Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“Battle Of The Sexes”– Movie Review


BOTS

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Battle Of The Sexes”, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. 

Synopsis

When The Women’s Liberation Movement comes to the forefront in American culture, can a top woman tennis player defeat a retired older male tennis player?

Story

In 1973, The Women’s Liberation Movement was gaining steam throughout The United States.  Main among its causes was equal pay; women were not being compensated fairly in comparison to their male counterparts.  This was prevalent in all walks of life, including and especially in highly visible areas, such as professional sports.  At this time, Billie Jean King (Stone) was considered among the best female tennis players.  She becomes outraged when the older men who control the sport refuse to award prize money to the women that is equivalent to what the male players would win. 

Mrs. King retaliates by starting her own women’s tennis league, recruiting all of the best professional players; when it earns sponsorship from a cigarette targeted for women, they are then able to promise prize money that is commensurate with what the men would get.  As this group is forming, King meets Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who awakens King to an aspect of her sexuality that had long since remained dormant.  This proves problematic to King not just because she’s already married, but also because if this information became public, it would ruin her career permanently.

Upon hearing of this women’s league, retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Carell) is inspired.  Needing money to pay gambling debts – and seeking the limelight he once had during his days as a player – Riggs contacts King to suggest the two play each other to prove once and for all if men are better than women in tennis.  King rejects the notion, but Riggs convinces her main competitor Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to agree.  Once Riggs beats Court, King quickly reconsiders.  Thanks in large part to Riggs’ skills as a master showman, the media rapidly latch on to this story; once it’s on everyone’s radar, it becomes the world’s most anticipated sporting event.  But will King succumb to the intense pressure or can she find a way to defeat the bloviating Riggs?    

Review

What holds back “Battle Of The Sexes” most is its hackneyed screenplay.  Despite both main characters being humanized with their own personal struggles – Riggs with his gambling addiction and King with her sexuality – there is not enough that’s special about the way this story is told that draws in the viewer on an emotional level.  Once we see Riggs as a devoted father and as a husband whose finances challenges the patience of his wife, it is increasingly difficult to root against him.  True, it could be argued that his chauvinism alone is reason enough, but even that comes across as something of an act for this “show” he’s trying to put on.  It turns out that Riggs is not the villain in this story, it is instead tennis broadcaster and advocate Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) – and therein may lie another issue.  

King’s character should be easier to root for, but that’s not always the case.  It’s not that she comes across as a villain, it’s that some of the people whom she opposes aren't necessarily all that unlikeable.  For example, Margaret Court doesn’t appear as an unpleasant person, but King nevertheless dislikes her for reasons that seem to go beyond merely due to their professional rivalry.  Then there is the matter of King cheating on her husband Larry; while we feel for King’s inability to be more open about her lesbianism, we also feel for her husband, who (at least based on the movie) was faithful to his wife and crushed when he learned of her affair.

One of the bright spots in “Battle Of The Sexes” is the performance by Steve Carell; if you are old enough to remember the real Bobby Riggs, then it’s easy to see that Carell truly embodies this clownish buffoon.  Emma Stone’s performance as King is not quite so believable; although she’s a terrific actress, she may have been seriously miscast in this role.  While it may be difficult to think of a famous actress in that age range who could portray King more realistically, perhaps it may have been better to go with an unknown in this case.  Although King may have blown Riggs off the court in real life, it is Carell who blows Stone off the screen in this movie. 

Battle of the Sexes (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“mother!”– Movie Review

mom

This week, I attended the New York Premiere of the new horror picture, “mother!”, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. 

Synopsis

When a couple’s idyllic country residence is disrupted by intruders, can their relationship survive?

Story

A young woman (Lawrence) has been furiously working for quite some time now on performing an extensive renovation of the decrepit rustic house that was once probably stately when originally constructed.  She shares the home with her husband (Bardem), a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block of late.  As she paints and plasters, the couple receive an unlikely visitor:  a sickly stranger (Ed Harris) who claims he was misinformed about their residence being a bed and breakfast.  Since it is late and The Stranger is clearly not well, The Husband invites him to stay the night, much to the chagrin of The Wife. 

