Opening in Las Vegas, April 24, 2015

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Only one week remains until the summer blockbuster season starts, and we’re clearing out the spring stuff.

Our own Marco reviewed The Age of Adaline (51), a sudsy sci-fi-ish story of a woman who doesn’t age. It seems far too sudsy for me, and from what I’ve seen of her Blake Lively is not capable of holding a movie on her shoulders. James Berardinelli: “Haphazardly plotted, it not only falls prey to absolute predictability but chooses to have nearly every important conversation (except one) occur off-screen. That sort of laziness is unacceptable and results in a strong sense of audience dissatisfaction.”

I’m interested in Ex Machina, (78), which is yet another film about artificial intelligence (this time in the form of Alicia Vikander, va-va-voom), but it’s getting good reviews and seems to be more intelligent that the average film of its type (see Chappie). Kimberley Jones: “A rattling and ruminative piece of speculative fiction, Ex Machina is good enough to wish it were even better.”

When I first saw the trailer for Child 44 (41) I thought it was a remake of Gorky Park. I guess there’s room for another serial killer drama set in Soviet Russia. With the great Tom Hardy, so probably at least worth a rental. Chris Nashawaty: “It happens more often than it should: A cast of sterling actors is assembled for a movie that doesn’t come close to equaling the sum of its parts.”

Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is the historical epic The Water Diviner (51), which stars the actor himself. One wonders at the arrogance of a first-time director casting himself, of course sometimes the star is required to get the money. At any rate, this film, about a father looking for his sons after the battle of Gallipoli, is being knocked for completely ignoring the Turkish genocide of Armenians. Jeff Baker: “Crowe is a commanding lead actor who could have made it into something special if he’d stayed out of his own way. Maybe he should have stayed home. You should.”

Finally, there’s Werner Herzog’s The Salt of the Earth, (83) a documentary about a Brazilian photographer. Doesn’t sound thrilling, but it’s Herzog, and that’s all I need to hear. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Peter Sobczynski: “The result, though not without flaws, is an invigorating and interesting observation of the man, his work and the entire medium of photography.”

Review: The Age Of Adaline (2015)

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Adaline‘The Age of Adaline’ is a romantic fantasy film that has such an audacious plot that the viewer is either going to be swept up and captivated by or reject as insipid drivel.

A woman born in the opening decade of the 20th century (Blake Lively) has by the time she is aged 29 is a recent widow with a young daughter. When she is this age in the 1930’s she is involved in a motor accident which under normal circumstances would claim her life but due to a chance mixture of natural events, she not only survives but is destined to live as a 29 year-old forever.

In present-day San Francisco, Adaline (now operating under various pseudonyms) has adapted to her unique situation to live a prosperous, if emotionally empty, existence. She is unable by circumstance to settle in a job or with friends for long periods and is only able to see her elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn) rarely. However things begin to change for Adaline when she develops a romantic relationship with philanthropist (Michael Huisman)  which complicates things severely, especially when she meets his father (Harrison Ford) who she knew very well in the past…

For a film like this to even begin to work, it has to convince the viewer of its central premise and on that count it largely succeeds. A prime reason for this is the excellent performance of Lively who manages the difficult task of being convincing as a nearly 100 year-old woman in a 29 year-old’s body.  She does this by always giving her character a refined, old-fashioned style through her speech and body language which makes her come across as much older than she actually looks. As well, she conveys the tragedy of her Twilight Zonesque life with convincing levels of emotion.

Lively is backed up by the rest of the experienced cast. I haven’t come across Dutch actor Huisman before (he’s done a lot of prominent TV and film work in the last few years) but he makes a fine impression here. Not only does he have good romantic chemistry with Lively, but he convincingly gives his character the levels of sophistication and tact required for someone like Adaline to risk her livelihood to get into a relationship with.

The film is also helped by with supporting performances from such experienced people as Ford, Burstyn and Kathy Baker. It was good to see Ford – who seems to have been sleepwalking through his films in recent years – give his most interesting performance in years.

Director Lee Toland Krieger’s previous was the interesting (if forgettable) ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’. This is a more ambitious film and a step up in quality from him. Krieger gives a film an elegant and smooth style which fits in well with the material. Notably, despite the majority of the film being set in present-day San Francisco, it still has an old-fashioned feel to it which compliments the central character and theme.

