REVIEW: The Dinner

3 05 2017

I’ve racked my brain for days. Still, I cannot find a scenario in which the same person who masterfully threaded the seven-character Bob Dylan opus “I’m Not There” could also write something as clunky as “The Dinner.” Pardon this casual dismissal, but just … woooof.

Oren Moverman’s film is a cheap knockoff of “Carnage” – both Yasmina Reza’s play and Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation – as it gathers wealthy individuals to gnaw at each other over the sins of their children. That film wasn’t even anything to write home about, but it at least found a claustrophobic consistency and stuck to it. Moverman hacks away at any building tension between the two couples by frequently cutting away with flashbacks and expository scenes.

Even when Moverman does center the action on the open loathing between a successful politician (Richard Gere) and his cynical brother (Steve Coogan), “The Dinner” falls flat. They don’t sound like people. They talk like characters. Every bloviating pontification reeks of unrealistic grandiloquence. I don’t buy that this manner of speaking is some kind of class marker, either. Moverman just cannot find the humanity in the people he puts on screen.

When evaluating films, director David Fincher says he operates on the following logic: “First I’m looking for the technical. Then the believable. Then the connection.” Moverman’s film never makes it past the first criterion. C-

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REVIEW: Sully

11 09 2016

Clint Eastwood’s ideas about America tend to get a lot of airtime, be it his decidedly anti-politically correct personal statements or the perceived xenophobia or myopia of his films like “Gran Torino” and “American Sniper.” In some regard, Eastwood’s much-ballyhooed empty chair speech at the 2012 RNC set the stage for a political lens to become the most commonly applied approach to his work. With “Sully,” the director offers up a vision to make America great again – though not in the controversial manner in which you might think.

His film is an ode to the American spirit of communal support and teamwork. It’s a tribute to those brave souls who think like caring, sentient human beings rather than machines. And this tale is not without a dark side; our nation’s faith in the extraordinary capabilities of an ordinary individual can thrust unwitting individuals into the limelight as heroes.

This message gets a perfect vessel through Tom Hanks’ Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, an experienced pilot who successfully executed a water landing in a passenger jet that lost both engines in a bird strike. Less than eight years ago, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” captured the public’s imagination amidst financial scandals and economic woes. The event took place just days President Obama’s inauguration, but it might as well be lumped in with the optimism his early days in office. (Most of the major news networks opted to show footage from the “Miracle” over George W. Bush’s final address to the nation.)

At one point during the ensuing scrutiny from federal investigators, Sully looks into his wallet and finds the message from a fortune cookie: “Better a delay than a disaster.” The film itself possesses about the same level of wisdom and insight. That might sound a bit like damning with faint praise, but Eastwood – and Hanks, too, for that matter – knows there is something to be learned from the simple philosophy of the common protector. Thoughts and words are just fine, yet they mean little unless backed up with action. In “Sully,” the staff aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549 and countless New York City first responders show their commitment to human life by dropping everything to save 155 passengers on a moment’s notice.

“It wasn’t me, it was us,” says Sully after hearing the audio recording from the cockpit. The lone hero might be a staple of Eastwood’s western iconography, but he’s all about civic unity in “Sully.” Tragedies do not define our nation. Our responses to them do. Some uneven storytelling tactics might prevent the film from rousing a groundswell of collectivist feelings, although it certainly stirs the yearning for a moment that once again rallies us together in hopefulness.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

8 09 2015

Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer.   The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.

The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand.  Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.

It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film.  Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.

As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict.  Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information.  Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did.  For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences.  For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.

When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry.  Apology accepted, I guess?  C2stars





REVIEW: Mr. Holmes

17 07 2015

Mr. HolmesSherlock Holmes has never been the most embraceable character, but “Mr. Holmes” takes his smug standoffishness to get-off-my-lawn levels.  In the opening scene, Ian McKellen’s more advanced Sherlock Holmes scowls needlessly at a child with whom he shares a railway car.  This detective acts superior simply out of habit, not out of a continually merited accomplishment.

Then, at the pace of a retirement home bingo game, Holmes mulls over three mysteries as he retires to an English countryside getaway run by an exasperated mother (Laura Linney) and her son.  One takes place in the around the time of the Great War, another in Japan in the time of World War II, and a final one unfolds in the present tense.  Triple the story hardly equals triple the excitement, though, as scripter Jeffrey Hatcher frustratingly delays connecting the dots and director Bill Condon never finds away to balance the storylines.

