Friday, August 26, 2016

“The Hollars”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama  “The Hollars”, starring John Krasinski, who also directed.


When a dysfunctional family is united after one of them falls ill, can they use this opportunity to resolve their issues with each other?


John Hollar (Krasinski) is undergoing something of a crisis – and things aren’t about to get better anytime soon.   To begin with, John’s career isn’t on the trajectory he’d hoped it would be at this point in his life; for another thing, his fiancée Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) is pregnant with their first child, which is merely serving to compound his stress.  Add to that the latest news:  Sally (Margo Martindale), his mother, is quite ill and in the hospital.  Upon hearing this news, John immediately takes a temporary leave from his cartooning job in New York City to return to his family’s small hometown where he can support his mother. 

Arriving back home, John finds that he’s stepped into more controversy than he expected with his dysfunctional family members.  For one thing, his recently divorced brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) has been living at home with their parents Sally and Don (Richard Jenkins); this has been awkward for a couple of reasons:  one, of course, is due to the divorce itself, but the other is because until recently, Ron worked for Don at his failing heating and plumbing business.  When money became tight, Don had to lay off Ron; as a result, tensions have heightened between them.

After an examination, it turns out that Sally is seriously ill – she has a brain tumor that has apparently existed for quite some time without having been either detected or treated and now has to undergo a craniotomy in order to have the tumor removed.   With Rebecca feeling neglected once she hears that John’s ex-girlfriend has been pursuing him, she flies out there to be with him.  Joining John’s family, Rebecca tries to provide support during these turbulent times even though she’s dealing with an impending birth.  But will the family be able to resolve their internal conflicts by the time Sally recovers from surgery?


While watching “The Hollars”, one gets the impression that although it may have been made from an original screenplay, it could nevertheless be based on a book titled, “The Big Hollywood Bible Of Movie Clichés”.  No one would be blamed for getting the sense that as the writer typed each page, he checked off every item in the book as he went along.  We are supposed to like “The Hollars” (both the family and the movie) because “they are so similar to us” and that the story has some verisimilitude with respect to the real life of average folks.      

People will always enjoy a good story if it is well-told.  In the case of “The Hollars”, it may be a good story, but it’s not well-told, at least not most of the time.  Krasinski’s angst over his professional and personal life is rather unsympathetic and one gets the recurring urge to tell his character to just grow up and snap out of it because he doesn’t realize how good his life truly is.  As his brother, Sharlto Copley’s character is equally unsympathetic; while we are supposed to feel for him because he misses his children, his erratic behavior has dark undertones that cause suspicions about what more nefarious acts he might commit.

On a positive note, “The Hollars” has a cast worth boasting about; movie and television fans will find an abundance of faces and names that are instantly recognizable.  This is an ensemble piece and the actors were likely drawn to it because each character had his or her own tale in which they would be featured.  Unfortunately, when characters start behaving in an irrational manner and do things that just don’t make any sense, that’s where viewers are in jeopardy of falling out of the story.  In a “dramedy”, it can be a delicate balance to know when to take things seriously and when not. 

The Hollars (2016) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

“Hands Of Stone”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of The New York City Premiere for the new biography “Hands Of Stone”, starring Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro and Usher. 


When boxer Roberto Duran hires Ray Arcel as a trainer, he attains great success – but after suffering a professional setback, can Duran rebound?



Growing up poor in Panama, Roberto Duran (Ramirez) had to hustle to help his family survive after his American father abandoned them – something which helped form a deep-seated hatred for America and Americans.  After a local boxing trainer takes pity on him, he agrees to help the young Duran get fights where he earns money to support his mother and siblings.  As Duran grows up, his boxing skills become more impressive; it is at this point he is introduced to Eleta (Rubén Blades), a successful businessman who promotes matches.  Eleta brings Duran to America, where he gradually builds quite a reputation.

In 1971, Eleta invites Ray Arcel (De Niro) to see Duran fight; Duran impresses Arcel as a natural destined for greatness, but when Eleta tries to get Arcel to become Duran’s trainer, both Arcel and Duran are reluctant to enter into an arrangement.  Duran’s hatred of Americans makes him suspicious of Arcel; meanwhile, Arcel is wary of re-emerging from a forced retirement after a New York City mobster (John Turturro) threatened his life if he remained in the profession.  Agreeing to train Duran on the condition he does not make any money from his effort, Arcel consents to work with Duran. 

Throughout the 1970’s, Arcel and Duran make quite a team; Duran keeps winning and his notoriety grows.  By 1980, Duran earns a shot at the welterweight title against champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher); Duran wins, taking the championship from Leonard.  Disturbed, Leonard convinces Eleta to schedule a rematch months later.  But in that fight, Duran – who, to this point, has been enjoying his celebrity – has lost his drive.  The fight ends when Duran tells the referee he’s quitting, allegedly saying, “No mas” (“No more”) – causing Leonard to regain his belt.  But after going from Panama’s national hero to their national disgrace, can Duran make a comeback as a boxer?


When it comes to “Hands Of Stone”, the good news is it’s certainly no hagiography; Roberto Duran never comes across as a saint.  The bad news is Duran’s character is so obnoxious it is difficult to root for him – unfortunate, given that this is supposed to be his life story.  Certainly a biography that treats its subject as bordering on the saint-like would be difficult to watch not to mention unrealistic; however, the filmmakers seem to have encountered great difficulty riding the fine line of when to present Duran negatively and when not.  Ultimately, Duran’s film character crosses the line to the point the audience understandably must wonder why they should care about his outcome. 

In that regard, “Hands Of Stone” could be compared unfavorably to Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”.  Both stories are biographies of boxers who suffer a downfall – one professionally, the other personally.  Also, both show darker sides of their subject.  But where LaMotta  suffers for his misdeeds, never again reaching his previous level of success, Duran appears to attain some degree of redemption (albeit questionable).  Why should we care?  Regardless of whether or not Duran actually said, “No mas” in the re-match with Robinson (he claims he never did), the fact remains is that he quit and his motivation for doing so is rather murky (at least based on what we can discern from the movie).

Speaking of “Raging Bull”, it is worth mentioning that since that great film, it feels like De Niro has been desperately trying to find his next “Raging Bull” (“Hands Of Stone” isn’t it, nor was “Grudge Match”).  Having said that, what should also be noted is the character of Ray Arcel is much more compelling than Duran; that’s the motion picture that would be interesting to see.  How Arcel survived after being forced out by the mob is a fascinating story – not to mention a victorious one as he had a comeback of his own.  Maybe someday that picture will be made.       

Hands of Stone (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, August 21, 2016

“Sinatra: The Chairman”– Book Review



This summer, I read “Sinatra:  The Chairman” by James Kaplan, a biography of Frank Sinatra from 1954 until his death in 1998.


After Frank Sinatra wins the Oscar in 1954, can this change the momentum of his career or is he basically done at this point?


In the Spring of 1954, having secured his acting award for “From Here To Eternity”, Sinatra was sure that he was on the comeback trail.  Having been jettisoned by his former recording company, Columbia Records, he was in dire search for not only a new contract, but a new start as well.  Before long, it would be Alan Livingston of Capitol Records who would be willing to take a chance on Sinatra.  While the singer wanted to work with Axel Stordahl, the arranger with whom he had so many successes in his glory years of the 1940’s, Livingston played a hunch and paired him with an up and coming staff arranger named Nelson Riddle. 

Having spent the next few years re-establishing himself as the premier song interpreter of his time by working with Riddle and Billy May to produce hit singles and albums that were praised by both critics and the public alike, Sinatra once again found himself at the top of the world professionally.  As might be expected, however, his personal life was another matter entirely.  After many highly publicized separations and reconciliations with then-wife Ava Gardner, they finally divorced; although their tumultuous marriage was officially over, their passion was not – in fact, their life would intersect many times for decades to come. 

After leaving Capitol to form Reprise, his own record company, Sinatra found the business of running a label to be a challenge; as music tastes were changing in the early 1960’s, Reprise – adamantly against signing any rock and roll acts – relied solely on the performers that were more or less contemporaries of Sinatra.  He signed his Rat Pack buddies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others and found that his dream company was hemorrhaging money.   Eventually, in order to save the label, Sinatra wound up selling it to Warner Brothers, in exchange for a movie deal.  Again, however, Sinatra’s personal life was considerably turbulent; as a notorious playboy, he had many romances – one of which culminating in a brief marriage to actress Mia Farrow. 