The film isn’t perfect. A brief segment where Adaline goes into hiding (and away from her daughter) in the early 1950s because of McCarthyist persecution is unconvincingly and clumsily inserted. And the film’s finale is contrived in multiple ways as if the filmmakers finally ran out of inspiration to keep the concept afloat and instead relied on easy solutions to resolve the film’s problems.

Above all else, this isn’t a film for everyone. There would undoubtedly be a fair segment of filmgoers who would find the whole concept ludicrous and be rolling their eyes every few minutes.

But personally speaking, in an era where romantic film seems to be code for turgid cinema, ‘The Age of Adaline’ is a graceful, charming movie.

Rating: B

Opening in Las Vegas, April 17, 2015

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Interesting group of films this week, but I doubt I’ll see any of them.

The likely box-office winner (behind Furious 7, though) is Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (14), which is set right here in Vegas. It’s been five years since the first one–is that too long? I didn’t see the first one, and it would only be on pain of torture that I would see this one. I just don’t get Kevin James’ appeal. Justin Chang: “Nothing aired by WikiLeaks could possibly be more destructive to Sony’s reputation than the release of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, the sort of movie that goes beyond mere mediocrity to offer possible evidence of a civilization in decline.”

Merchants of Doubt (70) sounds like an important doc about how the country is being ruined by paid spokesman, who will say anything for a buck. It’s the kind of thing that would make me very, very angry. Roger Moore: “Merchants of Doubt has its moments when the professional deniars hem and haw about who pays them to do what they do. But mostly, they’re glib, smug, self-confessed and self-righteous tools of Big Coal, Big Chemical or Big Oil.”

Another doc, on a slightly different kind of primate, is Monkey Kingdom (70) If I had kids, I’d take them to this, where they might learn something, than some horrible animated piece of crap. Sara Stewart: “On the whole, though, you couldn’t do much better than Monkey Kingdom to get kids invested in learning about, and protecting, the natural world.”

Unfriended (60) is this week’s horror film designed for teenagers but rated R. My sixth-graders love watching the trailer, but they’ll have to sneak into the movie. Have to wonder at the marketing for that. Anyway, it’s how Facebook can kill you. Joshua Rothkopf: “Even though Unfriended begins to cheat, springing loud noises and gory cutaways that can’t be explained, there’s a rigor to its dopey, blood-simple conception that you might smile at.”

The most intriguing film of the weekend is True Story (50), about a newspaper reporter who finds that a killer is using his identity. It’s Jonah Hill and James Franco, not kidding around. I might have paid to see this but the reviews are weak. Michael Phillips: “True Story is a case of a well-crafted film, made by a first-time feature director with an impressive theatrical pedigree, that nonetheless struggles to locate the reasons for telling its story.”

Opening in Las Vegas, April 10, 2015

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Another dreary weekend at the megaplex. Furious 7 should easily win a second weekend at the box office.

One movie I’m glad to see open is Danny Collins (58), which somehow casts Al Pacino as a Neil DIamond-like singer trying to reunite with his son. Al least now I won’t see the trailer anymore. reviews are kind to Pacino, so maybe he has a few good performances left in him. BIll Goodykoontz: “Pacino and his director don’t get back to basics — given that Pacino plays the title character, an aging rock star who long ago sold out, that wouldn’t make sense. But the actor brings such a charming attitude to the role that his performance feels far more genuine than the story itself.”

The movie that men may get dragged to this week is The Longest Ride (32), starring Scott Eastwood, trying to follow in the old man’s shoes in a romantic drama. It doesn’t appear to be a successful launching of a leading man career. Kimberley Jones: “There’s little here to convince the audience of boy and girl’s special chemistry, and nothing to attach the audience to them, either.”

Oscar bait in April? Helen Mirren stars as a woman who’s valuable art was stolen by the Nazis, and she’s trying to get it back, in Woman in Gold (51). I’m for anything that emphasizes the importance of art in people’s lives, but this is not getting great reviews, so maybe Mirren won’t be thought of come Oscar time. Kenneth Turan: “It’s regrettable that Woman in Gold is no more than adequate, more old-fashioned Hollywoodization than incisive modern dramatization.”

The only new movie I’m interested in seeing is Noah Baumbach’s latest, While We’re Young (76) which has a strong trailer and features one of my favorite actors, Naomi Watts. It’s how an older couple re-evaluate their choices after meeting a young hipster couple, and it looks pretty funny. Ty Burr: “Baumbach has something of an evil genius for casting. If Driver — the mercurial Adam of “Girls” — and Seyfried are solid as the incoming kids, Charles Grodin (the original “Heartbreak Kid”) ruthlessly represents the boomers refusing to cede the stage.”

Review: Wild Tales

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If there is any lesson to be learned after seeing the very dark Argentinian comedy Wild Tales, it’s that karma is a bitch. The film, directed by Damian Szifron, is an anthology of six stories, each chronicling the dark side of the human soul, and dispensing punishment for transgressions.

Usually an anthology features different directors, but this is all Szifron, so there is a sameness to the vignettes, but I liked them all, chuckling like one might while reading an issue of Tales from the Crypt. There’s nothing supernatural going on, but there is a kind of justice going on, as if the grim reaper were just outside of the camera, egging everyone on.

The first story occurs before the credits, and is the shortest. A flight full of people come to discover the have something in common. The second, and the weakest, is when a waitress in a small diner recognizes the customer who walks in the door. This is a very nasty story and the ending didn’t work well. The third is like a particularly vicious Warner Brothers cartoon, as a man in a BMW insults a driver of a rundown vehicle as he passes him. When the Beemer guy gets a flat tire, well, I won’t say more but it becomes a fight to the death.

The fourth is about a demolitions expert (Richardo Darin, one of the biggest stars in Argentina) who’s life is completely  unraveled when his car gets towed. The action here is certainly exaggerated, but the fight between the individual and the bureaucracy is beautifully played, and many of us can take satisfaction in the tussle. The fifth involves a rich young man who commits hit and run murder. His father and lawyer try to arrange a deal so the family groundskeeper takes the rap, but greed and truculence interfere.

The last, and the longest and most lavish tale, involves a nightmare wedding. In a wonderful performance, Erica Rivas discovers, at her wedding, that the groom slept with one of the guests. Guys, here’s a tip–don’t invite women you’ve had affairs with to your wedding. Rivas takes a kind of delirious revenge, sleeping with one of the hotel staff and hurling the other woman into a mirror. It goes way over the top but has a perfect ending.

Wild Tales is a film for a certain sensibility. No one is particularly likable here–even Darin, the little guy fighting the system, is a hothead who should know better. This is comedy black as ink, so if you like it like that, it’s a must see.

My grade for Wild Tales: A-.

Review: It Follows

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I’m struggling with my feelings about It Follows, the new art film that is wallowing in the teenage-horror genre. David Robert Mitchell, who previously deconstructed the teenage party film with The Myth of the American Sleepover, does the same thing here with horror–uses the tropes, but turns them on their head and makes them far more interesting than just a disposable spook fest.

But, I felt a bit of the old Peggy Lee thing here–“Is that all there is?” Mitchell is exploring the mythos of the genre, but while doing so he kind of took the fun out of it. This film may be too smart for its good.

Our heroine is Jay, played by Maika Monroe. She is seeing this guy who gets spooked one night when he sees someone whom Monroe doesn’t see. Later, they will have sex, and he chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. When she wakes he tells her that now she will be stalked by an entity that can take the form of anyone. It can be outrun, as it walks at a normal pace, but it will never stop following her, unless she has sex with someone else and passes it on. However, if the thing kills her, it will go back after him.

This is intriguing and mystifying. How does the guy know this? Why did he have to tie her up in a wheelchair in her underwear to tell her? Couldn’t he have told her without drugging and binding her? Anyway, she’s immediately convinced because moments later a naked woman starts following her.

Monroe has a circle of friends that eventually believe her. And, as proof that a beautiful girl can get away with anything, not one but two guys offer to have sex with her to take the curse away. One is kind of a sleazy guy from across the street, and another is a guy who has had a crush on her since they were kids. If I were in a similar situation, and this was the only way a girl like this would sleep with me, would I take a chance? I’ll stop there, because to reveal more would be a spoiler.

It Follows has stirred up a lot of talk. It does seem like a parable about sexually transmitted diseases, but I think it goes deeper than that. The idea that the thing we are afraid of is being followed–not necessarily being caught (although a prologue shows that if you do get caught it’s not pretty). This could be a comment on the social media age we live on–none of us can truly be alone, we are always under scrutiny. Early in the film Monroe is spied on by two younger boys as she swims in her pool. We have become a nation of voyeurs.

