Sally and Don (Richard Jenkins); this has been awkward for a couple of reasons:  one, of course, is due to the divorce itself, but the other is because until recently, Ron worked for Don at his failing heating and plumbing business.  When money became tight, Don had to lay off Ron; as a result, tensions have heightened between them.

After an examination, it turns out that Sally is seriously ill – she has a brain tumor that has apparently existed for quite some time without having been either detected or treated and now has to undergo a craniotomy in order to have the tumor removed.   With Rebecca feeling neglected once she hears that John’s ex-girlfriend has been pursuing him, she flies out there to be with him.  Joining John’s family, Rebecca tries to provide support during these turbulent times even though she’s dealing with an impending birth.  But will the family be able to resolve their internal conflicts by the time Sally recovers from surgery?


While watching “The Hollars”, one gets the impression that although it may have been made from an original screenplay, it could nevertheless be based on a book titled, “The Big Hollywood Bible Of Movie Clichés”.  No one would be blamed for getting the sense that as the writer typed each page, he checked off every item in the book as he went along.  We are supposed to like “The Hollars” (both the family and the movie) because “they are so similar to us” and that the story has some verisimilitude with respect to the real life of average folks.      

People will always enjoy a good story if it is well-told.  In the case of “The Hollars”, it may be a good story, but it’s not well-told, at least not most of the time.  Krasinski’s angst over his professional and personal life is rather unsympathetic and one gets the recurring urge to tell his character to just grow up and snap out of it because he doesn’t realize how good his life truly is.  As his brother, Sharlto Copley’s character is equally unsympathetic; while we are supposed to feel for him because he misses his children, his erratic behavior has dark undertones that cause suspicions about what more nefarious acts he might commit.

On a positive note, “The Hollars” has a cast worth boasting about; movie and television fans will find an abundance of faces and names that are instantly recognizable.  This is an ensemble piece and the actors were likely drawn to it because each character had his or her own tale in which they would be featured.  Unfortunately, when characters start behaving in an irrational manner and do things that just don’t make any sense, that’s where viewers are in jeopardy of falling out of the story.  In a “dramedy”, it can be a delicate balance to know when to take things seriously and when not. 

The Hollars (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

“Hands Of Stone”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of The New York City Premiere for the new biography “Hands Of Stone”, starring Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro and Usher. 


When boxer Roberto Duran hires Ray Arcel as a trainer, he attains great success – but after suffering a professional setback, can Duran rebound?



Growing up poor in Panama, Roberto Duran (Ramirez) had to hustle to help his family survive after his American father abandoned them – something which helped form a deep-seated hatred for America and Americans.  After a local boxing trainer takes pity on him, he agrees to help the young Duran get fights where he earns money to support his mother and siblings.  As Duran grows up, his boxing skills become more impressive; it is at this point he is introduced to Eleta (Rubén Blades), a successful businessman who promotes matches.  Eleta brings Duran to America, where he gradually builds quite a reputation.

In 1971, Eleta invites Ray Arcel (De Niro) to see Duran fight; Duran impresses Arcel as a natural destined for greatness, but when Eleta tries to get Arcel to become Duran’s trainer, both Arcel and Duran are reluctant to enter into an arrangement.  Duran’s hatred of Americans makes him suspicious of Arcel; meanwhile, Arcel is wary of re-emerging from a forced retirement after a New York City mobster (John Turturro) threatened his life if he remained in the profession.  Agreeing to train Duran on the condition he does not make any money from his effort, Arcel consents to work with Duran. 

Throughout the 1970’s, Arcel and Duran make quite a team; Duran keeps winning and his notoriety grows.  By 1980, Duran earns a shot at the welterweight title against champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher); Duran wins, taking the championship from Leonard.  Disturbed, Leonard convinces Eleta to schedule a rematch months later.  But in that fight, Duran – who, to this point, has been enjoying his celebrity – has lost his drive.  The fight ends when Duran tells the referee he’s quitting, allegedly saying, “No mas” (“No more”) – causing Leonard to regain his belt.  But after going from Panama’s national hero to their national disgrace, can Duran make a comeback as a boxer?


