Criticism, Movies

DVD Review: ‘Winter’s Tale’

No Comments 24 June 2014

Don't hate me because I have a bad haircut: Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay (Warner Brothers)

Don’t hate me because I have a bad haircut: Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay (Warner Brothers)

We all have those movies that everybody seems to hate but we love — and now that “Winter’s Tale” is out on video, isn’t it worth a second look? Here’s what I had to say when the romantic fantasy came out theatrically:

“Winter’s Tale” will never be confused with “Nymphomania.” There is nothing hip, or shocking, or cutting edge about it. There is not one sex scene where you wonder: how did they film that, much less how did they do that?

Still, for a snow-slammed Valentine’s Day (on the East Coast at least), what could be better than escaping to the theater and falling for Colin Farrell? Or “Downton Abbey” beauty Jessica Brown Findlay, who played the littlest sister that took up with the chauffeur for love.

At the movie’s dynamic opening sequence set in Gilded Age New York, there is a confusing moment (some would and have said it is all confusing) when Colin Farrell’s Peter Lake hops on an enormous white horse. In a single bound, hero and beast escape the brutal Pearly Soames (a snarly, scarf aced Russell Crowe) and his henchmen by flying over an impossibly high iron fence.

The key to enjoying “Winter’s Tale” is making that leap into fantasy with Lake. The love story, directed by Akiva Goldsman, from his adaptation of Mark Helprin’s novel, is a time-bending action romance with production and costume design as rich as Godiva Chocolates.

Lake’s thief carries a Dickensian backstory. Soames plucked the immigrant orphan off the cobble-stoned streets. He mentored the lad until Lake grew into New York’s best burglar. It’s a hard-knock life.

But, now, Lake wants out, inspiring his mentor’s wrathy wrath. In a one-last-job plot twist, Lake burgles a Central Park West mansion on the way out of Dodge. He thinks it’s vacant, but encounters its sole remaining resident, Beverly Penn (Brown Findlay). The pre-Raphaelite beauty has just a touch of a very deadly, wasting fever. Just a touch, but definitely terminal.

Romance ensues (ill-fated, of course), just as surely as Soames’ relentless vengeance.

Farrell rarely gets to be this unabashedly romantic. Even as the drunken father (and title character) in “Saving Mr. Banks,” he sweated charm in an overlooked supporting performance. Not only is he easy on the eyes, but he’s a self-effacing and good-natured romantic hero. He holds the swagger – and leaves all that macho stuff to Crowe.

Crowe, the lead in “A Beautiful Mind,” meets up with “I, Robot” star Will Smith for a Goldsman reunion where they both break bad. There’s a trippy interplay between Soames — he’s not just bad, he’s demonic — and his supervisor, Judge (Smith), a.k.a. Beelzebub. If you can go with the white horse’s leap, you can cope with the loose-limbed black magical meeting of Smith and Crowe.

Devilishly lush, with jaw-dropping set pieces and a fantastic supporting cast, “Winter’s Tale” mixes action, fantasy and romance for a less cynical time. Remember: Critics didn’t like the similarly PG-13 romantic fantasy “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” either, or have much good to say about all those Nicholas Sparks movies. Follow your heart. Or follow Farrell.

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Books, Criticism

Book Review: ‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst

No Comments 21 June 2014

Midnight in Europe: A NovelMidnight in Europe: A Novel by Alan Furst

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Has Alan Furst spoiled me for Alan Furst? He remains one of my favorite authors of historical espionage. I pre-buy every new volume, although his last book, “Mission to Paris,” about a Hollywood actor spying in Europe was the least satisfying. In “Midnight in Europe,” the research is impeccable. The prose pristine. The psychological insight astute. The women characters intrigue; the protagonist wise and complicated.

Again we have a chapter from the WWII playbook, a slice that evokes the whole: a sophisticated Spanish-born lawyer living in Paris moonlights in the arms trade in service of the Spanish Republic in 1938. While we know that Franco’s fascists won this battle, and that the Nazi’s will rise even further in the coming years, Furst builds suspense in the way that small acts of courage build to impact large strategic movements — or fall by the wayside in futility.

Still, the romantic underpinnings of this particular volume — between the lawyer and a mysterious Marquesa, and a Manhattan library worker — seems particularly forced, as if even Furst had tired of creating these couplings. And that could be because I know Furst too well, and found this book a less compelling read than “The Polish Officer,” “Red Gold,” or “Night Soldiers.” Maybe I am ready for Furst to reach back to his Eric Ambler roots and go darker, quirkier, even as his elegant novels gain wider recognition within the literary mainstream.

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Books, Criticism

Book Review: David Downing’s ‘Jack of Spies’

No Comments 07 June 2014

Jack of SpiesJack of Spies by David Downing

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes I worry that all my reviews are positive and that will seem phony. The truth of the matter is that I’m very picky about what I read, and tend not to write about those things that I do not like. But two things drew me to Downing’s latest novel: that Soho Press published it, and that the Washington Post said of his work: “In the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr.”

The problem with that review is overpraise. Furst is absolutely one of my favorite authors, not only because he teaches me, through his own extensive research, about the activities in the shadows during WWII, but also because his characters are so psychologically rich. He truly carries on the tradition of Eric Ambler and “A Coffin for Dimitrios.” If anything, Furst can sometimes be a little too romantic. And his female characters are complex and complicated.

But it’s not fair to spend this space over-talking about Furst (and I could go on about Kerr, too). Downing’s book — set before WW1 and hooked to a Scottish-born British spy — is well-researched but unmoving. There are times when the dialog is just an information infusion — these are not people talking but exposition donkeys.

The central romantic relationship between the ambiguous hero, Jack McColl, and an insufferably modern Irish-American journalist suffragette, left me cold. They had sex, and sex again, in hotels and on board trains and ships, but never seem to use protection — and talk the most nonsense politics.

Furst and Kerr drew me to try this author, with a nod from the Washington Post, but the comparison only reinforces how much more brilliant those authors are, weaving historical details into rich, psychologically complex and ultimately satisfying fiction. (Furst even more than Kerr.) I am always looking for authors of their caliber — and often, I must go back in time to Ambler and those still undiscovered writers, rather than contemporary authors like the tepid Downing.

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Criticism, Movies

Critic’s Pick: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

No Comments 17 February 2014

Grand Budapest HotelBill Murray whisked onto the stage wearing a small black hat and funeral formal wear to introduce Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at the opening night of the Berlin International Film Festival. Murray proclaimed that this was Anderson’s best movie. “It will blow the hair right off your head,” he told the overflow crowd at the Friedrichstadt-Palast with the kind of hyperbole audiences get accustomed to at premieres.

Right, Bill. We’ll be the judge of that!

But here’s the surprise: Murray was absolutely right!

The “Moonrise Kingdom” director has conquered scale and story, and found a perfect balance between humor and deep emotion. His antic period piece about a “liberally perfumed” concierge of a once-grand Eastern European resort, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and his lobby boy protégé, Zero Moustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), is charming, wondrous, nostalgic and dazzlingly original.

[Related: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Clip: The Concierge Did it?]

At the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a radiant character study, illuminated by a brilliant yet soulful performance from Fiennes. In his best comic turn to date, Fiennes inhabits a man dedicated to his profession and a fading social order beautifully described in voiceover: “His world had vanished long before he entered it.”

Fiennes gives color and depth to his preening gallant with a penchant for elderly women. Sure, he is blond, vain, and needy, but he also has an abundance of old-world charm. And he demonstrates a genuine affection as he services the elderly widows that regularly visit his hotel. So, if they leave him lavish gifts, does that really diminish their passion?

The plot thickens, as it must, when one of these tottering grande dames (played by Tilda Swinton in aging make-up that would have made Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover swoon) dies under dodgy circumstances. Her will names Gustave as a beneficiary, setting into motion her avaricious son (Adrien Brody) and his vicious henchman (Willem Dafoe). The pair pursues Gustave to The Grand to squash him like an unwanted codicil.

