Friday, October 17, 2014

THE JUDGE (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vera Farmiga


DIRECTOR: David Dobkin


GENRE:  Drama


There is a reason why curmudgeonly judge Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall) is estranged from his hot-shot city lawyer son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) It's buried in the past, and to learn what it is will be one of the reasons why you'll hang in there with The Judge.  


Hank is returning to his old Indiana home to attend his mother's funeral, and in the process faces off with his father, who is about as stiff to him as Joan Crawford sitting on an ice floe. But their relationship will take an unexpected turn when the judge, who may be dealing with the onset of dementia, is charged with vehicular homicide involving an incident he can't remember. 


Necessity is the mother of invention, and Judge Joe agrees to let Hank be his legal counsel and defend him at his trial. This is where The Judge veers into soap opera land on the wobbly wheels of an unrealistic script, where the presiding judge refrains from picking up his gavel while father and son hash out their long standing personal issues in front of the court.


A lot of things turn out predictably in The Judge, though the ending has a couple of nice twists. But see this movie for the standout performances from Duvall, Downey, Billy Bob Thornton, and the underrated Vincent  D'Onofrio.


Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

Well I, for one, bought into Samuel Taylor Coleridge's phrase "the suspension of disbelief" when viewing The Judge. After all, movie courtroom dramas often veer into unrealistic face-offs. RememberA Few Good Men? ("You can't handle the truth!") Suffice it to say that The Judgehas produced two definite 2015 Oscar nominations. Alas, they will probably cancel each other out. But both Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. deserve them. Father/son battles are the stuff of which great screenplays are made and The Judge is no exception. 

Wading through the credits, I see that director David Dobkin shares "story credit" with Nick Schenk, who shares screenwriting credit with Bill Dubuque. What amazes me is that Dobkin's other big movie credit isThe Wedding Crashers which is about as different from this movie as silly is from serious. Hats off to someone who can direct such diametrically opposite films.

Another actor who deserves mention is Vera Farmiga who plays Samantha Powell, Downey's high school sweetheart. Aside from her mesmerizing eyes, I totally bought her hometown yet liberated character. My advice? Go see this movie. NOW!

GRADE: A

Friday, October 3, 2014

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)



Rated:  R

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda (and a cast of seemingly thousands!)


Director: Shawn Levy


Genre: Comedy-Drama


Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having the shittiest day of his life. He walks in on his wife boinking his boss. There goes his marriage and his job in one fell swoop. Then his dad dies. I was immediately drawn in by And This Is Where I Leave You because I have had that day. That very same one. The circumstances were a little different, but the emotional impact was the same.

And so Judd, of the Altman clan, which includes more characters than you can shake a script at or easily keep track of,  spends most of the rest of the film in a state of semi-shock--while the matriarch of the clan, Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), dictates that the assembled offspring who've come to pay their respects to dad must "sit Shiva" (try to say that real fast several times), meaning they'll have to put up with each other in that house together for seven days.


There will be comparisons to The Big Chill,  as the siblings and their own extended families interact, reminisce, air their frustrations and regrets, ruminate about missed chances and what might have been, or lament what actually came about. In other words, This Is Where I Leave You  drives home the point that nobody is ever really happy. We're all in a continual state of suppressed angst, or "quiet desperation" as Thoreau so elegantly put it.


It's an impressive ensemble cast--too unwieldy for all of the characters to become developed. The true standout, though,  is Tina Fey as Wendy Altman, Judd's sister. This is Fey's coming out party, and she emerges as a serious actress of surprising depth. Yep, she was holdin' out on us all this time with all those SNL skits! Bateman is excellent here as well.


Jane Fonda's fake boobs also give a standout performance.


Grade:  B +  




JILL'S TAKE

First off, let me say I really, REALLY loved this movie. Much as I hate the term 'dramedy,' This Is Where I Leave You embodies it. There's plenty of humor but the film is equally steeped in family trauma. I guess you'd have to say the main story line centers around Judd Altman, played to perfection by Jason Bateman. For me, Bateman has some of the same qualities as Steve Carell, or even the great Charlie Chaplin. No matter what role he's playing, or how ridiculous the situation is, you immediately like and/or sympathize with him. 

Aside from Jane Fonda's fake boobs and incredible body, Tina Fey's well delivered one-liners, and Adam Driver's ever-youthful flakiness, I must say my biggest kudos go to the scriptwriter Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the novel on which the movie is based). Why? Because each character is incredibly well-defined, with his or her own issues and questionable coping skills. This Is Where I Leave You is truly an ensemble piece where everybody gets their moment to shine. And the story keeps moving forward—or unraveling--with delightfully unexpected resolutions.

If I had to nitpick, I'd say my only criticism would be the choice of a title. I would've called it Sitting Shiva.

GRADE: A +

  







Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins

Director: Woody Allen

Genre: Romantic Comedy


In Woody Allen's Magic In The Moonlight, the age-old debate between rationalism and mysticism takes center stage (though I've oft observed that many who wish to poo-pooh mysticism aren't extremely rational in their approach, and some who take up the new-age banner don't strike me as being spiritual in truly significant ways.)

