WAKEFIELD (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for her screenplay to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Robin Swicord’s directorial debut of The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) was not particularly impressive. However, she bounces back nicely with this Bryan Cranston vehicle and one of the more creative scripts featuring internal dialogue that’s ever hit the silver screen. Cranston is showing a knack for selecting interesting projects, and he excels here as the high-powered attorney who spontaneously decides to drop out of society in a most unusual manner.

There is a ton of social commentary on display here with targets including married life, suburban living, career pressures, and self-doubt … substantially summed up with a line from Cranston’s character, “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put their life on hold?” As he proceeds through his new ‘unshackled’ and ‘primal’ lifestyle while observing the world unnoticed through the small window in his garage attic, much of his focus seems to be on discovering just who he is at his core, and what is the truth behind his relationship with his wife (Jennifer Garner). It’s as if he is asking “What am I?” while clinging to his previous life in a voyeuristic way.

Ms. Swicord’s screenplay is adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story and it’s sneaky in the way that it questions how we go about our daily life, and how one can “snap” emotionally if feeling unappreciated. It’s a showcase for the other side of upper middle class white privilege, as well as suburban alienation that is so prevalent (and ignored) today. By dropping out but staying close, Cranston’s character actually pays more attention to his family than he usually would if sitting next to them at the dinner table.

We are accustomed to a mid-life crisis involving a sports car, marital affair or sudden career change. It’s highly unusual for someone to actually “disappear”. It’s at that point where the narration really shines … it’s insightful, observational and thought-provoking. Beyond that, the comedic edge is laden with sadness. The story humanizes this pretty despicable guy – or at least a guy who does a pretty despicable thing. The score is in the style of a 1980’s Brian DePalma movie, which just adds to the unique cinematic experience. This is one to see for Cranston’s performance, as well as for Ms. Swicord’s commentary on today’s way of life.

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A QUIET PASSION (2017)

May 18, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a young woman standing strong during a critical moment at seminary school. It’s kind of a clunky start in an overly-dramatic and stagey sense for the film, but Emma Bell sets the standard for the future behavior of Emily Dickinson. What follows is a period drama with minimal costuming effects, but rather a fitting onslaught of language and words – most of which comes courtesy of Ms. Dickinson and her mighty pen.

I’ve often viewed Emily Dickinson as an early feminist whose beliefs and intentions were stifled by the era in which lived, as well as the depression that seemed to cloak most of her days. She was definitely an odd/unusual person and clearly stood for women’s equality at a time when her own poems were published anonymously to avoid scandal and backlash for the paper. Writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea, 2011) shows interest in glamorizing neither the times nor the writer, and Cynthia Nixon seizes the opportunity to capture the essence of a gifted woman who at best, could be described as a societal misfit and a genius.

The terrific cast also includes Keith Carradine as Emily’s proud father, Jennifer Ehle as her (yin-yang) sister Vinnie, and Duncan Duff as brother Austin. Emily’s rare forays beyond familial boundaries are mostly via garden strolls with her wise-cracking friend Miss Buffum, played with zeal by Catherine Bailey. There is also a tremendous 3:00am scene between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May), which provides the best possible self-analysis by Ms. Dickinson (outside of her writings). She confesses to her new family member, “You have a life, I have a routine.” This insightful line seems to carry no sadness for Emily.

The first third of the film features some low-key zingers that rival anything from Whit Stillman’s superb Love & Friendship, though the balance of the film takes a turn towards the serious and somber while focusing more on Faith and Death and Emily’s controversial stances. She embraces the label of “no-hoper” and continues on with her observations of a life she barely leads. While the language and words are the stars here (along with Ms. Nixon), there is a very cool effect as the characters seamlessly age before our eyes in a series of portrait poses, vaulting the timeline headfirst into Emily’s descent into self-imposed isolation. It’s a very well done biopic that requires your ears be in prime form.

Ms. Dickinson died in 1866 at the age of 55, and the film helps us understand that the contradictions and confusion associated with religion does not solely belong to our modern times. This might best be explained when Emily’s aunt wins an argument by proclaiming that “hymns aren’t music”. Mr. Davies delivers a small film that is large in thought and beautiful in look.

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WHISKY GALORE (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There’s good fun to be had in watching director Gilles MacKinnon’s and writer Peter McDougall’s remake of the 1949 comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick and writer Angus MacPhaill, based on the novel from Compton MacKenzie. Whew! Is that enough ‘Macs’ for you? The story takes place on an isolated Scottish island of Todday during WWII, and is loosely based on true events of 1941.

Not only is the community geographically isolated, it’s also mostly insulated from the rationing and hardships caused by the Great War. All that changes when the last bit of whisky is guzzled, leaving the locals “in terrible shape” with nothing to drink but tea (uttered with equal parts disgust and disappointment). Even though it was Irish and not Scottish, if you’ve seen Waking Ned Devine (1998), then you’ll have an idea of the comedic style – mischievous wry humor rather than hysterical slapstick.

