A STUDY IN SCARLET and TALES OF HOFFMAN: Movie reviews of Lucy and A Most Wanted Man by Howard Casner

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lucyRicky Ricardo: Lucy’s actin’ crazy. Fred Mertz: Crazy for Lucy, or crazy for ordinary people?

               I Love Lucy

First, I must begin by being absolutely clear so that everyone knows where I stand. Lucy, the new sci-fi thriller written and directed by French filmmaker (and some people use that term loosely in this context) Luc Besson is a terrible film.

I mean, c’mon. You know it. I know it. We all know it’s terrible. It’s silly, nonsensical, preposterous, absurd, often makes no sense and is not remotely believable, even for an unrealistic fantasy sci-fi thriller.

Which is also, in m any ways, a redundant way to state it because, well, gees, I mean, c’mon, it’s a Besson film, for Christ’s sake.

But with that being said, it may very well be a…dare I say it…I dare…great terrible movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of ENOUGH SAID and THE FIFTH ESTATE by Howard Casner

There is a sculpture in Chicago in front of City Hall. It’s by Picasso. It’s okay. I thought it was rather derivative and that there wasn’t anything that special about it. To be honest, what I thought when I first saw it was that Chicago paid a fortune to get the great artist to create a sculpture just for the city and all we got was…a Picasso. And I thought we deserved more.

I have now seen every one of writer/director Nicole Holocener’s movies, and I’ll definitely keep on seeking future ones out. I’ve enjoyed them well enough, and her dialog and characterizations are strong, insightful and full of empathy, something most movies seem to lack these days (though I do wish she would do something about her flat and routine visual style).

At the same time, though, I am finding myself, well, wanting more than enjoying them well enough. I find myself so wanting her to take a leap forward, so wanting her to make her Annie Hall, her Dogma, her Raising Arizona or Fargo, her Pulp Fiction, her Lost in Translation. Instead, what we’re getting here, in her new film, Enough Said, is…a Picasso. And it’s a good film, but it’s also just…a Picasso.

The basic story revolves around Eva (a perky Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), a divorced mother who makes a living as a masseuse, who meets two people at a party: the refined, somewhat snobby poet Marianne (Catherine Keener, and what movie by Holocener would be complete without Keener in it) and the less refined, teddy bear Albert (James Gandolfini in his next to last film performance, which gives the whole thing an unintended, but somewhat, whimsical sadness to it). Marianne hires Eva to massage her and the two become good friends. Albert asks Eva out and they become lovers. What Eva quickly finds out, but the others don’t know, is that Eva and Albert are bitter, bitter, bitter exes who keep telling Eva how awful a mate the other one was.

In other words, the basic set up is a farce and it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, the pacing is anything but. And after while, I found myself antsy because all I was waiting for was the big reveal. And it took what seemed a longer than necessary period of time to get there.

I’m also not sure I fully bought the relationships either. And I don’t mean the present tense ones. The more Marianne and Albert talk about each other behind each others’ backs, Eva never seems to ask the most logical question of the story: why did they ever get married in the first place? They seem to be the last two people who would ever go out on a first date, must less tie the knot.

Eva and Albert’s relationship is a bit more convincing because both Louis-Dreyfuss and Gandolfini work very hard at it and there is a sweet chemistry to the two of them. At the same time, I sometimes got the feeling they started a relationship simply because there wasn’t anyone else around. In the end, the most convincing couple in the room are Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), Eva’s best friends and comic relief. They seem so right for each other and Collette and Falcone give razor sharp performances, they’re the kind of couple who get each other even when they get on each other’s nerves.

In the end, maybe Holocener isn’t that interested in making that leap forward. That may not be the direction she wants to go in. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe that’s okay. And maybe it’s just a prejudice of mine that artist’s should take leaps forward. But god, I so wish she would. We have enough Picassos.

The Fifth Estate, written by Josh Singer and directed by Bill Condon, is a hi-tech espionage thriller disguised as a bromance, or a bromance disguised as a hi-tech espionage thriller. I’m not sure which. I’m not sure I want to know.

For those of you just returned from the Antarctic, The Fifth Estate is about the Private Lives relationship (you know what I mean, can’t live with, can’t live without type thing) between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg, the creators of the king of all hacker sites Wikileaks. And what a relationship it is, too. Like any good Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, they meet cute; flirt; get jealous of each others’ lovers; try to sabotage each others’ relationships; cheat on each other; have make-up sex (in the form of releasing a shocking video of the American military shooting and killing unarmed civilians and journalists—it was good for me, was it good for you, too?). The love affair metaphor here is so heavy handed that it is embarrassing and even cringe worthy at times (you almost want to yell at the screen, “get a room, already, why don’t you”). At one moment I expected Assange to say “You complete me” to Berg and Berg to say to Assange, “I wish I could quit you”. The only place it really deviates from formula is that unlike most rom coms, The Fifth Estate has an unhappy ending as Berg, like any good starter wife, gets traded in for a younger model.

If this movie had been made in the 1950’s, I would have expected it to star Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck and Zachary Scott or Fred MacMurray. Instead we have Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange (with shocking white hair as if he were an elf extra in the Lord of the Rings) and Daniel Bruhl as Berg. There’s absolutely no chemistry between the two and their characters just never come to life (though I have to say in Cumberbatch’s defense, he is stuck with imitating someone with one of the dullest speaking voices in some time).

And poor Berg. After giving some solid and satisfying performances in such films as Good Bye Lenin!, The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, he just can’t seem to find a role that suits him. And it doesn’t help that here he can’t get any more heat going with his co-star than he could with Chris Hemsworth in Rush, another Beatrice/Benedict relationship that also couldn’t get off the ground (or out of the starting gate).

It’s all so unfortunate. Because when the film focuses on the actual Wikileaks story, it’s rather exciting. Condon’s direction just refuses to let the action lag and the whole thing is filled with a bunch of fun visuals to keep the tension, well…extremely tense. But whenever the thriller returns to the love story, the whole thing sinks like the Titanic, taking its two stars with them.

I must say, though, it does have an interesting supporting cast. Some surprising people keep popping up, like the future Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi; Mike Leigh refugee, David Thewlis; Downton Abby ex, Dan Stevens; and the wonderful Moritz Bleibtrau, one of Germany’s best actors (Run, Lola, Run; Munich; and the Baader Meinhoff Complex).

It also has Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as U.S. state department officers who, for some reason, always feel a tad out of sync with the rest of the movie. Part of this may be because they are too familiar of actors for their roles. But part of it may be because they give the most vibrant line readings and their platonic romance is infinitely more believable than Cumberbatch’s and Bruhl’s.

Movie Reviews of A TOUCH OF SIN and RUSH by Howard Casner

A Touch of Sin, the new movie written and directed by film and troublemaker (not necessarily in that order) Zhangke Jia, has more than a touch of a touch in it. It’s a portmanteau film revolving around four different people who end up doing violence in modern day China, all driven by the corruption and greed that is oozing its way past the Communist idealism, and all inspired by true events.

In this post-Mao China, men with axes stop motorists on lonely roads for money; local enforcers extort bribes from truck drivers who want to drive through their city; and prostitution is commonplace (it has one of the most extravagant whorehouses you’re going to see on film in some time–the ladies of the evening kinkily marching out to patriotic military music in red army uniforms with short shorts and midriff revealing shirts is one of the highlights of the movie).

The film is a riveting look at how power corrupts and money corrupts even more. It’s uncompromising and shocking. Jia shows his characters great empathy, no matter how horrifying their actions, while the bleak landscape offers no sympathy for any of them (beautifully shot, if that’s the word for it, by Yu Likwai). It paints a very dark picture of Jia’s country and is apparently being released in China, but how is anybody’s guess.

Also based on true events is Rush, but oh, what a difference an ocean can make. In fact, while I was watching this movie about rival race car drivers, all I could think was, Do writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard realize just how bad, how really terrible, their movie is? And then I checked out the critic conglomerate called rottentomatoes.com and saw that it received a 92% rating. 92%. From the top critics, the ones with jobs at places like the Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic and The New Yorker (that earthquake you just felt was Pauline Kael turning in her grave).

So I suspect the answer to my question is, no, they don’t. But at least they have an excuse. But for the life of me, I have no idea what possible apology the critics could come up with. Rush is a big, over the top, studio type film that falls resoundingly flat, runs out of gas almost immediately, crashes and burns from the opening shot, as well as any other number of puns one can come up with to describe just how appallingly dreadful it all is (it’s a real drag, in other words).

The story revolves around a 1970’s rivalry between James Hunt (a blond-haired, blue eyed satyr) and Niki Lauda (an emotionless, stoic Austrian), Formula One drivers lusting to be world champion. To be fair, Morgan and Howard have set themselves a high bar. They have given us in these central characters two of the most unlikable people one has met on film in some time. Worse, they have given us two of the most boring people one has met on film in some time. They also give these two a rivalry based upon reasons that are so petty, it’s almost impossible to take it seriously, much less become emotionally involved in the stakes. In fact, there were times when I wondered why Morgan and Howard hadn’t made it a dark comedy; the basis of the story almost seems to demand it at times.

I don’t know how anybody can drain all excitement and interest out of a movie about racing, but Howard has somehow managed to do just that. He does little to dramatize what the races are like (the camera is more often than not kept at a distance, like a spectator who couldn’t get a good seat). He seems to have almost no interest in the thrill and passion of the racing experience or in seeing it through the eyes of the characters; instead he only seems to care about who wins what race—the exact opposite of what is interesting the audience.

He does try his best, though. Most of the time he keeps that camera moving, never letting it stop to smell the roses, with frantic tracking shots and quick edits. It does imbue the movie with some tension at times, but more often than not it just feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that there is no there there on the screen.

Morgan’s dialog is basically everyone explaining to everyone else how they feel and why they act the way they do. And there’s just so much of it. Even more enervating are the taunting back and forths between Hunt and Lauda that never rise about the basic “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Well…yeah”. I doubt Wilde could have put it any better. And the actors (a bland, as usual, Chris Helmsworth as Hunt and a buck toothed Daniel Bruhl as Lauda) can’t seem to do much with the material either.

I’m not sure why this movie made me so angry. It certainly isn’t Morgan and Howard. They’ve both created solid and successful entertainment in the past and everybody has a failure at some point. No, I think my real anger is toward the critics who should know better. People, this movie doesn’t work and you have no excuse for not knowing that. You really need to get your act together.