Monday, March 27, 2017

“Person To Person”– Movie Review

 

P2P

On the closing night of the New Directors/New Films series, I saw “Person To Person”, with Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson.

Synopsis

A day in the life of  some quirky denizens of New York City.

Story

Claire (Jacobson) is a librarian who feels she’s wasting her life there, so she pursues journalism.  Getting an opportunity at The New York News, she is interviewed by Phil (Cera), one of the editors, who decides to give her an assignment as something of an audition:  recently, there was a case where a man turned up dead, but it’s unclear if it was a suicide or if he was murdered by his wife.  Claire’s job is to serve as an investigative reporter, trying to get a scoop by interviewing the wife.  Phil, however, has ulterior motives; besides merely beating his competitors, he also wishes to hook up with Claire. 

Bene (Bene Coopersmith) is devotee of vinyl; when he hears someone is looking to sell a rare Charlie Parker album, he’s excited and willing to spend the money to add this to his already vast record collection.  But is the seller legitimate and is the record authentic?  Meanwhile, Ray (George Sample III), his best friend, is currently crashing at Bene’s apartment after breaking up with his girlfriend.  Angrily, Ray responded with revenge porn:  he posted nude photos of his ex-girlfriend on the Internet.  When Ray learns his ex knows about it, what happens when she sends her brother and his friends after him?

Wendy (Tavi Gavinson) is a teenager confused about her sexual identity; even her best friend thinks Wendy is a lesbian.  Also, Wendy is very critical of her friend’s boyfriend – not to mention generally critical (and cynical) about relationships.  Although Wendy admits to experimenting with girls, she denies ever trying to be with a boy, adding to the speculation about her true sexuality.  The friend arranges for her boyfriend to visit while Wendy is there – and he brings a buddy.  Will Wendy be interested in hooking up with him or will she steadfastly hold to her views?  

Review

“Person To Person” has a few humorous, entertaining scenes, but overall, the movie does not hold up because the individual stories aren’t all that cohesive.  The resolutions to the various tales lack a significant payoff, causing you to wonder what the point was.  The fact that these incidents take place in New York City seems more of a coincidence than anything else; there appears to be little making any of these unique to this city.  How this enhances the film all-around is a bit of a quandary; many situations could occur in any city.  The choice to place them in New York seems fairly arbitrary.

While the movie may have some good performances, many characters come off as unsympathetic.  Not that they’re evil, but you wouldn’t want to go on a cross-country drive with them.  Phil is creepy, Claire is desperate, Ray is vindictive and Wendy is obnoxious.  Also, Bene’s romantic subplot seems completely orthogonal to the main thrust of that vignette.  The most interesting characters are the simplest – Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) and the friends who hang out at his shop.  It seems a funnier (and more interesting) story would have revolved around Jimmy and his customers.       

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the movie’s writer/director Dustin Guy Defa and most of the cast.  Defa said that since most of his background is in shorts, he decided to make a feature-length film by putting together several of his older short films where a central theme ran through – namely, the intermingling of various New Yorkers on a day in the city.  He mentioned casting the parts was done through various means – some actors he already knew, some were through a casting director, and others came onto the project via mutual acquaintances.  

Person to Person (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

“Wilson”– Movie Review

 

wilson

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy “Wilson”, starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern and Judy Greer.

Synopsis

When a man tries to reconnect with his ex-wife, how will he deal with the ramifications of his actions?

Story

Following the death of his elderly father, Wilson (Harrelson) is forced to confront his new reality:  he is now completely alone in life.  He has virtually no friends and the only current “relationship” he has is with his dog, Pepper.  Wilson has only himself to blame for this; he is distinctly unpleasant to be around because of his aggressively in-your-face behavior, which no one seems to appreciate – although some may be more capable of tolerating it than others.    One such person is Shelly (Greer), a neighbor whom he occasionally hires to dog-sit Pepper when he’s not around. 

One of Wilson’s great regrets in life is the failure of his marriage to Pippi (Dern), who abandoned him 17 years ago and moved to Los Angeles; pregnant at the time, she allegedly had an abortion.  In an effort to remedy his interminable sense of isolation, Wilson actively seeks out his ex-wife, whom he believes may now be a drug addict working as a prostitute.  Wilson finally locates Pippi, who is actually a waitress, and is quite reluctant to establish any kind of friendship with her ex-husband; however, as they catch-up, Pippi makes a remarkable revelation:  she never had that abortion.  Instead, Pippi gave birth – a daughter, whom she immediately put up for adoption. 

