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-





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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 17, 2014)

17 01 2014

You’ve seen biopics of complex figures, but director Todd Haynes isn’t interested in presenting his portrait of musician and cultural icon Bob Dylan like anything else ever made.  His “I’m Not There” is a bold experiment, manifesting the fragmentation of Dylan’s persona by literally splitting him into six characters.  This iconoclasm pays off in a rewarding and challenging experience, leading me to name the movie my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

It’s not necessary to know Bob Dylan or his music really well to admire “I’m Not There.”  Rather, all it takes is a willingness to see the connection between the six pseudo-Dylans … or perhaps their incongruity.  The Dylans take many different shapes, including a young African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin), an older man (Richard Gere), a born-again folk singer (Christian Bale), and an actor attempting to get inside of him (Heath Ledger).  We float through each of their lives and struggles in bits and spurts.  Just when we think we get a grip on Dylan, he slips away.

Oddly enough, the one who looks the most like the Bob Dylan we know … is played by a woman.  Cate Blanchett is Jude, a raspy-voiced chain smoking folk musician.  Not unlike her work in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett disappears inside her character and makes us forget that aura of regality she so often conveys.

She captures all the frustration of misunderstood artistry along with all the pains of drug addiction.  Blanchett brilliantly fulfills the most frequently recognized Dylan iconography yet also breathes something deeply human into her character, something no amount of cameras or reporters could ever really capture.   She’s at once vulnerable and inaccessible.

Much like Jude, “I’m Not There” floats between all these contradictory lives of Dylan, back and forth with well-orchestrated indirection.  It never settles, never aims for some sort of absolute truth.  It’s like a fictionalization of the concepts brought up in a documentary like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”  We are many different things to many different people, and there is no fixed point from which to observe reality or memory.  Perhaps we just exist as the sum total of the masks we wear.





Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 3 (Leading)

7 01 2013

Only three days until Oscar nominations are announced!  It’s so weird to have them this early … I feel like I barely predicted at all this year.  Nonetheless, it’s time to lock in my final picks!  Today, it’s one last glimpse at the leading acting categories.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Best Actor

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln
  2. Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables
  3. Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook
  4. John Hawkes, “The Sessions
  5. Denzel Washington, “Flight

I was wrong, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ race to lose.  My gosh, he is winning everything!  Look at this chart of dominance.  It turns Anne Hathaway’s dream to shame.

DDL Dominance

He’s going to come charging into the Kodak Theatre to get that record-setting third Oscar for Best Actor.  This is like Phillip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote,” Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland,” and … well, Daniel Day-Lewis for “There Will Be Blood” levels of momentum.

Les Miz

If anyone takes him down, though, it’s going to be Hugh Jackman.  He had many doubters until the film was unveiled, and he’s taken the big three nods from BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  He will almost certainly win the Golden Globe.  Maybe, just maybe, he can stage an Adrian Brody-esque upset.

The nomination will likely be the win for Bradley Cooper, who has triumphantly exceeded expectations in “Silver Linings Playbook” and likely redefined how the industry sees him.  Well done, sir.  I’m pleased that a clear path to a nomination emerged with Critics’ Choice, SAG, and Golden Globe recognition.  I thought it might be a more uphill climb, but I have been very pleasantly surprised.

Beyond DDL, Jackman, and Cooper, my certainty stops.  I am almost positive the final two nominees will be John Hawkes for “The Sessions” and Denzel Washington in “Flight.”  They were feted by BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, missed with SAG and will likely be left out in the cold (much to my chagrin).

Master

I’m on the record as being nonplussed by Hawkes and Washington, though I greatly admire many other performances by the two actors.  For my money, Phoenix was the best performance of the year.  Several others have seen what I have seen, and he’s picked up a few critics’ groups notices.  He was also nominated by the Golden Globes, albeit in the segregated drama category, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, which had six nominees.