When it comes to “Hands Of Stone”, the good news is it’s certainly no hagiography; Roberto Duran never comes across as a saint.  The bad news is Duran’s character is so obnoxious it is difficult to root for him – unfortunate, given that this is supposed to be his life story.  Certainly a biography that treats its subject as bordering on the saint-like would be difficult to watch not to mention unrealistic; however, the filmmakers seem to have encountered great difficulty riding the fine line of when to present Duran negatively and when not.  Ultimately, Duran’s film character crosses the line to the point the audience understandably must wonder why they should care about his outcome. 

In that regard, “Hands Of Stone” could be compared unfavorably to Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”.  Both stories are biographies of boxers who suffer a downfall – one professionally, the other personally.  Also, both show darker sides of their subject.  But where LaMotta  suffers for his misdeeds, never again reaching his previous level of success, Duran appears to attain some degree of redemption (albeit questionable).  Why should we care?  Regardless of whether or not Duran actually said, “No mas” in the re-match with Robinson (he claims he never did), the fact remains is that he quit and his motivation for doing so is rather murky (at least based on what we can discern from the movie).

Speaking of “Raging Bull”, it is worth mentioning that since that great film, it feels like De Niro has been desperately trying to find his next “Raging Bull” (“Hands Of Stone” isn’t it, nor was “Grudge Match”).  Having said that, what should also be noted is the character of Ray Arcel is much more compelling than Duran; that’s the motion picture that would be interesting to see.  How Arcel survived after being forced out by the mob is a fascinating story – not to mention a victorious one as he had a comeback of his own.  Maybe someday that picture will be made.       

Hands of Stone (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, August 21, 2016

“Sinatra: The Chairman”– Book Review



This summer, I read “Sinatra:  The Chairman” by James Kaplan, a biography of Frank Sinatra from 1954 until his death in 1998.


After Frank Sinatra wins the Oscar in 1954, can this change the momentum of his career or is he basically done at this point?


In the Spring of 1954, having secured his acting award for “From Here To Eternity”, Sinatra was sure that he was on the comeback trail.  Having been jettisoned by his former recording company, Columbia Records, he was in dire search for not only a new contract, but a new start as well.  Before long, it would be Alan Livingston of Capitol Records who would be willing to take a chance on Sinatra.  While the singer wanted to work with Axel Stordahl, the arranger with whom he had so many successes in his glory years of the 1940’s, Livingston played a hunch and paired him with an up and coming staff arranger named Nelson Riddle. 

Having spent the next few years re-establishing himself as the premier song interpreter of his time by working with Riddle and Billy May to produce hit singles and albums that were praised by both critics and the public alike, Sinatra once again found himself at the top of the world professionally.  As might be expected, however, his personal life was another matter entirely.  After many highly publicized separations and reconciliations with then-wife Ava Gardner, they finally divorced; although their tumultuous marriage was officially over, their passion was not – in fact, their life would intersect many times for decades to come. 

After leaving Capitol to form Reprise, his own record company, Sinatra found the business of running a label to be a challenge; as music tastes were changing in the early 1960’s, Reprise – adamantly against signing any rock and roll acts – relied solely on the performers that were more or less contemporaries of Sinatra.  He signed his Rat Pack buddies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others and found that his dream company was hemorrhaging money.   Eventually, in order to save the label, Sinatra wound up selling it to Warner Brothers, in exchange for a movie deal.  Again, however, Sinatra’s personal life was considerably turbulent; as a notorious playboy, he had many romances – one of which culminating in a brief marriage to actress Mia Farrow. 

Through his many connections with organized crime, Sinatra was able to help get John F. Kennedy elected president of the United States; their close friendship ended when Kennedy rebuffed Sinatra.  In later years, Sinatra became a Republican, supporting candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Following a brief retirement in the early 1970’s, he tried to make a comeback, but his time had clearly passed.  He remarried in 1976; with age, he slowed down and this marriage would prove to last him until his demise in 1998. 


About a year ago, I reviewed the biography “Frank:  The Voice” by the same author; it was considered the first volume in a two-volume set on the singer’s life.  Once again, Kaplan does not disappoint; just as Sinatra’s unique singing voice brought a new interpretation to old songs, Kaplan’s unique writing voice brings a new perspective on an oversized personality we all thought we already knew far too well.  Both Kaplan’s writing style and research prove to be what shines above all of the so-called gossip because he provides readers with substantial facts that either buttress or refute the various stories that have circulated throughout Sinatra’s life. 

