Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Aardvark”– Movie Review

Aardvark__AAD4044.tif Aardvark__AAD4044.tif

On the final weekend of The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended a screening of “Aardvark”, a drama which made its World Premiere earlier in the festival; it stars Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm. 

Synopsis

When an emotionally disturbed man seeks assistance from a therapist, can she help mend the relationship with his brother despite her romantic involvement with the brother?

Story

Josh (Quinto) finds himself at something of a crossroads in his life.  That’s why he’s seeking assistance from Emily (Slate), a local Clinical Social Worker who’s set up practice out of her own home in this Queens, New York, neighborhood.  A troubled man, Josh is on multiple medications due to a prior diagnosis of schizophrenia.  In addition to that, he’s currently experiencing great anxiety over his relationship with his older brother Craig (Hamm), whom he hasn’t seen in years.  Through their sessions, Emily sets out to peel back the layers to understand the source of the conflict.  

Craig, by contrast, has gone on to enjoy a life of great success as an actor in Hollywood.  Having starred in a hit television series, Craig’s returned to his Queens neighborhood to sell the house that was left to him by his and Josh’s late parents.  Despite being in the vicinity, Craig is reluctant to visit Josh; Josh, however, believes he is being visited by Craig, but these are hallucinations that are merely a manifestation of his mental illness.  Sadly, when Josh sees a police officer or a homeless woman, he believes that this is his brilliant brother Craig as an actor in character. 

When Craig visits Emily to check up on Josh’s condition, they hit it off immediately and start dating.  Before long, they enter into a romantic relationship which both know to be wrong but irresistible.  Over time, Josh’s condition worsens and Craig becomes increasingly distant.  After suffering a beating from some locals, Josh is hospitalized; Emily visits him and is confronted with the realization it is imperative Craig gets over his hesitancy to see Josh – but when she finally convinces Craig to visit him once Josh is discharged, will their meeting patch things up or only prove to make matters worse?   

Review

Based on the little amount of screen time the character gets, this is clearly not Craig’s story.  Therefore, simply by the process of elimination, it would seem that either Emily or Josh have the majority of time in “Aardvark”.  So which one of them is the protagonist here?  It can’t be Emily because she’s part of the problem – she is, arguably, the world’s worst therapist based on the many bad decisions we see her make throughout the story (including bad decisions she’s made in her past, given what eventually gets revealed about her). 

This leaves Josh as the only character who could possibly be perceived as the protagonist of “Aardvark”.  Therein lies the movie’s fatal flaw.  Josh, as sympathetic as he may be, is a difficult character to root for because his illness precludes him from being in control of his own life; as the protagonist, Josh should be the one with the character arc, but it is in fact his brother, Craig, who goes through the transformation.  This change is not voluntary; it is in fact forced upon him by Emily, which results in making Craig appear less heroic in the eyes of the audience because he did not embark on this change himself.  Ultimately, “Aardvark” is a film in search of a protagonist it never quite finds.     

Following the screening was a question and answer session with writer/director Brian Shoaf.  Shoaf knows Quinto from their days studying acting in college; over the years, they attempted to work together, but it never worked out.  Eventually, Quinto formed a production company with a mutual friend of theirs and wound up making several films.  Later, Shoaf sent Quinto the screenplay for “Aardvark” through his agent and Quinto decided he wanted to play Josh so much he agreed to co-produce.  Through Quinto, they were able to add Hamm and Slate to the cast, which made funding easier. 

Aardvark (2017) on IMDb

Monday, April 24, 2017

“Flower”– Movie Review

Flower

This weekend at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new comedy-drama, “Flower”, starring Zoey Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott. 

Synopsis

When teenagers go too far in an attempt to seek revenge on a neighborhood man, will they eventually wind up in prison for his murder? 

Story

Erica (Deutch) and her friends are a group of perfectly normal seventeen year olds from southern California – assuming, of course, you consider teenage girls extorting money from older men by taking photographs of them in compromising situations with the girls to be “perfectly normal”.  Otherwise, they’re a pretty out of control bunch.  As their leader, it’s understandable why Erica is so wild – her father is currently doing time in prison for armed robbery and her mother Laurie (Hahn) is so lax, she doesn’t have much in the way of parental skills.  

