Friday, May 19, 2017

Richard Gere Fakes His Way Through Being A Fixer in NORMAN

Now playing at an indie arthouse near me (the Rialto in Raleigh being the closest):

NORMAN (Dir. Joseph Cedar, 2016)


In Israeli writer/director’s first English language film NORMAN (aka NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER), Richard Gere schleps around Manhattan stalking powerful people who he promises to introduce to other powerful people.

Gere’s Norman Oppenheimer constantly networks, trying to make political connections, handing out his business card for “Oppenheimer Strategies,” faking his way through being a fixer with most of his prey knowing, or sensing that he’s just a small time operator with no real clout.

That is until one day when he meets Micha Eshel (a smooth, charming Lior Ashkenazi), the deputy Israeli minister of trade and labor, outside a high end clothing store (Norman was staking him, of course), and the two establish a friendship - mostly because Norman buys Micha an outrageously expensive pair of shoes.

Three years later, Eshel is made Prime Minister of Israel, and Norman aims to rekindle their relationship as it appears that he finally has an “in.” Norman is subsequently sought after, while his past is scrutinized, and he finds he’s being followed. Then Eshel gets caught in a scandal involving bribes and corruption, and Norman may be in hot water as the unnamed businessman that Eshel will have to use as a scapegoat in order to escape prosectution.

Gere, while neither Jewish or a schlub (albeit a well dressed one with a cashmere coat and nice suits), is terrific as Norman, who at times appears to stare into the abyss as we see looking through his eyes at unforgiving surroundings.

Utterly believable as this pathetic, delusional loser who believes he’s a winner and fancies himself a macher (Yiddish for an important or influential person), Gere’s interacts with the rest of the cast in sometimes amusing, sometimes cringe-worthy ways.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Sheen as Norman’s skeptical nephew, Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi who stupidly trusts Norman to find an investor so he can save his synagogue, Hank Azaria as the guy following Norman who turns out to be a “Norman” himself with a similar business card for a non-existent company, and pitches that he can connect powerful people with one another; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman who Norman blabs to on a train, who turns out to be an Israeli prosecutor.

It’s billed as a thriller, but Director Cedar, working from his own screenplay, plays a lot of this material in a comedic fashion by populating the film with doublespeak dialogue and a sometimes silly score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake which is dominated by a bouncy brass section.

NORMAN may take a bit to get going, but once it does it’s a wicked delight. It could be seen as a companion piece to Oren Moverman’s TIME OUT OF MIND, which starred Gere as a delusional homeless man wandering the streets of New York, hoping to re-connect with his daughter.

Gere’s Norman may be homeless himself as while a rent-controlled apartment that he inherited is mentioned, we never see it. He also says he has a daughter, but we’re not sure we believe him. The man who once starred in a movie called POWER, and has made a career out of playing affluent men, is now excelling at playing people who have no power.

Gere used to be an actor that didn’t appeal to me back in the day, but now having seen how good he is at slumming it, he’s earned my respect.

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Friday, May 05, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: Overstuffed But Still A Fun Ride

Now playing everywhere:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

(Dir. James Gunn, 2017)



With the summer movie season upon us, it’s easy to be cynical about big ass, CGI-saturated superhero movies clogging up the multiplexes, but the Marvel machine has a pretty good track record. A couple of times a year, sometimes three, that ginormous franchise factory consistently cranks out comic book adaptations that are mostly quality entertainment.

So that brings us to the second installment to one of the funniest, most offbeat entries in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

VOL. 2 re-unites Chris Pratt as Peter Quill aka Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as the green-skinned Gamora, Dave Bautista as the multicolored Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the CGI-ed characters Rocket the raccoon, and the tiny tree-like Baby Groot.

The film starts by introducing us to Quill’s dad, played by a young Kurt Russell. That’s right, in a scene set in 1980, Russell via camera effects and make-up appears as his 30-year old self, and it’s pretty damn convincing. Russell, whose name is mentioned yet, takes his girlfriend (Laura Haddock), obviously later to be Star-Lord’s mother, to see some sort of alien seedling deal he planted in the woods behind a Dairy Queen somewhere in Missouri.

Flash forward 34 years and we meet up with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they battle a huge inter-dimensional creature with tons of tentacles, and teeth on a platform somewhere in space (they probably had a caption saying where but I don’t remember it). The action takes place largely in the background as the film focuses on Baby Groot cutely dancing up a storm to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground.

The gang’s job is to protect some powerful batteries, the movie’s McGuffin, for some gold-skinned people called the Sovereign led by Elizabeth Debicki as the High Priestess. This is in exchange for Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) so that the Guardians can take her to Xandar to collect her bounty. But then Rocket steals some of the batteries and a chase ensues with a bunch of remotely controlled drones following our heroes into an asteroid field (it’s not the only time this film apes THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, believe me).

Their ship crash lands on some planet (again, I don’t remember the name if there was one), and soon after another vessel that they had seen during the chase sequence lands. Russell, now identified as Ego, appears to reveal himself as Quill’s father, and asks him to come with him to his planet. Rocket and Groot get captured by Michael Rooker, reprising his role as the blue-skinned Yondu Udonta and his team of Ravagers, but a mutiny gets Yondu imprisoned with Rocket. This leads to another scene, one of the film’s funniest, in which Baby Groot keeps bringing the wrong thing instead of Yondu’s red fin head thingie, which can shoot a laser-like arrow through hundreds of attacking Ravagers.

Meanwhile, Quill is bonding with his dad, Ego (they even play catch together with some kind of light orb), but Gamora isn’t so sure that Ego is to be trusted. He’s not, of course, and his sinister plan, that he calls “The Expansion” involves taking over the galaxy with the seedlings planted on every planet. Ego, a character that dates back to 1966, himself is a living planet, you see.

The freshness of the first has evaporated, but VOL. 2 is a fine follow-up overall, but it
’s a bit overlong and overstuffed with way too much going on - I had trouble following some of the chaotic goings on. Also my wife said she thought the father-son emotional content was heavy handed, and I have to agree. I would’ve liked more misdirection surrounding whether Ego is the film’s villain or not as well, but I guess fans of the comic would know that going in.

A new addition to the Guardians is Mantis played by an attenna-sporting Pom Klementieff, who has some funny moments with Bautista’s Drax, who keeps reminding her how hideous he thinks she is.

It was surprising to see Sylvester Stallone in such a small role - that’s right, this movie has both TANGO & CASH – as a high ranking Ravager named Starhawk (Stakar of the House of Ogord), another character that’s been around for decades but I’m just learning about now.

Russell over-acts a bit, but Ego's persona does call for it. The rest of the Pratt-led cast carries out their duties with humorous aplomb, and, like I said on the first one, Rocket may be Coopers best work.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.2 is action and comedy packed enough to be the crowd pleaser its director/screenwriter Gunn wants to be, and the soundtrack – the Awesome Mix Vol. 2 that Pratt’s Quill got at the end of the first one - lives up to its name with a bunch of toe-tapping tunes by the likes of George Harrison, Cheap Trick, Sweet, Jay and the Americans, and Cat Stevens (“Father and Son,” of course). I also enjoyed the David Hasselhoff jokes and cameo – he’s Quill’s father figure idol, you see).

The film’s bloat extends to five, count ‘em, five post credits scenes, so don’t get up when the movie looks like it’s over. I hate seeing those movie-goers that start to walk out and then have to race back or stop in their tracks to watch the stingers. Jeez, everyone should know by now that at a Marvel movie they should stay in their seats until the real finish and the actual studio logo hits the screen. It
’s as expected as the obligatory Stan Lee cameo! We’re 15 movies into the MCU, people - get it together!

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Full Frame 2017: Days Three & Four


This was my ninth year covering the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for Film Babble Blog. I had attended various films before at the event, but my four day coverage became a thing in 2009. Now, I only saw a smidgen of the 90 films shown from last Thursday morning to Sunday night's last screening, mine is, of course, a pretty limited perspective. There were a number of films I missed that I heard great buzz about, like the Frank Stiefels short HEAVEN IS A TRAFFIC JAM ON THE 405, which won a few Full Frame Awards, but I’ll catch up with those later. Here’s what I saw on Saturday and Saunday:

WIELKI TEATR (aka THE GREAT THEATER)

(Dir. Sławomir Batyra, 2016)


This 30-minute short joins STILL TOMORROW and LONG STRANGE TRIP in having an excellent sound design. Whether it’s the echoes through the rafters, or the clamor of the orchestra practicing, or the bustle of assemblers, upholsterers, and prop masters getting the sets for in place, everything audibly pops in Sławomir Batyra’s backstage breakdown of the rehearsals for Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at The Grand Theater (Polish name: Wielki Teatr) in Warsaw. 

There is no voice-over narrator, no interview sound bites, just a series of shots of people doing their jobs in seemingly every nook and cranny of the largest opera theatre in the world with only random voices giving instructions like “Fishermen, to the boats please.” Made up of a number of visually pleasurable shots that match its immersive sound, Batyra film is a wonderfully artful tour of a magnificent venue. 

Post note: THE GREAT THEATER got an honorable mention in the Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short category.

ONE OCTOBER (Dir. Rachel Shuman, 2017) “New York is never the same city for more than a dozen years altogether,” a quote credited to Harper’s Monthly from 1856 starts off this film shot in New York City during October 2008, in the weeks leading up to the historic election of Barack Obama. The film follows WFMU radio host Clay Pigeon around as he interviews random people on the streets, capturing the flavor of that memorable season when the world economy faced its most dangerous crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cinematographer David Sampliner’s camera also captures the Big Apple beautifully in vivid shots, whether of protesters, parades, street musicians, or bird watchers in Central Park, that are interspersed throughout the film. This is enhanced by Paul Brill’s lively score performed by cellist Dave Eggar.

But it’s the people that Pigeon (real name Kacy Ross) talks to that will be the film’s biggest takeaway, like the old coot who says, “listen, the white guys have been in charge for so long, give the black guys a chance, they can’t do worse than we did,” or the young mother who complains about the gentrification of Harlem, “five more years I won’t even be living here, this won’t look like this no more.” The one hour and seven minute ONE OCTOBER is a fine time capsule as is, but I could’ve gone for some more New Yorker straight talk. 