Through his many connections with organized crime, Sinatra was able to help get John F. Kennedy elected president of the United States; their close friendship ended when Kennedy rebuffed Sinatra.  In later years, Sinatra became a Republican, supporting candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Following a brief retirement in the early 1970’s, he tried to make a comeback, but his time had clearly passed.  He remarried in 1976; with age, he slowed down and this marriage would prove to last him until his demise in 1998. 


About a year ago, I reviewed the biography “Frank:  The Voice” by the same author; it was considered the first volume in a two-volume set on the singer’s life.  Once again, Kaplan does not disappoint; just as Sinatra’s unique singing voice brought a new interpretation to old songs, Kaplan’s unique writing voice brings a new perspective on an oversized personality we all thought we already knew far too well.  Both Kaplan’s writing style and research prove to be what shines above all of the so-called gossip because he provides readers with substantial facts that either buttress or refute the various stories that have circulated throughout Sinatra’s life. 

One of the things that Kaplan appears to be trying to do is to get inside Sinatra’s head.  Without a doubt, this is something which sets this book apart from others who have attempted biographies of the star.  At the risk of sounding like the author is attempting to psychoanalyze his subject, Kaplan cites Sinatra’s behavior over the decades to draw conclusions that are quite credible, based on the evidence previously provided.  Another thing that enriches this biography is that there are an abundance of details that very often have gone either overlooked or omitted altogether in past biographies.   

Arguably, Kaplan’s best writing comes at the very end of the book when he describes visiting Sinatra’s gravesite.  After so many years of writing about this icon in the history of popular American culture, he sounds like he comes away a little disappointed.  There are no long lines wrapping around the site.  The letters have somewhat faded from years of being in the sun.  Perhaps the most egregious error of all is that in literature supplied by The Palm Springs Desert Memorial Park, The Chairman takes second billing to Sonny Bono, who is also buried in the same cemetery.  Is the disappointment Kaplan conveys due to the underwhelming gravesite of his subject?  Or is the disappointment in knowing that his fine work on this idol of millions has come to its inevitable conclusion?   

Sinatra: The Chairman: James Kaplan: 9780385535397: Books

ISBN: 0385535392
ISBN-13: 9780385535397

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Florence Foster Jenkins”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of The New York City Premiere of the new comedy-drama, “Florence Foster Jenkins” , starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. 


When a wealthy socialite attempts a singing career, can she succeed despite her lack of talent or will she be forced to confront the reality she fears?



In 1944, the end of the second World War seemed nowhere in sight.  Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a well-heeled New York City socialite and known patron of the arts, wishes to support the American troops by various fundraising efforts in collaboration with her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Grant).  As a lifelong lover of music, she gifts some money to her friend, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, so that he and noted opera singer Lily Pons can put on a show at Carnegie Hall. Upon seeing the performance, Florence becomes inspired to sing herself; this would fulfill two of her great desires –namely, a career in the world of music and also raising money for the war effort. 

Florence and St. Clair hire  Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a talented pianist, to accompany her.  After many rehearsals and vocal lessons, it becomes painfully clear to everyone except Florence that she has zero singing ability.  However, being an affluent woman who is financing everyone’s life, no one is about to tell the empress that she isn’t wearing any clothes; as a result, they all agree to allow her to live her delusion.  Hoping to provide a positive experience for his wife’s debut as a performer, St. Clair pads the audience with people whom he believes will provide a favorable response.  Hearing her, some of the true music lovers are aghast, while the rest struggle to suppress laughter. 

Rather than be discouraged by this reception, Florence is emboldened.  She records a song and sends it to a local radio station; when it gets played on the air, it becomes the most popular recording on the show, providing Florence with considerable notoriety.  The audience clamors for requests to not only play it but purchase it as well.  Gaining in popularity, Florence arranges with Carnegie Hall to stage her own performance there, where she will give away a thousand tickets to members of the military.  St. Clair and Cosme are understandably worried.  They have been dutifully shielding Florence from reality and are concerned that if she finds out the truth about her singing, she will be heartbroken.  Ultimately, they are unable to dissuade Florence from performing.  On the night of her concert, will she be rewarded with the acclaim she so desperately seeks or will she suffer the greatest humiliation of her life? 


