Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) [PG] ***

A film review by Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times, on Mar. 5, 2015.

Honestly, when a sequel is called Second Best the joke is just right there, waiting. And so when it turns out that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, in fact, a lesser follow-up to its surprise 2012 hit predecessor, it tests one's sense of restraint not to go right for the obvious puns.

It was often noted that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a group of British retirees living in India, was like an aging Avengers for the way it brought together an all-star cast of acting talent. In this sequel, the director inadvertently continues that inside joke by making something that feels obligatory and cobbled together like a late franchise entry. The film has only the sheer charm of its cast to get it by, and it says a lot about the actors that they nearly pull it off.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is co-managing the hotel with the more enthusiastic than wise Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), and as the film opens the two are attempting to expand in partnership with an American company. Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) and Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) are tentatively forging a relationship together while the romantic complications of their other neighbors swirl around them. New to the mix is Richard Gere as a charmingly mysterious Richard Gere-type, a soulful silver fox.

The first Best Exotic film was adapted from the novel These Foolish Things; the new film has the unwieldy credit of “characters created in Deborah Moggach's original novel.” The screen story is credited to John Madden and Ol Parker with the screenplay by Parker. So in a sense the new film is fan fiction of the original from the start, akin to later James Bond films when producers had run out of original stories to adapt.

This could explain why the characters all seem to be flailing about, unsure of what to do. Dench often seems to wander alone through the film in what is intended as a series of missed connections with Nighy's character but plays more like some kind of scheduling issue they were trying to work around.

The first film had some basis in the idea of retirees outsourcing their retirements to India, looking to stretch whatever money they had. This gave the story a grounded connection to the here-and-now, which the new film sorely lacks. David Strathairn, as head of an elder-focused chain of hotels who is a potential partner, is underutilized, as is any implied tension between small boutique hotels and larger chains.

Shot in the city of Jaipur, in the northern state of Rajasthan, it's not even that the film is patronizing to the Indian locations and culture — it just sort of ignores them, aside from background colors, boisterous parties and funny cab rides. By the time it all ends, predictably, with a faux Bollywood-style dance number, even the goofy kick of seeing Richard Gere doing air guitar has been muted. The first Exotic Marigold was like a pleasant package vacation, delivering solid and reliable service, but this return feels like a trip that's gone on too long. [Olsen’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, cross-cultural, drama

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Concussion (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Dec. 24, 2015.

Regarding a concussion as a serious brain injury is a relatively recent phenomenon. For many years, getting your bell rung (as the expression goes) was something people were expected to shrug off. For sports, the fix was to take a couple of aspirin and get back on the field. This attitude led to a whole generation of football players who, long after their gladiatorial days were over, developed symptoms of what would become known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). When Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovered CTE while performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster (David Morse), his findings rocked the sports world. Only after many years of Big Tobacco-like denials was the NFL forced to acknowledge the dangers of concussions and implement protocols to address (however imperfectly) the associated health issues. The problem is fundamental: as long as there is football, there will be concussions and as long as there are concussions, the danger of CTE lurks.

Concussion doesn’t have an answer to this conundrum. Over the course of about two hours, Omalu identifies the disease and its root cause but, short of banning football (something that will never happen), there isn’t a solution. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the real-life Omalu stated that he doesn’t believe anyone under 18 should be permitted to play high-impact contact sports. To the extent that the film, directed by Peter Landesman after having been helped to the screen by Ridley Scott, explores the research that has led Omalu to take this extreme position, it’s a fascinating and compelling piece of drama. Concussion’s problems, however, lie in its unwillingness to follow Spotlight’s approach and focus on the procedural aspects of the story. Inferior, extraneous elements - Omalu’s romance with his eventual wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a rivalry with a fellow pathologist - clog up the narrative and reduce the movie to a generic man-against-the-system struggle.

Will Smith gives his all in a role that requires him to undergo a subtle physical transformation, adopt a credible Nigerian accent, and provide a controlled, modulated performance. It’s an effective portrayal although whether it’s Oscar-worthy has yet to be determined. There’s also subtle irony at work here. Next to football, the sport with the highest incidence of CTE is boxing and, in a previous part, Smith played one of the world’s best known champions of that sport, Mohammed Ali.

Although this is primarily a one-man show, some familiar names show up to provide Smith with solid support. Albert Brooks, as Dr. Cyril Wecht, and Alec Baldwin, as Dr. Julian Bailes, play the two doctors who stand side-by-side with Omalu and absorb some of the missiles flung at him. Although David Morse, playing the CTE-impaired Webster, doesn’t have a large amount of screen time, his performance illustrates the effects of CTE. The only obvious miscasting is Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell. Wilson looks nothing like the NFL commissioner and his portrayal is flat.

Concussion’s dramatic core is solid and its unwillingness to sugarcoat the NFL’s tactics is likely to raise some eyebrows. When it comes to how the league employed a campaign of disinformation, bullying, and obfuscation to protect their product at the cost of human lives and health, they’re not much different from tobacco or asbestos companies. Concussion argues that it wasn’t just a case of the NFL sticking its head in the sand but that it actively worked against Omalu, demonizing his efforts and defaming him.

When Concussion stays on point, it’s as riveting as any movie about a crusader taking on a massive, corrupt organization. But Concussion has about 15 minutes of material that appears to have been fused into the script in a failed attempt to make the lead character more human. Had these scenes been better written, they might have worked but they feel like they were co-opted from a made-for-TV biopic. They distract rather than enhance. On balance, however, Concussion is to be congratulated. Landesman appears not to have been intimidated by the Teflon giant he’s targeting and the movie makes valid points about how corporate greed will always trump the concern for people’s safety and well-being. Concussion isn’t always brilliant but it’s compelling enough that the lesser scenes are easily ignored. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, football, sport

Brooklyn (2015) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Nov. 20, 2015.

Brooklyn is a beautifully crafted, deeply moving motion picture - a more personal story than is typically told in movies that transplant Europeans into the fertile soil of early 20th century America. Brooklyn explores the pain of leaving loved ones and familiar things behind and the joy and empowerment that can come from building a new life. Although not without moments of sadness and tragedy, Brooklyn is sublimely uplifting and life affirming.

Saoirse Ronan’s performance as the lead character, Eilis Lacey, [pronounced A-lis] has rightly generated Oscar buzz. A nuanced portrayal like this - low-key, unforced, and emotionally exact - is guaranteed to get an actor noticed. Ronan’s representation of Eilis’ homesickness is heartbreaking. There’s a believable wonder and confusion in the uncertainty with which she approaches first love. We see her develop from a homeless girl navigating the confusing channels of a new country to a confident woman with a bright life ahead. Ronan is ably supported by several recognizable names in small roles: Julie Walters as the openly comedic landlady Mrs. Kehoe, Jim Broadbent as the helpful priest Father Flood, and Domhall Gleeson as Jim Farrell, a potential love interest.

The film opens in 1952 Ireland with Eilis getting ready to embark on a boat trip to New York. At the behest of her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), an Irish- American priest, Father Flood, has secured a job and lodging for Eilis. Scared and miserable, she leaves behind Rose and her mother, Mary (Jane Brennan), for Brooklyn. The Atlantic crossing is difficult, but the seasickness is nothing compared to the separation anxiety she experiences after her arrival. Eventually, however, the homesickness fades and Eilis is able to start her new life. Key to this is a romance with a young Italian man, Tony (Emory Cohen), who brings a smile to Eilis’ face when they’re together and never becomes pushy or demanding. Just when she has become comfortable calling Brooklyn home, however, events conspire to recall her to the town of her birth.

Brooklyn touches on numerous universal themes. Many coming-of-age stories, whether they involve immigration or not, focus on the transition from childhood dependency to adult independence. They’re about the development of a unique identity and the conflicting emotions that come with it - the sadness associated with the weakening of family ties and the excitement that results from forging ahead into the future. Because immigration involves a physical gulf in addition to an emotional one, these things are emphasized in Brooklyn.

The film is divided into three distinct acts and director John Crowley alters his visual approach subtly with each. The first, which occurs in Ireland prior to Eilis’ emigration, has a darker, more sober look and tone. The second, in Brooklyn, has richer colors and contains elements of nostalgia (although it doesn’t romanticize the New York setting the way a director like Woody Allen is known to do). The third, once again in Ireland, revisits many of the same places as the first but with brighter lighting and no evidence of the color desaturation from earlier in the movie.

Brooklyn hits just about all the right notes, although this shouldn’t be surprising considering some of screenwriter Nick Hornby’s previous projects: High Fidelity (he wrote the novel), About a Boy (also the novel), and An Education (the screenplay). Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s book shows a deft touch when it comes to maintaining the essence of the source. Due in no small part to Ronan’s performance, the movie allows viewers to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. Eilis is no one-dimensional avatar traversing a path through a clichéd narrative. Instead, this is an emotionally precise journey with a character we come to understand and care about. That’s an increasingly rare commodity in the motion picture industry and deserves to be singled out when, as in Brooklyn, it can be found. [Berardinelli’s rating: ***1/2 out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance

Truth (2015) [R] ****

A film review by Mark Olsen for the L.A. Times, on Oct. 15, 2015.

Is swift-boating still part of the common lexicon? The political and cultural climate has moved far and fast since the skirmishes of the 2004 presidential election, a time the movie Truth looks to re-examine.

Adapted by screenwriter James Vanderbilt in his directing debut, the film is based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, by former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who after the success of reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal attempted to untangle the convoluted history of then-President George W. Bush's military service in the Air National Guard in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The 60 Minutes II report that aired in September 2004 was based in part on documents whose authenticity were immediately called into question, creating a furor that led to Mapes being fired and paved the way for the resignation of Dan Rather from CBS News.

