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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Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg


Two giants of stand-up comedy reunited.

(2016) Documentary/Comedy (Weinstein) Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Mike Binder, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg, Budd Friedman, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Larry Miller, Sheila Levine, Myrna Jacobson, Billy Crystal, Rick Overton, Lucie Arnaz, James Burrows, Allie Klein, Robert Mankoff, Jay Leno, Eric Bogosian, Michael Fuchs, Ray Romano, Bob Stein, Melanie Roy Friedman  Directed by Marshall Fine

 

When I was in high school (and I realize this dates me tremendously) there were three names that dominated stand-up comedy; George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. The first two became legends, cultural icons. The third became more of an influence on other stand-ups than he did a household name, although anyone who has seen any of his numerous HBO stand-up specials will attest to the man’s genius in the field.

Film critic and historian Marshall Fine has put together this loving tribute to Klein who quite frankly deserves to be feted. The documentary is very loosely structured with a number of chapters looking at aspects of Klein’s career and comedy. This does have the effect of leaping around chronologically which is fine but it also feels at times like there is no flow to what’s going on, which may well be an appropriate measure. He talks about his history somewhat; growing up in the Bronx (as in most retrospectives Klein visits his childhood home on Decatur Avenue), his time honing his craft in both Second City and at the Improv in Los Angeles, spending time being mentored by Rodney Dangerfield, his marriage to opera singer Belinda  Boozer and so on and so forth.

He also talks about why Jews seem to dominate the stand-up market, the use of profanity in his act and adjusting to the times. He imparts some of his experience to students at Binghamton University and endures squealing little girls who see the camera and exult in being in a movie – without having a clue of who Klein is (some of him recognize him from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Fine obviously feels a great affection for his subject and we don’t get a sense that Klein is anything but a nice guy. His divorce is given little coverage and although it appears that there was some acrimony between them, the causes and effects of the split on the couple are given little play. Boozer is conspicuously not interviewed for the film.

Of course, I’m a warts and all kind of guy and I want to get to know the man behind the laughs but that isn’t what this film is after and if you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay with this. There are a lot of wonderful clips here, including some of Klein’s signature songs like “The Colonoscopy Song” and “I Can’t Stop My Leg” from which the title of the documentary is taken. This is a pleasant diversion, a career retrospective for a performer who is as sharp at 75 as he was at 25 and continues to make us laugh today. There are fewer summations of a career that could possibly be better than that.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes a good case for Klein’s place in comedy history.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit of a mishmash.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klein was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the musical They’re Playing Our Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Starz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: From War to Wisdom

The Adventures of Tintin


The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin maps out his next move.

(2011) Family Adventure (Paramount) Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Tony Curran, Gad Elmaleh, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Kim Stengel, Sebastian Roche, Cary Elwes, Phillip Rhys, Ron Bottitta, Joe Starr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The children of Europe may be more familiar with Tintin than the children of the United States but growing up he was a favorite of mine and my sister’s. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi) in 1929, Tintin became a European sensation and a symbol of Belgian national pride until his run came to an end in 1976. Tintin continues to be hugely popular across the pond and while he did make some impact here in the States, his popularity is essentially centered in Europe.

Tintin (Bell) is a young reporter with a nose for news and an aptitude for trouble. He and his dog Snowy are roaming a local market when a model ship catches Tintin’s eye. When he buys it, a pair of gentlemen attempt to buy it away from him with one giving him a dire warning about danger from people “who don’t play nice.” That proves to be true.

The two buyers turn out to be Sakharine (Craig), a professorial and urbane villain and Barnaby (Starr), an Interpol agent who gets shot on Tintin’s doorstep. Tintin’s detective buddies, Thomson (Pegg) and Thompson (Frost) are on the case but they seem more interested in finding a serial pickpocket (Jones) than anything else.

Shortly thereafter Tintin gets kidnapped by Sakharine’s flunkies Alan (Mays) and Ernie (Crook) and brought aboard a dilapidated freighter where Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Serkis), the nominal master of the vessel whose ship has been stolen by Sakharine who paid off his crew and the crucial piece in the puzzle of the location of a fabulous pirate treasure and a centuries-old grudge.

This movie has been long-gestating with Spielberg, a long time avowed Tintin fan. Spielberg approached Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies to see about creating a CGI Snowy; Jackson in turn persuaded Spielberg to go the motion capture route (although ironically Snowy is a CGI creation). Jackson, also a Tintin fan from childhood, remained involved as a producer, a role he will exchange with Spielberg when the sequel is made once Jackson is through filming the two Hobbit movies he’s currently involved with.

Motion capture has had a checkered box office history with such films as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Mars Needs Moms. Tintin is already a box office success after doing tremendous business in Europe where it was released in late October 2011. American box office has been, in its first weekend of release somewhat tepid although it was never expected to be greeted with the same enthusiasm it was elsewhere in the world.

The look and feel is very much of an Indiana Jones film (which kind of brings Spielberg full circle) with a side dish of The Goonies and a heaping helping of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some people dislike motion capture because of the lifeless look of the human characters (whose faces are often masklike and the eyes lacking spark) but that’s not a problem here; the facial expressions are realistic and there are even times that you forget that you’re watching something generated by a computer.

Spielberg took great pains to make sure the characteristic look of the Hergé drawings are retained here, but they are certainly given three dimensions and are fleshed out (the opening credits, reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saul Bass-esque opening credits on Catch Me If You Can, look more truly like the original comics) which has also caused some purists to grouse.

The plot isn’t anything fans of the series will be unfamiliar with. It might be old hat for some, but to me anyway it never gets old to see an intrepid reporter up to his eyeballs in danger, beset by goons and involved in thrilling chases as they seek a fabulous treasure. This is what the old serials were all about and why I love them so much (and I’m not alone in that).

Bell makes an enthusiastic Tintin and does his job adequately; Serkis, however as the bumbling and alcoholic Captain Haddock is absolutely amazing. He is alternately comic relief and pathos, a man who lives with the burdens of his ancestry on his shoulders and finds himself lacking. There is a good deal of subtlety in his performance that is surprising in a film like this.

The point of this movie is entertainment and on that score it delivers big time. Kids are going to love this movie even if their sights are set on movies that have gotten more hype on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Tintin may not have the cache in the kid community that Shrek or Pixar might have but once kids give it a chance, they are going to be delighted. Adults will also find this fun and energetic enough to keep their interest. This isn’t quite as good as, say, Hugo but it makes for a great holiday movie to take your kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Nonstop action and adventure and the motion capture is photorealistic enough to make you forget from time to time that you’re watching computer-generated images.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little long and might be too intimidating for little kids.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action-adventure violence, a fair amount of drunkenness on the part of Haddock and some smoking here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a review comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin piqued his interest enough to investigate the artwork. He has had the rights to the series since 1983; this is the first time he has made a movie based on a comic book character and is also the first animated feature he has directed.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this should be seen in the theater if possible and yes, in 3D if you can.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)