MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

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THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2015)

March 5, 2015

second best exotic Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been about 4 years since the delightful first film, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel, was a box office hit. My review of that film was the first time I used the phrase “gray cinema” – describing a growing genre specifically targeting the aging population. Neither director John Madden nor writer Ol Parker have had much going on since, and they re-team for this sequel that should satisfy most of the sure-to-return core audience.

Spirited and energetic hotelier Sonny (Dev Patel) is back and has his sights set on expansion to a nearby second property. Most of the original residents are also back: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Diana Hardcastle. Lilette Dubey returns as Sonny’s mother, Tina Desai is now his fiancé, and Penelope Wilton resurfaces after dumping Bill Nighy in the first movie. New faces to the scene include Richard Gere, Tamsin Greig and David Strathairn, along with a few other lesser, but effective supporting roles.

A similar extended pre-opening credit sequence is again utilized to catch us up on the status of the regulars. Maggie Smith is now co-managing the hotel. Judi Dench is a buyer of local fabrics. Bill Nighy is a willing, but inept tour guide. Celie Imrie is juggling two wealthy suitors. Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are working – at jobs and at a relationship. Mr Patel and Ms Smith take a business meeting to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Strathairn with a design on financing the second property. Mostly the trip is an excuse for Dame Maggie to crack wise about us uncultured Americans, and few can deliver a one-liner like this lady.

It’s also on this trip, where Patel’s character begins a change in tone. In the first movie, his character was eager, naïve, pleasant and charming. This time, his ambitious nature is over-the-top and actually quite annoying (by design yes, but still annoying). This single feature affects the pleasant nature and unnecessarily puts us on edge and prevents us from connecting with a key character.

What’s very clear is that this film misses the structure of Ms. Moggach’s novel, and the numerous sub-stories come at us so quickly that every character is mostly surface level with no real depth allowed. The best exchanges are between Ms Dench and Ms Smith (one being 19 days older than the other), while poor Mr Nighy is treated like a wounded puppy for much of the story. Also lacking is the cultural clash so prevalent in the first, and instead we witness a group that has acclimated to the surroundings preventing any real interesting conflict – though the colorful sights of town are still amazing to see. The “high-speed” tuk-tuk chase adds an element of humor, and of course we get the Bollywood-style dance number at the end of Sonny’s wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Despite the flaws, there are still plenty of laughs and loads of charm, and it’s certainly a pleasure to see a welcome response to the question “Is age a barrier to happiness?”. The actors and the setting make this an enjoyable two hours, though some may question the attempt at a deeper philosophical approach at the end.

watch the trailer:

 


THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)

May 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The closest I can come to saying anything negative about the film is that it is a bit predictable, and I wish we had time to get to better explore these characters. That said, it is quite an entertaining ride to take with some of Britain’s finest actors. Filled with both comedy and insight, the Ol Parker script of the Deborah Moggach novel (“These Foolish Things”) may be the jump start to a new film genre … gray cinema.

In the pre-opening credit sequence, we get introductions to seven Brits who are all at a crossroads in life … each past the career stage (either voluntarily or otherwise) but not ready to disappear into a meaningless existence waiting to die. They each respond to an advertisement for a hotel in Jaipur, India which caters to the “elderly and beautiful”. Its biggest selling point is probably the low cost of retirement. Still, it’s an adventure of the scale most of our heroes have never taken.

We meet Evelyn (Judi Dench) as the recent widow who discovers her beloved husband left her a mountain of debt; Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) a hapless married couple who have invested their savings into their daughter’s internet company; Muriel (Maggie Smith) is a racist and longtime housekeeper for the rich who has been put out to pasture while in need of a new hip; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a high court judge who is fed up with responsibility and seeking to reconnect with a long ago lover; Madge (Celia Imrie) and Norman (Ronald Pickup) are the lonely hearts looking for love, or in his case, loving.

 They arrive at the Indian resort to be met by its proprietor Sonny, a wildly exuberant and overly optimistic Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire). Sonny has inherited the rundown property from his father and has huge dreams of turning it into a showplace for retirees from abroad … he literally wants to outsource old age for all the countries who have no use for the elderly. A sad truth for both the English and Americans.

The joy of the story comes from the transformation of each of the characters as they slowly discover more about the country and, in turn, more about themselves. Graham’s discovery is especially touching, while Jean’s takes a proverbial slap in the face from her long-suffering, quasi-henpecked husband Douglas. Even young Sonny learns about life decisions thanks to his guests and the actions of his mother and girlfriend.

With the general population aging, expect to see more films in this vein … aimed at the age group who is approaching the crossroads, but not yet ready to give up living. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has delivered a charming seriocomedy, but I expect others will take a more in-depth and analytical view at some point.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining story about some very interesting characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth study of the crossroads senior citizens face as their careers come to an end and a path must be chosen.

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THE DEBT

September 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Espionage thrillers can be so much fun in both book and movie form. Movies actually have a little advantage for the action scenes. Books clearly have the advantage in details, backstory and character development. What is frustrating as a viewer is when a movie starts strong and then crumbles under the weight of expectation … sometimes trying to make a bigger splash than necessary. Such is the case with director John Madden‘s remake of the rarely-seen 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.

 

 The story is centered around a 1965 mission of a trio of Mossad agents. Mossad is Israel’s CIA. These three agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are to capture the notorious Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), and bring him back for a proper trial of war time atrocities.

 

 Flash forward to 1997 and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the daring mission and the three heroes. The older version of the characters are played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan) and Ciaran Hinds (David). We are treated to flashbacks of the mission and how things took a wrong turn, but ended just fine. Or did they? There seems to be some inconsistencies with the story told and the actual events that have created much strain between Rachel and Stephan, and life-altering changes for the more sensitive David.

 This is an odd film because the best story parts occur when the younger cast members are carrying out the 1965 mission. It is full of suspense and intrigue. The intensity and believability drops off significantly in the 1997 version, but oddly, the older actors are much more fun to watch on screen … especially the great Helen Mirren. I am not sure what all of that really means, but for me, it meant the third act of the film was a bit hokey and hard to buy.

Director John Madden is known for his fabulous Shakespeare in Love, but not much else. His films since then have all come up just a bit short of that very high bar he set 13 years ago. Jessica Chastain continues her fantastic 2011 season adding this performance to her more spectacular turns in Tree of Life and The Help. Sam Worthington is known for his role in Avatar, but his character here is so thinly written, I doubt any actor could have pulled it off. Jesper Christensen seems to usually play the bad guy and he is in full glory here as a Nazi war criminal with no regrets.

The first half will keep you on the edge of your seat, but by the end you will have a somewhat empty feeling. What a shame as this one teased us with much hope.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: espionage thrillers are your cup of tea and you can overlook a few exaggerated details OR you want to see Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain if full-fighting mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need the attention to meticulous detail of Tom Clancy in your espionage thrillers

watch the trailer: