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Monday, December 09, 2019

‘Time Out Of Mind’ Is Haunting Masterpiece On Homelessness

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

He’s someone you see every day on city sidewalks: dragging a garbage bag, wheeling a worn suitcase, watching for a discarded lunch, for coins dropped on the curb.

In Time Out of Mind, set in a teeming New York City, a man with a bruised face and a bruised soul looks for places to sleep, for a reason to keep going. People talk on cellphones, run for the bus, head for meals — almost uniformly indifferent. And if this man, whose name we discover is George, looks a little like Richard Gere, no one notices, or cares.

In fact, in Oren Moverman’s haunting portrait — shot on the sly through shop windows, from second-story apartments and busy intersections — that homeless man is played by Gere. It may take a minute to come to terms with the idea that the white-maned movie star, last seen in the company of swooning septuagenarians in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has wrapped himself in layers of secondhand clothes and taken to the streets. But it will only be a minute: In an extraordinarily inward and moving performance, Gere sheds every vestige of his silver-screen persona. Instead, Gere’s George looks lost, broken, his eyes blinking warily, his body crouched and defensive, hesitant.

Moving from an ER waiting room (where he tries to sleep), to an intake center, to a shelter, George encounters fellow indigents, some of them mentally ill, some hopeful they can turn things around.

Moverman, who wrote the Brian Wilson pic Love & Mercy and the Bob Dylan pic I’m Not There, and who directed The Messenger and Rampart, tracks Gere with a documentarian’s eye. (Bobby Bukowski, the cinematographer, is a master of naturalism.) Bresson, De Sica, Rossellini are the film’s forebears, inspiration.

As Gere disappears in the role, so, too, in various cameos, do Kyra Sedgwick (a homeless woman), Ben Vereen (a shelter regular), Steve Buscemi (a building manager). Jena Malone appears in a few telling scenes as George’s estranged daughter — it hurts to see what her father has become, how far he’s fallen.

And as George struggles to keep his dignity, and his sanity, the hurt goes both ways. Powerful.

3.5 out of 4 stars

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Human Spirit On Display In Two Films

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

The protagonists of “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, and “Seymour: An Introduction,” a documentary by Ethan Hawke, are both in their 80s, resilient individuals whose strength of spirit works like a lighthouse beam showing the way. In each of those new films, the light shines on a younger protege. In “Woman in Gold,” based on a true story, it’s a hapless lawyer played by Ryan Reynolds. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” it’s the filmmaker — and actor — Hawke, half the age of his subject, composer and teacher Seymour Bernstein.

Here, Mirren and Hawke illuminate:

“Imagine that you are home, with all of your family, all of your things, everything you’ve bought and the things that were passed on to you from your parents and your grandparents,” Helen Mirren says. “And then in walk these people who, first of all, say, ‘We’re having that, we’re taking this, and by the way, you don’t live here anymore.’

“And then they kill your whole family.”

That’s pretty much the scenario that Maria Altmann, daughter of wealthy Viennese Jews, witnessed in 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Troops of the Third Reich rolled in, seizing property and businesses from the long-established Jewish community.

In “Woman in Gold,” the Oscar-winning actress of “The Queen” brings the intrepid Altmann back to life. Escaping Austria with her new husband, and settling in the United States, after two years in England, Altmann “had to start absolutely from zero,” Mirren says. “But she was young. She was in her early 20s, so she was active and up for an adventure.”

Perhaps her greatest adventure — a historic one — was the five-year-plus legal battle to reclaim a group of paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt that hung in her family’s apartment. The most notable piece was a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt — a serene and seductive woman draped in gold, and painted in gold leaf. Seized by the Nazis, the Klimts ended up after World War II in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace museums, owned by the Austrian government.

“Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, chronicles Altmann’s daunting fight for restitution. Ryan Reynolds, bumbling and bespectacled, stars as E. Randol Schoenberg, an inexperienced Los Angeles lawyer and family friend who, at first reluctantly, took on Altmann’s case — and ended up arguing it before the Supreme Court.

