Category Archives: The Critic

Movie Reviews from The Critic-in-Chief

My completely biased and accurate reviews of recent major films:

• 12 Years A Slave: Predictable (I kept thinking “Roots” of 30 years ago) and often implausible with a magnificent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor but a hugely overrated performance by Lupita Nyong’o, who did not merit the Academy Award. I think this is a film people feel guilty about not liking.

• Gravity: Almost laughably ridiculous (e.g., Sandra Bullock using a fire extinguisher to maneuver in space), with George Clooney mailing it in. Fabulous effects but woefully lacking in story and acting. Truly terrible.

• Nebraska: It’s been done before (old person on a quest), whether it was that guy on the lawnmower or Don Quixote, but Bruce Dern is still a riveting actor.

• Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey needs an easier name to spell because between this and TV’s True Detective, he’s outpacing and outacting everyone around. Jared Leno was sensational as his transexual business partner, and both richly deserve the Academy Awards bestowed on them. This was the first movie on AIDS since Philadelphia that I thought was done well.

• Captain Phillips: A little bit of Tom Hanks goes a long way these days, but the actor who allegedly simply walked in during the casting call, Barkhad Abdi, seemed to me like he had to be the real deal! Interesting movie that made me wonder why a couple of heavily armed security guys aren’t on all those ships to chase away pirates in speed boats. These guys are hardly rocket scientists.

• Inside Llewyn Davis: A great review in the Times and an interesting cast lured me to this deadly dull, self-indulgent mess about trying to make it in the 60s folk scene. I kept saying, “If I had a hammer….” Woeful and tired, like almost all folk music.

• Philomena: A movie I knew I’d dislike but my wife forced it on me and I absolutely loved it. Judi Dench engages in a tour de force in this true, utterly sorrowful yet redemptive, story of a son lost and pursued.

• The Wolf of Wall Street: Leonardo DiCaprio is ferociously good in the stereotypical role of the unethical trader (think Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe in Bonfires of the Vanities). I don’t understand the negative reaction to the nudity and treatment of women since it would seem all quite realistic and in context. But the movie becomes tendentious and it’s hard to have any sympathy for anyone, including the law. It’s also 45 minutes too long. (It is amazing what people will do to appear in a major motion picture.)

• August Osage County: Meryl Streep is always great but if you’ve seen this production on Broadway (by Steppenwolf Theater from Chicago) then nothing else makes the grade. After a while the novelty of watching a dysfunctional extended family, tortured by a woman with cancer of the mouth and of the temperament, is not entertainment but just too long a stay on someone else’s couch.

• American Hustle: Perhaps THE most over-hyped movie of the year, it deservedly was blanked at the Oscars. Unrealistic scam artists, unpleasant people, and ridiculous sexual outfits on otherwise “sweet” actress Amy Adams do not a good film make. Or even a mediocre one.

• All Is Lost: What a magnificent premise, done superbly well by Robert Redford with practically no dialogue whatsoever. I was riveted by what I thought would be another survival movie but was far, far more. I had to confer with my family to make sure I understood the ending.

• The Counselor: A mess of a drug cartel film, where the lawyer trying to save himself became of interest only to see when and if he’d die. Utterly predictable and without the tension that I’m sure the producers thought would sustain it.

Sorry if I missed others you thought worthwhile, but no one has a gun big enough to force me to see something like Anchorman.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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The Critic

We had some pretty bad weather in Florida (though far better than the Northeast) so we caught up on some movies. Herein are my reviews so that you can enjoy, yet not waste time.

Enough Said: A tour de force with Julia Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (his final film), underscoring the agony of adult dating and the wonder of finding someone who is a soulmate. Extraordinary.

All Is Lost: Robert Redford might have three lines in the entire film, focusing on his attempts to stay alive when his sailboat is struck by drifting cargo. His acting, and the direction that molded it, are incredible. The ending had me awestruck in its subliminal complexity.

The Counselor: This is a pretentious, bombastic mess where a great cast (Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt) seems unsure themselves of the rationale for the dialogue. Director Ridley Scott must have been on LSD, and Javier Bardem seems to be semi-coherent. After a while I simply rooted for the drug lords. They made more sense.