Laurie announces that her boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) is moving in with her and bringing with him his teenage son Luke (Joey Morgan).  Luke is a real piece of work.  Just coming out of a rehabilitation center, this obese teenager about a year older than Erica is emotionally fragile.  His story is that he got one of his teachers in trouble by accusing him of sexual molestation; when Luke’s story failed to hold up under further scrutiny, he only wound up getting himself in deeper tribulation.  With few friends to begin with, Luke has only served to make himself more isolated. 

The local bowling alley is a refuge for Erica and her pals; there, they swoon over Will (Adam Scott), a “hot” older guy Erica wants to add to her collection.  Erica’s feelings about Will change when she learns he’s the teacher Luke tried to report.  Together, they formulate a plan where Erica will seduce him and her friends would take photos of him with her, which they could use to bribe him.  However, the plans go awry; when Will passes out from a sedative, he falls down and seriously hurts himself.  Unaware as to the extent of his injuries, the teenagers proceed with their scheme to take compromising pictures with him.  But when it’s found out that Will died from his wound, can Erica and Luke escape justice or will they both wind up serving a prison sentence of their own?  

Review

Simply put, the fundamental problem that “Flower” has is the fact that its protagonist is unsympathetic.  There is precious little – arguably nothing – that is done throughout much of the movie that changes the viewer’s opinion.  In a dramatic narrative such as this, the filmmaker essentially wants to have a protagonist in whom the audience can have some degree of an emotional investment.  Lacking this, the audience must reasonably wonder for whom are we to root in this film?  One might make the case that the most sympathetic characters are either the mother or her boyfriend, but it’s not their story.     

When a movie opens by presenting the protagonist in an unflattering light, there are certain things that must be done to change the audience’s view to make the protagonist’s story one worth caring about.  One way this can be done is by relentlessly punishing the character throughout much of the rest of the tale to the point that the viewers will feel that the protagonist has suffered enough and now is worthy of the audience’s support.  “Flower” rejects this notion and therein lies its failing; instead, it doubles down on reinforcing how evil the character is, then making an attempt at sympathy at the end.  It might be reasonably debated that a great motion picture like “Raging Bull” can be made when its protagonist is an unsympathetic character; a fair point, but remember that “Raging Bull” was a biopic while the protagonist of “Flower” is fictional. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with director Max Winkler.  Winkler said that what drew him to this screenplay was the fact that it reminded him of many of John Hughes’ movies from the 1980’s.  At 33 years of age, Winkler admitted that Hughes’ style of coming of age films was deep in his DNA and that’s why the story struck a nerve with him.  Since the story was about a teenage girl, Winkler said that he decided to hire an all female crew as well; he felt that maintaining the women’s perspective in the motion picture would help to keep him more honest in his storytelling. 

Flower (2017) on IMDb

TFF

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“One Percent More Humid”–Movie Review

1pcThis weekend at The Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new drama, “One Percent More Humid”, starring  Juno Temple and Julia Garner

Synopsis

When a pair of college age young women reunite for their last summer together, will their friendship be able to survive after a shared traumatic experience?

Story

In a small New England town, Iris (Temple) and Catherine (Garner) decide to share a house with friends once their college semester has concluded; they hope to enjoy their summer together – which may in fact be their last as life could soon have them taking some unexpected turns.  For one thing, Iris has pursued post-graduate studies and is now working on a thesis; Catherine, however, may not have such certain directions with regard to her own future.  Nevertheless, they will make an effort to put their troubles aside and have fun for the next couple of months. 

As much as the two young women try to enjoy themselves, there is an unspoken secret between them:  the death of their mutual friend Mae, which occurred just a few months ago.  There was an automobile accident – Catherine was driving.  Although unimpaired by either drugs or alcohol, the accident was her fault because she took her eye off the road at a sharp turn; both she and Iris suffered injuries, but Mae was flung from the car and perished.  In the short term, both Iris and Christine suffer survivor’s guilt, but attempt to heal their emotional wounds through the bonds of friendship. 