Truth is a movie curiously in conflict with itself. There is a constant shift between granular detail and big-picture sweep that the movie never fully resolves, as serious discussions of type fonts and spacing between lines and letters on the military documents fit awkwardly with musings on what-it-all-means.

Mapes' book and Vanderbilt's screenplay present the incident as a harbinger of the deeply divided and contentious climate in which the news is now delivered each day, and a demarcation point regarding the importance of journalism along with the intersection of the Internet and media ownership.

Truth might all be a bit dry were it not for the sparkling performances by Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather, who provide two distinct approaches on movie-star dynamics. Blanchett attacks her role while Redford lets it come to him. There are also fine supporting performances from Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Stacy Keach and Bruce Greenwood. Noni Hazlehurst delivers a devastating monologue as the wife of the man who first delivers suspect documents to Mapes.

Vanderbilt is best known as the screenwriter of David Fincher's Zodiac, another film dense with historical and factual information. Fincher as a director was better able to handle the sheer volume of data in that story, letting its weight provide momentum, with a nimble grace that Vanderbilt is unable to bring to Truth. It is not hard to wonder if Truth the screenplay might have rang its bell a bit more clearly in the hands of another director, another set of eyes and hands to distill the material.

The film plays best as a forensic procedural leading up to and receding from the fulcrum point of the September 2004 broadcast of that now infamous story on Bush's National Guard service, an examination of how the story came together and how quickly it came apart. (A subsequent internal investigation by CBS found that the disputed documents could be neither verified fully nor discounted completely.) For anyone who knows what is to come after the broadcast, a number of early scenes on the reporting of the story feel like moments just before a car crash, where in retrospect the accident could have been avoided, but in the moment it is coldly inevitable.

The post-broadcast investigation builds to a magnificent series of scenes in which Blanchett as Mapes spars with a panel made up of the privileged and elite, delivering a feisty declaration of principles that is uncynically the stuff of awards-season clip packages. Blanchett has become such an otherworldly screen persona — having played Cinderella's stepmother, a queen, an elf, a delusional socialite, Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan — that seeing her play an ostensibly regular person now feels unusual. Blanchett still brings a regal bearing to her earthy depiction of realness, her tousled hair flicked precisely as to always be perfectly imperfect.

Redford is an unusual choice at first in the role of Rather and the actor doesn't change his hair color or seemingly make much effort to look like the real television newsman. But eventually Redford's own presence and understated charm take hold and the actor doesn't so much inhabit the role as simply make it his own, bending it toward his own gravitational pull. It's a trick of hiding in plain sight — at some point the actor stops reading onscreen like Robert Redford as Robert Redford and suddenly is Robert Redford as Dan Rather.

The film ends with Rather's final broadcast and there's a slow-motion glamour shot of Redford that is jarring for the way in which it seems to enshrine both the actor and the character as some sort of new Mount Rushmore of rustic Americana. The moment is odd for a number of reasons, feeling outside the tone of the rest of the movie, but most of all for how it shoves Mapes to the side of her own story.

Even as the film clearly conveys both the how and why of the mistakes made in reporting and airing the Bush National Guard story — mistakes that also shed no real light on the veracity of the story's core claims — there are no ultimate conclusions to be drawn from Truth. There is no smoking gun, deathbed confession or definitive answer; rather there is a web of shifting perspectives and conflicting motives. And for a movie about contentious recent history and the contemporary media environment within which that history is being written, that air of conflict and uncertainty may remain the most genuinely honest result one can expect. [Olsen’s rating: ***1/2 out of 5 stars]

Labels: biography, drama, history

Maggie’s Plan (2015) [R] ****

Maggie's Plan: Some of it plays like a generic indie romantic comedy

Maggie's Plan stars Greta Gerwig as Maggie, who cozies up to a married adjunct professor and novelist (Ethan Hawke). The actors are sprightly and Julianne Moore as the professor's wife, Georgette, shows her astonishing versatility.

A film review by Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor Film Critic, May 20, 2016

I’ve never quite connected with Greta Gerwig in her movies. She’s obviously funny and talented, but there’s a gawky amateurishness to her acting that often wears thin for me. She needs a strong hand to rein in her cutesy eccentricities but most of the time her directors indulge her excesses. (An exception, although I’m in the minority in thinking so, was her teaming with Barry Levinson in the underrated The Humbling opposite Al Pacino.)

Gerwig is still doing her Greta Gerwig act in Maggie’s Plan, but, in her best moments, there’s also a slyness and a depth to what she does. Her Maggie is an employee in the New School in Greenwich Village who cozies up to John Harding (Ethan Hawke), an adjunct professor and novelist who is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore), a Danish intellectual and fellow professor whose achievements overshadow his.

Maggie, who is single, wants to have a child and is tired of waiting for Mr. Right. Although John has all the earmarks of Mr. Wrong (at least for her), the inevitable happens. Except there’s a twist involving Maggie and Georgette that is, both thematically and emotionally, anything but predictable, and yet seems entirely believable.