Along the way, the mismatched duo — she, in her 80s, headstrong and heartsick over what her homeland had done, and he in his 40s, the grandson of expatriate Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg — forged a lasting bond. Altmann died at age 94 in 2011. She won her battle to reclaim the Klimt in 2006. The portrait of her aunt now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York.

“Woman in Gold” was shot in Vienna, London, and Los Angeles. Mirren says that even though the case of “Republic of Austria v. Altmann is only a decade gone, the institutional,and cultural hostility depicted in the film — with government officials and museum directors doing everything they could to keep the Klimts — has been vanquished.” When she, Reynolds, and Daniel Bruhl, playing an investigative journalist allied with Altmann, were in Vienna, they were greeted warmly.

“The Viennese were incredibly welcoming, I have to say,” Mirren recalls. “You know, they are the villains of the piece, because they were the villains of the piece. But time has moved on.

“I personally was invited to the Town Hall by the mayor and presented with the keys of the city. He said, ‘Maria Altmann was a very important person in our history…she made us understand what actually occurred when the Nazis invaded, and how Viennese citizens contributed to what had happened,’ and then how they went into denial as soon as the war was over….

“I would say that they have really turned around,” Mirren ventures. “You know, history gets rewritten very quickly, and suddenly it’s ‘Oh no, we didn’t know, we had no idea.'”

“Woman in Gold,” then, serves as a reminder.

“We certainly do need reminding,” Mirren says. “I love the line in the film, when Maria says, ‘Because people forget, you see. Especially the young.'”
Ethan Hawke found himself at a dinner party a few years ago, seated next to a man more than twice his age, a pianist, composer, and teacher named Seymour Bernstein. By evening’s end, Hawke was so taken with his fellow New Yorker that he felt the need to meet again, to continue the discussion about art, music, acting, and life. Then the “Boyhood” and “Training Day” star started thinking that what he really needed to do was make a film about the man.

“Seymour: An Introduction” is that film.

“I was turning 40,” says Hawke, recalling that dinner and how he started spilling his guts to the stranger by his side about career anxieties. “I’d always been the youngest in the room, and all of a sudden I really wasn’t anymore, and I was being expected to deliver and be a professional….I just felt a certain pressure to take off the student cap — and I really didn’t want to.

“And Seymour has an incredible ability to listen and key in on what somebody’s trying to say….But I realized, talking to him, how any issues of anxiety or pressure in acting are really a fraction of what a concert pianist experiences. The pressure and intensity of one performance, one memory slip, one physical misstep, and your performance at Carnegie Hall is forever ruined….

“So he knows that feeling. And when I left, I felt really privileged. That was the feeling that ultimately led to making me want to do this. I felt an obligation that more people should get a chance to meet him.”

Bernstein, now 87, is indeed worth meeting. The conversations Hawke has with the octogenarian musician are illuminating. So are the moments when Bernstein is filmed teaching his students, or being interviewed by Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times critic who was all of five years old when he started taking lessons from Bernstein.

It’s easy to see why Hawke — and the others — are inspired.

“Seymour is not self-serious, he’s not pretentious,” the actor says. “He’s full of a tremendous amount of love and wit….And yet a lot of people who spend their life in the arts, they sometimes can be defeated by failure or defeated by success. It almost leaves you no recipe for happiness.”

Bernstein has found that recipe, and Hawke is eager to share it.

Photo: freeparking :-l via Flickr

If ‘Exotic’ Gets A Sequel, Why Not These Too?

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

They’re called art house films, or specialty films. You know, the ones that never show up at your local multiplex. Except that every once in a while, they do.

Look what happened with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the saffron-scented romcom about a group of British pensioners who resettle to cheaper digs, and sunnier climes, in a rundown hostelry on the subcontinent. The John Madden-directed indie, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the eager-to-please young hotel manager), opened quietly in late 2011, only to become a surprise international hit.