That, however, is not the only way the two young women try to heal.  Iris has regular meetings with Gerald (Alessandro Nivola), the forty-something married college professor advising her on her thesis.  With Gerald’s wife stuck in New York City due to work-related matters, Iris seizes this opportunity to put the moves on Gerald.  Finding this an irresistible opportunity, Gerald engages in an affair with his student.  Guilty over the incident that killed Mae, Catherine seduces Mae’s brother, hoping to seek his forgiveness.  But when Mae’s parents sue Catherine over the wrongful death of their daughter, what impact will this have on her friendship with Iris?   

Review

How you view eroticism may very well determine how you experience “One Percent More Humid”.  There is plenty of sex and nudity; the majority of this is young female nudity, it’s a bit surprising that it comes from a female director.  If it came from a male director, would it have been considered exploitative?  Although slightly over an hour and a half in length, it feels long and languid due to its overwhelmingly dour tone.  While there are attempts at lighthearted moments to break up the mood, one never loses the sense that there is a dark cloud hanging over the entire movie as well as the characters themselves.  No matter how much partying any of them may do, their lives are irrevocably headed for a derailment. 

The performances – especially by the two girls – are quite convincing and passionate.  To a degree, it’s the screenplay that lets them down because for a movie of a reasonable length, it takes a bit too long to get its story started – and the reveal for its angst is somewhat drawn out.  It needed to get to the point a little more quickly.  The fact that the future of the friendship between these girls remains somewhat up in the air at the end is not a problem; what is a problem, however, it the fact that we don’t learn earlier in the film why it will eventually and inevitably come to that conclusion. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with most of the cast and the director/screenwriter Liz W. Garcia.  Garcia is a staunch advocate of more women in filmmaking and believes that women’s voices need to be heard from with increasing frequency in the movies; while Garcia believes that women have made progress, she concedes that there is still a long way to go to attain equality.  Much of the system in the film industry, she maintains, is not entirely supportive of this – whether this is an anti-feminist backlash or the belief that the movies are not marketable is not entirely clear. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

“Gilbert”– Movie Review

Gil1

This week at the Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of the new documentary “Gilbert”, starring Gilbert Gottfried and a variety of other comedians.


Synopsis


When the notorious stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried finally starts a family in his 50’s, how will this change his comedy and his personality?


Story


Back in the 1980’s when Gilbert Gottfried broke in as a stand-up comedian, his zany style and loud, raspy voice helped to make him stand out among his peers.  The fact that his material reflected a unique view of the world didn’t hurt, either.  But Gottfried’s road to success began with a difficult relationship with his father while growing up in Brooklyn.  Gottfried’s father, a handyman, browbeat his only son to “be somebody”, whatever that meant – perhaps by learning a trade of some kind so he would always be able to make a living.  Instead, Gottfried responded to his father’s demands by dropping out of high school to pursue his dream career as a stand-up comedian.


Although Gottfried initially encountered resentment from audiences unfamiliar with him and his unusual manner, many of his fellow comedians immediately recognized his talent and were fully supportive and encouraging.  Eventually, the audience caught up to what he was doing and his popularity grew exponentially.  Soon thereafter, he began making television appearances and earning movie roles, which raised his visibility to the point that he could demand more money when performing at comedy clubs.  Despite his success, his friends knew him to possess some rather quirky behavior, which limited him socially. 


Late in life, Gottfried fell in love with Dara, whom he would subsequently marry; they had two children, one daughter and one son.  While Dara dotes on him, Gottfried appears more distant and emotionally unavailable; in typical Gottfried fashion, he’ll give her Anniversary or Valentines Day cards that have “GO F*** YOURSELF!” scrawled above the romantic poem on the inside of the card.  When Dara tells him, “I love you”, his response is, “That’s your problem”.  With their two children craving their father’s attention whenever he’s not on the road, will this newfound family life have any impact on Gottfried either personally or professionally?


