Tag Archives: C+

NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER

Producer: Oren Moverman, Gideon Tadmor, Eyal Rimmon, David Mindil, Miranda Bailey and Lawrence Inglee
Director: Joseph Cedar
Writer: Joseph Cedar
Stars: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Hank Azaria, Harris Yulin and Josh Charles
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

C+

Had Sidney Falco been played by Woody Allen, the driven press agent of “Sweet Smell of Success” might have grown up to become Norman Oppenheimer, the character Richard Gere plays in Joseph Cedar’s satire-spiced drama about a small-time New York operator who almost accidentally becomes a power player in Israeli politics and finds the role a very uncomfortable one. “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a strange film, alternately credible and ludicrous, compelling and dull, darkly funny and gloomily depressing, though bolstered by a star turn that’s basically a stunt but is still an enjoyable one.

When we first meet Norman, he’s pressing his nephew Philip (Michael Sheen), a Wall Street lawyer, for the names of contacts he could approach to put together deals. And in truth we never get to know much more about him than that. There’s no indication of where he lives, or of any other friends apart from Philip and his rabbi, Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi), whose attitude toward him is one of resigned tolerance. Oppenheimer seems to spend all of his time trudging the streets looking for opportunities, or accosting targets like Bill Kavish (Dan Stevens), an aide to big-time investor Jo Wilf (Harris Yulin), while the poor guy is out jogging, to try to set up a meeting with his boss.

When that fails, he takes an interest in Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a deputy minister in the Israeli government, whom he sees at a Jewish-American conference. Literally trailing him as the fellow walks back to his hotel, Norman impulsively buys Eshel a pair of costly shoes the guy has admired in a store window—a ploy to entice him to meet with another important investor named Taub (Josh Charles).

That doesn’t work out either—in fact it ends in Norman’s humiliation—but three years later Eshel has become Prime Minister of Israel, and he recognizes Oppenheimer in the crowd at a public gathering of power players when he visits the U.S. Suddenly Norman finds himself the focus of attention from important people who haven’t the foggiest idea of who he is. No wonder he has a tendency to blab about his connection to Eshel to anyone within earshot, including an ambitious Israeli woman named Alex (Charlotte Gainsbourg) he shares an airline flight with. And that tendency continues, despite the fact that Eshel’s handlers cut off all contact between the two.

Yet when the Prime Minister, despite great resistance, becomes an advocate for peace, he comes under attack from his opponents for alleged financial improprieties with an unidentified American businessman and charged with taking bribes. Oppenheimer wants to be of help to him, but is stymied by the PM’s handlers. What he doesn’t know is that he’s the unidentified businessman. Meanwhile he’s caught up in two related matters. He’s trying to rescue Blumenthal’s synagogue from foreclosure by finding a donor to cover a multi-million dollar bill, and one possibility is Wilf, who’s looking to secure an interview with an Israeli official that Norman promises to arrange. He also reaches out to Philip, a Harvard grad, to arrange some help for Eshel, who’s trying to get his son into the school despite the boy’s indifferent academic record, and in turn hopes to get Blumenthal to officiate at his nephew’s hoped-for marriage to a Korean girl. All this is further complicated by a mysterious man (Hank Azaria) who begins following Oppenheimer, and by the fact that Alex turns out to be the lead investigator of the charges against Eshel. How all this can be sorted out forms the crux of the film’s last act.

There’s a cynical undertone to Cedar’s screenplay, of course: everyone is venal in his own way, willing to exchange favors for favors—Norman’s stock-in-trade, though in the end it’s clear that virtually everybody else is better at it than he is—he’s the real naïf, despite all his bluster. (The plot thread about the opposition to Eshel in the Israeli Knesset is a particularly thorny element, given that accusations of bribery have in fact led to the fall and prosecution of Israeli prime ministers in the past.)

Whatever qualms one might harbor about that, however, the central weakness of “Norman” has to do with the title character himself. Gere, vacillating between jittery fluster and somber reflection, hits all the right notes in the role; he makes Oppenheim a pathetic figure desperate to be of service. But the “why” behind his desperation is never even addressed, let alone answered. He remains a sketch—in Gere’s hands a vivid sketch, to be sure—but never a full portrait. That leaves an aching gap at the center of the story.

Still, it’s difficult one’s eyes off Gere, and the supporting cast mostly contribute colorful turns, especially Ashkenazi, Sheen, Buscemi, Azaria and Yulin. The only serious disappointment is Gainsbourg, not because she isn’t perfectly fine but because her role is terribly underwritten. (Stevens, incidentally, is becoming a chameleon—he’s practically unrecognizable here.) The picture is technically adequate, though Yaron Scharf’s cinematography is mostly notable for capturing the crisply uncomfortable ambience of Manhattan in the winter.