“Florence Foster Jenkins” is based on true events, bringing into the forefront the astonishing life of someone who had a brief amount of fame in the 1940’s and has long since been largely forgotten.  The movie itself is equally forgettable.  Its attempts at humor descend to a level of a second rate situation comedy in dire need of cancellation while its efforts towards the more serious veer irrevocably towards the melodramatic.  With characters drawn as broadly as the three main ones in this story, it’s asking too much of the audience to abruptly shift gears from silly to tragic. 

Not even a performance by the great Meryl Streep proves enough to elevate this movie.  While laughs abound the first time you hear Streep’s character attempt to sing – not to mention the humorous reactions by Grant and Helberg – the joke grows weary before too long.  The movie then goes to great lengths to make the audience appreciate that this is the tale of a real human being, but by then it is far too late; the perception that this person is merely a cartoon character has already been so ingrained in the mind of the viewer that convincing us to change our perspective is a Sisyphean task, to put it mildly.

While Helberg’s character truly existed in real life, the way he is portrayed in “Florence Foster Jenkins” would understandably make an audience believe that he is merely the figment of a desperate screenwriter’s imagination.  For one thing, Cosme comes across as someone who either is a grown adult with childlike naiveté or a guy who’s just plain stupid.  Exactly why he would honestly think that everyone around Florence actually took her to be a serious talent instead of just glomming off her money defies explanation.  Ultimately, it’s too bad that the filmmakers didn’t adhere to a simple rule:  If the story is too good to be true, then make it a documentary instead. 

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, August 04, 2016

“Hell Or High Water”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new crime drama “Hell Or High Water”, starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster.


When a pair of brothers go on a bank robbery spree, can they be brought to justice by a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement?


Weeks after their mother’s death, brothers Toby and Tanner (Pine and Foster) start robbing a bunch of banks, all of which belong to the Texas Midland chain throughout West Texas.  Although it was Toby’s idea, Tanner, who has done time for bank robbery (among other things), is the mastermind behind these crimes – assuming “mastermind” is the correct word here.   The two come across as so inept and amateurish, you’d never know one of them actually had experience at this.  In spite of themselves, they manage to take in quite a haul after several jobs – something in the neighborhood of $40,000.   

After several of these jobs, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is assigned the case along with his Native American partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom he mercilessly baits with racist remarks.  Despite the fact that Hamilton is literally weeks away from retirement, he desperately wants to catch these guys before hanging up his badge – one for the road, you might say.  Doing so is not going to prove easy, however – Hamilton’s having difficulty finding a pattern, much less cooperative witnesses.  Without reliable descriptions of these two men, this investigation is going to take a while – yet with nothing but retirement facing him, Hamilton is certainly in no rush. 

Finally, Hamilton’s instinct as a lawman for several decades kicks in and he surmises that their next target will be the large Texas Midland branch in Post, Texas.  As he and Alberto head there along with a fleet of their fellow Rangers, they learn the brothers have not only already hit the Post branch, but they have turned murderers, too.  When things go sour at this busy, crowded bank, Toby and Tanner wind up taking the life of a guard and a customer.  Now, the Rangers are in hot pursuit of not only thieves but killers, as well.  After the brothers split up during their getaway, Tanner chooses to directly confront the cops; being extremely well armed, he engages them in a shootout, killing one of the Rangers.  For Hamilton, this now becomes personal.  But after neutralizing Tanner, can he capture Pine?


If you tire of comic book flicks and feel you have busted enough ghosts for one summer, then perhaps it’s time for you to check out “Hell Or High Water”.  It’s a fun, gritty, wild ride while also touching on interesting themes, such as how the economy has screwed those of our society who can least afford to lose money and how some of the most predatory lenders around have been banks themselves – the ones who are supposed to be the most risk-averse and honest.  The film is bookended by some intense action and violence, but in the middle, backstory and character arc rule, giving viewers a respite from some of the shooting.

What makes “Hell Or High Water” so interesting is the artful way in which it peels away the exposition’s onion-like layers until we learn the reason why the brothers engaged in this series of felonious adventures.  Knowing the context for their crime spree perfectly sets up the magnificent ending, making it all the more satisfying.  Taking nothing away from a terrific movie such as “No Country For Old Men”, you might compare it to “Hell Or High Water” by saying it is a less dark version of “No Country”, yet it similarity deals with how a lawman from another generation sees the world around him change. 

