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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Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost