Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

There's a certain finesse to being a bullshit artist. It requires a knack for weaving lies and managing to keep them all straight. It's also something where having a charming personality is crucial. (Losing friends in inevitable but who cares once you start going places?)

All of that sums up Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) of Joseph Cedar's Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer to a T. He schmoozes so much that he would make Sidney Falco look like an honest person. Of course, such schmoozing can only let one person go so far before it comes back to bite him in the ass.

We follow Norman in his usual routine as he tries to maintain a sense of orderly business. But a number of people he encounters reacts negatively to him, finding Norman perhaps a bit too desperate for their business. It's when he meets Israeli politician Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) that things start to take a turn for the better...at first.

There's an impressive of performers on display: Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi, Josh Charles and Hank Azaria. They all stand out when they have their moment in the spotlight (Sheen in particular) but this is Gere's show from the get-go.

As is the case with fiction featuring a political and/or business slant, one needs to stay alert throughout Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer to know what's happening. (The average person can only grasp so much in a single sitting.) Still, Gere (who's been getting a lot of consistent roles as of late) continues to show there's more to him than his leading man roles from the 1980s and 1990s.

My Rating: ****

Chuck

Sometimes the works of fiction we hold in high regard have a kernel of inspiration to them. Billy Wilder got prompted by a later scene in Brief Encounter and made The Apartment fifteen years later. And there are who knows how many songs ignited by what has happened in the songwriter's life.

Take also for instance boxing classic Rocky. The movie franchise that launched Sylvester Stallone to superstardom, it earned twelve Academy Awards nominations (winning three) and $1.4 billion in box office receipts. But as some may not know, Stallone got inspiration from a match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner.

Philippe Falardeau's Chuck focuses on how the success of the first Rocky movie went straight to Wepner's head. Already a minor celebrity in his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey, he expects those he comes in contact with to know who he is. But his inflated ego starts to rub those close to him the wrong way.

Of course Rocky plays a crucial role in the film but another boxing film that has a key role in Chuck is Requiem for a Heavyweight. (Wepner states at one point that it's his favorite movie, and he quotes it at other times.) Apparently Luis Rivera provides a more accurate portrait of Wepner than Rocky Balboa ever did.

Chuck is less of a biopic of a forgotten figure in 1970s sports than it is a display of how fame can be poisonous to some people. (Hey, A Face in the Crowd also proved this sixty years ago.) Liev Schriber continues to prove that he should be given more starring vehicles (though he's also good in ensemble pieces). But overall, this is worth a look.

My Rating: ****

Friday, May 19, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Lost City of Z

The thrill of adventure. We've read numerous books and watched countless movies over the years that capitalize such a feeling. And some of those fictional adventures were inspired by real-life ones.

Take for instance Percy Fawcett, During the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, he had a burning desire to discover new lands and the treasures they contain, But such an expedition he led into the Amazon in 1925 resulted in Fawcett and his companions -- his son Jack and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell -- disappearing from the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again. What has the Amazon been hiding for over ninety years?

David Grann's novel The Lost City of Z chronicles both Fawcett's feats of exploring and his own attempt to uncover what happened to the famed adventurer. (Grann was far from the only person to undertake such an endeavor; he's just one of the few to come back from it.) And he also writes about the obsession that followed Fawcett throughout both his life and in the decades following his disappearance.

Altering a few details aside (omitting Rimell from the narrative entirely, for instance), James Gray's adaptation follows what happened during Fawcett's many expeditions truthfully. But what Gray shows with his film is more than just a standard biopic or adventure flick; instead, it's a portrait on the depths of Fawcett's being. (And can someone cast Charlie Hunnam in more roles like this?)

So what's better: Grann's novel or Gray's film? Both works show the highs and lows of Fawcett's excursions, how his constant traveling began to affect his home life. But they also show that he was very much a human being, warts and all. (Not a very common aspect on stories about real people.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

BOOK VS MOVIE: The Zookeeper's Wife

There's no way in denying the lengths a society will go to keep their world "pure". The most egregious example from history is the Holocaust. Millions of innocent lives either destroyed or cut short, all for the appalling sake of ethnic cleansing. But even amid those atrocities, there were those who weren't going to let defenseless people suffer.

The most famous of these saviors amid slaughter was Oskar Schindler but there are those who, outside their native countries, aren't as prominent. Take for instance Jan and Antonia Żabiński. After their native Poland was invaded by German forces -- the catalyst for World War II -- they used their home and bombed-out zoo to help those escape from Nazi persecution. As a result, they saved nearly 300 people from certain death.

