Wednesday, February 10, 2016

45 YEARS (2015)




Rated: R

STARS: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh
GENRE: Drama 


In 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling breaks her string of appearing nude in most every film I've ever seen her in--going back to the sadistic and sexually explicit The Night Porter from 1974. She was the darling of the art house films, where her body was on more prominent display than her acting chops. I only bring it up because now, at age 70, she's regarded as a serious actor--much the same as Helen Mirren, who was free-spirited enough in her youth to display her ample attributes in similar fashion--even appearing in the notorious semi-porn flick, Caligula. Later in life, we watched Mirren glide up to the stage on Oscar night, and now Rampling has an opportunity to do the same with her Best Actress nomination for 45 Years.

Kate and Geoff Mercer have what you'd call a polite relationship. It's all very British. They're not revealing anything that lies beneath the surface. They're planning a party for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. Everything seems to be on track. Then Geoff receives a letter announcing that "she's been found." The letter refers to an old  girlfriend of his who fell into a crevasse while hiking in the Swiss Alps and perished at the age of 27.  Geoff sits there explaining the letter to Kate in an absent-minded way--he's quite drawn into his thoughts. She thinks it's odd that he never told her about the girl. Well, he thought he did. Maybe it was so long ago that neither of them have much recollection of it.  It could have just stayed one of those curious things between couples who only communicate on a certain level. They would have moved on with their polite lives. If Geoff hadn't become increasingly distracted by the realization that the girl's body would be perfectly preserved after all those years in her icy tomb. She will look just the same as the last time he saw her.

We witness the emotional progressions on Kate's face as she contemplates the invading question of how much the two of them might have meant to each other. As the week leading up to their anniversary celebration passes, Geoff takes up smoking again, and begins behaving in peculiar ways. When Kate discovers he has visited a travel agency, inquiring about a possible trip to Switzerland, she begins to question what their entire marriage has been about.

45 Years is adult cinema. Not the kind Rampling cut her teeth on, rather a drama for grownups who appreciate thoughtful films. It progresses slowly, as one treading upon the ice would be wise to do--leading to a delicious and devastating climax that will leave you...like Kate...with more questions than answers.


Grade:  B +

JILL'S TAKE

I've been far less forgiving than Tim about the movies we've seen lately. And I'm sorry to report that 45 Years won't change that trend, either. I realize that it takes cinematic time to create a long-term marriage, with all its daily routines and unspoken but understood communications. But slow moving can often produce a sleepy audience. (At least that's what this film did for me.)

Before 45 Years began, I was impressed with the opening credits. The click-clicking of a projector as each name came on screen. Later, when Charlotte Rampling's character watches an old movie, clicking from one image to another, witnessing something that will change her relationship with her husband forever, I was reminded of those opening credits. And was even more impressed.

There were moments—albeit fleeting ones—that smacked of originality and tour de force acting. But as I left the theater, I must admit I felt insanely grateful to be living alone. If any of you long for everlasting togetherness in the sunset years of your life, this film will cure you of that notion. It may not be as dark as, say, The Revenant. But in its own way, it's even darker. Although Ms. Rampling is up for an Oscar, I thought Tom Courteney's performance was even better. (And the dog did an outstanding job, too!)


Grade: C

Thursday, February 4, 2016

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)



Rated:  R

STARS: Paul Giamatti, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell
DIRECTOR: F. Gary Gray
GENRE: Biopic/Drama

You're driving along. You stop for the light. Pulling up beside you is a vehicle with the stereo blasting, and immediately you hear the F-bomb, and a whole string of other "cultural indicators"--the poetry of the street set to a primal beat. You glance over and observe that (as often as not) the person singing along to the lyric is a pasty-faced teenager of the Caucasian persuasion.

Straight Outta Compton is the biopic that chronicles the meteoric rise to popularity of rap and hip-hop music---cutting across racial lines--produced by two of its principal architects, Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). Together with Easy E (Jason Mitchell), 
they formed the nucleus of the highly influential rap group, N.W.A, beginning in the late eighties. But the film doesn't show us just what special talent or charisma set these individuals apart from all the rest.  Self-serving manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in what should have been a nominated role) takes them on in mythic fashion, recalling the man with the big cigar saying hey kid, I'm gonna make you a star. And the rest is history at seemingly breakneck speed. 

