Movie Review: “The Dinner” is pricey, biting, smart and surprising

dinner1

“The Dinner” is anything but ordinary. Four wait staff deliver each course to the table. The maitre d describes each item in minute detail — “olive oil from the Peloponnese…”

And the conversation? Also out of the ordinary — cutting, profane, an overlapping cacophony of opinions, agendas, polite cover for subjects that, seriously, nobody should go to a four star restaurant to discuss.

“What’s wrong with this place?” the host wants to know.

“EVERYthing” and “Nothing” his guests snap in the same instant.

Herman Koch’s corrosive novel earns a tense, testy and sometimes darkly funny screen treatment by Oren Moverman, whose “The Messenger” and “Love & Mercy” earned awards season buzz, each in its turn. In a very short career, he’s already made a name for himself as a real “actor’s director.”

Richard Gere is Stan Lohman, over-scheduled/over-managed U.S. Congressman running for governor. Rebecca Hall is his embittered “trophy wife,”  Katelyn, a one-time aide who became more when Stan’s ex (Chloe Sevigny, seen in flashbacks) dumped him.

Stan has invited his teacher/brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) to this fanciest, most exclusive eatery for a talk about their kids.

dinner2

Paul’s voice-over narration doesn’t so much describe events as give us a peek into his mind. He’s taught history, and Gettysburg and the Civil War consume his thoughts. What he says out loud is sardonic, sarcastic, especially when it comes to this absurdly fancy restaurant.

“We don’t have THYME for rosemary,” he barks at the well-scripted maitre d (Michael Chernus).  The laugh that doesn’t land sets the tone for the evening.

Everybody but EVERYbody is walking on eggshells. Even the simplest question about a child — “How’s Beau?” — can set somebody off.

Something happened involving their teenage kids, and as the movie plows through its chapter-courses — “”Appetizer, ” “Cheese Course,” “Digestif,” etc. — we piece that together through flashbacks. They went to a party together, stopped at an ATM on the way home and something happened. Not everybody knows, and Paul’s cuddly-at-arm’s-length scenes with his son (Charlie Plummer, obnoxiously good) are a clue.

Moverman skillfully enfolds events in the present with events from the past, letting “The Dinner” reveal the complicated backstories and mess around with our loyalties.

Somebody almost died, somebody has a feeble grasp of reality, somebody has a terrible temper, somebody — EVERYbody — has some sense of victimhood. And all of them share guilt, or denial, over how their kids turned out and what’s going on with them.

Linney and Gere set off fireworks in their exchanges, with Linney at her brittle best and Gere his most polished, self-righteous and self-absorbed. Hall ably gets across Katlyn’s forbearance (with limits). And Coogan crackles with the intensity of a man stuck in his sibling’s shadow, struggling to get through an awkward evening with wit, when wit isn’t what is called for.

“You pay a bigger price for NOT picking up the check.”

I love the way the film sets us up with “types” — ambitious, narcissistic politico, “trophy” wife, loyal spouse, doting dad — and thoroughly upends them time and again.

The intimacy of the argument, the unsuitability of the rich foodie’s dream of the restaurant, the flashbacks that dole out each clue with care, the moments of violence and the threat of more, make “The Dinner” the first truly outstanding movie of the year.

By moving its opening to the first weekend of May, The Orchard rewards us and reminds us that smart, tough, human cinema has a place, even in the season of “Furious” pandering and grown women and men in superhero tights.

3half-star
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout.

Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, Chloe Sevigny, Charlie Plummer

Credits: Written and directed by Oren Moverman, based on the Herman Koch novel. An Orchard release.

Running time: 2:00

Advertisements
Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Black Rose” is “Red Heat” without the wit, or the heat

black1

Alexander Nevsky was a great hero of medieval Russia. The 13th century Grand Prince of Kiev and fought the Germans and Swedes, paid off the Mongols and was made a Russian Orthodox saint and the focus of a famous Sergei Eisenstein Soviet era bio-pic, with music by Sergei Prokofiev.

Putin-era Russia even named a nuclear submarine after him.

Alexander Nevsky is also the stage name –legally changed — of body builder turned actor/director Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Kuritsyn, a Schwarzenegger-sized star in Russia, who makes his Hollywood debut with “Black Rose.” And the nicest thing one can say about that is let’s hope he didn’t pawn his barbells.

“Black Rose” is a lurid C-movie thriller about the murders of Russian prostitutes in Hollywood, crimes that police Captain Frank Dalano (Robert Davi) can only solve by bringing in a crack Russian cop for assistance.

Major Vladimir Kasatov (Nevsky) is tough, brave, a maverick who busts in on a Moscow bank robbery/hostage situation and ends it with a Jeep and a gun.  He’s also huge.

“What do they FEED you over there?”

Paired up with a police profiler, Emily Smith (Kristanna Loken), Kasatov must pry info out of a secretive community of ex-pats who don’t expect Putin-esque police tactics here in America. Silly them.

Failing that, he and Smith must lure the murderer into the open.

“Our plan is working,” Smith deadpans as she hears of another killing. Right. A few more murders and they’ll have their guy, for sure.

We, of course, have guessed the killer much earlier than them. But Nevsky the director has to flesh out an 82 minute thriller somehow, so we get shots of the big Russian walking Venice Beach, strong-arming Russian bakers and busting up a mugging with murderous, trigger-happy relish.

Night club scene? Naturally. Cryptic Russian notes pinned to the victims, along with a “Black Rose”? Why not?

There is zero urgency to the performances, across the board. Even the victims, some of them tortured, seem to be unmoved by their own suffering, waiting for “CUT” so they can check their phone to see if another offer has come in. ‘

Nevsky the director shows no hint of style or flash, and Nevsky the actor may smile once or twice, but as in the earlier version of this, Arnold’s more amusing and meaty (barely) “Red Heat,” any use of facial muscles is forbidden when that’s the only way you know to play “stoic.”

There’s no chemistry between the leads, and nothing they do or say propels the action forward.

Veteran tough guy Davi gives fair value in his few scenes.

But the rest of this plays like an ill-considered vanity project intended for export to Mother Russia. Maybe there, they’ll be willing to ignore the stiff acting, dull directing and story whose ending is guessable almost from the opening credits.

1star6

Cast: Alexander Nevsky, Kristanna Loken, Robert Davi, Adrian PaulMPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence

Credits: Directed by Alexander Nevsky, script by Brent Huff, George Saunders . An ITN release.

Running time: 1:22

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Phoenix Forgotten” remember “Blair Witch” tricks

phoenix.jpg

“The Blair Witch Project” wasn’t the first “found footage” horror picture, though it has proven to be the most imitated.

The latest is “Phoenix Forgotten,” a thriller about — now get this, three young people who set out, with a camcorder and gear, to solve a seemingly unnatural mystery. Then, it was this mythical witch that haunted a dead town long ago and the hunt was in the woods of Maryland, this time it’s “The Phoenix Lights,” a dazzling and under-explained light show that appeared in the skies over Phoenix in March of 1997, with answers sought in the plateaus and desert mountains of Arizona.

Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is in town in something like the present day, helping mom move. But she uses the trip as an excuse to seek answers, and lost videotapes that might connect her long-lost brother with the “Blair Witchy” name, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) with those infamous “lights.”

On the found tapes, Josh, the smart aspiring journalist he crushes on, Ashley (girl-next-door approachable Chelsea Lopez) and his pal Mark (Justin Matthews) set out for answers in the desert and later, among the Apache, taking Mark’s “Grand Jeep Cherokee” on the quest.

Forget for a moment that no redblooded teenage American boy would miss-ID his first set of wheels, and we’re quickly made aware of what works with this Ridley Scott produced no-budget sci-fi spin on “Blair Witch,” and what doesn’t.

The framing device, the modern inquest into what happened to Sophie’s brother 20 years ago, is dull, limply-acted and filmed. The resolution of the mystery is laughably derivative and lame.

But the grainy, clumsy old tapes of that original search captures an almost Spielbergian/J.J. Abrams level teen reality that is delightful. Josh’s behind-the-camera questions and encouragement of Ashley is awkward and needy. And as Ashley, Lopez corrects clumsy journalistic practices (asking “close-ended” yes-or-no questions) and gets across a focused curiosity that hints at a future that might have been.

Watch Ashley Foster, the character, impersonate Jodie Foster, heroine/actress, in a scene from a movie (“Contact”) that was new when “The Phoenix Lights” lured the “Phoenix Forgotten” off the map.

Director Barber makes the period video look exactly like misplaced family home movies — rolling picture, static, shaky, the works.

But there’s not nearly enough here to justify the heavyweights among the producer credits, making “Phoenix Forgotten” a bit too apt in its title — an abandoned movie doomed to be forgotten in, oh, about a week’s time.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for terror, peril and some language

Cast: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez

Credits:Directed by Justin Barber, script by and Justin Barber and T.S. Nowlin. A Cinelou release.

Running time: 1:27

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Free Fire” burns a lot of ammo making a potent but simple point about guns

free1

The audience rejection of “Free Fire,” the gonzo guns-and gunplay action comedy from the director of “High Rise,” may represent some tipping point moment for Americans’ attitudes about gun violence and its cavalier treatment on the big screen.

Probably not. Maybe people have stayed away because the cast, which includes Oscar winner Brie Larson, “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” hero Armie Hammer and “District Nine” South African Sharlto Copley, doesn’t have one box office name in it.

But when you’re looking at a dozen or so IRA gun buyers and assorted gun dealers, trapped in a shootout in an abandoned, concrete-walled factory in 1970s Boston, the message in the mayhem is more pointed than perhaps the film’s potential fans realize.

A hail of bullets reduces us all to an earlier place in our evolution — crawling, bleeding and wounded, struggling to survive but counting the minutes until we bleed out. And no amount of ammo or firepower changes that.

free2

The set-up — IRA types (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) employ local talent and a couple of go-betweens (Hammer and Larson) to make a buy of American semi-automatic weapons. The sellers are led by Vernon (Copley), and include Babou Ceesay (“Eye in the Sky”) and Noah Taylor (“Rush”).

Everybody’s glib and flippantly insulting, especially the dapper, preppy Ord (Hammer).

“You smell good,” a hoodlum hurls his way. “Thank you. It’s your MOTHER.”

One zinger, after the shooting gets started, stings.

“Bet you thought you were too handsome to get shot!”

Because yeah, you stick a bunch of armed, paranoid, drug-addled or just gun-nut-dumb crooks into an enclosed space with a lot of ricochet-prone surfaces, any little thing can set it off. And in this case, it’s a big thing and it’s a big coincidence.

Larson, whose acting in this is entirely too casual for somebody who should be afraid for her life and aware of the carnage assorted pistols and assault rifles can carve out, may just “want everyone to go home happy with this deal.” But no one does.

Murphy’s IRA gun buyer isn’t so into the deal that he can’t flirt with the one “bird” in their midst. Copley’s gun seller is entirely too testy and confrontational for this to go easily.

And then there are the hotheads, druggies and aggrieved subordinates to worry about.

Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley stages the shootout as if everybody has an endless supply of ammo in their purse or leisure suit jacket. The whizz and zing of bullets on the soundtrack will keep you doing what the principals do — ducking, hugging the floor or concrete pillar or sand bag — whatever shelter they can find — in between hailstorms of bullets.

Hammer has the most fun with the gunplay, Murphy gets the most grunt out of his wounds and Larson looks as out of place here as she did in that King Kong movie. Seriously, dear, you collect a check you commit to the part.

It’s a simpler than simple movie, with characters lurching between life and death, listening to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and cracking wise during a shoot-out staged in real time. An anachronism? Characters who keep saying “It’s ALL good.” That’s a recent construction — Tiger Woods beat it to death — unused in the far out ’70s.

But the zingers are mostly flat, the bloodshed a hilarious collection of movie-prolonging shoulder, arm and leg wounds and the whole a generally unpleasant Who Dies Next? about characters we never, for one second, care about.

The guns become the stars — snub nosed revolvers, AR 70 and Garrand rifles. Not that most of these guys can hit what they’re shooting at. Funny how that works when you’re shooting while being shot at. It’s not as easy as most movies make it seem.

Still, “Free Fire” falls short as a moral lesson or satiric statement, shorter still as a “Shoot’em Up” style ballet of bullets.  For this Tarantino-take-off to have been as cool as the trailers hinted, they’d have needed more gold chains, more drugs, more open-collared shirts and more Gun Nut in Chief Ted Nugent music.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use

Cast: Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Noah Taylor

Credits:Directed by Ben Wheatley, script by Amy Jump (screenplay), Ben Wheatley . An A-24 release.

Running time: 1:30

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Their Finest” is an old fashion WWII movie about making an old fashioned WWII movie

finest1

Perhaps the finest accomplishment of those who made “Their Finest” was in getting their World War II “Dunkirk” movie out before the bigger-budgeted, all-star cast “Dunkirk” recreation due out this summer.

Because their film, a war-on-the-home-front tale of a plucky would-be screenwriter working on a propaganda film, learning the movie business, the reality of “based on a true story” and finding a woman’s place can be outside the home, is utterly sublime, in its own way.

Based on a Lissa Evans novel, “Finest” is sentimental and sad, silly and vain as only film actors can be. It’s predictably familiar, but it manages to be an old fashioned movie about making an old fashioned movie that works.

Gemma Arterton is Catrin Cole, a Welsh woman whose secretarial duties at an ad agency broadened to include quip-writing for comic strips, what with the war taking every able-bodied British lad out of civilian work and into the army, Royal Navy or RAF.

That gets her noticed by a Ministry of Information screenwriter, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), who needs somebody of her gender to “write the slop…girl talk, women’s dialogue” in propaganda films.

Catrin needs the job as she keeps the home fires burning and supports herself and her man, an unemployed artist (Jack Huston) with a Spanish Civil War wound that keeps him out of the fighting.  She must endure Tom’s flirtation, pretentious actors (Billy Nighy) and the caprices of the various ministries that want to bolster morale with films that reek of “authenticity and honesty,” even if audiences hoot at their ridiculous idealization of life in a munitions factory or the like.

A Hungarian emigre producer, Mr. Baker (Henry Goodman), plainly inspired by the ex-pat producer Alexander Korda, wants to make “the film that will win the war,” a commercial project with real actors and a UK and US release, and that sucks up Tom, Catrin & Co. in a frantic search for the right story told in a way that bucks up British resolve and inspires American sympathy.

Director Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe tap into the novel’s focus on the era’s revolutionary changes for women. Catrin “can’t be paid as much as a chap” and is not destined for any credit.

“The war has SKIMMED off the CREAM and we’re left with the RANCID curds,” complains the faded matinee idol played by Bill Nighy, a dapper dandy not above seizing his last good chance at fame.

Women, the elderly and the less competent but ineligible for service have opportunity thrown at them. Catrin also has to make the most of it.

The film, in quick strokes and simple, resonant and familiar visuals, takes us into “The Blitz,” the German air war against civilian London, into the shelters in The Tube, where everybody kept a “stiff upper lip” by making their own entertainment, waiting for the bombers to pass so that they could “keep calm and carry on.” A nice touch — a trumpet player’s forlorn rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” echoes through the underground crowd of Londoners awaiting the “All Clear.”

Scherfig similarly paints a vivid picture of a small nation wholly mobilized for war, with everybody having new tasks, pitching in. Catrin is just one among millions.

The “elite” bureaucracy is ably represented by Richard E. Grant, as the head of the propaganda film division, and Jeremy Irons as a higher-up given to quoting Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from “Henry V,” which became one of Britain’s most iconic morale boosting feature films of the war.

There are touches from “The 49th Parallel” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” for those who know what to look for in referencing “real” propaganda features made during the war. Their movie within the movie, as cheesy and primitive (toy boats, model airplanes) as you’d expect from the era, is to be about the Miracle at Dunkirk, when British civilians piloting all manner of ships and small boats rescued their army from fallen France, a disaster played up as a victory that saved Western Civilization. Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

Arterton, Nighy, Grant and Irons are splendid, and Jake Lacy of “How to be Single” is hilarious as an American born Norwegian pilot with the RAF ordered into the movie to provide “a REAL hero,” albeit one who cannot act a lick.

Eddie Marsan is a Jewish-German emigre actor’s agent, and Helen McCrory impresses as the agent’s flinty sister. Rachael Stirling makes a sympathetic go of a lesbian government informant assigned to the film to keep those tricky writers on message.

Less impressive are the film’s too-predictable situations, which offer few surprises outside of Catrin’s dogged insistence on making the girls who were the real life heroines of the Dunkirk story she chose to tell the heroines of the movie. Claflin, late of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Mockingjay” sequels, and Huston (“Outlander,” “Ben Hur”) have the weakest characters to play, and make no impression at all.

But “Their Finest” is still a lovely, nostalgic look not just at a war the Brits just can’t stop memorializing, but at the way movies were made way back when, with a little magic and a dollop of sentiment could carry a story for audiences starved for anything that offered them the possibility of a happy ending.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: R for some language and a scene of sexuality

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Richard E. Grant,  Jeremy Irons

Credits: Directed by Lone Scherfig, script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the Lissa Evans  novel. An STX/Europa release.

Running time: 1:57

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Bang!” remembers a forgotten giant of ’60s rock and soul, Bert Berns

bert1

Bertrand Russell “Bert” Berns was a composer who wrote pop hits and soul classics, from “Hang on Sloopy” and “I Want Candy” to “Here Comes the Night,” “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart.”

As a producer, he had a hand in making Van Morrison, Cissy Houston, Solomon Burke and Neil Diamond stars.

But despite having an off-Broadway stage musical revue built around his songs, despite the occasional box set collection of his work and a recent biography, he’s little known outside of pop music cognoscenti like, say, Springsteen guitarist/singer “Little” Steven Van Sant, who narrates a new documentary about Berns’ life and work.

“BANG! The Bert Berns Story” takes its title from Berns’ 1960s record label, where Morrison broke out as a solo artist, where Diamond established himself not just as a songwriter, but as a SINGER/songwriter. The film, built around Joel Selvin’s biography of Berns, takes us from Berns’ Bronx childhood, where rheumatic fever scarred his heart and kept him indoors, learning to play piano and guitar, through his star-crossed adulthood, sneaking into the recording business, dominating it, and then dying too young to really enjoy the fruits of his years of frantic creation.

Berns was a Jewish boy who caught the Cuban music bug in the ’50s, went to Cuba, came back and found a way to infuse those rhythms into American pop. He wrote the novelty charmer, “A Little Bit of Soap,” hit the charts again with the co-written “Twist and Shout,” and then scored with the girl group classic “Tell Him.”

Paul McCartney testifies to the glories of “Twist and Shout,” which The Beatles turned into a smash — after the Isley Brothers had already scored with it. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones laughs in awe at the bluesy Bronx Jew whose songs were favorites for the Stones to cover early in their career.

Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid and Van Morrison remember Berns’ nurturing ways in the studio.

But “BANG!” isn’t shy about looking at the dark side. Berns was in a business with brutally sharp elbows, and he learned quickly to give as good as he got. The great Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler comes off as a greedy, unethical bully in accounts of Berns’ years with that premiere jazz and soul label. And that shaped Berns’ approach to the business as well.

Never a wise guy, Berns wasn’t shy about partnering with wise guys and chumming around with “made men,” which made business dealings with him…interesting. Ask Neil Diamond about that, because the movie (co-directed by Berns’ son Brett) doesn’t dare. Diamond does not appear on camera and the mob threats are mostly just implied.

bert2

Berns married a go go dancer, Ilene, who had a hand in his business and is no shrink-away-from-a-fight type herself.

Still, it all comes back around to the songs, many with “Bert’s trademark,” Van Sant narrates, this “edge of despair” feeling that came out of him. When he wrote “Piece of My Heart,” he was talking about his own damaged heart, but Erma Franklin and then Janis Joplin rendered it into a harrowing classic, full of urgency and romantic desperation.

Yeah, he cooked up “I Want Candy” and “Hang on Sloopy” and “Twist and Shout” was basically “La Bamba” with new lyrics (not mentioned in the movie). But Berns’ best work was as “the white soul brother” who made sure his artists sang his songs “the way HE meant it,” with all the passion and hunger of a man who knew he wouldn’t live long, but meant to make his mark while he did.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity
Cast: Paul McCartney, Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid, Ilene Berns, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Keith Richard
Credits: Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles,  written by Joel Selvin. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:35

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Box Office: “Furious” finds over $35, newcomers can’t clear $5

boxA big Friday translates to another big weekend for “The Fate of the Furious,” which is falling off on the low end of projections (63%) and headed towards a $37 million weekend, if Saturday and Sunday add up.

But “Unforgettable,” “The Promise,” Disneynature’s “Born in China” and “The Lost City of Z” will have to have big Saturdays if any of them are going to clear $5 million, much less $10 million. Surprised the kids’ nature documentary isn’t doing better, and this really is the end for Katherine Heigl if audiences won’t show up to hiss her villainy. But there it is.

MGM’s late owner Kirk Kerkorian dreamed of getting an epic treatment of the Armenian genocide on the screen, and landed a decent director, an Oscar winner and an Oscar nominee or two in the cast for “The Promise.” But nobody’s showing up.

“The Lost City of Z” was envisioned as a Brad Pitt project, but he ended up only taking a producer credit. It got the best reviews of the weekend, but Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, a surprisingly good Robert Pattinson and the new Spider-Man aren’t box office draws. Under $2 million for that one.

“Boss Baby” is closing in on $150 million, “Beauty and the Beast” will be close to $500 million domestic when it loses its screens to summer fare.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: “Obit” gives newspaper obituary writers the last word

obit1

It’s one of the most thankless, unsung jobs at any newspaper, and one of the hardest.

Obituary writers make value judgments, about whose life and achievements or simple notoriety is worthy of “500, 800 words,” and whose isn’t. And they spend a frantic few hours, trying to reach grieving loved ones and peers, sifting through legions of “facts” often provided by people’s faulty memories or the family circle exaggerations of the deceased.

Because God forbid they get something wrong. This is, as one obit writer in the fine new documentary “Obit” puts it writing someone’s history “at the very moment they become history.”

Filmmaker Vanessa Gould naturally chooses The New York Times as the setting for her film, focusing on one of the last newspapers with a staffed obituary department, veteran writers who specialize in collecting information about the recently-deceased, from popes and tyrants to pop stars, inventors, adventurers and crooks.

Blending documentary footage of some of the subjects — a Transatlantic rower, a stripper-girlfriend of Lee Harvey Oswald shooter Jack Ruby, a political aide who made sure Kennedy looked better than Nixon for those historic 1960 TV debates — with interviews of those who wrote them, Gould creates a fascinating portrait of the work and the patient, harried and detail-oriented folks who do it.

There’s a formula for an obituary, we learn. Typically, there’s just a single sentence that mentions death. Some are “news” obituaries, others more colorful feature story obits, with anecdotes and laughs, even, in their lines.

Bruce Weber comes off as a man who loves to talk. He sits on the phone, collecting first the hard fact details that the obituary will be built upon. We only hear his half of the conversation as he asks survivors “Was he married, and how many times before you? Could you spell that for me?”

