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Five Came Back (2017)
paying respects to our fallen soldier-filmmakers
What I loved most is that this is the story of what men went through to capture moments of art, whether in the moment or staged (or, in a way, both at times), and the personal and professional tolls this took. My one small piece of trepidation going in to was that it could've been dry or that the talking heads - all major artists in Spielberg, del-Toro, Greengrass, Kasdan and Coppola - would make things sound more important than they were (the director usually does the bonus documentaries, usually not too bad, on DVD's). But this really emphasized the artistic trajectories and struggles and, in the third part, what happened when the war ended and how the men somehow got back on their feet to continue making their art (and 1946 was quite a year - LET THERE BE LIGHT, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), though never forgetting what had transpired, on the contrary it changed them in such a way that it made them even *more* empathetic and compassionate.
Through the use of the interviews with these filmmakers, each sort of given their own director to talk about - there's some minor overlap here and there, but I think it's by design to keep each director set for their own guy, i.e. Coppola to Huston or Del Toro to Capra, for a purpose as, whether the director thought these guys were a match or each respective filmmaker had a passion for the one they discussed, it works as a framing device and to keep the stories and information moving forward (Spielberg on Wyler especially engrossed me and had the most personal details I thought), and through massive archival footage from these war movies as well as interviews with the old-time directors, we get a full sense of the journeys taken and the growth and tragedies witnessed. Lastly, their own backgrounds inform how they made their way through the wars, and what conflicts those posted. Astonishgly involving.
It's more like a movie than just a regular series or even a Ken Burns thing; if you like seeing documentaries that are about the process of cinema, about storytelling, about how storytellers transform themselves and the world around them (whether it's D-Day or a ship like the Memphis Belle, or, unfortunately for Wyler and Stevens, the holocaust), it's one of those must-sees of the year. And now, as a movie buff, want to see ALL of the movies I haven't seen talked about here, particularly Mrs. Miniver, They Were Expendable, and The Battle of San Pietro.
Two words: doggie crucifixion
More words: I don't know if Silverman is the deepest or most profound comic out there, but when she makes me laugh its cathartic; her story about her sisters little "accident" in college *is* so great I want to rate this higher. Some little sections lag though, and I only chuckled through her life/death story. On the other hand, there's never a moment Silverman isn't charming in some way, which works to her advantage when she tells the filthiest and/or most (self) deprecating anecdotes. She knows how to construct jokes and reel an audience in first, and be a provocateur second (the opposite of the recent Schumer Leather special). This year, once you've gotten through Louis CK and Chappelle, I imagine this will come a good 3rd or in the top five of sharpest, silliest, dirtiest and (at key times) insightful comedy specials.
My Cousin Rachel (2017)
handomely made, wonderful performances, could've been better
It says a lot about how good Rachel Weisz looks still - or maybe that Sam Claflin has seen better days - that I didn't buy that these two were *so* far apart in age that Rachel would consider Phillip Ashley a "boy". Also, Roger Michell shouldn't of been shy - it's 2017, for God-sake man - to actually make this a racier film. There's wonderful acting from Weisz, as one might expect, making us feel deeply for a woman who may turn out to be a golddigger, and Claflin does what he can with a character that has often-times the same pained, 'I-have-blue-b**s or whatever-Gothic-19th-century-equivalent-that-is' face through most of it, and it is certainly handsomely made.
But considering this has the makings of a trashy bodice-ripper book (I doubt Du Maurier's book was, but why carp?) I think there could have been more potential in this being an R-rated, down and dirty movie of sex and betrayal. There is a *little* sex, but it's too tasteful, and this story of passions being high and a man trying to get a woman who may simply be un-gettable, even during a time when a man could simply *buy* a woman with precious jewels, needs to embrace its passions and not be as... proper, if that's the word. Maybe the trailer was misleading up to a point, and made this out to look like it would be a terribly exciting film. There are many strong scenes and acting from supporting people like Holliday Grainger and Games of Thrones's Ian Glen, and I did like the climax quite a lot when it gets there. I think it's a perfectly fine film, but it stops right there as far as how its setting and place can take it - all the same, if you love Weisz as an actress, it's among her better turns in a decade.
Cars 3 (2017)
entertaining, moving, has a good moral for children, and a quantum leap up from Cars 2
Aside from what should be obvious to most of those who are over the age of 5 - merchandising, merchandising! I can hear Yogurt from Spaceballs say (which this movie does try to sort of, kind of, almost satirize but doesn't quite get there, and I'll get to that later) - I wondered going in why Pixar would make Cars 3. The first Cars, one of those unlikely passion projects for John Lasseter, was fine though not remarkable unless one didn't mind getting their Paul Newman fix (last movie too!) if it meant wading through the "comedy" of Larry the Cable Guy, and the sequel was one of the most mediocre films of the past decade, from anywhere (again, Larry the Cable Guy as the protagonist). But then I thought that this was exactly why it would be interesting to see the movie - what would the Pixar creative team come up on this one. What they came up with was a good movie, no more but no less either.
Aside from a far smaller quotent of scenes with that grating Mater character (I'll get off it now but, really, who really was hungering for more of Mater in their movie theater in 2017?), this is another example like Monsters University where the filmmakers are favoring a strong message over having a simple villain. And, curiously enough, while both movies do feature Nathan Fillion as an almost/would-be antagonist, it's not about that (it can't be coincidence that in both movies he voices the show-off, cocksure figure, right? - actually Armie Hammer is more-so that character here, but nevermind), I suspect that the message was what was key for those in the story room. What could make Lightning McQueen interesting again after all these years? Was he even interesting to begin with? It's not even him so much as it is what a character's arc is, and what Pixar taps in pretty well here is the idea of moving on and what education means.
In the story of Cars 3, McQueen gets into a terrible accident as the first turning point - one remembers that from the surreal teaser trailer where it made it look as though this might be the Saving Private Ryan of Cars movies or something - and though he wants to get back into racing there's constant trepidation, about his age, about his ability, about everyone else out on the track... and then comes, ironically enough, his trainer (thanks sponsor Fillion!), with a good voice job by Cristela Alonzo by the way, who of course didn't grow up as a, uh, small car wanting to become a trainer of other cars, she wanted to be race car herself! But she lacked the confidence and the wherewithal to keep at it (those who can't do teach sort of thing). Matter of fact, that may be the whole point of the movie, but it's also saying that isn't necessarily a bad thing - if you want it, it can be great.
It reminds me too of what happens in other professions like in the movies where actors find they aren't getting the good roles or aren't being challenged enough so they decide to direct, and it takes on a whole new feeling and passion. All of this noted, Cars 3 doesn't exactly make this some big surprise, it's actually a predictable story that, at least for me and I'm sure many others, one will see coming a mile away as far as whether or not Lightning McQueen is going to do that first race (really the only question is how much or how little will he really race before passing on the baton). But Pixar was sneakily impressive here with how it brought real emotion, or as much as can happen with these cars, and Owen Wilson and Alonzo have a good pairing in the film that has an arc and develops over the course of the story.
There's a little shakier ground that Pixar tip-toes up to as far as what it means to have, say, branding and merchandising - the Fillion "Billionaire" car Sterling (I wondered if he had ever wanted to race or as a tiny car wanted to be a, uh, Billionaire car, however they can spend it) looks at Lightning as a vehicle, no pun intended, for money-making, that his admiration for McQueen is for what he is *valued* as a commodity, as a presence or a thing, as opposed to his ability (which goes a way to explain why he's not impressed when he begs Sterling that he can do one more race). But I'm not sure Pixar developed that side of it enough, or perhaps they could only do so much satire in a G-rated movie for all audiences. It may be enough, though a little more could've gone a longer way to make a decent movie into one of their REALLY good sequels like Monsters U or Toy Story 3.
