Review: ‘All the Money in the World’ buys suspense but not family

All The Money in the World

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg in a publicity shot from “All the Money in the World.”

There is something a little disconcerting when one starts seeing a number of “period” films released based on actual events that one remembers clearly. It reminds me of the first time I heard an REM song on the oldies channel — “But that’s not old?!”

All the Money in the World” is set in 1973 and is a story I remember following with great interest at the time. Sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), grandson of the world’s richest man — in fact, as the movie tells us, oil baron J. Paul Getty was the richest man who had ever lived — was kidnapped from the streets of Rome and held for ransom.

Like any movie, director Ridley Scott’s invention stretches the truth of the story to keep the suspense moving at a pace that builds the intensity organically.

Of course, no mention of the film can ignore the pictures big pre-release story — Scott’s decision to re-shoot all the scenes with old man Getty, replacing Kevin Spacey in the wake of his sexual assault allegations with Christopher Plummer, at a cost that increased the budget by 25 percent. Technically, he has done a pretty seamless job, but he also lucked out — Plummer is superb.

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Christopher Plummer plays J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World”

He struts around as if he owns the world, as the value of his stocks supercedes the value of his family. We see him holding court in his gloomy English mansion, surrounded by “things” — he has a need to possess, and that extends even to his family. His familial interactions are cynical manipulations rather than loving encounters. To concede an inch is a weakness in his quest for “more.”

Michelle Williams, underused in “The Greatest Showman,” gets a lot more to do here, as Paul’s mother, Gail Harris, desperately trying to raise the ransom money and bring her son home, and she is the solid core of the film’s humanity. When she divorces Getty’s drug-addled son, she is cut out the family and her pleas to her father-in-law for the ransom money fall on deaf ears, with Getty telling reporters, “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

The film follows three threads — Gail’s desperate search, aided by Getty’s CIA-trained operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), Getty’s loving attachment to his tickertape machine and his money, and the relationship between Paul and his kidnapper Cinquanta, played by Romain Duris.

The third strand plays out almost like Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. The original kidnappers seem to be amateurs who have no intention of hurting Paul, they are just out to make a buck, thinking it will all be over in a few days. As the months drag on, and Paul is sold on to a more ruthless gang, Cinquanta goes as well to try to protect him.

In real life, one of Paul’s captors was helpful. The film takes a few liberties with this character, but Cinquanta is our surrogate, incredulous that such a rich man would refuse to pay the ransom and pitying the poor little rich boy (the real events are listed in this Vanity Fair article).

The movie, written by David Scarpa from John Pearson’s 1995 book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty,” takes quite a few artistic licenses but the audience is rewarded with a fine thriller.

However, the film is more than a simple crime caper. The Bible poses the question, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “All the Money in the World” is an entertaining exploration of that concept.

(Note: the film is better than the Mark-Wahlberg-saves-the-world trailer would suggest)

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Review: Spectacular musical numbers undone by weak story in “The Greatest Showman”

The curtain opens on a silhouette of a ringmaster as the music plays. The figure dances underneath packed bleachers before ending up in the spotlight, surrounded by a colorful cast of characters spectacularly dancing and flying from ropes and trapeze wires. This is the opening of the “The Greatest Showman” and is it a visual and auditory sensation. If it maintained that level, the film would be quite something. Unfortunately, the stunning musical numbers are held together by a very lightweight story.

“The Greatest Showman” is a starring vehicle for Hugh Jackman and, as usual, this versatile actor shines. He is a song and dance man of the first order, which might come as a shock to those who know him only as Wolverine in various incarnations. Here he plays legendary huckster Phineas Taylor Barnum. Jackman’s charm dominates the movie.

“Showman” is entertaining enough, especially to fans of musicals, but it suffers from being all surface and no depth. My partner Ramona said it reminded her of a child’s pop-up book — a visually beautiful pop-up book to be sure, but one that is easily digested without much thought.

In real life, Barnum was a complex huckster who was more exploitative of his freaks and oddities than the movie suggests. In 1835, he paid $1,000 for an elderly slave named Joice Heth, claiming she was 161 years old and a former nurse for George Washington, Barnum exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in an estimated $1,500 a week. The movie also misrepresents “General Tom Thumb,” one of Barnum’s prize draws, as an adult when he was, in actuality only four-years old.