Writer-director Rebecca Miller never wrests her movie free of its associations with the films of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, and some of it plays like a generic indie film romantic comedy. But the actors, for the most part, are sprightly, especially, improbably, Moore, sporting a Danish accent a mile wide. That she is entirely convincing in the role, and not a joke, is a tribute to her astonishing versatility. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some sexuality.)

Keywords: comedy, drama, romance

Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015) [NR] ****

The last time I saw Ingrid Bergman, she was sitting on my living room floor, eating dinner off the coffee table. Some friends on a lower floor had graciously loaned her their apartment while she was in town to consult an army of cancer doctors. I ran into her in the elevator and asked her to dinner; she graciously accepted, and an unforgettable evening was spent in the presence of a goddess. She was warm yet cool, patrician yet earthy, worldly yet unpretentious, beautiful without makeup, and determined to ignore her declining health for a night of fun and music and homemade lentil soup. She was the real deal. She said she was going home to record a pleasant experience in her diary. She was all the qualities on view in Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words, the remarkable new documentary by director Stig Björkman. In short, she was unforgettable.

This is what you got when you met her, and this is what you get in the movie. The camera loved her and she loved cameras. She owned a lot of them and carried them around to record every event in her life, big and small. You see her work behind the camera here, as well as the artistry that won her three Oscars. Compiled from six decades of diaries, archival footage, home movies of family vacations and interviews with her four children and best friends, an indelible portrait of a headstrong, determined woman emerges through the fog of fan magazines and gossip columns to eschew every hint of bogus celebrity or insincerity. Yet there is also an inescapable underlying restlessness born of the insecurity that ruled her life.

Losing her parents at an early age, she longed to shower her own children and three husbands with the affection, commitment and emotional security she never got herself. But she didn’t know how. So by their own admission, she was more of a friend than a mother. She adored her first husband, Dr. Petter Lindstrom, and vowed to never leave him, but she also had a burning ambition, which she admits more than once. It took her all the way to Hollywood, away from Sweden, her husband and baby daughter. Under contract to David O. Selznick, she achieved instant stardom, but her voice on the soundtrack confesses, I’ve seen so much, and yet it was never enough.

Ingrid Bergman smiles as she poses outdoors, wearing a tan leather jacket, circa 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Never satisfied with success, and bored by America, Ingrid followed Italian director Roberto Rossellini to Italy for the dreadful hysterics and erupting volcano in Stromboli, sacrificing her marriage and deserting her child to live with another man so far away. One of the most touching moments in the film is Pia Lindstrom’s candor about the traumatizing impact of her mother’s farewell letter.

bergman31 A NY Camelot: Rex Reed on My Dinner with Ingrid Bergman

The resulting scandal dealt a deathblow to Bergman’s Hollywood career, but again she was miserable with the undisciplined way of working in Italian films, so she left three more children behind as she conquered new horizons - in London, Paris and New York. I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, she says wearily, all in one lifetime. Everyone forgave her, including her beautiful children. She cherished them - beautiful, elegant Pia, her son Roberto Rossellini, and her twin daughters Isabella Rossellini and Ingrid Rossellini. But none of them sugarcoat their resentment over the fact that she was never physically there. Her work always came first.

Ingrid Bergman.

When she died in 1982, at age 67, they were all there for her, showering her with love, as the rest of us still do. Despite her fame and success, she was shy and insecure and a monument to discontent. A creature of impulse to the end, she was a woman who saved everything - from lace valentines and old passports to Oscars and tear-stained divorce papers. How lucky we are she can share them with us now. She marched to her own drummer, and the beat goes on. [Reed’s rating: **** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Having watched this two-hour documentary four times, as well as Casablanca, Indiscreet, Notorious and Murder on the Orient Express, and having just finished Ingrid’s autobiography My Story, I can say with confidence that if you are an Ingrid Bergman fan, this documentary will be very revealing. Ingrid lost her mother to jaundice at age two, and her father to cancer at age 13. I have a feeling that gave her the understanding that people left, that you couldn't count on them and that you have to live your own life. Because her father was a photographer and filmed Ingrid, she understood that she could make her own photographic memories and keep them with her always, and they would provide roots, and a sense of continuity to her life. This link will take you to the complete YouTube video of the documentary, albeit displayed in a small window on the screen. Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words.

Labels: biography, documentary, filmmaking
These two links are for YouTube videos of the entire documentary Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words. Since the videos may be removed at any time, the links are not reliable. Note that the documentary appears in a small window on the screen. Of course the real documentary fills the entire screen.


A complete Ingrid Bergman filmography may be found in my blog, titled The-Films-of-Ingrid-Bergman. Films that are reviewed in this blog are linked back to it. Other films and TV performances are linked to the appropriate Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page.



Bridge of Spies (2015) [PG-13] ****+

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Oct. 15, 2015

With names like Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Ethan & Joel Coen, it's hard not to be excited about a project like Bridge of Spies. Yet, although the workmanlike production is solidly engaging, it falls short of the loftiest expectations. It's worth seeing but not one of the best films of 2015. In terms of the director's oeuvre, this will likely be remembered as one of his minor productions. (Think Always, The Terminal, and War Horse.)

