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I am the first to admit that the Oscars are rarely given to the finest in the art of film, but much more likely to the loftiest of middlebrow entertainment (with some edginess thrown in on occasion for good measure).
At the same time, I think we do have one thing to be grateful for when it comes to the Academy. Since the balloting closes the first of the year, more and more, fall and early winter leaves behind the cheek of tan, tent pole blockbusters of summer (films forced into as many of the four quadrants as it may fit) and gives way to producers who, like the changing colors of leaves, turn to releasing their prestige pictures, the ones they believe have the best chance at garnering the attention of the gold statuette who hides his genitals with a sword.
These films are the ones that producers and studio executives feel they don’t have to apologize or make excuses for and instead can brag that they actually had a hand in their making.
One of these films, Spotlight (or All the Cardinal’s Men as a friend of mine called it) is now being spoken of as the one to beat come spring. And, taking everything into consideration, they could certainly do far worse, because, however else you may feel about it, Spotlight is the epitome of middlebrow taste, and, even better, is crackerjack entertainment. Read the rest of this entry »
NO MORE FUN AND HUNGER GAMES or THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED: Movie review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I by Howard CasnerPosted: November 28, 2014 | Author: Donald | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Danny Strong, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Francis Lawrence, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Liam Helmsworth, Peter Craig, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I, Woody Harrelson | 5 Comments »
First, a word from our sponsors. Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r
How to start.
Well, there’s really no point in putting it off.
At the risk of losing what little reputation I have (if I even have one); at the risk of inviting ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn from those who read my reviews who don’t already hold me in ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn; and at the risk of being reviled by serious filmgoers far and wide…
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I is not nearly as bad as the critics claim it is and is by far the best entry in the franchise to date, far better than the first two films. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
When Michael Haneke, the acclaimed filmmaker of Amour and The White Ribbon, came to the U.S., he met with a producer who gave him a script to consider. It was an action film of some sort, a WWII something or other, a story totally inappropriate to Haneke for anyone who knew anything about his films. To paraphrase his reaction, he asked, Is this what Hollywood is? A place where they just grab any old thing they have lying around in a drawer to give you that hasn’t been produced yet?
This is what I thought while watching the movie Stoker. It’s directed by Chan-wook Park, the popular South Korean director of Oldboy and Thirst, and though I can’t say that’s how he got hired to direct this film, it certainly feels like some producer just had it lying around in his drawer and foisted it upon him.
The film was written by Wentworth Miller (his first foray into screenwriting, but I guess he had to do something to pass the time while behind bars) with Erin Cressida Wilson (Fur, Secretary) given credit as a contributing writer. In many ways, it’s basically one of those women in danger films that almost every actress made at one time or another in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, from Barbara Stanwyck to Joan Crawford to Katherine Hepburn (yes, even Hepburn made one). As in those films, a psychopath or sociopath or psychotic sociopath or sociopathic psychotic worms their way into a household; anything from camp to high tension occurs (and usually both). In this entry in the once popular subgenre, when the patriarch of a wealthy family dies, his brother suddenly shows up at his funeral and takes a rather creepy interest in his niece (the man is called Uncle Charlie for those who like film references and have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt). Various bad things happen as a result.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the screenplay. It certainly gets the job done. At the same time, for someone of Park’s oeuvre, it’s rather routine. No, I have to be honest here. It’s very routine. No, that doesn’t quite do it. It’s ridiculously and insultingly routine. Is this really the best the U.S. can offer a filmmaker of Park’s stature?
To Park’s credit, he directs the hell out of the movie. He fills it with odd angles and creepy sounds (there’s suppose to be some through line about the niece, India, being able to hear things other people can’t, though there never seemed to be a pay off for it). There’re all sorts of overlaps and dissolves and plenty of visual metaphors (like a spider crawling up India’s leg and going between her thighs—subtle much?). Park gives it the old Orson Welles try (who also had to constantly flaunt his directing in order to cover up lackluster material as in Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai). And it must be said, Stoker is often an effective and even beautiful movie.
But it’s also one of these stories where people go missing and no one seems that concerned about what happened to them, unless it’s convenient for the plot. Everyone who knows Charlie’s secret seems extremely worried about India, but not her mother, Evelyn, who in many ways is chopped liver by the time the movie is over. The two both share the same house with Charlie, but it’s only India who anyone is concerned about (I thought sure the big revelation was going to be that Charlie was actually India’s real father, but no, this interest of Charlie’s for India was left a bit vague for me). And the ending doesn’t really resolve anything or provide a satisfying emotional resolution. In fact, by the time it was over, I was wondering whether a bit too much of it ended up on the cutting room floor.
The movie is nicely cast for the most part. The actors do the best they can with the material. Mia Wasikowski is India and she’s fine (she’s very good at sexual yearning and having an orgasm while playing the piano with her Uncle). Nicole Kidman handles the material well in her roll as an escapee from a Tennessee William’s play. The strongest acting comes from that remarkable down under discovery Jacki Weaver, and her performance here may make her one of the finest character actresses in films since Thelma Ritter. Mathew (A Single Man, Matchpoint, Watchmen) Goode is Uncle Charlie; he’s lovely to look at, but his performance is a bit flat, like his American accent.
I know I’ve been really hard on this film. But I think it’s because Park deserves better. The U.S. film industry has chewed up and spewed out many an artist over the years and I would hate to have the same thing happen to Park. But Stoker is not a promising beginning for an American career.
I saw Jack the Giant Slayer. Yes, I did. It was at this nice theater I love to go to and there really wasn’t much else showing and a friend wanted to go for lack of a better movie out there to see, so we went. It’s not a disaster. If only it were; it would have been a lot more fun. It’s actually, in certain ways, better written and acted and at times cleverer than Stoker. It’s directed by Bryan Singer (are we ever going to have another movie like The Usual Suspects again), has four authors (yes, four), and stars Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan and Ian McShane, with Stanley Tucci as the gay character who can’t be identified as gay because that would be offensive. But one spends most of the time wondering why any of them actually wanted to do the film. It’s one of those movies in which a woman claims to be raised by her mother to be a feminist, but the chief lesson she was taught is to marry for love. It’s one of those movies meant for a family audience, but it has so many people being slaughtered, that it’s just kind of depressing. It’s one of those movies where the good guys’ army is being massacred, but they never seem to run out of soldiers. In the end, it’s just one of those movies, one of the worst things a movie can be.