As far as the performances are concerned, Jeff Bridges and Ben Foster truly shine here; they are given the opportunity to steal just about every scene they are in because their characters are so broadly drawn – in the hands of lesser actors, their roles would have been caricatures.  With Bridges and Foster, however, they are able to discover nuances about Hamilton and Tanner that give each greater depth.  Unfortunately, Pine suffers by comparison because his Toby is essentially Tanner’s straight man; basically, Pine plays the more boring of the two, but in the end, the more human. 

Hell or High Water (2016) on IMDb

Friday, July 29, 2016

“Equity”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Equity”, starring Anna Gunn. 


When an investment banker tries to turn her career around by launching a major technology IPO, can she succeed or will her enemies conspire to defeat her?


By all accounts, Naomi (Gunn) is one of the more successful investment bankers on Wall Street.  Over time, she has built a great career and her company has won the right to underwrite some major Initial Public Offerings of many start-up companies around the country.  So why is she unhappy?  Naomi is also an ambitious person and despite her many successes, there have been some sizable disappointments along the way, too.  Recently, one company’s historic IPO was underwritten by one of Naomi’s competitors, which has resulted in her being passed-over for what she felt was a long overdue promotion. 

An opportunity for redemption becomes available when a San Francisco-based technology company is seeking their own IPO and meets with Naomi to see what kind of evaluation they can get in their opening stock price.  Soon, it becomes apparent that she will have to put in an extra effort in order to win them over; that’s where her assistant Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) comes in.  The company’s CEO seems to have genuinely hit it off with Erin so Naomi does nothing to discourage this if it means they will win the account.  The only problem with this arrangement is Erin feels that Naomi has been intentionally holding her back in her career; now, this may be a chance for Erin to strike out on her own. 

Further complications develop when Naomi runs into Samantha (Alysia Reiner), an ex-schoolmate, who now works as a prosecutor in New York City.  When Samantha tries to re-connect, Naomi understandably believes that she’s interested in resuming their friendship; however, it soon becomes evident that Samantha has a different agenda – she’s trying to build a case against Michael (James Purefoy), Naomi’s boyfriend, whom she suspects of actively participating in various insider trading schemes.  Eventually, Naomi gets word that negative publicity about the company is being leaked by a disgruntled former employee.  Will this threaten the IPO and effectively ruin Naomi’s career or can something be done to somehow offset the misgivings investors may have?


It would be a facile review to describe “Equity” as a distaff version of “Wolf Of Wall Street”, especially because the two stories are so very different although they both center on the theme of Wall Street greed run rampant.  Also, “Equity” is in no way comedic and certainly doesn’t present Wall Street work as an enviable career choice.  What it does, however, is deftly deal with two themes simultaneously; not only is there the greed issue, but also the question about women’s role in it and exactly where and how they fit in the grand scheme. 

“Equity” is replete with good performances, led by Anna Gunn, whom “Breaking Bad” fans will delight in seeing this actress get her well-deserved time in the spotlight.  In a small but equally effective role is Lee Tergesen, whom “Oz” devotees will recall from that acclaimed HBO television show; here, Tergesen plays Naomi’s boss, who appears to be her nemesis, but is actually less her opponent than some other people who are much closer to her.  They effectively make the case that when you work in such a highly competitive environment, no one is your ally, not even your sisters. 

One criticism of “Equity” is its screenplay, which is a bit muddled; the direction also contributes to the confusion in the way its story is told.  Basically, the problem is that there are so many characters with so many subplots combined with different motivations for their actions, it can at times be difficult to follow why certain characters are doing what they are doing.  This results in one of those movies whose story you can only piece together once the film is concluded – not necessarily an insurmountable problem, but by doing so, the filmmakers are risking losing the audience well before the film’s conclusion. 

Equity (2016) on IMDb

Friday, July 22, 2016

“Absolutely Fabulous”– Movie Review



This week, I attended  New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “Absolutely Fabulous”, starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.


When two women are accused of attempting to murder a top international model, can they prove their innocence or will they be forced to spend their lives as fugitives?


Finally, after all these years, both Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) find themselves at the end of their respective ropes.  They are bereft of the necessities (e.g., champagne) and their munificent benefactor refuses to support their lifestyle.  Now, both women must figure out a way to live out the rest of their lives.  Edina has lost what little business credibility she may have had previously – a publisher has unceremoniously rejected her barely intelligible autobiography and she is leaking clients in her Public Relations company. 

But it always appears darkest before the dawn – Patsy informs Edina that internationally famous model Kate Moss has fired her Public Relations firm and is now looking for someone else to represent her.  Sensing an opportunity, Edina attends a celebrity-laden party held by Patsy’s fashion magazine so she can offer her services to Moss, who is scheduled to attend.  Unfortunately, Edina inadvertently knocks Moss into The Thames; Moss is presumed dead by the media when she is not immediately found.  Once Patsy is fired for inviting her guest, both she and Edina now find themselves on the run. 

With the police in hot pursuit, Edina and Patsy escape to The French Riviera where they stumble upon an elderly woman who’s incredibly wealthy and can offer them the financial support they need to live the extravagant lifestyle they both require – unfortunately, this requires Patsy to pose as a man so that she can hastily romance and marry this geriatric Baroness.  Ultimately, Patsy relents when she realizes the alternative – but even when she succeeds in her deceit, will she be able to convince this woman to support them both or will the police find them and arrest these women for the murder of a beloved fashion icon?


For the hardcore fans of the AbFab television show, the movie version might be a pleasant reminiscence.  If, however, you are relatively unfamiliar with the British TV version, you won’t entirely feel lost, but you won’t entirely feel entertained, either.  While it may be a fun experience for devotees of Edina and Patsy’s to catch up with the gals after an extended hiatus, the joy may indeed be short-lived.  For those who aren’t familiar with the show, this will likely not be a good choice as an introduction.  Many jokes just don’t go over well, if at all.

Although “Absolutely Fabulous” is only an hour and a half – arguably the perfect length for a comedy – it inexplicably seems to plod along to the end, especially in its second act.    There isn’t a sense of momentum propelling the story to its climax, which renders it somewhat anticlimactic.  It appears that when an actual joke couldn’t be conjured up, they just chose to insert a random celebrity for a quick laugh (perhaps the only true amusement in the film is identifying all of the celebrity cameos).  Just as some of the story alludes to Edina and Patsy being well past their time, perhaps “Absolutely Fabulous” is itself well past its time, too.         

Before the screening began, it appeared that the audience was replete with some of Edina and Patsy’s biggest fans.  At some point during (and especially after) the screening, it felt as though the gathering  had been disappointed; there was no applause at end of the movie, precious few audible laughs during it and a number of folks sprung to their feet and bolted the theater the moment the credits began to roll.  Perhaps the final disappointment is the movie’s conclusion, which is either a homage to Billy Wilder’s classic “Some Like It Hot” or a blatant steal.  Either way, its punchline is missing the punch from the line. 

 Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, June 30, 2016

“Captain Fantastic”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “Captain Fantastic”, starring Viggo Mortensen.


When a family living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest is forced to integrate into mainstream society, can they successfully adapt?


Ben (Mortensen) has taken his family of six children deep into the forest of the northwestern portion of The United States where they live off the land and off the grid.  Teaching them how to hunt for food and exist virtually without modern comforts, he homeschools them so that they are not poisoned by a corrupt society.  While they wind up getting an unusual – and in some ways better – education compared to most kids raised in a normal environment, their isolation from the outside world results in an absence of social skills, which can sometimes manifest itself as overt hostility towards outsiders whom they look down upon.

Eventually, tragedy strikes the family in a way that forever changes their world.  Ben’s wife – the mother of all these children – has been suffering from severe mental disorders for years, which resulted in her long-term hospitalization.  Ultimately, the family gets the news that while institutionalized, she has committed suicide.  As if that is not hard enough for Ben and his children to take, they are now confronted with the possibility of having to venture into society in order to attend a funeral which the woman’s Last Will clearly stated would be unwelcome.  Instead, however, Jack (Frank Langella), Ben’s wealthy Father-In-Law, is so angry over his daughter’s demise that he threatens Ben with arrest if he attends the funeral because he feels Ben’s unorthodox lifestyle brought this about. 

Defiantly, Ben packs his brood into a tricked-out school bus and and drives to New Mexico for the funeral.  Expectedly, he interrupts the church services by making a speech about his late wife and reading her true wishes from her Will; while Jack stops short of having him arrested, he does have Ben forcibly removed from the church.  Reunited with his grandchildren – some of whom he’s never met – Jack decides he now wants legal custody of them when one of the boys rebels and refuses to return to live with Ben.  In an attempt to rescue his son, Ben winds up putting one of his older daughters in physical jeopardy, resulting in her hospitalization.  With all these events occurring and his oldest son entertaining the prospect of going away to study at college, will Ben be forced to change his ways or will he remain stubborn?