But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I miss some of the stupidity of the genre. There are gaps in information. Perhaps someone can help me out, but at one point Monroe spots a boat out on a lake with a few guys in it. She strips down to her underwear (Monroe never gets naked in the film, but boys will still be pleased) and heads into the water. We don’t know what happens. Did she offer herself sexually to them? The end of the film is also very ambiguous. My friend and I turned to each other at the end and said to each other, “Is that it?”

Also, there’s a big set piece at a swimming pool, when the friends hope to lure the thing into the water and electrocute it. Why in god’s name do they think that will work, when bullets won’t stop it?

But Mitchell does know how to be scary. I liked that at times the entity is not focused on. The audience just sees a figure in the distance walking, while the unsuspecting victims are just hanging out.

I also liked that the film was shot in Detroit, a city that is a ghost of itself. This seems to be a trend, as Only Lovers Left Alive was shot there as well. Detroit may be the new capital of existential horror films.

It Follows is getting great reviews, but perhaps I was expecting too much. I found it frequently confusing and too arty for its subject matter.

My grade for It Follows: B-.

Opening in Las Vegas, April 3, 2015

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This weekend will be dominated by Furious 7 (66). I’m pretty sure I saw the first one, but I’m not sure about any of the others. Did I see the Tokyo one? It’s all a blur. I know this series has its champions but I just can’t be bothered. Saw an “extended” trailer today at the movies and they ghoulishly play up the fact that this is the last one with Paul Walker. Jen Chaney: “Yes, the whole movie feels overstuffed and overlong, and the non-action scenes are often dragged down by stilted dialogue. But Furious 7 buzzes with a frenetic energy so contagious, there’s no sense in resisting it.”

In what is perhaps the most opposite to Furious 7 you could get comes Effie Gray, (57) a costume drama written by and starring Emma Thompson. I actually read about this story in a book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Effie Gray was married to John Ruskin, the art critic, but the marriage had not been consummated, and, when the marriage was to be annulled, doctors “checked” to make sure she was still a virgin. Ah, the old days. MIke D’Angelo: “Thompson makes Ruskin such a cardboard villain, playing on stereotypes of the cold, stuffy intellectual, that she turns Gray’s story into a tastefully dreary domestic-prison saga.”

As James noted last week, Wild Tales (77) opened in Connecticut, and it’s hear in Vegas now, and I hope to catch it before it goes. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year, a comedy from Argentina that Rob endorses. Oliver Lyttleton: “It’s crisply and cleanly shot throughout, and the filmmaker shows a rare feel for how to not only make comedy land, but also to make it actually feel cinematic too.”

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 27th, 2015

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It Follows: This indie from director David Robert Mitchell is getting some of the best reviews in years for a horror film. Weinstein/Radius originally intended for It Follows to have a brief, under-200 screen release from March 13-27th before it hit VOD platforms.  Due to the film’s exceptional performance thus far, they’ve instead decided to delay the home release and open the picture on 1000 additional screens this weekend.

It should open in 5th place, which is pretty solid given the lack of stars and traditional marketing efforts.

Rotten Tomatoes: 95%, Metacritic: 83%

Personal interest factor: 10

Get Hard: Generic-looking Will Ferrell / Kevin Hart vehicle about a white collar criminal who hires the man who washes his car to prepare him for a stint in prison. Looks like something that Ferrell would have starred in circa 2005 when he was making stuff like Bewitched and Kicking and Screaming.  

Rotten Tomatoes: 32%, Metacritic: 34%

Personal interest factor: 2

Home: I think everyone expected this half-assed seeming effort from Dreamworks Animation to serve as yet another nail in the coffin for the ailing studio.  Instead…it’s a big hit!  What the hell?!

The picture, which stars a who’s who of insufferable celebrities voicing aliens or something, should enjoy a 55-60m opening weekend.  That would be Dreamworks’ highest opener since 2012’s Madagascar 3.  Go figure.

Rotten Tomatoes: 48% Metacritic: 55%

Personal interest factor: No.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 20th, 2015

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Insurgent: Quickie sequel to last year’s YA sci-fi hit.  The marketing for this entry has confused the heck out of me (they seem to be playing up some unexplained dream sequence in every single ad) to the point where I have no idea what the actual plot is, despite having seen the original only a month or two back.  It also looks much cheaper than the original, although I doubt less money was spent.

Divergent’s Director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) has been replaced by RED’s Robert Schwentke for the remainder of the series. Schwentke started off “ok” with a Jodie Foster thriller (Flightplan) before bottoming out with 2013’s R.I.P.D., which was very nearly a crime against humanity.  It’s incredibly impressive that he was able to rebound into a cushy, long-term gig like this so quickly.