Review


If you’ve ever laughed until you’ve become light-headed, then you know exactly what it’s  like to watch the hour and a half long documentary “Gilbert”.  The movie includes many old clips from Gottfried’s television and film appearances, as well as excerpts from his stand-up act.  For long-time fans of this controversial comic, it is a fond trip down memory lane to remind admirers what drew them to this nut in the first place.  But the film is not all laughs as we learn about Gottfried’s parents and siblings as well as his wife Dara and their two children.  In those times, the comedian is uncharacteristically sullen.


Director Neil Berkeley avoids the bane of such movies of this genre, namely The Talking Heads Syndrome, which besets many documentaries.  Berkeley accomplishes this by breaking up the interviews with Gottfried’s film/TV/performance clips; in this way, he winds up having the interviewees provide voiceover narrations, so they come across less as straight interviews.  Where the documentary may fall a little bit short is with scenes that appear that they may have been staged specifically for the movie:  examples include Gottfried ironing his shirt, playing with his children and visits to one of his older sisters. 


Following the screening, there was an interview with director Neil Berkeley and Gottfried – or at least there was an attempt to interview Gottfried.  As usual, he took over and started going into a portion of his stand-up act.  Singer-songwriter Paul Williams is a friend of Gottfried’s and attended the screening.  In his honor, Gottfried went into a routine, the premise being, “What if Paul Williams and Shirley Temple shared an intimate moment?”.  As you might expect (a) none of it can be repeated here and (b) it’s terribly funny.  Berkeley said he pitched the idea to Gottfried while they had coffee at a diner; he asked Gottfried if he still loved doing stand-up comedy and Gottfried responded no, that he in fact hated still having to perform his act.  It was at this point, Berkeley noted, that he knew Gottfried would make a good documentary. 

 

Gil2

Friday, April 14, 2017

“Norman”– Movie Review

n1

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Norman”, starring Richard Gere.

Synopsis

When a New York man worms his way into the life of the Israeli Prime Minister, can his newfound influence help him get out of an international corruption scandal?

Story

Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) is what they call a “fixer” – a person who is capable of getting certain types of things done for people, especially for people who are perceived to be somewhat influential.  These things, of course, are done for a price – but not necessarily something that is immediately paid for.  Instead, they might be considered a favor that will need to be repaid at some point in the future.  Norman is such a person who is perfectly willing and able to bend over backwards for people, believing he can call in a favor from them if and when he is in such a need.

So far, Norman’s favors have tended to go to people who are of more modest accomplishments in life.  One day, however, Norman succeeds in catching his White Whale.  Micah Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a member of the Knesset currently visiting New York City on a business trip.  Norman, a Jewish man with interests in Israel’s political scene, essentially stalks Eshel; befriending him, Norman buys Eshel an expensive pair of shoes that Eshel covets.  They cost Norman around $1200, but he hopes it will turn out to be a worthwhile investment in the long run. 

Over the next several years, Norman and Eshel keep in touch; Norman continues to do a number of small favors for Eshel along the way and Eshel’s political career blossoms.  Eventually, he is elected Prime Minister of Israel.  On Eshel’s first trip to New York since becoming Prime Minister, Norman looks him up and they quickly renew their friendship.  But things do not evolve as Norman thinks; the opposition party in Israel soon accuses Eshel of accepting gifts from a powerful foreign businessman – who astonishingly turns out to be Norman himself!  When Norman finds himself in trouble, can this master manipulator somehow extricate himself without causing problems for his pal?

Review

Once upon a time, we lived in a society where people were not as politically correct as they are now.  During this ancient period, people were not outraged when non-traditional casting was used and actors who were of European descent played Asians and Caucasians might play Mexicans or Indians.  It would be difficult to get away with such things today without getting scathingly criticized, especially in social media.  With that in mind, one must wonder if there will be a backlash over the fact that gentile Richard Gere plays an older Jewish man from Manhattan?