Delighted at the thought he’s a father, Wilson decides he must now look-up his daughter Claire (Isabella Amara).  Wilson and Pippi locate Claire, who is living in an expansive house with a well-to-do family.  Despite her privileged life, Claire is deeply unhappy –  in part because her parents ignore her but also because she has no friends due to being overweight.  The three set off on a road trip in an effort to form a relationship based on their biological connection – however, when Claire turns up missing, her parents have Wilson arrested.  Convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to three years in prison, can Wilson survive the experience and have a normal, happy life?  

Review

“Wilson” is a comedy that strains to be funny – and speaking of straining, it is certainly a strain to find much positive to say about this movie.  In a too-small role, Judy Greer is the one warm redemptive ray of sunlight that possesses the humanity that the remaining characters lack.  But that’s about it.  The rest of the time it is rather bleak and Wilson himself is the kind of protagonist you just want to punch in the face (which is what makes his scenes in prison so deeply satisfying); it doesn’t help that Harrelson overacts the part on top of that. 

It would seem that “Wilson” is trying to get by simply by being weird.  Epic fail.  We are supposed to like this character because of his affinity with his dog, who appears to be the only real and truly loyal friend he has (all of his other so-called “friends” really don’t seem to like him all that much – and sincerely, who can blame them?).  Once Wilson finds himself in prison, are we supposed to feel sorry for him or is the audience expected to find this funny?  If Wilson was a more likeable character, we’d root for him; if he was at all funny in his antics, this situation might be amusing.  Instead, we are left with a turn in the story that is simply unnerving, not to mention baffling.   

The movie is based on a graphic novel that apparently has a sufficient-enough following that folks decided it would be worth turning into a film.  This wound up being a terrible idea.  It is too bad because “Wilson” can boast of a terrific cast, but all of them seem to be trying way too hard to put lipstick on this pig and the screenplay (written by the creator of the comic) is undeserving of such an effort.  While a curmudgeon can be funny (Walter Matthau was at his best as such characters), Wilson comes across as more obnoxious than humorous.  It is only March, but this may be a candidate for Worst Films Of 2017. 

Wilson (2017) on IMDb

Monday, March 20, 2017

“Quest”– Movie Review

 

quest-olshefski

This week, I attended another screening of the New Directors/New Films Series by The Film Society Of Lincoln Center and The Museum Of Modern Art:  the new documentary “Quest” by director Jonathan Olshefski

Synopsis

From 2008 until 2016, an African American family is forced to overcome extraordinary adversity. 

Story

In 2008, Christopher “Quest” Rainey of North Philadelphia experienced two major life-changing events:  one was that he finally married Christine’a, his girlfriend of 15 years; the otehr being Barack Obama was elected as America’s first African-American president.  While both Christopher and Christine’a brought children from a previous marriage into their union, they also produced a daughter of their own, PJ, who is 12 years old at this time.  Christine’a is the main breadwinner for the family, working at a homeless shelter, while Christopher does what he can to contribute to their children – but afterwards, he operates a recording studio in the basement of their home.

While they struggle to make ends meet, Christine’a also has another concern:  William, her 21 year old son, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Forced to live at home due to his illness, he has to endure countless debilitating chemotherapy sessions, which of course make him sick.  He yearns to someday hold down a job in order to support his own young son, for whom Christine’a must care during his recovery.  In the meantime, Christopher is trying to find the next big rapper who will rocket him to success and help him be a better provider for his family.

At this point, they are caught in the midst of an unexpected tragedy:  PJ, who by now is in her mid-teens, is caught in the crossfire of warring neighborhood gangs and is shot in the face just a few blocks from her home, causing her to lose her left eye.  This makes the family unite behind her and once she is home from the hospital, they plan a block party to celebrate her return, where many of the community are glad to attend to show their love.  But as PJ learns how to deal with her new life, she is also now turning into a young woman – one who has discovered she is a lesbian and eventually comes out to her family.  Will this unexpected turn result in the family rejecting her or serve as yet another reason to band together?