The key locals include Gregor Fisher as Macroom, single father to two grown daughters Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick). Of course, where there are two lovely daughters, there is likely to be love in the air. Filling these roles are returning war hero Sergeant Odd (Sean Biggerstaff) and George (Kevin Guthrie), the son of a local ultra-Calvinist mother. Eddie Izzard plays the all too serious Home Guard Captain Wagget, while Fenella Woodgar spouts some of the film’s best one-liners as his wife.

When a cargo ship carrying 50,000 cases of whisky crashes just offshore, the locals begin plotting how to rescue the bounty and return normalcy to their daily lives … all while observing the Sabbath and gazing wistfully at the ship from dry land. There is also a funky sub-plot that ties into the story of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Spencer, but this is mostly a story of local ingenuity and inspiration set to the beautiful music of Scottish bagpipes and violins (from composer Patrick Doyle). The quaint setting and predicament make for whimsical fun and some nice laughs … just remember to change the password if you are guarding the road.

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CHUCK (2017)

May 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That guy could take a punch.” It’s supposed to be a compliment and knowing nod to the machismo and toughness so valued in the world of boxing. Instead that trait is responsible for the two claims to fame for heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner: he shockingly went 15 rounds (minus 17 seconds) against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar winning movie Rocky.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and the four co-writers (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristopher, Liev Schreiber) spend very little time in the boxing ring or with the usual training montages, and instead focus on how Wepner’s ego and inability to handle fame affected his family, his health and his life. This is a portrait of Chuck the man, and it’s at times more painful than the barrage of punches Ali landed in Round 15.

Liev Schreiber is outstanding as ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, the disparaging (but accurate) sobriquet that stuck with Wepner – thanks to his propensity to bleed in most bouts. His self-motivation to “Stay up Chuck” against Ali (played here by Schreiber’s “Ray Donovan” brother Pooch Hall) is what became the foundation for Stallone’s Rocky screenplay. There are a few terrific scenes with Wepner and Stallone (a spot on Morgan Spector) as Wepner desperately tries to latch onto the Rocky bandwagon, going so far as to introduce himself as “the real Rocky”. It’s tough for an actor to get Oscar consideration for a performance in the first half of the year, but Schreiber is worthy.

It’s not the first time we have seen the pitfalls of instant fame and celebrity status, and even though it’s a true story, there is a familiarity to it that makes the plight of this lovable lug quite easy to relate to. Wepner’s blue collar narcissism may have been the cause of much of the pain in his life, but it also allowed him to become a folk hero. His connection with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight provides all the personality profile we require to grasp Wepner’s make-up.

The supporting cast is strong. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan is his hero-worshiping corner man and cocaine accomplice, Elisabeth Moss plays wrongly-done first wife Phyllis, Michael Rappaport is estranged brother John, and Naomi Watts (she and Schreiber ended their long-term relationship soon after filming) as his confidant and second wife Linda. Moss and Rappaport each have very strong scenes … scenes that remind us that these are real people and not part of some fairy tale.

Director Falardeau delivers no shortage of 1970’s cheese – wardrobe, facial hair, disco music, party drugs, and night clubs – but there is also enough humor to maintain balance: Wepner explains after the Ali fight how he tried to “wear him down with my face”. By the end we aren’t sure if Wepner was self-destructive or simply lacking in dependable counsel. Either way, the journey of self-discovery is even more interesting than the boxing career, and the film is punctuated with closing credit footage that provides viewers with a sense of relief. A tragic ending has been averted, and Chuck remains a local Bayonne, New Jersey resident – even if he’s no longer a bleeder.

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NORMAN (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the subtitle, ‘The Moderate Rise and Rapid Fall of a New York Fixer’, writer/director Joseph Cedar removes one layer of the mystery that otherwise envelops the lead character Norman Oppenheimer. We find ourselves somewhat sympathetic for the obviously lonely guy, while also accepting this as Cedar’s commentary on today’s real world obsession with networking. “It’s who you know” is the call of the business world, and few stake claim to more contacts that Norman.

Richard Gere stars as Norman, and we immediately notice his usual on screen air of superiority is missing, replaced instead by a fast-talking sense of desperation … in fact, Norman reeks of desperation. Cedar divides the film into four Acts: A Foot in the Door, The Right Horse, The Anonymous Donor, and The Price of Peace. These acts begin with Norman stalking/meeting an Israeli Deputy Minister after a conference, buying him an $1100 pair of Lanvin shoes, and then tracking their relationship over the next few years as Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) ultimately becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and is embroiled in a scandal that directly impacts Norman.

It’s a terrific script with exceptional performances from both Mr. Gere and Mr. Ashkenazi (who also starred in director Cedar’s excellent Oscar nominated Footnote, 2011). Their awkward initial connection seems grounded in reality – despite the expensive gift. These are two men who dream big, but go about things in quite different ways. Other terrific actors show up throughout, including: Michael Sheen as Norman’s lawyer nephew; Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi; Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin and Josh Charles as businessmen; Isaach De Bankole as the shoe salesman; Hank Azaria as Norman’s mirror-image from the streets; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a disconcertingly quiet and calm Israeli investigator.