A proper newspaper obituary, not the fluff provided by a family to a funeral home for publication, is filled with facts. People embellish their war records, their athletic achievements, their “firsts.” Nailing down what is true, on deadline, when the person who best knows that truth is dead, is tricky business.

Weber will make a mistake, and most newspaper reporters will spot it the moment he makes that assumption during a phone interview. But that’s what “Corrections” are for.

The staff — editor William McDonald and others — talks in the jargon of the “press,” whether a notable deserves an “above the fold” (front page, top half) remembrance, or a “refer,” an obituary mentioned on the front cover but printed inside.

The lonely keeper of “The Morgue,” the newspaper’s vaunted archive of stories, clip files and photographs, tracks down images from the distant past and previously-reported stories on the subject of this or that obituary.

Writers recall the harrowing rush to get something into print after sudden deaths — Michael Jackson, Prince, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And each relishes the grace notes of a particularly distinct life rendered in just the right keystrokes, when they have time to make an obituary “sing.”

Margalit Fox, once an aspiring cellist, loves alliteration and has a touch of the poet about her. When detailing the life of one of the last typewriter repairmen in North America, Manson Whitlock, she turns “the ffft of the roller, the ding of the bell, the decisive zhoop … bang of the carriage return, the companionable clack of the keys” into the music of the man’s life.

whitlock

It’s not the most cinematic of subjects. And the film, like most recent documentaries about newspapers, has a New York myopia about it.

But the anecdotes, about tidbits, old family photos, that perfectly summed up that person’s story, or the blunders (you’ve GOT to confirm somebody is actually dead) make “Obit” in itself a fine piece of “instant history” for a profession that is itself going dying out.

And when newspapers, and these reporter/writers are gone, who will be there to sum up a life — notable or notorious — in 800 words or less?

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, with mild profanity

Cast: Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William McDonald, Paul Vitello

Credits:Directed by Vanessa Gould. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:35

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Box Office: How fast will “Furious” fade?

fate1It cleared $100 million on its opening weekend and has no major fresh competition to face on this, its second week of release.

So how much of that opening weekend audience will disappear for “The Fate of the Furious?”

Box Office Mojo figures it’ll drop according to the averages of the series, with the seventh film (the last one) being an exception to that rule. Figure $35 million, with a 65% drop.

Box Office Mojo thinks “buzz is good” (reviews weren’t awful) and that it’ll hold more audience, maybe a $39 million weekend.

That sets up expectations, so anything under $30 will mean the word of mouth on this Paul Walker-less sequel is already out of gas. I’m expecting the tumble to be Madea Movie steep — 65-70%. I got to this one late and saw it in a mostly-empty theater.

Reviews of “Unforgettable” aren’t strong enough to correct a low audience awareness of this cat fight thriller, with Katherine Heigl facing off with Rosario Dawson. Mojo thinks that’ll lead to an $8 million weekend, Guru figures only $6.

Say what? I’d bet cash money that audiences, female-driven audiences, will want to see Heigl in murderous psychotic mode. It’s her last shot at big screen redemption, and with nothing else new out there threatening it, I’m guessing $10 million+.

“The Promise” is a period piece love triangle “epic” (small “e”) with Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale both courting Charlotte Le Bon during World War I’s Armenian genocide in Turkey. It could do decent business. The TV commercials are everywhere and reviews of this sprawling mess haven’t been awful. $3 million, tops.

“The Lost City f Z” has even less oomph, in terms of hype and promotion. Good reviews. But Charlie Hunnam isn’t a movie star. Yet. If it clears $2 million I’d be shocked.

DisneyNature’s “Born in China” should do well with family audiences. Not animated blockbuster well, but better than the $4 million most are projecting for it to take it. No 3D prices, but yeah, there is so much nature documentary content on TV it will be a hard sell. Not one of Disney’s best, but the pandas and monkeys are adorable. Maybe $6-8 million for this one?