Gravity: Vastly overrated, George Clooney mailing it in, and Sandra Bullock terminally overwrought. I don’t understand all the hype around this. Even great effects become boring when repeated or implausible. The site of Bullock navigating in space with a fire extinguisher was pretty hilarious, though intended to be scary.

 

And For Dining:

Table 26 is an excellent Palm Beach restaurant with a great burger as well as wonderfully conceived comfort food (meatloaf). A lot of beautiful people who know where the really good chow is.

La Serena (The Mermaid) may be one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Even veal dishes you find on all menus are executed here with unique zest and imagination. The wine list is exquisite, it’s nearly impossible to get in (which is a challenge I love), and the food is to die for.  Bentleys, Rolls, and Maseratis dot the lot. Small place but great food.

Finally, the Four Seasons in Palm Beach has wonderful service, fine food, great views, and “typical” Four Seasons ambiance. It has the largest beach I’ve seen in Palm Springs. (The beach at The Breakers is no wider than my car at this point.) It’s an oasis of civility and charm.

© Alan Weiss 2014

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The Critic: Downton Abbey, Gravity, Chris Christie

Downton Abbey is one of the finest period dramas around, but this year’s new season began with a thud. There is the terminally boring Lady Mary, who quite clearly is going to finally snap around—on the advice of a chauffeur now a family member—to confront her fussbudget father about running the wasteful estate. The good Lord’s wife is constantly trying to bring him back to earth with soft mutterings, (as opposed to decent lines and acting) and there seem to be scenes created with the sole purpose of Maggie Smith chewing the scenery (which she does rather well).

The nasty houseman continues being nasty without anyone smart enough to catch on to his tricks. The sole story line of the new season that’s fascinating is the youngest daughter’s fling with a married newspaperman. “Kiss me,” she says, after finding out he’d go to Germany just to divorce his current, insane, wife. “In the restaurant?!” he proclaims.

The plots and predictability are entering the soap opera stage rapidly, and not everything can go on forever. After all, we know what happens to all the Downton Abbeys historically. At least make the demise interesting. I can see why Lady Mary’s husband left the series.

Gravity, touted as one of the best movies of the year, never left earth for me. The performances of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were excellent, and the effects profound. But it was another highly implausible adventure that created a pleasant diversion, not movie history. If a critic feels this was the best move if the year, as some do, that critic ought to get out more often, perhaps in space.

Finally, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has pretty much demonstrated the bully underside which abrades away his better qualities and stature as a presidential candidate. His aids turned Fort Lee, NJ (home of the great Hiram’s hot dogs, and once Callahan’s, as well) into a parking lot by closing certain access roads to the George Washington Bridge (through connections with the New York Port Authority). This delayed ambulances, held school buses captive, and made people late for work.

There are a lot of bullies in politics, pugnacious guys who think, like my old high school science teacher, Mr. Capucci, that a good knee to the thigh gained faster compliance than explaining an assignment well. Rudy Giuliani had marvelous attributes, but was ruthless with perceived enemies, believing he had to muscle his way through intransigence, and also seeming to enjoy it. (I belong to the same cigar club he does in New York, where he is a friendly and very pleasant guy.) Michael Bloomberg, who spend millions of his own money while in office for the city, did pretty well by New York, but had the arrogance that a kizillion dollars can create and felt he cold dictate how many terms he was allowed and what size soda we could all drink.

Across the river, Christie has taken some very popular stands against voracious unions and has wandered into the national spotlight. I admire him being “tough” in a state where you need to be that way just to buy a newspaper, but when your need to retaliate (the Fort Lee mayor did not support his reelection, being of a different party, to boot) no matter what the consequences for the public, that’s just junk yard mean. The texts and emails from his aids, creating the mess and laughing about the results, are somewhere between venal and sophomoric. It’s impossible to think they had the wherewithal to launch the plot without the governor’s approval and knowledge. He will, no doubt, attempt to throw his aids under a bus.

Giuliani, Bloomberg, and Christie, all “tough guys,” remind me of Kelsey Grammar in the great cable show, The Boss, about a ruthless mayor of Chicago. What should be remembered is that, despite the critical acclaim, the show was abruptly cancelled.

