Thursday, April 28, 2016
STARS: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie
DIRECTOR: Robert Budreau
GENRE: Drama/Musical/Art House
It's become fashionable for biopics of famous people to begin at a point somewhere in the middle of the person's life where they are dealing with their greatest challenges. Get right to the dramatic part. No boring prologue--you can fill in some sketchy details along the way. And so it is with Born To Be Blue, about the life and times of jazz legend Chet Baker. A name only vaguely familiar to those who weren't around in the fifties and sixties, or aren't dedicated jazz aficionados, and that would be most folks on the planet today. So it would be easy to fictionalize much of their subject's personal life and no one is the wiser, which is what director Robert Budreau and company did--piecing it together primarily from stories that Baker told. Hey, all of these types of films are winging it to a degree if their subject is no longer around to authenticate the facts--and, for better or for worse, what most people end up with as their lasting impression is this photoshopped version of the person they saw in the movie. But I digress.
What is established is that Chet Baker was a great musician, arguably the best jazz trumpet player of his day. And that he was a junkie who allowed his habit to both enhance his ability, and become the ruination of him in the end. Dope and jazz. In most people's minds, they go hand in hand. And I'm afraid that Born To Be Blue will do nothing to discourage that impression for young musicians coming up in the world. But everyone makes his own choices.
Ethan Hawke plays Mr. Baker in an inspired performance. There are two things, however, that don't come through in the movie, through no fault of the actor. One: that Baker, at least in his youth, was a physically beautiful man--almost Elvis Presley good looking. Two: that he was a good singer. Hawke does all his own vocalizing in the film, and he's adequate--but unable to duplicate that certain je ne sais quoi that made a Chet Baker vocal/instrumental performance so haunting and hypnotic. But Hawke and a fine ensemble cast ultimately save the day, as the musician struggles in dramatic and dauntless fashion to relearn how to play his instrument all over again after being beaten up by some thugs and having his teeth knocked out. And in the process wins us over to his side.
P. S. Wear your shades during the movie so everyone can identify you as a hipster.
Grade: B +
Saturday, April 23, 2016
STARS: Christian Bale, Brian Dehnehy, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas
DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick
To frame it in language that my uncle Lemuel back in Nebraska would find user friendly: Terence Malick makes weird movies that some consider to be absolutely brilliant, while others just shake their heads and say: Shit...I'll never get those two hours back!
Case in point: Tree Of Life. It was lauded as a masterpiece by many and was nominated for three Academy Awards. I found it to be disjointed and tedious. However, if I were to view it a second time, I might get a better grasp on what Mr. Malick was trying to convey. The same can probably be said for his latest offering, Knight Of Cups.
The "plot" is as follows. Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood writer who drifts in and out of reverie with six pivotal women in his life--played by Imogeen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, and Brian Dennehy. WHOOPS...Dennehy plays his father...heh heh...with whom Rick has flashback encounters designed to give us an inkling of past tragedies.
The characters in Knight Of Cups speak solely through their own interior monologue--in other words, they are talking to themselves. The action moves from one dreamlike sequence to another, through the kaleidoscopic cityscapes and the "beautiful people" of L.A. and Las Vegas--to the beach, to the bedroom, to the boredom (my own).Through all of this cinematically pretty navel-gazing, Christian Bale, as Rick, is trying to figure out who he is...or what his life is all about...or maybe what he is doing in this film in the first place.
It's a lot of weirdness, Uncle Lemuel (which I'm not averse to), but after awhile it gets to be too much of the SAME KIND of weirdness--like watching Freddy Krueger come back to life every damn time they kill him, or listening to Marco Rubio up on the debate stage!
Maybe Malick is making a statement about the dreamlike nature of life. That I can grasp. You sit in your living room gazing at a chair where somebody sat weeks, or months, or years ago and you wonder...were they ever really there?
I didn't love Knight Of Cups. I didn't exactly hate it (it's smattered with " T " and "A"). But it's true. I'll never get those two hours back.
I suppose after seeing Remember, a movie I felt was one of the best I'd ever seen, it's only fitting that the next one should be – bar none -- worst movie I've ever seen! I have very little patience with stories that have no discernible story. Obviously the producers of this turkey knew what they were dealing with and decided (after seeing the final cut and tearing their hair out) to make the trailer look as if it was a triangle love story between Bale, Blanchett and Portman. That's what I thought I was going to see!
