Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME 1













Unrated

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.


Grade: B



JILL'S TAKE

"Short and sweaty." That's how I'd describe this flick. Only it wasn't short by any means... Like NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. 1, a film that's presented in five chapters, I will chop up this review accordingly.
  1. If you think penises are all pretty much the same, go see this movie.
  2. If you want to see Christian Slater's ass crack, go see this movie. (He plays the nympho's caring, tree-fixated dad; a man whose struggles with alcohol are never even hinted at before he winds up in a straight jacket shitting himself.)
  3. If you want to be the only female in the audience, go see this movie.
  4. If you want to see every nook and cranny of Stacy Martin's rail thin, prepubescent-looking body, go see this movie.
  5. .If you want to get turned on? Read Fifty Shades of Grey
Grade: C


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

NOAH (2014)
















Rated:  PG-13

STARS:  Russell Crowe,  Jennifer Connelly,  Emma Watson,  Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins,  Logan Lerman
 DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
GENRE: Drama

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.

Grade:  A  


JILL'S TAKE

[Tim didn't bother telling you that I had to drag him to this movie, bitching and moaning all the way. So it gives me no small measure of satisfaction to read his glowing review!]

As for me? I kind of like those old cinemascopic epics. Especially the villains—Peter Ustinov as Nero, Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Laurence Olivier as Crassus. But the biggest villain in Noah is Noah himself. Torn between doing God's bidding or following his own humanness, he's a larger-than-life character with an abundance of problems to overcome. Portrayed with deep-voiced veracity by Russell Crowe, the film is billed as an "epic story of courage and sacrifice from the Old Testament." Now I could be picky about some of the incongruities in this cautionary tale. Did they have buzz cuts back then? How come Noah aged and his wife didn't? Can fish really survive without water? But logic and Bible stories are not necessarily synonymous. And after I saw Noah, I actually went home and read chapters 5 through 9 in Genesis. Holy cow! There were certainly a lot of literary liberties taken. But in my view, they improved the story considerably. (Creative blasphemy to some, good film-making to others.) If Tim hadn't already made a comparison to Transformers, I would have. Those rock monsters aka "Watchers" could have just as easily been rebuilding a razed New York City in 2020 as helping Noah build his ark.

And kudos to Anthony Hopkins as an impishly ancient Methuselah. In a final scene, when he's enjoying some freshly picked berries, I could almost hear him adding 'some fava beans and a nice Chianti.'

GRADE:  A

Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)



Rated: PG-13

STARS:  George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville 
DIRECTOR: George Clooney
GENRE: Action/Drama/Suspense

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. 


Grade:  B



JILL'S TAKE

It's just lucky for you, Tim, that I'm not an SS officer. Otherwise, you'd be toast. Why? For daring to disagree with me so totally about a movie! For me, the musical score's manipulation was the ruination of this long, really long film. It detracted from what was happening on screen, forcing the viewer to feel what the director wanted—no insisted—that the audience feel. Achtung! Sieg heil!

We've seen zillions of band-of-brothers movies like this one. Where a group of guys, usually very different from one another, have a common goal: winning a war, surviving a plane crash, etc. Or, in this case, saving some great works of art. That's all well and good but, in my view, what makes these movies succeed or fail is simple: character development. I'm sure, when casting THE MONUMENTS MEN, the producers were licking their fiscally fat lips, thinking how much money this international cast would add to their coffers. Two actors that Tim didn't mention: Jean Dujardin from The Artist and Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey. But their individual stories were practically nonexistent and audiences care more about people than paintings. Suffice it to say, I was not as enchanted as Tim by this musically heavy-handed piece of cinema. I do, however, have to give four stars to Cate Blanchett for a muted but magnificent performance. Other than that? I'm thinking of taking my 5cm leichte Granatwerfer 36 out of mothballs so I can gun you down, Timoteo!

