Forget About Iñárritu’s Movie — “The Humbling” is Better
At nearly 75, Al Pacino’s face seeps with hints of the multitude of iconic characters he’s played over the course of his rich career as an actor of stage and film. The "Humbling's" opening sequence is a pure tour de force. Pacino’s Simon Axler character sits in his backstage dressing room of a Broadway theater warming up while putting on stage make-up for his role of Jacques in a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” As he stares into the mirror reciting Jacques's “all the world’s a stage” monologue, Simon questions his delivery. Can he convey the lines believably to himself? Call it a late-life personality crisis. When he does finally make it onto the stage, Simon barely gets out a few lines before taking a swan dive into the orchestra pit below. Finally, Simon can feel the literal rock bottom of truth he’s been seeking that can remove him from the burden of having to inhabit roles that blur together in his mind’s troubled state of what could be Alzheimer’s disease.
A 30-day stint in a glorified psyche ward, that’s more of a luxury rehab lodge than a hospital, puts Simon in the company of Sybil (Nina Arianda). Sybil is the shell-shocked wife of a pedophile she caught molesting her young daughter. Because of Simon’s past film roles in which he played an assassin, Sybil wants to hire him to knock off her husband. Simon’s utter rejection of her proposal only leads Sybil to stalk him after he returns to his upstate New York mansion estate.
Similarities to “Birdman” run through Barry Levinson’s thoughtful adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2009 novel of the same title. There are strong corollaries between Al Pacino’s aging actor Simon and the Riggan character played by Michael Keaton in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman.” Both are older actors grappling with a lifelong quest for truth that they find easier to attain on stage than in their day-to-day lives. They each seek a divine obliteration of self before a mesmerized theater audience expected to parse out the factual from fictional substance of their adopted souls. Sticky stuff.
In both films, our thespian leads find themselves locked out of their Broadway theaters just as they are about to walk on stage. The classic actor’s nightmare scenario sums up a mutually queasy psychological state that can only be assuaged by a cataclysmic shift in attitude as prodded by the people closest to them. But where “Birdman” unreliably dips its narrative toe into the waters of magic realism to realize its core truth, “The Humbling” connects the subconscious mind of its doddering protagonist to the desert of the real, which in this case arrives in the form of Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething lesbian whose actress mother (Diane Wiest) did more than just play opposite Simon on stage more than thirty years ago. They shared a fling for which Wiest’s character still remembers the exact number of assignations.
Pegeen harbors a crush on friend-of-the-family Simon for the imagined import of a prop ring he gave her as a gift when she was eight. Pegeen took it to mean they would someday be married. Romance and trouble lurk when Pegeen shows up at Simon’s door after breaking up with her lesbian lover with the intent of taking her long awaited place in his heart. The winter/summer relationship that develops between Pegeen and Simon has both good and bad effects on Simon’s life.
Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Pegeen resonates with the complex layers of ambiguity that Philip Roth put into the character. Sensual and transformative, Pegeen is an irresistible creature whose past pattern of ruined romantic unions must eventually rear its thorny aspect.
Now that “Birdman” has collected awards and Oscar nominations, it’s sour grapes to suggest that an injustice has been done to “The Humbling.” Nonetheless, it ["The Humbling"] is a better movie.
Rated R. 112 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Burning Down the House
Don’t Blame “The Interview” for Starting World War III
“The Interview” is a mediocre comedy that will go down in history for a plethora of reasons that have little to do with the film itself. It could mark the first time in history that a movie was used as an excuse to provoke a war.
None of “The Interview’s” supposedly outrageous satire, centered around a CIA-imposed assassination mission against North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un by a couple of bumbling American talk show hosts, comes close to the U.S. government’s attempts to leverage a Sony Pictures email hacking incident into an excuse to impose more sanctions against North Korea.
In November 2014 Sony Pictures’ (the “Interview’s” production company) internal email system was hacked into. No one knows who did it, but current evidence points to a disgruntled ex-employee of Sony. Despite clues pointing elsewhere, including to Russia, the FBI immediately cast blame upon North Korea for the intrusion for reasons about as tenuous as the ones used in the movie to support killing the country’s leader. North Korea angrily denied any participation in the hack.
President Obama made an unprecedented speech chastising Sony executives for succumbing to the hacker’s demands that they not release “The Interview” for fear of terrorist retribution against cinemas and audiences. Following on the heels of Obama’s questionably “comic” performances on such programs as “Between Two Ferns” and “The Colbert Report,” the President’s indecorous remarks seemed more like a cartoonish publicity stunt designed to increase profits for a movie that Sony then went on to release across theatrical and on-demand outlets anyway. The stir caused some American art-house cinemas to replace their scheduled programming of classic, independent, documentary, and foreign films with “The Interview.” Hmm.
