Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Dawn Wall

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Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage may be laughing now but he won't be when he shows up on another Conan O'Brien Homeland Security Threat Alert sketch.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert, Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Cristian Iacob, Jai Stefan. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

 

This is a movie that is just going to make you stammer. On Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: “Didn’t they direct Crank? That-that-that was so good!” On Nicolas Cage: “But-but-but-but…didn’t he win an Oscar? Didn’t he make Raising Arizona? Peggy Sue Got Married? Adaptation? Valley Girl?” All true. Throw those expectations out the window.

Johnny Blaze (Cage), the Ghost Rider has fled the United States and his curse of turning into a flaming headed demon who extracts vengeance (and the souls) of those who deserve it which is pretty much everybody. He is living in the Balkans now, skulking in the darkness. He is approached by a drunken French priest named Moreau (Elba) who tells him that he is needed to help protect a young boy that the Devil is after; should he fulfill his end of the bargain, his order will help him get rid of the curse. Having nothing better to do and 90 minutes of screen time to fill, he agrees.

Said boy is named Danny (Riordan) and he is the son of the comely gypsy Nadya (Placido) who wants him back. Denis Leary-esque thug Ray Carrigan (Whitworth) – who has a history with Nadya – has managed to steal the boy after blowing up the Ghost Rider with a grenade (they just don’t make demons like they used to). Still, you can’t keep a good Rider down and Blaze steals the boy back which hacks the devil off .

Satan, going by the name Roarke (Hinds) – and he’s about as far from “Fantasy Island” as you’re going to get – is pretty cheesed off so he turns the dead Carrigan into Decay, a demon that rots everything he touches – everything except Twinkies which are immune. Take that, snack food naysayers – who knew an armor made of sponge cake and filling would grant the wearer immunity from demonic powers?

Anyway it’s all leading to a ritual that must be performed on the solstice blah blah blah blah blah…you know the drill. The odds are against them but you know ol’ Flamehead will save the day. This is, after all, a Marvel Comic book adaptation.

And folks, I’m here to tell you it is the worst Marvel movie since the largely unseen 1994 Fantastic Four film that was made to retain the rights to the comic for Constantin Films (who would finally make a big budget version in 2005), and that’s saying something. This is Steel bad. This is Catwoman bad.

Neveldine and Taylor have made some nifty action films but you get the sense they were hamstrung by the PG-13 rating imposed on them by the studio. While there is some of the out-of-control seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that characterized their first movies, mostly they resort to clever camera angles and loud pulsating hard rock to turn the movie into an hour and a half long Megadeth video. This isn’t nearly as much fun or free-spirited as their earlier works; not only is it not anything goes, it feels more like nothing does.

Cage has gotten his fair share of flack for his overacting, but he sets a new bar here. Remember those Conan O’Brien bits about Nicolas Cage performances being the new means of setting Homeland Security threat levels? Cage has produced a whole new threat level. There’s a scene where he interrogates an Eastern European Eurotrash club owner about the whereabouts of Carrigan that has simply got to be seen to be believed. I honestly believed his head was going to explode (and it pretty much does in CGI when he transforms into the Rider). And while we’re on the subject of acting, can we not find a juvenile actor who could act? Riordan delivers a performance that compares unfavorably with Jake Lloyd’s wooden extravaganza as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And no, that’s not something you want said about your acting.

In fact, much of the CGI owes as much to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes as it does to Marvel Comics. Cage’s eyes bug out like a wolf checking out a female – I half-expected a wolf whistle and an “Ah-OOOOOOO-Gah!!!” to accompany the transformation. He also spits out bullets machine gun-style at one of Carrigan’s thugs. When you can’t do a comedic scene as well as a 70-year-old cartoon, even with all the modern technology at your disposal, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

This is simply an embarrassment. I didn’t think the first Ghost Rider was as bad as it was made out to be but this one is far worse than you can imagine. Other than Placido who is sweet to look at, and Hinds who is at least having fun chewing the scenery as a Wall Street Beelzebub, and Lambert as a tattooed monk, there really isn’t a lot to recommend this movie, other than to serve as a warning that not all Marvel movies are necessarily good.

REASONS TO GO: Film is a bit better-looking than the first Ghost Rider.

REASONS TO STAY: Cage just…oh my God. Overacting doesn’t even cover it. Story is predictable and dull. Too much “look ma I’m directing” in the action sequences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some darkly disturbing images, and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eva Mendes was approached to reprise her role from the first movie but perhaps wisely she declined.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100. The reviews are a train wreck.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man (2006)

TATTOO LOVERS: Lambert sports a face full as do several of the other monks. Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn’t have any per se but his flaming skull would make a wicked awesome tat.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Shame

New Releases for the Week of February 17, 2012


February 17, 2012

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE

(Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Fergus Riordan, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

Johnny Blaze, the motorcycle stunt rider who made a pact with the devil to become his instrument of vengeance on earth has been laying low, trying to avoid people as much as possible so as not to activate his curse. However when agents of heaven inform him that Satan is attempting to turn an innocent boy into the Anti-Christ, he knows he must help – especially if his curse will be lifted should he be successful.

See the trailer, clips, an interview, a promo, a featurette and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Supernatural Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language)

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

(UTV) Imran Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani, Ratna Pathak Shah. A young Indian architect who has spent his life trying to please his parents loses his job in Las Vegas and decides to hide that fact from them while he finds another job. After a night of drinking, he wakes up married to a young hairstylist and now must also hide that from his parents before their annulment goes through ten days later. However, there is always that pesky love thing that seems to happen between the unlikeliest of partners in the unlikeliest of situations.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Secret World of Arrietty

(Disney) Starring the voices of Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett.  A young boy discovers a family of tiny people living beneath the floorboards of his home on whatever they can scavenge. Although contact between humans and these borrowers is forbidden, a fast friendship develops between the boy and a brave young borrower named Arrietty. This is the latest release from the acclaimed anime production company Studio Ghibli.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Anime

Rating: G

This Means War

(20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler. Two of the CIA’s best field agents are the best of friends. They know each other’s moves, protect each other and are closer than brothers. They would take a bullet for one another. The only thing that could drive them apart? A woman.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content including references, some violence and action, and for language)