Ultimately, it earned $137 million, and then millions more in DVD, cable and ancillary sales.

No surprise: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is now in theaters, reteaming most of the original cast, and sending Tamsin Greig, David Strathairn, and Richard Gere to join them in Jaipur.

So, what are the production heads at Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, the Weinstein Company, Focus Features, and other specialty houses waiting for? What about following up on other recent classics of indie cinema that also did quite nicely at the box office? Here, then, are a half-dozen hotly anticipated sequels that could be making their way to a theater — in a parallel universe near you.

Birdgirl. What exactly’s going on when Emma Stone pops her head out that hospital window at the end of the Academy Award-winning best picture Birdman? She looks down, and appears terribly worried and sad. She looks up, sees something, and a smile crosses her face. In the sequel, Birdgirl Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Petulance), Stone’s Sam (for Samantha) Thomson starts hearing voices in her head, finds a winged, beak-masked suit that fits her just so, and flies around New York in search of Edward Norton to play a few more rounds of Truth or Dare.

Then she gets the idea to turn a short story by Raymond Carver into a Broadway play. The title? The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off.

Hey, Just a Memento! Christopher Nolan, disappointed in the receipts for his mega-expensive, mega-ambitious space-time wormholer, Interstellar, phones Guy Pearce to ask the Aussie actor if he’d be interested in revisiting the role of Leonard Shelby, the amnesiac sleuth of Nolan’s 2000 low-budget neo-noir mindbender, Memento. But Pearce can’t remember who Nolan is, or what their relationship was, so he uses a system of notes, tattoos, and Polaroid photos to try to track down the filmmaker.

Finally, Pearce heads to an abandoned building outside town where he meets with a man who claims he is Nolan. Pearce takes a Polaroid, then burns it, then drives off in Nolan’s Prius, having tattooed the license plate number on his forearm. The director is left standing there, extremely perplexed.

Precious Too. Gabourey Sidibe returns as Claireece Precious Jones, the Harlem schoolgirl and fried-chicken fiend, who has not only gotten her GED and her life together but has been accepted into the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. There, in a bookstore, she meets Girls star Lena Dunham, leafing through a first edition of a Raymond Carver story collection. A deep friendship is born, a hilarious Thelma and Louise-ish road trip ensues.

The Second Grandest Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson isn’t done yet. In the follow-up to his Oscar-laden 2014 hit, the artful auteur brings back most of the original cast, and sends Tamsin Greig, David Strathairn, and Richard Gere to join them in the Republic of Zubrowka, where a teenage girl wanders through a cemetery, stopping at a monument to “The Author.”

Taking one of the hotel keys that have been left on the memorial by devoted fans, she runs to the titular edifice and dashes up the stairs looking for the room that matches the number on the tag. Opening the door, she discovers M. Gustave and Zero, the lobby boy, stuffing themselves on bespoke macarons. Then a fox, nattily dressed, enters from the balcony, reading aloud from Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity — in the voice of George Clooney. Everyone has a hearty laugh, and then a hearty cry, before heading to the snow-crusted slopes for a wild toboggan ride.

Slumdog Billionaire. Dev Patel, star of the 2009 Academy Award best-picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, makes a pact with the Devil: Let him appear in two movies opening the same day and he’ll donate his winnings from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to a Mumbai orphanage.

So, on March 6, 2015, Patel can be found in the robot-police speculative fiction thriller Chappie and in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. His wily agent having negotiated a profit participation deal with gross, rather than net, profits, Patel sees another windfall. He invests the money in a start-up: a customer service center based in Wisconsin, staffed by laid-off union teachers who answer inquiries from consumers in Mumbai and New Delhi. At the end of the film, the entire cast and crew assemble on a platform at the Amtrak station in Madison and do a big Bollywood-style dance number.