The Obama administration has used the situation to name ten North Korea-related individuals implicated in illicit activities (including weapons sales) that it plans to sanction (presumably with actions such as seizing their bank accounts). It has also launched an all-out cyber war with North Korea by temporarily shutting down the country’s Internet, twice.
Whatever the government’s profiteering motivations for overreaching in such a grotesque manner, some ironic if sad identifiers come though during the “Interview’s” payoff discussion sequence inside Kim Jong-Un’s palace. James Franco’s smarmy celebrity host character Dave Skylark has a list of burning questions with which he intends to publically humiliate Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park). Skylark rings a blaring bell of hypocrisy that cuts close to the bone of America’s own well-documented issues with hunger when he asks the North Korean leader why he allows 32 million of his citizens to go hungry. Many millions of Americans suffer malnutrition every day (check out the absurdly bland term “food insecurity”), but you don’t see anyone asking Obama why he allows “his” people to go hungry.
One thing that anyone with a halfway decent BS detector intuitively knows is that the corporate-controlled US Government is using a Hollywood movie as an excuse to overreach and double down on an all-too-obvious political attack against a country with which America shares perhaps a few too many similarities.
As with every other massive political scandal (see the NSA) in the U.S., nothing will happen when the cyber criminal(s) responsible for the Sony hack are identified as being unrelated to North Korea. It is already too late. The Obama Administration used a dumb movie as an excuse to execute plans it had laid out far in advance. Why they sank so low as to use a satirical movie as the excuse is the big question, and I believe I have the answer: they want to be caught so that they can prove once again that the US Government can do whatever the hell it wants without having to be accountable. If you think North Korea is contemptible, the Obama Administration has handily proven that Kim Jong-Un and his crew have nothing on the good ole US of A.
Rated R. 93 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
THE TRIP TO ITALY
Straight Man — Funny Man — Both
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon Take Another Bath Together
You couldn’t pick two more entertaining companions for a cinematic road trip in Italy than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Following on the success of “The Trip” (2010), in which the duo went on a comic car tour of Northern England to sample its gastronomical delights, “The Trip to Italy” improves however slightly on the first film’s casual design. A key difference rests with Steve Coogan's shift away from treating Brydon with any condescension, rather he seems to genuinely appreciate Brydon's gifts as a comic, and as a man.
Writer/director Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People”) returns to manage the shenanigans that Coogan and Brydon get up to while purportedly writing culinary articles for The Observer. Having rented a Mini Cooper — a reference to Peter Collinson’s original film version of “The Italian Job” (which featured Michael Caine in its leading role) — our free-associating duo sets out on a scenic tour of Italy, mapped by locations where the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron left their marks. Poetry of language is always on Coogan’s and Brydon’s minds, although more so on Brydon’s agenda. The duo’s itinerary takes them from northern Piemonte down to the Amalfi Coast with plenty of stops at distinguished restaurants along the way. However, Brydon's hopes of visiting Sicily — for obvious mafia related movie references — comes under attack from outside forces.
A stream of devilish details haunts the film’s waggish tone. Coogan has taken the liberty of disconnecting the car’s iPod jack to avoid listening to Brydon’s objectionable taste in music. Still, Brydon has a trick up his sleeve; he has with him one CD: Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” album from 1995. Two skilled British actors singing along in a Mini Cooper to Alanis Morissette is as funny as it sounds, which is to say pretty damned amusing.
Watching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing dueling impersonations of Michael Caine is a pure, simple pleasure that must be experienced. Where the first film was content to pepper lightly with just a few impersonation duels, this movie lets Coogan and Brydon go at it full-tilt in fancy restaurants where neither fellow patrons nor staff seem to mind the outbursts. Naturally, the actors’ contest turns to Caine’s performances as Batman’s butler. When the pair slip into an improv sketch involving an assistant director charged with telling Christian Bale and Tom Hardy not to mumble, the humor meter goes into the red. Brydon’s kneejerk habit of slipping into frequent spasms of Al Pacino impressions also never gets old.
For what is clearly a carefully thought-out script, “The Trip to Italy” has a remarkable naturalness to it. Lush Italian locations celebrated in films such as Ingrid Bergman’s “Voyage to Italy,” Humphrey Bogart’s “Beat the Devil,” and Jean Luc Goddard’s “Contempt,” come into play with a sense of appreciation for cinema history. Still, nothing is above making a joke about. Rob Brydon’s hysterical conversation with a lava-covered victim of the Pompeii volcano (kept in a glass coffin) dances on comic principals celebrated by the likes of Monty Python. Everywhere you look, history keeps rearing its inevitable head for Coogan or Brydon to tickle when they aren’t feasting on Italian food and wine. This is a vacation you’ll want to go on more than once.