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Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams in “The Greatest Showman.” Publicity photo

The feel of the movie seems like it would be a solid stage show, although Barnum’s story was covered more thoroughly in the 1980 Broadway hit “Barnum.” It also has elements of Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge” with its anachronistic music, but lacks that movie’s edginess.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 51 percent rating and that is just about right. It is average. The story seems like just an excuse to get to another musical number. The storyline with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), which was an important part of Barnum’s career, is woefully underdeveloped. His romance with his wife Charity, played by Michelle Williams is equally under-explored. Williams is charming and does a good job in a thankless role which wastes her talents.

The cast of sideshow characters, led by Keela Settle as Lettie the Bearded Lady, are the soul off the film, and the musical numbers crackle. There is a love story between Anne the trapeze artist, played by Zendaya, and the rich-boy-giving-it-all-up-for-the-excitement-of-the-circus Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. They get a wonderful musical number utilizing the circus ropes, but it is just another set piece around an underdeveloped story.

“The Greatest Showman” is a visual feast and the costumes are magnificent, but it is really just a frothy confection which leaves the audience unsatisfied and hungry for something just a little more filling.

“The Greatest Showman: is rated PG.

Review: McDormand seethes and shines in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in a publicity photo for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Armed with a trusty Movie Pass card, the quest begins to see all the potential Oscar nominees prior to the February ceremony. 

Seven months after the violent death of her daughter, Mildred Hayes, stunningly played by Frances McDormand, rents “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — on a road that no one uses since the freeway was built — that read, in order, “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” in hopes of pushing the police to work harder to solve the case.

The titular constructions certainly provoke a reaction that pits Mildred against the police, including the beloved Chief William Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, and the violent racist officer Dixon, superbly played by Sam Rockwell, as well as several of the small town’s residents, into war.

McDormand’s Mildred drives the film. Let’s be honest, McDormand is an acting goddess. From her first appearance in the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple,” through her Oscar-winning turn as Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” with a Tony award for “Good People” and an Emmy for “Olive Kitteridge” thrown in for good measure, she is a consistent force in everything she does. McDormand brings an authenticity and honesty to every role, and she has never been better than the grieving mother in “Three Billboards.”

Mildred is, to say the least, a little rough around the edges, and her coping mechanism is to fight, both physically and verbally — with Willoughby, with Dixon, with the local priest, and even with a dentist. She is hard-jawed and seething with suppressed rage looking for an outlet. The brilliance of McDormand’s performance is that such an abrasive, flawed character never loses our sympathy — and when she is at her worst is when we feel for her most. McDormand is a front runner for another Oscar and on this showing it will take an hell of a performance to stop her adding another statue to her cupboard.

While McDormand is the pillar around which the movie revolves, she doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. Sam Rockwell has built a career playing goofballs and eccentrics, and can always be counted on to be interesting. Here, he plays another goofball, but this time he is also bigoted, racist, homophobic, drunk and violent. In less sure hands, Officer Jason Dixon would be a cartoon character, an easy object of derision. But Rockwell gives us a character that, while certainly unlikeable, is deeper than one might expect. Don’t be surprised to see supporting actor nods come his way this award season.

There is really no weak link in the ensemble. Harrelson’s Bill Willoughby is nuanced and ultimately a good man — we see why the small-town chief has earned the respect of the town. Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes are excellent in a supporting roles, and the entire cast is excellent (maybe it is time to stop picturing couples where the pretty wife is 20 years younger than her husband, but that is a problem on the film industry as a whole and is a minor criticism of this movie).

The film is written and directed by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, a heavyweight in the world of theater whose credits include the Leenane Trilogy, “The Pillowman” and “A Behanding in Spokane.” He previously wrote and directed “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths” and “Three Billboards” has everything a McDonagh fan expects — pathos cloaked in dark humor, and characters that are, at once, both exactly and not at all what they seem.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a superb combination of great storytelling and stellar ensemble acting, but it is McDormand’s performance that is a true tour de force.

Rated R for violence and strong language (as is the embedded trailer below)

The Grand Tour II: Great Scott, What a Monument

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EDINBURGH — Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a world where a writer is lauded and praised, and treated of as one would treat a rock or movie star today. Yet, Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish novelist who wrote “Ivanhoe” and “Rob Roy,” was so beloved that an enormous monument to his memory sits in Princes Street Gardens in the middle of Edinburgh.