Rotten Tomatoes: 35% (slightly lower than Divergent’s 41%)
Metacritic: 42 (Divergent scored 48%)

Personal interest factor: 7

The Gunmen: Sean Penn tries to pull a Liam Neeson on his career with this silly bullshit.  I have no idea what the plot is and can’t be bothered to look.  I’m going to say he’s a cop or soldier or DEA agent (most likely retired) or something who has to rescue/protect ________ from ________.  He will shoot people. Taken’s Pierre Morel directs.

Morel hasn’t had much luck outside of the Luc Besson world and there’s little to no chance of lightning striking twice with this kind of effort. We’ll always have the underrated District B13, though.

Rotten Tomatoes: 16%, Metacritic: 39%

Personal interest factor: 0

Wild Tales: Comedic Argentine-Spanish revenge anthology.  I don’t think I’ve ever typed that before.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Metacritic: 77%

Personal interest factor: 8

Song of the Sea: Hand-drawn, full-length animated feature from Ireland about magical, shape-shifting seal/human hybrids.  Probably not as Cronenberg-esque as I made that sound. The trailer is very pretty and the reviews are terrific.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Metacritic: 85%

Personal interest factor: I don’t know what to make of it.  I certainly admire it but it’s probably not my bag.  Here is a video of a baby seal falling asleep.

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running Silence of the Lambs Darko (1991) Friday and Saturday evening and The Apartment (1960) Saturday and Sunday morning.

Review: Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

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MOTOEThe 1974 film version  ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ is arguably the most famous and successful of the plethora of films created from the works of revered crime writer Agatha Christie. It was both a critical and commercial success, with it getting several Oscar nominations and winning one for Ingrid Bergman as Best Supporting Actress.

Viewed today, MOTOE is an enjoyable watch although the context of the film and peripheral issues surrounding it are arguably more interesting than the film itself.

The plot concerns famed detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) travelling on a luxurious train through Europe in the 1930s. When the train is stalled in a snow storm, a mysterious businessman (Richard Widmark) is murdered in his cabin and there are 13 potential suspects that Poirot has to examine to find out who the culprit is.

Unlike a lot of film adaptations of Christie works, MOTOE was an all-star lavish affair. There would be few films from any era that would have as impressive as a cast as this, with half-a-dozen Oscar winners and several others getting Oscar nominations.  The cast covered several generations of cinema ranging from the Golden Era of Hollywood (Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall) to those at the peak of their careers (Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave). If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for such a high-quality cast together in one area do their thing.

As a film, MOTOE has an atypical feel for a 1970s film, and not just because of its period setting. The film has a classic, old-fashioned style with none of the trendy tricks of 1970s cinema present. And its deliberately slow, stately place makes it feel like a film from an earlier era. (As an aside, the jarring 1970s hairstyles of numerous extras is the only sign of what era the film was made)

There is much to enjoy this film, and this includes the maligned performance of Finney as Poirot. Finney was criticised for making Poirot a cruder character than how he’s portrayed in the novels but I feel Finney had a very well thought-out, specific take on the character. In the early scenes before he boards the train, he portrays Poirot as vain, cumbersome and rather difficult. When the crime takes place, Poirot is transformed as he is in total command and control and is always a step ahead of everyone. This is a person who lives for criminal deduction and little else. It is a fine character performance.

But with such a cast, there’s something to enjoy from all involved, ranging from the entertaining hamminess of Lauren Bacall to the deftness  and subtlety of John Gielguld and Vanessa Redgrave.

Is MOTOE a great film? Not quite because the features that made this work so well as a novel (in particular the famous twist ending) just doesn’t work as well in cinematic form. Christie’s resolutions were so inventive and elaborate that in film form they seem hard to replicate convincingly.

As well, the conventions that Christie employed so often in her work (each suspect interviewed individually, Poirot providing a lengthy and elaborate explanation in front of all the suspects before revealing who the guilty party was) seem a bit stodgy and unlikely as a film, even in one as lavish and classy as this one. The characters and the situation itself seem stock types, not real flesh and blood characters so while one is fascinated to know what the resolution is, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

And on a broader level, this is perhaps why adaptations of Christie novels and play have disappeared from cinema since the 1990s and reside on television instead (and very successfully too). Their conventions and structure seemed more suited to regular TV movies instead of one-off cinema films where their conventions were less likely to interest modern audiences.