There are many interesting elements in the film – some are small details, while others are quite impactful. Examples of these include the whimsical music from Japanese composer Jun Miyake, Norman’s questionable diet, the emphasis on “Unnamed US businessman”, the twist on a simple question “What do you need?”, the recurring shot of the shoes, and the creative use of split screen montage during multiple phone calls.

Most hustlers don’t generate a great deal of success, and Norman is often an annoying, even an unwelcome presence. However, it seems clear he is well-intentioned, and despite a proclivity for fabricating facts, his sincerity makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure … one that by the film’s end, has accomplished quite a few favors that should have delivered the recognition and influence he so craved. Norman’s “art of the deal” may not be textbook, but it makes for entertaining viewing.

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THE DINNER (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, 2009) takes the source novel from Herman Koch and turns it into a checklist of items and people to detest. Rather than a cynical look at humanity, we endure a shrill commentary on white privilege, entitlement, misguided parenting, social media for millennials, and mental illness. If somehow the world and local news doesn’t feature quite enough ugliness for you, then Mr. Moverman’s movie should fill the gap – making Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) look like a light-hearted comedy by comparison. It’s definitely no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or even My Dinner with Andre.

Dinner for four at an over-the-top ostentatious restaurant is the setting, and aggravation is the sauce for each course – labeled on screen for our convenience as Aperitif, Appetizer, Main course, Cheese, Dessert, and Digestif. Richard Gere is Congressman Stan Lohman, a candidate for Governor and a slick politician in the midst of a battle to get the necessary votes for approval on his sponsored bill. He is joined by his second (yes it matters) and much younger wife Katelynn, played by Rebecca Hall. Rounding out the foursome is Stan’s estranged (and strange) brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), who is every bit as off-center as her husband.

These four have no real interest in sharing dinner time conversation, but the horrific actions of their teenage sons have brought them together for a strategy session. Michael (Charlie Plummer) is Paul and Claire’s son, while Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is Stan’s son with first wife Chole Sevigny. Video of their despicable and unforgivable act has been posted on YouTube, and now the four “adults” are convening to decide the best step for these “good kids” who just need help getting back on track. At least that’s what Claire would have us believe. In fact, if satire exists at all in this script, it surely would be in the fact that the politician is the only one to exhibit any semblance of moral fortitude in this situation. We even hear the incident described as “an unfortunate chain of events” … further emphasizing the film’s theme that EVERYTHING is political these days.

The film itself is often too-congested and convoluted. The flashbacks are messy and unnecessary, and the dialogue ill-timed and seemingly written for shock value rather than with situational purpose. No one does droll like Steve Coogan, yet his character spends the film sermonizing (with his running narration of a Gettysburg analogy) and showing no signs of humanity. The big reveal with his character is borderline shameless and insulting. Somehow we are left to ponder who shows the worst judgment – the teenagers or the adults. Evidently we are supposed to feel the moral outrage that all of society is now driven by politics, and in politics, “someone always gets hurt”. Personally, if I have outrage, it is directed at a manipulative film that stole valuable time from me.

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IN SEARCH OF FELLINI (2017)

April 30, 2017

USA Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even In this age of “helicopter parenting” it’s disconcerting to see such flagrant over-protectiveness as that perpetuated by Maria Bello’s character on her daughter Lucy. For film lovers, it’s even more disheartening to see how the mother uses “happy ending” movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life to create the social bubble that results in 20 year old Lucy having never been kissed, and having no concept of reality (outside of what she has seen in movies).

Contrary to what that set-up would have us believe, director Taron Lexton’s film is actually less Coming-of-Age and more ‘Welcome to the Universe’, and Lucy’s journey of self-discovery is quite enjoyable to behold. Co-written by Nancy Cartwright and Peter Kjenaas, it’s the ‘based on a true story’ of Ms. Cartwright’s own personal journey prior to her nearly 30 year run as the voice of Bart Simpson.

Lucy (Ksenia Solo, Black Swan) is off on an interview-gone-wrong when she stumbles into a Fellini film festival. She is immediately entranced by the obscure imagery and often less-than-happy endings. In fact, she connects with the films in such a manner that she is inspired to travel to Italy and meet with the Maestro himself. Ms. Cartwright’s real life motivation stemmed from watching Fellini’s La Strada (1954), and she instantly saw herself in Gelsomina (played by the spirited Giuletta Masina).

Her travels through Italy are filled with ups and downs, and Lucy crosses paths with good people and bad. It’s her first true life experience and we are along for the ride. The structure of the story is such that as Lucy is discovering life, her mother (Bello) is back home in Ohio slowly losing her battle with cancer while being nursed by her straight-talking sister (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe from “24”). Such contrasting elements would fit right in to a Fellini film.

At some point, most movie lovers experience the awakening that occurs when graduating from pleasant, feel good family movies to more esoteric and philosophical cinema. Fortunately, this awakening typically occurs before age 20 and does not require an international trip or dying mother to allow us to grow as a person. Ms. Cartwright’s willingness to share her story makes for interesting filmmaking and one of the more unusual coming-of-age (or Welcome to the Universe) twists that we’ve seen on screen.

**I couldn’t find a trailer to post