★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on ambition, prison-break drama “Papillon,” based on the autobiography of Henri Charrière, suffers from pacing and tonal issues so severe that at times they take the enjoyment out of what should be thrilling and exhilarating moments. It requires patience to endure these miscalculations especially considering the fact that the film clocks in at about a hundred fifty minutes. An argument can be made that it is too long and bloated.
Perhaps most enjoyable is the performances. Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman play Henri and Louis, a safecracker framed for a murder of a pimp (or so he claims) and a counterfeiter, respectively, prisoners in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. The power is not in the words they utter but the moments in between. They can look at one another, at the sky or the ocean, or at someone that they pity or are angry toward—and not much else is needed. This pair could have relied on their charm, physicality, or behavioral quirks. Instead, they choose to create convincing characters that we wish to make a successful escape not because it would be entertaining but rather we become convinced eventually that if they were to get a second chance at a free life, they would use it wisely.
I admired how the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. takes the time to show how it is like to be in this particular prison, especially solitary confinement. This is when the languid pacing is at its most effective because we see and feel the psychological toll the prisoner undergoes over time. We appreciate the size of the cell, the etchings on walls, what the previous man who lived in that cell was possibly thinking, the food served, or lack thereof, the bugs crawling across the floor, the classical conditioning based on the sound made by guards on the hallway. When the material provides a high level of specificity, it is fascinating. However, it reverts to becoming a prison break movie.
The act of making an escape should be suspenseful and thrilling. While I enjoyed there is no gadgetry, complex planning, and special effects are kept at a bare minimum, observe these scenes closely and recognize they come across somewhat slapstick at times. I considered the editing. Maybe it lingers a second or two too long after a guard is hit over the head that it leaves enough room for the overacting to come across as fake. I considered the rather uninteresting perspective of the camera, how it tends to observe from one angle and dares not budge even when the subjects are running for their lives. I even considered the lack of an exciting score that is designed to snap the viewers out of ennui. Maybe if the silly sound effects were masked a bit, it would have been more exciting and less amusing.
Perhaps all of these elements combined created the unintended byproduct.
“Papillon” is surprising in that it is not character-driven. Take a look at the relationship between Henri and Louis. While it is interesting that they are not quite friends, more like two people who need each other since what one lacks the other can offer, they are not that interesting when together or apart—especially when the script requires that they speak with one another about, for example, planning an escape or why one ought to partake in escaping. The lives of these two men divorced from the prison are described briefly, but these come across as decorations rather than convincing realities.
Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Comedies involving dysfunctional families are easy to make: throw in a bunch of superficially quirky personalities in a carbonated situation, shake it vigorously, and watch the reaction occur. But to make a good comedy that just so happens to focus on a dysfunctional family requires a bit more effort, some finesse, because the viewers are asked to attempt to understand how each mind is working, why certain personalities clash, and what present conflicts stem from which histories, real or imagined. Clearly, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, belongs to the latter because it concerned about mental machinations and acrobatics behind behavior.
The characters we are asked to observe have been touched by the art world one way or another. Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch, has two sons (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and a daughter (Elizabeth Marvel), none of whom have forged a career in the arts as he had once wished or expected. Harold the sculptor and former Bard College professor is an interesting specimen because although he does not mince words not once does he say outright that he is disappointed with his children.
Instead, the material and Hoffman focus on showing, occasionally underlining, what seeps through the cracks. We can catch the father’s regrets in the way he treats his children, one of them being the clear favorite but a disappointment nonetheless. Notice numerous instances in which he and his offsprings, as a group or one-on-one, are sitting on the same table but consistently talking through one another. Some may consider this technique as classic comedy trope but peer closer and realize that it is a symptom of passive aggression.
The script functions on this level of intelligence and realism throughout the entire picture. It is refreshing to hear the way people actually speak or behave with one another as we do in real life rather than yet another tired and true ideations gracing the screen. Although the dysfunctional family sub-genre is rife with clichés, Baumbach tweaks the formula just enough to keep the material interesting, whether it be in terms of characterization or how a scene is delivered. An example of the latter involves fading to black right in the middle of interactions, sometimes mid-conversation, when the punchline has been delivered.
Although the characters are well-drawn in general, I was less impressed by Sandler and Stiller’s performances, particularly when they revert to their go-to histrionics to wring laughter out of the audience. I enjoyed it best when they simply respond as real people when thrusted in certain situations. Yelling like madmen, destroying cars, and getting into a scuffle on a lawn, for instance, take us out of the situation. Right then we see Sandler and Stiller the comedians rather than Danny and Matthew the long-suffering half-brothers, the former currently unemployed and the latter a successful Los Angeles-based financial advisor.
Baumbach does not offer anything new in this project, but it is entertaining and honest about family dynamics and the shifts that inevitably occur when tragedy befalls a clan. Observant viewers will be rewarded because it is a picture that details information through subtle usage of words and body language.
Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.
Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.
The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.
De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.
Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.
The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.
★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the fact that Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is a good actor, he finds himself unable to book an acting job in New York City. Casting directors tell him that they need someone a little older, a little younger, or that he has the wrong height. The truth is he has the tendency to argue with whomever is in charge and eventually no one wants to work with him. George (Sydney Pollack) knows this and, as Michael’s agent and friend, he tells the frustrated actor the reality of the situation: Michael Dorsey is not bookable. Taking this to heart, Michael creates a new identity: Dorothy Michaels, an aging actress with a personality so forceful and confident, right away she snags a role in a soap opera.
I think cross-dressing is difficult to pull off in the movies. In good hands, genuinely funny situational comedy can be created through mistaken identities coupled with inspired physical gags. On the other hand, the material might end up cynical, offensive, and hateful. Many people equate cross-dressing with homosexuality, the latter often being feared and reviled. But director Sydney Pollack fills “Tootsie” with a lot of positive energy. It is not just a movie about a man dressing up as a woman. It is also a farce. It comments on lives of actors who are struggling to make it in the big city, it shows what might happen behind the screens of a soap opera, and it underlines the unfair treatment of working women.
The script glistens with terrific dialogue. What is projected onto the screen and what can be heard from the speakers pop because the performers are backed by strings of words that someone might actually say. Because the exchanges have verve, a few jokes that do not quite work, for instance, are easily overlooked. I smiled through them because I know that sometimes people try make jokes but the jokes are only funny in their heads or their way of delivering punchlines are a bit off. Since the dialogue is realistic but fun to listen to, some of its flaws become part of the charm.
Hoffman’s performance amused me. I would not say that he makes a very convincing woman, but I could not stop staring at him. In my eyes, he gave two performances: as a man who is angry that no one will cast him and as a man dressed up as woman who has a genuine fear of being found out. The anger and the fear are played for laughs, but there are enough details embedded in Hoffman’s carefully calculated performance that serious undercurrents are detectable by perspicacious audiences. Both Michael and Dorothy are enjoyable to watch because Hoffman’s approach is fresh: he does not turn them into caricatures.
What did not work for me is the subplot involving Julie (Jessica Lange), Dorothy’s co-star in the soap opera. While the progress of the friendship between Julie and Dorothy is occasionally interesting, I grew tired of Julie’s constant whining. Most annoying is the problem between her and her boyfriend—their situation is not only stereotypical, it is also underwritten. As a result, I did not buy into Julie’s inevitable changes. Also, there is a line uttered somewhere in the middle that should have allowed Julie to figure out Dorothy’s true identity. It is a glaring misstep because Julie is not stupid but she is treated like she was. It would have been surprising and more challenging if Julie had known earlier that Dorothy was a man. It would have provided an additional twist to the story.
And yet despite the miscalculation, “Tootsie,” adapted to the screen by Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson, Elaine May, and Murray Schisgal, remains entertaining because it continues to move forward, never allowing a joke to go stale while on the plate. It juggles several funny assumptions, implications, and situations without drawing too much attention on how clever it all is. If it had felt too self-aware, the point might have rested on the cosmetics, the wig, and the outfits instead of the man underneath the disguise.