Another interesting aspect of the making of this film is the director of it, Sidney Lumet. At first glance he seems one of the least likely directors to helm a film like this, especially as someone who became known for his tough, gritty realistic New York crime dramas.

But in fact MOTOE has a very similar structure to Lumet’s great early success ’12 Angry Men’. A group of characters confined to one place forced to interact over the issue of a major crime with many uncomfortable truths about the characters revealed to others.

Lumet is in fact in his element with this film and adds much to its quality with his subtle framing of conversation scenes, providing interest and insight where other directors would merely point and shoot. In anycase, it’s a tribute to Lumet’s skills that in the space of a couple of years he could helm films as diverse as Dog Day Afternoon, Network and this film with such aplomb.

Overall, MOTOE is an enjoyable throwback to an era when Agatha Christie mysteries were box-office gold and that it wasn’t just Irwin Allen disasters films in the 1970s that boasted such talented cast lists.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 13th, 2015

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Cinderella: This live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella, from Director Kenneth Branagh is earning praise from critics (82% on RT and 65 on Metacritic) and should be good for an opening weekend in the 70-75m range.  It’s nice to see Branagh recovering from countless years of creative missteps.  The 90’s are back, baby! Reviewed by our own Joe Webb here.

Preceeded by the all-new Frozen short, Frozen Fever, which I paid full price admission to see with my three-year-old (only $2.50 per minute!) before leaving.

Frozen Fever is a pure check-all-the-boxes approach to filmmaking (Can Anna and Elsa sing some instantly forgettable b-side?  Check!  Do we have endless callbacks to the original film?  Check!  Have we introduced new character(s) that can be sold as plush dolls?  Check, Check, Check!) but it’s harmless enough.  Here’s hoping a little more care and effort goes into the recently announced sequel.

Personal interest factor: 7

Run All Night:  Liam Neeson takes on Ed Harris for the life of his son in this reunion with his Non-Stop and Unknown director, Jaume Collet-Serra.  The increasingly prolific Neeson is banging out two of these action pictures a quarter now (Taken 3 only opened in January) and you’ve got to wonder if that’s to blame for Run All Night‘s poor 11m opening weekend.

Still, the man has successfully completed one of the greatest reinventions in motion picture history. I’m curious which 30-40 year old actors will try to follow his model a decade or two from now.

In response to Run All Night‘s grosses, I’d expect Neeson will be signing on to both a Non-Stop sequel and Taken 4 sooner rather than later.

Rotten Tomatoes: 55%, Metacritic: 58

Personal interest factor: 6

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Golden Globe nominated Israeli divorce drama. I’d never heard of it before today but those RT and Metacritic scores are pretty damned impressive.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Metacritic: 92

Personal interest factor: 8

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running Donnie Darko (2001) Friday and Saturday evening and True Grit (1969) Saturday and Sunday morning.

Review – Cinderella (2015)

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CinderellaThe reason I love the new Cinderella movie (opens today) may sound like damning with faint praise, but I do love the film because it is mostly unextraordinary. It does not elevate itself far above the original or Disney retelling, nor does it reinvent the heroes & villains by having them swap roles. We do not suddenly root for the evil stepmother or against the prince because of a retconned backstory. No, director Kenneth Branagh & writer Chris Weitz wisely heed the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I understand that my opinion may be in the minority but, as I alluded to in my Maleficent review, the ‘Once-Upon-A-Timing’ of classic Disney properties has worn thin with me. With that in mind this new Cinderella was like a breath of fresh air because it was simply freshened up, not gutted, demolished, and rebuilt. The story tracks very closely with the 1950 Disney classic, but expands on certain details. It’s the nuances that are new; not so much the characters or their personalities.

In the lengthened beginning Young Ella lives an idyllic life (somewhere seemingly close to France) with her father (Ben Chaplin), mother (Hayley Atwell), mice & Mr. Goose (The young girl talks to animals but they don’t necessarily talk back…until the Fairy Godmother holds court). Tragedy befalls the mother and she is allowed a final breath to impart these words to her daughter: “Have courage and be kind.” Ella repeats this phrase at key points throughout so you’re sure not to forget it.

Time passes and it’s time for the father to remarry. He chooses the widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings two bright-in-clothing-choices-only daughters – Anastasia & Drisella – and a cat to the household with her. The new stepsisters are immediately boorish & uncouth but her stepmother is cordial enough until the father suddenly takes ill while away on business. True colors are shown and the now (for all intents & purposes) orphaned Ella (Lily James) becomes the put-upon servant girl we recognize as Cinderella.

