The Tale (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): How differently she remembers

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Memory can be deceptive at times, and HBO film “The Tale” explorers that tricky aspect through its heroine’s painful emotional journey into her past. As she comes to realize how unreliable her memories are, she comes to see more of what she has unconsciously overlooked for many years, and the movie is alternatively sensitive and disturbing in its gradual revelation of her hidden psychological scar which turns out to be a lot more devastating than expected.

As stated at its beginning, the movie is based on the real-life story of director/writer Jennifer Fox, who is played by Laura Dern in the film. As shown from the opening scene of the movie, Fox is a documentarian who is also a college professor teaching documentary filmmaking, and she is working on her latest project when her mother Nadine (Ellen Burnstyn) suddenly calls her for a very important personal matter. Nadine recently discovered a short story which was written by her daughter many years ago, and she was quite upset because of what is implied in that short story.

Fox is rather baffled by her mother’s reaction, because, to her, the short story in question is just the innocent fictional version of her past relationship with two adults who were quite nice and generous to her. When she was 13, Fox was sent to a summer ranch camp run by “Mrs. G” (Elizabeth Debicki), and this charismatic married woman introduced Fox and other girls in her summer ranch camp to Bill Allens (Jason Ritter), a handsome divorced guy who turned out to be Mrs. G’s secret lover. As far as Fox can remember, she was free and happy under the guidance of these two adults, and she remained very close to them even after that summer was over.

Through one flashback scene, the movie shows us how much young Fox, played by Jessica Sarah Flaum at this point, enjoyed that summertime in Mrs. G’s ranch. Looking more confident than the other girls in the ranch, Fox was Mrs. G’s favorite student, and Mrs. G was willing to show many things including how to make a perfect apple pie.

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However, this supposedly pleasant memory begins to crack as Fox looks closer into her past. When she meets a woman who was one of the girls in the ranch during that time, the woman remembers many things differently, and she points out to Fox that Fox was far less confident than other girls in the ranch. When she later checks old photographs along with her mother, Fox is surprised to discover that her 13-year-old self looks quite younger than she remembers, and she naturally comes to have lots of doubts on her memory.

While trying to locate Mrs. G and Allens, Fox delves further into the remains of her past, and her search for the truth is intercut with the following series of flashback scenes. Played by Isabelle Nélisse from this point, young Fox surely looks younger in her immature status, and her relationship with Mrs. G and Allens looks quite different to us as a result. It is very clear that these two adults manipulated and then exploited young Fox, and there later comes a very uncomfortable scene where Allens approaches too close to young Fox while they happen to be together alone in his house. The movie thankfully handles this unpleasant moment with considerable restraint, and I was certainly relieved to learn later that they used a body double when this scene was shot.

As reflected by the opening sentence of her short story, this inappropriate relationship has been regarded as something romantic and beautiful in Fox’s viewpoint, but then she comes to realize how she is not so different from child sexual abuse victims. Like many of them, she has been in the denial of how she was abused and exploited, and that short story of hers was her own way of surviving those traumatizing moments from her relationship with Allens and Mrs. G.

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Although it sometimes feels disorienting in its unconventional storytelling approach, the movie is firmly held well together by two strong performances at its center. Dern, whose acting career is going through another peak after her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Wild” (2014), is terrific as a woman who gradually awakens to the disturbing aspect of her unforgettable adolescent experience, and she ably conveys to us her character’s emotional state even when she does not say much. Nélisse, a young Canadian actress who was wonderful in Oscar-nominated film “Monsieur Lazhar” (2011), is believable as the other half of the movie, and she is particularly good when her character finally decides that enough is enough and then does what she should have done earlier.

The supporting performers in the movie are solid on the whole. While Elizabeth Debicki, who has been more prominent since her supporting turn in “The Great Gatsby” (2013), is effective in her increasingly unlikable role, Frances Conroy is equally good as older Mrs. G., and Jason Ritter is suitably despicable with his jolly façade. As Fox’s regretting mother, Ellen Burstyn has a small poignant moment with Dern when their characters happen to have an honest private conversation between them, and Common and late John Heard fill their respective functional roles as required.

