Movie Review: ‘Hotel Mumbai’ Dramatizes a Massive Tragedy Unflinchingly But With Only Fleeting Insight

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CREDIT: Mark Rogers/Bleecker Street

Starring: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Jason Isaacs, Amandeep Singh

Director: Anthony Maras

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Deadly Gunfire and Plenty of Profanity

Release Date: March 22, 2019 (Limited)

A lot of real-life historical tragedies have been dramatized on screen, but rarely has it felt as exploitative as it does in Hotel Mumbai. Part of that is due to the deadly nature of the attacks, in which hundreds of people were killed or injured by explosives and gunfire, often at close range. It is also attributable to director Anthony Maras’ decision to show so many of the deaths in graphic, bloody detail. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that culminated at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel were indeed quite terrifying, but what does this dramatization illuminate besides reminding us that tragedies like this one have happened and that they are often fueled by religious extremism?

If there is to be anything valuable on offer here, it would presumably be about forging some sort of connection with the characters. And on that score, there are people that I care about and are rooting to make it out alive, but their stories are not especially unique. Among those with the most fully fleshed-out arcs, there is the guest (Armie Hammer) who is trying to protect his family, the hotel employee (Dev Patel) who is trying to make it home to his family, and the head chef (Anupam Kher) who rises up as a leader and comforter. These roles are well-acted, and some (if not all) are surely based on real people, but their stories do not say much beyond, “This is how certain people react to trauma.” But among the perpetrators (all young men who look to be in their early twenties) there is Imran (Amandeep Singh), who starts to question what he is fighting for as the mission drags on. That is where the real, complicated story is at, but alas, his personal crisis only gets a handful of moments, leaving Hotel Mumbai an endurance test without much to mentally grapple with after making it through.

Hotel Mumbai is Recommended If You Like: Witnessing trauma

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Casualties

This Is a Movie Review: Felicity Jones’ Spirited Ruth Bader Ginsburg Portrayal Helps ‘On the Basis of Sex’ Overcome Some Biopic Clichés

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates

Director: Mimi Leder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Occasionally Offensive Language of the Law

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

It is slightly disorienting to have both a documentary and a based-on-true-life narrative film about the same living person open in one year. But for certain subjects, there is value be to had in exploring familiar territory via multiple formats. For someone as influential as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her increased level of media attention has not diluted her potential for cinematic inspiration. On the Basis of Sex, Mimi Leder’s portrait of a young and hungry Ginsburg, wisely focuses on one chapter in her legal journey. And when it missteps, it is not because it retreads the same territory that RBG already covered sufficiently.

The focus is on the 1970 case of Charles Moritz, a never-married bachelor caring for his sick mother who is denied a caregiver tax deduction because at the time it was available only to women, widowers, and divorcees. Ginsburg, who was then a law professor at Rutgers, teams up with the ACLU to take on Martin’s case, and in addition to representing this one man, they set out to demonstrate how so much of the U.S. legal code discriminates (as the title says) “on the basis of sex,” and how that harms both women and men. That could be cinematic overreach, except for the fact that the real Ginsburg has very much committed her career to making the law more equitable.

On the Basis of Sex works best when it focuses on the truths of relationships, and there is plenty of material to be mined within the Ginsburg household. Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), here seen as a fast-rising tax lawyer, are equal partners, though not without their disagreements (like any marriage). But what makes their tension bearable, or even admirable, is that it is based on a shared desire to fight for what is right. Ruth’s relationship with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), however, is much more explosive, in the way that mother-daughter relationships often are at that age. You kind of want Jane to cut her mom some slack, because she is Ruth Bader Ginsburg after all. But sometimes kids can be their parents’ toughest critics, sometimes unfairly, sometimes rewardingly, or both in this case. There are a few moments that reek of over-inspirational biopic excess, like Ruth suddenly becoming struck with inspiration in the middle of a rainstorm. But for the most part, On the Basis of Sex knows how to capture the fight for justice and its beating human heart.

On the Basis of Sex is Recommended If You Like: Inspirational clichés, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde

Grade: 3 out of 5 Closing Statements

This Is a Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You

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CREDIT: Annapurna Pictures

I give Sorry to Bother You 5 out of 5 Hybrids:

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Final Portrait’ is a Frustrating Presentation of a Frustrated Artist

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush, Tony Shalhoub, Clémence Poésy, Sylvie Testud

Director: Stanley Tucci

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Artistic Frustration F-Bombs and a Few Slips of Nudity

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

Can we please, as a society, be done with the idea that artists are just slaves to inspiration that comes and goes as it pleases and is totally beyond their control? Sure, there is something ineffable about sparks of creativity, but the actual act of creation requires discipline and firm decision-making, i.e., things that are within our control. Now, films that portray artists who insist on being totally subject to the whims of the universe are not necessarily in agreement with this philosophy. In the case of Final Portrait, writer-director Stanley Tucci is more interested in the friendship between Swiss painter Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer) than in making any judgment on Giacometti’s chaos. But when such excess is presented matter-of-factly, it tends to be incredibly frustrating.

While visiting Paris in 1964, Lord agrees to be painted for a portrait by Giacometti, who assures him that the sitting will last “an afternoon at the most.” But that afternoon lasts into one more day, and soon enough that extra day has ballooned into a fortnight. Sometimes, Giacometti’s pauses are legitimate, as when he is running a fever or has business to attend to. Other times he just wants to eat, or he doesn’t even bother coming up with an excuse. It is essentially stated at one point that this state of incompletion is where he feels most comfortable. Rush’s wild mane is perfect for Giacometti’s untamed nature, and Hammer is the ideal fit for Lord’s constant bemusement. But overall, we and James are stuck in a dour loop that has us thinking, “Shouldn’t this be over already?” And it certainly does not help that this is taking place during what is apparently the cloudiest two-week stretch in Parisian history.

Elsewhere, there is some business involving Giacometti’s prostitute companion/frequent model Caroline (Clémence Poésy) and his frustrated wife Annette (Sylvie Testud), but hardly anything of note happens in those plot threads. That portion of the film is unceremoniously wrapped up by Giacometti paying off a couple of pimps with huge wads of cash.

There are a few moments that break up the excruciation, like a driving montage set to breezy ’60s French pop music. Giacometti and Lord’s occasional walks are welcome, as it is pleasant to just be outside. Plus, those strolls provide loopy non sequiturs, like Giacometti’s query of “Have you ever wanted to be a tree?” As a portrait of a friendship, Final Portrait has its moments, but as a portrait of a portrait, it never focuses enough on the tension of when James Lord will finally break free.

Final Portrait is Recommended If You Like: Geoffrey Rush Squinting, Armie Hammer’s Face Acting, Watching Someone Quickly Gulp Down Wine and Coffee

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Sitdowns

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Call Me by Your Name’ is a Quietly Desperate Plea to Place No Limits on Love

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Sticky Solo Sessions and Unbridled Pairings

Release Date: November 24, 2017 (Limited)

At the end of Call Me by Your Name, Oliver (Armie Hammer) checks in with Elio (Timothée Chalamet) over the phone. Elio’s parents join in on the call for a bit. After they hang up, Oliver notes how they talk to him like he is a member of the family. This accomplishment might seem small, but this sort of comfortable intimacy is a profound state that should not be discounted. Plenty of people in human history have achieved it, but many others have not. For Elio and Oliver, this is a postscript, but what they have shared is lovely enough to cherish forever.

Call Me by Your Name’s message is clear enough without having to be directly stated, but I appreciate that it is gently stated in the way that it is, thanks to Michael Stuhlbarg’s tender delivery. As Elio’s dad, archaeology professor Mr. Perlman, Stuhlbarg conveys an unforgettable treatise on why life is worth living. Simply by the power of observation, he knows what has been going on. It is the summer of 1983 in the northern Italian countryside, where Elio is living with his parents, and Oliver, an American student, is the latest houseguest they have invited to stay with them. Elio and Oliver spend several passionate nights and days together. Maybe they have fallen in love, maybe it is too soon to say so. Either way, their relationship is not fated to last beyond the summer. And in this situation, what Elio and the audience could use more than anything is assurance from his father that all is right. So many people make choices that leave them “bankrupt by the time [they’re] 30,” he tells us, but Elio has chosen love, and there is no reason to regret that.

There are few people who have loved anything as much as Mr. Perlman loves discovering and examining new artifacts. But loving another human being is a little harder, what with the back-and-forth, and the confusion, and the hormones, and the jealousy flare-ups. Love is not always easily strictly defined, either. Elio and Oliver may or may not both be bisexual. They certainly appreciate the female beauty around them; Elio even has a pretty intense fling with a girl close to his age (Esther Garrel). But they both gravitate most heavily to the most intense attractions, and that means plenty of fun but also plenty of sticky situations (and commensurate teasing), as we are all slaves to our bodily fluids. The whole of Call Me by Your Name, in fact, is a mix of pretty and sticky, a tapestry we ought to embrace if it is ever available to us.

Call Me by Your Name is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, Any great romance with lovely cinematography

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nosebleeds

This Is a Movie Review: Free Fire

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Living Up to the Promise of Its Title

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Free Fire dresses up an illicit arms deal in fancy ’70s formalwear and then bloodies up the pretensions with unrelenting chaos. The trick to making all this pleasant – or at least attempting to do so – is an equally endless stream of witty rejoinders. This technique is strongest between the odd couple pairing of Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. The former is all high-wire, unpredictable energy. The latter is all suave unflappability. Both are thoroughly confident in their own skins. I would be happy to watch these two volley back-and-forth all day. But I gotta ask, is it necessary that their team-up occur amidst such a destructive hail of bullets?

The obvious antecedent, when it comes to a crime gone amok leading to ultraviolence and goons yammering on, is Quentin Tarantino’s breakout Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that QT’s characters have an inherent point of view, whereas Free Fire co-writer/director Ben Wheatley’s crew mostly just screeches hysterically (not always literally, but it feels like it). There can be humor found in the panic that sets in when a dangerous situation goes pear-shaped, but Free Fire too often confuses nastiness with lunacy. I don’t oppose on-screen graphic violence as a rule, but there ought to be a good reason for it. In this case, it feels like an excuse for a movie that hates all of its characters to just pick them off one-by-one.

Getting back to the folks populating this film, there are several more hooligans besides Copley and Hammer, among them Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Sing Street’s Jack Reynor (who often strikes me as Ireland’s less schlubby answer to Seth Rogen). The fun of these players is primarily geographical. Their dispersal around the warehouse after the shots start firing creates a sort of constantly shifting maze. The narrative thrust is basically sorting out this puzzle. Who makes it out alive? Who cares! What matters is the physical space and the treachery between these dots of human beings. But that’s small change. Let’s cut to the chase and get to work on the Copley-Hammer follow-up.

Free Fire is Recommended If You Like: Pulling the Heads Off Bugs

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 V Necks