The year is 1928, and Colin Firth is Stanley Crawford, who performs in the persona of a Chinese magician, wowing audiences with his fantastic illusions. Fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) informs Stanley of his encounters with a young medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has been creating quite a stir with her seances, ostensibly communicating with the dead.  Stanley's favorite pastime is to debunk spiritualism, because to him, it's all illusory--just like his magic tricks. So he's off to the French Riviera to find the girl and expose her as a fraud. The stage is now set for some typical romantic comedy fare, where opposites attract.  
  
As in any Woody Allen effort, Magic in The Moonlight is transparent with the hand of the master pulling the strings behind his characters, and waxing philosophical about the human condition. That is the heart and soul of any Allen film, and this one won't disappoint his fans on that score. 

And though the film plods along for about the first half, you find yourself increasingly drawn to these characters--especially Firth's pompous and curmudgeonly Stanley, who is ripe to be taken in, not only by Sophie's persuasive powers of making you see what you want to see, but by her charms as well. The hunter gets captured by the game!   

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

Because Tim and I are in different states during the summer months (Me, California; Tim, Arizona), it is often difficult to coordinate seeing the same film at the same time. I saw Magic In The Moonlight two weeks ago so my observations may be dulled by time—and having seen another really great film since. I hate to let my personal biases get in the way of enjoying any movie. But Woody Allen's "alleged" behaviors do make it difficult. And it sort of creeps me out that, in his septuagenarian years, Allen insists on creating romances between much older gents and barley legal nymphets.

Sweeping all this aside, I have to admit I really enjoyed this latest romantic romp. And I'd give the lion's share of credit to Colin Firth's performance. He has the ability to make audiences love him in spite of his foppish pig-headedness. The object of his ridicule -- and later infatuation -- is ably played by Emma Stone (a Scottsdale native, by the way!) Too bad Marcia Gay Hardin, as her ambitious, social-climbing mother, wasn't given more screen time. Magic is definitely a feel-good movie and, had I reviewed it before seeing The 100-Foot Journey, I would have given it a higher rating. But you can't award every film an A. So I'll follow my co-writer's lead.

GRADE: B

Saturday, July 26, 2014

LIFE ITSELF (2014)



Rated : R

Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Director: Steve James
Genre: Documentary

Life Itself, the straight forward documentary about the life and times--and unfortunate death--of the world's most recognizable film critic, Roger Ebert, is difficult to watch. Well, about half of it is anyway. More on that in a moment.  

It's always good to learn something you didn't know before, and what we learn here, in most entertaining fashion, is the real skinny on the relationship between Ebert and his longtime partner in crime, Gene Siskel.  Siskel and Ebert was like an arranged marriage of two partners who initially seemed to hate each other, but later grew to respect, and yes, maybe even share a little love. 


The show, which introduced the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" into our common vernacular, had all the overtones of a sibling rivalry between two adolescents constantly sniping at each other. The funniest part of Life Itself is the outtakes of the two of them trying to get through the taping of a promo for the show, too raunchy to ever be broadcast on network television.     


But about half of the film, or so it seems-I wasn't counting minutes--shows Roger Ebert after his cancer surgeries. He was unable to speak, and there's no other way to honestly put this...he was grotesque looking. That he didn't mind being filmed in this condition showed that he wasn't going to let vanity get in the way of showing and telling his story exactly as it was, right up to the end. But after a while I just had to look away from the screen during the hospital segments.  


As we look back on the life of Roger Ebert, and his collaboration with Gene Siskel, it reinforces one undeniable truth about the movies--and that is that there are no good films, and there are no bad films.  It's all in the eye of the beholder. 


Grade:  B --



JILL'S TAKE

I'm in complete agreement with Tim about the discomfort induced by seeing Roger Ebert minus his jawbone. As cheerfully as he and his wife Chaz soldiered on, acting as if nothing was really amiss, I was eventually repulsed by the dangling skin that once housed his chin. Ebert wanted us to witness this. I think part of his motivation was due to the fact that Gene Siskel, who died at age 53 of a brain tumor, didn't tell anyone other than his wife about his condition. Including his partner. This hurt Roger Ebert immeasurably—thus he vowed never to be secretive about his own failing health.

But enough about the down side of Life Itself. Kudos go out to director Steve James for keeping this 2-hour documentary engrossing from start to finish. I loved the various film clips, interviews with people like Martin Scorcese and Werner Herzog. It was also interesting to see how much power film critics have over a movie's success or failure. From the very beginning of his life, Ebert was first and foremost a writer. A beautiful and gifted writer at that. Deserving of his Pulitzer Prize, he shared his love of the movies with us— made us think about what we liked and didn't like. Unfortunately, so much of this film was shot after the thyroid cancer had destroyed a good portion of his face that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. I wonder if Roger Ebert would give it a "Thumbs Up" if he were reviewing it?