At the end of it all though, Cars 3 is entertaining, occasionally quite funny (some puns and jokes hit better than others), and eschews typical villainy or the usual antagonists and embraces more like existential questions, which is probably more than a kid-friendly blockbuster like Cars 3 of all things had to concern itself with. I give Pixar points for that, and if seems like something that had... effort put into it, at least up to a point. Not to mention, last but not least, what seems to be a fitting coincidence (or it may be just what Lasseter intended) that a first-time director was promoted up to do this movie within Pixar, Brian Fee. It was time to get in the race, I suppose, and he showed up to do well.
The Mummy (1959)
the best of the Mummy movies (though be patient)
Terence Fisher may not be that slam-bang action type of filmmaker that modern audiences might be used to know with blockbusters (such as decent ones like the 1999 Mummy, or bad ones like the 2017 Mummy), but he was an ideal choice for these color-filmed, handsomely mounted though modestly budgeted horror films from Hammer in the 50's. Following his great success on Dracula, it stood to reason he should do the Mummy, and what he came up with was at times creepy - and, I imagine if you saw this as a kid or decide to show this to small children, scary at points, like when the Mummy crashes through the window into the padded room at the asylum - and deliberately paced. In other words, it moves a little slow, but that's not to the detriment of the film; it's more your problem than the movie's if you find yourself frustrated, and unlike even the 32 Mummy, this doesn't lack a good many memorable sequences and visuals (the 32 Mummy did have some, but not enough).
In this you also get of course Cushing and Lee, and I really liked their physicality in the movie. Cushing's character, the son of an archaeologist that has a history with the red-fez wearing Master-of- the-Mummy in this story, is hobbled with a bad leg, and this isn't just something that the writers give Cushing for as some crutch, no pun intended. Instead this ends up becoming important when the Mummy comes in ready to strangle people, and seeing Cushing moving about, whether it's in an action-y moment or otherwise, is fascinating in how he puts his body into things, as any good actor should. Lee, too, is thoughtful in what is a character with no spoken lines (if Lee does speak, I don't remember it, and I just watched the film), and he is remarkable perhaps due to limitations with his costume or injuries on set or what have you, and he makes him as memorable as the Karloff Mummy; you feel his presence in a room and his eyes do a lot of good work as well.
There is a point midway through the film when Cushing reads from the history of this Karras character from thousands of years prior in Egypt when everything went down, and this is the one part of the movie that dragged for me. it's not to any major detriment of the film, but it's the one time I felt Fisher's style, which I otherwise loved in the film (i.e. that scene where the casket falls off the wagon, falls in the mud pond, and then when the character comes over later to say the things that make Karras come out of the ground, beautiful), start to get a little long. But this is a minor complaint in what is otherwise the best of the Mummy movies; it has a strong musical score, the acting is quality (yes, even the typical types you get in Hammer movies like the local British drunks at the bar), and the ending is almost bordering on tragic if you think about how this character has been depicted (the Mummy is the horror movie icon that doesn't have his own agency, or at least as much as the others).
Kamisama no iu tôri (2014)
an entertaining return to form for Miike, though on a scale it's only kinda WTF-crazy-pants
It had been a few years since I had seen a new Takashi Miike movie before somehow stumbling upon the trailer for As the Gods Will, which had such delightful and self-consciously silly visuals like a floating head (or a Doramus or whatever it's called) making teenagers heads explode - the blood is actually red marbles though so it's alright - or a talking Polar bear crushing other teens into mulch for being caught as liars. Seeing this was a very good reminder about how much fun Miike can have when he has some characters that he likes - and others he knows he can kill in some creative and occasionally gruesome ways - but it's also about translating a Manga to screen in a way that is... I won't say more "kid" friendly, but certainly more accessible than the transgressive and really bonkers Ichi the Killer, also based on a Manga. But as with most things, with Miike there is a curve.
So many of his films are bizarre WTF-fests that something like As the Gods Will gets kind of close to the top... ten perhaps, maybe not five, but that's saying just how insane he's taken the visuals and surrealism and fantasy in his past work - also see The Happiness of the Katakuris, Gozu or The Great Yokhai War for more examples, or any given Dead or Alive movie, mostly the first one - and how he could give less than a damn about good taste or morality, at least in the sense of offending imprudent tastes. With this, the parallels one might think to Battle Royale are apparent up front, with high schoolers being slaughtered left and right (though in this case one by one by a giant floating talking head that will only stop if, according to him/it, someone presses the big red button on the opposite side of its face), but there's also here a much cheerier version of Saw, where there are many "games" to play, but it's not like these students have been picked out for being bad or need to be taught lessons.
