All the Money in the World

February 4, 2018 at 10:05 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I have to be honest that the only thing that drew me to this movie was curiosity. I have known all the salient information about the Getty kidnapping for many years and was never all that interested. But, I wanted to see how seamless this movie was after having to reshoot the Kevin Spacey scenes a few weeks before the release date. I must say that I was surprised. I had assumed the the JP Getty role must have been an extended cameo with two or three scenes. However, he was one of the film’s three pillars. It is incredibly impressive what Ridley Scott and his actors were able to pull off in so short a time. And, in particular, that Christopher Plummer was able to breathe life into this role with so little prep time, was particularly impressive. In fact, that “gimmick” is impressive enough that it threatens to overshadow the film as a whole. I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is actually a pretty good film overall. Covering the 4 months of Paul Getty’s abduction, the film shifts back and forth between it’s three central characters: JP Getty, Paul (his grandson), and his daughter-in-law, Gail. Michelle Williams is the best thing in this film. Her Gail had an unrelenting determination, born of desperation, that drove the entire story. Mark Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chase could have easily been the center of the film, tying the disparate parts together. However, Wahlberg simply isn’t up to the task. Of the lead performances, his was the most wooden; he could have been playing any other character he has ever played. Instead, the energy focuses on Williams who is able to convey a full range of Gail’s emotions with ease: sadness, fear, delight, exasperation, a wry humor… the list goes on. Williams is one of the better actors in Hollywood and it shows every time she’s on screen. Young Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) played the ransomed grandson. I have never seen him before and he has mostly had bit parts until now, but, as Paul, he was vulnerable and very relatable. As for the other Plummer, his JP Getty was steely, calculating and cold. He seemed perfect for the role, but I found it hard not to speculate what Spacey’s performance would have been like in each scene. His “evil” characters tend to be so much more snide and condescending. I hope I can one day see those takes. The story moves along at a steady clip, creating far more drama than I would have thought, given that the outcome was never in doubt. Scott shot the film in lots of yellow light and the screen was a wash of browns, golds, and other soft, warm colors. It had a sense of Italy (where it was shot), but it also had a real sense of the ’70s, like you were looking at one of those old faded photos from the era. I think it’s important to note that the film is a dramatization of real events. In the real world, it was Paul’s father (not his mother) who did all the negotiation with JP Getty. I have no idea why that was changed, other than to highlight the power differential more starkly. And, the entire ending is pure fiction, and not particularly good fiction. I think we would have been better served by a less melodramatic and more honest wrap-up. It’s a shame; the truth is almost always more interesting. This was a solid film. It was well acted, beautifully shot, and well-paced. But it isn’t anywhere close to one of the best of the year. I think most who see it will enjoy it, but I doubt anyone will feel the need to see it twice.

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Wonderstruck

October 29, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I first heard of Todd Haynes in the very early 90s. His college film project “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was famous. You can find the entire short film here and it is well worth watching. He was also part of the New Queer Cinema movement with 1991’s “Poison,” and has followed that one with multiple period pieces that look at repressed sexuality (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven,” “Carol”). He knows how to create the mood and feel of a particular place in time. Though this film has not got a drop of any sexuality in it, it definitely has that same sense of place. This is a story in two parts. The first takes place in 1927 as a 12 year old girl arrives alone to New York City. The second part takes place 50 years later, in 1977, as a 12 year old boy does the same thing. These stories weave back and forth as the two kids’ lives parallel each other. The film was at its best when it was comparing those two worlds. Haynes did a masterful job of creating two different versions of the same city and both felt truly authentic. In particular, I loved the scenes shot in the Natural History Museum. I would have loved those scenes to have been a much larger part of the film. It might have derailed what plot there was but, truth be told, there really wasn’t much plot to begin with. In fact, the story line felt like the weakest part of the film. As the story focused on characters who are deaf, there was a great deal of silence and very little speaking. It was incredibly effective and gave the film an introspective, almost poetic, feel. However, that silence also meant that the importance of any dialogue was magnified. Here, more than in most of his other films, Haynes gets sentimental and a bit maudlin. As a result, the story stumbles a bit in the final scenes. It was at its best when it was focused on two kids, half a century a part, learning about the world. If he had stayed there, Haynes would have given us a moodier, more cryptic but, perhaps more moving, film. This one had its moments, but its adherence to a narrative arc robbed it of its energy. In the end, Haynes traded the beautiful mystery for sentiment.