The next day, The Stranger is joined by His Wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), a rude woman who commandeers the couple’s house.  The Stranger And His Wife wind up breaking a valuable heirloom belonging to The Husband; following a number of unpleasant encounters with the obnoxious pair, this is the last straw.  The Wife asks them both to leave.  Before they can go, The Stranger And His Wife are surprised by the arrival of their two grown sons; The Sons get into a physical altercation, resulting in one of them being seriously injured.  Following a brief hospitalization, he dies. 

The Husband and Wife now find their home invaded by many odd people – friends and family of The Stranger And His Wife, who have joined them to mourn the couple’s loss.  While there, things become chaotic when The Mourners turn the house topsy turvy, greatly upsetting The Wife, who is already angry at The Husband for allowing them entry.  After they leave and the damage is repaired, The Wife learns she’s pregnant, which causes The Husband to snap out of his writer’s block.  But when The Husband now becomes unbelievably famous and successful, anarchy returns to their household when they are besieged by selfish fans.  With The Fans now totally destroying the house and The Wife realizing The Husband can’t be bothered with stopping them, can she exact a revenge on all of them?  

prayer

Review

As relentlessly jarring, infuriatingly disturbing and frequently confusing as “mother!” can be, it is a movie that offers an extremely unique experience.  Whether or not you find it to be a positive or a negative experience will in large part depend on how you feel about Aronofsky’s previous work.  It is stylistically consistent with his earlier films in the sense that it takes you into a dark and scary world from which you desperately want to escape but can’t.  Filmmakers such as Aronofsky and David Lynch have often – and accurately – been characterized as visionaries; in “mother!”, Aronofsky, for all of his unique visions, has never been more comparable to Lynch.

Unfortunately (but understandably), “mother!” will be inaccessible to many.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does make it a complicated movie – which is Aronofsky’s specialty.  This is an allegory; consider it Aronofsky’s film about environmentalism – his own personal hue and cry about how mankind is ravaging the planet.  That’s precisely where the controversy will come; if you are a climate change denier, then it will be easy to write off this motion picture as sheer drivel.  If it’s possible to put politics aside and simply watch “mother!” for what it is, it can nevertheless be a mesmerizing adventure.

In promoting “mother!”, those connected with it have somewhat tipped off what the story is really about, and Aronofsky confirmed this prior to the screening when he introduced the movie.  He said that “[‘mother!’] is not about your mother or my mother, it’s about our mother”.  In other words, Mother Earth; as a Mother, JLaw’s character is the planet on which we all live and she rebels when we’ve taken advantage by mistreating her.  There is a price to pay for this, Aronofsky seems to be saying, and based on the film’s conclusion, it is a brutal one. 

As far as the screening itself, seeing it in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall made it all the more special.  If you are familiar with the glorious venue, you may know there is an organ downstage right of the proscenium arch; prior to the screening, an organist played for the audience.  As noted above, Aronofsky took the stage to introduce the movie; he was accompanied by its star, Jennifer Lawrence (whom, we are given to understand, is also his current bestie).  Following the screening was a live performance by Patti Smith; she sang the old hit “The End Of The World” (which apparently is heard over the closing credits); she followed this by reading the above prayer (which was distributed to attendees), then sang her own composition, “Pissing In A River” .        

Mother! (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, September 07, 2017

“Heretic”– Book Review

heretic-ali

This summer, I read the political analysis, “Heretic:  Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Summary

As a self-described heretic and apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali long ago questioned the religion of Islam, in which she was raised.  Upon fleeing Islamic countries for The Netherlands, she received higher education in the more liberal Western culture and it was this that shaped her views that Islam was not only misogynistic, but also, doctrinaire as well.  In her writings, interviews and speeches opposing Islam, she has been met with many death threats.  Ultimately, she has arrived at the conclusion that the only way Islam can be fixed is by reformation – much in the same way as other major religions have undergone their own reformation over the ages. 

The author is of the belief that within Islam, there exists three types of Muslims:  The Medinas, The Meccas and The Modifiers.  She identifies herself as a Modifier – an apostate who cast doubts upon the religion in order for it to be reformed.  The Meccas – which is how the author was raised – are the peace-loving group that closely follows the rules of the religion.  The Medinas are the most problematic group because these are the ones who are the most violent and see the purpose of their religion as a political movement.  It is this group for which the book was written. 

