Tuesday, September 20, 2016

“The Missionary Position”– Book Review

 

mispos

For my final book of the summer, I read “The Missionary Position:  Mother Teresa In Theory And Practice” by Christopher Hitchens.

Synopsis

Mother Teresa has made a reputation for herself as someone who helps the poor – but upon closer examination, is this “saintly” woman really all she’s cracked up to be?

Story

Around the world, Mother Teresa of Calcutta has been lauded as a great humanitarian and spokesperson for valetudinarian indigents.   But is she truly as magnanimous as The Catholic Church would have us believe?  With The Church behind you, you’ve got some powerful Public Relations machinery – at least, so author Christopher Hitchens believes.  That’s why he decided to take a closer look to see if the woman actually lived up to her legend.  It is no surprise, then, that Hitchens set about to disprove her believers and expose Mother Teresa as a total phony. 

In pursuit of the truth, the premise of Hitchens’ book poses one key question:  Should the world judge Mother Teresa’s reputation by her actions and words rather than judge her actions and words by her reputation?  Is this Albanian nun worthy of beatification and canonization?  If she is in fact going to be considered a saint, has she truly performed any miracles that have been verifiable?  All are reasonable questions, despite the fact that some would accuse the inquisitor of blasphemy.  But do people prefer to believe in the myth over the reality because the reality shatters their world view and personal beliefs?

Among Hitchens proof includes Mother Teresa’s associations, which have included Haitian dictator Duvalier (who stole millions of dollars from his country before fleeing to avoid prosecution) and disgraced financier Charles Keating (who did prison time for his role in the Savings & Loan scandal).  Despite the fact that millions were donated to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, it is difficult to trace exactly what happened to all of that money.  Since Mother Teresa believed that the ill should suffer just as Christ suffered during his crucifixion, she chose not to spend any of that money building a hospital and hiring physicians to treat and heal them. 

Review

Christopher Hitchens is at his best in “The Missionary Position”; he was an evil genius who’s both mean and hilarious concurrently – resulting in a fully entertaining read.  The last thing you ever wanted to do was to wind up on Hitchens’ radar, because when you did, he would bombard his target with a degree of vitriol that has to be witnessed in order to be fully appreciated.  He was notorious for whittling any target down to size in a seemingly effortless manner.  This pretty much sums up Hitchens’ approach toward dealing with Mother Teresa in this book, which was considered highly controversial when originally published 20 years ago. 

Is nothing sacred?  To Christopher Hitchens, the answer was an unambiguous “no”.  Hitchens shunned the appellation “atheist” in favor of “anti-theist” – basically, he thought religion was poisonous.  It didn’t matter what the religion was, he believed they were all corrupt and suffered from their own various hypocrisies.  So, Hitchens was not about to pull any punches with a nun whom the powerful Catholic Church had beatified.  In this work, Hitchens brilliantly reveals Mother Teresa to be a manipulative fraud who believed more in palliative care for the afflicted in favor of the more costly medical treatment that might have saved lives.  In keeping with Catholic doctrine, she also opposed abortion, thus enabling poverty stricken women to remain in dire financial straits.  

To be perfectly honest, I chose this book as my final read for the summer because it was by one of my favorite writers (Hitchens) and because it was a short, quick read.  Also factoring into my decision was the fact that Mother Teresa was recently canonized.  What makes “The Missionary Position” such a pleasurable read is due in part to the author’s style and wit as well as both the depth and breadth of his research.  In “The Missionary Position”, Hitchens pulls the curtain back on Mother Teresa – this woman who exploited the sick and the poor and who said the way to make the world a better place would be by smiling more.  Surely, if Mother Teresa or her acolytes read this book, none of them would be smiling. 

Thursday, September 08, 2016

“Sully”– Movie Review

sully

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new biographical drama “Sully”, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Synopsis

When a veteran airline pilot saves the lives of his passengers by landing his disabled plane on The Hudson River, will he be able to rescue his reputation when investigators believe he used poor judgment?

Story

On the afternoon of January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks) courageously and safely landed a severely impaired commercial jet airliner atop New York City’s Hudson River; the lives of all 155 people on board were spared.  When both of the plane’s engines were damaged after a flock of Canadian geese were sucked into them, he determined that the jet would not be able to get to an airport in time.  As a result, his decades of experience as a pilot informed his decision to bring the airplane down on the water, thus avoiding crashing into a building, bridge or highway. 

While much of the country reasonably lauded Sully as a hero, there were some who had their suspicions about him – namely the airline’s insurance company who were charged with investigating the incident.  Based on their engineers’ analysis and running computerized simulations, it is determined that Sully made the wrong decision to land in the water because he could have easily made it to a nearby airport.  Sully, of course, disagrees with their findings, in large part due to the fact that much of it is based on merely theoretical knowledge.  

Before Sully can be permitted to return to his job, he has to attend a hearing held by The National Transportation Safety Board where they will question him about his thought process and his choices.  Having spent 42 years as a pilot and as someone whom the industry has regarded as something of an expert on safety practices and procedures, Sully is understandably outraged at having to undergo such scrutiny.  Because of this, he is now also beginning to question himself as well and becomes anxious about his standing being ruined.  Will Sully be forced to resign in disgrace or will he be vindicated?