It is difficult to choose what’s most objectionable about “Captain Fantastic”.  Is it the fact that protagonist leads his family in defiling a human corpse?  Or is the unreasonably demanding suspension of disbelief in multiple plot points an insult to the intelligence of the audience?  (Specific citations might include the woman’s suicide itself, or absence of allusions to suing the hospital over this.  Lets toss in the question about how the oldest son got a passport all of a sudden, which raises questions about what he used for a birth certificate.  There are really too many more to mention) 

Basically, Ben is a crackpot who comes across as barely more mentally stable than his late wife.  The question then becomes whether the audience is supposed to root for him to become a better father or if we are to root for the children to escape his clutches.  At various points, it is unclear which.  Is the father evil or merely foolish?  Either way, he seems utterly incompetent as a parent and too much of a risk taker who frequently puts his children in great danger, deserving of having them taken away for their own safety. 

The audience is given to believe that the hirsute Ben is ready, willing and able to change by virtue of his shaving his unkempt beard and mustache near the conclusion of “Captain Fantastic”.  Given how adamant (or obnoxious) he’s been regarding his own personal philosophy, it may be difficult for audiences to buy into this attempt at a character arc.  Morphing from the Grizzly Adams version of Bernie Sanders to the dad from “Leave It To Beaver” within the span of the movie’s two hours is hard to swallow, to put it mildly.

Although Frank Langella’s Jack is intended as the role of antagonist, he is a genuine breath of fresh air in this film – not to mention an all too rare oasis of sanity.  His presence is a relief for viewers given the anxiety built by witnessing the treacherous situations in which the children have been placed.  While it may be an overstretch for him to accuse Ben of his daughter’s death, he’s justified in his efforts to protect his grandchildren by all means at his disposal.  The title “Captain Fantastic” may be seen as either ironic or sarcastic, but its protagonist is definitely far from heroic. 

Captain Fantastic (2016) on IMDb


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Eat That Question”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a Village Voice screening of the new documentary “Eat That Question:  Frank Zappa in His Own Words”.


Through a series of interviews and performances, Frank Zappa either talks about or demonstrates his musical background and creative process. 


Frank Zappa characterized himself as an entertainer.  In some ways, that seems appropriate since he was, indeed, entertaining.  But it was also an accurate description because he was so much more than merely one thing:  he was a musician with a strong background in classical music who wound up expressing himself in the rock genre.  He was also a composer, who not only wrote and performed his own songs, but also worked on expansive orchestrations which he sometimes conducted.  Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic was as a gadfly. 

One particular way in which Zappa was considered a nuisance was in his ongoing fights against censorship.  This battle appeared to come to a head when Zappa had to appear before The United States Senate in the late 1980’s in order to defend the lyrical content of his records.  Tipper Gore – the wife of then-Senator Al Gore – started an organization which became known as The Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC).  Basically, this was a self-proclaimed censorship group backed somewhat by the potentially-intimidating authoritative nature of the federal government.  The PMRC claimed the purpose of their existence was to help fellow parents in protecting children from popular music which contained “obscene” lyrics.  In his testimony, Zappa crushed them.

In the early 1990’s, Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Given the severely limited treatment options in those days, there wasn’t very much that could be done to help him, except attempts to impede its progress.  Over time, the illness took its toll on the great man; he became weak and tired.  Despite his lifelong reputation as a workaholic, he found that he now had to work less.  One of his final projects was an ambitious orchestral arrangement he hoped to conduct, but due to the debilitating nature of his cancer, he was forced to seek out another, younger conductor.  Zappa finally succumbed to the cancer in 1993.   


The word “genius” is frequently tossed around recklessly, but in the case of Frank Zappa was extremely  appropriate, if not a total understatement.  Zappa was not only a brilliant musician who composed songs that occasionally had intricate and complex melodies, but he was also a keen observer of culture and society at large, capable of making the most incisive (and often humorous) commentaries.  The documentary about his life, “Eat That Question”, however, is not nearly up to the level of his brilliance.  Although director Thorsten Schütte claims this was his passion project for the past eight years, it doesn’t seem that enough effort was made in compiling these clips given that amount of time.