Grade: C



Sunday, June 15, 2014

WORDS AND PICTURES (2014)



Rated: PG-13

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 +



JILL'S TAKE

This film is a little gem. It panders to both the undying romantic in all of us, as well as those with intellectual aspirations. Which does hold more weight? Words? Or art. It's enough to make even the most bored preppy take more of an interest in his scruffy professor's thesis. But even if this movie had turned out to be a dud, I would've gone and seen it. Why? Long before Words And Pictures came out, a friend of mine in Vancouver, BC told me that her boyfriend's cabin was being rented by the production company filming this movie. (I believe she quoted $1500 per day?) She even got to meet Clive Owen who, she said, was quite charming and self-effacing. As I watched him tear the place apart in a drunken rage, breaking a table and destroying numerous book shelves, I winced, praying that the damage to my friend's boyfriend's cabin was minimal.

Back to the business of reviewing this film. If I wanted to be picky, I might take issue with the speed in which Owen's character, a serious alcoholic, sobered up. We see him attend one AA meeting and, voila, he's making amends all over the place. And then there's a subplot involving a snarky boy named Swint (played well by Adam diMarco) whose obsessive infatuation for a another student turns nasty. I felt it was totally unnecessary. But the final scene – where brilliant quotes are used to describe certain paintings – made me want to wind the film back so I could write them down. The point being that words enhance art and visa versa.

One last kudo for Bruce Davison. He has a small part but plays it to affable perfection. For me, Davison is an actor who deserves far more accolades than he's gotten. So far, anyway. (Anybody remember him in Longtime Companion for which he won a Golden Globe?)

Grade: A – 
  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (2014)




Rated : R

Stars: Seth Macfarlane,  Charlize Theron,  Neil Patrick Harris,  Amanda Seyfried,  Liam Neeson,  Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Genre: Comedy/Western


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.


Grade:  


JILL'S TAKE

(I guess Tim liked it.) And so did I. In a big way! It's this generation's answer to Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Of course, I've already encountered some negative flak from certain film buffs I know. But I say, "Suck it up and enjoy!" Okay. Maybe there's a bit of overkill with the bean-farting jokes and the pratfalls. But this is a film that I challenge anyone feeling in a bad mood to go and see. You won't feel in a bad mood afterwards, I guarantee it.

What is most endearing is Seth MacFarlane's character. He really nails guys' insecurities in a very original way. (Remember Ted and how real the relationship was between Mark Whalberg's character and his teddy bear?) This guy, whose name Albert is klutzy-sounding to begin with, can't do anything right. Which is a clever way to entice viewers' sympathy. In fact, nobody can do anything right in this film which is why it's so much fun.

Tim has already mentioned the musical score (by Joel McNeely). But I'd like to add that it sets the perfect tone for A Million Ways To Die... before the first undoing is undone.
You can tell that the actors really enjoyed themselves: Liam Neeson as Clinch, the fastest gun in the west; Giovanni Ribisi as Edward, a lovesick puppy, trying desperately not to consummate his relationship with the town whore until they are officially wed; big-eyed Amanda Seyfried as Louise, who dumps Farmer Albert in favor of mustachioed Neil Patrick Harris. The biggest compliment I can pay this film is that I definitely want to see it again. And again. And again...

Grade: A +


Sunday, May 25, 2014

THE RAILWAY MAN (2014)



Rated: R

Stars: Colin Firth,  Nicole Kidman,  Hiroyuki Sanada,  Jeremy Irvine, Tanroh Ishida,  Stellen Skarsgard


Director: Jonathan Teplitzki


Genre: Drama


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 + 




JILL'S TAKE

Hey, I'd cohabit with Colin Firth under any circumstances! But it is, I feel, quite misleading that the character he plays in THE RAILWAY MAN doesn't reveal any of his madness—other than obsessing on railway routes—before he and his love-at-first-sight lady get married. They move to an idyllic setting by the ocean and almost overnight he becomes a different, almost scary individual.

The movie keeps switching from present to past, back to present again, using different actors. In Colin Firth's case, his younger self (played ably by Jeremy Irvine) is immediately recognizable since both actors wear glasses. However, when it comes to the Japanese guard (he's a translator not a torturer which makes the idea of redemption and forgiveness easier to believe), I found it harder to accept the two actors who looked nothing alike playing the same role. The younger Takeshi Nagase, played by Tanroh Ashida, was suitably fierce. But the older version of the guard/translator is what still haunts me. The shadings Hiroyuki Sanada gave his character were indeed memorable. I won't go into more detail but suffice it to say war makes victims of us all.

Haunting, too, is David Hirshfelder's score. (His musical skill earned this Aussie composer a Best Musical Score nomination back in 1999 for Elizabeth.) One final piece of advice: when you go see this movie—and I implore you to do so—take plenty of Kleenex.

Grade: B+
 .