Review

At its heart, what this documentary is about can be summed up in one word:  resilience.  This is a family that keeps bouncing back no matter what challenges life presents – and despite all of it, they remain solid, admirable people, worthy of the respect and support of any audience.  It is unimaginable what these folks have been forced to suffer through and the fact that they have emerged intact is nothing short of triumphant.  “Quest” is a celebration of the dignity of the American family and The Raineys are the paradigm upon whom we should all model ourselves. 

All of that said, there are some issues with the movie, likely due to the fact that this is a director who never made a documentary before.  The structure definitely appears sound:  each act is centered on a presidential election – in 2008, then again in 2012 and finally 2016 at the conclusion.  Where the problem comes is in the passage of time; clearly, we know that it occurs, but it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of exactly at what point in time you are viewing the family.  What probably would have been helpful are graphics that showed (at the very least) the month and year when each scene occurred. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with director Jonathan Olshefski and The Rainey Family.  He said he shot about 400 hours worth of footage over an eight year period, boiling it down to just under two hours – although much of it wasn’t usable because, as he admitted, there were long gaps of time when nothing worth keeping in the film occurred.  With a background in photography, he started out doing a visual essay on a man who had a recording studio in his basement, but soon realized that he had to switch to a different medium since the still pictures didn’t do it justice.  PJ was also there; she is 17 years old now and said she plans to attend college in the autumn.   

Quest (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, March 16, 2017

“Patti Cake$”– Movie Review

 

patticakes

This week, I attended the opening night of The New Directors/New Films series by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum Of Modern Art, screening the drama, “Patti Cake$”, with Bridget Everett and Cathy Moriarty. 

Synopsis

When an unlikely young woman tries to break into the music business as a rapper, can she overcome overwhelming personal and professional obstacles to realize her dream?

Story

At the age of 24, Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) – AKA, Patti Cake$, AKA Killa P, AKA Dumbo – is desperately trying to claw her way out of her depressing New Jersey surroundings.  She has to single-handedly take care of her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) while her mother Barb (Bridget Everett) drinks away what little money her daughter makes as a bartender.  Although Patti yearns to increase her earnings because the family has fallen behind in its bills, the bar owner is unwilling to give her a raise and unable to give her an expanded work schedule. 

Despite all of this, Patti has her own dreams:  to perform her own poems as a rap singer.  In order to do this, however, she’s got quite a few sizable mountains to climb.  For one thing, she’s a woman.  Also, she’s white.  Due to her weight problem, the fact that she’s not traditionally physically attractive might hold her back as well.  Since this is her passion – and believes to be her destiny, since Barb had her own brief singing career – nothing will stop Patti.  Fortunately, she’s got a support system in her friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works at a local pharmacy by day but harbors similar fantasies of a rapping career by night. 

Attending an open-mic night at a neighborhood club, Hareesh and Patti are mesmerized by Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), one of the musicians who has something of a harsh performance art style to his game.  Eventually, they are able to convince him to join their new group, PBNJ, and they record a CD of original tunes.  After facing constant rejection when trying to get influential people to give their disc a listen, Patti becomes discouraged and puts her artistic aspirations aside.  But once she learns that PBNJ has been invited to perform in a talent competition, can she get the group back together again for one last shot at stardom?   

Review

Clearly, the strongest parts of “Patti Cake$” are the performances by Bridget Everett taking on a more dramatic role, a virtually unrecognizable (except for the voice) Cathy Moriarty as the grandmother and especially its star Danielle Macdonald, who has been getting increasing notoriety as this movie wends its way through the festival circuit.  Where it loses some steam is in the story; while the idea is unique, its execution does not always follow suit and this results in some trite, predictable moments.  Again, since this is by a filmmaker who is relatively new to telling a story in a long form such as a feature film, one cannot consider writer/director Geremy Jasper to have refined his techniques. 

The character of Patti is one for whom an audience can easily empathize.  She has been beaten up badly by life, both at home and at work; nothing seems to be going right for her and instead of helping, people just pile on.  In many respects, she’s facing an uphill battle trying to carve out a niche for herself in a rather competitive business.  On the other hand, while viewers may be rooting for her, Patti’s pursuits beg certain questions, such as whether or not she’s even being realistic or if she even has the talent she thinks she does.  Ultimately, even if it may be something of a challenge to root for her professionally, there still remains plenty to get behind Patti when it comes to repairing what’s left of her family.

