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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TIME OUT OF MIND (2015)

September 8, 2015

time out of mind Greetings again from the darkness. Poverty, mental illness and homelessness collide in this film from writer/director Oren Moverman (Oscar nominated for The Messenger). About the third time I asked myself if something was ever going to “happen”, it dawned on me that it was already happening. This is Moverman’s illumination of how society treats the homeless, and his vehicle comes in the surprising form of Richard Gere.

We follow George (Gere, making good use of his familiar facial tics and mannerisms) around the city as he bounces from vacant apartment to hospital to churches to second hand clothing stores … and finally to one of the city’s homeless shelters. It’s at this point where George befriends the talkative and seemingly helpful Dixon, played by the great Ben Vereen.

One of the key points the film makes is how the homeless are basically invisible to the rest of society. The characters describe this as being a cartoon – meaning, they aren’t even “real” people to the masses of NYC. Supposedly, Gere was in character on the streets and was passed by without anyone noticing. Vereen’s character helps George get on track for re-establishing his identity. See, without any form of ID, there is no welfare, food stamps, etc (except, of course, voting – a topic for another time). The only real sub-plot involves George and his estranged daughter played by the always excellent Jena Malone. She excels in her scenes with Gere, and provides the most sincere and affecting emotion in the film.

It’s a very odd movie, as there are numerous “quick hit” scenes that feature such fine actors as Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, Kyra Sedgwick, Geraldine Hughes, and Jeremy Strong. None are on screen for much time, but each help demonstrate the daily challenges faced by the homeless who are so dependent on the charity of others.

It takes a patient viewer to stick with Gere’s character as he comes to grips with his situation, but the camera work shooting inside/out and outside/in (through windows, doors, etc) provides visual interest, as do the lively and real sounds and movements of the streets of NYC. It may not pack the punch of The Messenger, but it’s further proof that Oren Moverman’s insightful projects deserve attention.

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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.

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ARBITRAGE (2012)

September 16, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t tread in the world of corporate greed, deceit and fraud that defines the now four years ago financial crisis. Twenty five years ago Gordon Gekko in Wall Street put a face to corporate greed. Writer/Director Nicholas Jarecki now gives us Robert Miller, as portrayed by Richard Gere, for the face of Wall Street fraud … the step beyond greed that Bernie Madoff made famous. Toss in a Chappaquiddick-type tragedy and it’s abundantly clear that Robert Miller is no modern day icon to be worshipped.  He does share with Gekko an overinflated ego and sense of importance.

No matter how much we would prefer it to be otherwise, there is something to the charisma and emotional power of the few who seize control as politicians, CEO’s and cult leaders … all subjects of recent films. During this film, we never once doubt that Gere’s Miller is a scam artist with power. A slick huckster if you will.  He is not a good guy, despite his warm smile as he says all the right things to his family and close circle of advisors. We are sickened that he is able to fool so many, and at the same time hopeful that we can avoid becoming another of his victims. Yet, the reason this story is so familiar is that it rings so true.

Watching Miller’s house of cards slowly crumble is both fascinating and nerve-racking. We aren’t rooting for him, but we still get caught up in his web of subtle deceit. His demented sense of “responsibilities” guide him down the path of betrayal … a path that stomps on his all-knowing wife, his ultra-trusting daughter, his sensitive mistress, and a young guy just trying to get his life in order.  And this doesn’t even count the faceless list of investors clueless to the white collar criminal wreaking havoc on their personal finances.

The strong supporting cast is led by Susan Sarandon as the wife, Brit Marling (Another Earth) as the daughter, and Tim Roth as the crusty NY Detective trying to catch the big fish. However, this is Gere’s film and he delivers his best in years. Gere has made a habit of playing guys that always seem to have something brewing beneath the surface.  Here, he actually gets to explode in full arrogant glory.  It’s also great to see Stuart Margolin, who was so entertaining as Angel in “The Rockford Files” back in the 70’s. Another interesting casting choice has long time “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter as the head of the financial institution looking to purchase Miller’s company.

Again, the individual pieces of the story are all quite familiar, but filmmaker Jarecki does a nice job of assembling the pieces in a manner that keep us engaged. It also works as an example of how the rules are different for the rich, and show how the worst of them even think they can, and should, get away with murder!

** NOTE: Richard Gere took over the lead after Al Pacino dropped out.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Richard Gere as the face of Wall Street greed OR you always enjoy a slick corporate thriller that offers up a villain to throw popcorn at (if movie popcorn wasn’t so expensive)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid any more thought concerning the financial crisis and those who stuck it to us (and still are)

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BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2009)

March 6, 2010

(3-5-10) 

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since Training Day became a hit, director Antoine Fuqua has been one of the director’s that escape harsh criticism from the Hollywood elite. He is a master of intense moments in time, but I believe many of his movies lack continuity to the point where the story seems to come second to adrenaline rushes. Brooklyn’s Finest is no exception.

The film follows the unconnected stories of three cops. Richard Gere is the stereotypical veteran cop who is one week from retirement, and begins the film with a gun in his mouth. Ethan Hawke is the desperate young cop whose family just keeps growing (his wife Lili Taylor is pregnant with twins) and he longs to provide better living arrangements. Don Cheadle is the undercover cop who, if he hasn’t already crossed the line, is dangerously close.

The best scenes are with Cheadle and Wesley Snipes, who plays a just released from prison hardened criminal. Their dialogue rings true for an undercover cop trying to play both sides and hold on to what’s “right”. If not for Ellen Barkin‘s histrionics, the worst scenes would be watching Richard Gere show off his full repertoire of three different facial expressions. Poor Ethan Hawke looks like no one let him eat or shower for 2 months prior to filming. The boy looks sad.

Even though we know it’s coming, the final act where the three stories intersect is pretty interesting and make for a satisfying shoot-em-up ending. Brace yourself for some hardcore street violence and language and a meandering soundtrack.  The film seems to funnel to the point that there is a very fine line between right and wrong for those in law enforcement.  I prefer to cling to the belief that this is a serious exaggeration.