© Alan Weiss 2015

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Review of Pacific Rim

On the flight to Dubai I watched Pacific Rim, because my wife isn’t crazy about science fiction movies and I am. However, this wasn’t science fiction. It was garbage.

This makes the legendary Plan Nine from Outer Space (supposedly the worst movie ever made in any genre) look like Hamlet. The writing is juvenile; the acting is mechanical; the plot line is trite and ridiculous. While the special effects are excellent, they are repetitive and often hard to follow. There is an attempt at camp amidst the pseudo-seriousness which is absurd.

Guillermo del Toro, who directed this reeking mess (and co-wrote it), is supposed to be a professional who knows better. But I’ve never rooted for the monsters so hard in my life. I wanted them to kill all the actors then break the fourth wall and kill everyone who created and funded this absolutely useless waste of 90 minutes.

It’s earned over $400 million globally, not much of it in the states, which makes me somewhat prouder of our culture. Don’t go near it.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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Forever Tango

We dined last night in Barbetta, which is the oldest continually owned restaurant in New York, and one of our favorite Italian places in the City. We’ve been going there for 50 years (this is our 45th anniversary) but the restaurant has been open for 104!

There’s a pianist, an elegant room, and a garden. It was too humid for us outside, so we dined inside, with great service. It’s not everywhere you can get bagna cauda.

We then went over to Forever Tango, a limited run at the Walter Kerr with 16 incredible dancers and some star turns by Dancing with the Stars’ Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy. They are backed by 11 on-stage musicians: pianist, keyboard, bass viol, cello, viola, two violins—and four guys (all older than I am) playing bandoneons. These are concertina-like diaphragms, common in tango music, which require both hands to be playing chords while expanding and contracting the thing. They produce incredible sounds.

The tango, of course, is rivaled only by the paso doble in its drama, the latter expressing intensity with a bull and the former with your partner. Professionals dancing the tango usually feature a man looking hostile and a woman looking bored or mildly uncomfortable, ranging from an upset stomach to borborygmic. No one ever smiles and there seems to be mayhem on the mind. The men, with slicked back hair and smirks, remind me of a combination of Bobby Darren and Al Capone.

The women exhibit amazing footwork in heels higher than most women could comfortably walk down the street in. The dance requires precision movements and a lot of leg in obligatory fishnets. This is not so much a dance as a mating ritual, a fast trip around third base heading home.

It was an astonishing night, with the dancers given respite by some amazing musical numbers and the singer Luis Enrique, who has a wonderful voice, singing fabulous Spanish songs. Karina and Max were larger than life. At every appearance the audience roared and were rewarded with an aggressive grace, a wondrous chemistry.

Every so often, Max and Karina can’t help themselves, and they smile, dropping the act of aloofness and simply accepting the joy. I can’t blame them. I was smiling myself for the entire performance. It’s a limited run, so if you at all have the chance, go see it.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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Air France Beats Alitalia

We found the Alitalia flight from Boston to Rome very average. The service was present but not gracious. Only one flight attendant smiled. No one checked to see if you needed anything, you had to ask. There was no electrical power connection. The food was mediocre. The luggage did arrive fairly promptly in Rome.

Air France, from Firenze to Paris to Boston, was very good. The flight attendants were charming and proactive. The food was plentiful and excellent. Priority bags arrived in Boston very promptly. The plane accommodated US electrical connections. Even the regional carrier from Firenze used by Air France served a nice breakfast on a 90-minute flight (Why can’t US carriers do that?) for the entire plane, not just first class. The Air France Lounge in Paris is excellent, with good food and a large and helpful staff. (They provide currency adapters.)

In case you have choices in the future….

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I’ll Eat You Last

This one-woman, Bette Midler show about famed agent Sue Mengers was reviewed today by Terry Teachout, the notorious Wall Street Journal reviewer who has dreams he’s Clive Barnes or Charles Isherwood. He’s having an all-too-frequent hissy-fit because Ms. Midler doesn’t leave the couch, and talks too much like the real Sue Mengers did (of course, that’s not to be tolerated). He’s probably also disappointed that she doesn’t sing and dance.

I saw this in previews with a packed house that jumped to its feet at the conclusion, and wisely done. Ignore the cop-out by Teachout, and go see this very limited, very entertaining run.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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Game of Moans

Game of Thrones was so boring last  night that if it were the first one I’d watched, I’d never come back. Apparently, with its popularity, the writers became confused and thought they were writing Don Quixote or The Grapes of Wrath, except those works have more action.

We’re watching this for dragons, battles, revenge, the creatures outside the wall, and intrigue. Last night there was so much exposition that it was like watching a Congressional subcommittee on estate taxes.

Breath some fire and stop breathing your own exhuast.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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New York Reviews

Swing 46: After Bette Midler’s one-woman show, we wandered over to Restaurant Row on 46th and randomly chose Swing 46. They have an old-time “big band” in the rear, which was packed with patrons around a dance floor. We chose to eat in the bar, where we could hear the music but still talk comfortably. The wine list is pedestrian, but the hanger steak was one of the best I’ve ever had, probably a better prepared offering than in Quality Meats the night prior, and that was terrific.

Lamb’s Club: A great room with terrific service, wonderful food, and impressive ambiance. I had never realized that it was open to the public. They served three courses for a dozen people starting at 5:30, and had us out by 7 to head for our 7:30 curtain. An extremely impressive wine list and sommelier on duty didn’t hurt. You don’t find Brandt Family wine on every wine list these days.

Newsies: By group uniform agreement, one of the ten best musicals we’ve ever seen. The choreography, sets, and combination of acrobatic and balletic movements were stunning. The story is true, obvious, and predictable, but these performers—most in their Broadway debut—were magnificent. Go see this.

Katz’s Deli: For my money still the best deli in New York (especially with so many old-time stalwarts closing because of changing demographics and taste). I actually had a reservation for eight of us arranged by the concierge at the Pierre, which is true power in New York! The pastrami is great, the people watching fantastic, and it’s rarer and rarer to be in any institution which hasn’t changed in decades. The mysterious tickets are still required to get in and out, and the menu advises that you’re in peril if you ask for mayonnaise with the meats.

JPMorgan Museum: We took a private tour and entered into a world of enormous personal power and prestige. The only other thing I’ve seen like it—on a much grander scale—is Hearst’s San Simeon. The main library itself is worth the price of admission, but the various exhibitions (Degas, Picasso, etc.) at any give time are terrific. Morgan’s personal study is set up as if he’s a Cardinal in the church, with other religious artifacts beneath his huge portrait.

Del Posto: This was once one of my top three restaurants in New York, way down in the meatpacking district. The main room is magnificent, one of the best anywhere. We were in a lovely private room with gracious and attentive service. They carry Jean Marc XO (as does the Pierre bar) which I believe is the best vodka in the world. But the food is too close to average for my taste these days, and I’m not going to hurry back.

© Alan Weiss 2013

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New York Reviews

We’re in New York all week working on some workshops and our annual Mentor Hall of Fame meeting. Some reviews thus far (and it’s hitting 80 degrees, by the way!):

• Caravaggio: I took a group of 12 people there last year and we had a great dinner. It was featured in a movie or TV show shortly thereafter. My wife was never there, so the two of us went for dinner. This time, I found the food very average and the service a matter of simply going through the paces. It was efficient, but not warm, and the pasta is far better in Rhode Island, let alone elsewhere in New York. My wife asked me, “What’s the big deal?”

• Quality Meats: I took a group of 12 there for dinner (it’s the old Oceana space) and we had a fabulous evening. The food is sensational and the service, despite a packed house, very attentive and helpful. The place is loud and bold and I’d go back in a minute.

• I’ll Eat You Last: We saw Bette Midler in the one-woman show about super-agent Sue Mengers. It’s still in previews, and occasionally the Divine Miss M would have to say “Line!” to be prompted. The amount of dialogue is enormous, and Ms. Midler is wonderful. You don’t see Bette Midler playing Sue  Mengers,  you see Sue Mengers, in all her obscene, gossipy, pot-smoking, sarcastic grandeur. It’s a limited run and I’m glad we were able to get into a sold-out performance.

More to come….

© Alan Weiss 2013

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