If that happened, it would most certainly be a shame because “Norman:  The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (the movie’s full title) is full of surprises.  Not only is “Norman” a supremely entertaining film (the first surprise), but Richard Gere is excellent in the title role (the other surprise).  In fact, it would not be going too far to say that this may very well be Gere’s best performance in a very long time.  “Norman” can brag of a great cast, but Gere is uncannily believable as a Jewish man, even if his performance does at times seem reminiscent of a Woody Allen imitation. 

“Norman” is a true gem of a motion picture that deserves as wide an audience as possible.  It’s a truly original story about the meaning and value of friendship as well as the perfidy that is the very nature of politics.  Joseph Cedar wrote and directed; both the script and the visual style of the movie are quite clever in the way Norman’s story unfolds with unexpected moments that really pull in the viewer.  Will “Norman” be perceived as either too Jewish, too New York or too both to get people not of that ethnicity or geography to be interested?  It is far too worthy a film to suffer such a fate.   

Norman (2016) on IMDb

Friday, April 07, 2017

“Colossal”– Movie Review

 

colossal

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science fiction comedy, “Colossal”, starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. 

Synopsis

When a woman realizes her drunken behavior turns her into a monster that wreaks havoc on humanity, can she both curb her behavior and seek redemption?

Story

If you were to look up the term “hot mess” in the dictionary, there’s no doubt you’d find a picture of Gloria (Hathaway).  Having recently lost her job writing for an online magazine, she’s taken her imbibing up to the next level, partying daily and staying up all night before passing out.  Her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) has had enough; when Gloria finally returns home after her latest Bacchanalia, she finds he’s packed her bags and is throwing her out.  With no place left to go, she leaves New York City and heads for the only other place she’s ever known as home:  the small town in New Hampshire where she grew up.

Once there, Gloria stays in her parents’ old house, which remains barren of furnishings of any kind since they left.  In the process of getting settled, she runs into Oscar (Sudeikis), her childhood friend, who is now running his late father’s bar.  Upon learning of Gloria’s situation, he offers her a job bartending and waitressing at his establishment.  While this may initially seem generous, Gloria eventually learns Oscar’s motivations aren’t entirely what they seem.  In reality, he’s forming a group of drinking buddies and feels the more the merrier, which is why he now wants to include Gloria.

Socializing with her new friends, Gloria is horrified to learn that she turns into a gigantic lizard-like monster that terrorizes Seoul, South Korea whenever she gets drunk.  This monster wreaks havoc, destroying buildings and killing people.  Even worse, soon Oscar develops his own alter ego when inebriated:  it is that of an enormous robot that likewise causes untold mayhem in Seoul.  While Gloria struggles to remain sober so she no longer hurts anyone as the monster, Oscar discovers a newfound sense of power that he finds exhilarating.  Can Gloria somehow manage to remain sober while finding a way to stop Oscar’s rampages on innocent people? 

Review

“Colossal” hits all of the major “W” words:  Weird, Wild and most of all Wonderful.  It’s a crazy trip, basically a portmanteau of an old style Japanese monster movie and a dark comedy.  You’ll either be willing to suspend your disbelief for this frenzied madhouse or not.  If not, too bad because you’ll miss one of the most fun movies you’ll see in a very long time.  It is a creative, imaginative, unique experience that also makes some rather salient points about human behavior.  This may only be Spring, but if you’re making a list of best films of 2017, “Colossal” will at the very least deserve honorable mention. 

If there is a criticism, it may be in its casting, but it’s not necessarily that huge a problem.  While both Hathaway and Sudeikis are fine, it’s a bit of a stretch buying into Hathaway as a party gal; she seems a little too clean for all of that behavior and also has difficulty in exhibiting a dark side.  Sudeikis, on the other hand is very convincing when he turns evil; the change is abrupt, but given the fact that it comes about as a result of alcohol, that makes it more realistic.  When she’s drunk, she still nice; when he’s drunk, he’s angry and vindictive.  Her behavior is accidental while his is deliberate. 

