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Out in Theaters: ‘THE BOOK OF HENRY’

The Book of Henry, only the third film from “indie” director wunderkind Colin Trevorrow, plays like a film adaptation of a best selling novel. There’s sudden shocking twists, richly drawn, if brazenly over-the-top, characters and a hurried pace that all coalesce to feel like the product of 300 pages of prose siphoned into a 100-page screenplay. Big, bold and unpredictable, Henry unfolds like a suburban Dan Brown novel; it’s pulpy and scrumptious while it lasts, brimming with sudden breakneck turns that veer the narrative into perpetual new territory, but won’t leave much of an imprint once you’ve slammed it shut. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘DEMOLITION’

Life has a tendency to zip forward on a single, amusement ride track until something or someone comes barreling out of the shadows of entropy to buck your stated momentum and set you serendipitously down a new path. 17th century physicist Isaac Newton described the phenomenon in which colliding forces impress upon one another an equal and opposite reaction in his famous Third Law, which describes both why someone struck by a moving vehicle would find their chest caved in and someone catching a bad edge going a cool 30 mph on decade old skis would find their wrist contorted in all kinds of wrong directions. Read More

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SXSW ’16 Review: ‘DEMOLITION’

Life has a tendency to zip forward on a single, amusement ride track until something or someone comes barreling out of the shadows of entropy to buck your stated momentum and set you serendipitously down a new path. 17th century physicist Isaac Newton described the phenomenon in which colliding forces impress upon one another an equal and opposite reaction in his famous Third Law, which describes both why someone struck by a moving vehicle would find their chest caved in and someone catching a bad edge going a cool 30 mph on decade old skis would find their wrist contorted in all kinds of wrong directions. Read More

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Out in Theaters: WHILE WE’RE YOUNG

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Most men buy a cherry red Corvette when they hit their midlife crisis. They dye their hair back to black (speaking of, how has AC/DC never done a Clairol commercial?) and date 20-year old models (here’s looking at you Anthony Keidis). But not Noah Baumbach. The 46-year old independent filmmaker who hails from Brooklyn is all about taking his halfway point in the old game of life with a modest dose of thoughtful reflection. In his now trilogy of brusque analyses on postmodern youth, he has come to terms with the train of aging rather than running down the tracks from it.

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Out in Theaters: BIRDMAN

Unlike quite anything else, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman is a surrealist commentary on 21st century franchise culture, absolutely pumped full of energy, wit and scintillating satire. A massively relevant take on modernity, Iñárritu’s restless film comes dressed up as black comedy but resonates wholeheartedly with the slobbish zeitgeist du jour. Truth, it seems, can come masked in all sorts of outfits. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ST. VINCENT

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I could watch Bill Murray read a phone book. Or hose down a patch of dirt. Correction: I did watch Bill Murray hose down a patch of dirt. For about five minutes. This is what makes up the end credits of St. Vincent, a somewhat sentimentally told tale of a sun-ripened curmudgeon softened by the articulate innocence of the new runt neighbor kid. The kicker is a brilliant ploy to get people to stay through the bitter end: frame Bill Murray chewing a cigarette, rambling along to Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”, playing with a watering hose. I’d watch Murray butcher Dylan all day.

Eleven years after Lost in Translation, nine years out from Broken Flowers, Murray’s career has been more an internet sensation than anything resembling that of a hard worker’s. He picks his project like I shop for pomegranates. Very carefully, except sometimes when, fuck it. And good on him. But don’t get me wrong: Bill Murray is the best thing that has ever happened to the internet and, quite possibly, humankind. He lends his face to each and every Wes Anderson project, to the undying thanks of this critic (though he hasn’t had anything particularly juicy since what I just might consider his best ever role as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic). He mic dropped perhaps the ultimate all time cameo in Zombieland (the man really needs to be knighted the king of meta). He even tried his best for gold with the critically dumped upon Hyde Park on Hudson, the FDR handjob in a field story. With St. Vincent, Murray’s not only returned to comedy but to the spotlight. Where he belongs.

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Throughout the years, the one thing that has made Murray so infinitely watchable is his 8-mile thick slab of sarcasm, a trait that writer/director Theodore Melfi exploits to the fullest. With a (not totally consistent) Brooklyn accent, Murray’s drab sense of banter makes him the perfect jackass. Here’s a guy who’ll crash into his own fence, blame it on the neighbor and insist she pay for it. And yet, we’re still able to like him through it all. He gets cut off at the bar (with child in tow), smashes a glass and is kindly escorted out. Who other than Murray could pull off such a feat?

After a night of particularly committed drinking, Murray smashes up his face like he owes himself money. Bleedy, grumpy and hungover, he emerges from his dinky man-cave the next morning to a moving truck smashing its way through his yard. Without holding back a full blown hissy fit, he meets new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her shrimpy son Oliver, played by notably not annoying newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. Maggie’s a single mom and an MRI tech so her hours are numbered. When Oliver gets a beat down at his new Catholic school – Chris O’Dowd plays his irreverent but nonetheless clerically collared teacher – he’s sans keys and can no longer get into his house. With a politely timed “Excuse me, sir?”, he asks to take shelter in the very, very humble abode of the crotchety “but interesting” neighbor, Vincent.

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At first, Vincent treats Oliver as one would a louse with halitosis. He makes him a plate of sardines and saltines (a dish my inner-child would very much not be opposed to) and calls it sushi. He takes him to the bar to get some drinking done. “Shut up” is the word of the day most days. He’s the babysitter equivalent of Taz, after a bottle of bourbon and a bong rip. Along the way, the two become accidentally close (as they always do in movies of this sort.) A trip to the horse races is laced with a real mix of uplifting dramatics and laugh out loud humor. There’s a montage to follow that will get you grinning like a loon. But it always comes undone. Vincent won’t ever leave good enough alone and Melfi won’t let his lovable asshole off that easily.

There’s tension were it needed be – bookie tough guy Terrence Howard adds nothing to the bigger picture – and that distracts from the emotional honesty at St. Vincent‘s core but as it crescendos towards its heart-rending finale, you’ll find yourself uncommonly willing to forgive it its sins. Scenes Vincent shares with his hospitalized wife are few – almost leaving me (shockingly) wanting more – and handled with delicacy and care, the touch of a director with real sensitivity. The more layers of the onion we peel back on old man Vincent, the more pavement is laid for the barrage of third act lumps in your throat.

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By most accounts, St. Vincent shouldn’t work. It’s too tender in some parts, too chewy in others, like a microwaved steak. The conveniences are many, the happy resolution unnaturally tidy. Cruddy, pervy old men, though cruddy and pervy, can be made of gold. We’ve seen it before. It’s basically the Weinsteins’ retelling of Bad Grandpa. And did I mention Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian prostitute? That casting alone is unthinkable strange, but it somehow works. And like the choppy cadence of Watts’ prego lady of the night, it moves indelicately, but ultimately wins us over. It just goes to show that maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when you’re old dog is Bill Murray, you don’t need any new tricks at all. Then, the old ones do just fine.

B

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Out in Theaters: DIANA

“Diana”
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Cas Anvar, Daniel Pirrie, Charles Edwards, Geraldine James
Biography, Drama, Romance
113 Mins
PG-13

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A princess locked away in her castle has never been quite as dull as in Diana. Even her knight in shining armor is a touchy troglodyte, so petrified of being in the public eye that he’d sooner bury his passion under a callused doctoral turtle shell than mumble “I love you” one more time. Diana keeps telling us to root for this unlikely and spotted relationship and yet we see it clearly for how fickle and irrevocably broken it is, eviscerating all emotional attachment and leaving its audience with cold feet.

While Diana the woman was a visionary humanitarian, Diana the movie is blind to its own half-baked inconsequentiality – a relic of biography as bore that has no place in the rom-com market it nearly exists in. A shining example of the tail wagging the dog, Diana is tugged through the mud with its lackluster “universal love story” front and center, a mistakenly proud icon of this flunky biopic.

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Rather than focusing on Princess Diana’s chest of civil achievements, Oliver Hirschbiegel contents himself with this turkey of a love story. In doing so, he misses out on establishing historical interest and wholly makes us wonder why he chose to make a film about Diana at all since this lame love story could have belonged to pretty much anyone else.

Entirely uninterested in stirring the pot, Diana presents events that take place behind closed doors as fact and headlines as monuments to her character. With a narrative that’s pierced by moments of tabloid iconography and held in place by the glue of hearsay, there’s nothing to learn about Diana here apart from that one fated schoolgirl crush on an unlikable doctor.

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As Diana, Naomi Watts is sadly unremarkable. Rather than a woman of action, she drifts like a puppy dog, hopping from cause to cause like they’re islands in the tropics, never taking a moment for deeper introspection. While Watts assumes some of Diana’s physical tendencies, there is little to award for her performance as Diana: The Princess of Tedium. Naveen Andrews is similarly disappointing, embodying a character that you never really like much less fall in love with. It’s hard to tell though how much fault belongs to Andrews though as his character is unfitting of this love saga – his hardened, driven persona incongruous with the stuff of true love fables.