Enormous is no hyperbole. The Victorian gothic structure is the largest monument to a writer in the world, measuring 197 feet high. The highest platform is accessible by 288 steps. The tower, tarnished by smoke, is blackish in color, which contrasts with the white marble statue of Scott that sits within.

Following Scott’s death in 1832, a competition was held to design a monument. One entrant went under the pseudonym “John Morvo”, the name of the medieval architect of Melrose Abbey. He was George Meikle Kemp, a 45-year-old joiner, draftsman and self-taught architect. Kemp feared his lack of qualifications and reputation would disqualify him, but his design was popular and in 1838 he was awarded the contract.

scott5John Steell was commissioned to design the Carrara marble statue which shows Scott seated, resting from writing one of his works with a quill pen and his dog Maida by his side.

The monument features 64 figures of characters from Scott’s novels by a variety of Scots sculptors including Alexander Handyside Ritchie, John Rhind, William Birnie Rhind, William Brodie, William Grant Stevenson, David Watson Stevenson, John Hutchison, George Anderson Lawson, Thomas Stuart Burnett, William Shirreffs, Andrew Currie, George Clark Stanton, Peter Slaterand two female representatives, Amelia Robertson Hill (who also made the statue of explorer David Livingstone in the gardens east of the monument), and the unknown Katherine Anne Fraser Tytler.

Four figures are placed above the final viewing gallery and eight kneeling Druid figures support the final viewing gallery. There are 32 unfilled niches at higher level.

Sixteen heads of Scottish poets and writers appear on the lower faces, representing James Hogg, Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Allan Ramsay, George Buchanan, Sir David Lindsay, Robert Tannahill, Lord Byron, Tobias Smollett, James Beattie, James Thomson, John Home, Mary, Queen of Scots, King James I of Scotland, King James V of Scotland and William Drummond of Hawthornden. All told there are 93 people, two dogs and a pig.

If it wasn’t enough that he was a significant enough poet, playwright and novelist to warrant a huge monument in his country’s capital, Scott was also a judge, advocate and legal administrator. He died in 1832, aged 61.

Scott’s legacy spreads across many literary works, and the last lines of The Police’s classic “Synchronicity II” is lifted directly from Scott: “Many miles away there’s a shadow on the door of a cottage on the Shore of a dark Scottish lake.”

For all his celebrity, I doubt Sting will get a monument half the size of Scott’s.

For more, visit the Scott Monument website.

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The Grand Tour II: Inverary No Drafty Old Castle

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INVERARY, Scotland — Not all the castles in Scotland are drafty examples of medieval austerity. A case in point is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll, chiefs of the clan Campbell.

The current Inverary Castle, inspired by Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, is relatively new, completed in 1789, although a castle has stood on the shore of Loch Fyne since the 1400s. A fire in 1877 led to the addition on the conical roofs on the turrets.

The house is a combination of baroque, Palladian and Gothic styles, designed by Roger Morris and Richard Adam, both of whom died before the project was finished, and decorated by Robert Mylne.

Inverary Castle is opulent and decorous, especially if one is a fan of miltaria. Its displays include 1,300 pikes, Brown Bess muskets, Lochaber axes and 18th century Scottish broadswords, as well as preserved swords from the Battle of Culloden.

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Entering the castle, one is faced with a grand room filled floor to ceiling with intricate displays of weaponry.

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The State Dining Room and Tapestry Drawing Room both house French tapestries woven especially for the castle, as well as prime examples of Scottish, English and French furniture and artworks. The castle’s collection of china, silver and family heirlooms spans generations, and the Clan Room features a genealogical history of the family.

Inverary’s 16-acre estate is gorgeously manicured, a contrast to the wildness of Doune, and is more in keeping with what one things of from the nobility.

It is more than just a museum and the current Duke of Argyll and his family still live in the castle.

 

It seems no self-respecting castle is without a link to popular culture and Inverary is no exception. The Christmas feast scene from “Downton Abbey” (Brit-porn for Americans, as I like to call it), in the fictional Duneagle Castle, was filmed here.

On our highland tour, Inverary was the last stop, and the tranquil surroundings made the perfect backdrop for a cup of tea and a scone after a long day.

The castle is open April 1 to Oct. 31. General admission is 10 pounds.

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