Writer/Director Nacho Vigalondo does a sensational job in both tasks, but especially so toward the end of the movie as the story wraps up with its unexpected ending (which also turns out to be quite funny itself).  Vigalondo brilliantly wrings out twist after twist in this story; the audience never sees what’s coming next.  Without qualification, “Colossal” is worth seeing in the theater, rather than waiting for a rental.  If you do manage to see it with someone, it’s certain to spark a great deal of fascinating conversation afterwards.  As a matter of fact, bringing a friend with an alcohol problem may be an interesting way to instigate an intervention.   

Colossal (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, April 06, 2017

“Gifted”– Movie Review

 

gifted

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Gifted”, starring Chris Evans and Jenny Slate. 

Synopsis

When a child prodigy is raised by her uncle, can they remain together after her talents are discovered or will they be forced to part ways permanently?

Story

In the Pinellas County section of Florida, Frank Adler (Evans) does his best to raise his seven year old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace), a prodigy in mathematics.  Feeling it would be in the child’s best interests to be treated as an average girl, he enrolls her in first grade at the local public school.  It doesn’t take long to see this plan isn’t going to work.  Her teacher Bonnie (Slate) quickly recognizes Mary’s gifts, but also sees the child’s boredom and impatience turn her into a behavioral liability.  When the principal recommends Mary be placed in a school for gifted children, Frank is reluctant; even though she would get a scholarship, he is concerned about Mary’s welfare in such an environment.

At this point, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan) shows up at Frank’s doorstep; she’s Mary’s grandmother and now that the child’s education is at stake, she suddenly wants to be involved in her granddaughter’s life.  Frank opposes this because he wants Mary to stay with him and because he believes Evelyn will ruin Mary’s life.  This sparks a fierce argument between Frank and Evelyn.  He is raising Mary because her father abandoned her and her mother (Frank’s sister), Diane, committed suicide; Frank therefore fears Evelyn will have the same toxic influence on Mary’s life that she did with Diane. 

Enraged, the wealthy Evelyn takes Frank – a relative pauper – to court battling over which one of them will get custody of Mary.  In the meantime, Evelyn’s lawyer is able to get the judge to grant her permission for a visit from Mary; during this time, Evelyn’s true reasons for wanting custody of Mary become evident.  It turns out that assuming custody of Mary would potentially resolve two problems for Evelyn:  one has to do with unfinished business she had with her own daughter and the other concerns some unfulfilled dreams Evelyn had for her own career.  Knowing Diane wanted Mary kept away from Evelyn, can Frank somehow manage to retain custody of his niece? 

Review

The first thing you’ll likely think of should you see “Gifted” is “Kramer versus Kramer”; this is forgivable, even if “Gifted” is nowhere near the quality of “Kramer versus Kramer”.  In fact, for those who’ve never seen “Kramer versus Kramer”, it may still be the case that “Gifted” will feel familiar.  Again, that’s understandable because it is touching on quite a few of the clich├ęs we’ve come to see (if not expect) in many movies.  “Gifted” certainly does a good job of manipulating the emotions of its audience, even if it does manage to use some of the oldest tricks in the screenwriter’s handbook.

One of the ways in which “Gifted” falters is how it portrays its hero (Frank) and its villain (Evelyn).  It’s all just a little too pat and formulaic.  The hero is nothing short of perfect and its villain comes off as inhumane; it would have been so much more compelling a story if both parties had been equals in both their positive and negative attributes.  We are programmed to support the hero because the alternative is basically akin to rooting for Cruella de Vil.  Perhaps it is better off to pull for the little girl, since she’s the one who’s is at the center of this activity. 

Unfortunately, the always cute-as-a-button Jenny Slate isn’t given very much to do in terms of showing her considerable comedic talents.  Sadly, she’s underutilized, so don’t expect her to command the screen in the same way that she did in “Obvious Child”.  Chris Evans is Captain America with a pickup truck and Lindsay Duncan as Evelyn is simply two-dimensional.  “Gifted” is a fair to middling movie with nothing much remarkable to merit seeing it, while lacking anything so awful as to rank it as among the worst – but if you do choose to see it, bring the biggest box of tissues you can find because you’ll surely be using all of them.   

Metacritic Reviews