Hirsi Ali then goes on to outline her own five-point plan of areas where Islam Reformation need to occur: 

  1. The Prophet Muhammad’s infallibility and the literal interpretations of The Qur’an
  2. The fact that life after death is valued much more than life before death
  3. Denunciation of Sharia Law
  4. Commanding “right” and forbidding “wrong” in order to enforce the religion  
  5. The importance of Jihad (holy war)

Review

It is simply undeniable that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of “Heretic”, writes about her topic with passion, conviction and absolute sincerity.  Her wisdom borne out of a lifetime full of her own personal experience combined with impeccable research imbues this book with tremendous authenticity which makes this book worth reading.  Traversing from chapter to chapter, it’s nearly impossible to keep from nodding in agreement with just about everything this woman says because it all makes such perfect sense.  All of which makes the ending of the book so maddening.

The main problem with “Heretic” is the fact that it never explains either how or why this religion would ever seriously consider reformation.  Based on what we know and what we have seen from Islamic extremists, this appears to be totally against their nature; there is essentially nothing in the world that would motivate these people to consider reforming the religion, especially when you remember that these very same people want to live as though they are still in the 12th century (and also want everyone else to live that way).  It is this matter that seems a huge flaw in the logic behind this otherwise intrepid work.

If you are familiar with the background of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you know that this woman is far beyond merely courageous; in fact, calling her courageous almost seems like something of an insult.  Therefore, it is painful to say that her optimism – Hirsi Ali’s belief that this reformation has in fact already begun – is naïve and lacks sufficient foundation.  Does she truly believe this herself?  Or was she convinced by her editor that she needed to have some semblance of a “happy ending” in order to sell more copies of her book?  It would be nice to think that Hirsi Ali is far too smart to fall for that.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

“The Trip To Spain”– Movie Review

Spain

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “The Trip To Spain” starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Synopsis

When two long-time friends take an excursion throughout Spain, will the troubles in their personal life ruin their fun?

Story

Steve and Rob are hitting the road again – this time, to Spain.  Instead of going to all the major cities you might expect them to visit, Steve decides to literally take the road less travelled and check out some of the lesser-known locales.  The excuse this time?  The New York Times has hired Steve to do restaurant reviews and The Observer has asked Rob to do likewise.  However, Steve is planning to use this opportunity to start writing the book he’s been otherwise too distracted to write.  As might be expected from these two, the minute they set off on their getaway, both try to impress the other in how much they know about their destination.

Sensing they might be starting to get on each other’s nerves, they instead try to concentrate on the extraordinary food they’re experiencing at some of the best restaurants the country has to offer.  Along the way, they attempt to challenge each other with jokes and celebrity imitations; of course, they only wind up criticizing each other rather than simply allowing themselves to be amused by each other.  Only the fine meals they have appear to be what keeps them from breaking into fisticuffs.  By this point, it’s hard to believe that Steve actually invited Rob to accompany him.

When the two men are alone, they are forced to deal with the exigencies of real life.  With Steve, this means he’s lost his agent and the screenplay he’s been peddling is getting a polish by an inexperienced writer.  As if that isn’t bad enough, Steve’s girlfriend breaks up with him and his grown son, who was supposed to join him on the trip, bails out at the last minute.  For the happily married Rob, things are quite different; he’s being pursued by Steve’s ex-agent with promises of big Hollywood opportunities.  Growing increasingly homesick for his wife and children, Rob returns home.  Will Steve be able to resume his writing or will he be consumed by his own loneliness?

Review

A “silliot” is someone who is both silly and an idiot; don’t bother looking up the word, it’s totally made up.  In the best way possible, however, both Coogan and Brydon are the biggest pair of silliots.  When they share the screen, they are entertaining, informative and most of all very funny.  No doubt about it, it seems like it would be a ton of fun to hang out with these two, whether at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain or a dive bar in Brooklyn.  At least that’s true for most of the movie’s two hours; in the end, it takes a dark and rather disturbing turn.  

Much of “Trip To Spain” is a sheer delight, only occasionally broken up by more serious scenes that serve as each character’s subplots:  namely, the professional and personal life of both men.  For Coogan, it seems as though everything is falling apart all at the time time, whereas for Brydon, things couldn’t possibly be any better, both regarding his home life and career.  These subplots – and the way they are handled – are a useful device; without them, people would eventually grow tired of these men, if not find them both irritating.  The subplots serve to humanize them.

That third act is unsettling.  When Brydon returns home to his family, Coogan is left to work on his book; it is at this point, we see him melancholy without his friend around to distract him from his troubles.  Although Coogan is supposed to be writing, his brooding overcomes him, causing him to be blocked.  Was this the same movie we were laughing at earlier?  It comes across as a bit schizophrenic.  Without giving away the actual ending, it does come across as both unexpected not to mention startling.  One wonders if this is the final installment in the series.

The Trip to Spain (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

“Ingrid Goes West”– Movie Review

Ingrid

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Ingrid Goes West” starring Aubrey Plaza (who also Produced) and Elizabeth Olsen. 

Synopsis

When a young woman stalks an internet celebrity, will they wind up being friends or will this celebrity find herself endangered?

Story

Ingrid (Plaza) is a lonely and isolated young woman -- which has led to some rather disturbing behavior on her part.  Since her mother’s death after a long illness, she has been using various social media platforms as something of a crutch; having a dearth of real friends, she has been “friending” a considerable number of strangers on the Internet and “liking” their posts or photos in a rote fashion.  The problem comes when Ingrid reads way too much into these “relationships”, believing that these people are actually her friends.  This ultimately results in Ingrid having a mental breakdown and she is committed.  

Upon Ingrid’s discharge, she returns to her late mother’s house where she tries to figure out how to continue with the rest of her life.  One day, she’s struck with what she believes is a brilliant idea:  while reading a magazine article about Taylor Sloane (Olsen), a newly-minted Internet celebrity, she starts following her on Instagram; after considerable online interaction with her, Ingrid finally gets a response from Taylor.  It is at this point Ingrid believes she’s forming a real connection with this woman and makes a decision that will irrevocably alter both their lives:  she will move to Venice Beach, California, where Taylor lives. 

Taking the $60,000 in cash she inherited from her mother, Ingrid rents an apartment from Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), an aspiring screenwriter and Batman aficionado.  After finding out where Taylor lives, she uses some rather extraordinary and duplicitous means to meet and then befriend Taylor and her boyfriend Ezra (Wyatt Russell).  At the outset, they appear to be turning into the very best of buddies, at least until Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) shows up; no model of stability himself, Nicky learns of Ingrid’s obsession with his sister and coerces her to keep him from revealing it to Taylor.  Ingrid’s reaction to this is to have Dan beat up Nicky.  When Taylor finds out what happened, she informs Ingrid their friendship is over.  Following a major meltdown, can Ingrid win back Taylor or will she have to find a way to move on without her?

Review

After screening “Ingrid Goes West”, one thing remains abundantly clear:  Aubrey Plaza can really play crazy … maybe a little too well … This movie has many laugh-out-loud moments, but it takes a sharp and very dark turn late in the story; despite this, the filmmakers are able to resurrect the humorous elements and the jokes eventually return.  Screenwriters Matt Spicer (who also directed) and David Branson Smith have concocted a very sagacious and unique script that hits the bullseye on cultural commentary in this era of social media – and more specifically, peoples’ obsession with social media. 

Curiously, this is a movie that may have a protagonist, but it lacks a hero; while it is obviously Ingrid’s story, this character is hardly heroic.  In fact, none of the characters in “Ingrid Goes West” are particularly likeable; Dan Pinto may come the closest, but given the fact that he deals coke on the side even he’s pretty shady.  Normally, all of this would result in an unwatchable film, but once again, the savior here is the comedy.  The relentless stream of jokes make this an eminently watchable motion picture.  You find yourself in a world that is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. 

If there is a criticism about this movie, it would be with respect to its ending.  Without giving away too much, the story’s resolution seems to suggest that Ingrid’s egregious behavior may have been rewarded.  This is dangerous as it could potentially be used as inspiration for further inappropriateness online (as if this society hasn’t seen enough already).  The motion picture apparently wants us to believe that its protagonist has suffered enough and as a result is now worthy of redemption.  Whether or not she is in fact worthy may depend on how you view her previous misdeeds.     