“The Tale” is not entirely without weak aspects, and it stumbles a little during the finale, but it is still an interesting personal drama to be admired and appreciated. Yes, it is surely not easy to watch at times due to its subject, but there are several emotionally powerful moments including its very last shot, and I assure you that they will linger on your mind for a long time after the movie is over.

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Hannah (2017) ☆☆(2/4): Drab, dreary, and hollow

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It took some time for me to appreciate the distinctive presence of Charlotte Rampling. As far as I remember, I noticed her for the first time through her supporting turn in “Angel Heart” (1987), and then I came to see more of her considerable talent through several notable films including “The Night Porter” (1974), “Farewell, My Lovely” (1975), and “The Verdict” (1982). As getting gracefully older with her edgy beauty and charisma, she became all the more interesting than before, and I certainly enjoyed watching her in a number of recent notable works such as “Never Let Me Go” (2010), “Melancholia” (2011), and “45 Years” (2015), for which she was belatedly nominated for Best Actress Oscar.

In case of “Hannah”, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival in last year, Rampling did everything she was demanded to do, and she deserves praises for her committed performance which reminds us again of what a compelling actress she is, but, unfortunately, the movie is no more than a mere showcase of her talent. Decidedly drab and dreary in its austere storytelling approach, the movie does not provide much substance in terms of story and characters, and even Rampling’s admirable effort cannot compensate much for its frustratingly hollow impression.

In the movie, Rampling plays an old married woman named Hannah, and the first half of the movie shows us how her melancholic daily life becomes more desolate after her husband is incarcerated in a prison for a crime which is seldom discussed in the film. During their meeting in the prison, her husband says he is not guilty, but there later comes a moment when Hannah happens to discover a certain envelope hidden in their apartment. The movie does not show or tell us at all what is in the envelope, but it seems the envelope contains an incriminating evidence against her husband, so Hannah gets rid of the envelope once she checks its content.

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Living only with a pet dog in her apartment, Hannah feels increasingly lonely and isolated, and she is sometimes disturbed by some of her neighbors in the apartment building. At one point, some woman knocks on the front door of the apartment, and that woman seems to want a serious conversation with Hannah, but the movie never clarifies that woman’s motive while merely implying that it is involved with the crime of Hannah’s husband. When Hannah notices that water is leaking from the ceiling, she naturally goes up to the apartment right above hers, but she only comes to discover a rather confusing and unpleasant situation, and you will be probably as baffled as I was during my viewing.

Meanwhile, she continues to work as usual in a slick modern house belonging to an affluent middle-class family. We see her cleaning the house, and we also come to gather that she is close to a young blind kid living in the house, though the movie never lets us have any clear understanding of her relationship with that kid. There is actually a small intimate scene where she comforts him through telling a story, but, to our frustration, that is all for us to observe.

In addition, Hannah attends an acting class along with several other people, and you may get little amusement from their teacher’s rather unconventional teaching method. It looks like they are practicing with some play, but the movie does not delve much into what they are handling. We often see Hannah and other students practicing together, but we never get any clear idea of what they are doing, and this is often quite frustrating to watch although we are later served with a brief but nice scene where Hannah demonstrates her good physical acting in front of others.

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Around the midpoint of the movie, we get to know a bit about Hannah’s estranged relationship with her son and her son’s family. When her grandson’s birthday comes, Hannah goes to her son’s house with a cake and a present, but her son does not welcome her much for a reason revealed later in the movie, and he also prevents from her entering his house. After this painful moment, the movie cuts to a scene which shows Hannah quite saddened and devastated by her son’s rejection, and Rampling deftly handles her character’s irrepressible emotions in front of the camera.

All these and other elements in the movie could add up to something powerful enough to engage us, but the screenplay by director Andrea Pallaoro and his co-writer Orlando Tirado adamantly sticks to its barebone narrative without giving us anything to hold on. Hannah and other substantial characters in the film are never fully developed as human characters to interest us, and the movie does not even try to generate enough narrative momentum. As a result, we come to observe Hannah’s ongoing predicament from the distance without much care, and we accordingly become more aware of Rampling’s acting instead.

Overall, “Hannah” is one of the most disappointing movie experiences I had during this year, but it is not a total dud at least for a few reasons including Rampling’s performance, which is its saving grace in my inconsequential opinion. As shown from its smooth camera work and considerate scene composition, the technical aspects of the movie are commendable on the whole, and they certainly show that Pallaoro is a talented filmmaker. I can only hope that he will soon move onto something better than this bland misfire.

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Paterno (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): His rapid fall from grace

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Joe Paterno’s rapid fall from grace during his final year can be regarded as a cautionary tale about how one’s achievements of lifetime can be so quickly tarnished and ruined by a single scandal. He dedicated himself to his profession for more than 60 years as establishing his legendary status, but, alas, everything fell down as he suddenly found himself getting associated with a shocking case of child sex abuse, and his legacy has been always remembered along with that heinous crime.

Closely looking into what happened around Paterno during that eventful week of November 2011, HBO movie “Paterno” tries to give us some glimpses into his state of mind during that period, and the result is a modest but fascinating drama with several good things to admire. Although it is rather ambiguous about how much Paterno was responsible for the cover-up of many incidents of child sex abuse which were committed by one of his close associates, the movie is still engaging as intensely focusing on the mounting tension and pressure on Paterno and others around him, and it is also anchored well by the solid lead performance from one of the great actors in our time.

Paterno in the film is played by Al Pacino, and the movie opens with Paterno going through a medical examination for his serious health condition. As he is being examined by an MRI machine, his mind goes back to when he and many others around him were virtually on the top of the world on October 29th, 2011. On that day, he won his 409th game as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions football team, and this record-breaking victory was certainly another moment of glory to be added to the long, illustrious sports career of this aging but feisty coach who was soon going to have his 85th birthday.

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However, there was a very big trouble coming to not only him and his team but also the Penn State University. Not long after a local newspaper reporter named Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) wrote an article on the allegation of child sex abuses committed by Jerry Sandusky, who served as an assistant for Paternto for 30 years before his retirement in 1999 and had remained closely associated with Paterno and the Penn State University since that. Although her article did not draw much public attention at first when it came out, it eventually led to the grand jury investigation of this allegation, and the scandal subsequently broke out a few days later as Sandusky was officially indicted for his alleged crime.

The main part of the movie revolves around how the situation became worse for Paterno and his family day by day after that point. While a bunch of reporters are eagerly waiting outside his residence for any comment from him or his family, his family try to find any possible way for distancing the family from the scandal, but Paterno chooses to stick to what he has recently been occupied with: his team’s upcoming game with the Nebraska State University team. To him, the scandal seems to be a minor trouble which he and his team and family can endure, and it is pretty clear to us that he does not understand much how big and serious this scandal is going to be.

As the media focuses more and more on whether Paterno was aware of Sandusky’s crime from the beginning, Paterno’s family comes to hire a consultant from a crisis management firm, but the consultant flatly delivers the bad news to Paterno. There is no other way out for Paterno except his immediate resignation, and the Penn State University will fire him anyway for saving its reputation even if he does not do that. While certainly feeling exasperated, Paternto eventually agrees to leave his position after the end of the ongoing season, but then the Penn State University fires him immediately, and this leads to what will be remembered as one of the most shameful moments in the history of the Penn State University.

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Meanwhile, the movie also pays considerable attention to Ganim’s continuing work on the scandal. She often meets one of Sandusky’s early victims and the victim’s mother, and she comes to learn more about how Sandusky’s crime has been neglected and covered up for many years. The victim and his mother tried as much as they could for exposing Sandusky’s crime, but that led to more pain and torment for them, and that will remind you of those many sexual abuse victims who were unjustly disregarded before the recent #MeToo movement.

As more of Sandusky’s crime is exposed in public, Paterno becomes a more distant figure to us due to his apparent obliviousness to the consequence of his serious negligence, but Pacino’s nuance acting still holds our attention. Dialing down his usual intense presence, Pacino, who previously collaborated with director Barry Levinson in another HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010), is fabulous as subtly suggesting whatever is being churned inside his character’s mind, and he is also supported well by good supporting performers including Riley Keough and Kathy Baker, who holds her own small place as Paterno’s distraught wife.

Although it does not illuminate anything new about Paterno or the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal, “Paterno” is still worthwhile to watch, and Pacino shows here that he can still be as compelling as before. Although he is approaching to 80 now, this great actor continues to work as usual even at this point, and I certainly hope that he will soon get another nice opportunity like “Paterno”.