Review

Perhaps the greatest challenge when it comes to making a movie about a well-known event from the recent past is holding the suspense of the audience when people already know the outcome.  In “Sully”, director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki manage to do so with great aplomb and admirable craftsmanship, resulting in a film that’s worth seeing not only for its entertainment value but also for the scintillating performance of its star, Tom Hanks.  “Sully” is filmmaking at its very best, with a hero worth rooting for in the ultimate feel-good story. 

Although the movie depicts The Miracle On The Hudson multiple times, it’s not really about that so much as its aftermath.  Despite having saved the life of all passengers and crew, Sullenberger is shown haunted by the thought of potential alternative outcomes as well as being plagued with self-doubt regarding his choice. This proves to be a clever way to approach the story because it pulls back the curtain to show that not only did Sullenberger not enjoy his new-found fame, it troubled him because all of the attention now put his career under a microscope.  As a result, “Sully” is about how a man redeems his good name. 

At only an hour and a half, “Sully” is deceptively short; by the end of the movie, you would think it had been at least two hours because of the emotional roller coaster viewers have been on up to that point.  For one thing, having to watch the landing on the water multiple times – including the anxiety in the cockpit which led up to it – really takes something of a toll.  By the end, the audience can’t be blamed for feeling overwrought.  Unlike with Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, one can feel comfortable rooting for the protagonist in “Sully” – this is a man who is a hero because he saved lives rather than one who took lives. 

Sully (2016) on IMDb

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

“No One Left To Lie To”– Book Review

 

No1Lie

Recently, I read “No One Left To Lie To:  The Triangulations Of William Jefferson Clinton” by Christopher Hitchens. 

Synopsis

After two terms of President Bill Clinton, in what shape is the nation and the Democratic party?

Summary

The book is made up of seven chapters, plus a Preface and Afterward, as well as a Foreward that was done by presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley specifically for the twelfth edition.  The chapters, in order, are:  Triangulation; Chameleon In Black and White; The Policy Coup; A Question Of Character; Clinton’s War Crimes; Is There A Rapist In The Oval Office?; and The Shadow Of A Con Man. 

Originally published in 1999, Hitchens began working on this book as President Clinton’s second term was nearing its end, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and around the time of the impeachment proceedings.  Hitchens uses the book as a way to not only reflect on the many scandals that touched Clinton’s presidency but also to look at his history of repeated behavior that foretold what he would do once he became the most powerful man in the country, if not the world.

Ultimately, Hitchens concludes that Clinton has left a legacy that neither the former President nor The Democratic Party can point to with any degree of pride.  For example, Hitchens cites The Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA), which basically sold the homosexual community down the river, angering many of the Liberals who supported him (not to mention the gays themselves).  DOMA alone is believed to have significantly delayed marriage equality in The United States. 

Whenever scandal threatened to draw negative attention his way, “Slick Willy” would invoke tactics similar to those seen in the movie “Wag The Dog” by bombing a country for no apparent reason, whether they deserved it or not; this would distract the press and the public substantially in the hope that by the time the “war” coverage was no longer on the front page of the newspapers or the lead story of the evening news, the scandal that precipitated it would have long since died down and the source of the hubbub will be a distant memory.   

Review

The title “No One Left To Lie To” was not an original thought by author and journalist Christopher Hitchens; it was actually borrowed from someone whom he heard on the news.  In an airport waiting to board a plane, Hitchens was watching television when David Schippers was being interviewed; Schippers was the chief investigative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee at the time Clinton’s scandals had reached their peak.  In his analysis of the besieged President, Schipper said of Clinton, “He lied to the people, he lied to the Cabinet, he lied to his top aides and now he’s lied under oath to the Congress of The United States.  There’s no one left to lie to”.   

The subtitle of the book is “The Triangulations Of William Jefferson Clinton”.  Triangulations, as explained by Hitchens, were those acts by Clinton where he made promises to the Liberals and Democrats while delivering actions to the Conservatives and Republicans for the purpose of holding on to political power.  The author poses the reasonable question, “Why is Clinton not hated by the Left and not loved by the Right?”.  The result of this was that not only did Clinton in fact hold on to his power, but also, he dragged the Democratic party further to the political Right than the party itself wanted.  The pain of such Clinton acts as NAFTA, for example, are still being felt by Americans to this day. 

This is a short book and an easy read – one you can get through rather quickly.  Especially pleasurable is Hitchens’ typically meticulous research and rapier wit.  Hitchens, an avowed Socialist, was much further to the left than Clinton himself, so this is in no way a hit-job by someone with Conservative leanings.  In the last weeks before this year’s presidential elections, it is also a vital book to read.  Even if you choose not to read the entire work, you should at the very least read its final chapter which details similar misdeeds by Clinton’s wife.  Did one teach the other or are they two people with similar talents who found each other?  In any event, it is worthwhile to check out before deciding for whom to cast your vote in November. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

“The Hollars”– Movie Review

 

Hollars

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

Synopsis

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

Story

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?

Review

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

 

HOS

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. 

Synopsis

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

HOS

Story

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?

Review

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

 

fs

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

Synopsis

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

Story

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. 

Review

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

 

ffj

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. 

Synopsis

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?

ffj-pass

Story

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? 

Review

“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

 

hell-hi

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.

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

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

 

eq

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

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

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

 

abfab

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

Synopsis

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?

Story

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?

Review

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