One of the things that Kaplan appears to be trying to do is to get inside Sinatra’s head.  Without a doubt, this is something which sets this book apart from others who have attempted biographies of the star.  At the risk of sounding like the author is attempting to psychoanalyze his subject, Kaplan cites Sinatra’s behavior over the decades to draw conclusions that are quite credible, based on the evidence previously provided.  Another thing that enriches this biography is that there are an abundance of details that very often have gone either overlooked or omitted altogether in past biographies.   

Arguably, Kaplan’s best writing comes at the very end of the book when he describes visiting Sinatra’s gravesite.  After so many years of writing about this icon in the history of popular American culture, he sounds like he comes away a little disappointed.  There are no long lines wrapping around the site.  The letters have somewhat faded from years of being in the sun.  Perhaps the most egregious error of all is that in literature supplied by The Palm Springs Desert Memorial Park, The Chairman takes second billing to Sonny Bono, who is also buried in the same cemetery.  Is the disappointment Kaplan conveys due to the underwhelming gravesite of his subject?  Or is the disappointment in knowing that his fine work on this idol of millions has come to its inevitable conclusion?   

Sinatra: The Chairman: James Kaplan: 9780385535397: Books

ISBN: 0385535392
ISBN-13: 9780385535397

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Florence Foster Jenkins”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of The New York City Premiere of the new comedy-drama, “Florence Foster Jenkins” , starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. 


When a wealthy socialite attempts a singing career, can she succeed despite her lack of talent or will she be forced to confront the reality she fears?



In 1944, the end of the second World War seemed nowhere in sight.  Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a well-heeled New York City socialite and known patron of the arts, wishes to support the American troops by various fundraising efforts in collaboration with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant).  As a lifelong lover of music, she gifts some money to her friend, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, so that he and noted opera singer Lily Pons can put on a show at Carnegie Hall. Upon seeing the performance, Florence becomes inspired to sing herself; this would fulfill two of her great desires –namely, a career in the world of music and also raising money for the war effort. 

Florence and St. Clair hire  Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a talented pianist, to accompany her.  After many rehearsals and vocal lessons, it becomes painfully clear to everyone except Florence that she has zero singing ability.  However, being an affluent woman who is financing everyone’s life, no one is about to tell the empress that she isn’t wearing any clothes; as a result, they all agree to allow her to live her delusion.  Hoping to provide a positive experience for his wife’s debut as a performer, St. Clair pads the audience with people whom he believes will provide a favorable response.  Hearing her, some of the true music lovers are aghast, while the rest struggle to suppress laughter. 

Rather than be discouraged by this reception, Florence is emboldened.  She records a song and sends it to a local radio station; when it gets played on the air, it becomes the most popular recording on the show, providing Florence with considerable notoriety.  The audience clamors for requests to not only play it but purchase it as well.  Gaining in popularity, Florence arranges with Carnegie Hall to stage her own performance there, where she will give away a thousand tickets to members of the military.  St. Clair and Cosme are understandably worried.  They have been dutifully shielding Florence from reality and are concerned that if she finds out the truth about her singing, she will be heartbroken.  Ultimately, they are unable to dissuade Florence from performing.  On the night of her concert, will she be rewarded with the acclaim she so desperately seeks or will she suffer the greatest humiliation of her life? 


“Florence Foster Jenkins” is based on true events, bringing into the forefront the astonishing life of someone who had a brief amount of fame in the 1940’s and has long since been largely forgotten.  The movie itself is equally forgettable.  Its attempts at humor descend to a level of a second rate situation comedy in dire need of cancellation while its efforts towards the more serious veer irrevocably towards the melodramatic.  With characters drawn as broadly as the three main ones in this story, it’s asking too much of the audience to abruptly shift gears from silly to tragic. 