Part of the problem may be the sprawling screenplay which starts out as a courtroom procedural before taking a sharp right turn into John Le Carre territory. The spy element is where the film's strength lies, but it's not on par with some of the great Cold War thrillers that have come to the screen both before and after the Berlin Wall fell. Admittedly, the screenwriters are constrained by the based on a true story aspect but, in concert with Spielberg, they somehow fail to capture the powerful sense of claustrophobia that characterizes almost every film set in Cold War Berlin. The period detail is impeccable but the atmosphere is surprisingly tepid.

The story opens in Brooklyn, N.Y. during the late 1950s with the arrest by American authorities of suspected Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Concerned that the man receives top-notch representation, the government approaches attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend Abel. Although initially reluctant, Donovan warms to the idea after meeting his would-be client. Although unable to secure a not guilty verdict, Donovan's arguments spare Abel the death penalty. However, his vociferous defense of such an anti-American criminal earns Donovan the ire of his fellow citizens.

In a parallel storyline, Bridge of Spies introduces CIA pilot Lieutenant Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who flies a U-2 spy plane on a mission high over Soviet territory. He is given strict instructions that, if the aircraft is compromised and in danger of falling into enemy hands, he is to activate the aircraft’s auto-destruct mechanism. He is also given orders about the conditions under which he is to end his own life. He fails in both regards and is captured by the Soviets. The CIA, concerned about the top secret information Powers might divulge, asks Donovan to broker a prisoner exchange: Powers for Abel. This requires the lawyer, who is sick with a cold, to travel to Berlin and meet with KGB and East German officials in circumstances that could best be described as precarious.

Although the screenplay is co-credited to the Coen Brothers, it's a strangely straightforward story with little of the quirkiness one often associates from the Oscar-winning duo. Their off-kilter sense of humor comes across in some of Hanks' lines (consider his response to a CIA agent when he's in a phone booth) but the finished project would seem to lean heavily toward the pen of co-writer Matt Charman. Spielberg's recreation of 1960s Berlin is exemplary but there are times when his approach is surprisingly heavy-handed. In particular, instead of going for something subtle, he opts to use a sledge-hammer approach in contrasting what appears outside train windows when traveling in Berlin and New York. The misstep is small but strident.

The spy aspects of Bridge of Spies are handled effectively, although Donovan's situation isn't as dire as what we have become accustomed to in other Cold War thrillers set in Berlin. There's tension but it's not suffocating. Even when Donovan is incarcerated, we don't believe his situation to be perilous. That's because, no matter how loudly the U.S. government denies that he's their agent, he's playing a game with rules and the other side is as bound by them as he is. In the end, Bridge of Spies is more about the mechanics of how the deal gets done than it is about watchers skulking in the shadows and people disappearing into the night.

Tom Hanks has grown into this sort of role.  It's that of a grizzled warhorse who is fueled by equal parts cynicism and idealism. He's a good man who recognizes that might not matter much. Amy Smart (as Donovan's wife) and Sebastian Koch (as the East German lawyer who becomes involved in the negotiations) provide solid support. But the real standout is Mark Rylance whose turn as the meek, composed Abel compels the viewer’s attention. His quiet performance steals scenes away from Hanks and everyone else.

A more tightly focused screenplay might have resulted in a leaner, more riveting motion picture. Perhaps by attempting to tell the entire story from Donovan's first to last involvement results in an arc that is difficult to manage. Bridge of Spies is an engaging mid-Autumn recollection of an era that is increasingly viewed through the tinted glasses of nostalgia. However, despite the pedigree of those involved, it would be surprising to see this emerge as one of the season’s great successes. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, history, spy, thriller

I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on May 28, 2015.

Carol (Blythe Danner) is a retired schoolteacher who spends her days relaxing in her beautiful home, enjoying her independence and the companionship of her dog. She also takes comfort in memories of her late, beloved husband. The only thing disrupting Carol’s peace is a rat, whose unpredictable appearances send her skittering onto her patio.

Occasionally she drops by a nearby retirement community to chat with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place) and Georgina (June Squibb), who take great delight in gossip. But Carol has no desire to move there. She’s content to live alone, even with the rat problem.

What Carol has trouble handling is a tragedy that lowers her guard and leads her to explore new relationships. One is with Lloyd (Martin Starr), a 30-ish pool cleaner who lacks enthusiasm about his job and about his life in general. The other is with Bill (Sam Elliott), a wiry retiree who sports an unlit cigar and is more than casually interested in getting to know her a lot better.

It’s been a long time since Carol had much to do with men. Lloyd’s too young to be a true romantic option, yet he draws her out in surprising ways — including a visit to a karaoke bar, where he gets something of a surprise himself.

Although Bill isn’t shy about his intentions, his sheer aggressiveness somehow comes across as endearing. And as much as she might decline to admit it, Carol longs for a man’s touch.

But at her age, is she really up for big changes in her life? And how long can she keep bolting to the patio?