Sadly, it looks like Phoenix will follow the trajectory of Michael Fassbender’s work in “Shame,” my favorite performance of 2011.  Fassbender and Phoenix were both winners of the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.  Their work was widely acclaimed, and their movies were polarizing.  They won Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association among several other prizes.  They picked up key nominations from BFCA and HFPA, but their SAG snub raised some red flags.

FlightPhoenix’s journey will likely end the same way Fassbender’s did.  Repelling the Academy, Fassbender was left on the outside looking in at the Best Actor category.  Phoenix shouldn’t mind being put in the same position, however, because he hates awards season and thinks the Oscars are BS.

So it looks like I’ll be predicting the SAG nominees to repeat five-for-five.  Boring, disappointing, I know.  But there’s nothing screaming to go against conventional wisdom here.

I don’t think Richard Gere for “Arbitrage,” Jack Black for “Bernie,” Denis Lavant for “Holy Motors,” Jean-Louis Trintignant for “Amour,” or Anthony Hopkins for “Hitchcock” really have much of a chance.  Each has a few respective laurels, but the frontrunning five are just too strong for there to be a major surprise.

Then again, last year gave us not only Demian Bichir but an out-of-nowhere nod for Gary Oldman.  So we’ll just have to see.  Maybe the Academy has a few tricks up its sleeve in 2012 that we just have no way to forecast.

Best Actress

  1. Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook
  3. Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”
  4. Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone
  5. Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zero Dark Thirty FYCThe dynamics at the top of the race have changed little over the past month.  It’s still a Chastain vs. Lawrence cage match, and I think we won’t really know until the envelope is opened.  They will go head-to-head at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the SAG Awards, but Viola Davis won both of those last year and lost the Oscar.  The Golden Globe will do nothing to clear up the picture as they will compete in separate categories.  I give Chastain the edge now.

But below Chastain and Lawrence, so much is fluctuating.  This is the most fluid acting category of the four in 2012, capable of many unsurprising surprises.  And if any race is suggesting that conventional wisdom and historical precedent simply won’t do, this would be it.

It would seem that Naomi Watts and Marion Cotillard would be assured nominations for “The Impossible” and “Rust and Bone,” respectively.  They’ve scored the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA hat trick of nominations, just about the best safety net you can have.  Both also look to be the only nominations for their respective movies as “The Impossible” missed the cut for visual effects and France chose “The Intouchables” over “Rust and Bone” to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

WattsI’m much more bullish on Watts, a prior nominee for “21 Grams” back in 2003, perhaps because I haven’t seen the movie yet and can visualize her more as a statistic (sorry for the bluntness, but that’s the name of the game).  I’ve read that “The Impossible” has really played the guild circuit, ginning up admiration for Watts and the cast along the way.  She got a high-profile shout-out from a mere acquaintance, Reese Witherspoon, in Entertainment Weekly that a lot of people saw.

For whatever reason, she just seems very strong to me.  The movie seems like the emotional tour de force they look for in leading performances for women.

Having said that, Marion Cotillard shows the same level of emotional devastation, just on a more subtle level.  If she hadn’t won for a French language performance, I’d be hesitant to think she could be nominated for one.  But she has, and I feel a hunch that the Oscars won’t snub her brilliant performance.  Apparently, the Academy voters really responded to “Rust and Bone,” and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they nominate its star?

So I’ll go ahead and predict that Watts and Cotillard make it, although I could see a foreseeable outcome where one gets knocked out.  I doubt they slap these precursors in the face so hard that both get turned away.

HitchcockSAG’s fifth nominee was Helen Mirren for “Hitchcock,” who also landed a Golden Globe nod.  Mirren has become a recent darling of the Academy.  I got fooled once by not predicting her in 2009 for “The Last Station,” and a part of me thinks I might be making the same mistake again.  Check out how eerily similar these two cases of Helen Mirren in Best Actress contention are:

“Common sense would say it is going to Helen Mirren for ‘The Last Station.’  She has the respect; we know because she won this award three short years ago.  She has been nominated by the SAG and the Golden Globes, two very crucial precursors.  But she has no victories and, more importantly, no passionate supporters.”