From here we know the story well – the King needs to marry off his son, a royal ball is called, the Tremaines sabotage Cinderella’s chances at attending said ball, the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter in subdued wacky mode, also on narration duty) arrives just in time to make a pumpkin carriage, Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) meet and fall in love at the ball (though she earlier unwittingly met the prince in the nearby woods – each not knowing the position of the other of course), the clock strikes 12, a slipper is left behind, etc, etc… These familiar notes make the film a very comfortable and safe fit, much like the iconic footwear. In fact, without the modern effects & techniques, I’d say this film would not be out of place were it released during the time of Disney’s first Cinderella.

So why make it? (I can hear you asking) This is certainly a valid question but I can only guess it is a way to introduce a new generation to an old tale told in classic Disney style. The film is visually gorgeous and there is some variance in the glass slipper denouement (including a reveal outside of Cinderella’s house that had many in my audience gasping in surprise) to keep things interesting. James is quite stunning as the titular character and ably & believably guides us through the journey she takes. Madden is aptly charming, young, handsome & fair as the prince. Blanchett’s Tremaine is clearly dastardly from the beginning but she is given a chance to explain her reasoning (even if it’s only valid in her own mind) at the climax.

Set design & costuming is exquisite and I imagine ladies young and old will be talking about Cinderella’s ball & wedding gowns for quite some time. CGI is thankfully minimal except when required for a rodent or magical transformation. This movie manages to be spectacular without becoming a spectacle for the wrong reasons. It does what Maleficent could not – update the story visually but leave it thematically intact.

Movies are very personal for me, with Disney ones being especially so, and this one plucked all the right heartstrings at all the right times.

My grade: B+

NOTES: Frozen 2 was announced today and while we probably won’t see that for another 2-3 years, there is a short entitled Frozen Fever that shows before Cinderella. It’s Anna’s birthday and Elsa wants to throw her a surprise party but ends up coming down with a cold. There are some cute & funny gags, but the C-level song & trite premise give this a completely rushed feel that is ultimately forgettable. And kids will eat it up! But if it gets them to drag their parents, grandparents or older siblings to go see Cinderella, then I’m all for it.

Book Review: Mad as Hell

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There are movie lines that live forever, and their creation is usually some kind of alchemy. For instance, the line “I’m as made as hell,and I’m not going to take this anymore!” came to writer Paddy Chayefsky, but he never thought it would stick in pop culture. Fortunately, for those who have seen it and loved it, as I have, there is more to his film Network than just that line.

Dave Itzkoff tells the story of Network, soup to nuts, in his book, titled of course, Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It is a straightforward account of how Chayefsky came up with the idea, how the film was cast and shot, and how it was received and remembered.

Network was a bundle of contradictions, the last gasp of an era of populist Hollywood filmmaking as expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement; it used the resources of one mass medium to indict another and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life,” Itzkoff writes. He starts with a biography of Chayefsky, who began in the Golden Age of television, and then transitioned to movies when his teleplay, Marty, was made into a film and he and it won Oscars. He had various successes and failures, including another Oscar for The Hospital in 1971, when he came upon the idea of writing about television.

Itzkoff covers this area well, getting his hands on Chayefsky’s notes and early drafts so we can see the evolution of the story. Chayefsky teamed with producer Howard Gottfried and the movie was shopped. Chayefsky suffered no fools and was not about to make changes, but the film landed at MGM, Sidney Lumet was hired, and the casting process began. There were three main characters: Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” Max Schumacher, the old-school TV producer who bemoans the changing world, and Diane Christensen, representing the new wave, where anything on TV can be sold like beer.

“For Beale, his mad prophet of the airwaves, he envisioned Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, Sterling Hayden, or Robert Montgomery; Max Schumacher could be played by Fonda or Hackman, or by William Holden; and Diana Christensen seemed ideal for Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, or Natalie Wood.” Holden and Dunaway would get the parts, but Beale went to the unlikely Peter Finch, an Australian by way of England and Jamaica who had to convince all involved he could do an American accent.

