The title Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer accurately summarizes the central character's trajectory suggesting that the interest lies in the narrative's unfolding and the man at its center. Indeed, Norman Oppenheimer is one politically astute individual who wheels and deals, truly believing in his own clever machinations -- until he can't.

Repeatedly throughout the film Norman talks himself into a corner only to weasel out, dodging and weaving verbally with the aplomb of a con man who exudes confidence in his own charm. As with good tricksters and shape shifters, their success relies heavily on our desire to believe what's often too good to be true. In this case, Norman works his marks, seeking to impress everyone from his local rabbi to the ambitious, upwardly mobile Israeli Deputy Minister he intentionally intercepts from a conference. A gift to him beyond Norman's financial means endears him to the politician in ways that will play out with successes and failures.   

With Richard Gere playing Norman, it quickly becomes obvious that he's lost none of his wily, seductive charisma so unmistakably on display in the wonderful 1980 film American Gigolo. There he also embodies a slick operator who outfoxes himself in a series of disastrous developments. Here Israeli director Joseph Cedar makes the most of his non-Jewish actors to subtly interrogate stereotypes. Michael Sheen plays Norman's nephew, Steve Buscemi a savvy rabbi, and Charlotte Gainsbourg an investigator. Each makes the character a complex individual while New York adds a strong location ambiance with the film's setting on the Upper West Side. Jun Miyake's music adds a lively commentary and Yaron Scharf's cinematography communicates undercurrents of the changing moods.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer resonates intensely in today's climate of misrepresentation of facts and oneself. And yet. with his ability to spin almost anything, Norman risks becoming too annoying to remain appealing. Alternately, he may invite a fair amount of schadenfreude or just the simple pleasure of watching him becoming trapped in his own spider's web. In English and some Hebrew with English subtitles, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Ordinarily, a visit from an old friend calls for drinks and dinner, trips to old haunts, and tête-a-tête, plus reminiscences. But when one of the friends has decided to cease chemotherapy for the cancer he's fought for a year, the visit becomes something else. It undergirds this moving movie.

Tomás travels to Madrid from Canada to visit Julian for four days, which constrain the film's story in time. He admits that his wife insisted he visit Julian, that he spend no small amount of time trying to talk Julian out of his plan to die on his own terms. Tomás realizes quickly that Julián's mind is made up and that his role is to accompany Julián to deal with matters. Julián even praises Tomás for never wanting payback.

These include negotiating with the undertaker and saying good-bye to some of Julián's many women friends, including his ex-wife. Julián confronts old friends who are afraid to speak to a dying man; he even confronts the husband of a woman he slept with. The friends fly to Amsterdam -- on Tomás' peso -- to make sure that Julián's estranged son accepts his father's decision. They interview people to adopt Truman, Julián's faithful bull mastiff. 

The two tease each other, with Julián spearing Canadian Tomás for living at the North Pole or in Greenland. But the two are friends, good friends, mercifully together. Each morning, Tomás asks his friend, "What surprise to you have for me today?" At the airport at their last good-bye, Julián says, "They've gone fast, these four days."

Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara, who played a cardinal in television's The Young Pope, inhabit these men, close yet different. They ground the realistic film in a sympathetic, loving way from the script by Tomás Aragay and Cesc Gay. Gay directed Truman with understanding but without drippy sentiment. 

 

 

 

British Major, and eventually Lieutenant Colonel, Percy Fawcett became famous for his exploration of the Amazon in the early decades of the twentieth century. He undertook his first expedition in 1906 for the prestigious Royal Geographical Society to prove his mettle and to redeem his family name after his alcoholic father gambled their honor away. 

Fawcett became enamored of, even obsessed with, the Amazon, returning for six more expeditions before he disappeared there in 1925, along with older son Jack. Based on a manuscript he read, Fawcett argued for a lost, well-developed city he dubbed Z, or Zed as the Brits pronounce it. Director James Gray's biopic The Lost City of Z does a serious disservice to Fawcett's varied, trying experiences, making a fascinating story sluggish, erroneous, and dull. 

The representation qualifies as its Disneyfication; that is, Gray makes it much quieter, with fewer insects and birds, and with "Hollywood" dangers such as a ridiculous black panther that merely hisses. In addition, these men move so easily through the dense jungle. See Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God for a correction. Gray also gets the compass return wrong and takes great liberties with Henry Costin, Fawcett's companion after WWI, not before. These and other errors (finding the upriver source as they go downstream, corn grown in neat rows) go well beyond poetic license to betray what such explorers encountered and endured.  