Next weekend is kind of a wash with no “major” releases, so “Fate of the Furious” and “Boss Baby” and “Beauty and the Beast” have two full weeks before summer truly starts to finish making their money. “Baby” and “Beast” should add another $8-9 million to their bottom lines this weekend.

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment

Movie Review: It’s “Unforgettable” because we’ve seen all this before

unf2

“Unforgettable” lets the hated Katherine Heigl stop pretending she was ever going to be “America’s Sweetheart” and wear her resting bitch face with pride.

As a filthy-rich ex-wife hellbent on getting her husband and family back, she has the regal posture of the riding classes, born in designer clothes and perfect makeup. She combs her perfect hair, then combs her daughter’s  so obsessively that you just know she’s an upper crust psychopath.

“Now you’re perfect, just like Mommy!”

And we buy it. Boy do we buy it.

The movie may be nothing more than your standard love triangle, with its scheme-by-scheme, crime-by-crime set up for a third act cat fight, but Heigl and Rosario Dawson are well-matched foes, women willing to throw down and draw blood over the man they both love.

The guy? Well, generic chiseled hunk Geoff Stults (TV’s “Odd Couple”) doesn’t suggest “unforgettable” or “irresistible,” but that’s always where this sort of thriller loses points.

Dawson is Julia, an online story editor for a magazine, leaving that life behind for her new man. We’re told that she was a domestic abuse victim, and that her abuser’s been in jail and he’s about to get out.

She’s motivated to slip out of town and “start over.”

David (Stults) is a wealthy, successful something-or-other who’s starting a micro-brewery (little late for that) living just inland from those “Big Little Lies” richies. Julia fits right into his showplace house, with his darling shared-custody daughter.

Yeah, it’s like she’s living the ex-wife’s life. So when they meet, she offers reassurances.

“I get it,” she says.

“No, you couldn’t possibly.

And any assurances that Tessa, the ex will “calm down” are, we know, a joke. She can’t calm down. She’s wrapped too tightly for that.

Things start to go wrong for Julia —  phone misplaced, a ring lost, a future step-daughter escaping into a carnival crowd.

And everywhere she turns in this enclave of wealth, they run into Tessa.

Undermined, isolated, suspected and accused, she is alarmed. She turns testy at Tessa. And it’s on.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Then why are you HERE?”

But there’s no mystery to this thriller, and little suspense. The entire story is framed in flashback, after a crime. We know who’s survived.

unf1The cameras stalks Julia, but the editing isn’t above delivered the occasional cheap fright — a dark night, a shadow slipping by a window. But the script and producer-now-a-director Denise Di Novi (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and TV’s “Beaches”) want to explain everything, spoon-feed it to us, to wholly give away motives and back story. When you meet Tessa’s mom (Cheryl Ladd), you understand all.

You give away the mystery, you make the movie lean too hard on its implausibilities. Well, we DO tend to keep WAY too much personal data on our cell-phones. Get into somebody’s phone, you get into their head.

There’s soap opera-styled over-sharing, and the picture is peopled with stock characters; the funny best-friend-from-work (comic actress Whitney Cummings) whom Julia confides in, the mother-whose-behavior-explains-her-daughter’s.

But Dawson makes us believe how overmatched Julia feels, and Heigl’s “Mommy Dearest meets Fatal Attraction” turn is real mustache-twirling villainy. What will she do to get back what was hers? What WON’T she do?

If this hits, and it could, we could see a whole new chapter in Heigl’s struggling, diva-damaged big screen career. No more frothy, ill-conceived romances, just scary Joan Crawford/Barbara Stanwyck/Bette Davis/Theresa Russell minxes, black widows and back-stabbers. She’s already the movie star America loves to hate? Why not get paid for it?

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, violence, some language, and brief partial nudity

Cast: Katherine Heigl, Rosario Dawson, Geoff Stults, Cheryl Ladd

Credits:Directed by Denise Di Novi, script by Christina Hodson, David Leslie Johnson . A  Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:40

Posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news | Leave a comment