Instead I was subjected to long silences, Tarot card headings, self-indulgent soliloquies and a film that seemed to go on forever. The only people I think might get something out of this meandering mishmosh are the 420 crowd. Warning: Take a BIG toke before entering the theater...
Grade: D ----
Thursday, April 14, 2016
STARS: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris, Bruno Ganz, Jurgen Prochnow
DIRECTOR: Atom Egoyan
Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a 90 year-old man with dementia who's grieving the recent passing of his wife. That is, when he can remember she's not still there with him when he wakes each morning. Zev gets a letter in the mail from his friend at the retirement home where they both live, instructing him to set upon a journey that will culminate in a grizzly personal vendetta. Max (Martin Landau), who is wheelchair bound, has provided the blueprint for Zev to find and kill the Auschwitz guard--now living under an assumed name--who is responsible for the deaths of both their families. Max has it all written down to keep Zev on point, knowing his friend will have trouble remembering the why, what, and the wherefore of the task from day to day. (Plummer himself is only 86, so he had to "grow" into the role somewhat. Alternate version of the preceding sentence: Plummer himself is only 86, and that's why he was still able to remember his lines.) Zev sets out surreptitiously upon his journey and becomes a missing person, setting off a secondary search by his family. Can his son find him before some major nastiness occurs?
Zev is tracking a man going by the name of Rudy Kurlander. There are four such individuals in the United States and Canada. So it's a process of elimination (pardon the pun) for the former Auschwitz prisoner to find the right Rudy Kurlander. Further revelation of the plot would send us into spoiler territory, and we don't want that. Suffice it to say that Remember has jaw-dropping plot twists that place it in that rarefied air with The Sixth Sense--in that you will NEVER see them coming! They are also what make the story--when all is said and done--a bit far-fetched. Okay, a lot far-fetched. But the performances from Oscar winners Plummer and Landau--and Dean Norris as a Nazi sympathizer Zev encounters along the way--are out of the park, and overshadow these manipulations.
And it's probably good that director Atom Egoyan didn't take my suggestion to include Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (send it off in a letter to yourself) in the soundtrack.
Usually I love Tim's off-the-wall sense of humor but in this case he is toying with the sacrosanct. Huh? In my view Remember is one of the best films I've seen in years. Maybe ever. It had me on the edge of my seat from start to long after the ending credits. Reminiscent of Marathon Man where Laurence Olivier played a fugitive Nazi war criminal, Remember had the same feeling of unrelenting suspense. And when the main character, whose memory was spotty at best, was able to recall how to play Wagner with such precision and passion, it reminded me of The Pianist. A film about a famous Jewish pianist who was hidden in the attic of an empty house and supplied with food by a German officer who also shared a love of Chopin.
Prejudice has produced some incredible films.
So has the formula of hunting down the bad guy. Like Tim, I found some of Plummer's character's dementia-ridden exploits hard to believe. But I got so caught up in the chase that plausibility went right out the window. There aren't enough laudatory words to use in connection with this man's talent. What a consummate actor! All the cast was superb, actually. And kudos go out to Jurgen Prochnow (of Das Boot fame) for his portrayal of Rudy Kurlander #4, whose remade life looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Please, if you never see another movie, go see this one.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
STARS: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Wren Schmidt, Maddie Hasson, Bradley Whitford
DIRECTOR: Marc Abraham
My standard line with Jill whenever she wants to drag me to a bio-pic of a famous person is: I know how it came out. Meaning that I, like most, am familiar with the subject's life, and don't really care to sit through a retelling that plays it loose with the facts for the sake of creating a more compelling story (which most of them do).
In I Saw The Light, director Marc Abraham has chosen to tell a LESS compelling story of the life and times of country music icon Hank Williams--playing down his subject's glory in order to hone in on his pain. In his brief tenure, Hank Williams had 35 songs that were on the country music top ten charts--eleven of them shooting to number one! "Your Cheatin' Heart," for one, has been covered by too many artists to count. But the music is given short shrift. We see Hank (Tom Hiddleston) in a few stage performances--and the music sounds good--but that's the only hint we get of the prolific creative genius the man possessed.
