REVIEW: The Humbling

11 05 2015

The HumblingImagine the script for “Birdman” fell into the hands of Woody Allen and then got made by a lesser director, and you essentially have what plays out in “The Humbling.”  Al Pacino, seemingly on a preemptive farewell tour, stars as Simon Axler, a self-absorbed chatterbox of a thespian who starts seeing his craft and the world a little too honestly.  Naturally, he cracks up.

But don’t worry, in the most Allenesque twist, the neurotic protagonist gets a salvo in the form of a friend’s younger daughter, Greta Gerwig’s Pegeen Mike Stapleford.  She reenters Simon’s frazzled life post-breakdown as a self-identified lesbian, but that does not last long as she finds herself seduced and destroyed by the sexual prowess of an older man that can “educate” her.

No matter what you think about Woody Allen’s off-screen relations with women of a certain age, he’s often able to present it as fairly normal in his films. (Or at the very least, it seems like a non-issue.)  In “The Humbling,” writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede make the Pegeen and Simon relationship feel condescending, cocky, and perhaps even a little insensitive.

The film boasts any number of colorful characters parading across the screen, including Pegeen’s mother Carol, played with justified scorn by Dianne Wiest.  But director Barry Levinson never seems to orchestrate this circus well, leaving the brunt of our attention directed towards Pegeen and Simon’s core story.  Normally, drawing attention towards the centerpiece of the film would be a good thing, but it only compounds the problems for “The Humbling.”  C2stars

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REVIEW: Manglehorn

26 04 2015

ManglehornRiverRun International Film Festival

Since hitting what most people would deem rock-bottom with the twofer of “Your Highness” and “The Sitter” in 2011, director David Gordon Green has rebounded with a tediously artful movie in “Prince Avalanche” and an intermittently brilliant movie in “Joe.”  His third film in the recovery, “Manglehorn,” falls somewhere in between those two poles.

Green, working with Al Pacino, gives the legendary actor what Bill Murray got in last year’s “St. Vincent” – a tender character study that highlights segments of the heart normally hidden from public view.  Although, to call “Manglehorn” a study implies something more academic than what actually appears on screen.  Paul Logan’s script runs in episodic circles, entertaining but sometimes a little enraging.

As the film chugs along, the film slowly parses out details about Pacino’s titular character and the past that looms largely and invisibly over his every action.  The small-town Texas locksmith, after a life full of disappointing and being disappointed by the people closest to him, attunes himself more to the needs of his beloved feline friend than any human around him.  He goes through his days pensively and mechanically as a gruff, “Birdman“-esque narration illuminates his inner thought process.

These hauntingly quiet moments allow “Manglehorn” to stand apart from the crowd of films featuring Pacino and other graying actors.  For an actor most known for violent outbursts (“SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND,” anyone?) or quiet fury (the final shot of “The Godfather Part II” comes to mind), a seldom-seen side of a septuagenarian makes for a satisfying sight.

Pacino soars not just in these silent soliloquies but also in vulnerable scenes with Holly Hunter’s romantic prospect Dawn and Manglehorn’s estranged son Jacob, played by Chris Messina.  Even amidst the sometimes discursive mess of the movie, Green still maintains tone and character with a fairly firm grip.  B2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 28, 2012)

28 12 2012

There has been a lot of talk about Russell Crowe’s singing abilities in “Les Misérables,” and most of it has been negative.  While I will defend (although not without a few reservations) his voice as appropriate for the role, he was an excellent choice to act the part of Javert.  And if you need any reminder as to why he was cast, look no further than the brilliant drama “The Insider,” a crowning jewel of the Michael Mann canon and my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

As Jeffrey Weigand, a major whistleblower for Big Tobacco in the 1990s, Crowe more than adequately portrays the internal storm of a man torn by doing what is ethical and what is easy.  Dr. Weigand’s research uncovered just how addictive nicotine is and how the cigarette companies can amplify the delivery of that kick – at the expense of his own job.  Bound by a confidentiality agreement, he must sacrifice the safety and security of himself and his family in order to do the right thing.

Thankfully, that’s where Al Pacino’s Lowell Bergman comes in.  A producer for “60 Minutes,” Bergman is an expert at coaxing sensitive information out of unwilling informants.  Convincing them to sit down with Mike Wallace, played here with a firm conviction by Christopher Plummer, and spill their guts on television is no easy task, yet Bergman pulls it off with finesse by offering the vast resources of CBS to shield and protect the interviewee.

Everything seems to be working out for “60 Minutes” to run a searing exposé of the tobacco industry’s vicious practices, but the network cowardly balks just before airing, putting Weigand and Bergman both in a lot of hot water.  The journey to make the truth known the American people is made compelling in an “All the President’s Men” kind of way thanks to the bravura performances of Crowe and Pacino, a team deserving of dual Oscar glory.

And beyond the work of Pacino and Crowe, “The Insider” also boasts some of the most precise directing I’ve ever seen from the brilliant Michael Mann.  When he’s on his A-game, there is no one better than him at creating tense, thrilling moments.  His editing rhythms are enthralling and perfectly calibrated to have your heart beating to the pace he wants it.  If watching the movie makes you think of “The Dark Knight,” that’s not really a coincidence; Nolan has clearly taken good notes from a master and expounded upon what Mann does so well in films like “The Insider.”





NOLAN REVIEW: Insomnia

11 07 2010

After the smashing success that was “Memento,” Nolan went mainstream and made a movie for Warner Bros. – a remake of the Danish film “Insomnia.”

“Insomnia” is definitely the most conventional and least Nolanesque movie that Christopher Nolan has made in his career, but even that doesn’t stop it from being one great movie.  It’s a great psychological thriller and murder mystery that is well plotted and paced, plus it features three great performances from Oscar champs Pacino, Williams, and Swank.

Tough-as-nails cop Dormer, played by Pacino of course, is sent along with his partner to investigate a murder in summertime Alaska – where the sun doesn’t set.  And the disturbing beating and death of the teenager doesn’t get to Dormer so much as that sun does, which causes him to grow restless.  As if that isn’t enough, his partner is willing to throw him under the bus for personal gain, and he has to put up with a zealous hometown cop (Swank) who learned how to do her job from the lessons he preached.

It’s got that same kind of eerie, psychological vibe as “Shutter Island” gave off this year.  But what makes the pendulum swing in favor of Scorsese’s latest over Nolan’s film is the directorial control.  Scorsese slowly leads us into the mental anguish of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, making us grow more and more anxious until we almost can’t take it anymore.  Nolan in “Insomnia” only hints at Dormer’s torment by giving the occasional visual clue.  At the end, he goes all in and uses the cinematography and quick editing to make us feel nauseous and overwhelmed like the character.  It’s very effective, but the power might have been even greater had it been more present throughout the movie.

In fact, I’d like to see Nolan remake his own movie here in a decade or so.  Not necessarily “Insomnia” itself, but with more filmmaking expertise, he could revisit this genre and give it a masterpiece.