Winter’s Bone 2. Unknown actress Jennifer Lawrence is discovered in Ozark mountain country, hunting squirrel and trying to keep her family clothed and fed, when she volunteers to replace her younger sister in some televised wilderness survival battle to the death. Oh wait. This sequel — The Hunger Games — actually happened.

© 2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Jeff Goldblum Settles In At ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The beard. The mustache. The thick-rimmed glasses. There’s something about Jeff Goldblum’s look in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that says Sigmund Freud, that says Luigi Pirandello.

“Yes, we had pictures of Freud and Pirandello,” reports Goldblum, who plays a lawyer — and the executor of a wealthy octogenarian’s estate — in Wes Anderson’s latest, a breakneck caper set in the 1930s in the fictitious middle European country of Zubrowka, in and around the elegant alpine environs of the titular hostelry.

This is the actor’s second collaboration with Anderson — he was Bill Murray’s nemesis in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” — and Goldblum’s role is pivotal. There’s Ralph Fiennes as a charming concierge who sleeps with his more seasoned, and moneyed, guests on one side. And Adrien Brody, the flamboyant and furious heir, and his henchman, played with sinister villainy by Willem Dafoe, on the other. And Goldblum’s Deputy Vilmos Kovacs, a prominent lawyer and friend of the deceased, in between, trying to do what’s right, and upright.

“It’s a heroic crossroads moment when I suspect that foul play has occurred with this woman that I loved and observed for many years,” says Goldblum, who had discussions — as actors do — with his director, trying to flesh out his character.

Anderson had set up a “research room” in the hotel in Görlitz, Germany, where the “Grand Budapest” cast and crew were staying: books about old hotels, clothing, and objects, “and then this stack of movies,” Goldblum says.

There was Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be or Not to Be,” and “Grand Hotel,” of course. “And things I hadn’t seen — ‘The Mortal Storm’ (a 1940 anti-Nazi film with Jimmy Stewart), and Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Silence,’ a surreal story inside a big hotel. They were all springboards and inspirations for Wes, and they became so for us. The look of my character, and some of the musicality, came from all of that. It was a great learning experience.”

Goldblum, 61, has worked with some of the great directors of our time — Robert Altman (“Nashville,” “The Player”), Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff”), Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park”), David Cronenberg (“The Fly”). He says Anderson’s films, with their detailed tableaus, cross-section pans, and cross and deadpan characters, make for a different experience.

“Yeah, very different. I mean, it’s still acting, and I’ve worked with a lot of good people, creative in different ways, but … Wes has a unique sensibility, an aesthetic sensibility, and a way of pursuing it that’s very meticulous and, for me, enjoyable. I’d be a big fan of his movies whether I had ever met him or not.

“At the same time, he trusts actors, and loves them and gets wonderful actors to play with him and collaborate. He makes these whimsically theatrical characters and stories, but wants the actors to fill them in in a very naturalistic and truthful, honest, deep, and substantial way.

“The whole experience is particular and uncommon. Yeah, there’s nobody like him.”

Goldblum, on the phone from Los Angeles — his hometown, back after four months in New York doing Bruce Norris’ play “Domesticated” at Lincoln Center — is as busy as ever. He costars in “Le Week-End” opposite Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan. He has a supporting role in the “P.G. Wodehouse-like” “Mortdecai,” with Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor.

When he’s not working, Goldblum plays piano in a jazz ensemble every week in a club in the Los Feliz section of L.A.

As for his Deputy Kovacs, even if he’s a product of Anderson’s imagination, a voice of reason in a nutty, nonstop ensemble comedy, Goldblum says he thinks he found some relevance: “To consider what the political and moral ramifications are of what you’re doing, and how you want to live, and who you want to be, is always at issue,” he explains. “And in movies, and in stories, that is oftentimes part of the deal.”