Manchester by the Sea

November 27, 2016 at 9:41 am | Posted in 2016 | 1 Comment
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As we head into the thick of the holiday season (read the Oscar season), somber character studies start piling up like gifts faster than I can open them. I find no story more moving than one that tries to explore how real people deal with life, how we are strong and weak and succeed and fail, all at the same time. Here we have Lee Chandler returning to the town he has run away from in order to deal with a death and his teenage nephew. Stories like this work best when they remain small in scope and allow all the heavy lifting to be done by the actors. There is nothing flashy here, nothing that feels forced or unrealistic. In fact, I noticed several moments where another film might have gone for sentimentality but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Gang of New York”) pulled back each time. Instead, we get a film that is quiet, like its frozen landscape, but is crackling underneath with all the layers of grief. There is numbness and a biting, brittle sort of humor just under that, and then anger and deep sadness beneath both of those. These characters have such depth that all of those feelings can be seen all the time; even when they laugh (and the film is quite funny) it comes from pain. The story primarily revolves around the relationship between Lee and his nephew, played by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, respectively. Affleck is nothing like his older brother as an actor, in terms of pacing, cadence and energy. Perhaps as a result, he has had a difficult time finding his footing in Hollywood. His style of acting reminds me much more of his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, who I could have easily seen play this same role. Affleck gave what may finally be his breakout performance as he fully inhabits the shattered Lee. He is a man scarcely holding himself together who is now asked to do this big thing. The power of this film is in watching how hard he tries to do it. There is tremendous beauty in watching this suffering man trying to be brave. Hedges (who has had mostly small roles in films like “Moonrise Kingdom”) is also fantastic, as is the entire supporting cast, most of whom only have small roles. The always amazing Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Blue Valentine”) is hardly on screen but her character feels completely real, none-the-less. The most powerful scene of the film comes between her and Affleck and it devastates. The story is built on a grand metaphor: as we wait for the frozen ground to thaw enough to bury a body over the course of the film, we are also waiting for people to thaw and other ghosts to be buried. But, I warn you, don’t expect pat answers or comfortable resolutions. The journey this film, and these actors, takes us on feels always, painfully, just like grief in the real world.

Oz The Great and Powerful

March 18, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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½

Critics have skewered this film in relation to “The Wizard of Oz” but I must admit to not being a particular fan of that film either.  As most folks know, musicals are not well-beloved by me and I am also not much of a fan of Hollywood dramas of the Thirties; I find them to be saccharin and manipulative  (see “Gone With The Wind” or “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” as opposed to the brilliant German film of the era, “M”).  So, how to judge this film?  Well, it is not cloying or saccharin.  However, it is a modern Hollywood film, which is to say it plays by it’s own cynical formula; it is all surfaces and no depth.  The audience is treated to a constant barrage of fantastical images in colors so bright is puts Technicolor to shame.  3D (which is, of course, the new Technicolor) is as big a gimmick as color was in the first Oz film.  All sorts of things leap and pop, solely for the purpose of doing so.  In the place of actual character depth and emotions, we are given cuteness, in the form of a China doll and a talking monkey.  Yes, they are cute in the way that only small children and animals can be.  But, as with the rest of the film, there is nothing below that cuteness and, in the end, it only serves to highlight the emotional falseness of the film as a whole.  No real acting is required and none given.  James Franco is perhaps one of the most over-worked (actor, writer, director, poet, teacher) and over-rated (“Spider-Man?” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?”  Did he really have to do that much acting in “127 Hours?”) actors working today and he is in fine form here, so overplaying the grinning charlatan as to  add new meaning to “laughing at him.”   Even in green make-up, prosthetics and maniacal cackling, Mila Kunis’s voice is so hers that it was impossible not to hear Jacky from “That 70s Show.”  Perhaps, worst of all, I cannot even recommend the special effects of a movie built on them.  We have seen everything here before and, in some cases, done much better.  This isn’t the Thirties, so this film doesn’t end with any moral lessons about courage and love, thank god.  Instead, it ends as all of these movies do, with a jaundiced eye open toward sequels and tie-ins.  Which is worse?  I honestly don’t know.

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