Friday, June 3, 2016

May 2016


     This outrageous satire of society’s bias against those without mates and the baffling lengths many go to find the “perfect” match manages to be both truly frightening and deceptively humorous.
     The dystopian setup is very straightforward: Those who have lost their mates, through death or breakup, are sent to a hotel resort where they have 45 days to find a suitable partner or be turned into an animal of their choice. Essentially, pair up or the world has no need for you.
       Colin Farrell, at his sorrowful best, plays David, a hopeless man with a bad back whose only enjoyment is playing with his dog (who once was his brother). Yet at the hotel resort, he seems like a great catch compared to two clueless guys he befriends (played by Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly). Turns out, the hotel is more like a prisoner of war camp; especially bleak are the dances that feature the soulless singing of the couple (the wonderfully dry Olivia Colman and Roger Ashton-Griffiths) who run the resort.
     In desperation, David, who is mostly identified, like everyone else, by their room number, hooks up with a heartless, unsmiling woman but that soon goes bad. He escapes the hotel (and his fate to become a lobster), joining an even stranger collection of runaways who hide in the woods. They live a “Hunger Games” type existence; in fact, one of the ways the hotel guests can extend their stay, and avoid become animals, is by shooting, with a tranquilizer gun, one of the runaways.
    Out in the woods and on short excursions into the city—where police are on the lookout for stray singles—Farrell falls in love with another runaway, played by Rachel Weisz. But they have to keep their feelings to themselves as the dictatorial leader of the group (Léa Seydoux) is keeping a close eye on them.
    Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou), a Greek filmmaker whose 2009 movie “Dogtooth” earned an Academy Award foreign film nomination, captures the awkward, often painful aspect of courting and society’s silent condemnation of  singlehood in this darkly funny picture.
     The entire cast fits perfectly into this absurd world but most memorable is Seydoux as the hypocritical “loner leader” who, while rebelling against society’s norms, is more intolerant than anyone. This intense French actress first attained notoriety in “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013) after a number of small roles in major films. Last year, she played the most interesting character in “Spectre,” opposite David Craig’s James Bond.
    “The Lobster” isn’t for everyone—frankly, I’m surprised it slipped into mainstream theaters this time of year—yet it offers the kind of head-scratching satire and twisted humor that David Lynch once brought to the cinema. Considering the state of England-language films, a dose of strangeness is exactly what the big screen desperately needs. 

       Please, enough with the ‘70s L.A. private eye comedies. Last year, Paul Thomas Anderson weighed in with “Inherent Vice,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as a slyly clueless P.I. and now writer-director Shane Black doubles down with Ryan  Gosling as the dumb private investigator and Russell Crowe as a professional thug. Both movies had all the elements for entertaining movies but neither delivered.
       After “The Nice Guys” meet cute, they team up for what may be the most inane missing-person mystery ever devised, even for a comedy. Gosling’s Holland March has had no luck in tracking a girl named Amelia, who is somehow connected to a porn star named Misty Mountains, who dies in a very tacky opening sequence. Crowe’s Jackson Healy joins the effort to little effect, other than attracting attention and provoking fights.
      The humor wears very thin after the first 20 minutes and the filmmakers’ efforts to recreate the 1970s looks like the work of someone born in the 1990s. Black, who wrote “Lethal Weapon” and directed “Iron Man 3,” seemed to have imagined that revolving the plot around a porn film was more than enough ‘70s atmosphere.
      The only saving grace amid the gratuitous violence and flat characters is March’s 12-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who does a better job of sleuthing than either of the adults. Rice, in her first major film, displays a smart and spunky screen presence; though in real life she would be immediately removed from March’s house by child services.
      Both the violence and the “comedy” are over-the-top ridiculous and the script, considering Black’s long resume, plays like a first-time screenwriter’s attempt to be hip.
     Crowe and Gosling do their best but there is so little to work with here that it would have taken a roomful of detectives to find something interesting.