Regarding Geremy Jasper as a director, he does have a notable visual style in the sense that many of his shots tend to set a mood (Patti’s dream sequences in particular).  Jasper’s background includes having done music videos (after attempting a music career of his own), so that would certainly account for some of his more stylistic choices.  He probably could’ve used some help with the screenplay, either in the form of a collaborator or an additional draft.  It is a decent enough start for Jasper.  Whether or not this will be the springboard to a promising career, only time will tell.

Patti Cake$ (2017) on IMDb  

Thursday, March 09, 2017

“Struggle For Life”– Movie Review

 

jungle

This week, I attended another screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s French Film series, seeing the new comedy, “Struggle For Life” (AKA “La Loi de la jungle”).  

Synopsis

When a pair of French Government workers get lost in a Guyanese jungle, will the jungle do them in before they can return to civilization?

Story

When Châtaigne (Vincent Macaigne) is late for an appointment with the director of the Ministry of the Standard, he finds that in order to get a job, he is forced to accept the only assignment available:  travel to French Guyana in order to supervise the construction of an indoor skiing slope intended to increase tourism.  Châtaigne is charged with ensuring that the structure meets ISO-9001 specifications, as per French regulations.  Despite the fact that this isn’t exactly a plum assignment, Châtaigne heads immediately to Guyana – in part because he’s desperate for the job and in part because he’s being hotly pursued by a tax assessor who wants him jailed for money he owes the government.  

Upon reaching the government offices in Guyana, Châtaigne is assigned a driver who will shuttle him to the construction site – Tarzan (Vimala Pons), a beautiful, sexy young woman working for The National Forestry Office on a different project.  Since she was initially stationed there as an engineer, she resents being forced to serve as Châtaigne’s chauffeur.  Realizing that her assignment will end soon, she performs her driving duties with plenty of attitude.  Since Châtaigne is focused on completing his job in a timely fashion, he seems determined to try to ignore Tarzan’s lack of cooperation.  

One day while driving out of the jungle, their vehicle gets into an accident and they are forced to travel the rest of the way on foot.  Armed with a GPS on his trusty smartphone, Châtaigne insists they go through the jungle rather than take the road (which itself is fraught with its own set of dangers).  Their bad luck continues when they lose the phone and find themselves resuming their trek using only their instinct.  Having to sidestep the various innate hazards of the jungle – poisonous flora, dangerous creatures and bands of marauders – can they manage to make their way out before meeting their demise?

Review

These two characters aren’t the only ones lost – the audience will feel a bit lost also as this tangled story unfolds.  The difference between story and plot is that story is an account of what’s being told and plot is how you tell that story.  In this movie, both seem a bit muddled.  Absurdity and nonsense can be valuable assets in a comedy (see anything by Monty Python), but this one has absurdity that doesn’t even make sense in the crazy universe these characters inhabit.   This film tries to be a slapstick comedy that’s a mash-up of Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and perhaps others (someone at the screening likened it to “That Man from Rio” starring Jean-Paul Belmondo).  Unfortunately, although the jokes come at a fast and furious pace, they are haphazard at best.

The romance that develops between Châtaigne and Tarzan is difficult to believe because she is incredibly hot while he is incredibly not.  One of the funnier scenes occurs when they  are over-served a powerful aphrodisiac and wind up out-of-control horny, culminating in a rather frantic tryst.  This, however, manages to move the story forward because their previously antagonistic relationship changes at this point and they suddenly find themselves friendlier.  However, there are other plot points that don’t make quite so much sense, not the least of which being how they the search party will actually find them in the vastness of the jungle (which never gets clearly explained).  Speaking of things that make little sense, let’s also consider the English version of the title, “Struggle For Life”; the French title translates into “The Law Of The Jungle”, which sounds like it could be a comedy.   On the other hand, “Struggle For Life” sounds more like a made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime network about someone with a terminal illness. 