I understand that Abrahams is trying to tell a more personal story--of Hank Williams' struggles with the demons of alcoholism and his up and down relationships with women--but these are often the unfortunate side-effects of unfettered brilliance. There are no fist-pumping inspirational moments here, and you know ol' Hank must have had a few. Instead, I Saw The Light is an unrelenting portrait of an individual bent on self-destruction. The gloomy inevitability of it is what had me glancing at my watch about half way through.
Part of the problem is roots. Tom Hiddleston is a good enough singer, but he's British, and his attempts to master Hank Williams' trademark twang yield mixed results. That's a difficult assignment, unless you come from where Hank came from, and I'm not referring solely to geography. Fortunately for Hiddleston, his acting--the way he inhabits the character--is what shines here. It also helps that he's pretty much of a physical dead-ringer for his subject.
Elizabeth Olsen, another fine actor, plays Williams' headstrong first wife, Audrey. The performances are not the problem. The problem with I Saw The Light is that we are subjected to too much of the gloom of Hank Williams' story, and not enough of the light.
Saturday, March 12, 2016
STARS: Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Margot Robbie
DIRECTOR: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
What do you do when you are bored with your desk job as a TV news editor? Aw, hell--sign on as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and risk getting your ass in a sling, but at least it will get you some face time on the network! This appears to be the cavalier manner in which Kim Barker (Tina Fey) went about choosing her life path in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (set circa 2006)--the film based upon the real Kim Barker's memoir, The Taliban Shuffle. Hopefully, there's more that went into that decision than what appears onscreen in the film, though Ms. Barker has stated that she wanted to do something that would challenge her and push her out of her comfort zone.
When people face the real possibility of imminent death, they live like there's no tomorrow. They have wild parties. They have sex. They become addicted to the adrenaline rush of living in the moment. Kim gets hip to this early on when her drop-dead gorgeous (pardon the pun) colleague, Tanya (Margot Robbie), casually inquires if it's okay to boink Kim's security guys. It's one of the cackle-out-loud moments of the film, of which there are several.
Kim goes out on a mission with the troops. They are ambushed by those pesky Taliban. Bullets are flying and striking their Humvee. She scrambles out of the vehicle to film the action. She wins the thumbs-up daddy approval of General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton). At first, all of this seems pointless, like the endless conflict of will and ideologies they find themselves embroiled in, and there seems to be no discernible plot. But one does develop. It's the slowly simmering romance between Kim and the Aussie photographer, Iain (Martin Freeman). He's a lecher and she knows it. In time, though (again, since they may not have much of it) she finds him irresistible. The poignant moments occur when they are together--ruminating about what comes next, and does it include some kind of future together? Who knows, but in the meantime, let's hop back into bed!
Whisky Tango Foxtrot walks that serio-comic line-- the dark humor, juxtaposed against the romance (in both the larger and smaller sense of the word) of war, and does it pretty seamlessly. Of particular note in accomplishing this is the choice of songs, such as Harry Nilsson's lugubrious, sweetly sticky "Without You" playing during an action sequence. It's quirky, but it works. Which pretty well sums up the film as well. .
Lugubrious. I love that word! It sounds so sad and dismal. Which is anything but how I would describe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Sure it has its moments of hilarity, but Tina Fey has serious acting chops. And the movie makes some excellent points about the effects of war. I could be glib and call it "an updated version of M.A.S.H. in Afghanistan." But Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers far more to think about (while I was watching it, anyway). How ambition often triumphs over friendship. How the threat of imminent death can redefine one's moral code. How sex, drugs and rock and roll is, was, and always will be a great coping mechanism. (I knew that one already!)
That being said, the movie—like most skits on SNL—is quickly forgettable. (Maybe that's producer Lorne Michael's influence?) Fun, yes. Entertaining, for sure. But minutes after I left the theater, the only thing that stayed with me was Martin Freeman's performance as war photographer Iain Mac Kelpie. I'm not a devotee of The Hobbit flicks so I was unfamilar with this talented Brit. But he played the role of a scoundrel-in-training and was still able to earn my emotional support and sympathy. Kudos to you, Martin!
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (love those initials!) is definitely worth seeing. I just wish the film had lingered longer in my affections.
Grade: C +
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
STARS: Michael Moore
I'll admit up front to being a Michael Moore fan. There is no one who is more adept at holding the mirror up to our (America's) face and making us peer directly into it without our makeup on. In his alternatingly humorous, eye- opening, and poignant documentary, Where To Invade Next, Moore "invades" Europe to find solutions to America's problems. And while he's working with a lighter hand here, his insights are no less profound than those imparted in his previous films.