Following the screening, there was an interview with Plaza, Olsen and writer-director Matt Spicer.  Instead of attempting to summarize the discussion, a video of the conversation has been posted below (caution – it’s a half hour in length); the trailer for “Ingrid Goes West” is just beneath. 

Ingrid Goes West (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

“Wind River”– Movie Review

wind-river

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “Wind River” starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

Synopsis

When a rookie FBI Agent is assigned to investigate a murder on a Native American Reservation, will a local hunter be able to help her solve the crime?

Story

Winters in Wyoming are particularly brutal.  No one knows this better than game tracker Cory Lambert (Renner), a lifetime resident.  One day, he’s summoned to Wind River, the location of an Indian Reservation, where he’s asked to rid the community of a family of mountain lions which have been attacking (and in some cases killing) the steer that belong to the farmers there.  While following the paw prints of some animals, he happens upon an unexpected and unpleasant surprise:  the body of a young woman who has apparently died deep in the woods. 

After contacting the authorities, Lambert is introduced to Jane Banner (Olsen), a young FBI Agent who has been dispatched to look into the matter.  Before long, it is evident to all that her inexperience has her out of her depth.  Despite Banner’s severe disadvantage, she dutifully meets with the county Medical Examiner; after performing an autopsy on the deceased – an 18 year old, whose name was Natalie – the doctor informs Banner that although the woman appears to have been raped and badly beaten, her cause of death was actually exposure to the cold. 

Learning that Natalie’s boyfriend belonged to a crew of roughnecks working at an oil drilling site, Banner – joined by the local sheriff and his deputies – ventures out to the rig to ask some questions of the men there.  Panicking as they anticpate an imminent arrest, the roughnecks exchange gunfire with Banner, the sheriff and his men.  Banner is badly hurt and must be medevac'd out; when she tells Lambert that one of the roughnecks got away, he begins pursuit.  But can even a skilled hunter like Lambert find his prey in the vast snowy mountains of Wyoming?    

Review

Almost exactly one year ago, this Web site reviewed the movie “Hell Or High Water”; its screenplay went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.  The writer of that screenplay was Taylor Sheridan, who both wrote and directed “Wind River”.  While this is not the first time he’s directed a film, it does mark the first time that Sheridan has directed his own screenplay.  It’s an impressive start for an aspiring auteur.  “Wind River” is both visually and dramatically a top-notch crime drama with solid action – some of which contains rather brutal violence (be warned).

Many of the same qualities that made “Hell Or High Water” such a compelling movie are visible in “Wind River” as well.  This well-crafted screenplay is buttressed by some fine acting from both Renner and Olsen, as well as Sheridan’s own directing.  He has chosen images that tell the story perfectly; in particular, the opening scene with Lambert where we see him protect a herd of sheep from a predatory pack of wolves.  It tells us exactly who Lambert is – both professionally and personally – as well as sets us up for the savage nature of the story. 

If there is a criticism about “Wind River”, it would be that late in its third act, it almost seems to be in a rush to fill in the gaps in its story so that viewers will fully comprehend the truth about what happened leading up to Natalie’s death.  On balance, while it does make the story more satisfying once we have this information, perhaps it might have been better to layer a bit at a time throughout the movie, with the big reveal coming at the end.  Granted, this might be quibbling on an otherwise deft script, which, we are told, was inspired by true events; its epilogue informs us that crimes regarding missing Native American women go severely underreported to the authorities.     

Wind River (2017) on IMDb

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Good Time”– Movie Review

Good Time

Recently, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new crime drama “Good Time”, starring Robert Pattinson.

Synopsis

Can a thief free his brother who was wrongly jailed for a botched bank robbery?

Story

Constantine (Pattinson) wants to have a close relationship with his brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but that’s easier said than done.  Given their background of being raised in a highly dysfunctional family and the fact that Nick is developmentally disabled, developing such ties is a bit of a challenge.  With this in mind, Connie devises something that, in his own twisted way of thinking, will be a bonding experience between the siblings:  he will include his brother in a bank robbery he’s been planning.  Needless to say, this doesn’t turn out very well; although they make it out of the bank with a bagful of money, much of their loot becomes tainted when the dye pack explodes, coloring many of the bills (and the both of them) in bright red.