Following the screening, there was a brief interview with director Antonin Peretjatko.  He said that part of the inspiration for this movie came from an actual trip he made to French Guyana.  During that time, he was introduced to a bridge that had been built by the French government during the Chirac administration; the bridge was designed as a connection between Guyana and Brazil.  Although the bridge had been built to meet French engineering standards, it goes unused because of government bureaucracy:  according to French regulations, all vehicles must have insurance, but in Brazil, insurance is not required.  As a result, guards are stationed on the Guyana side to ensure no cars drive across it in either direction – however, since it is so famous in both countries, no one ever attempts to use the bridge, so the guards wind up having a very boring job.  

La loi de la jungle (2016) on IMDb

Sunday, March 05, 2017

“(In Bed With) Victoria”– Movie Review

 

Victoria

This weekend, I attended another screening from The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s French Film series, seeing a new comedy “(In Bed With) Victoria”. 

Synopsis

When a lawyer represents a friend accused of attempted murder, can the case revitalize both her personal and professional life?

Story

Once her babysitter/boyfriend quits, Victoria (Virginie Efira) finds herself in a bit of a bind.  A busy lawyer, she’s desperately trying to juggle her professional life with her personal life after her divorce.  Attending a wedding, she coincidentally runs into Sam (Vincent Lacoste), a former client; getting his life back together after nearly going to jail for drug dealing, he’s looking for work.  Seizing the opportunity, Victoria offers Sam the job of live-in babysitter; he agrees to move in and care for her two little girls while she’s at work.

Sam is not the only old acquaintance with whom Victoria reconnects at the wedding; Vincent (Melvil Poupaud) is also a guest and he’s brought his girlfriend.  Afterwards, Vincent confides in Victoria that his girlfriend is accusing him of attempted murder for trying to stab her with a butter knife.  Although Victoria is aware of the potential ethical problems representing someone whom she knows personally, she agrees to take the case regardless.  Unfortunately, when the bar association learns of this, she is suspended for six months. 

Forced to lay off Sam because she can no longer afford him, Victoria is now taking care of the children by herself.  Panicking, she reaches out to Sam, whom she learns is now studying law.  Soon, a romance blossoms between them.  Once the suspension concludes, Victoria finds the lawyer Vincent hired in the interim has dropped him; reluctantly, she takes his case again, with Sam helping her throughout.  After self-medicating on various prescription drugs due to stress, Victoria is barely in shape to appear in court.  Despite this, can she win the case for Vincent and resume her relationship with Sam?  

Review

As a farcical dark comedy, “Victoria” succeeds in many respects.  The performances are quite good (not the least of which being Virginie Efira in the title role) and many of its ideas are clever, sophisticated and witty in a way we have come to expect from French filmmakers.  Where it lets down the audience is when it is uneven in its humor and occasionally seems to be veering into drama (or even melodrama, in some cases).  Despite this, it attempts to have somewhat of a conventional Hollywood style ending (the director was clearly influenced by these types of films).   

Victoria is also not exactly the most sympathetic protagonist, either.  We see how this woman behaves irresponsibly while having to raise two children and it doesn’t particularly endear the character to the audience.  Divorced and raising two daughters as a single mom, she invites strange men back to her apartment for sex while her children are present.  Add to this the fact that she appears to be hopelessly hooked on Xanax and you’ll be forgiven for wondering exactly why you should be rooting for her.  Given the fact that her ex-husband seems to be something of a wastrel, it seems that neither can be a suitable parent for these girls. 

Following the screening, there was an interview with Director Justine Triet; this was conducted through an interpreter because she does not speak English.  In the movie, animals play a central part of one of the court cases; she said of the old show business proverb, “Never work with animals or children”, the animals were so problematic that she has sworn never to use them in another film.  While working with the children certainly had its challenges, shooting with the animals was much worse.  In one case, the trainer for a Dalmation made claims that the dog would be able to do all sorts of things on the set but when the cameras rolled, it could not do any of them.  The other animal, which by far was the worst of the two, was a chimpanzee which attacked one of the cast members.  The original idea for the movie’s poster was supposed to be a shot of Victoria with the chimp, but it was decided he was too unruly to work with, so they abandoned that idea.   

Victoria (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, March 02, 2017

“Django”– Movie Review

 

Django

This week, I attended the opening night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s French Film Series, screening the new biopic “Django”. 

Synopsis

When the survival of a jazz player is threatened by the Nazis, can he escape their control in order to resume both his life and career?