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)



Rated : R

STARS: Meryl Streep  , Julia Roberts,  Margo Martindale,  Juliette Lewis,  Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin,  Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney
DIRECTOR: John Wells
GENRE: Dark Comedy  

It's been said that all families are dysfunctional. Some are just better at keeping their dirty laundry from being sniffed by the neighbors. In August: Osage County,  Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is the foul mouthed,  drug addicted matriarch of a dysfunctional family with a capital "D" that will get you to thinking that crazy old aunt Hattie wasn't so bad after all. It's all relative (pardon the pun).

Violet's hubby, Beverly, (Sam Shepard) has disappeared, and later turns up as a suicide.  Her  daughters Barbara, (Julia Roberts) Karen, (Juliettte Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) are summoned, with assorted "baggage"  in tow (a husband, a fiancee, a teenage daughter) to the old family home in  rural Oklahoma.  There is a funeral to attend. And later lots of bitching, bickering, recriminations,  put downs, name calling, obscenities flying like plates being smashed against the wall,  wrestling around on the floor, and so on.  All the things that families do during such solemn occasions.

   
Adapted from the Broadway play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County keeps ratcheting up the tension until--if you are like me--you are sitting there completely fascinated, absorbed, and  dumbfounded by the bravura performances of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Both deserve Oscars.  The rest of the cast ain't too shabby  neither,  including Juliette Lewis--one of my favorites ever since I saw her in the bizarre From Dusk Till Dawn. She always plays some type of bimbo, but she does it so well!

Fifty years from now, August: Osage County will be spoken of in the same breath as Streetcar Named Desire and other classic films that we look back upon today. 

That's how freaking good this movie is. 

Grade:  A

JILL'S TAKE

Compared to this family drama, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Nightseems like "Little House On The Prairie." Funny as some of the dialog is, calling AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY a comedy is like calling chitlins haute cuisine. I particularly liked the portrait author Tracy Letts painted of Meryl Streep's character. Zonked out as she was on pills, nothing got past this woman. And I mean nothing. Despite her eldest daughter's happy facade, she knew her marriage was in shambles. She also knew that another daughter's latest beau (played to sleazy perfection by Dermot Mulroney) was up to no good. Every family secret was hers for the telling—and tell them she did. Over and over again. I haven't always been a Meryl Streep fan. My ex and I used to call her "Meryl Weep." But this time she outdid herself. Considering this is her 18th Oscar nod she must be doing something right.

Not to sound like a theater snob but when I saw that this movie was originally a stage play, I breathed a sigh of relief—knowing the characters would be multi-dimensional and the lines they spoke would crackle with originality. An ensemble piece, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY gives each actor a chance to shine. Chris Cooper plays an overly tolerant good ole boy brilliantly. His wife Mattie Fae, portrayed with faux joviality by Margo Martindale, is wonderful to watch. The only thing I might criticize (if forced to at gunpoint) was the ending. But I'll let you decide for yourself.

Grade:  A
  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)



Rated: R

STARS: Leonardo DiCaprio,  Jonah Hill,  Kyle Chandler,   Matthew McConaughey,  Rob Reiner
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
GENRE: Dark Comedy

The first hour or so of The Wolf Of Wall Street is an out of control, never ending pep rally with cheerleaders who are out of their minds screaming right into your ear.  It's excessive and annoying,  like a nagging spouse trying to make the same point over and over when you already got it the first time. Which fits in, I suppose, with a film about excess and greed taken to ludicrous limits  ( based on the book of the same name by the infamous swindler Jordan Belfort. )  If you make it through that part of the  movie without cashing out and leaving the theater, The Wolf Of Wall Street pays substantial dividends the rest of the way.  

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are gut-busting funny as drug addled  stock brokers riding the crest of an artificially created financial wave that is about to crash into the rocks as it gets closer to shore.  With a cast of "thousands" of literally hysterical hangers-on and bosomy beauties letting it all hang out in an orgiastic microcosm of what the world would be like if we all  followed our base instinct to live for nothing but our own self- satisfaction without regard to consequence.    

Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

Tim and I saw this flick two weeks apart so my feeble mind has forgotten much of what makes THE WOLF OF WALL STREET worth seeing. What I do remember, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-contending performance.
It's hard to believe he wasn't on speed while filming this movie. (His character certainly sniffed enough coke throughout!) I also remember thinking the movie would have benefited from some serious cutting. Not that I nodded off or anything. Still, the scenes of excess—drugs, yacht trips, group orgies—were overly long in my opinion.

Being a big fan of this film's director Martin Scorcese's hit HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," I had to laugh at how many subliminal plugs he gave that show. When the well-stoned characters were watching TV, guess what they were watching? And many of the actors in BE had bit parts in this film. I'm all for loyalty—especially among movie directors—but I felt a lot of those bit parts were unnecessary. (Like Shea Wigham as a ship's captain?) Then again, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is all about excess. And since I have often been accused of living on the edge myself, I could certainly relate.

GRADE:  A -

Sunday, January 19, 2014

HER (2013)



Rated: R

STARS: Joaquin Phoenix,  Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara,  Olivia Wilde

DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze
GENRE:  Romantic drama

The barrier between human and artificial intelligence is transcended in the sweet but disturbing Her from Spike Jonze.  Is it a romantic comedy?  Is it a serious drama?  Is it a provocative commentary on the growing introversion and alienation in our society? Or is it a thinly disguised, potty-mouthed "phone sex" romp?  


It's a bit of all that.


Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, and with a name like that, you know he's a nerd.  He wears dorky looking glasses, and beltless trousers that look like something you'd order off the back page of a magazine. He works as a letter writer/creator for people who are too lazy or too emotionally stunted to compose their own missives to family and significant others. 


The film is set in some unspecified futuristic time. Computer operating systems have the ability to speak, feel human-like emotions, and carry on a conversation in a breathy voice that sounds just like Scarlett Johansson. (Ms. Johansson, as the disembodied "Samantha," never appears physically in the movie. Bummer.)


Theodore is in the process of divorcing his estranged wife, Catherine (the barely recognizable Rooney Mara...guess I'm too used to picturing her as the butchy Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.)  There is a touching scene where he and Catherine are sitting together, and all that's left to do is for her to sign the papers and the deed is done. But she is hesitant. If only there were something they could say or do to turn things around. She affixes her signature anyway, and Theodore's fate is sealed. Because he's falling head-over-heels for Samantha--the perfect, intelligent, dedicated companion we all wish we could find. But computer operating systems'  personalities have the ability to grow. And just as it oft occurs in human on human relationships, Theodore and Samantha may be growing in different directions.


I'm sitting there thinking that Theodore is a real loser, because every chance he has to be with a real woman, he turns it down to preserve his love affair with a computer. But it's probably rare these days to find someone who hasn't become infatuated, or at least highly intrigued, by  the disembodied "voice" of an unseen someone they're communicating with on the internet. Follow the logical progression, and maybe Her isn't as far-fetched as it may seem.in the beginning.  


On the other hand, Her is making a not so subtle statement about  all the folks  who walk around with  their heads buried in their iPhones, eschewing the face-to-face contact that we all used to value before technology turned many of us into sleepwalking zombies with our heads up our butts. The people who, in their distracted stupor, will eventually step in front of a bus or tumble down a manhole. 


Natural selection at work.  


Grade:  A --




JILL'S TAKE

I've never been a fan of invisible partners. This loathing of mine began when I watched Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh. I don't include ghost flicks in this category as the ghost character usually appears in human form at some point. But HER takes it too far, way too far. To be honest, I don't know if the reason I despised this movie so vehemently is because the message is so disturbing, or I simply got bored with those endless close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix talking to a hand-held computer. In any case, it gave Tim and me lots to talk about afterwards. (Did I mention that I also don't like futuristic films?)