The other problem is a considerably bigger one:  while being pursued by the police, Connie is able to escape but Nick winds up being caught.  Learning of Nick’s arrest, he brings the cash to a bail bondsman who informs Connie he will be unable to use much of the take for Nick’s bail as the bills were stained from the dye pack.  Being $10,000 short on his brother’s bail, Connie turns to his girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for help.  Corey isn’t exactly in the best shape financially either; she’s living with her mother because she can’t afford her own place.  Not only that, but she doesn’t even have credit cards; instead, she has to use an extra card from her mother’s account. 

Upon returning to the bail bond office with Corey, they discover that Corey’s mother has already cancelled the card so it can’t be used.   Not only that, but Connie is now notified that even if they could use the card, they wouldn’t be able to bail out Nick; it turns out that Nick’s been hospitalized following a severe beating resulting from a jail brawl.  The bondsman explains to Connie that until Nick is discharged from the hospital and returned to jail, the bail money is useless.  This being the case, Connie decides that instead of actually doing something sensible, he’ll sneak Nick out of the hospital to prevent him from being returned to jail.  But can this crazy plan succeed or will it only lead to greater problems that will cause the police to intensify their chase?

Review

When it comes to an analysis of “Good Time”, the challenge is this:  it is just as easy to praise it as it is to deride.  On the one hand, Pattinson gives a remarkable performance as the type of character he rarely gets an opportunity to play.  On the other hand, Connie is such a low-life and an idiot, it gets increasingly difficult for the audience to root for him.  While Connie’s character may indeed be the protagonist in a technical sense, he is more of an anti-hero; the only thing that could be considered a redeeming feature is his desire to help his brother – although his motives might be more selfish than selfless.

So what makes “Good Time” worth recommending beyond merely Pattinson’s performance?  For one thing, the fact that it is an unusual story.  On the surface, it may seem like a typical heist tale, but on deeper inspection, it is truly a story of familial obligations and ties, even when that family is exceedingly dysfunctional.  Given the fact that Connie and Nick come from such a background makes Connie’s consistently poor decisions all the more plausible – almost to the point where it becomes comical (and his base incompetence does appear occasionally risible).   

Following the screening, there was an interview with Pattinson, co-directors The Safdie Brothers and co-screenwriter Ronald Brownstein.  Pattinson said that he appreciated the chaotic environment created on the set by the directors because it brought a considerable amount of energy to the shoot and to his performance.  He added that while many people view “Good Time” as very much a New York movie, to him, it looks like more of a horror film.  Brownstein said that he worked extensively with Ben Safdie to create a backstory for both Connie and Nick by emailing him as if he was the character Connie.

Good Time (2017) on IMDb

“From The Land Of The Moon”– Movie Review

Land_Moon

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “From The Land Of The Moon”, starring Marion Cotillard. 

Synopsis

When a married woman’s health forces her to recover at a spa, she falls in love with one of the other patients – but will she leave her husband for this man?

Story

Gabrielle (Cotillard) has never been lucky at love.  Living on a farm in a rural area of France in the 1950’s, a crush she has on a married schoolteacher goes awry when she misinterprets his friendly gesture for a romantic overture.  As she recovers from her bout with unrequited love, her mother realizes that she must somehow find a way to get her daughter married.  The mother notices that José (Àlex Brendemühl), an itinerant worker who has been toiling on the family farm, has had his eye on Gabrielle for a while now.  Gabrielle, on the other hand, could not be less interested in José.  As a result, her mother makes her an offer she can’t refuse:  either marry José or she’ll have Gabrielle committed based on the unorthodox behavior she’s exhibited.

To say that their marriage is loveless is a major understatement; she refuses him sex, so he goes off to be with prostitutes.  Realizing this, Gabrielle offers herself to José on the condition that she be paid for providing him marital services.  Despite her best efforts, she winds up getting pregnant.  However, she has a miscarriage which uncovers a serious medical condition; while surgery can treat this, Gabrielle goes with the less radical option of spending a month and a half at a spa in The French Alps where she will receive an alternative form of treatment which is believed will heal her.