     This should have been to the football head trauma controversy what “Spotlight” was to the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal. Instead, writer-director Peter Landesman seems more concerned with making an attractive vehicle for Will Smith, who plays crusading pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. In trying to turn the complex story into a more simplistic one-man campaign against the most powerful organization in sports, the filmmakers suck (dare I say deflate?) the drama out of the story.
     Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant with more degrees than most college faculty staffs (he’s forced to recite them one time too often) works in Pittsburgh’s coroner’s office, run by the legendary Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). A more interesting film could be made about outspoken Wecht, who has waded into controversy after controversy since his research into the JFK assassination.
     Omalu first discovers what he believes is a connection between the continuous contact in football and a degenerative brain condition in 2002, after he does an autopsy on Mike Webster, the beloved former Pittsburgh Steelers and Hall of Fame center who died of unknown causes at 50 after a turbulent post-football life. Not only does the medical establishment belittle the findings of this small-town, foreign-born pathologist, but the NFL begins a smear campaign to stop any further investigation into the results of multiple concussions.
     Landesman (whose previous film was the excellent “Parkland,” about the hospital that treated both JFK and Oswald) and his producers deserve credit for not soft peddling the unconscionable actions of the NFL; the organization Wecht says “owns a day of the week” is portrayed as just slightly less intimidating than the Sicilian mafia. But the film, based on a magazine article and a book by Jeanne Marie Laskas, ignores any media coverage of Omalu’s study, not even suggesting that working the media would be a way around the NFL’s stonewalling. It’s as if the entire country can’t even imagine the idea that football might be dangerous.
     At points, the film plays more like a bio of Omalu than a chronicle of the concussion issue. His romance and marriage just distract from what should be the film’s focus. Smith gives a good, if somewhat self-conscious, performance as Omalu, capturing his resolve and intelligence. Brooks has some excellent one-liners while Alec Baldwin is effective as the former Steelers team doctor who regrets not speaking up years ago.
    Of course, in the in the intervening years, the NFL has slowly accepted the findings (after mounting deaths and problems of ex-players) and are in the midst of settling a billion dollar lawsuit by former players over the issue. In addition, the league has made numerous rule changes over the past few years to lessen the head-to-head impact that can be so damaging to players.
     “Concussion” fails as an interesting film, but, at least, shines a light on a issue that needs to be talked about in every home where parents are thinking about allowing their son (or daughter) participate in football. Like smoking, the industry in charge has for too long ignored questions about health and safety, keeping the paying public in the dark.

    Hollywood’s mystic-philosopher king, Terrence Malick, after flirting with non-narrative expressionistic filmmaking in his previous two pictures, plunges headfirst into the avant-garde with this new cinematic concoction.
    Playing like a full-length trailer for another, much more interesting film, “Knight of Cups” never gets to the point where it settles into anything resembling a story. Part character collage (lead actor Christian Bale speaks almost entirely in voice over), part travelogue of Los Angeles (the character rolls through the area like a sailor on a three-day leave), the movie seems to be about the pointlessness of the life of a successful screenwriter (Bale), the most disaffected movie character since, well, Ben Affleck character in the last Malick film, “To the Wonder.”
     Other than sleeping with a series of razor-thin model types, Bale’s Rick does little but drive around and look intensely thoughtful. If he really is a screenwriter—there was nothing in the film that convinced me of this so I assume it’s in the press notes because that’s what other reviewers wrote—he doesn’t work much as he’s never shown with a computer, a notepad or a pen. And the other roles of a screenwriter—taking meetings—all occur outdoors in cold, vaguely familiar public places. His agent-manager, who seems to be arranging work for him, says nothing concrete and we are never privy to a conversation between the two.
    The plot, if you can call it that, has something to do with his brother (Wes Bentley) and their contentious relationship with their perpetually angry father (Brian Dennehy). Malick turns the sound down when the three of them are actually conversing, to make sure, I guess, the story doesn’t become too clear.
   I spent most of the movie identifying the streets and buildings as Rick wanders the Southland. The impeccable Emmanuel Lubezki (winner of the last three cinematography Oscars) shoots L.A. and, for one sequence, the Vegas strip, as if it’s incoherent architecture that’s killing the soul of America.
       Malick’s film bears much similarity to the most recent cinematic statement by French master Jean-Luc Godard, “The End of Language,” which I subjected myself to recently. This and Godard’s other hard-to-grasp recent works all seem intent on dissing the state of Western Civilization, an easy target if there ever was one. Clearly, these two filmmakers are of the same mind: cinema, if it is to represent the truth of our age, must take on a form that erases the previous 100 plus years of the art.
          As much as I want movies to say something pertinent about our world, there’s no reason you can’t do it in a somewhat entertaining way. The question remains for these filmmakers: Do you want to reach 100,000 viewers or 10 million? With a bit of compromise, even Malick and Godard can probably find a following somewhere in the middle.
     It wasn’t that long ago that Malick, after his 20-year hiatus (1978-1997), re-emerged as one of the most creative filmmakers in America; his “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World” are among the best-made and thoughtful films of the past 20 years.
     But “The Tree of Life,” “To the Wonder” and now this have slipped into an area that makes Luis Buñuel films look like Harry Potter adaptations. For fans of “Tree,” image an entire film of just the Sean Penn segments—that perfectly describes “Knight of Cups”
     I’m all for art for art’s sake, and, in that spirit, I fully support Malick’s ventures, but I think he could be making a much larger impact if he caved a bit more to those ghastly vulgarities of commerce. 