Going back and reading this is actually kind of scary because this year, she has SAG and HFPA in her corner … and basically no one else, unless you put a lot of stock in the prognosticating abilities of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association.  The movies even received the same lukewarm reception: “Hitchcock” got a 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while “The Last Station” scored a 70% fresh.

I fear that the British contingent, which was a major part in making a Best Actor nomination for Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a reality, might be muddling our ability to make a prediction here.  Will this sizable portion of the Academy come through and give Mirren a fourth nomination in seven years?  I’m not picking Mirren because a 5-for-5 match with SAG just doesn’t feel right for this field rife with contenders.  (And especially with the men looking likely to perfectly align with SAG.)

RivaPerhaps that same European bloc of voters will be split among several other contenders from across the sea.  The French Cotillard could steal some European love, as could the British-Australian Watts.  Emmanuelle Riva could also make a play for that contingent for her work in “Amour.”

The Critics’ Choice nominee has quite a case to make for her nomination.  At 85, she’s a respected figure from the French New Wave that many recognize and respect.  Sony Pictures Classics has even gotten her to do some press for the film, including an in-depth session with The New York Times that’s well worth a read.  Many critics’ groups have aligned behind her, including such notable groups from Boston, Los Angeles, New York Online, and the National Society of Film Critics.  Perhaps worth noting, she won the European Film Award for Best Actress.

But why did SAG and the Golden Globes overlook Riva?  Neither are particularly xenophobic; the Globes’ dramatic actress category has seen a number of foreign-language nominees, including a rather strange nod for Kristin Scott Thomas in 2008 for “I’ve Loved You So Long.”  And at her age, it would seem that the SAG would want to bow down at her feet, and at the very least nominate her!

Rust and Bone

I can’t predict Riva with these two high-profile misses.  Perhaps she will be the exception, but I think her nomination is a pipe dream of critics.  She’s the Sally Hawkins for “Happy-Go-Lucky” of the year, a nominee that they try to make happen but just doesn’t click with the Academy.

Even less likely is British actress Rachel Weisz, in play for “The Deep Blue Sea” thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle reminding voters that her movie exists.  A March release automatically faces an uphill climb for a nomination since it has to fight to be remembered, and the Golden Globes did reward her performance.  Perhaps she’s the big surprise, but a SAG nomination would have been the more helpful precursor notice to pick up.

Also feted by the Golden Globes was Judi Dench for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  This wouldn’t really be worth mentioning if it wasn’t … well, Judi Dench.  However, the movie is more likely to see recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category for Maggie Smith.  For that matter, Dench is more likely to see recognition in that category as well for her work in “Skyfall.”

And now, we arrive at our final contender, Quvenzhané Wallis for her extraordinary performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Now 9, the pint-sized but spunky Wallis would be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.  Even more impressive is that she was 6 when the movie was shot.

However, at the moment, she’s going virtually unnoticed.  Could Scott MacDonald have been right in his article on The Atlantic?

“Though she’s nine now, she was a mere six when the film was shot. To put it another way, she was not quite seven, which is the year developmental psychologists like to refer to as the age of reason: when kids start making decisions based on logic and causality. I’m no psych expert, but it seems to me this might be the sensible cut-off point for acting plaudits.

Acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own. Even adult actors who get criticized for “playing themselves” are engaged in a series of more or less conscious decisions about how best to be themselves onscreen. A young child, meanwhile, likely isn’t thinking at all about how to be herself, let alone a character. She’s a kid, and she just ‘is.'”

Beasts

So is that it?  Have most considered her too young and written off her candidacy?  MacDonald did note that 8-year-old Justin Henry was nominated for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” so a nomination wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented.  But all she’s netted is a Critics Choice nod for Best Actress and a handful of breakout performer awards.