Itzkoff covers the filming on almost a daily basis, and notes such struggles as Dunaway’s recalcitrance, particularly about a sex scene with Holden. How much nudity there was had to be negotiated, and when Dunaway went back on it, she was almost fired. Another actor, Roberts Blossom (who would later play the old man in Home Alone) was axed as Arthur Jensen, the head of the corporation that owns the Network. He was replaced by Ned Beatty, who would utter perhaps the film’s second-best known line: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

Then we see the surreal events surrounding the death of Finch, who died in January of 1977, just two months after the film’s release. He left behind a Jamaican wife, and there was much discussion of who would be allowed to accept a potential Oscar. Peter Bogdonavich, who was producing the telecast, did not want a repeat of dark moments like Marlon Brando sending up a woman in Indian garb to refuse an Oscar.

The book then covers the reception of the film. It was hailed by some critics, such as Vincent Canby, and panned by others, such as Pauline Kael. The reception by the TV news industry was alarming to Chayefsky–he never intended it be an insult. He had received full cooperation of the networks before the film–he shadowed a network producer while writing–but almost the whole industry came down on him, even Walter Cronkite, whose daughter had a role in the film.

Network would be nominated for ten Oscars, including five of the film’s actors, tying a record. It also tied a record by winning three acting statuettes (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire), with Dunaway winning Best Actress; Beatrice Straight a surprise winner for Best Supporting Actress (her speech was almost as long as the length of her part), and Finch winning his posthumous award. Chayefsky accepted, but waved up Finch’s widow, to hell with everyone. Chayefksky also won for Screenplay, his third Oscar. The film lost Best Picture to Rocky, a much more feel-good enterprise.

Itzkoff devotes his last chapter to the prescience of Network. Almost everything that Chayefsky envisioned came true: television news is now completely entertainment. “Where nationally televised news had been a once-nightly ritual, it has since grown into a twenty-four-hour-a-day habit, available on channels devoted entirely and ceaselessly to its dissemination. The people who dispense these versions of the news seem to take their direction straight from the playbook of Howard Beale: they emote, they inveigh, and they instruct their audiences how to act and how to feel; some of them even cry on camera.”

What Itzkoff doesn’t touch on is that Chayefsky foresaw reality television, with the Ecumenical Liberation Army getting a weekly show in which they commit a new crime every week, cameras rolling. We haven’t gotten quite that far yet, but we’ve come close.

The film has made me want to see Network again, for the fourth or fifth time; it’s number one on my Netflix queue. It’s part of what we old-timers call the greatness of the 1970s, the best decade for American film, when good films actually were at the top of the box office: Network was one of the most profitable films of the year, while it probably couldn’t get made today.

And one fun fact to close: Finch did his “Mad as Hell” monologue in one take. They started a second, but he stopped midway and told Lumet that he didn’t have any gas left in the tank.

Opened in America on March 6 2015

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Chappie (imdb rating: 7.4) – This sci-fi film flopped badly in America over the weekend and having seen the trailer of it, not surprising to see why. It feels like there’s been a thousand robot/post-dystopian future type films in recent years (didn’t Hugh Jackman star in a robot film just a couple of years ago?). And having lines in the trailer like “People are always fearful of something they don’t understand” doesn’t exactly make it seem fresh either

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (6.9) – I saw the first film a couple of years ago at the cinema and was distinctly underwhelmed. I reckon the main reason it got good reviews is that critics (and certain audiences) are more likely to give a film a pass it has English acting royalty like Judi Dench & Maggie Smith. One thing this film and ‘Chappie’ have in common – both have Dev Patel in prominent roles

Unfinished Business (5.1) – As the IMDB rating indicates, the umpteenth critical/audience stinker for Vince Vaughan. His horrendous run of films in the past 10 years from a critical perspective have reached depths that Adam Sandler wouldn’t have imagined. He was still a box office draw for a while but those days appear to be long gone with this film getting no interest.

Road Hard (6.9) – After he falls on hard personal/economic times, a stand-up comic has to go back on the road. Written/directed/starring former ‘Man Show’ host Adam Carolla. Also good to see David Alan Grier in the cast who I remember fondly as Don ‘No Soul’ Simmons from ‘Amazon Women On the Moon’.

Merchants Of Doubt (7.1) – Doco about pundits who act as if they’re experts on topics such as climate change.

An Honest Liar (7.9) – Doco about famous debunker of the paranormal (especially Uri Geller) and magician James Randi. In Australia, Randi would be most well-known for this infamous appearance on an Australian talk show in 1980

Grey Gardens (7.7) – Re-release of famed 1975 documentary about an eccentric mother/daughter combo. The director Albert Maysles, only passed away just a few days ago.