Story

In 1943 Paris, guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) is growing in popularity; with American jazz musicians fleeing Europe as the Nazis swarm France, Reinhardt gains recognition for his style of “hot jazz”.  Even the Nazis seem to like it — but only up to a point; they are so concerned with controlling the French citizens, they have begun to censor not only what Reinhardt plays but also how it is played.  Too much swing or the blues will lead to a decadent society, they maintain.  Further complicating matters is the fact that Reinhardt himself is of Romani descent — what some refer to as a Gypsy — an ethnic group which the Nazis are determined to eradicate. 

Seeing that her friend (and occasional lover) may be in potential danger, Louise (Cécile de France) seizes an opportunity to intercede.  An aristocratic fan of Reinhardt’s who possesses some rather convenient connections to the Nazis, Louise advises him to take his family and his band of musicians and journey to Switzerland as soon as possible.  With palpable tension coming from the German military, Reinhardt takes his friend’s advice.  Although he cannot immediately leave France altogether without the Germans’ knowledge, Reinhardt instead takes his crew out of Paris, winding up in a Gypsy settlement in a remote area of the country. 

Eventually, the German army catches on; they not only round up the Gypsies and confine their movement, they also force Reinhardt and his musicians to play for their officers during an elaborate party.  Reluctantly, Reinhardt and his band perform, but he conspires with Louise to sabotage the function by going against Nazi orders and playing any type of music he pleases.  Soon, with partiers drunk and many of them dancing, distractions ensue.  With the officers paying less attention to Reinhardt, can he somehow find a way to slip out of the party and lead his family across the Swiss border?  

Review

“Django” is not what some might refer to as a traditional cradle-to-grave biography; instead, it is a detailed look at a very specific period in the musician’s life.  Where the movie shines is in two aspects:  One is how extraordinary Reinhardt’s music was, despite the fact that he did not have full use of his left hand (as a child, Reinhardt was caught in a fire that rendered both the pinky and ring finger of his left hand useless; this resulted in him being forced to maneuver the fretboard with only his index finger and middle finger, using the thumb to hold the guitar neck in place).  The second is in its historical references; genocide during World War II has typically emphasized the Jewish Holocaust while atrocities performed on other ethnicities by the Nazis can sometimes be lost.      

Unfortunately, where the movie somewhat falters is where it borders on hagiography, even when the guitarist’s actions are less than heroic (e.g., he abandons his elderly mother and pregnant wife in the dead of winter as he heads for the Swiss border), not to mention cheating on his wife with Louise.  Does it humanize him?  Absolutely.  But it also serves to diminish his stature at the same time, raising an extremely valid question:  Should an  audience invest its time and emotions rooting for such a severely flawed, narcissistic and egotistical protagonist?  During such extreme circumstances, perhaps some might find it easier to forgive. 

What can’t be lost on viewers of “Django” is how much the Romani plight during World War II echoes what is going on today with refugees from primarily Muslim countries.  Perhaps where the movie has its greatest value is in how it appears to resonate recent events in United States politics and policies, particularly with respect to the immigration ban.  One cannot help but recall in this case the famed Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  It begs the question of whether or not America is doomed to repeat the past when confronted with the treatment of refugees trying to escape political oppression or religious persecution.   

Django (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

“The Last Word”– Movie Review

 

LastWord

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama “The Last Word”, starring Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried.

Synopsis

When an elderly woman hires a reporter to author her obituary, can a flattering piece be written despite her history of mistreating people?

Story

Harriet (MacLaine) was once a supremely successful advertising executive who decades ago started her own agency; after being forced out by her partners, she has been in retirement ever since.  Still a disagreeable control freak, she finds herself increasingly bored with little for her to do.  Realizing that she is nearing the end of her life, Harriet decides to hire a journalist from a newspaper to compose her obituary; while it may be a bit premature, she figures that if it’s completed before her death, she can see that it gets inscribed to her high standards and that the final record about her will be fawning.

Anne (Seyfried) is an aspiring author with the unfortunate task of penning the obituaries that appear in the local newspaper for which she toils.  Having read Anne’s work in the paper, Harriet heads to the newsroom to meet with her; she offers Anne the job of helping her to draft her yet-to-be-published panegyric.  However, Anne is understandably reluctant to accept the offer for a number of reasons – the least of which being Harriet’s imperious personality.  Ultimately, Anne’s boss convinces her to go for it, reasoning that if she manages to please the wealthy Harriet, the dowager will bequeath a tidy sum to his newspaper upon her demise – thereby saving everyone’s job.