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Yi Yi (2000) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): As they live day by day

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Edward Yang’s last film “Yi Yi”, which was recently released in South Korean movie theaters, is a calm, thoughtful meditation on life. Although it surely demands considerable patience from you considering its long running time (173 minutes) and leisurely narrative pacing, it is quite rewarding on the whole thanks to its small episodic human moments from its main characters, and you will come to reflect more on life and how we go through it day by day.

The movie mainly revolves around a middle-aged man named NJ (Wu Nien-jen) and his two family members: his adolescent daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and his young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). During the opening scene, they and other family members including NJ’s wife and mother-in-law are attending the wedding ceremony of his brother-in-law, and we get a comical moment when a woman appears and then becomes quite emotional in front of the groom’s mother. It turns out that NJ’s brother-in-law left his girlfriend to marry a woman who got pregnant because of him, and it looks like his former girlfriend still feels emotionally attached to him (“It should have been me marrying your son today!”).

Not long after that, another incident happens. When NJ and his wife and children come back from the wedding banquet, they find that his mother-in-law went into a comatose state while she was left alone in their apartment. After spending several days in a local hospital, his mother-in-law is sent back to their apartment while still being comatose, and there is nothing they can do except taking care of her as waiting for her recovery.

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The movie calmly observes how each family member in the apartment tries to deal with this changed circumstance. While NJ maintains his phlegmatic attitude as usual, his wife cannot help but regretful as helplessly watching her mother on the bed and then glumly looking back on her life, and there is a sad, bitter moment when she confides to her husband how much she has been feeling empty since her mother’s sudden illness. In the end, she comes to decide to have her own private time at a Buddhist temple outside the city, and that means NJ has to take care of the household for a while instead of her.

In the meantime, NJ also has to deal with two other matters. While he was attending the wedding banquet, he happened to encounter a woman who was his girlfriend when they were young, and he begins to wonder what would have happened in his life if he had made a different choice during that time. Both of them have respectively lived a fairly good life since their separation, but they find themselves being willing to spend time together when they happen to get a chance for that later in the story. As they talk more with each other, something seems to be revived between them, but they are also reminded of why they ended their relationship, and we get a small poignant moment when NJ reminds her that things would have turned out to be the same even if he had acted differently.

At NJ’s workplace, the situation is not particularly good for everyone including him, and he is asked to handle a very important deal with a prominent Japanese business man. Although he is not so eager to do that, he and the Japanese businessman in question sense honesty and decency from each other right from when they meet, and there is a lovely moment when the Japanese businessman demonstrates his musical ability in front NJ and others at a nightclub.

Meanwhile, Ting-Ting finds herself in a rather tricky circumstance due to a girl living right next to her apartment. The girl, who is living with her single mother, has been in a relationship with some boy, but she eventually becomes distant from him for some unknown reason, and then the boy becomes quite close to Ting-Ting. At one point, he and Ting-Ting attempt to move onto the next step, but she sees that what they are going to do is not right, so they come to step away from each other.

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In case of Yang-Yang, he is not aware much of his grandmother’s illness, but he has his own matter to deal with. At his elementary school, he is sometimes bullied by other kids, but he soon comes to find something he can enthusiastically focus on. When his father gives him a camera to play with, he becomes fascinated with what he can possibly capture with it. At first, he tries to photograph a mosquito, and then he tries to photograph the backside of several people including his father because, as reflected by his conversation scene with his father, he comes to feel the need to show what others cannot see.

So far, I have only described a part of what I observed from the movie, and I can only tell you how effortlessly it presents its subjects under Yang’s masterful direction. Nothing is particularly emphasized, but we are slowly drawn to the lives of its main characters thanks to its vivid sense of life felt from the screen, and I especially appreciate its frequent utilization of reflections on windows for subtle dramatic impacts.

On the whole, “Yi Yi”, which won the Best Director Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, is a sublime piece of work I am willing to watch again for more appreciation. I am not that sure about whether it is as great as Yang’s unforgettable masterpiece “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), but this is still a very good film, and I am certainly glad that I could watch this admirable film on a big screen today.

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Incredibles 2 (2018) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): The family back in action

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“Incredibles 2”, which is a long-awaited sequel to “Incredibles” (2004), is as fun and exciting as its predecessor. Although its story and characters are understandably a bit less fresh in comparison, it does not lose any sense of fun and excitement at all as cheerfully and exuberantly presenting another eclectic mix of style, humor, and action, and the result is another entertaining animation feature film from Pixar Animation Studios.

In the previous film, Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his loving superhero family had to hide and suppress their superhuman abilities for years just like many other superheroes because the populace was not so pleased about the inadvertent collateral damages caused by the heroic acts of superheroes. However, the situation was changed as they later faced the diabolical plot of a megalomaniac villain, and they eventually embraced their identity as shown from the final scene which shows them quite ready to fight against another villain.

The story of “Incredibles 2” begins at the point not long after that scene. Although Mr. Incredible, his wife Helen Parr/Elestigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), their children Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) and Dash (voiced by Huck Milner), and Mr. Incredible’s close friend Lucius Best/Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) did their best, the villain in question manages to run away with lots of money stolen from a big bank, and the public opinion on our superhero characters is not exactly good due to the messy aftermath of this incident.

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While Mr. Incredible and his family are worrying about their uncertain future because they are no longer helped by Superhero Relocation Program, there comes an unexpected offer from Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a big telecommunication corporation named DevTech. He and his sister Evelyn (voiced by Catherine Keener), who has developed many different technologies for their company, have a plan for reforming the public image of superheroes, and they need the cooperation from not only Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl but also several other superheroes including Frozone.

Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl accept the offer because Evelyn and Winston are willing to provide anything Mr. Incredible and his family need, but Mr. Incredible is disappointed when his wife is chosen as the key part of Winston and Evelyn’s plan instead of him. According to the statistics, Elastigirl is less likely to cause collateral damage compared to him and other superheroes, and she certainly presents herself and her superhuman ability well during a sudden perilous situation involved with a runaway high-speed train, which later turns out to be orchestrated by a mysterious villain who seems quite willing to challenge her.

Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible tries to take care of his children in their new residence while his wife is busy with her new work, but he soon comes to see how demanding and exhausting this domestic task is. For example, Violet has been rather sullen as a boy she has liked does not recognize her at all even though they already met before, and there is nothing Mr. Incredible can do about that. In case of Dash, he remains your typical troublemaker, and he also really needs some help for doing his math homework. In addition, Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile), the youngest member of the family, still requires lots of care and attention, and his burgeoning superhuman abilities further complicate the situation.

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As smoothly going back and forth between these two storylines, the film generates lots of humor and excitement. The action sequence unfolded around the runaway high-speed train is thrilling and breathtaking as required, and that is just the appetizer for other impressive action sequences in the film. The movie also has lots of fun with Jack-Jack’s many different superhuman abilities, and I particularly like the slapstick sequence involved with an unlucky racoon. In the end, everything in the story culminates to a big action climax just like many other superhero movies, but the film never loses its wit and spirit even during that obligatory part, and what we eventually get here is much better than, say, “The Avengers” (2012) and its equally ponderous sequels.

The voice cast members are impeccable to say the least. While Craig T. Nelson brings considerable gruff charm to his character, Holly Hunter has a number of juicy moments as her character constantly amazes us with her incredible flexibility, and Sarah Vowell and Huck Milner are also solid in their respective supporting parts. Samuel L. Jackson, who is no stranger to superhero genre due to his routine appearance in “The Avengers” and its sequels, holds his own place as usual, and the same thing can be said about Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini, and director/writer Brad Bird, who delightfully plays his scene-stealing supporting character as he did before in the previous film.

Overall, “Incredibles 2” is not on a par with its predecessor or Bird’s previous animation films including “The Iron Giant” (1999) and “Ratatouille” (2007), but it is at least two or three steps above the lesser recent works from Pixar Animation Studios such as “The Good Dinosaur” (2015) and “Cars 3” (2017), and I enjoyed its distinctive style and personality, which is further accentuated by the hyperkinetic score by Michael Giacchino. In short, this is the best sequel product from Pixar Animation Studios since “Toy Story 3” (2010), and I certainly have some expectation on whatever will come next after this.

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The Wizard of Lies (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): All Falls Down

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As a guy who only knows vaguely about the Madoff investment scandal, I had some curiosity on HBO film “The Wizard of Lies”, which attempts to present a sobering glimpse into those enormous ramifications of the Madoff investment scandal. Although the movie keeps its distance from its loathsome but fascinating hero and we do not get enough insight on what makes him tick or how he could commit the largest financial fraud in the US history, it is still a darkly engaging drama thanks to a number of solid performances, and I had a fairly good time with it despite several noticeable weak aspects.

The movie, which is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, opens with the prison interview between Barnard L. Madoff (Robert De Niro) and Herniques, who plays herself in the film. As a journalist, Herniques certainly has many questions about Madoff’s scandalous financial crime which resulted in the loss of 64.5 billion dollar, and Madoff looks quite willing to answer her questions.

Their interview mainly revolves around when all fell down for him and others closely associated with him in December 2008, and the early part of the movie shows us how his two sons Andrew (Nathan Darrow) and Mark (Alessandro Nivola) belatedly come to know about what their father has been doing behind his back for many years. When their father says there is something he wants to tell them in private, they naturally become worried as fearing for the worst, but the situation turns out to be far worse than they expected. Their father assures them that he will turn himself in to the police once he takes care of everything for his family and others close to him, but, as two high-ranking employees of their father’s investment company, Andrew and Mark must report their father’s crime to authorities for avoiding any possibility of getting arrested along with him, and they eventually agree to do that.

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Not long after they report to the police, two federal agents come to Madoff’s penthouse apartment, and Madoff is quite phlegmatic about this in contrast to his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is still shocked and flabbergasted by what her husband revealed to her and their sons. He is soon taken to a jail in Manhattan, and Ruth becomes quite frustrated when their sons refuse to help her bail out their father. Eventually, Madoff is bailed out on the condition of temporary house arrest, but he and Ruth come to face their growing notoriety in public. He was once one of the most respectable figures in Wall Street, but now he is destined to be remembered as one of the biggest crooks in the US history, and there are thousands of angry people who lose lots of money because of him.

Meanwhile, Andrew and Mark try to distance themselves from their father as much as possible, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out to be virtually impossible for them to dissociate themselves from their father’s crime. Like their parents, they frequently find themselves surrounded by reporters, and this certainly takes a toll on their respective private lives. While Andrew tries to keep going on as usual, Mark becomes more morose and depressed as days go by, and this moody condition of his later leads to a devastating consequence.

The movie also tries to depict how Madoff could swindle the money out of his numerous clients for many years without getting caught, but it does not give us much substantial information on that. For example, we only get a rather superficial depiction of how his criminal activities were done in a certain section of his investment company, and the movie also does not delve much into how these criminal activities of his were not noticed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

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Nevertheless, the movie mostly works as a character study, and it is anchored well by Robert De Niro’s adamantly elusive but undeniably compelling performance. Although this may not be one of his best performances, De Niro reminds us here again that he is still a wonderful actor to watch, and he is especially good when he subtly conveys to us what may be behind his character’s mild but increasingly creepy façade. Although he admits his crime without any hesitation, Madoff maintains his calm, distant attitude in front of the catastrophic consequence of his crime, and we come to wonder whether he actually feels guilty about what he did to his family and many others out there.

The supporting performers surrounding De Niro ably fill their respective roles as required. While Michelle Pfeiffer brings some sympathy and understanding to her character, Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Darrow also give fine supporting performances, and Nivola is particularly heartbreaking as his character is slowly pushed toward the eventual downward spiral. As Madoff’s sleazy right-hand guy, Hank Azaria is relatively under-utilized, and I think the movie could be better if it showed more of how his character operates under Madoff.

Although it is not wholly satisfying, “The Wizard of Lies” remains interesting enough to watch, and director Barry Levinson, who recently directed another HBO film “Paterno” (2018), did a competent job on the whole. I still have some reservation on the movie, but it is surely nice to see De Niro doing something more respectable than “Dirty Grandpa” (2016), and that is enough for recommendation in my trivial opinion.

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The Insult (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A gripping courtroom drama from Lebanon

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Lebanese film “The Insult”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year, is a gripping courtroom drama about a complex legal conflict between two different men. At first, it is just a simple human matter of anger and resentment, but the situation becomes a lot more complicated as their conflict is subsequently brought into the court, and it is quite compelling to observe how their conflict is amplified through social/historical context. While their trial goes on, we come to learn more about not only these two guys but also the dark, tragic past which still lingers on their society, and we come to regard them with understanding and empathy even though we do not wholly side with either of them.