Not Rated. 98 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
VENUS IN FUR
Roman Polanski Gives Takes Venus All The Way
Roman Polanski’s 20th film is an exquisite deconstructionist articulation of a quicksilver sadomasochistic tug-of-war between a middle-aged theater director and an enigmatic actress auditioning for a role in his upcoming play “Venus in Furs.” She just might be Venus incarnate.
As he did with his last film, “God of Carnage” (2011), and his 1994 film “Death and the Maiden,” Roman Polanski returns to the theatre for inspiration. David Ives’s theatrical adaptation of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella “Venus in Furs” already contained subtle thematic threads common to Polanski’s oeuvre — think “Bitter Moon,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Tenant.” Obsession with sexual domination, confined spaces, and an unreliable protagonist are all on display. Here is an energizing spoonful of soup-to-nuts fetishism, with teasing desert courses strewn throughout.
From a gloriously long tracking shot down a rainy Parisian boulevard, we are inexorably lured into a private theatrical vortex by a sudden crack of lightening. A playful musical score (by Alexandre Desplat) sets a mood of percolating voodoo. The disused set for an ostensibly failed production of an adaptation of John Ford’s “Stagecoach” sits on the stage of the rundown theater where director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) wraps up his day of auditions for the character of Wanda von Dunayev. An unusually tall prop cactus provides a strangely appropriate phallic symbol for the action that follows.
Thomas complains on his cellphone in misogynistic terms about the actresses he has seen. A lack of “sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls” has left Thomas feeling dejected.
Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives like a bolt of feminist Goddess lightening when she bursts through the theater door. Cursing like a sailor in a low class French accent, Seigner’s Vanda insists her agent sent her, although her name is nowhere to be found on the call sheet. Dressed in a leather corset and sporting a dog collar, Vanda has come prepared — very prepared — she has memorized every line of the play. Still, Thomas remains skeptical. Only when Vanda convinces him to read opposite her as the character of Severin von Kusiemski does her resolute skill as an actress convincingly transform her into the archetypal 19th century dominatrix for his play.
The story-within-a-story-within-a-movie teeters on the ambiguous tight wire dance that Thomas and Vanda perform. Emmanuelle Seigner’s performance is cleverly delicious. Her effortless transition between the four nesting-doll types that she plays (gypsy, consummate actress, feminist sophist, and Venus) creates a hallucinatory effect that pushes the drama in multiple directions at once. The dialogue is as intellectually sharp as it is sensually perceptive.
Vanda and Thomas mime their characters’ actions on stage in the same way that student actors are want to do when working without props. With five weeks of rehearsal under their belts, Polanski’s actors connect with such precise execution that the constant shifts between their self-reflexive characters are seamlessly exact.
Constant kicks of irony exhort audience laughs as the dueling pair keeps up the charade of an audition process where Thomas is the patriarchal judge to Vanda’s hopeful ingénue. Along the way the polarity of power switches back and forth between them. When Vanda commands Thomas to dress her in a pair of dominatrix knee-high boots, his quest for “annihilation” in her service takes shape.
With a Tony Award nomination under its belt, and the dubious honor of being America’s most produced play in the 2013-14 season, “Venus in Fur” represents another S&M signpost of our ongoing global societal clampdown. There is a reason that “50 Shades of Grey” hit a popular nerve. Willing humiliation under the lash of omnipresent corporate-political-totalitarianism could be construed a logical path for some. Audiences have every reason for their curiosities to be piqued over what Roman Polanski can do with such ingeniously loaded material.
Not Rated. 96 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
22 JUMP STREET
Bromancing With Guns Out
Hollywood Gutter Spits Up Another Load of Debris
Everything about the concept of a “Jump Street” franchise reeks of Hollywood’s perpetual drive to repackage a formula and call it a movie. 2014 has been an abysmal year for Hollywood movies — bottom-line grosses notwithstanding — and the near future looks just as bleak.
On its face, “22 Jump Street” is an overt insult to its audience. The returning filmmakers (directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of “The Lego Movie”) have the audacity to flagrantly announce to their audience via dialogue that this sequel’s plot is identical to the two-year-old “21 Jump Street.” Such proud self-referential displays of inanity have become acceptable to the same generation that “22 Jump Street” is aimed at. If you’re not a member of its born-after-1985 target audience, there’s no room for you at the table…and you're lucky not to be invited.