Matter of fact, its not totally clear why there are these objects like a giant cat that will kill the students in the gym it's at because, uh, there are mice costumes that need to be put on(!) or the Polar Bear or other floating dolls that sing songs and make one guess who is singing and so on. I think this is perhaps due to being a *very* Japanese movie (I haven't read the Manga, but also this movie is hard to track down in the US, it's only available as an import and even rarer to get to play on an American DVD player), and that there is not much at all explained in the way of why there are these... giant floating cubes ala the movie Arrival floating above major cities. Are there terrorist attacks? Nope, says a guy who looks like a Japanese Wario from the NES games; these are aliens... or are they?
Why are they coming to Earth to make teenagers play these life/death games? What do these "Gods" want from us? But on the other hand, hey, who cares? Miike gets us invested enough in the small handful of characters that seem to be liking, Shun being the main character who has lived a "boring" life before and is now having to think on his wits every moment of these games, so that we are focused on their will-they-won't-theys as they face off against these bizarro elements. The characters, including the punk Amayo who seems like he's ego-maniacal from minute one, are types, but the writers and Miike know how to make them into human beings that we can get behind in all of his, and as bat**** everything gets, we have them as an anchor, at least of a sort. So while there certainly could be just a little, even a small scene, where things could be explained (a friend I watched this with said more might come in a sequel, and good luck with all of that I say), and a small side character that is on the outside world, a shut-in, watching all of what's happening on TV could've had a little more going on with him, what the filmmaker does with these five acts (and it's really five, not three) is remarkable.
This is tenacious, entertaining cinema that will certainly delight those who are more accustomed to the... idiosyncrasies of Japanese genre cinema (bordering, or just, exploitation filmmaking, though Miike is a cut above, say, the guys who do like Tokyo Gore Police or the Machine Girl or schlock like that, he really cares about his shots and he has had for a long time a great sense of comic timing). There's even an element of, in short, if this were a Japanese anime/animated film, we probably might not think twice about 75% of what goes on here. That it's in live action makes it all the more purely Gonzo, and all the more of a fun time for it, albeit with a sad ending.
It Comes at Night (2017)
"Now it's dark" - Frank Booth
It takes a considerable amount of skill to direct what is being advertised and I suppose in strict genre terms *is* a horror film (though I'd claim in the pendulum it swings more towards drama or thriller than horror, but I'll get to why it can be considered the 'H' thing soon enough). It takes someone though with guts and confidence to take a trope and to not only take it seriously but try one's damndest to revitalize it. The dream sequence is what I'm referring to, and horror movies and thrillers for so many years get lured into the easy ideal of, 'well, time for a character to have a dream and we'll make it look like the character is REALLY going through with this or what they're seeing and then BOOM, it's scare time!' If you want the cheapest of examples of this, Siskel & Ebert had a good highlight of one such dream 'gotcha' set piece in Jaws 4 of all things, but I digress.
Trey Edward Shults gives his... do we call Travis the protagonist? I suppose so, considering we see so much through his perspective, but we do see his dreams. But this isn't a filmmaker going out of his/her way to make scares to mess with the audience; this is about the character first and foremost, that it's about what Travis is experiencing in that house that is full of, what one might call one of Travis's drawings that he makes, deep/dark values, not even shadows but simply the black abyss that makes up most of the house at night, and because what he's seeing and hearing and feeling, whether he's in that long hallway that leads up to the blood-red door (even from the trailer that door did enough to sell me on seeing the movie), or if he's outside and we're only looking at his face hearing a dog bark, or if he sees his dead grandparent, we're meant to be there WITH him. And Shults reclaims the dream sequence for a horror movie and makes it vital and more than a gimmick; it's part of the whole experience.