MACBETH (2015)
     Among the handful of Shakespeare’s most important works, the Scottish play (as it’s known by superstitious stage performers), first performed in 1611, seems more relevant than at any time in its 405-year life. The play sustains as the virtual stone tablet of ruthless ambitious and the psychological effects of taking a life.
    Surprisingly, this is only the third major film production of “Macbeth,” and the first in 44 years. While there have been a few stage-to-video TV versions in the intervening years, it’s a bit baffling why this very cinematic play remains under-represented on film.
     Orson Welles’ 1948 version features plenty of stunning studio-bound images and some good performances but Welles miscast himself as Macbeth; he never looks comfortable in the role. And he’s not helped by the truncated version released by the studio; it plays like a Readers Digest version of the play.
     The 1971 version has moments of greatness and follows the play nearly line for line, but again fails to find the right actor for the title character (a very inconsistent Jon Finch) or his controlling spouse (a way too ethereal Francesca Annis). At its best, Roman Polanski’s film bristles with the superstitions, ghosts and mysticism that guide the characters. His witches are truly frightening.
     On paper, the latest adaptation looked to be the ultimate “Macbeth” film, with two of contemporary cinema’s finest actors, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the blood-thirsty couple. While they give good performances, for whatever reason, they never find the right balance of hysteria and deliberation and fail to allow Macbeth and his Lady to soar.
    The film frequently adds and subtracts from the original work with both good and bad results. For someone familiar with the play, it can be disconcerting when Macbeth, instead of speaking to the audience, is addressing another character.
    Even worse, director Justin Kurzel (his only other feature is the little-seen Australian movie “Snowtown”) and his co-screenwriters Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie drop virtually every speech that adds some needed humor to this dark tragedy. The wonderfully written role of the Doorman, who eloquently speaks of the results of drunkenness, is completed excised. Overall, the film’s tone is so subdued and the actors move at such a somnolent pace that the energy of the play disappears as quickly as Macbeth’s victims.
     Even the beginning and ending battles—referred to but not described much by Shakespeare—which offer filmmakers a chance to be creative, are given short shrift by Kurzel.
      Some of Macbeth’s most memorable speeches, including the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy is poorly staged; if you aren’t waiting for it, you could easily miss one of the most astute speeches on the transitory nature of life ever written in the English language.
     Maybe those unfamiliar with the play, probably the target audience, will find more to appreciate in this version. And for that group: The story begins after a battle (“when the hurly burly ends”) in which Macbeth heroically leads the Scots over the invading Norwegians. On his way home, a trio of “weird sisters” confronts him and his companion Banquo (the always reliable Paddy Considine), telling Macbeth that he is Thane (a prince or duke) of Cawdor and will be king. The witches inform Banquo that his heirs will wear the crown.
      Minutes later, the King’s men ride up to tell Macbeth that Cawdor is a traitor and he will take his place. The witches have now planted the seeds that will end in tragedy.
     When Lady Macbeth receives her husband’s letter informing her of all this, she immediately begins plotting. And then King Duncan (David Thewlis), who by all accounts in fair and loves Macbeth, arrives their castle or, in this version, collection of tents.
     Lady Macbeth convinces her reluctant husband that they must act now, asking the gods: “Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” Of course, Macbeth quickly finds that once blood is let, murder becomes the easy solution.
     The rustic Scottish landscape, looming dark clouds and very basic living quarters give the film a very realistic feel, but in some ways the actors seem diminished by the surroundings and lack the energy to move to the foreground.
     Shakespeare’s rather cynical view of humanity (“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”) rarely finds its footing in this “Macbeth,” which sorely lacks “sound and fury.”