Even more unsettling than the concept of someone actually becoming enamored with a bodyless voice (who, by the way, tries to arrange a surrogate sex partner for them to share!) is the fact that HER has been nominated in four categories for an Oscar: Best Picture, Best Musical Score, Best Production Design and Best Original Screenplay. I even resent the writer/director Spike Jonze (aka Adam Spiegel) for ripping off Spike Jones' name! (Does anybody remember the bandleader's rendition of "Cocktails for Two" complete with honking horns and hiccuping?)

I suppose I should praise HER for it's timely message, i.e. people are so obsessed with tweeting, texting and hashtagging these days that eye contact has almost become obsolete. To me, that's such a depressing thought that I simply cannot bring myself to say anything positive about this meandering, maddeningly self-indulgent film.

GRADE: D -













Saturday, January 4, 2014

ENOUGH SAID (2013)



Rated PG-13

STARS: Julia Louis Dreyfuss, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener
DIRECTOR: Nicole Holofcener
GENRE: Romantic drama

Julia Louie Dreyfuss, the Queen of Quirky Facial Expressions and Rolling Eyeballs, has a field day as Eva, a middle-aged massage therapist who falls for roly-poly Albert (James Gandolfini) in the serio-comic Enough Said. Yes, Albert is tubby, and he looks like...well...James Gandolfini. But we're supposed to buy that an attractive woman will fall for a guy based solely on personality and a certain je ne sais quoi. (Where ARE all these women?)  Our odd couple bond, though,  because they each have daughters who are heading off to college for the first time, and they can commiserate through empty-nester syndrome. 

Eva and Albert are doing just fine until Eva takes on a new client,  Marianne, (Catherine Keener) who makes her living as a poet (there must not have been any poets in the audience, because that line deserved a chuckle). Marianne just HAPPENS to be Albert's ex-wife, and it's "uh-oh, uh-oh" all the way through from there. Marianne starts dumping on  Eva about her ex, revealing all of the things that turned her off about him, (and they are numerous, because...like...they LIVED together) completely clueless to the Eva/Albert connection, and Eva isn't saying a word once she figures out who the man in question is. But we're privy to all the changes she's  going through by studying her remarkably expressive face. 

Eva knows she should say something, but just can't bring herself to do it.  Marianne is like a used car salesman to whom you've secretly administered truth serum, and now he's giving you the real lowdown on that vehicle you are considering purchasing.  Needless to say, the doo-doo will strike the fan, and it's one of those big boxy kind.

Enough Said is a tender tale--a wholly grown- up story about people of a certain age who have been there, and are cautiously feeling their way along the second time around, trying to avoid tumbling head over ass into that same sinkhole it took them too long to climb out of.  I saw the ending coming, and almost wished that it wasn't headed in that direction.  But then, I'm one of those people.

Grade:  B +


JILL'S TAKE

Let me begin by saying I went to see ENOUGH SAID reluctantly, not wanting my image of Tony Soprano besmirched by some mawkish soap opera. But since I'm also a devoted Oscar Party giver and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has been nominated for a Golden Globe "Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy" award (which often predicts who will be up for an Oscar), I felt it my cinematic duty to see this flick. I was pleasantly surprised.  As someone who is a tad fat phobic, I had difficulty at first buying into the idea that super petite Eva would be attracted to someone as large and lumbering as Albert. But the humor between them soon made me a believer.

To digress for a moment, I saw an HBO tribute to the late James Gandolfini where an actress—I believe it was either Diane Ladd or Susan Sarandon—said that when she acted with Jim she was surprised how sexy he was. Clearly the man had charisma regardless of his bulk. He shall be sorely missed.

But back to ENOUGH SAID. It's a good movie with some excellent acting. And it makes the point that little things--like not being able to whisper properly-- or separating the onions out of the guacamole, can turn into deal breakers if a relationship is on shaky ground. Too often we listen to other people's opinions rather than following our own hearts and feelings. Kudos to Ms. Dreyfuss. She really pulled out all the emotional stops. (Still, I don't think she'll win any awards this year.)

GRADE: B+