Sunday, June 15, 2014
Stars: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Amy Brenneman, Valerie Tian
Director: Fred Schepisi
Genre: Romantic Drama
Opposites attract. That's been the theme of many a romantic comedy since time immemorial. In Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) we have two sharply delineated characters as different as words and pictures.
Marcus is a poet of some note who teaches at an elite New England prep school. He's passionate about trying to instill an appreciation for literature in his students, many of whom are only familiar with the printed word in the form of text messages (smart phones in a dumbed-down America).
Delsanto is the aloof art teacher who snubs Jack's playful advances at every turn, but she is just as passionate in the classroom about trying to light a fire under the butts of her students.
Will the passion that flames in their hearts for words and pictures eventually translate into the burning hots for each other? You wouldn't think so. Jack is a raging alcoholic. Plus he's clumsy when he's staggering around. Just when Delsanto is beginning to let her guard down, he crashes into her precious work-in-progress and ruins it. Talk about being on somebody's shit list! Even more annoying to a woman, I would think, is that the guy never takes his glasses off--even in bed!
Can such obstacles be overcome? Will Obama and Putin ever get chummy again? Getting there is half the fun. In Words And Pictures it's most of the fun, as their on-again off-again romance plays out against the backdrop of a spirited and often poignant competition between their students to prove which is more relevant--art or literature?
Grade: B +
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Rated : R
Stars: Seth Macfarlane, Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman
Director: Seth MacFarlane
If the image of Neil Patrick Harris developing sudden gastrointestinal problems, grabbing a stranger's hat and taking a dump in it right in the middle of the street doesn't tickle your funny bone, then you probably are not cut out for this rootin' tootin' tale of the west that comes from the flipped-out imagination of Seth MacFarlane, creator of South Park, Family Guy, and the movie Ted.
It's like watching an episode of Family Guy in an old west setting with a potpourri (poopourri?) of similarly outlandish sight gags and politically incorrect stuff that wouldn't fly on TV, but it's all brilliantly done--and whether or not this type of effrontery to the let's pretend "sensitivity" of modern times is your cup of tea, you have to admire the creativity and the pure adolescent joy with which MacFarlane and company have gone about their business in A Million Ways To Die In The West.
There is so much to like about this movie. From the opening theme, which evokes a Bonanza kind of nostalgia for the old westerns, to a really trippy mushroom induced CGI sequence, to the surprising sweetness of a boy-girl romance that's interwoven between all the gags.
With a big name ensemble cast, who were all good sports to have signed onto such a project, undoubtedly knowing that A Million Ways To Die In The West was going to take a lot of hits from sourpuss reviewers.
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Stars: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida, Stellen Skarsgard
Director: Jonathan Teplitzki
So if you are really screwed up with PTSD and nightmare flashbacks to your war experiences that are severely affecting the quality of your life, you should probably tell your fiancee about it so she can make an informed decision about whether or not to go ahead and cohabitate with you. Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) doesn't, and there we have the crux of The Railway Man.
Lomax is a seemingly mild mannered middle-aged guy who has a fondness for trains. What his wife, Patti, (Nicole Kidman) doesn't get the whole scoop on until later is that he was a POW in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, where he was subjected to heinously cruel torture, including water boarding. Lomax discovers that one of the guards at the camp who assisted in putting him through this hell on earth is still alive and living a pretty good life in Thailand. The story question becomes whether Lomax should find the guy and give him a taste of his own medicine.
The Railway Man is based on the real Eric Lomax's autobiography of the same title. I haven't read the book, but I already knew going in how the film was going to turn out. There was only one way that it COULD conclude in order for Lomax to maintain the connection to his own humanity and end up writing a bang-up story that would touch its readers. Despite that, there is still plenty of suspense in the climactic scenes as to how the human drama between these two men will play out.
Nicole Kidman as the concerned wife, Patti, isn't called upon to display all the fiery brilliance she is capable of (if you want to see that, go rent
Eyes Wide Shut), but she does a fine job here in a rather subdued role.
And I don't know how anybody can watch the water boarding scenes in this film and not harken back to Dick Cheney and the White House gang that permitted this practice to be performed on our own war captives without feeling a twinge of guilt, or at least a question forming in one's mind as to whether any type of torture can be justified--no matter whose side you are on or how strongly you may be convinced that "God" is on your side. I don't think it's a coincidence that the filmmakers chose to include it.
In summation, The Railway Man is well worth the fare. Tickets, please.
Grade: B +
Monday, April 28, 2014
Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Dennis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman
Director: Ivan Reitman
I generally don't watch sports movies--not because I'm not a fan, but because fake, recreated sports scenes don't cut it for me like the real live action does. In Draft Day, there aren't a lot of fake sports plays, but there are a lot of stock, cardboard cut-out characters.
There's the intrepid general manager of the Cleveland Browns (Kevin Costner) who is going to wheel and deal his way through the maze--flying by the seat of his pants and going against conventional wisdom to get the best draft picks, rescue his bottom-feeding team, and make him a hero on draft day.
The coach (Dennis Leary) who naturally doesn't agree with the GM's methods, cuz you gotta have conflict.
The team owner (Frank Langella), who may be one wrong move away from cleaning house, which makes the chances the GM is taking all the more precarious to his future.
And, of course, the love interest (Jennifer Garner), who works for the team and knows more about football than most of the guys. (Hollywood loves to patronize women in this manner.) She and the GM have a thing going, and now she's going to drop a little bundle of joy upon him. But all he wants to do is make it through draft day, dammit. WILL EVERYBODY JUST QUIT DISTRACTING ME?.
The most annoying thing about Draft Day is that it violates that old saw of good storytelling: show, don't tell. The characters are always explaining stuff to each other that they obviously should already know. It's a device to fill in background information for the audience, but it's just too obvious and awkwardly done here.
Director Ivan Reitman does a good job of ratcheting up the dramatic tension and building momentum toward the feel-good climax. That's the strong point of the film. Along with the pulsating score from John Debney.
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi was obsessed. Winning isn't everything...it's the only thing. He set the tone for the modern day emphasis on winning at all costs. It's an unhealthy mindset. Because giving it all you've got and falling short is nothing to be ashamed of. It builds character. But that's not what modern day sports is about, and Draft Day--if nothing else--drives that point home.
Grade: C +
If Tim hadn't been sitting next to me, answering my questions about how players get drafted and team managers trade picks, I would've been totally lost. As it is, I was totally bored. To borrow one of my favorite quotes by Dorothy Parker (originally describing Katharine Hepburn's acting), Kevin Costner's acting "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Unlike the highly volatile Vince Lombardi, Costner plays it cool under pressure. A good foil for Dennis Leary's overdone pugnaciousness. But it's all so ho-hum. And the secondary plots, i.e. his secret girlfriend, his inability to commit, his bossy mom are...well....not exactly original.
Just for the hell of it, I typed in "Top Sports Movies." Opinions abound. According to an ESPN poll, #1 is BULL DURHAM. (Costner was much better in that one.) Another link breaks it down into individual sports. According to http://www.best-sports-movies.
com/football.html their pick (and mine, as well) is BRIAN'S SONG. And the New York Times poll gives ROCKY the number one slot. What these sports movies all have that DRAFT DAY doesn't is character development—and real characters to develop!
With these mini-reviews, I always try to point out something positive. This time—because I can't come up with one—I'll end with another favorite quote meant to leave you smiling: "The reason women don't play football is because eleven of them would never wear the same outfit in public." - Phyllis Diller
Grade: D –
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LeBouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman
Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Art House
Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol.1 isn't about magic (you wouldn't call it magical in any way) but there is lots of sleight-of-hand going on. What appears to be actual oral sex is accomplished with the use of a prosthesis. A brief shot involving penetration turns out not to be the "name" actors in the film, but rather some porn star body doubles. That said, there's still enough provocative stuff here to push the limits of anything you'll ever see at a "regular" theater. (That's one where you're not likely to be sitting next to Pee Wee Herman, who's signing an autograph for you with his free hand.)
But Nymphomaniac: Vol.1 wants to take itself seriously, so we must decide whether to do the same. That's a bit difficult to do, though, because there's lots of dark humor here.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, who will do or say basically anything in front of the camera (catch her in von Trier's Antichrist for validation of this), takes on the more genteel role of story teller--recounting her sexual escapades to an older man (Stellan Skarsgard) who found her beaten and bloody in the gutter. The real action (should we call this an "action" film?) falls to young Stacy Martin playing "Joe," the younger version of Gainsbourg's character. Joe and an equally free-spirited friend have a contest to see how many men each of them can seduce on a train.
There is one brilliant scene where Uma Thurman plays a woman scorned who shows up at Joe's apartment with her young sons in tow. Her husband has abandoned her for the nympho nymphet, thinking she's in love with him. Thurman spreads it on thick with the melodrama, laying a guilt trip on the guy that's one for the ages. When another suitor knocks on the door, the real fun begins.
Don't know if I'd spend the money to see the conclusion of this two-parter, though the explanation for how Joe ended up in the battered condition we found her in at the beginning of the film is likely to be curiously kinky. May just wait for the DVD, as it's the kind of fare perhaps better enjoyed at home when you've slipped into something more comfortable and have all the shades drawn.
Wednesday, April 2, 2014
STARS: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
I was initially put off by the idea of seeing Noah, because Bible stories, to me, are in the same category as Greek Mythology--great stories from writers who had some wild imaginations, to be taken with a liberal sprinkling of salt. And since Easter is right around the corner--and with it the annual return of Charlton Heston as Moses and the rest of those similarly campy films from the fifties the television stations drag out for God knows what reason this time of year--I was so hoping that Noah might be a breath of fresh air.
My prayers were answered.
As a film, Noah is a remarkable achievement. Noah (Russell Crowe) is a kind of obsessed environmentalist who sees the value in preserving the innocent creatures of the world, of which wicked Man is notwithstanding. The images of beast and fowl winging and plodding their way toward the ark are awe-inspiring. Scripture mentions giants inhabiting the earth in those days, but director Darren Aronofsky takes it a step further with some hulking CGI rock monsters who would look more at home in a film like Transformers. A little something for the kids, perhaps.
Jennifer Connelly, as Noah's wife, gives us some soul-stirring moments when she stands up to the monomaniacal man as he is about to go off the deep end and do some really mean and nasty stuff.
Noah is a film full of beauty, grandeur and intensity, and rife with irony when you consider the idea of the Creator sending a big flood to wipe the slate clean and start anew, hopeful that this time things will be different. Especially in light of the condition our planet is in today.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
STARS: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville
DIRECTOR: George Clooney
The Monuments Men--more than any other film in recent memory--demonstrates how a highly manipulative music score can turn what otherwise might have been a rather pedantic lesson about the value of art in our lives into a jaunty, and at times even a rousing "caissons-go-rolling-along" bit of mildly entertaining diversion. That's all thanks to the inventive soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat (Zero Dark Thirty, Rust and Bone, Argo) which hits all the right notes. And I say "highly manipulative," but every film score plays upon our emotions to some degree. That's what it's there for.
Near the end of World War II, FDR assembled a team of experts--historians, architects, sculptors, art dealers and the like--and turned them into soldiers. Of sorts. And off they went to recover art treasures ripped-off by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners before Hitler can get it all up on the walls of his Fuhrer Museum or destroy whatever he doesn't like. (You can see why he would have an interest...Hitler was an artist of some minor talent himself, and you can envision the museum's walls...a Rembrandt next to a Hitler next to a Cezanne next to a Hitler and so on...flattering himself by the company he keeps).
The Monuments Men is an action/drama flick with more human drama than action, because the plot is one that appeals more to the art house patron (pardon the pun) than your typical moviegoer--whose appreciation of art runs more to velvet Elvis paintings than anything you would find in the Louvre. So our band of merry men on the road gets detoured into lots of familiar movie territory before they can declare "mission accomplished." (Don't say it--ha ha.) There is a flirtation between Matt Damon's character and Claire Simone, (Cate Blanchett) a curator in occupied Paris. The outcome is predictable because our men are totally intent upon their objective. Another time filler is when Damon finds himself standing on a land mine and doesn't dare move, while his comrades scratch their heads and try to extricate him from his predicament in one piece.
In the stellar ensemble cast, the comedic talents of Bill Murray and John Goodman aren't totally wasted, as they do have one rather amusing little scene together. And while The Monuments Men tries way too hard to be poignant in spots, at other times it succeeds.
But the real star of the movie is Andre Desplat.