Directed and co-written by Brett Haley, I’ll See You in My Dreams is a small but lovely film about getting the most out of life, regardless of how much life one has left. And it’s a wonderful showcase for Danner, who brings to the proceedings a rare blend of charisma, intelligence and vulnerability.

Perhaps best known for mom roles — as Teri Polo’s in Meet the Parents and its sequels, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s in real life — Danner has had a long career in film and television without quite achieving the recognition due her. As Carol, she comes through with a performance that deserves to be remembered come Oscar season. And the supporting cast — particularly Starr and Elliott — couldn’t be better.

I’ll See You in My Dreams is at once funny and poignant — and not just for moviegoers of a certain age. [Wilson’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger's comment: I found this a little slow-paced and give it *** 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Labels: comedy, drama, romance, tragedy

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Aloha (2015) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on May 28, 2015.

During the first two decades of his movie career, Cameron Crowe was a critical and popular darling, turning out titles like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which he wrote), Say Anything (wrote/directed), Jerry Maguire (wrote/directed), and Almost Famous (wrote/directed). Crowe's fall from grace came in 2001, when Vanilla Sky was met with a tepid response by the critics and was ignored at the box office. 2005's Elizabethtown was the filmmaker's first across-the-board failure. Following a six-year hiatus, he returned in the 2011 holiday season with We Bought a Zoo - although an improvement, it was not a return to form. Now, four years later, he says Aloha. Scarred as a result of (negative) leaked material from the Sony hacking scandal, the film was in trouble before its release. Watching it, it's not hard to understand the studio heads' concerns. Aloha is Crowe's worst film-to-date, eclipsing Elizabethtown for that distinction and raising questions about whether the director has lost his touch (á là Rob Reiner).

It's hard to find a level on which Aloha works. It's a murky, muddled mess. There are some good individual scenes - mostly featuring the kind of interpersonal interaction that has become Crowe's hallmark - but these exist in isolation. The narrative is clunky and disjointed with interminable stretches that don't coalesce. The acting by lead Bradley Cooper is uneven and lacking in charisma and it's hard to figure out whether some of the other performers - Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski in particular - are playing for laughs or attempting to develop serious characters.

For a while, it's a mystery where the meandering movie is headed. Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) has returned to his old stomping grounds of Hawaii to do a job for his former boss, multi-billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Brian has a history with Carson - he did shady jobs for the corporate magnate in Afghanistan, where he suffered a debilitating injury. He sees this as an opportunity to get back into the game. It also means re-connecting with an old flame, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), and having a chance to ignite something with his combustible aide, Allison (Emma Stone). For about half the movie, Crowe obfuscates Brian's purpose in Hawaii - it seems to be to run a ceremony but that apparently is a cover for his real job. Unfortunately, when the truth is revealed, it's nonsensical. The filmmaker may be a cynic when it comes to the military-industrial complex but he has little understanding of how things actually work. Maybe the big climax is intended to be allegorical. Maybe Crowe is trying to make a point. Whatever the case, it's a big mess and not especially satisfying for a grounded viewer. The last scene raises some confusing questions that come out of nowhere.

Crowe's films often undergo post-production surgery. Almost Famous, for example, lost 40 minutes between the director's cut and the theatrical release. The film is so disjointed that one can guess too much was trimmed. But even if the production flowed better, it can't excuse the abysmal conclusion. Any involvement the audience may feel when it comes to the romantic triangle fizzles when Crowe shifts his focus to the Bill Murray or Alec Baldwin characters. And there's an interminable scene when Brian and Allison negotiate a deal with a native Hawaiian king that sets up (poorly) something that happens later.

There are a few small pleasures. Some scenes between Brian and Allison have a zing to them. The repartee is sharp and there's no shortage of chemistry. Emma Stone's performance provides a caffeinated live wire overflowing with infectious enthusiasm. There's a sense of pathos in the interaction between Brian and Tracy. They know they represented the great love of each other's lives but they messed it up. There's never an indication they might get back together; they just spend time wallowing in what might have been.

The underlying reason for disappointment is that the premise - not dissimilar to the one of Forgetting Sarah Marshall - would seem to be in Crowe's wheelhouse.  His oeuvre has shown him to be a romantic and this is the kind of material that, handled properly, could make for an old-fashioned rom-com. Plus he has three of the hottest actors in Hollywood (including two recent Oscar nominees)… and the result is still a mess. Even his penchant for having pop music help with telling the story fails him - Tears for Fears seems more obligatory than organic.

The word Aloha has come to mean hello or goodbye in English. Let's hope the latter doesn't apply to Crowe's career as a film director. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Meru (2015) [R] ****

A film review by Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com on Aug. 14, 2015.

The connection between the legendary George Mallory and renowned climber Conrad Anker, one of the subjects of Meru, is more than just historical. Believe it or not, Anker is the man who found Mallory’s body on Mount Everest in 1999, which made headlines around the world. [Blogger's note: Mallory tried and failed to summit Everest in 1924, 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tensing Norgay succeeded in 1953.] Anker also seems to wholeheartedly subscribe to the theory captured by Mallory’s three most famous words: Because it’s there. In that oft-quoted phrase, so much of the human desire to surmount the impossible is captured. Although the quote is often misinterpreted as a way to offer proof of inconsequential reasons to do what logic tells us we should not. Another interpretation is that there aren’t words to capture why people go to the Moon, come back from the brink of death, or climb Mount Everest. They just do. Because it’s there. The men of Meru tried to go to a place that all common sense dictated they should not. They tried to climb a sheer wall that no one had ever climbed before. Their story is undeniably interesting. However, and this is the tricky part about reviewing documentaries, the movie about that story is flawed. A bit too much time is spent in admiration and hero worship over the indefatigable will of these men, when it is the footage on that mountainside that matters. It’s a story that speaks for itself, and so the emphasis on talking heads explaining it to us is dispiriting.

The Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru has long been the ultimate prize in mountain climbing. It is a ridiculous creation of Mother Nature, perched over 20,000 feet above the Ganges River and essentially flat and straight-up. It is not a mountain; it is a wall. At the most challenging part of its ascent, climbers often travel 200 meters in ONE DAY. That’s the inch-by-inch progress it takes to get to the top. And if you plan poorly or merely get hit by bad weather, you better turn around if you ever want to see your family again. As explained in the film, it is the anti-Everest in that there are no sherpas. No help. No one to do the grunt work. You are on your own climbing a smooth, featureless face.

In October 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin (credited with co-directing Meru) and Renan Ozturk tried to tackle Meru. They filmed much of the perilous journey, and this material is easily the strongest in Meru. When the filmmakers stop the musical score and stop the narration, and simply allow us to listen to the wind and the snow pummeling these men, the physical challenge is palpable. The trio failed in 2008. In a remarkable scene, they look almost close enough to the summit to touch it, but they figure out that the sun will set soon, they have nowhere to camp, and they would not survive the conditions. They look like they literally could throw something to the top, but they have to turn back and go all the way back down. They were 100 meters away.

Defeated, it looks unlikely that the trio will go back again. In an interesting footnote not given enough attention, Jimmy reveals that it was the failure of another group of climbers to reach the top that really got him thinking about attempting it again. There’s something so attractive about being the first. Risking your life to be second isn’t as exciting. And so after some remarkable speed bumps are placed in their way but surpassed, the trio takes another shot at it.

Meru works best, by far, in its You Are There moments. You hear heavy breathing, the elements whip the tent, and it sounds like the world is ending. At one point in the first climb—and it’s really why it failed—they are stuck, literally, on the side of the mountain for FOUR DAYS, as the elements made it impossible to move. Why would anyone do this? Negative 20 degree weather in the shade. Why do it beyond because it’s there? Meru doesn’t really go into that, which would be fine, if it didn’t spend so much time talking about mountain climbing. The film is weighed down with interview footage, a lot of which is essentially fan service—how great these guys are, how courageous they are, how tough they are. And I’m not arguing they’re not, just questioning the cinematic value of such an approach. Meru is billed as an awe-inspiring nature documentary, and it works best when it remembers to be one. [Tallerico’s rating: ** ½ out of 3 stars]

[Blogger's note: I was not put off by the running commentary. It provided necessary intellectual understanding, supporting and enriching the direct experience the video gave of the climb.]

Labels: action, adventure, documentary, sport

Monday, November 30, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on May 6, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy's fourth novel (and the first to have widespread success), is precisely what one would expect from a big budget adaptation of a Victorian classic: stately, beautifully photographed, impeccably acted, and faithful to a condensed iteration of the text. There's nothing here to astound or surprise; the movie neither exceeds nor falls below expectations. Those who love Hardy and/or the less-filmic romances of his era will derive the most from Far from the Madding Crowd. This is designed with an older, art house-going viewer in mind - someone who doesn't demand quick cuts and ceaseless camera movement. It's the kind of film we saw often during the 1990s but which has become less common with the demise of Merchant-Ivory and the Jane Austen boom.

Like the 1967 John Schlesinger film, the 2015 version doesn't stray far from the source material, although Thomas Vinterberg's interpretation is more understated. Both films focus more on the romantic aspects of the movie than the social ones, undercutting the novel's thematic foundation. The divisions among the various social classes are noted only in passing and the isolation of the characters from society is never remarked upon. Like most of Hardy's novels, Far from the Madding Crowd deals with sorrow, loss, and regret. The story has its share of lighthearted moments to go along with the darkness, and it never gets close to the territory into which Hardy's infamous Jude the Obscure ventured.

The film follows the life of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a headstrong young woman who, after inheriting a farm, is determined to run it herself. She has no shortage of suitors. Shepherd Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts) proposes marriage before his fortunes take a turn for the worse. Bathsheba's wealthy but taciturn neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), is smitten but his proposal is also met with a rejection. The one to capture Bathsheba's attention and awaken her desire is British army sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). However, although their affair leads to marriage, their relationship has all the lasting power of an adolescent crush, with Bathsheba almost immediately regretting her impetuous decision, and Frank gambling away her money and putting the farm in debt.