The initial research performed by Anne includes interviewing Harriet’s acquaintances, former co-workers and a variety of people with whom Harriet associated over the years.  Unfortunately for them, none of the interviewees had anything nice to say about Harriet.  Disturbed by the responses she’s gotten, Harriet and Anne embark on a mission wherein Harriet will set out to mend fences with the various people whom she’s somehow managed to offend.  But once Harriet learns that she’s rapidly running out of time, can Anne provide her with the obituary she seeks before it’s too late?

Review

There is much about “The Last Word” that is predictable – the least of which might be the ending, especially based on the title.  But there are many other things in this movie which are trite, which render it unworthy of a recommendation.  A considerable number of items in this screenplay seem most unrealistic and highly contrived, making one wonder if this story was supposed to have occurred in the present day or twenty years ago; references to technology immediately come to mind (e.g., people listening to music on CD’s or watching videos on VHS cassettes). 

As you might expect, MacLaine’s character is supposed to be the “gruff but loveable” type who attempts to seek redemption by performing certain deeds late in life – such as meeting with her ex-husband, estranged daughter (Anne Heche) and mentoring a nine-year old African American girl (Ann'Jewel Lee, who manages to overact up a storm).  Indirectly, viewers are expected to believe Harriet has also had a positive impact on Anne.  Apparently, the lesson we are to learn from this is that bad behavior can be forgiven if you are a woman.  Hardly a feminist message.

Does this character achieve the redemption she seems to so desperately seek?  It would depend on how much of the story you bought up until that point.  The audience is expected to weep towards the end, yet cheer for Anne because of all she “learned” from Harriet in the preceding hour and a half.  Ultimately, it would seem that Harriet did not sufficiently perform the full character arc one would expect in such a story.  Whether that is noble individualism or simply insufficient screenwriting may eventually rely on how you view the character to begin with. 

The Last Word (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, February 09, 2017

“A United Kingdom”– Movie Review

 

AUK

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “A United Kingdom”, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. 

Synopsis

When the King of Botswana marries a White woman from London, can both their marriage and the country survive the international uproar that ensues?

Story

In 1947, Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), heir to the throne in Botswana, is far from home, studying law at a university in London.  During that time, he meets and marries Ruth Williams (Pike) – a fateful decision because not only is she from England, but also, she’s a Caucasian.  When Seretse is called home, a rift immediately develops between him and his uncle, who has been ruling in Seretse’s absence.  When introduced to Seretse’s family, Ruth is ostracized right away – they don’t want their Black King to have a White Queen.  This comes at a particularly dicey time in Africa’s history as apartheid is in its nascent stages. 

Further complicating matters is the fact that Botswana is under British protection and as such, is subject to their laws and regulations.  With the British serving this role, they are concerned about the country’s stability given that its newly-crowned king is having an internecine familial squabble with the potential to disrupt both Botswana and England.  When Seretse is summoned to London to meet with British officials over this issue, Ruth learns she is now pregnant with their first child.  Things take an unexpected turn when Seretse is informed that because his marriage could cause international political problems, he will be banned from his country for the next five years. 

Ruth gives birth to their daughter in Botswana while Seretse is still in exile trying to figure out how to work around his current situation.  Eventually, Seretse is granted permission by the British government to return to his country, but for only one week; during this time, they expect him to repair the relationship with his uncle.  While there, however, he becomes aware of an American mining company exploring the possibility of finding precious minerals or diamonds.  When Seretse learns he has been deceived by the British government, can he figure out a way to permanently return to both his wife and his country where he can assume his rightful position?

Review

Despite valiant attempts by the cast, not even their severely overwrought performances can save the soap opera melodrama that is “A United Kingdom”.  Some might make an accusation of sexism if it were claimed this is something of a chick flick, but at this screening, it was clear the women in the audience were responding more to this film than the men.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that its emphasis is a romance and its historic content is de-emphasized; if that was the demographic the filmmakers were attempting to reach, then mission accomplished.  The sniffles and other audible reactions from the distaff viewers definitely suggested that there was more of a visceral connection from them.   

