An Actor Prepares

Posted on August 30, 2018 at 12:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse, psychedelics
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, medical issue
Diversity Issues: Discussion of feminism
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018
Copyright 2018 Gravitas Ventures

The third movie this year with an acclaimed older actor playing a selfish, negligent father who must be driven across country by an angry, estranged adult child has some familiar tropes, but also some distinct pleasures. Following “Kodachrome” (Ed Harris, Jason Sudeikis), and “Boundaries” (Christopher Plummer, Vera Farmiga) we have “An Actor Prepares,” with Jeremy Irons and Jack Huston. The title comes from the legendary book by Constantin Stanislavski that is a core text for method actors. The joke here is that Jeremy Irons plays a three-time Oscar-winning, substance-abusing actor named Atticus Smith who seems to have no method to his madness and does not really prepare for anything.

Atticus is a mess. His agent (Ben Schwartz) is trying desperately to keep him together so he can literally play God in a movie. Atticus is looking forward to the wedding of his “favorite child” (Mamie Gummer). But both the movie and attending the wedding are in jeopardy when he has a heart attack and his doctor says he needs surgery. She reluctantly agrees to delay it for a week so he can go to the wedding, but he has to take his medicine, refrain from sex, drugs, and alcohol, and he cannot go by plane. That is how Adam (Jack Huston) ends up on a road trip with the father he despises, as a favor to the sister he loves.

The road trip is one of the oldest of all stories, going back to The Odyssey and before. It’s a lovely metaphor of life’s journey and provides opportunities for characters to have many seemingly random interactions, from happy to scary to moving, that help them resolve their differences by working together and learning about one another. This one involves bickering and recrimination, many opportunities for Atticus to do or say wildly inappropriate things and Adam to disapprove, a switch of vehicles/drivers, a cellphone tossed out a window, an old love, jail, and an campfire-lit trip on the hipster psychedelic ayahuasca.

So, no big surprises and at least one too many plot contrivances and at least one too few reasons to believe in the resolution. Irons and Huston make it work. Irons is clearly overjoyed to have a chance to break out of Serious Actor mode and perhaps have some fun at the expense of some of the master thespians he has had the chance to observe. He makes the most of the silly scarves, the cluelessly self-involved constant stream of free-association, and the endless series of hilarious fake movie titles for Atticus’ resume, from “Throwdown at Bitch River” to “Cops and Slobbers.” And Huston is marvelous in what could have been a thankless straight man role. I counted at least a dozen different ways of looking exasperated. His reaction to the ayahuasca is funny and very specific to the character. Mamie Gummer and Schwartz make the best of small roles, and Huston and Irons remind us why all these reconciliation road trips are worth taking.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely strong and crude language, substance abuse, psychedelic drugs, smoking, drinking, very explicit sexual references, medical issues, and tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Why was the car meaningful to Adam? Why did Adam and his sister have different responses to their father?

If you like this, try: “Kodachrome” and “Boundaries”

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Rotten Tomatoes Welcomes More Diverse Critics

Posted on August 30, 2018 at 10:18 am

Rotten Tomatoes has made a very important step forward in promoting diversity with an announcement about its revised policy for accepting critics. As a critic who has been on Rotten Tomatoes almost since it began, I am delighted.

Copyright Rotten Tomatoes 2018

In revamping our Critics Criteria, we sought to bring the criteria into better alignment with the way media works today, to promote the inclusion of more voices that reflect the varied groups of people who consume entertainment, and to maintain the high standards we’ve always set for inclusion in the group of Tomatometer-approved critics.

When assessing applications from those wishing to be a Tomatometer-approved critic, or a Tomatometer-approved publication, we now take into consideration four key values as well as a revised set of eligibility requirements. These values are Insight, Audience, Quality, and Dedication, and you can find a full breakdown of each value here.

Movie critics in general, including those on Rotten Tomatoes, are overwhelmingly white males. Filmmakers like Meryl Streep and Brie Larson have complained that this lack of diversity does not fairly represent the experiences and perspectives of movie audiences. Rotten Tomatoes’ revised criteria reflect not just outreach to diverse voices but a thoughtful reassessment based on the wider range of platforms for criticism, including podcasts and videos. They make their commitment clear with a link in the announcement to invite other critics to apply.

This comes just after Chaz Ebert announced on Rogerebert.com its new gender-balanced roster of critics, five men and five women, including POCs, with more as contributors. I am very proud to be a part of this group, and to be the site’s first female assistant editor, and very happy to see critics as diverse as our readers.

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Operation Finale

Posted on August 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong and hateful language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018

Copyright 2018 MGM
It is, perhaps, the ultimate conundrum, one that echoes throughout all of human history. How can good guys defeat the bad guys without becoming bad themselves? If the bad guys do not play by any rules at all, the good guys have two choices: to stay within the rules themselves, which can be high risk because it is like going into a fight with both arms tied behind your back, or decide that the ends justify the means and violate the rules to improve their chance of winning. Can it really be a win if you abandon your principles to get there?

Sometimes there is ambiguity about who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys. That is not the case with the Nazis in WWII. Among the worst of the worst, certainly the worst to survive the war, was Adolf Eichmann, the head of the “Department of Jewish Affairs” and the man responsible for creating the system that led to the murder of millions of people, including six million Jews. The other top Nazi leaders, Hitler, Himmler, and Goering, killed themselves at the end of the war. Then there were the Nuremberg trials for many others. But Eichmann and a few others escaped to Nazi-friendly Argentina. Fifteen years later, agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency captured him and brought him back to Israel for a trial that was broadcast around the world. This is the story of how that happened, so tensely presented that we hold our breath even though we know that Eichmann made it to Israel, where his “man in a glass booth” (for security) trial was broadcast as it happened throughout the world, giving most people their first chance to hear testimony from Holocaust survivors.

Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton skillfully portray the people of the young state of Israel, just 12 years old, still defining itself internally and still justifying its existence to the world. When someone approaches Mossad with evidence that Eichmann has been identified in Argentina, the first reaction is that the atrocities are old news, and they don’t have the resources to go after him because they are too busy fighting for the right to exist now. They ultimately decide to get him less from a sense of justice or even revenge than from the notion that at this stage, everything they do is definitional; every choice they make shows the world what it means to be a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an atrocity so unprecedented that the term was not even in widespread use for several more years.

We see what it is to have a country made up of displaced people, each of whom has suffered unthinkable trauma and grief. In one scene they almost start to have a grim “who lost the most” conversation before they stop. Their focus has to be on what happens next, and that is the risky, complicated plan to get Eichmann out of Argentina, even though there is no extradition and they don’t have access to military aircraft capable of transporting him.

Sir Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, living under an assumed name, working at a Mercedes factory, living with his wife and sons, and speaking often to groups of other escaped Nazis about his wartime experiences. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who actually tackled Eichmann, and who, with his colleagues, had to keep him captive until he could be extracted and put on a commercial flight to Israel.

There is a wisp of a love story, and there is some exploration of the moral dilemmas. But it is the electrifying scenes between Kingsley and Isaac that are even more riveting than the “can they get him” and “will they be caught” moments of spycraft.

It was Eichmann himself who inspired Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and disconnect is jarring between Eichmann’s deeds in overseeing the mechanics of rounding up Jews and transporting them to their execution and torture and the bland, civilized factory foreman who loves his wife and children. Eichmann is not bothered by the slaughter of millions, even when a murdered baby’s brain was splattered over his coat. Malkin is still deeply wounded by the loss of one person, his adored sister, who was killed with her children. He is still anguished by a fatal mistake on a previous mission. We see that the very conscience that keeps Malkin from “putting a bullet between eyes,” as he said he would gladly do, can make it much harder to bring him to justice.

Eichmann, a master manipulator, tries to put them both in the same category of following orders to save their country. Malkin tries to manipulate Eichmann into signing the necessary consent form for leaving the country. Each tries to gain ground over the other, usually through appearing to be conciliatory, to find some point of vulnerability. The action scenes, especially toward the end, have a ramped-up “Argo” rhythm, but what is far more engrossing is when two people talk to each other.

The stakes are incalculable and inherently dramatic, but Kingsley and Issac take it to another level as characters and as actors, and it is fascinating to see them challenge each other. Two of the greatest actors alive, each with endless screen magnetism, superb control of acting technique, and the ability to tell a lifetime with an almost imperceptible shift of the eyes or slight additional huskiness in the voice, put all of that to show us a massive historical event can come down to two people in a room.

Parents should know that this film includes footage of Holocaust atrocities, including mass murder, with some graphic and very disturbing images, some peril and violence, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why is it important to give someone a fair trial when the crime is unimaginably big and the evidence against him is overwhelming? Is it possible for a trial under those circumstances to be fair? Why did Eichmann sign the agreement?

If you like this, try: “Argo,” “Munich,” and “The Eichmann Show,” a film about the trial, and read Peter Malkin’s book, Eichmann in My Hands.

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The Happytime Murders

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:35 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material)
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and offensive language

Copyright STX Films 2018
A couple of minutes into “The Happytime Murders,” an adorable Muppet-like puppet says the f-word. If that strikes you as funny, think very carefully about whether it is funny enough for 90 minutes of pretty much the exact same joke to justify the price of a movie ticket. If you want to hear puppets swear and talk about porn, see “Avenue Q.” If you want to see a detective try to solve a murder in a show business community where entertaining non-human characters are second-class citizens, see “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” If you want a good time at the movies, do not go to see this.

It might have made a pretty good Funny or Die video. But it is not enough to sustain even a less-than 90-minute running time. It is vastly less entertaining than the behind-the-scenes credit sequence showing how some of the scenes were filmed. And it is vastly less interesting than a movie about adults trying to trash the imperishable legacy of a legendary father, as is the case here with the Henson kids making a hard-R movie with characters from the Muppet world their father created.

Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop-turned private detective with a comely receptionist named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, the movie’s highlight). A beautiful new client (Dorien Davies) asks Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil investigates a possible connection in a porn shop (where a puppet cow is having her udder massaged by a puppet octopus) just as a gunman arrives and kills everyone else in the store. One of the victims was an actor on a popular television show called “The Happytime Gang,” featuring Phil’s brother and a bunch of other puppets, along with a human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), once Phil’s girlfriend.

Phil’s former partner, Connie Edwards (co-producer Melissa McCarthy) shows up, and her lieutenant (Leslie David Baker) assigns them to work together on what turns out not to be a simple robbery but a plot to kill off all of the Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie track each one down, bickering along the way, and failing to protect any of them. This is an opportunity to show many puppets engaging in extremely depraved behavior including substance abuse and prostitution and brutal murders with bits of fluff and disembodied puppets everywhere. Fun!

What makes the Muppets magical is the vivid personalities. We don’t love Kermit and Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf and Elmo and Oscar and Big Bird and the Swedish Chef and Fozzy Bear because they are puppets. We love them because they are characters, as vivid and engaging and real as any human. The puppets here, are expertly made but bland. And so, despite all the naughty talk and truly filthy behavior, is the script. It is too lazy to even think through its premise, beyond “it’s funny to have characters usually designed for children say and do R-rated things.” A human has a transplanted puppet liver. Puppets and humans apparently have sex with each other. Puppets have puppet children and, if the puppets who have children are cousins, those children do not have the correct number of eyes. Hilarious! And on top of regular old fashioned bad taste, it has the extremely poor judgment to have a “puppet lives matter” element.

A brief pause before my conclusion to mention Maya Rudolph, who almost packs a whole movie’s worth of watchability in her irresistible performance. As Bubbles, she manages to pay tribute to and slightly parody the classic hard-boiled but soft-hearted dames who used to work for detectives like Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. The timbre of her voice, she way she holds her shoulders, the way she walks, the way she picks a lock, the way she thanks Phil for bringing her a candy bar — each moment is a small chamber piece of exquisite choices. McCarthy is great. She’s always great. But she is not always great at picking projects, and this one, despite her crackerjack timing and remarkable focus, is a big, fluffy, dud.

Parents should know that this film includes constant extremely strong, vulgar, and crude language, very explicit sexual references and situations, drinking, smoking, drugs, violence including guns and fire, and characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What parallels is this movie suggesting about today’s political issues? Why did the humans feel superior to the puppets?

If you like this,try: “Avenue Q”

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Juliet, Naked

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcoholism and drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 24, 2018
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate

Nick Hornby understands passionate fans of rock music and the people who create it. His novel High Fidelity and the film starring John Cusack are classics. He also wrote About a Boy, the story of a man who, years after his father’s one novelty hit, is living off the royalties and not doing much else. It became a beloved film starring Hugh Grant and television series. He brought those two ideas together in Juliet, Naked, the story of a passionate fan and a faded rock star who are connected by the woman they both love.

Annie (Rose Byrne) cannot quite figure out how she got where she is and is even less able to figure out how to get anywhere else. When her parents died, she took over her father’s job as curator of a small history museum and raised her younger sister, who now works there with her. She has been living with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), her boyfriend of 15 years, a professor of popular culture who shows his students clips from “The Wire” and who operates a fan site for the elusive Tucker Crowe, a rock star whose disappearance has only increased the interest in his one classic album, called “Juliet” and inspired by a break-up.

Duncan receives some previously unreleased Crowe songs, the original demos of “Juliet,” “naked” because they have no studio sweetening or instruments other than Crowe’s guitar. For a fan who obsessively collects Crowe arcana, this is the ultimate treasure. Annie, irritated with him for his fixation on a musician who has not released any new music in decades, writes a bad review of the new tracks on Duncan’s fan site, calling it a cash grab, and she gets an email from Crowe himself, agreeing with her. This leads to an email correspondence, “You’ve Got Mail”-style. And then to a meeting IRL.

The movie was directed by a real-life rock star, Jesse Peretz of The Lemonheads, and he has a feel for the life of a rock star and the life of a fan. He (and Hornby) have less of a feel for Byrne’s character, and even Byrne’s endless charm and skill cannot make up for an underwritten role. Hawke does better. Crowe is so shaggily rueful about his own failings as a performer, a person, and a father that we almost forget just how irresponsible he has been. It’s a slight story, but it’s a sweet one.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, references to alcoholism and drug abuse, references to irresponsible behavior, and a medical issue.

Family discussion: What makes some people into super-dedicated fans? Was Annie right about the museum exhibit?

If you like this, try: “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”

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