        Jodie Foster, directing her fourth film and first since the Mel Gibson bomb “The Beaver” in 2011, dismisses all semblance of subtlety soon after the opening credits. Set behind the scenes of a bombastic television show on a financial network, the film initially grabs you with frenetic excitement of last minute preparations before the show, “Money Monster,” goes live.
      It actually calms down a bit when a nervous young man with a pistol sneaks onto the set and takes the show and its flamboyant host Lee Gates (a slumming George Clooney) hostage.
     Alternately satirizing and exposing (depending on your financial IQ), the picture proceeds to peel away the showbiz puffery that financial “news” shows have become and explains the real harm they can cause.
     As Kyle (a rather ineffective Jack O’Connell) pitifully explains to Gates and the riveted home audience, he invested all his inheritance into a “sure thing” Gates promoted on the show a few months ago. Now, under mysterious circumstance, the company’s stock has plummeted and the firm’s CEO is nowhere to be found.
     Julia Roberts plays Patty Fenn, the show’s producer, who remains incredible calm during the afternoon-long event, guiding Gates’ every move and orchestrating some actual journalism to determine why the stock price collapsed.
     The search for the CEO and attempts by his rebellious assistant to put things right all culminate in a ridiculous climax set in Federal Hall, one of the original sites of this American experiment the film tells us is on the wane; no doubt George Washington, whose statue abides at the entrance, was looking down in embarrassment.

        In Noah Baumbach’s second film of 2015, he continues to explore the difficulties of becoming an adult in the Twenty-first Century.
       Television, social media and the entire technology culture has turned society, at least American/Western society, into a collection of Peter Pan wannabes. Baumbach’s other 2015 film, “While We’re Young,” looked at a forty something couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who are seduced by a couple of 20ish adults into the hipster lifestyle and are thoroughly taken advantage of.  “Mistress America” is centered on Greta Gerwig’s Brooke, a high-spirited, over-confident New Yorker who sweeps through life as if she’s the most successful and smartest person in the room. In fact, her life is a mess and she’s living in a fantasy world where everyone is against her. 
     The film shows her through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a friendless college freshman whose mother is about to marry Brooke’s father. They get together for drinks and immediate Brooke takes on the role as mentor of Tracy; yet, in fact, is the needier big sister.
      Tracy, a passive yet judgmental struggling writer, sees Brooke as a rather pitiful character who could provide the fodder for a short story.
       The film grows a bit tedious as Brooke attempts to raise money to open a restaurant after her partner drops out. The last act of the film takes place at her ex-boyfriend’s house, where she competes with his equally self-important wife and other assorted characters. 
     I’m convinced that Baumbach should stick to writing and let someone more structured direct his films. Both of these new films, like his previous ones—“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg”—ultimately fall short of expectations because of flimsy structure and an inability to stay focused.
     Gerwig, who has been in a relationship with the director since around the time she co-starred in “Greenberg,” has clearly become Baumbach’s Diane Keaton.  Her breakthrough role was as the title character in Baumbach’s “France Ha,” a film that, like “Mistress America,” she co-wrote with him.
    In these three roles she has perfected the child-woman character, creating women who are simultaneously irritating and irresistible.
     Baumbach, still shy of 50, may still put it all together; he’s one of the few writer-directors who has both the insight and inclination to examine a generation (born in the late ‘70s and 1980s) struggling to find a place in the adult world.