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: Time Out of Mind

16 10 2015

Time Out of MindThe urban poor are so often exoticized or romanticized on screen (see “The Soloist,” “Gimme Shelter“).  The issue of how our society can allow such a tragedy to befall a person usually gets passed over in favor of our comfortable Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.  By convincing ourselves one person can supersede their circumstances, we gain the illusory certitude that all possess such a capacity.

Oren Moverman’s “Time Out of Mind,” on the other hand, does not even offer the familiar luxury of a traditional narrative.  The camera simply trains itself on down-and-out George, played by Richard Gere, as he ambles aimlessly through the streets of New York.  Moverman and co-writer Jeffrey Caine never really attempt to penetrate his mind, which has begun to mimic the drifting action of his body, nor do they offer a sociological tract on how he arrived where he is.

The film mostly just presents homelessness as it really is, making its point by not explicitly making a point.  “Time Out of Mind” uses George as a protagonist to lead the proceedings, but he’s arguably the least important element in any frame. It’s an outstanding display of incredible humility that Gere allows himself to become such a wallflower, never letting an actor’s vanity get in the way of conveying a greater truth about homelessness.

In a manner simultaneously clinical and deeply felt, the film details both the free range of the streets and the complex bureaucracy intended to capture all in its safety net.  Though a detailed audio collage always lets us know what happens in any given scene, Bobby Bukowski’s camera is usually located on the other side of the glass, across the street, or even above George.  He sometimes even goes so far as to shoot characters in reflected surfaces, giving us visages of people instead of their actual flesh and blood.  Might this be a replication of our own default position towards the homeless?

These long, distant shots of poetic power give “Time Out of Mind” a naturalistic rhythm that proves difficult to shake afterwards.  The paradoxes by which it operates lend the film both an intellectual and emotional heft.  While it might slightly betray its aesthetic integrity by moving in close in its final scene of emotional confrontation between father and daughter (Jena Malone’s Maggie), this is the only time it rings with a hint of falsity.  A-3halfstars





REVIEW: Love & Mercy

7 06 2015

Love and MercyStruggle is an inevitable, unavoidable part of creating art and living life.  But in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” an unconventional two-panel biopic of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, struggle is practically the whole story.  Rather than running through his entire life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner take a pair of cross-sections featuring Wilson’s breakthroughs and breakdowns.

The 1960s Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, struggles to break his band out of their disingenuous surfer boy marketing gimmick.  To do so, he sets out to create a record that will redefine the capabilities of rock and make The Beatles quiver.  Observing Wilson hard at work fine-tuning the iconic tracks of the Pet Sounds album, which includes such staples as “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” provides an undeniably joyous sonic rush.  (It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching Paul Dano.)

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and a middle-aged and overmedicated Wilson is now played by John Cusack.   The lights are on, but the person at home is hard to pin down.  “Love & Mercy” might be the first time since “Being John Malkovich” that Cusack does not play some variation of himself, and it proves devastating to watch a helpless soul squirm under the oppressive thumb of exploitative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, angry as ever).  Thanks to some tender love and assistance from the kindly soul of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by an absolutely ethereal Elizabeth Banks, Wilson finally manages to get some relief.

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REVIEW: Rampart

2 05 2013

The slogan for “Rampart,” though not on the poster I’ve embedded in this review, is “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”  To that, I merely laugh.

So I guess they assume we haven’t seen “Training Day.”  Or “Crash.”  Or “The Departed.”  Heck, I’d even say “Pineapple Express” and “Date Night” had more crooked cops than “Rampart.”

Sure, Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is working outside the law.  He’s a foul racist who uses excessive force on the regular.  By no means am I saying that I didn’t deplore his actions and conduct.  But for whatever reason, I just didn’t feel hatred welling up inside me for him.

Harrelson brought nothing new to the character that he hasn’t shown us in everything from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “The Messenger” to Haymitch in “The Hunger Games.”  He’s great at playing total jerks, and Brown is in a league of his own.  But there’s nothing special about this character, nothing that stands out in his repertoire.

Add that to direction from Oren Moverman that lacks any compelling action or camerawork and you’ve got one heck of a bore.  As much as I wanted to feel repulsion or loathing, all I could feel was apathy.  C2stars





REVIEW: The Messenger

26 07 2010

The Messenger” – it’s just like “Up in the Air,” only with graver situations and implications. And that’s a very good thing!

The movie captures with a haunting realism the journeys of two enlisted men (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) assigned to notify the families of killed soldiers.  It’s a tough job, and they deal with some furious people (the most memorable of which is a livid father played by Steve Buscemi).  They eventually grow used to the reactions and train themselves to be callous to the anguish of the families, largely by sticking to a set script.  Yet they never allow themselves to be a broken record, always performing their duties with the intent of honoring the fallen soldier.

It gives them quite a shock whenever one wife, Olivia (Samantha Morton), anticipates their bad tidings and shows little emotion at receiving the news.  Her unusual calmness rattles them both, particularly Foster’s Ben Montgomery, who winds up forging a deep connection with her.  But when his job entails conveying only the emotion of deep respect, it causes some friction between the two soldiers.

While the movie did receive an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, this is definitely a movie to see for the actors.  It’s not exactly a breakout role for Foster, but the up-and-comer sure shows promise of great things to come.  He’s great on the road, but the mushier scenes with Olivia.  Previous Oscar nominee Morton is powerful as ever as she keeps her grief repressed inside.  At the heart and soul of the movie is Harrelson, who delivers a truly compelling performance truly worthy of the Academy Award nomination it received.

As great as everything is, I left the movie not knowing how the filmmakers wanted me to feel. The movie begins to drag as it comes to a close, mainly because of the muddled emotions.  “The Messenger” loses a lot of its ability to rivet us in the last thirty minutes, but there’s plenty of powerful scenes and moments beforehand to still leave us very satisfied.  B+ /