The filmmakers could at least have had the decency to create a new MacGuffin. No such luck. The only difference this time around is that our thirtysomething cop-duo goes undercover at a college rather than at a high school. It’s all about locating the head of a drug ring — which may or may not be operated by a student named Zook, who also happens to be a hotshot quarterback on the college football team and president of an elite fraternity.
The new drug (known as WHYPHY — get it, wi-fi?) is a killer. Evidently, the idea of “mixing Adderall with Ecstasy” was on some screenwriter’s agenda for sparking conversation about drug-sales on college campuses. The school’s upcoming Spring Break, in “Puerto Mexico,” promises to see a profusion of WHYPHY, hence the dunderheaded investigation underway.
It’s not so cool to be a bro in love with your bro. Jealousies can arise. So it is that the ever-deepening bromance between Johan Hill’s agent Schmidt and Channing Tatum’s officer Jenko hits a few snags. Jenko falls in manlove with Zook. The feeling is mutual. The dryly-phrased physical-but-ostensibly-asexual nature of the pair’s affection flirts with a put-on mockery of gay romance. A question about whether Schmidt and Jenko could ever get around to doing the nasty is out of the question; they are merely heterosexual males in touch with their feelings in a mainline corporate 2014 way. Even their alter-ego undercover identity is that of familial brothers Brad and Doug McQuaid. Still, you get the idea that Jenko’s romance with Zook could go another way.
Disjointed comic sequences — one involves a therapy session with Schmidt and Jenko or a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”-styled seduction fistfight between Schmidt and his girlfriend’s homely roommate — give a sense of the one-trick plot devices being stuck together without regard to any storyline. Gags like Jenko grabbing Schmidt’s wang instead of a hand grenade while the men hang from a helicopter aren’t as funny in application as they must have seemed to the film’s trio of screenwriters. Though, really, they shouldn't have then.
In light of America’s epidemic of mass shootings, “22 Jump Street’s” cavalier attitude to throwaway gun violence calls attention to itself. Hollywood is currently doing everything wrong. How long will it be before they start doing something right?
In light of America’s epidemic of mass shootings “22 Jump Street’s” cavalier attitude to throwaway gun violence calls attention to itself. Hollywood is currently doing everything wrong. How long will it be before they start doing something right?
Rated R. mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
Loose With Math
Seth MacFarlane’s Comedy: 50 Laughs From 100 Tries
Of the hundred or so gags, jokes, and one-liners that comic genius Seth MacFarlane throws at the wall over the course of this bawdy and sometimes grotesque Western comedy, nearly half of them connect with a funny bone. It’s not a great ratio of wins to losses, but in the realm of Hollywood comedies it’s better than average.
Co-writer/director/actor MacFarlane’s scattershot approach could have been better applied had he built more on the traditional template of the Western genre with a view toward creating a cohesive narrative foundation for his outré wisecracks to bounce. Also, tighter editing would have made for a funnier movie. The film’s romantic storyline (circa 1882), about a cowboy winning back the woman who left him for another man, doesn’t begin to support its nearly two-hour running time. “Blazing Saddles” this isn’t. MacFarlane leans on a tell-don’t-show method that doesn’t take advantage of the film’s iconic Monument Valley, Arizona setting. We don’t even get a quicksand scene.
MacFarlane’s biggest oversight lies in casting himself as the film’s comic leading character Albert, a fish-out-of-water if ever there was one. Arthur lives at home with his flatulent father and barely glimpsed mom. He’s an unskilled sheep farmer who dreams of leaving the frontier life behind. MacFarlane doesn’t know whether to play Arthur as a straight man or a funny guy, so he ends up doing dual-duties — a big no-no. With his manscaped eyebrows and perfectly coiffed hair, MacFarlane’s Arthur comes across as more of a mannequin-vessel for the actor’s radio-quality voice than a jester of dubious intent. MacFarlane doesn’t bother to create a character for Arthur; instead, he narrates and performs actions as a casual version of himself. Had he applied some comic make-up and invented an eccentric personality — as Neil Patrick Harris does with his show-stealing performance as Foy, a mustachioed womanizer — MacFarlane might have struck comic gold. Considering the broad range of characters MacFarlane created for his adult animated sitcom “Family Guy,” it’s surprising that he didn’t choose to do it here. Casting a brilliant monomaniac like Tom Green as Arthur might have worked.