Once there, however, she is introduced to André (Louis Garrel), a lieutenant in the French army who, until recently, was serving his country in Indochina.  The reason why he is a patient in the spa is because while overseas, he developed a rather severe case of uremia, which now leaves him mostly bedridden.  Not particularly caring that she’s got a husband back home, Gabrielle falls hard for this dreamboat and is none to subtle when it comes to putting the moves on him.  As sick as he is, André nevertheless appreciates all of the attention by a pretty young woman.  But will Gabrielle run off with André once they’re both discharged or will pangs of guilt ultimately force her to return to José?

Review

It’s understandable to be deceived into thinking that “From The Land Of The Moon” would be a movie of high quality.  After all, it’s a romantic French film that stars the brilliant actress Marion Cotillard, so that would lend it a certain degree of gravitas and credibility, wouldn’t it?  Sadly, the only who will appreciate it are the hardcore fans of Cotillard; the rest of the public will likely see “From The Land Of The Moon” for what it truly is – a muddled mess that is a filmic version of one of those Russian nesting dolls in that it is melodrama within a melodrama within a melodrama. 

This movie is based on a book; perhaps readers of that novel can understand the reason why this adaptation is titled “From The Land Of The Moon”, because it’s never quite made clear in the film itself.  But that is the least of the things which aren’t quite clear.  With all of the physicians Geraldine has seen over the years in which the story covers, it is amazing that not one of them is a psychiatrist capable of accurately diagnosing her rather disturbing behavior.  Suspend your disbelief at your own risk; caveat emptor has never been so wise a piece of advice when it comes to this motion picture.

As a novel, “From The Land Of The Moon” was probably quite the page-turning yarn.  However, aside from allusions to the French involvement in Indochina, there is precious little in this utterly preposterous tale that even remotely resembles reality.  Not the least of which is the record-scratch of an ending when something is revealed (Welcome To The No Spoiler-Zone) that calls into question much of what we just saw in the previous hour.  It is something of a cheesy filmmaking trick to hook an audience in only to pull the rug out from under them in the end.         

From the Land of the Moon (2016) on IMDb

Thursday, July 20, 2017

“Landline”– Movie Review

LL2

This week, I attended a sneak preview at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new comedy, “Landline”, starring Jenny Slate, Edie Falco and John Turturro.

Synopsis

When sisters discover that their father has been unfaithful, what impact will this have on the life of their family?

Story

In the mid-1990’s, life is good for Dana (Slate) and her family.  She’s engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), a sweet but dull young man who’s very much in love with her.  Ali (Abby Quinn), her teenage sister, has an impending high school graduation; while her parents are pushing her to attend college as they did, she is not quite so sure.  As for their parents Alan and Pat (John Turturro and Edie Falco), both siblings appear to get along splendidly with them, even if their own relationship with each other can cleave toward being a bit fractious, so put it mildly.  Alan and Pat, on the other hand, seem to have grown a bit distant over their years together.

At a party, Dana runs into Nate (Finn Wittrock), an old college flame with whom she winds up re-igniting their passionate relationship behind Ben’s back.  Meanwhile, Ali stumbles upon evidence that Alan is having an affair of his own.  Does Pat know about this?  If not, should Ali be the one to blow the whistle on her father?  On this matter, Ali is a bit conflicted; while she sees Alan’s unfaithfulness as wrong, she has also witnessed her mother’s behavior toward him as deliberately driving him away.  Unsure how to properly handle this awkward situation, Ali spills the beans to Dana and seeks her advice on the matter.

Before either of the sisters have the opportunity to confront Alan or Pat regarding this troubling news, Pat reveals to Alan that she in fact knows what he’s been up to.  The two separate and plan to divorce.  In the meantime, Ben is growing increasingly concerned about Dana; she moved in with her parents shortly after things started heating up with Nate and Ben has barely heard from his fiancée in the intervening period.  Ultimately, Dana confesses to Ben that she’s been seeing Nate, which causes Ben to break up with her.  Realizing that she needs to settle down with Ben, can Dana convince him that she’ll be faithful in the future?  Also, with their family on the verge of breaking apart, can the two sisters put their differences aside (at least temporarily) to try to unite their family?