All the while, Holmes suffers from the loss of memory, and the mind once sharper than a trap must resort to writing details on a shirt cuff in order to recall them.  (To the film’s credit, the illness never gets played up for sensationalism.)  Quite frequently, “Mr. Holmes” took a toll on my brain too; it made me lose attention.

Thankfully, I did manage to hold on for the end, when the pieces do ultimately come together and provide a worthy reflection on the legacy of the Sherlock Holmes character.  Age may slow the fast-spinning wheels of reason in the head of this iteration of the beloved detective, ensuring that he would never be mistaken for the Benedict Cumberbatch or the Robert Downey, Jr. versions.  Yet with that experience comes retrospection, wisdom, and human intuition – traits often better embodied by his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson.  This discovery feels like something that Ian McKellen truly revels in, both as his character and as an actor in his own right.  B- / 2stars





LISTFUL THINKING: 10 Performers Who Will Win Oscars in the Next 10 Years

26 02 2013

Before it’s too late and no longer topical, I wanted to share a list that has been floating in my mind for a while.  On Sunday night, the Academy welcomed Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway into their club.  Now, they can join Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz in adding the phrase “Oscar Winner” before their name is mentioned.

But within the next 10 years, who will join them in the pantheon of acting?  I have a few suggestions…

Male

Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio
3 Oscar nominations
9 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
8 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  The question isn’t “if.”  It’s “when.”  And that could be as early as this year.

JGL

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
2 Golden Globe nominations
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  With the boy-next-door turning into a renaissance man as he heads behind the director’s chair, JGL is headed towards golden child status.  Now it’s just time for the Oscars to catch up.

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling
1 Oscar nomination
4 Golden Globe nominations
2 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  I don’t really think I need to elaborate here as Gosling is one of the emerging Hollywood leading men.  The only thing keeping him from an Oscar, in my mind, is his eclectic role selection.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

Brad Pitt
4 Oscar nominations (3 as actor)
5 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
5 SAG Award nominations, 1 win

COMMENTARY:  As one of the highest-wattage stars of the past decade moves into a slower, more retrospective phase of his career, the role that will land Brad Pitt his Oscar should materialize.

George Clooney

George Clooney
8 Oscar nominations (4 for acting), 2 wins (1 for acting)
12 Golden Globe nominations (8 for acting), 3 wins
13 SAG Award nominations, 4 wins

COMMENTARY:  Yes, Clooney has already won his Oscar(s).  But I am convinced he will win his trophy for a leading role as he is such a prominent leading man in Hollywood.

Female

Amy Adams

Amy Adams
4 Oscar nominations
4 Golden Globe nominations
5 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: 4 nominations in 7 years.  That’s impressive.  It’s going to happen, soon.  Perhaps the first time she gets a big leading role?

Linney

Laura Linney
3 Oscar nominations
6 Golden Globe nominations, 2 wins
4 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
4 Primetime Emmy nominations, 3 wins

COMMENTARY:  Though as of late Linney has been more television oriented, I still don’t think the cinematic community is done paying its dues to this talented actress.

Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right

Julianne Moore
4 Oscar nominations
7 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
10 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
1 Primetime Emmy win

COMMENTARY: If “Game Change” had been released in theaters and not on HBO, Moore would have her Oscar.  It’s been over a decade now since her last nomination, but I don’t think that means the impetus to give her award has disappeared.

10 for '10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

Emma Stone
1 Golden Globe nomination
1 SAG Award win

COMMENTARY: She’s a new Hollywood “It” girl.  Once she lands the big and flashy role, she will get an Oscar.  (Heck, they had her announce the nominations this year, something usually reserved for prior winners/nominees.)  She’s a beloved figure with all the charm and accessibility of Jennifer Lawrence with a little more polish and refinement.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams
3 Oscar nominations
3 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: Williams showed she had some serious range in “My Week with Marilyn.”  Not that her mopey characters weren’t good, but now we know she’s the real deal.

What do YOU think?  Who else is destined for Oscar glory in the next decade?





REVIEW: Hyde Park on Hudson

22 01 2013

Welcome to “Whose Movie Is It Anyway?” – also known as “Hyde Park on Hudson.”  Here, you’ll get to see a multi-million dollar production that shows you what a movie is really like at the stage where it’s still being scribbled out on cocktail napkins!  To call it a first draft of something great would be generous – that is, calling it a first draft would be generous.  It hasn’t even made it to that stage yet!