All of this is fun and fluid, fueled by marvelous set pieces: a slalom chase down a snowy mountain with sled and skis, a Rube Goldberg of a jail break, a reading of the will straight out of a cockeyed live version of “Clue.” The supporting characters curtsy in and out: Swinton and Murray, F. Murray Abraham and Edward Norton and Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan as the Lobby Boy’s beloved baker.

[Related: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Clip: The Police are Here]

Anderson has mastered a hipster Barbie Dream-house style of set and costume design in movies like 2012′s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Bolstered by a dry wit, with an irony allergy and an ensemble cast of regulars, his movies can come perilously close to being “twee.” The danger is that they glitter like groovy snow globes, but never achieve the kind of emotional resonance toward which Anderson is reaching.

That’s absolutely not the case here. The whole is larger than the set pieces, although those work, too. And Anderson has scaled new heights at the corner of storytelling and emotion. The love he clearly feels for his characters — flawed though they are, petty, vindictive, with an array of sexual peccadilloes and peculiar hairstyles — flows from the screen and seduces the audience.

And, while the elements reflect the merits of “Moonrise Kingdom,” or my favorite, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson paces it perfectly. He gets the balance right between the big and small characters, reveling in the set decoration and costumes but not tripping over the furniture or becoming tangled in the wigs.

The danger here — like Murray’s superlative pronouncement at the premiere’s start that this is Anderson’s best — is to raise expectations too high. This is delicate fluffy stuff, a glorious pastel macaroon of a movie. And it should be savored, not over-thought or overcooked.

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Criticism, Movies

Critic’s Pick: ‘Nebraska’

No Comments 26 November 2013

Dern, Forte in black and white (Photo Credit Paramount Pictures)

Dern, Forte in black and white (Photo Credit Paramount Pictures)

In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Bruce Dern reveals flesh, bone, even DNA, and the kind of screen wisdom built on years of experience, good and bad. It’s a performance that may very well pit him against another sage actor of the same age come Oscar time.

At the center of Bob Nelson’s subtle, funny-sad script is Woody Grant (Dern), a disappointing and disappointed Midwestern father on a quixotic mission to redeem a dubious lottery ticket. The septuagenarian travels from Montana to the Cornhusker State despite the disapproval of his bristly wife Kate (a tartly perfect June Squibb), and with his reluctant son David at the wheel. Along the way, in dribs and drabs, switchbacks and a lost set of dentures, Woody reclaims his dignity and reaffirms the core values of America without waving a single flag.

[Related: Academy Conversations: "Nebraska" with Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Albert Berger]

Dern, At 77, born during the Great Depression in the same year as “All is Lost’s” rugged Robert Redford, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected president, gives the transcendent performance of a very long career that began with playing an uncredited local in Elia Kazan’s Montgomery Clift drama “Wild River.” The man has been around — and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival last Spring for playing Woody.

It’s as if everything Dern has ever seen, every lesson he’s ever learned (or unlearned), and all the guidance of Payne, who told the actor “don’t show us anything, Bruce, let us find it,” has culminated in this performance, this comic Cornhusker Don Quixote. At his side is Forte, who has flipped the switch from comedy to drama with a still, soulful-eyed performance. And Squibb creates the signature moment of her career when Kate visits her hometown cemetery and lifts her skirt in front of a long-dead high school suitor to show she still has game.

In iconic black and white, the brilliant, empathetic Payne (“Sideways”) delivers another fully realized road movie – and Oscar contender. It’s a homecoming for the Omaha native that drives deep into America’s heartland, and the heart of a single fly-over family, the Grants. The funny-sad film starts shaggy as Woody wanders along the blistered side of a Montana highway on a ridiculous odyssey to his home state, then achieves a deeply moving finish with the realization that sometimes what we want is small potatoes, not millions, a newish truck, and the look of respect, even love, in the eyes of an estranged son.

Bottom Line: Visit “Nebraska” and the great state of Alexander Payne

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