Barney’s Version (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Mordecai Richler’s novel, “Barney’s Version” tracked the journey of a man from his first marriage with a woman he got pregnant (Rachelle Lefevre) until the end of his highly eventful life. Barney (Paul Giamatti) was in a quest to find love. He thought he found it when he met a woman with a Master’s Degree. She was vulgar but rich, sometimes charming, but insensitive to his needs. She didn’t like being talked down to but she was unaware of the way she talked down to Barney. On the night of his wedding, Barney met Miriam (Rosamund Pike), an intelligent, eloquent, and humble woman. Barney was convinced his second marriage was a mistake so he searched for opportunities to get divorced. Miriam didn’t want to be involved with a married man. “Barney’s Version,” directed by Richard J. Lewis, captured my interest and challenged my opinion of its characters because of the way it paid attention to its many complicated, at times volatile, relationships. Take Barney and his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman). While two shared more than a handful of amusing moments which often involved drinking and discussions of making love with as many women as possible, the screenplay surprised me because it wasn’t afraid to experiment with the atmosphere between them. When Barney needed advice, Izzy was there for insightful fatherly advice. They weren’t just father and son. They were also great friends. I also loved watching Barney and Izzy’s marriage unfold. The picture was fearless in exploring the awkward feeling of one perhaps thinking that he or she was putting more into the relationship that his or her counterpart. We don’t have to be married to relate. Since their relationship was based on friendship first, we can relate that feeling to our own group of friends. The film also succeeded in framing the unsaid: the struggle in the ennui of the every day, the craving for a bit of space because certain charming habits evolved into minor annoyances, and the expected level of respect when something is important to someone. Barney and Miriam were smart people. They didn’t need to yell or scream at each other to express their frustrations and disappointments. After all, empty barrels make the most noise. They knew neither of them was perfect so, when they faced a hardship, they took comfort in their love for one another. I did wish, however, that we learned more about Barney’s relationship with his son and daughter. Parents love their kids as much as their partner in marriage (or even more so) and I thought it was strange that there weren’t many scenes of Barney interacting with his kids. In a way, despite the ups and downs in his life, Barney was very lucky. He was not necessarily gifted in terms of physical appearance but he had everything he needed to lead a wonderful life. We watch him and are reminded that life is worth living with a glass half full.
All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
Tale of Despereaux, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of people were disappointed by this animated flick but I must say that I enjoyed it. It may not be as intelligently written or have as deep a story as most Pixar films bit it had enough heart to keep me interested from beginning to end. Matthew Broderick lends his voice as Despereaux, a mouse of small stature with big eyes, big ears and a strong sense of smell. He’s not like any other mouse because he doesn’t know how to be scared of certain things like a typical mouse should. In fact, he thrives on the excitement of acquiring cheese from mousetraps and reading books instead of eating them. I thought the first part of the film was fascinating in a psychological point of view because Despereaux, a youngster mouse, is encouraged to be scared of pretty much everything. Even though he is a mouse, he describes himself as a gentleman who is brave and honorable. The joke/reverse psychology works in its own universe and as a lesson for younger viewers. However, what did not work as well for me was Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman). Roscuro accidentally “killed” the queen (via drowning in soup or a heart attack?) which drives the king to banish rats out of the kingdom as well as cooking soup, which is the kingdom’s source of happiness. As the kingdom plunges into a depression, Roscuro feels extreme guilt and, like Despereaux, he feels like an outcast and seeks redemption. The third outcast is Miggery Sow who I initially thought had some sort of a mental disorder but, with a little bit of psychoanalysis, I eventually came to a conclusion that she wants to be treated like a princess (instead of actually being one as she portrayed) because she wasn’t loved as a child. Although her character wasn’t as developed as I wanted it to be, what I liked about her part of the story was that it was open to interpretation. I thought it was weird how Roscuro and Miggery Sow, one way or another, become a villain and I wasn’t sure of the filmmakers wanted the audiences to think that. This is one of those films that could’ve benefited more if it had a longer running time. It tried to tackle three main characters but it wasn’t successful because the last two I mentioned weren’t explored enough. Other notable voices include Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Lloyd. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s books, “The Tale of Despereaux” may not have been a critical success but the animation is impressive and it has enough implications for the older audiences if one were to look closely.