Music intrudes, clashing with the mood of scenes. The actors mumble or are so badly miked that it's repeatedly difficult to understand them, or to see them in cinematographer Darius Khondji's overly dark compositions. The many stylistic annoyances would be more forgivable if screenplay writer Gray got the story right or if Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett brought anything approaching charismatic, fanatical passion to the role. The same applies to Robert Pattinson as Costin, who looks like he wishes he were in another movie. As Fawcett's wife Nina, Sienna Miller has the best presence in a thankless role, as usual for the wives left behind. 

Redeeming moments occur only during abbreviated debates over the male/female double standard, explorer James Murray's lies, and Geographical Society debates over what Fawcett calls narrow-minded convictions, regarding Amazonians as primitives. But overall The Lost City of Z is an inane rendering of a much more complex story. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas.

Addendum: I don't usually interject my travel experiences, but in this instance, I must since I've been to the Amazon twice. I'm not an expert but do know the environment as it is experienced, and for this reason I found The Lost City of Z laughable when I wasn't groaning. I've also lived three times in England, taught there a year and a half and worked in London. I have an easy time with British accents from almost every area, so the dialogue difficulty is not because of problems with the accent. Technically, this is a badly executed film and very disappointing as an explorer biopic. 

 

The Armenian genocide is said to have started on April 24, 1915, so the April opening of The Promise honors that historical event. The Turks still refuse to term the mass killing of Armenians anything but "one Armenian dead for every dead Turk." The Promise successfully presents Armenian history through romance.

The romantic couples comprise Ana, a sophisticated woman with Armenian roots; Chris Myers, an American journalist with the Associated Press, Michael Boghosian, a medical student, and his fiancée. The latter two live in a small Southern Turkey village, and Mikael, an apothecary like his father, uses her dowry to finance his study to be a doctor in Constantinople. He meets Ana and Chris. He tries to stay true to his betrothed, but he and Ana fall in love, even though she's involved with Chris.

These duplicitous love stories work, believe it or not, due to the finesse of the scriptwriters, Terry George and Robin Swicord. Thankfully, they do not cover up the political story. George also directed The Promise -- with the same brio that he brought to Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father. Gabriel Yared's music swells in all the right places as cliched, symphonic accompaniment, and Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography sweeps mountainous vistas widely and intimate kisses and battles closely.

Starring in The Promise are Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, Christian Bale as the truth-telling newspaperman; and Oscar Isaac as Mikael. Isaac is excellent, but he's becoming the Anthony Quinn of his day, cast in any ethnic role despite his own Spanish roots. James Cromwell cameos as ambassador Henry Morganthau. At the beginning, it's hard to wade through all the accents. In the end, it's hard to tolerate such ethnic hatred and continued blindness and belligerence.

 

 

The Classics in the Loop series at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre continues for the four Wednesdays in May. In order, they are: director Carol Reed's The Third Man for May 3, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil on May 10, Roman Polanski's Chinatown May 17, and concluding with Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple May 24. All offer superb cinema.

May 3, from Great Britain, Carol Reed's 1950 The Third Man perfectly captures real post-WWII Vienna, where it was shot in black-and-white. Amidst the literal and metaphoric rubble, newly arrived pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) seeks former friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). The Dutch angle shots telegraph that this is an off-kilter world in which black market drugs kill and the zither music plays. 

May 10, Orson Welles confirms his directing, writing and acting talent in Touch of Evil, 1958. From its legendary opening shot crossing from the Mexican to the U.S. side of the border in a long tracking shot along the street, concluding with a shocking explosion, this film twists and turns its way through mayhem and corruption. It boasts sterling performances by Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Akim Tamiroff, in addition to Welles.  

The third Wednesday, May 17, another director/actor holds forth: Roman Polanski in Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Based on real events, in the film J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) investigates the corruption impacting water resources in L.A. and finds vile behavior extends from the political to the personal. 

Concluding the program the fourth Wednesday in May, the 24th, the Coen brothers' 1984 writing/directing debut, Blood Simple screens in a new 4K digital restoration. Starring John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmet Walsh, a suspicious, jealous husband hires a private detective and plots the murder of his wife and her lover. Unanticipated, unusual developments will follow, heralding the arrival of the Coens' unique style and delightfully macabre humor.  

These four outstanding films grace the big screen one time only, each Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

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