What he finds:
In France, schoolkids get nutritional food--like what you'd order off the menu at a classy restaurant--and plenty of it.
Students in Slovenia get a free college education.
In Finland, school children are not burdened with homework after school, because kids need time to be kids.
Drug possession in Portugal is not illegal.
In Norway, where the emphasis is on rehabilitation instead of retribution and punishment, prison inmates live in decently appointed apartments, and can ride bicycles around the grounds.
In Iceland, women play a prominent role in the government.
IN SHORT, NOT MUCH THAT BERNIE SANDERS HASN'T ALREADY TOUCHED UPON!
My favorite segment is where Moore interviews an affable Italian couple (Why do Italians always look like they've just had sex? he quips) who receive seven weeks paid vacation from their jobs annually, and a laundry list of other perks that make American companies look like slave drivers.
Speaking of which, Michael Moore accurately reminds us that America was built upon slavery and genocide. But after all that, he still manages to end on an uplifting note, pointing out that many of the innovative concepts being utilized by other countries originated in the good ol' U.S.A. All we need to do is get back to that kind of logical and compassionate clear thinking.
I'm ready for some of that. Aren't you?
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
STARS: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh
In 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling breaks her string of appearing nude in most every film I've ever seen her in--going back to the sadistic and sexually explicit The Night Porter from 1974. She was the darling of the art house films, where her body was on more prominent display than her acting chops. I only bring it up because now, at age 70, she's regarded as a serious actor--much the same as Helen Mirren, who was free-spirited enough in her youth to display her ample attributes in similar fashion--even appearing in the notorious semi-porn flick, Caligula. Later in life, we watched Mirren glide up to the stage on Oscar night, and now Rampling has an opportunity to do the same with her Best Actress nomination for 45 Years.
Kate and Geoff Mercer have what you'd call a polite relationship. It's all very British. They're not revealing anything that lies beneath the surface. They're planning a party for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. Everything seems to be on track. Then Geoff receives a letter announcing that "she's been found." The letter refers to an old girlfriend of his who fell into a crevasse while hiking in the Swiss Alps and perished at the age of 27. Geoff sits there explaining the letter to Kate in an absent-minded way--he's quite drawn into his thoughts. She thinks it's odd that he never told her about the girl. Well, he thought he did. Maybe it was so long ago that neither of them have much recollection of it. It could have just stayed one of those curious things between couples who only communicate on a certain level. They would have moved on with their polite lives. If Geoff hadn't become increasingly distracted by the realization that the girl's body would be perfectly preserved after all those years in her icy tomb. She will look just the same as the last time he saw her.
We witness the emotional progressions on Kate's face as she contemplates the invading question of how much the two of them might have meant to each other. As the week leading up to their anniversary celebration passes, Geoff takes up smoking again, and begins behaving in peculiar ways. When Kate discovers he has visited a travel agency, inquiring about a possible trip to Switzerland, she begins to question what their entire marriage has been about.
45 Years is adult cinema. Not the kind Rampling cut her teeth on, rather a drama for grownups who appreciate thoughtful films. It progresses slowly, as one treading upon the ice would be wise to do--leading to a delicious and devastating climax that will leave you...like Kate...with more questions than answers.
Grade: B +
I've been far less forgiving than Tim about the movies we've seen lately. And I'm sorry to report that 45 Years won't change that trend, either. I realize that it takes cinematic time to create a long-term marriage, with all its daily routines and unspoken but understood communications. But slow moving can often produce a sleepy audience. (At least that's what this film did for me.)
Before 45 Years began, I was impressed with the opening credits. The click-clicking of a projector as each name came on screen. Later, when Charlotte Rampling's character watches an old movie, clicking from one image to another, witnessing something that will change her relationship with her husband forever, I was reminded of those opening credits. And was even more impressed.
There were moments—albeit fleeting ones—that smacked of originality and tour de force acting. But as I left the theater, I must admit I felt insanely grateful to be living alone. If any of you long for everlasting togetherness in the sunset years of your life, this film will cure you of that notion. It may not be as dark as, say, The Revenant. But in its own way, it's even darker. Although Ms. Rampling is up for an Oscar, I thought Tom Courteney's performance was even better. (And the dog did an outstanding job, too!)