Worse than the parts of their two fruitless performances is its sum. Even a blind man could see that there is no great love here. In fact, there hardly seems to be any love at all. Chemistry between Andrews and Watts is mostly invisible and consistently as sultry as a wool blanket. Little more than a wet dream fantasy overcooked in an Easy Bake Oven of delusion, their relationship is borderline pathetic, much less inspiring.

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Having based the entire film around this floundering relationship, Hirschbiegel has set it up for inevitable failure. In romance, there is joy, but there is no joy here. No, just a wandering stream of historical conscientiousness built on a creaky foundation of overwrought infatuation.

Perhaps most unforgivable of all is how long Diana seems to stretch on – it’s an endless desert of enjoyment without the mirage of anything better to come. A mere ten minutes in, I was checking my watch. From there on out, it hardly improves.

The most harrowing aspects of Diana’s life are surely found in her relationship with her celebrity status but even that is treated with clumsy hands. For Diana, every outing is a exercise in dodging her inescapable fandom. The claustrophobia of the public forum – a space that’s constantly transformed into the most intimate of photo shoots – is palpably noxious. But as she waffles between celebrity and infamy, her relationship with the press remains largely unchanged, as if no one thought to account for the impact of her shifting public persona.

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For all the psychological trauma that these snapping cameras seem to cause Diana, little light is shed on her emotional burden. Rather, Hirschbiegel vilifies the press – here seen as an animalistic force operating solely under the “sharks to blood” mentality. Like a maiden set for sacrifice, Diana’s destruction comes across as inevitable. As if her high horse was just waiting to buck her off while everyone snapped photos and passed judgment. But for all of the supposing about Diana’s frail mental state, nothing ever sets. There’s nothing definitive about Diana in Diana, a film that is definitively dull.

There must have been some attempt along the way to reciprocate Diana’s perpetual boredom, a state brought upon by her princess locked away in a tower qualities, but boring your audience is something else entirely – something you steer clear of at all expenses. Closer in kind to a Hallmark movie than any biopic of substance, this torpid film gives ennui the royal treatment.

D-

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Talking with Oliver Hirschbiegel of DIANA

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There’s probably not a person on Earth who couldn’t tell you who Princess Diana is, and yet public knowledge of her is only surface deep. Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) aims to settle that score with his biopic Diana. Known for his unblinking film biographies of historical figures, famous (Princess Diana) and infamous (Hitler) alike, Hirschbiegel hopes to unearth the humanity in these people, digging deeper than the surface snapshot we so often focus on. Set to turn an icon into a person, he tucks into Princess Diana like she’s a girl next door who just so happens to live in a castle.

 

Together, Oliver and I spoke about how the universal love story of Diana transformed the princess’s humanitarian work, why Naomi Watts was the only choice to play Diana, how he didn’t even recognize Naveen Andrews as Lost‘s Sayid until filming was done, the Royal family and filming right at the gates of the castle.


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In making a biopic of such a superstar and massive international icon, what did you think was the more important aspect: making the story as entertaining and engaging as possible or strictly adhering to the facts and nothing but the facts?

Oliver Hirschbiegel: Well while reading it, I really was surprised because what I read was a truly universal love story. That became the main goal, whenever in doubt. I knew these characters by heart and I knew the story that I wanted to tell. At the same time, I did research for about a year, getting into these characters and finding out about all these aspects of the story and making sure that, as much as I could, that I was truthful with what I was telling. Of course, and this is in regard to certain incident like her getting into the boot of her car and aspects like that, but when it comes to the very intimate scenes when you have two people in a flat or something like that, you can just go by what you know about the character and the descriptions. There were descriptions of encounters of Hasmat and Diana and how they dealt with each other. You try to hit the spirit of that relationship. You try to hit the spirit of the characters.

You say that this is this “universal love story.” Watching the film, you definitely get the scene that that aspect is the focal point. It’s not so much about Diana’s life but this one relationship at the end of her life and how much that affected her emotionally. Why did you choose this topic as the focal point?

OH: Well the thing that happens through her finding that love is …. At the beginning we see her isolated and lonely and sort of aimless. She’s separated from Charles and not officially divorced yet but she doesn’t really know what to do with her life. In real life, she had cut off most of her friends really. She lives rather aimlessly and then finds that man. Finally, after being deprived of love from that very first years of her childhood on, she finally finds that love and opens up and through finding love and getting love, she sort of reinvents herself, which is a very important part of her biography. To me, it’s the most interesting because she becomes a new Diana. It’s not only when it comes to the whole fashion icon thing because she reinvents herself on that level as well but, for me, that is less interesting. The more interesting thing is that she becomes a stateswoman in a way.

