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+
 .

Monday, April 28, 2014

DRAFT DAY (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner,  Dennis Leary, Frank Langella,  Ellen Burstyn,  Chadwick Boseman

Director: Ivan Reitman

Genre: Drama

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 +


JILL'S TAKE

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

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 -