Carey Mulligan is an inspired choice to play Bathsheba, a role that might have gone to Emma Thompson had the film been made 20 years ago. She's cool and confident; we come to respect her strength and appreciate that she doesn't need a man to be complete. Matthias Schoenaerts interacts well with Mulligan and is a solid presence in the background. Michael Sheen makes Boldwood a more sympathetic, even tragic, character than in either the book or the 1967 movie. There's a misstep with Tom Sturridge, whose Frank comes across as creepy from the beginning; missing is the erotic frisson necessary to make credible his white-hot romance with Bathsheba. We don't feel the passion between the two characters necessary for us to accept what happens with them.

Far from the Madding Crowd is beautifully photographed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who captures a number of breathtaking shots. Vinterberg treats his set design with care, drawing on a simple is best philosophy (e.g. the film Dogma); the period details are without peer, resulting in a you are there experience.

There is unintentional irony that a movie with this name is being released in May. As Far from the Madding Crowd slides almost unnoticed into art houses and a few select multiplexes, it offers the strongest counterprogramming imaginable against the madding of the early summer blockbusters. This is not intended for the Age of Ultron or Mad Max audience. Instead, it's a traditional, literate motion picture. Imperfect as it may be, the title reflects not only the subject matter but its place in theatrical distribution. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Focus (2015) [R] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for ReelViews.net on Feb. 26, 2015.

With a lighthearted caper movie, the formula is easy to understand if not execute. It's all about conning the viewer as effectively as the on-screen marks while camouflaging enough of the unavoidable plot holes to make things hold up on a second viewing. Although Focus, a comedy/thriller that plays to star Will Smith's strengths, succeeds at the former, it's on thin ice with the latter. The movie is mostly entertaining, although there are times when the pacing flags, but several scenes (one in particular) are designed for in-the-moment sleight-of-hand without being overly concerned about whether they'll make any sense in retrospect.

If the granddaddy of movies in this genre is the Redford/Newman Oscar winner, The Sting, then Focus is a distant cousin several times removed. It does enough things right to earn a recommendation, but there are misfires aplenty for those who care to look for them. The chemistry between Smith and co-star Margot Robbie (who will forever be remembered for her revealing turn in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street) is strong enough to paper over their underdeveloped romance, but there are a couple of monologues that function as exposition dumps (including one near the very end). The third-act twist (and house rules specify that caper movies must all have these) is unpredictable but also borders on nonsensical if one bothers to sit down and think about it. The movie is at its most fun when it stays small and light. One of the best sequences is a New Orleans street scene that turns pickpocketing into ballet.

Focus takes us into the world of master con artist Nicky (Smith), a slick operator who boasts unparalleled skills, relentless focus, and possibly a gambling problem. Although he sometimes works alone, he has assembled a team of 30-odd associates whose job is to labor in concert to steal as much as quickly and surreptitiously as possible. Nicky's not interested in a big score; volume derives income. Nicky's new apprentice, Jess (Robbie), is a looker with raw capabilities that Nicky wants to refine. In the process, he falls for her. Or does he? And how does she feel about him? Is he a beloved mentor or a mark? Is she an innocent or a femme fatale? In some ways, the questions are more interesting than the answers.

The movie travels from New York City to New Orleans to Buenos Aries with the stakes becoming higher with each stop. The second half of the film doesn't work as well as the first half, but it's got a snarling Gerald McRaney (the veteran TV star who may still be best known for starring roles in Major Dad and Simon & Simon) to provide an enjoyable diversion.

Focus underscores that Smith is at his best in movies with this tone: a little flippant but with darker undercurrents. It's not a straightforward comedy but there are some funny moments. Smith is in desperate need of a hit; it has been about seven years since he made a legitimate box office splash. It's perhaps no surprise that Nicky owes more than a passing debt to the title character of Hitch, one of Smith's best-liked films. It's unfortunate that co-directors and co-screenwriters Glenn Ficarra & John Requa couldn't do a better job fleshing out the interaction between Smith and Robbie, although the revolving door of actors attached to the project could have something to do with that.

As so-called refrigerator films* go, this one doesn't boast the smartest of scripts but it's clever enough to offer a few surprises and the likeability factor for the protagonists is high. The film's tone, like its pacing, is uneven, but that's not a major drawback. It doesn't overstay its welcome although it comes perilously close during a lackluster denouement. Focus is uncommonly good for a February release (damning with faint praise?) but may not clear the bar of being worthy of a trip through snow and ice to reach the multiplex. Star power, actor chemistry, and caper movie twists make for a nice diversion… but not much more. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

*refrigerator films, as characterized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock are movies that seem well-crafted, and hold together while you’re watching them, but make less sense later when you give them a second thought while standing in front of the refrigerator.

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, romance