Pike and Oyelowo are both fine actors, but one gets the sense while watching this movie that they are playing down to the material.  After jitterbugging their way through a courtship, they marry early on in the story and find themselves expecting a baby shortly thereafter.  Yes, things progress quickly, mainly because their tale soon becomes more about their separation than anything else.  While there are some valuable historical tidbits included (e.g., Churchill, long portrayed in a positive light, comes off as something of a snake here), it’s basically a theme of white men are bad, until they aren’t. 

Since this is based on a true story, it’s somewhat puzzling how so many of the characters come across as artificial cardboard cut-outs.  Perhaps the screenplay is to blame here for not presenting these people with much in the way of authenticity.  The heroes are perfect and infallible and the villains are evil and inhumane.  There is no gray area here, which would certainly go a long way to making this feel more realistic; even heroes are flawed people and bad guys have reasonable (at least to them) justifications for the way they behave.  But “A United Kingdom” has no time for such nuance.  

A United Kingdom (2016) on IMDb

Friday, February 03, 2017

“The Comedian”– Movie Review

 

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This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “The Comedian”, starring Robert De Niro.

Synopsis

When a veteran comic tries to revive his career, he becomes his own worst enemy – but when he has a chance meeting with a woman who is similarly disadvantaged, can the two help each other turn their life around?

Story

Thirty years ago, Jackie Burke (De Niro) was at the height of his career, starring in a hit situation comedy on television.  Now, however, his career as a stand-up comedian has pretty much bottomed-out.  Not even his agent (Edie Falco) can offer very many words of encouragement in terms of job prospects.  At a gig in Long Island, Jackie gets into a fight with a heckler and winds up giving him a severe beating; as a result, Jackie winds up going to jail for a month and upon his release, is severely limited in terms of opportunities because he must perform community service.  

One bright spot about his situation is that Jackie gets to meet Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also being forced into community service after a violent confrontation with her ex-boyfriend.  Harmony is sort of lost and, without much in the way of career direction, is being forced by her willful father (Harvey Keitel) to leave New York in order to work at his retirement community in Florida.   As Jackie and Harmony spend more time together, they find that they are hitting it off and are genuinely attracted to each other – either in spite of or because of the fact that her father doesn’t like Jackie. 

Eventually, Harmony relents and leaves New York City for Florida, taking the job working for her father.  While Jackie continues trying to resuscitate a career that by now is on life support, he still hasn’t completely written off Harmony – but she may not feel exactly the same way.  Despite Jackie’s many attempts to reach out to her, Harmony eventually stops responding.  Not believing she has lost interest, Jackie heads to Florida with the hopes of confronting her about their relationship.  But when she surprises him with the reason why she has been aloof, can Jackie win her back while simultaneously reinventing himself as a comedian?

Review

Viewing “The Comedian” is both depressing and difficult.  Depressing because the collection of talent involved could not find a way to create a semblance of an entertaining movie.  Difficult to watch because the jokes aren’t funny (the laughter of the audiences in the film notwithstanding, of course).  There is nothing clever about the jokes, which is a bit surprising given that one of the screenplay’s credits goes to Jeff Ross, who is known for being a successful stand-up comedian, particularly known for his roasts (many of which have been televised).  

As far as De Niro’s performance is concerned, this will likely not be remembered as one of his best; he is without a doubt most unconvincing as a stand-up comedian.  Very often, it has been found that good comedians can become decent actors but the reverse is usually not true – actors usually can’t successfully portray comedians.  The starkly different skill sets are neither transferrable nor easily learned, no matter how much time one might spend observing stand-ups at comedy clubs or talking with them (both things that De Niro allegedly did in “researching” this role). 

It is by no means an exaggeration to say that no one in the audience at this screening laughed at any of the stand-up comedy scenes, De Niro’s in particular.  They sat stone-faced staring at the screen, apparently anticipating moments at which they could be able to laugh (not an unreasonable expectation, given the title of the movie).  Why they didn’t cast an actual comedian in this role is a mystery; much of the rest of the cast come across funnier than the film’s star.  As an actor, De Niro is among the best there is; as a comedian, De Niro is a great actor (but obviously not great enough to make you believe that he really is a comedian).   

The Comedian (2016) on IMDb