What the film does show is the ghetto life, racial profiling, and police harassment  of minorities that seemed to go with the territory in L. A. (and I'm sure in many other parts of the country) in those days, before we supposedly got all sensitive to people's rights being violated...er, excuse me...before we pretended that things had changed. Before Ferguson; before Baltimore; before Freddy Gray, etc. So it's an eye opener in that respect. In truth, the real appeal of these rappers was their ability to translate their experiences--the facts of their lives as they lived them--into their music in a way that could stir the emotions of the listener. Angry young men with a right to be angry--running afoul of the authorities in an era when freedom of speech meant say what you want, as long as you don't offend the sensitivities of  the most straight-laced among us.

Things do "develop" right along in Straight Outta Compton, as there are a bevy of bare boobs and booties shaking, but that other kind of development--that of the individual characters--is lacking. Still, there are some good beats, and the action sequences are top-notch. And we do learn the many creative ways in which the prefix "mutha" can be combined with other colorful epithets.

Straight Outta Compton serves to remind us that while our society may not be color blind--and likely never will be--our music (go to a Miley Cyrus concert) most assuredly is.

Grade:

JILL'S TAKE

With all the outrage a'brewin' about the list of snow white nominees this year, Straight Outta Compton is the only black-is-beautiful offering.  For Best Original Screenplay. I can't really get excited about the screenplay, as I felt the movie was overly long and the three main characters were fairly one dimensional. I did, however, learn a lot more about the history of rap. I also developed serious respect for the artists who achieved their hard-earned success in this musical genre. That corruption abounds in the record industry is nothing new. The same could be said for the stock market (The Big Short), The Catholic Church (Spotlight) and the fur traders in the early 19th century (The Revenant). But the degree of violence, even murder, among those early rappers is unequaled. And this makes for a lot of exciting footage. And a lot of baaaad language....

I found it a bit ironic that Paul Giamatti's role as a smarmy agent/manager in this film was quite similar to another role he played in the 2014 Beach Boys biopic Love and Mercy. He does shifty very well. (Check him out in Showtime's megahit Billions if you don't believe me.)

I wish I could give Straight Outta Compton a high rating for it's raw honesty and exploration of a timely subject. But I just didn't care that much about the characters and that, to me, is a big flaw.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 24, 2016

ANOMALISA (2015)



Rated:  R

STARS: Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, Tom Noonan
DIRECTOR: Charlie Kaufman
GENRE: Animation/Drama/Comedy



There is a scene in Charlie Kaufman's animated film, Anomalisa, where Jennifer Jason Leigh, the voice of Lisa, gives an impromptu acapella rendering of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." First in English. Then in Italian. It should have been nominated for Best Pop Vocal by a Claymation Puppet--but then, how many of those would there be? If you think we're talking unique...and quirky... you're right. Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, New York) is in familiar territory.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is a renown expert in the field of customer service, flying into Cincinnati to speak at a convention. The people he interacts with attempt to make small talk, but he is not interested. For Michael, everyone else fades into the morass of drab uniformity--so much so that they all speak in the same male voice (that of Tom Noonan ). EVEN THE WOMEN. Michael haltingly tries to break through his boredom--looking up an old girlfriend who lives in the area. They meet for a drink. There are recriminations about the past. It doesn't go well. At his hotel, he runs into a couple of customer service groupies, Lisa and Emily (everyone has their fans). Lisa is the shy one. She thinks she is ugly, but she is not. We can see that she's not, and so can Michael. Lisa is special--an anomaly--the only character in the film who speaks in a normal female voice. (Charlie Kaufman's inventiveness on display.) Michael chooses Lisa over her more gregarious friend, and they end up in his room together. There we are witness to a steamy, realistic sex scene that, had it been live actors rather than puppets, would have qualified as soft-core porn and the film would have been slapped with an NC-17 rating instead of an  "R." ( I can see Howdy Doody sitting in the darkened theater and doing a Pee Wee Herman watching this!)

Michael, a married man,  is falling hard for Lisa (pun intended) and wants to leave his family and take up with her. This is where any further revelation of the plot would be a spoiler.