Outfest Film Festival via Flickr

‘Kids For Cash’ Hit Close To Home For Documentary’s Maker

By Steven Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The story at the heart of “Kids For Cash” — judges taking kickbacks from the developer of a private juvenile detention center, then funneling thousands of children there — happened right in Robert May’s backyard. A producer with a New York-based distribution company, SenArt Films, and a track record in both fiction and nonfiction features (“The Station Agent,” “The War Tapes”), May lives in Luzerne County. Pa. He has two children who were 10 and 13 back in 2009, when news of the scandal broke — not just in Pennsylvania, but also in media outlets around the country.

“I knew what it’s like to raise kids and be challenged by all that,” May says, “so it made the story even more close to home, if you will.”

In “Kids For Cash,” May traces the actions of Wilkes-Barre Court of Common Pleas justices Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. In 2002, the judges received more than $2 million from the builder of a new private facility for juvenile offenders. Then Ciavarella, espousing a “zero-tolerance” policy, started dispatching kids there — in handcuffs and ankle shackles.

The charges, in many instances, were minor: classroom pranks, a fight between students, profanity. But the sentencing was severe. Some middle schoolers and high-school students would serve years.

Thanks to a pair of Philadelphia lawyers — Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz, of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center — Ciavarella’s systematic sentencing of minors, who often appeared before him without legal representation, was exposed.

And May had the makings of a documentary.

“My producing partner, Lauren Timmons, and I were on a research retreat in Jim Thorpe, Pa., when the scandal broke,” May recalls. “We were down there working on another project, it was late January, and it was just a bombardment from that day on, for weeks, for months. There was so much media attention …

“And I think this is true for a lot of filmmakers who live in smaller communities — people are always pitching ideas. ‘You should do a movie about this.’ ‘You should do a movie about that.’ I would get that a lot.

“And I had never made a movie as close to home, but when this happened, how could I not?”

But May, who directed “Kids For Cash,” was going to make the doc only if he could get both sides of the story — the kids who were victims of the system, and the judges who collected their “finder’s fees” and then went on to sentence more than 3,000 youths.

“What I saw in the media was a very one-sided, one-dimensional story,” says May, interviewed by phone last week. “You know, these two judges fell from grace one morning, became evil, and then sold children. That’s very sensational and gets people’s heads turning, but really? Is that what happened?”

So May went after the judges, landing exclusive interviews with both — separately, one not knowing the other would also be sitting for the filmmaker and his crew.

“My pitch was pretty simple,” says May, recounting how he persuaded the justices — now doing time in federal prisons — to appear. “You know, ‘I’ve been reading a one-dimensional story: You’re the celebrated judge, everybody loved you, until one day you wake up … and you’re selling children for money. That’s it. Is there another side to the story?’

“And of course he says, ‘There is.’ And I said, ‘Well, I haven’t read it. We want to tell both sides of the story. If we’re going to make this movie, we’re going to tell both sides, villain and victim. You’re the villain,’ — and he acknowledged, ‘Yes, I know’ — and that was how it started.”

Ciavarella’s on-camera interview, especially, is something to behold.

The kids and their families also had plenty to say.

“The commonality, right from the first day of the interviews … they all had the same story,” Mays says. “They talked very little about the scandal, and more about what it was like to be in the system, and being locked up … and humiliated.”

May makes the point — with the help of the Juvenile Law Center’s Levick and Schwartz — that what happened in Lucerne County isn’t necessarily an isolated affair. No, judges aren’t taking money from developers and construction companies all across the land (let’s hope not!). But the film shows a readiness, a willingness, from educators, law enforcement, parents, even — to cattle-chute our kids into a system that will forever change their lives. Not necessarily for the good.

“We all get caught up, I think, in these kinds of wispy social methods to solve problems,” May says. “‘Zero tolerance’ — well, guess what? If you’re an engineer and you’re sending a shuttle to the moon, there’s no such thing as zero tolerance. There’s tolerance. You bring things as close to zero as you can get them, but there’s no such thing as zero. How then can we demand zero tolerance from children — or from adults, for that matter? It’s not a black or white world. We live in a world of grays.”

Photo: Casey Konstantín via