Roger Michell’s slapdash film changes protagonists throughout the entire movie like Britney Spears changes outfits at a concert.  Go to the bathroom, and you’ll come back and find an entirely different storyline being pursued.  One minute, it’s the story of Laura Linney’s Margaret Suckley, a cousin of FDR portrayed here as his mistress (though that’s based on an extremely loose interpretation of her personal letters).

Then, it’s also a biopic of President Roosevelt, played as a perpetually horny tortoise by Bill Murray.  Chronicling both the personal and the political aspects of his life, it fails to provide anything mildly interesting to observe.  Not to mention, doubts about the accuracy of his affair with Margaret put the entire movie’s validity in question.

Oh, and don’t forget the history lesson that makes up most of the mid-section of “Hyde Park on Hudson.”  The King and Queen of England comes to visit FDR’s private Idaho in New York, but sadly, this companion piece to “The King’s Speech” couldn’t land Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to reprise their roles.  Nor, for that matter, could it capture the same sense of gravity about an impending world war that Tom Hooper’s film conveyed so well for a film that was otherwise rather lightweight.

In essence, there are three movies in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” and you will feel it drag under the weight of that confusion.  Expect to feel like you’ve watched three full-length features … but come out only an hour and a half later from the theater.  And don’t expect some kind of great convergence that makes it all worthwhile.  The climactic scene all boils down to the consumption of hot dogs.  Not kidding.  D1star





Oscar Moment: First 2012 Predictions

5 08 2012

It’s never too early to start guessing, right?  With Cannes yielding little to start Oscar conversation, the pressure is on for the fall to deliver in a big way.  Film festivals in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride will begin to churn out candidates and weed out pretenders in just a few weeks now.  Then a number of big-name films that forewent the festival circuit will have to face the gauntlet of critics and audiences. By the time the year-end lists start rolling off the presses, the game will be predictable and boring.  So let’s speculate now while it’s still fun and actually involves educated guessing!

UPDATE 8/6: I can’t let these picks become dated within hours of them being posted, so I’ve replaced my predictions that included “The Great Gatsby.”

Best Picture:

  1. The Master
  2. Les Miserables
  3. Lincoln
  4. Life of Pi
  5. Django Unchained
  6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  7. Moonrise Kingdom
  8. Argo
  9. The Great Gatsby Zero Dark Thirty
  10. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

“The Master” just seems like the movie of the year to me from this distance.  Tom Cruise has seen the movie and HATES it, that’s enough for me.  If the movie is really going to take on Scientology, it could really be a pop culture centerpiece for the fall.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix returning from his bizarre performance art stunt in “I’m Still Here,” Philip Seymour Hoffman fresh off two major supporting roles in Oscar-nominated films in 2011, and three-time Best Supporting Actress bridesmaid Amy Adams, it could certainly be a force to reckon with in the acting categories.  It’s also a period piece that could register impressively in the technical categories.

Oh, and it’s written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  In the ’90s, his films “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” each scored him a Best Original Screenplay nomination.  In 2007, “There Will Be Blood” scored him nominations for writing, directing, and producing since the film was up for Best Picture.  The argument will be made – convincingly by the Weinstein Company, no less – that Anderson’s time has come.

Indeed, it has.  The narrative is in place.  It can easily score over 10 nominations and march towards victory.  The film just needs to not suck.  And according to people at the first public showing on Friday (a surprise screening after a showing of “The Shining” in Los Angeles), it doesn’t suck.  It’s awesome.

Though of course, that path won’t be uncontested.  However, three out of the last five Best Picture winners – “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “The Artist” – asserted their dominance from the beginning of the season and never looked back.  So who knows?! As the triumph of “The King’s Speech” showed us in 2010, Oscar bait isn’t dead.  In fact, it’s thriving … and there is still a big portion of the Academy that succumbs to it.

In 2011, “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” both cracked the Best Picture field despite facing a number of harsh critics and tepid response from other industry groups.  Nonetheless, the Academy likes what it likes and refuses to apologize for it. So I doubt they will think twice about nominating “Les Miserables” for Best Picture.  The Tony Award-winning musical has everything that could possibly ever appeal to an Academy member: drama, emotion, catharsis, noble prostitutes, solid acting, historical setting, impressive craftwork … and it’s directed by Tom Hooper, the man who made them feel so good they gave him Best Director for a movie that required very little directing.