Indeed the title may refer to how Travis sees things at night, when he's there in his bedroom or his special crawl-space attic listening in on the newcomers, Will, Kim and Andrew, as they talk or make love or, later on, when something bad is happening. Certainly the "it" doesn't really refer to the virus (let's call it 'Son-of-Captain-Trips' for all intents and purposes), as that can come at any time really.
With the exception of Sarah, who I found underdeveloped, this is also a horror movie where the people feel like real people, and how you might imagine those in a high-pressure, hopeless situation would act around one another. We know things will likely boil to a head somehow, but Shults does a good job in his script keeping us guessing, and not in a contrived way; this could go the bloody route, this could go the 'love triangle' route (to put it another way, Keough and Harrison Jr have good chemistry together in their brief time one on one), or it could go somewhere else, like maybe we're told more about the virus or what led to this apocalypse. This last part Shults is least interested in. In a way there's a small undercurrent here, barely spoken but present, of many independent films where characters are in the woods somewhere and they... mostly talk, and that's it. Character Study Central.
But It Comes at Night is more ambitious within its tight dimensions, and it's especially in look that this film is a must see on a big screen; the cinematography is, like many of the films A24 has picked up in its astonishing run of distributed product, presented in such a way that you're always on your toes, always meant to be in suspense, but genuinely so. Even when things seem cool or calm, or when those few times Shults goes for a montage showing some passage of time like Will and Kim getting adjusted to everyone else, the way the film is shot is unique and lends itself to adding the intrigue. On the way home from seeing the film, my wife commented that more horror movies should take a cue from this, that it's really not that difficult to simply *try* a little more, to not go for the easy and the lazy all the time.
I agreed with her in theory, yet I think a film like this, or last year's Green Room or to a degree The Witch, takes someone with vision and a sense of not going the usual path (or Edgerton, who produced it, also has an eye on such independents throughout his career too). The only drawback or... I shouldn't say it like that, more just an observation, is that where this all leads to is a stone-cold bummer. This isn't to say the quality of the film suffers, it's only that one leaves It Comes at Night completely drained. I dare not say why that is, but I did kind of hope that Shults could've left the door open for something not so wholly sour by the end of it all. It's art, it's haunting, and it's depressing as all get out. But at least there's those dreams/nightmares to keep us engaged.
The Mummy (1999)
a look back 18 years later on Stephen Sommers' big stab at Hollywood escapism
This movie is like if you take Raiders of the Lost Ark (and other Indiana Jones movies in general, those serial-tropes) and deduct like 10,000 IQ points from it. It's *so* Raiders, but it's also still, in being true to the original 1932 film, still SO Dracula- rip-off in some ways, even down to Kevin J O'Connor (OH MY GOD NOT- HENRY_PLAINVIEW from TWWB!) playing Renfield to Arnold Vosloo's Imhotep (though Renfield crossed with Alfred Molina from Raiders- did I mention this is RAIDERS with like a lot of dumbness injected in?) It's a slam-bang action movie where half of the dialog are full-on *Movie* lines. You know the ones?
This is where characters, especially Brendan Fraser (who, honestly, is having the time of his life in this role), spout off a lot of clichés - Rick makes sure to say "We're in deep trouble" more than once, or to be ready with a line while being tossed conveniently across the room of the inside of a pyramid. And characters just do dumb thing after dumb thing, or characters appear where they shouldn't but hey gotta advance the plot... like the whole entire group of dumb American cowboys(!?) who manage to make it off of the boat that catches on fire and while we get scenic views of Fraser and Weisz and her brother going across the desert, the rest are not to be seen... until convenient.
Oh, Rachel Weisz, by the way, is a great thing about this movie. Really, she's the one who practically got a career off of this movie, and she is so incredibly charming and dorky (the scene where she gets drunk is a different kind of drunk scene than we get in Raiders with Marion, I should note). She may be a "Damsel" occasionally in distress, but she is acting Evelyn on a wavelength that gives the movie an energy and delight that helps to balance out all of the stock actors and characters surrounding her (even O'Connor, who is giving this one- note weasel his all, is that). She and Fraser have the kind of old-time Hollywood chemistry, with enough modernity, that makes the movie watchable even as it gets so.... so.... so.... so... so dumb.
And yet... it's entertaining. It's occasionally cheesy and haphazard - my God, does that climax where every single thing seems to come alive, usually by mistake - and I neglect to note how, despite being from old Egyptian lore (even if that's lore taken from older movies and serials), it also borrows in one giant chunk from the Evil Dead. But... well, I kept watching and not simply because I had to for an upcoming podcast.
PS: Spoiler -
about O'Connor's Beni... near the end, they really didn't know what to do with him, did they? I mean the writers; he's about ready to escape on the camel, he has a good amount of gold after getting away with being a conniving creep... but he sticks around and goes back inside, and as soon as he does we know exactly what's coming for him. The movie also goes the extra step of showing us how he meets his maker. It feels oddly cruel though, despite how slimy he's been. I almost felt sorry for him or even something close to sympathy. Isn't it enough to assume he's squashed with everything else inside the pyramid once it collapses? Like anything else here, it's overkill.
The Tie That Binds (1995)
a wild tale of parentage
Slightly obscured today in amid many of its kind, The Tie That Binds found writer Wesley Strick taking up directing (though he's not credited for this script) what is a mash-up of two pop-culture tropes: the trashy, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week kind of thriller and the Killers-On-The-Run-but-also-lovers movies. This doesn't always have to mean that the former is about a psychotic woman stalking another woman; many Lifetime movies concern melodramas involving children who are really f***ed up, and not all killer/lovers movies (True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia, Freeway, maybe Doom Generation to an extent pop to mind, there are probably others) are only just the couple. Strick is able to find some wildly trashy entertainment out of both, even as he tends to over-direct things. What I mean by that I'll get to shortly.
In this case the premise has a couple of degenerate criminals (Carradine and Hannah, having the time of their lives in these parts, with Carradine being sleazy as all get out, while Hannah has that Juliette Lewis fluttery-crazy butterfly thing going on, like she could kill something in a moment but seems calmer than what Lewis did in NBK) with a daughter, and after a bad break-in the daughter is left behind and the cops take her. She's turned over to child protective services and, instead of going to some bad foster home, she's discovered by Nice TV Movie Couple Moira Kelly and Vincent Spano. While she is a photographer (conveniently tying in to how Carradine's character also took photos at the scenes of his crimes), he is trying to build a house from scratch as a contractor. Neither seem to fully grasp that their newly adopted little girl is traumatized completely, having lived a life that is kind of like a wild child, only with manic criminal-killer-thief people. Drama ensues, and meanwhile her real parents go on the long road to hell to track her down.
It's got a lot of elements of the 90's and I think that it's not as strong as a lot of examples I could think of. But I think Strick recognizes fully both the potential and the weaknesses in this material; we know the good couple are going to be good and the bad couple are going to be completely tasteless freaks. Where Strick goes wrong is mostly near the end, and midway through, where he tries to go for some planting and paying off by suddenly going into the girl's point of view; it's a pretentious move (and also an odd thing to see, say, children in a play with fairy tales being done up with... adults acting with the kids, i.e. the Big Bad Wolf is an adult woman and the kids are kids, but... huh, and then later this pays off or is supposed to with the daughter in a scene in the woods). Strick also is addicted to grandiose over-head shots, but without much purpose; this was his first feature and in this, the big technical maneuvers - perhaps he was taking a cue from Scorsese in some part, being the writer on Cape Fear 91 - he shows he's still trying to learn on the job and falling flat in this area.
But with actors he's much stronger. If you like Carradine and like all the more to see him being an unapologetic scumbag, then this is a movie for you and then some (watch when he kicks the vending machine after the other guy next to him won't kick it, as the first guy says, "Yeah, I can't, I'm a prosecutor," to then Carradine's response after kicking it hard, "It's alright, I'm a felon - see ya, counselor"), and Hannah too has a lot of great scenes where she doesn't have to do much to get under your skin while at the same time having a small piece of vulnerability to her. She's like the more messed-up, grotty cousin of Nicole Kidman here or something, and a moment where she tries to get her daughter back, as coolly as she can, from a school recess, is amazing.