For one thing, the documentary lacks structure.  “Eat That Question” is a bunch of interviews with Zappa done over the years; they are strung together, periodically broken up by performances on television or in concert.  The viewer doesn’t know where in Zappa’s life we are until the end where the final interview shows him gaunt, pale and drawn while he’s dying of prostate cancer.  It would have been informative if the date (or at least the year) and location of the various interviews and performance footage had been provided via superimposing it on the screen or by using title cards in between. 

That this information is absent suggests a certain degree of lackadaisical attitude or carelessness on the part of the filmmaker.  Clearly, there is some black and white television footage from the 1960’s and 1970’s, but exactly when or what the title of the show was or the name of the host doing the interview are pieces of information that are inexplicably omitted.  In addition, while we see Zappa playing with his band, The Mothers Of Invention, we learn nothing about who these people were or how Zappa formed the band.  Yes, this documentary literally is just Frank Zappa in his own words – but maybe a few more words here and there might have come in handy. 

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) on IMDb

Monday, June 13, 2016

“The Witness”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new documentary “The Witness”, about the infamous Kitty Genovese murder.


When a young woman is murdered, the media reports that 38 witnesses to the crime did nothing to help – but what happens when this all turns out to be a lie?


On a cold March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered on a street in the New York City borough of Queens.  Much was made of this because it was so widely reported in the news not only in New York City, but around the country, as well.  The nation was horrified to learn through media reports that despite this 28-year-old young woman’s cries for help in the street, no one was willing to help her.  According to newspaper articles, there were 38 witnesses to the crime and none of them either came to her aid or called the police. 

Some 40 years after the crime, The New York Times published an article that re-examined the crime; based on the reporter’s investigation, the conclusion was that the version of the story originally reported by The Times was factually incorrect, either accidentally or intentionally.  While the story suggested there were 38 eyewitnesses, they may have really been “earwitnesses” instead – that is to say, they only heard the crime rather than saw the crime.  Upon reading this, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, decided to do some investigation of his own; still bothered by the crime that essentially ruined his family, Bill found it hard to believe that there were 38 people who refused his sister help. 

However, there were several matters that hampered Bill’s investigation.  For one thing, since so much time had elapsed since the killing, many of the supposed witnesses had died; also, again due to the passage of time, those who were still around and willing to speak had some trouble remembering many of the exact details of this night.  Perhaps the most daunting challenge Bill faced was his own physical limitation; having joined the Marines during the Vietnam war, he had both of his legs blown off and had been confined to a wheelchair for decades.  Despite all of these obstacles, can Bill get to the bottom of this incident?       


Remarkable, painful and informative – these words are perhaps the best fitting description of “The Witness”.  What little most of us know about Kitty Genovese is only regarding the last half hour of her life when she was stabbed and lay dying in a pool of her own blood.  Through this documentary, we learn what a full and happy life she was leading right up until its premature end.  Astounding revelations include her brief marriage and lesbian relationship, not to mention the fact that she had been previously arrested for her involvement in bookmaking.  Shocking to watch is Bill’s meeting with the adult son of the man who spent his life in prison for Kitty’s murder; it turns out his father filled his head with misinformation about what happened that night. 

If there is any criticism of this documentary, it would be the way in which its ending was handled.  First, the only person who actually came out to help Kitty was a woman named Sophie, who lived in the same apartment building and was her good friend.  Bill was able to meet with Sophie, but the meeting was somewhat anticlimactic.  The other scene had to do with Bill hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s attack where she was in the street screaming for help at 3AM.  In the context of the movie, it was a little difficult to understand exactly why Bill did this; it wasn’t until afterwards in the question and answer session (below) that he explained the people in the neighborhood had been previously informed the filmmakers were going to do this so as not to alarm residents.  He further clarified that it was done so he could personally witness what his sister must have gone through in her final moments. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the director and Bill.  Bill said that although the early portions of his investigation were emotionally taxing, the longer he continued, the more he was able to accept closure on his sister’s story; he felt that in some way, this documentary keeps Kitty alive, at least in his own mind.  Director James Solomon said that while most people see this as a mystery, he sees the film as something of a sibling love story; Solomon added that he was able to commiserate with Bill’s sense of loss because during the shoot, he lost his own brother to leukemia.   

The Witness (2015) on IMDb