Granted, everyone thought “Chicago” was going to usher in a new Renaissance for American film adaptations of musical theater.  While the Golden Globes seem to be relishing in all the musicals, the Academy has ignored “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Producers,” “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Nine” (all of which were Best Picture nominees in the Musical/Comedy field for HFPA).

“Dreamgirls” was even being tipped to win in 2006 and was a surprise snub on nomination morning (“Nine” could also have cracked the field in 2009).  So musicals are still iffy, but “Les Miserables” is in a league of its own.  Those other musicals are nice, but none are based on a Victor Hugo novel.  The story is made to win awards.

Also falling in the bait category is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as one of America’s greatest presidents.  Spielberg’s films since “Schindler’s List” have practically all been presumptive frontrunners, yet “Saving Private Ryan” is his only film afterwards to win an Oscar.  “Munich” and “War Horse” have both slid in on residual respect, but how far does that go?  Do they still owe a man who has won Best Director twice?  Helmed eight Best Picture nominees?

The same questions can be asked of Day-Lewis, who clearly has a ton of respect as shown by his two Best Actor trophies.  However, the Academy felt no shame in shutting him out of the 2009 Best Actor race in favor of first-time nominee Jeremy Renner.  Granted, Renner’s “The Hurt Locker” was worlds better than Day-Lewis’ “Nine,” but it’s still fair to wonder if the Academy is done with him like they are done with Clint Eastwood.  Unless you are Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson (or John Williams), two is basically the magic number.

People have been raving about Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” since its presentation of footage at CinemaCon back in the spring, and I think the coupling of a respected, Oscar-winning director tackling 3D will be the “Hugo” of 2012.  It will also probably score no acting nominations and plenty of tech nods like Scorsese’s 5-time winner from last year.

Beyond those four heavy-hitters, it’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps I guessed the overdue writer/director incorrectly, and the Academy will choose to fete Quentin Tarantino for “Django Unchained.”  People counted out “Inglourious Basterds,” and it wound up with eight nominations.

Beasts of the Southern Wild” has certainly proven to be the art-house hit of the year, winning major prizes at Sundance and Cannes, stealing critics’ hearts, and racking up enough money to where it can’t be dismissed as totally esoteric.  There’s certainly precedent for a summer indie favorite to sneak into the Best Picture field – “Winter’s Bone” in 2010 and “The Tree of Life” in 2011.  It will need the critics groups to come out in favor for it in a big way or the pint-sized star Quvenzhané Wallis to be a unanimous and strong first-choice in the Best Actress race.

Some people think the inclusion of “Beasts” might leave out the other summer indie sleeper hit, “Moonrise Kingdom.”  To that I say, look to last year when “Midnight in Paris,” a funny crowd-pleaser, cracked the same field with “The Tree of Life.”  I think the Academy could decide the time is here to honor Wes Anderson’s peculiar gifts.  If they could accept “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno,” I see no reason why “Moonrise Kingdom” couldn’t be a Best Picture nominee.

“Argo” could also be a sleeper to watch in this race.  Ben Affleck’s directorial skills are definitely improving with each movie, and his last film, “The Town,” was definitely just on the outside looking in at the 2010 Best Picture field.  Could getting out of his native country of Boston put him in the race this time?  We’ll know after its Toronto premiere.

Baz Luhrmannn’s singular work “Moulin Rouge” tickled the Academy’s fancy in 2001.  His 2008 “Australia,” a more refined, baity piece, only netted a Best Costume Design nomination.  Which will his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” be?  My gut says a hit like “Moulin Rouge” because I’m so in love with the source material, but that love could be blinding me.  This will either be a big hit or a big flop.

And who knows if the Academy field will extend to ten this year, but I’ll go ahead and predict ten.  Could lighting strike for the fourth time for Peter Jackson with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?”  Will “Hyde Park on Hudson” be more than just a feel-good biopic?  Can Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” finally get the franchise the recognition it deserves?

These are big “if”s, so I’m just going to choose safe (because my wild-card predictions in years past have spawned picks of “It’s Complicated” and “Never Let Me Go”) and predict Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”  It could be bold, daring, and thrilling if it succeeds.  The expectations will be high since the production has been so guarded.  But if it works, it could be a major player.

And for the hell of it, why not say that the decidedly middling “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” becomes the low-brow film that makes the cut and makes me curse the Academy once more. Read the rest of this entry »