The filmmaker commits yet another blunder in making Arthur’s sidekick character Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) an even paler (read weak-willed Caucasian) version of Arthur. The effect is one of redundancy rather than resonance. Had Edward’s character been written for — let’s say — Dave Chappelle, the humor could have had some distance to zip and fly. Here’s a Western comedy desperately in need of some minority representation. Apart from an extended sequence involving a tribe of American Indians, MacFarlane’s version of the Old West is a strictly white affair.
As a writer, Seth MacFarlane has a knack for ribald rapid-fire dialogue and twisted comic set pieces. Arthur’s beautifully dry monologue about various and sundry ways that the Wild West is out to kill its inhabitants is truly inspired. Angry drunk people, hungry animals, outlaws, and even the local doctor, all carry an equally lethal potential to bring an end to one’s existence. The sudden death of a man unloading a giant block of ice will snap you out of your chair with queasy laughter.
Sarah Silverman does a lot with the too few scenes she’s given as Ruth, an accommodating Christian saloon-prostitute who withholds sex from her virginal boyfriend (Ribisi). Charlize Theron keeps the movie ticking as Anna, the wife of Clinch, a ruthless outlaw (played by Liam Neeson). While Clinch is off doing who-knows-what, Anna swoops in on Arthur to teach him a few lessons about how to shoot straight and mend his broken heart.
There is no denying Seth MacFarlane’s many gifts for humor. But as a director and as an actor, he still has lessons to learn.
Rated R. 116 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
SAVING MR. BANKS
Emma Thompson Saves The Holidays
A tailor-made Hollywood crowd-pleaser, “Saving Mr. Banks” deploys as much fantasy as fact in telling Walt Disney’s tenacious efforts to transform “Mary Poppins” into a movie — with the necessary approval of its popular children’s book author. Emma Thompson has the thankless task of playing British novelist P.L. Travers, whose fierce temperamental nature comes through in little things she says and does while being hosted by Walt in Los Angeles in order to collaborate on the screenplay and music for his planned film production of “Mary Poppins.”
Mrs. Travers has demands — lots of them. She insists that all production meetings be tape-recorded. The lady from London (by way of Australia) insists that every American she meets call her “Mrs. Travers.” No one complies. She is not amused.
The ever-reliable Paul Giamatti steals the show in a subplot as Ralph, Mrs. Travers’s regular chauffeur. The slow-burn bond that develops between “Missus” and Ralph gives the movie some of its best scenes. Still, there are plenty of ensemble sequences — many involving singing — that turn the picture into an actors’ love fest.
Emma Thompson nearly levitates in her role as a strong-willed woman with a sophisticated editorial wit and style. Tom Hanks is smooth as silk in the foil position of the soft-and-generous antagonist, who belies the real Walt Disney’s less than delightful reputation. It’s fun to read between the lines and imagine Hanks’s Disney as a cunning corporate raider winning in a battle of dominance over the real P.L. Travers. You have to admit — as Mrs. Travers constantly complains — the “animated penguins” were a bad idea in Disney’s version of “Mary Poppins,” a children’s movie that hasn’t withstood the test of time.
Although Mrs. Travers is suffering from money problems — she’s broke — she has no loss of ego when it comes to defending the purity of her book. Her relationship with her father, Robert Goff Travers (Colin Farrell), informs her character’s motivations in concise flashback sequences that provide essential insight into Mrs. Travers well-defended mindset. There’s a twist to the story that is presaged in the film’s obfuscated title.
A daily script-meeting schedule on Walt’s production lot puts Thompson’s suffer-no-fools character in Disney’s piano-equipped studio with sibling songwriters Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak). “Impromptu” brainstorming scenes glue the movie together. Everyone’s editorial voice and musical imagination is heard — some more than others. Animated discussions — over whether a note goes up or down — are rewarded with performance examples that reveal hands-on aspects of inspired musical creation.
It doesn’t hurt that the filmmakers had access to actual tape-recorded documents of the work sessions with the mercurial novelist and Disney’s right-hand men. Mrs. Travers was clearly onto something in requiring that the workshop sessions be recorded.
Everyone likes to peek inside a recording studio where music is being created. There’s something innocently voyeuristic about it. Having a producer as opinionated as P.L. Travers drove her equally biased collaborators to distraction, but it also forced them to create better work.
The studio story-within-the-story enables something that you rarely see characters do in movies — work. Watching how these polar-opposite artists come to agree on issues that seem insurmountable — Mrs. Travers demands there be no red in the movie, for example — is half the enjoyment of watching “Saving Mr. Banks.” The other half comes from the fine performances, not the least of which belong to Emma Thompson.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)