She’s not just the head of the charity, she’s not just supporting a charity, she becomes the motor of charity work on a rather political level. To put her clothes to auction for the AIDS charity, in those days that was a very bold move and a very smart thing, it was actually William’s idea originally, and was unheard of. Also, the land mines  campaign. They fought for more than 20 years, politicians and very powerful institutions like the Red Cross and the UN. They had all fought to ban land mines on an international level and they hadn’t gotten anywhere. She takes that on and changes the world within three days. That’s astonishing and very impressive. That had been forgotten really. If you go on YouTube and look for that documentary on her going to Angola, there’s only like 15,000 people who have seen that. We’re talking about the most famous woman in the world. But what is she famous for? She’s famous for being the princess and flying around the world and hanging out with Dodi on a yacht and dying in a tunnel. That really needed correction.

For you, what was the most challenging aspect of the story to bring to the screen?

OH: Well to get it right. In all my films, my guide is this truthfulness and authenticity. I don’t want to play games with the audience. Of course, I want to entertain, I don’t want to bore them, but I don’t want to play dirty tricks on them. I try to do all the research and try to get it as right as possible. At the end of the day, it’s a piece of art and it’s my vision but it’s really based on formal research.

Why did you think that Naomi Watts was the perfect Diana for this story?

OH: As an actress, she is simply the best in her category. I wouldn’t know anybody would who pull it off. That was the first name I ever put down: Naomi Watts. And she proved me right.

What is it about her that really captures the spirit of Diana?

OH: She, more than others, makes me forget that I’m watching her impersonating a character. She becomes the character. In any film she does, regardless of genre, she becomes that and makes me forget that. She’s amazing really. Physically, if you look at her, she doesn’t really look like Diana but yet she becomes Diana and makes me believe that I’m watching Diana.

Similarly, why did you cast Naveen Andrews, who is most known for his role in Lost as this action hero, as your romantic lead. Knowing what we do about him, it is an unexpected choice.

OH: I didn’t know that Naveen did Lost. I looked at Bollywood actors and never really got The English Patient out of my head. I remember that story of that Indian soldier, I think he was a Sikh, and Juliette Binoche in The English Patient, touched me so much. It was so authentic and real. I looked them up and found out that it was Naveen Andrews. It sort of rang a bell but I didn’t put one and one together. So I looked him up on IMDB on realized he is that Iranian guy on Lost…and I loved Lost and watched Lost. I just didn’t recognize him as the same guy. We Skyped for an hour and we connected. As a director, you’re talking to an actor and you just know immediately. I knew I had my man. When I put the two together in one room, I just knew the chemistry was right. He’s not Pakistani, he’s Indian but from the North of India, which is a similar area. I think he’s the perfect match for Hasmat.

In the process of making the film, was there any pushback from the Royal Family about the story that you were telling or were they onboard?

OH:: No, they’re never onboard really. They basically stay out of it. They don’t want to have anything to do with it and they never comment either. Regardless of which story you want to tell, you’ll never be allowed to shoot within the vicinity of the palaces but they suggested for us to shoot at Kensington Gardens when there was a problem at Hyde Park, because of the Olympics games, but they allowed us to use Kensington Gardens and the palace as a backdrop. They even allowed us to shot at the actual gate where all the flowers were put down. The only thing they asked us to do was not put flowers down there because, for obvious reasons, that would have been sort of terrible for the sons. We draw in the flowers with CGI.

So you haven’t heard anything from either of her sons in terms of a reaction? Do you know if they’ve seen the film?

OH: Well, I don’t know. They never comment really. You never hear anything. It’s their policy for hundreds and hundreds of years. They keep their mouth shut and never issue any statement. Maybe one day but I find it doubtful.

One of the most distressing elements of the film is how the paparazzi and journalists are constantly in her face, snapping photos at her most susceptible moments. How did you try and approach that from a dramatic standpoint to express just how much pressure she was constantly under and how that pressure changed the course of her life?

OH: Well I enhanced that elements quite a bit. It was not in the original script. I just wanted the paparazzi to become sort of their own character and be constantly there and a constant potential threat. It’s something Fellini did in La Dolce Vita and I’m sort of bowing my hat to Fellini with that. Her life was like that. Today, it’s more common that that happens but the paparazzi, sometimes hundreds of them, being around her was a first in those days. That had never been the case before. I tried to get that out with a maximum powerful effect.

What was the hardest part of doing this story for you emotionally?

OH: To stay objective, if you will. In this kind of story, of course you connect with the characters, and I have to admit, I quite like Diana. The more I found out about Diana, the more I liked both of these characters. As a storyteller, you want to be careful that you keep your distance. I think it rings through that I like these characters but I think that’s the most difficult thing. You’re emotional involvement doesn’t take over your artistic expression.

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