Review

It’s hard to tell if the gifts of Gillian Robespierre as a filmmaker inspires the performance delivered by actress Jenny Slate or if it’s Slate’s acting that inspires Robespierre’s directing choices.  Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.  Regardless, they make an incredible collaborative team, proving that their previous work together, “Obvious Child”, was no fluke; “Landline” shows that the team of Robespierre and Slate do not suffer from the dreaded Sophomore Jinx.  Once again, they are able to present a story full of both mirth and sorrow, often simultaneously.

A great deal of credit also must go to Elisabeth Holm, who shares the screenwriting credit with Robespierre.  This duo also co-wrote “Obvious Child”, their breakout movie from several years ago.  They have a sensibility and storytelling style that appears to bring out the very best in each other; remarkably, the pair are able to find humor in truth and truth in humor.  The characters they have delineated are rich and, as heartbreakingly real as they may be in their flaws, are also deeply funny, even when they don’t realize their own ridiculous behavior. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Robespierre, Slate, screenwriter Holm and Slate’s co-star Abby Quinn.  Robespierre said that the story came about because she and Holm share a similar background; not only did they grow up in New York City during the 1990’s, they also both saw their parents divorce during that same period.  In their case, this shared trauma only served to strengthen the familial bond that both had with their respective parents and siblings.  Slate said that following “Obvious Child”, she and Robespierre kept in touch and were eager to work together again.  

Landline (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

“Valerian”– Movie Review

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This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science-fiction/adventure “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”.

Synopsis

In the future, a planet with peace-loving people is destroyed – but can the agents charged with investigating the attack find out who did it and why?

Story

The society that exists on Alpha 400 years from now is a collective of humans and aliens who both live and work together in collaboration in order to improve each other’s life.  This is especially true in the demographically diverse City Of A Thousand Planets, which contains the largest population in all of Alpha.  However, the long-standing peace in the universe is disrupted when a planet is unexpectedly attacked and destroyed; only a small group of its inhabitants survive by escaping in a pod.  Slowly, over a course of many years, they try to rebuild their society – and all the while, plotting revenge.

With the universe’s peace disrupted, The United Human Federation is called into action.  The Federation is an organization of humans responsible for maintaining order and vanquishing possible threats to all of society.  Two of The Federation’s top agents are Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who work as partners on all their missions.  They are assigned the task of investigating who attacked the planet and why.  In the meantime, The Federation Commander (Clive Owen) is kidnapped by the alien survivors of the destroyed planet so Valerian and Laureline are sent to rescue him. 

Upon finding The Commander, Valerian and Laureline are unable to free him without themselves confronting the aliens first.  Instead of being engaged in a fierce battle, the aliens relate their story to the agents; the new information they get from the aliens is alarming and forces the agents to view their situation in a whole new light.  With better insight into the aliens’ background and the motivations for their actions, the agents realize the objective of their mission must be altered.  Are the aliens justified in their capture of The Commander?  Did The Commander have prior knowledge about the attack and destruction of these aliens’ planet?  Can the agents help the aliens to restore their society?

Review

One might forgive a viewer who anticipates fun while watching the opening credits of “Valerian” – it’s quite a visual spectacle with musical accompaniment.  Unfortunately – between the special effects and the relentless action scenes – the movie as a whole winds up feeling like more of an assault on the senses rather than a coherent story featuring protagonists about whom we can invest our emotions or time.  Ultimately, at two and a quarter hours, the film is something of a slog rather than the fast-paced adventure to which it aspires.

By the end of “Valerian”, the viewer is left caring neither about the fate of the survivors of the destroyed planet nor about the future of the possible romance between Valerian and Laureline.  It is, in fact, the aliens who seem considerably more human than the actual humans themselves – and considering it’s the humans who are the protagonists, that’s not something that bodes well for the movie itself.  Also, these members of The United Human Federation of the future appear to sustain the racism and sexism of the present:  very few non-white faces are seen among them and there seem to be no women in positions of authority. 

What little there is of entertainment value in “Valerian” comes from being able to quickly identify the famous faces, many of whom appear only in cameos.  In addition to Clive Owen, they include Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke and (as has been widely publicized already) Rihanna as a character called Bubble – a shape-shifting alien who performs a seductive dance for Valerian.  Although their characters do indeed move the story forward, their presence it not enough to elevate this film.  We can hope that there will be no sequel to this motion picture – or if there is, it’ll be at least a half hour shorter. 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) on IMDb