Not even a performance by the great Meryl Streep proves enough to elevate this movie.  While laughs abound the first time you hear Streep’s character attempt to sing – not to mention the humorous reactions by Grant and Helberg – the joke grows weary before too long.  The movie then goes to great lengths to make the audience appreciate that this is the tale of a real human being, but by then it is far too late; the perception that this person is merely a cartoon character has already been so ingrained in the mind of the viewer that convincing us to change our perspective is a Sisyphean task, to put it mildly.

While Helberg’s character truly existed in real life, the way he is portrayed in “Florence Foster Jenkins” would understandably make an audience believe that he is merely the figment of a desperate screenwriter’s imagination.  For one thing, Cosme comes across as someone who either is a grown adult with childlike naiveté or a guy who’s just plain stupid.  Exactly why he would honestly think that everyone around Florence actually took her to be a serious talent instead of just glomming off her money defies explanation.  Ultimately, it’s too bad that the filmmakers didn’t adhere to a simple rule:  If the story is too good to be true, then make it a documentary instead. 

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, August 04, 2016

“Hell Or High Water”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new crime drama “Hell Or High Water”, starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster.


When a pair of brothers go on a bank robbery spree, can they be brought to justice by a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement?


Weeks after their mother’s death, brothers Toby and Tanner (Pine and Foster) start robbing a bunch of banks, all of which belong to the Texas Midland chain throughout West Texas.  Although it was Toby’s idea, Tanner, who has done time for bank robbery (among other things), is the mastermind behind these crimes – assuming “mastermind” is the correct word here.   The two come across as so inept and amateurish, you’d never know one of them actually had experience at this.  In spite of themselves, they manage to take in quite a haul after several jobs – something in the neighborhood of $40,000.   

After several of these jobs, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is assigned the case along with his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom he mercilessly baits with racist remarks.  Despite the fact that Hamilton is literally weeks away from retirement, he desperately wants to catch these guys before hanging up his badge – one for the road, you might say.  Doing so is not going to prove easy, however – Hamilton’s having difficulty finding a pattern, much less cooperative witnesses.  Without reliable descriptions of these two men, this investigation is going to take a while – yet with nothing but retirement facing him, Hamilton is certainly in no rush. 

Finally, Hamilton’s instinct as a lawman for several decades kicks in and he surmises that their next target will be the large Texas Midland branch in Post, Texas.  As he and Alberto head there along with a fleet of their fellow Rangers, they learn the brothers have not only already hit the Post branch, but they have turned murderers, too.  When things go sour at this busy, crowded bank, Toby and Tanner wind up taking the life of a guard and a customer.  Now, the Rangers are in hot pursuit of not only thieves but killers, as well.  After the brothers split up during their getaway, Tanner chooses to directly confront the cops; being extremely well armed, he engages them in a shootout, killing one of the Rangers.  For Hamilton, this now becomes personal.  But after neutralizing Tanner, can he capture Pine?


If you tire of comic book flicks and feel you have busted enough ghosts for one summer, then perhaps it’s time for you to check out “Hell Or High Water”.  It’s a fun, gritty, wild ride while also touching on interesting themes, such as how the economy has screwed those of our society who can least afford to lose money and how some of the most predatory lenders around have been banks themselves – the ones who are supposed to be the most risk-averse and honest.  The film is bookended by some intense action and violence, but in the middle, backstory and character arc rule, giving viewers a respite from some of the shooting.

What makes “Hell Or High Water” so interesting is the artful way in which it peels away the exposition’s onion-like layers until we learn the reason why the brothers engaged in this series of felonious adventures.  Knowing the context for their crime spree perfectly sets up the magnificent ending, making it all the more satisfying.  Taking nothing away from a terrific movie such as “No Country For Old Men”, you might compare it to “Hell Or High Water” by saying it is a less dark version of “No Country”, yet it similarity deals with how a lawman from another generation sees the world around him change. 

As far as the performances are concerned, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster truly shine here; they are given the opportunity to steal just about every scene they are in because their characters are so broadly drawn – in the hands of lesser actors, their roles would have been caricatures.  With Bridges and Foster, however, they are able to discover nuances about Hamilton and Tanner that give each greater depth.  Unfortunately, Pine suffers by comparison because his Toby is essentially Tanner’s straight man; basically, Pine plays the more boring of the two, but in the end, the more human. 

Hell or High Water (2016) on IMDb