In the end the “Dr. Strangelove”-style subtitle of “Norman” is strangely prescient. This is a movie that’s artistically up and down, coming in roughly at the middle of the spectrum between fascinating and tedious. Gere’s committed performance makes it lean toward the former, but it still remains a hit-and-miss affair.

VOICE FROM THE STONE

Producer: Dean Zanuck and Stefano Gallini-Durante
Director: Eric D. Howell
Writer: Andrew Shaw
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Marton Ssokas, Edward George Dring, Catherine Murino, Remo Girone and Lisa Gastoni
Studio: Momentum Pictures

C+

If atmosphere were everything, Eric D. Howell’s debut feature “Voice from the Stone” would be an unqualified winner. As adapted by Andrew Shaw from a 1996 novel by Silvio Raffo, the narrative creates a sense of mystery, and the measured approach of Howell and editor Clayton Condit—you might call it appropriately lapidary, given the title—along with the evocative Tuscan setting beautifully captured by cinematographer Peter Simonite, make for a visually arresting experience. The brooding score by Michael Wandmacher adds to the effect. It’s a pity, therefore, that the last act brings resolutions that are entirely too pat and simplistic. The result is an old-fashioned Gothic mood piece whose craftsmanship holds one’s attention, but proves disappointing in the end.

Emilia Clarke stars as Verena, a nurse specializing in helping troubled children. She responds to an advertisement placed by Klaus (Marton Csokas), a gloomy, bad-tempered widower living on a remote, heavily forested estate in North Italy. His nine-year old son Jakob (Edward George Dring) has refused to speak in the more than seven months since the death of his mother Malvina (Caterina Mureno), a celebrated concert pianist, and a succession of nurses has been unable to persuade him to do so. Verena is the latest to try.

Thus the stage is set for a story that calls to mind the work of the Brontes, or “The Turn of the Screw,” or “Rebecca,” and Howell and Condit emphasize the similarities by virtually mimicking the Hitchcockian style of his film of the latter (along with an occasional dash of “Vertigo” for good measure). They have a perfect setting for their tale—a looming castle rising from the greenery, half-covered in reddish vines with a family tomb close by, and surrounded by dense forest through which one must walk to reach the lake created by the old quarry that was the basis of Malvina’s family fortune, which stretched back for many generations.

The castle, in fact, is built of stone from the quarry, and therein lies the catalyst of Jakob’s condition. Verena, who is received with a grimly perfunctory air by the aged butler/groundskeeper (Remo Girone) but in a more genteel, friendly fashion by Lilia (Lisa Gastoni), the late Malvina’s elderly maid, soon discovers the reason behind Jakob’s silence: following his mother’s dying injunction, the boy habitually puts his ear to the stone walls of the castle, where he hears her speaking to him. And he apparently fears that the messages will cease if he speaks.

What ensues follows Gothic formula to a great extent. After a period of rationalistic doubt, Verena will hear Malvina’s voice in the walls herself. She will also be induced by Lilia into wearing Malvina’s old dresses, a sight that impels Klaus, a sculptor who has been unable to work since his wife’s death, to take up hammer and chisel again, enlisting the nurse to serve as his replacement model for a statue of his wife that remains unfinished in his studio. (That half-completed work, in a way, is a conduit for the dead woman’s voice, too.) Clearly acceptance of the past is the key for both father and son to overcoming their grief and starting anew. But how to achieve that end is complicated, even as Verena comes to accept her role in the process, by ghosts, either real or imagined, that come to haunt her as well as her employer.

“Voice” manages to draw viewers into this fairly predictable tale because of the somber, deliberate tone the makers bring to the story, but also through the patient, quietly effective performances of Clarke and Csokas, who never rush things and to some extent allow themselves to be moved around the rooms of the castle like pawns in a succession of tableaux. Young Dring brings an air of stillness to Jakob, though at times he comes across mannequin-like, and both Girone and Gastoni add a few eccentric touches to the two servants. This is essentially a chamber piece with a small cast, but all of them—along with the behind-the-camera technicians—seem to have fallen in enthusiastically with Howell’s vision.

When the time arrives to wrap things up, however, Howell rushes them, and suddenly there are shock effects like premature burials, a revelation about one of the characters that comes out of left field, and a romance that hasn’t been properly prepared for. It’s as if Howell and Shaw felt that the film’s deliberate pacing couldn’t be sustained to the end, and that a more conventionally pulse-pounding conclusion was required. That’s unfortunate; it undermines the goodwill the picture has built up, though it doesn’t completely dissipate it. And, of course, together the narrative turns bring the tale to an end in a sadly obvious fashion.

The upshot is that “Voice from the Stone” is a film that’s pleasurably unsettling for much of its running-time, but slides off the rails at the close—a near-miss.