We will never know if she had a shot with SAG because the non-union production “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was ruled ineligible to compete.  However, the novelty of her contention should have been enough to attract the Golden Globes, but they totally snubbed the entire film.  I already floated the “too American” rationale for its exclusion, citing “True Grit” as an example, but the snub is really troubling.

The Oscars do love young nominees, though.  There have been plenty of pre-pubescent nominees in Academy history, most recently Abigail Breslin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”  Saiorse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld, though quite a bit older than Willis, nonetheless were nominees.  And in 2003, lest we forget, 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance in “Whale Rider” knocked out Nicole Kidman for “Cold Mountain” and Scarlett Johansson for “Lost in Translation.”  The young are often a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.

I’ll lay out that Wallis would be a shocking Best Actress nominee.  If I was thinking by rules and precedents, the obvious pick would be Mirren.  If I was attempting to focus on just this season, I might have to go with Riva.  Yet I’m going with Wallis on little more than a gut feeling that maybe the Academy’s hearts were taken by a precocious tyke.

Check back tomorrow, January 8, to see my final predictions for Best Director!





REVIEW: Arbitrage

6 10 2012

If Adrian Lyne ever made a movie about Wall Street, I have a feeling it would look something like “Arbitrage” (OK, maybe with a little less steaminess).  Nicholas Jarecki’s debut narrative feature has high stakes, heightened emotions, and well over fifty shades of grey in every character.  It’s a world where every character is suspect and every decision deserves a screaming match debating the respective merits of the choice.

Don’t get me wrong, I like when movies give themselves a sense of weight.  Sometimes to create drama, you have to do a little dramatization.  But it’s done to a bit of an extreme in “Arbitrage.”  When you hit a high note in the first third of the movie and keep at the same pitch for nearly an hour, you lose a sense of forward momentum propelling both the film’s story and the audience’s interest.  Not to mention, watching a movie so high-strung and strung out gets quite exhausting.

This exaggerated acting leads to some fine performances, especially from Richard Gere as a ruthless, conniving greedy hedge fund executive (apparently the only kind these days).  He’s slick, slippery, and seriously stupefying.  Gere’s Robert Miller is motivated by deep, dark forces, ones that the actor digs deep to wrestle with.  Dealing with the collapse of his financial house of cards and the death of his mistress at the same time tend to make someone that primal, though.

While Susan Sarandon as his scorned wife and Brit Marling as his conflicted daughter can both shout at his level, neither can match Gere’s intensity.  I just wish “Arbitrage” had toned down a little bit to stay level with Gere.  A little bit of internalizing and a little less monologuing could have done wonders for the movie.  As is, it feels like an all too familiar yell that dilutes its own message with heavy-handedness.  B





REVIEW: Amelia

18 05 2010

Can I call BS on “Amelia?”  The movie claims to be inspired by two biographies written about female aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart; however, I have located the real source for the movie.

The movie is in fact derived from those cheesy inspirational poster that are plastered on the walls of workplaces and classrooms everywhere.  You know, the ones with the cat reaching for the ball of string on a high table with the caption “You Can Do It!”

“Amelia” is quite literally the biggest cliché I have ever seen.  I know that I use that word a lot in my reviews, but it has never been so dreadful as it is here.  Sometimes clichéd movies are bearable, other times just annoying; Mira Nair’s movie is laughable.  The dialogue is so uninspired that I found myself giggling at it.

The writing is the core of the problems, yet the movie doesn’t exactly help itself out.  The acting is cringe-worthy, led by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the titular character.  Despite playing a charismatic figure, she comes off as lifeless and dull.  However, those last two adjectives seem more fitting for Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor as her husband and lover, respectively.  Nair’s direction is unstable, and we are never sure if her portrait of Amelia is supposed to deify her or humanize her.  In my opinion, she’s better left as a legend.

The movie in itself serves as an argument against the dreaded “Oscar Bait” films which audiences believe are tailored to win Academy Awards.  According to my dictionary widget, one of the meanings of bait is “an allurement; a thing intended to tempt or entice.”  In that sense, it absolutely falls flat on its face.  “Amelia” is more likely to turn people away, not bring them in.  Another meaning, in the context of a fisherman, is “food used to entice fish or other animals as prey.”  In this context as well, it also fails.  When Fox Searchlight went fishing for voters with “Amelia,” they might as well have held up a sign that said “WE WANT OSCARS.”  No attempt is made to hide the real ambitions of this movie, and it stings all the more when it winds up as a bona fide flop. D /





What to Look Forward to In … October 2009

29 08 2009

We give the movie industry late August and all of September to recover from the busy summer season, but in October, it starts to kick it into gear again.  Unfortunately, my most anticipated movie in October, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” was pushed back to February.  But the month still puts forth several great movies for all tastes.

October 2

This week, I can promise you that I will be throwing my money not at a new release, but at the re-release of two staples of my childhood.  “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” will hit theaters again for a few weeks.  1 ticket.  2 movies. 3-D.  Need I say more?

The week also gives us “The Invention of Lying,” which could be a sleeper comedy hit. The movie stars Ricky Gervais, who was the lead of the British version of “The Office.” Around this time last year, he starred in “Ghost Town,” a comedy with a heart that you need to go rent now, that was dismissed by audiences. I have high hopes for his latest, in which he plays a man who tells the world’s first lie on an alternate Earth. He continues to wield the power to suit his own selfish needs. The movie also features Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and the always funny Tina Fey.

And not to mention, the week delivers Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It.” The movie stars the irresistible Ellen Page (“Juno”) as Bliss, a teenager weary of the beauty pageants that she is forced into by her parents. One day, she discovers the world of roller derby and she finds the happiness that she has been so desperately seeking. The movie boasts a hilarious supporting cast including Kristen Wiig (“SNL”), Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, and Barrymore herself.

And it just keeps getting better.  The Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) are back with their latest feature, “A Serious Man;” they also wrote the original screenplay.  The movie seems to be a big risk.  It features no marquee names other than the Coens themselves. The trailer is cryptic, giving no indication of what to expect from the movie. I don’t mind an aura of mystique, but this is an aura of confusion. The movie is being marketed as a dark comedy, and I pray that it is the polar opposite of the Coens’ last foray into the genre, “Burn After Reading,” which I didn’t find funny at all. The movie starts in limited release and then will slowly expand from New York and Los Angeles.

The other major release of the week is “Zombieland,” a horror-comedy with Woody Harrelson.

October 9

The only exciting movie hitting theaters across the country this weekend is “Couples Retreat.”  A comedy centered around four couples at a luxurious tropical resort that is revealed to be a marriage therapy clinic, it appears to provide something for everyone.  It has pretty women (Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis) AND funny guys (Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau).  The movie is the directorial debut of Ralph Billingsley, best known for playing Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” and the screenplay is written by Vaughn and Favreau.  Hopefully it can provide some good laughs in a season usually replete of hilarious comedies.

Opening in limited release is “An Education,” a movie that has been garnering massive Oscar buzz for months now.  Most of it has centered on the breakout performance of lead actress Carey Mulligan.  In the movie, she stars as Jenny, a 17-year-old in 1960s England who is set on going to Oxford.  However, an older gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along and sweeps her off of her feet, introducing her to a lifestyle that she immediately loves.  But reality bites, and Jenny is left at a crucial crossroads.  The movie has also generated buzz around supporting actors Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike (the red-haired villain of “Die Another Day”).  Raves are also flying in for the screenplay, written by author Nick Hornby, writer of “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch.”  And with the 10 nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many people say it has a good chance of claiming one of the ten.

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