By William Wolf

OBIT  Send This Review to a Friend

When a buddy of mine, Daniel Berman, and I were in college and young firebrands we spoke on a panel and claimed a free press was limited in America by publishers who sometimes tried to squelch stories they didn’t like by burying them on the obituary page. An elderly lady who wrote society stories for the local newspaper raised her hand and said there was nothing wrong with that, exclaiming, “At my age the obituary page is the first page I read.”

I thought of that as I watched “Obit,” the fascinating documentary, directed by Vanessa Gould, examining the people and the process involving the writing of obituaries for the New York Times. It is a skill taken for granted, but very basic to chronicling the lives of important individuals from the high and mighty to other lesser-known persons who have made important contributions to society.

There is the practice of writing advance obits for the famous to have ready even though they may be a long way from death. Then there are the sudden deaths of important individuals that send the obit writers scrambling to have a viable piece ready on a short deadline.

We meet key people, including, among others, William McDonald, obituaries desk editor, and writer Bruce Weber (since retired), who help us by explaining what goes on at the venerable Times. Others in the film include writer William Grimes, former obit writer Douglas Martin, Margalit Fox, obituaries senior writer and Peter Keepnews, assistant obituaries editor, all of whom help complete the picture of the care with which obituaries are researched and composed and the seriousness of the job.

A vast morgue of clippings has been built at the Times over the years and these clips provide handy sources. There is also the problem of weighing how much space to give to one subject in relation to another, or whether someone gets space at all. Timelines are important too. If the news of a death comes in belatedly a decision might be made that it is too late to run an obit.

The film gets somewhat repetitious, but it is mostly an intriguing look into a vital corner of the newspaper business charged with ultimately evaluating who’s who when deaths occur.

I recall that in Neil Simon’s comedy “The Sunshine Boys” there was a funny line when someone hears of a show biz death and asks where the person died. “In ‘Variety’” was the answer. One might also quip that in New York if the person doesn’t die in the New York Times. he or she isn’t officially gone. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed April 26, 2017.

SLACK BAY  Send This Review to a Friend

French director Bruno Dumont’s oddball “Slack Bay” is neither funny enough nor sufficient as a mystery. The gimmick here s that a lower-class family subsists as cannibals in contrast to the upper class dwellers in a seaside town on the northern coast of France. There is a period look to the set-up, thanks to the film being set in the early part of the 20th century. The ambience also includes various body parts for dinner.

People have been mysteriously disappearing, and a pair of bumbling detectives, the lead one obese and given to falling down and rolling a lot, are on the trail. The leading culprit is a young man named Ma Loute, loutishly played by Brandon Lavieville, who along with his family makes a business of transporting people across small bodies of water. Trip-takers unknowingly travel at their risk.

Overacting is ripe, with leading culprits such French film stalwarts as Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, representatives of the upper class.

One can, of course, see the film as a wild satire of class differences, but the film lacks the wit of good comedy and thereby comes across mainly as an exercise in outrageousness. It may amuse some, but on the other hand, it may not be everyone’s meat. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed April 21, 2017.

THE PROMISE  Send This Review to a Friend

A love triangle is set against the horrors of the 1915 Armenian genocide, in which there was widespread killing of Armenians that the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge. In “The Promise,” directed by Terry George from a screenplay that he wrote with Robin Swicord, we are eased into the ultimate catastrophe with the story involving the lead characters.

Oscar Isaac is cast as Michael, an Armenian apothecary, who promises to wed Marai, a village girl, in order to get a dowry that will enable him to study medicine. He is warned by his mother not to marry for money. He doesn’t listen.

But when he meets the glamorous, sophisticated Ana, played by Charlotte Le Bon, Michael is smitten. Yet the promise he made is a matter of honor. There are further complications. Ana is involved with Chris, an American photo-journalist played by Christian Bale.

The triangle could stand on its own as enough of a drama, but the film’s main purpose would appear to ultimately to expose the genocide, and the screenplay drags them into it with serious consequences. The strongest moments of the film are the atrocities we witness, and the larger picture competes with the more intimate part of the narrative.

This is hardly a film to please the Turkish government, given the effort to bury the truth of what happened and what has been documented. “The Promise” has a broad sweep to it, with considerable action and intricate plot developments involving an assortment of characters.

The film benefits from its appealing lead performers, as well as from the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe. Yet one may come away wondering about the balance between the personal stories and the much more important historical crime against humanity. An Open Road release. Posted April 21, 2017.

FREE FIRE  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire,” now in commercial release, has the distinction of being the bloodiest film I saw at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Once it gets going it is almost a constant ra-a-tat-tat of gunfire, with those wielding weapons either bloodily dispatched or wounded. There’s also a slight comic tinge to the mayhem.

In the screenplay written by Amy Jump and Wheatley and set in 1978, what starts all of the fury is a gun deal that goes bad. Brie Larson as Justine sets up the deal, which is to take place in an old warehouse. The gun dealers are Sharlto Copely as Vernon and Armie Hammer as Ord. They are selling to Cillian Murphy as Chris and and Michael Smiley as Frank, who are with the IRA.

When the shootout starts a bag of money is what everyone tries the snatch. Driving the film is the oddball nature of the characters depicted coupled with the greed and nuttiness underlying the life and death determination to prevail.

Wheatley leavens the action with enough humor to justify seeing the picture as bordering on absurdist. One needs ear plugs as well as tolerance for so much shooting in a film, and there is really no incentive to root for anyone in particular. One can just root for the mess to be over. Posted April 21, 2017.

THEIR FINEST  Send This Review to a Friend

An unusual and eminently satisfying story harking back to Britain during World War II, “Their Finest,” smoothly directed by Lone Scherfig and based on Lissa Evans’s novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” is graced by fine performances and a situation markedly different from most war films. With a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, the story concerns the making of propaganda movies to lift British spirits by the British Ministry of Information’s Film Division and the crew goes on location in Devon. Gemma Arterton, who gave such an appealing performance in the French “Gemma Bovery,” is marvelous as Catrin Cole, who lands a screenwriting job and is put to work on a film glorifying heroism by rescuers of troops at Dunkirk. She labors closely with Sam Claflin as Tom Buckley, also charged with churning out scripts. Tom, very much on the shy side, is growing infatuated with Catrin, who is married to an artist husband, who doesn’t think much of what she is doing.

Arterton gives Catrin plenty of charm along with her sense of purpose, and that helps capture the we-will-not-be-beaten resolve in the UK. The film also gains immeasurably from the performance by Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard, a self-centered, but fading actor who gives everyone a pain. Scripts never offer what he considers lines worthy of him. However, Catrin has the knack of breaking through and calming him down. Nighy is hilarious in his hauteur, and if you know his work, you know how good he can be in such a part. One also finds plenty to chuckle about over the corny efforts of the government filmmakers to be inspirational.

The balance between the humor found in the day-to-day work and lurking tragedy is handled extremely well, and the portrait of how important it is to carry on despite all that can happen on the home front in wartime becomes both heartbreaking and uplifting. There is also particular attention paid to capturing the look and ambience of the period. Within is a solid portrait of a woman coming into her own despite the obstacles she faces. Extreme credit is due Arterton.

The content, acting and tone of “Their Finest” made this one of my favorite films at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, as well as a wartime movie that has special resonance. A STX Entertainment release.Posted April 4, 2017.

A QUIET PASSION  Send This Review to a Friend

Cynthia Nixon enacts for us a profound but deeply disturbing portrait of poet Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who attempts to probe what life was like for this literary icon. The film captures the stifling 19th century atmosphere in which Dickinson as a woman had to defy convention to pursue her passion for expression. It also depicts the toll it took and gives us a sense of her artistry and the well from which it emanated.

Nixon’s superb performance provides an overview of Dickinson in this extremely intimate and well-thought-out drama that imagines what it must have been like for her within the context of her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Keith Carradine plays her austere father, to whose discipline she surrenders with respect.

Jennifer Ehle, ever distinguished, plays Emily’s sister Vinnie, and their relationship is a lively part of the drama. It is always extremely difficult to get into the mind of a creative artist, and this film makes the attempt by depicting Emily’s subtly rebellious spirit, both with respect to her writing and outlook on life, and also her judgmental personality, as when she becomes furious at an affair that her married brother Austin has. (He’s enacted by Duncan Duff.)

The beautifully shot drama proceeds chapter-like as we watch Emily become more and more withdrawn and wracked by illness. Her decline is extremely tragic, as shown here, leading to her death at the age of 55 in 1886.

Ultimately, “A Quiet Passion” is a fascinating mix. On the one hand, one can come away admiring Nixon for her superb acting. But in another respect, the film is a downer as we watch Dickinson’s descent into loneliness and death. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed April 14, 2017.

NORMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Richard Gere further enhances his reputation by giving a standout performance that drives the film “Norman,” showcased at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and now in release. Gere plays the title role as a New York fixer, who works hard to build a reputation as one who can make things happen in this comedy-tinged drama written and directed by Israeli-American Joseph Cedar.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Norman encounters Israeli foreign minister Eshel, played by Lior Ashkenazi, and insists on buying him an expensive pair of shoes. The official is reluctant, but taken by Norman’s generosity and personality, he accepts.

What Norman could not know at the time was the Eshel was to become Israel’s prime minister. Now the stakes are higher and Norman, on the basis of his earlier encounter, is pressed to get favors done. However, this time Eshel is not easy to contact.

The film is largely concerned with Norman’s wheeling and dealing and his increasing desperation—ingredients that enable Gere to show off his acting prowess. In the process we also get a portrait of the conniving that goes on to get access and favors.

All is done colorfully and suspensefully under Cedar’s direction. The good supporting cast includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens and Steve Buscemi. But this is definitely Gere’s movie. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Posted April 13, 2017.

HEAL THE LIVING  Send This Review to a Friend

If you enjoy intense medical dramas, “Heal the Living,” directed by Katell Quillévéré and showcased at this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, may be for you. A young man is left brain dead after a car accident and his grieving parents must decide whether to allow an organ transplant for someone badly in need of a heart.

The film proceeds to take us into the process of arranging for transplants, involving both the donor and the needy recipient. We go right into the operating room to follow the surgical details. This is especially for those who have the stomach and nerves for such a candid film, but for those who do, this is a rewarding experience that is both dramatic and educational.

The victim is played By Gabin Verdet, the recipient by Anne Dorval. We also meet the victim’s grief-stricken parents, played by Emanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen. The film reveals how in such situations decisions must be made under pressure in order to have a successful transplant.

The direction is consistently scalpel-like, with attention to detail and the surgical procedures are depicted with precision, which makes the film all the more effective on that score. This is definitely a fascinating film that is different from the usual. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed April 14, 2017.

THE TICKET  Send This Review to a Friend

Fueled by a dramatic performance by star Dan Stevens, “The Ticket,” directed by Ido Fluk, is an intriguing morality tale that symbolizes an individual’s inability to properly grasp an opportunity to succeed when undone by a human flaw.

In the story, co-written by Fluk and Sharon Mashihi, Stevens plays James, who is blind. The director starts the film with hazy images reflecting the lack of sight, but also beginning to open up with the phenomenon that drives the personal saga. We see light emerging as James unexpectedly begins to regain his sight.

Stevens conveys the character’s amazement and joy at his discovery that he can see. His wife, Sam (Malin Akerman), shares in the excitement. What will James do with his new-found gift? A doctor warns that the situation could retrogress, and a viewer, schooled in the ways of drama, can suspect that it will.

What emerges is how James blows his opportunity with hubris. He has been working as a blind man in a company trying to convince people to take loans. Now that he can see he arrogantly maximizes is position. He shoves aside his blind close friend Bob, played with increasing resentfulness by Oliver Platt. James acts like a hot shot and falls for the beautiful, seductive co-worker, played by Kerry Bishé. The affair leads to his wife rejecting him after she has nurtured him during his blindness, a devotion that he sees as pity.

In short, James becomes less likable with his ability to see. What he cannot see is the destructive path he is on instead of the one that his new potential might create.

The direction and screenplay combine to maximize the events, both story-wise and visually. Fluk never forgets that his film is about sight, physical and symbolical, as well as about insight. The resulting drama is sturdy and a poignant character study.

Not to be overlooked are those inviting blue eyes of Stevens, who many know from his role as Matthew Crawley in th TV series “Downton Abbey.” (He is also currently appearing in the film “Beauty and the Beast.”) Stevens is a special reason for seeing “The Ticket,” although it is a compelling drama in its own right. A Shout Factory Films release. Reviewed April 7, 2017.

GRADUATION  Send This Review to a Friend

Ethical questions are put into sharp focus in director Cristian Mungiu’s superior Romanian film, “Graduation,” which explores the way beneficial trade-offs are made in an atmosphere in which favors are expected to get favors in return. Shown at the 2016 New York Film Festival, “Graduation” is now in commercial release.

The troublesome issues are raised when Dr. Romeo Aldea, played smoothly by Adrian Titieni, desperately wants his daughter to pass her crucial high school exam so that she can take advantage of a scholarship in Britain. He also feels it important to get her out of Romania in order to have a better life.

His daughter, Eliza, played with teenage cool by Maria Dragus, fights off an intended rape attack near her school the day before the exam. Meanwhile, amidst his concern for her, Dr. Aldea sets out to guarantee that she indeed passes.

He gets himself into a jam after he makes a bargain involving elevating a government official on the list for a liver transplant in exchange for another official with influence to put on pressure to be sure that Eliza passes.

There will be serious, career threatening and potentially criminal complications for Dr. Aldea, and Eliza, upon learning what her father has done, is herself faced with an ethical issue. She is not looking for help. She doesn’t even want especially to go to England.

The film’s strength is how it meticulously delves in low-key fashion into various aspects of life—what it is like at home for Eliza, the atmosphere at the hospital where the doctor practices, the kind of wheeling and dealing that occurs, the infighting triggered by the circumstances and the differences between generations—all within the realm of life in Romania.

We also see the betrayal by Dr. Aldea of his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), on whom he is cheating with his mistress, Sandra (Malina Manovici), who is coming to a crisis of her own as a result of her being held in limbo. The doctor’s wife decides she wants no more of the marriage, a sad scene, and his confrontation with his mistress is also sad.

The relations with his daughter are strained by her realization that he has a mistress. There enough angst to go around for all.

There’s also a side issue of corruption with respect to the daughter’s boyfriend, who doesn’t have to worry about studies because of his value to a school team. Sound familiar? Not only in Romania.

This engrossing film delves deeply into the issues explored, and it is made especially interesting as a result of the consistently strong acting. A Sundance Selects/IFC Films release. Reviewed April 6, 2017.


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