Diane Ackerman's novel The Zookeeper's Wife chronicles the Żabińskis lived their lives as the German army occupied Warsaw. In their many ways to conceal those in hiding, they had to be discreet about the extra people within their home while at the same time fighting and aiding the enemy. (They had to stay on their toes for a long time.)

As well as using Antonia's diaries for further details, Niki Caro's adaptation follows Ackerman's novel to the letter. That said, there are a few details clearly fabricated for the film. (The most glaring one are the scenes of supposed intimacy between Daniel Brühl -- who should probably invest in a different agent -- and Jessica Chastain.) Still, Caro tightens the reins on those as well.

Does Ackerman's account of the Żabińskis' heroics reign supreme or does Caro's claim the title? Both shines a light on names forgotten by history as well as the hypocrisy of the Nazi Party's actions. However, one of them doesn't get overly softhearted for the sake of reaching a wider audience.

What's worth checking out?: The book.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A United Kingdom

It's an unfortunate aspect of life that one's worth is proved by the color of their skin. Not their intelligence nor their personality, the very thing they have no ability to change. It's an ugly blight on humankind, and it's something that should be rectified immediately.

Of course racism is regularly a focus in fiction as it is in real life. Many creators -- regardless of their respective races -- have covered the subject and its effects extensively throughout the years. But sometimes the more compelling stories are the real-life ones.

Amma Asante's A United Kingdom depicts the romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), one that was met with immense controversy when they wed. (This was after World War II, mind you.) With Seretse being an heir to the throne in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), their marriage causes an even bigger strife amongst his people.

As she showed with her previous film Belle, Asante depicts a political angle on race. With a then-controversial relationship, she chronicles the extent of the scorn Seretse and Ruth faced. But at the same time, Asante becomes a little too interested in the politics of the story (which -- coincidence or not -- is what also befell Belle.)

That quibble aside, A United Kingdom is very good. Asante continues to have audiences keep an eye on her career path, and hopefully it won't be much longer before she gets that project that firmly puts her amongst the greats. (Seriously, not many female directors -- let alone ones of color -- have made a big impact from their first two films alone.)

My Rating: ****

Get Out

From the opening scene, it's clear that Jordan Peele's Get Out will stand out. Sure, the premise resembles more along the lines of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the modern age. But as stated before, there's more to it than that.

This being released during a time of continuing racial strife, Get Out seems almost timely. And Peele -- someone much more associated with comedy -- sinks his teeth into the genre's polar opposite. (Seeing as this is his debut as a director, it's safe to say he's someone to keep an eye on.)

But how does Get Out hold its own? It may be marketed as a horror film, yes, but there's so much more to it than a simple category placement. It shows a certain depravity most horror titles merely flirt with; it takes real guts to actually depict it.

That's the hard thing about reviewing horror films, isn't it? Trying to talk about them without spoiling any details. (Granted, it's a problem with reviewing any film but it's especially hard with this genre.) As could be applied to titles of this type, it'd be wise to go into Get Out completely blind. (thus rendering this whole review null and void...)

Anyway, Get Out shows immense promise for both Peele and star Daniel Kaluuya. In a time where symbolism is quickly becoming a maligned form of storytelling, Peele knows how to be subtle with it all (which warrants potential re-watches to pick up on them). We need more movies like this during these times.

My Rating: *****

Colossal

If there's one thing fiction is sorely lacking, it's a regular depiction of flawed women. More often than not, Hollywood shows the fair sex as pure beings with every aspect of their lives in perfect order. Obviously, that's bullshit. (And a load of it, too.)

This is why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) from Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal is very much a welcoming entry. When we're first introduced to her, she's unemployed and has a bit of a drinking problem. And to top it all off, her boyfriend Tom (Dan Stevens) has broken things off between them. Can her life get any worse? (Spoiler alert: it does.)

In examination of its first half, Colossal bears resemblance to the likes of The World's End. (The most telling comparison is in Gloria's drunken escapades.) But it's because of these escapades that make them frightening in the second half. (Heavy drinking is no laughing matter, folks.)

Speaking of the second half, it could be viewed as an unflinching portrait of abusive relationships and how to deal with them. Gloria and Tim don't get along very well following their breakup, especially with him constantly being at the end of his rope with her. (Surely he could've helped her get out of the hole she was in?) But boy, that's nothing compared to what Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) doles out.

Colossal continues to prove that there are, in fact, original works out there. (Sometimes all one needs to do is pay attention.) And while she had been getting hate for the last few years (for reasons unknown), hopefully this will regain respect for Hathaway.

My Rating: ****1/2