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Tribeca: Steve Coogan, True Conviction & Chuck

April 24, 2017

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Tribeca Film Festival. I usually go to a few screenings there every year, but unlike the New York or Montclair Film Festivals, I often walk away disappointed, like I did after last year’s Youth in Oregon, a wholly unremarkable family drama memorable only for the performance of Frank Langella (I had the same experience at Tribeca in 2008 with the Langella-Elliott Gould vehicle The Caller). Perhaps because there are so many more films at Tribeca than at other festivals I’ve attended, it raises the odds that the handful I do see could be subpar. So this year I saw five films playing at Tribeca and enjoyed four of them to varying degrees. The Mets would kill for that kind of batting average.

Two of them star Steve Coogan, which is always a good start. The Brit wit has proven himself a versatile talent, whether in comedies like The Trip series with Rob Brydon — the third installment, The Trip to Spain, premiered at Tribeca this year — or dramas like Philomena, the Judi Dench adoption drama that earned him Oscar nods for cowriting and producing. That career/ego boost provides many of the laughs in Spain, as Coogan and Brydon (playing heightened versions of themselves) try to top each other with their professional achievements, personal bliss and vocal impersonations of Michael Caine, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, among other Englishmen. There’s less emphasis here than in The Trip or The Trip to Italy on the restaurants Coogan and Brydon review as part of their travelogue, and the tone seems more middle-aged melancholy. But these two are such unfailingly amusing companions, they make it a worthwhile journey no matter the destination.

Coogan’s even more impressive in a serious role as the mentally ill father of a teenager who’s committed a horrific crime in The Dinner, the latest provocative think piece from writer-director Oren Moverman. The filmmaker elicits another career-best turn from his Time Out of Mind star Richard Gere as Coogan’s politician brother, whose offspring is also implicated in the misdeed. Along with their better halves, played by Laura Linney (reteaming with Gere 20 years after the underrated Primal Fear) and Rebecca Hall, these eternally squabbling siblings attempt to make peace with each other and sense out of what their children have done. The Dinner takes a dark view of humanity, to be sure, but it’s not so bleak that you can’t enjoy the stellar performances, elegant direction and note-perfect script.

It’s a four-star cinematic meal, yet The Dinner currently stands at a 42 percent (or “Rotten”) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only the most recent example of a top-notch film given short shrift by that aggravating aggregator. Other instances include Going in Style and The Zookeeper’s Wife, thoroughly excellent movies that didn’t win the approval of the group-think herd and may have underperformed at the box office as a result. Don’t let the basement-dwelling bloggers scare you away from The Dinner. With a resume that includes the harrowing Woody Harrelson dramas The Messenger and Rampart as well as the moving Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, Moverman may be the most thoughtful and intriguing American filmmaker currently working.

Not that Rotten Tomatoes always gets it wrong: Chuck, a knockout boxing biopic starring Liev Schreiber, has earned an 83% fresh rating. That’s a better winning percentage than Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” racked up in his 35-14-2 career in the ring. The fact that such a mediocre boxer not only stood toe to toe with Muhammad Ali for nearly 15 rounds in 1975 — and inspired Sylvester Stallone to create the Rocky franchise — elevates this strange-but-true story to heavyweight status.

At 49, Schreiber is more than a decade older than Wepner was even at the sad tail end of his career, when he fought both Andre the Giant and a bear (twice!). But the star is in the shape of his life both physically and dramatically, and his scenes with Pooch Hall — who plays his boxer half-brother on Ray Donovan — as Muhammad Ali crackle with wit and energy. The entire ensemble, which includes Schreiber’s (now ex-) leading lady Naomi Watts and Elisabeth Moss as Chuck’s love interests and stand-up Jim Gaffigan doing impressive dramatic work as his hanger-on best friend, brings vigor to Wepner’s tale, which only gets more interesting after he hangs up his gloves and seeks recognition, not to mention compensation, from Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector, doing a dead-on impression).  Wepner’s rocky real-life story makes for a smoothly entertaining movie.

If anyone ever tries to turn the real stories of the men profiled in the captivating new documentary True Detective into a scripted drama, some people might say it was too far-fetched. It’s strange but true: Christopher Scott, Jonnie Lindsey and Stephen Phillips are former prisoners who spent years in prison before being cleared of the crimes for which they had been convicted. With the settlement money they receive from the state of Texas meant to rectify the injustice that befell them, they start a detective agency and take the cases of other wrongly incarcerated inmates.

Director Jamie Meltzer spent five years following these charismatic crusaders, and the unforeseen twists their lives take (one winds up back in jail) are as fascinating as the profiles of the prisoners they seek to exonerate. The broken Texas criminal justice system not only harms the lives of the poor souls who lose decades fighting for a fair retrial but those of their kids, grandkids and other loved ones. Yet True Conviction contains at least as many moments of hope as it does of despair. Do whatever you can to see this stunning film, which will air on PBS’ Independent Lens.

Last and certainly least, The Lovers wastes the talents of Tracy Letts and Debra Winger as a long-married couple who plan the leave the other for paramours but find themselves inexorably drawn back together. While it’s always good to see actors as offbeat as these two playing romantic leads, the script by director Azazel Jacobs tries to stretch a half-hour’s worth of story over 94 minutes. Worse, he telegraphs how you’re supposed to feel about each scene with an intrusive classical score.

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I’m not going to post the trailer for The Lovers, because I watched it before I saw the film, and it gives away the final twist, not that it’s all too surprising. Still, that raises a question perhaps only the collective hive-mind behind Rotten Tomatoes can answer: Can you spoil something that’s already rotten?

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3 Comments
  1. It seems to be a Richard Gere year! (i’m happy with that)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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