In the beginning, we meet Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Christian Lebanese who is a devoted member of the Christian Party in Lebanon as shown from the opening scene. He is the owner of a small garage in his urban neighborhood, and he and his wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) have been eagerly waiting for the birth of their daughter. Although we sense some strain in their relationship when they disagree with each other on their current residence, they are mostly happy to be with each other, and Tony certainly wants to do as much as he can for providing a safe and comfortable environment for his pregnant wife.

On one day, a construction crew happens to work right in front of the apartment building where Tony and Shirine live, and the crew comes across an annoying problem involved with a gutter below the veranda of Tony’s apartment. Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the Palestinian foreman of the crew, decides to put a new gutter below the veranda, but Tony promptly smashes this new gutter, and he even does not allow Yasser and his crew to come into his apartment just because he does not want Shirine to be disturbed by any noise. Naturally becoming exasperated by this frustrating circumstance, Yasser hurls an insult at Tony, and Tony soon comes to Yasser’s direct boss for demanding the apology from Yasser.

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Yasser’s direct boss tries to take care of this trouble without any unnecessary fuss. While convincing Yasser that he must give Tony what he wants, he also goes to Shirine for persuading Tony to be less adamant in his position, but, unfortunately, both Tony and Yasser come to make the situation worse than before. When Yasser and his direct boss come to Tony’s garage, Tony happens to be listening to the aggressive propaganda of his right-wing party as usual, and he does not even hide at all his hostility toward Yasser and other Palestinian people in Lebanon. When Tony says something quite hateful and insulting to Yasser, Yasser finally loses his calm control, and then he throws a hard punch at Tony.

After getting seriously injured because of this, Tony tries to sue Yasser, but he only finds himself becoming angrier than before. After submitting himself to the police a few days later, Yasser is soon brought to a trial on the charge of battery, but neither Yasser nor Tony is willing to talk about what prompted Yasser to commit that act of violence, and the judge presiding over the case eventually decides to close the case while allowing Yasser’s release.

When another unfortunate thing happens later, Tony decides to go further for getting what he wants, and he luckily gets a pro bono legal service from a prominent lawyer who previously defended the leader of the Christian Party. While meeting Tony along with a bunch of assistants, the lawyer emphasizes to Tony how difficult the new trial will be, and Tony does not hesitate at all to accept the offer.

Meanwhile, Yasser and his wife Manal (Christine Choueiri) also hires their own lawyer, a liberal who surely opposes to the conservative viewpoint of Tony’s lawyer. When these two lawyers eventually face each other at the court, the tension between them is palpable to say the least, and then there comes an unexpected moment of surprise and amusement when the judge presiding over this new trial inadvertently blurts out a certain fact about these two ferociously competing lawyers.

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Now I should be more careful about describing how deftly the movie handles its story and characters for maximum dramatic effects. Thanks to the fluid cinematography by Tommaso Fiorilli and the efficient editing by Dominique Marcombe, the movie constantly holds our attention as vividly capturing the dynamic interactions among its main characters during the trial scenes, and it further dials up the level of tension as Tony and Yasser come to face the growing ramifications of their personal conflict. While their respective lives are seriously affected by the trial, the Lebanese society is shaken up a lot by this trial due to the growing animosity between Palestinians and the members of the Christian Party, and that eventually brings out the old painful memories of the civil war during 1975-1990.

The main case members of the movie are flawless in their nuanced acting. While Kamel El Basha deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, Adel Karam gives an equally superlative performance, and Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud, Christine Choueiri, and Julia Kassar are also excellent in their respective supporting roles.

“The Insult” is directed by Ziad Doueiri, who also wrote the screenplay with his co-writer Joelle Touma. His previous film “The Attack” (2012), which is about a Palestinian doctor agonizing over his wife’s unexpected act of terror, was incidentally one of the best films I saw during 2013, and the powerful human drama of “The Insult” confirms to me that Doueiri is indeed an interesting filmmaker to watch. This is a terrific work on the whole, so I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

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