BRONX GOTHIC (Dir. Andrew Rossi, 2017) I had never heard of dancer, writer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili before, but I know I’ll never forget her after this powerful doc about the performance artist’s acclaimed solo show “Bronx Gothic.” 

Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES) films Okpokwasili as she takes her show on tour to small theaters in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Atlanta. Alongside the ample samplings from the show, which depicts the dialogue between two 11-year-old black girls growing up in the Bronx, we also get a glimpse of her life offstage, and with her family. The audience reaction shots are priceless as the performer’s material, demeanor, and especially her chaotic, seizure-like dancing obviously pushes many buttons. 

Okpokwasili, who calls her work 
memories from a rupture that's never been sutured, is an engaging presence so there’s a lot of entertainment value in watching her talk with students, discuss the recent remake of “Roots” with her white husband (Peter Born), and play with her daughter, all elements that give the intense performance art segments a great grounding. I’d be remiss if not to mention how well-timed and funny the woman’s work can be as well. Though what we see of Okpokwasili’s show leans towards darkness, there are cracks where the light gets in. I’d like to see the entire performance some day.

MAY IT LAST: A PORTRAIT OF THE AVETT BROTHERS (Dirs. Judd Apatow & Michael Bonfiglio, 2017) I was a bit distracted as this film began, as the legendary D.A. Pennebaker (DONT LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, THE WAR ROOM, do I need to go on?) sat down next to me in Fletcher Hall ten minutes before the film began. Pennebaker, and his wife and film-making partner Chris Hegedus are regulars at Full Frame who helped get the festival started so it’s not the first time I’ve been in their presence, but the idea of watching a rock doc sitting next to the guy who invented rock docs was hard to shake.

When the doc, which is about the popular North Carolina folk rock band, the Avett Brothers, began and there was footage of the group walking through the hallways of a venue before a show, I couldn’t help but think about how the well worn tropes of following around and filming artists backstage, hanging with them in hotel rooms, and capturing them interacting with fans are all things that the guy to my right did first. But soon into Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s film, I was able to focus on the story of a band I basically knew nothing about. 

Hailing from Mount Pleasant, N.C., Scott and Seth Avett are depicted as two simple farm boys who get along great together unlike other famous musician brothers like Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, or those damn Gallaghers in Oasis. They start off rebelling against the country music of their father’s generation and take to wanting to be Nirvana, but they returned to their roots after a revelatory encounter with bluegrass icon Doc Watson at Merlefest, the musician’s annual traditional-music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C.

The doc takes us through the Avett Brothers’ career, but largely focuses on the making of their 2016 album, “True Sadness.” One of the film’s highlights is a stirring studio take of “No Hard Feelings,” which emotionally drains the brothers. They ask producer Rick Rubin if they can take a break and Scott and Seth walk outside to regain their composure as various folks congratulate them on the performance. Alone, they discuss how weird it feels to get complimented for work that calls upon very personal, naked feelings (particularly about Seth’s 2013 divorce). The scene reminded me of something Bob Dylan said when complimented on his classic 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks,” which many felt dealt with his divorce, “It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”

Speaking of Dylan, the guy who shot famous footage of his legendary 1965 and 1966 tours was right next to me! Sorry, back to the Avett Brothers. 


Despite having seen them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro back in 2005, I’m not really familiar with much of their music but I enjoyed the concert sequences, and may give them more of a listen as a result of this fine summation of the Avett ethos. The screening was well received by the audience, but the panel Q & A afterwards in which guests Scott Avett, the band’s cellist Joe Kwon, and codirector Michael Bonfiglio came onstage to great applause, was a lovefest with questioners who the band often recognized from their gigs taking them for their music more than asking them questions.

The last film I saw at the fest was Yance Ford’s STRONG ISLAND, which was an encore on Sunday afternoon because it won two awards at Full Frame’s Awards Barbeque at noon: the Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award.

The awards are well deserved as Ford’s film is an impassioned exploration of his brother’s murder by a mechanic in Long Island, New York in 1992. William Ford Jr., 24-year-old black teacher, was going to confront the people at an auto repair shop who weren’t fixing his family’s car after an accident that was actually caused by the same people. William was unarmed, but was shot and killed by .22 caliber rifle fired by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic. Reilly was not indicted by a white judge and an all-white jury for the crime and went free, while the Ford family sat in mourning helplessly by.

In extreme close-ups, Ford, pours his heart out about the grief over his brother’s senseless killing, the racist system, and his transgender coming out, while his mother, Barbara, and sister, Lauren, give us their takes on this angering, all too common tragedy.

A well made, straight forward, and up close and personal film that wrestles with the wounds from injustice that can never be healed. STRONG ISLAND is one of the strongest documentary debuts I’ve ever seen.

I probably could’ve come up with a better last line for that review, but I’m tired after four days of docs in Durham so it
ll have to do. 

So that’s Full Frame 2017! It was one of my favorites of all the years I’ve attended.

If you haven’t already, please check out my coverage of Days One, and Two.

More later...