Kelly and Spano may not have as entertaining roles, but they do a commendable job and actually make this Good-Parent-Couple have personality. Strick lets them be real people for a moment or two, like an awkward sex scene (yeah, for some reason the door's open so if the little girl wanted she could totally look in) where the main concern is the squealing bed-springs. And all the while there's the little girl Janie (Julia Devin); I wasn't sure at times how the filmmakers intended her to be presented as a screwed-up and victim of abuse and trauma; she cuts herself at times and then at others lashes out at people. I would've liked to see just another piece, or more than one to give some more context outside of the opening of the film for how Janie got this way. The writing for her gets a little better near the end - planting and payoffs, yey - but I also wondered if her placid expression for much of the film was a way to make it easier on directing her. Who knows! The Ties That Bind is really dumb for much of its run-time, and I think it knows it. It gets by on throwing together the trashiest parts of its genres, of familial dyfunctions on both ends, and while Carradine and Hannah may be acting at times in another movie than Kelly and Spano, the results don't feel too uneven to me. Not art, but a guilty pleasure about what it means to be a parent, a child, and a member of society.
a morality story, with a Jewish tinge, with career-high Gere performance
Talk about a little-under-the-radar wonder!
The trailer for Norman (or: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer as its full title tells us what will occur) seems like this will be a sort of comic take on what one might've seen in Michael Clayton - or, as it becomes more apparent as time goes on in the movie (and by time I mean a few minutes) Better Call Saul's Jimmy - that this is a 'fixer', or a guy who will do what needs/must/wants to be done by any given businessman or individual or, as the Norman Oppenheimer (Gere) of the title suggests, other consultants who consult the consultants (as he is).
It turns out to have some laughs here and there, but really this is a drama and one of almost (or just) Talmudic proportions. This is a story set in New York City but also concerns Israeli politics (up to a point, sort of, just deep enough for us to know that "peace" is possible somehow due to this one guy, Micha Eschel (Lio Ashkenazi), who manages to ascend to prime minister of the country and who Norman is considered a "close friend". Or, really, almost a close friend, as Micha trusts him while his other advisers don't; they met under circumstances that Norman basically, literally, chased down, following Micha when he was an assistant to an assistant to the PM, and bought him a pair of ludicrously expensive shoes. For the moment of grimacing Norman has ends up paying off for him a mountain of connections, which is what he's all about... though it's not all on the up and up exactly.
This is a story that concerns how Norman, as well as the other characters, try to act (or decidedly don't act) moral or even fair in the circumstances. For Norman, it's all about first getting this one connection with Micha, and once he gets it, it seems like it should be all gravy. But Norman is also as Jewish people say a "Macha", someone who can run a big game through talk but may not be the most trustworthy person. Like with 'Saul', it's hard for us not to feel in Norman's corner because of how much of a hustler he is, and movie characters like this have an innate sympathy: despite the shady ways (or even because of it, that they're on the edge, an underdog, at worst an anti-hero), we want Norman to be the best of the "Normans" out there. And then comes the Jewish Synagogue and Steve Buscemi's Rabbi (yes, he's a Rabbi, and it's awesome), and things take more twists and turns.
Joseph Cedar's script is sharp as a tack, but I was also impressed by the visual side of the film; Norman's on a train coming back from a DC event at one point and we see lots and lots of heads floating in the window of the moving train, and it's amazing how he is able to manage this sequence that could've been out of Capra or something (maybe a cinematic forefather of this sort of morality fable). And at the heart of it is Gere as Norman, making him so vital and amusing at times, but then also so sympathetic and sad and going across all the emotions that's necessary - and then some! If you've wondered where Gere's been for a while, there's the Dinner and then there's this. The latter is among his top, top performances of all time.
Add on a wonderfully ambiguous ending and a thrilling final act, and you got a sleeper, buddy.