The insights Kaufman arrives at in the introspective Anomalisa, and the manner in which he arrives at them, brings to mind Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic, The Little Prince. And that is saying something.

There is a scientific principle known as Occam's Razor which, stated plainly, postulates that when there are competing hypotheses, the simplest explanation is usually the best. The simple point of Anomalisa, then, appears to be "familiarity breeds contempt." You may arrive at something else. That's the beauty, and the brilliance of Anomalisa. Multiple viewings may be in order.

Anomalisa garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Something tells me it's going to win.

Grade:  A


JILL'S TAKE

All I can say is when Tim and I left the movie theater, two gals still seated in front of us turned and said, "Was that the weirdest film you've ever seen?!" I quickly agreed. Granted, there were moments of total brilliance – the puppet-driven sex scene and the morning after conversation over scrambled eggs. But like those ladies, I left the theater wondering what the hell Charlie Kaufman's message was?

That life ultimately sucks? That there's a soulmate out there for everybody? That we unconsciously hear the same voices in our heads, regardless of age, sex or relationship? Anomalisa definitely makes you think. (And I'm not big on too much cogitating when it comes to movies.)

You know you're in for weirdness when the film begins with a blank black screen and a cacophony of overdubbed voices. This goes on for at least 30 seconds, preparing you for something unusual. Very unusual. On a personal note, whenever I want us to see a movie that Tim doesn't want to see, his stock response is, "I know the ending already." Well, he sure couldn't say that about Anomalisa. In fact, I still don't know what the ending means!

Grade: C +

Sunday, January 17, 2016

THE REVENANT (2015)



Rated:  R

STARS: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck 
DIRECTOR: Alejandro Inarritu
GENRE: Drama/Action-Adventure

The best and most technically impressive scene in The Revenant comes early on when Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Hugh Glass--one of a cadre of 19th century fur trappers out in the woods slaughtering animals for fun and profit--gets mauled by a gigantic CG bear from hell. Not just mauled, but f--ked up to within an inch of his life. Any normal person wouldn't survive. But this is DiCaprio, the star of the film, so we know he's going to pull through. And that's a big flaw in terms of killing any suspense there might have been as to the ultimate outcome of the encounter.   

Glass recovers in achingly protracted fashion, and sets off to find the man--John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)--who left him out there for dead in the snow. It's a simple tale of survival and revenge--a grisly, bloody, ultra violent tour-de-force from director Alejandro Inarritu, who is shooting for his second Best Picture Oscar in as many years. (Birdman in 2014).  But if non-stop gore isn't your cup of tea and you're looking for something of more depth, I suggest you see Brooklyn instead. 

The Revenant is also nominated in a slew of other categories, including Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. If there were an Oscar for grimacing, grunting, groaning, spitting up and straining to speak unintelligibly, DiCaprio would certainly deserve it.  If there were an award for physical exertion, he'd deserve that as well. And if there were a Best Performance While Gnawing On Raw Animal Flesh...he would win hands down!  But Best Actor? Not this turn.

The Revenant DOES deserve--and should win--the trophies for Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects. Best Picture? My vote still goes to Brooklyn

Oh, and I sat patiently through the entire scroll of credits at the end--nearly as long as a short film in itself--waiting to see the reassuring "no animals were harmed" notation at the end. It didn't appear. Never a good sign. 

Grade: B -


JILL'S TAKE

Sometimes, when I see a film, an actor's performance makes me say to myself (or the stranger sitting next to me!), "That actor's gonna win an Oscar!" I felt this way about Tom Hardy in The Revenant. He was as deliciously villainous in his role as Anthony Hopkins was in Silence Of The Lambs. If it had been back in the days of silent movies, I'll bet the audience would've been booing him in every scene. Alas, his competitors in Best Supporting Actor this year (Christian Bale, Mark Ruffalo, Mark Rylance and Sylvestor Stallone) will probably prevent Tom Hardy from winning. But he definitely deserves the award.

As for The Revenant? A brilliant film deserving of the 12 Oscar nominations it received. Grunting and mumbling aside, Leo's performance in this 156-minute film is certainly Oscar-worthy. If for nothing else, his physical stamina. I personally liked the fact that it took so long—in cinematic terms—for him to recover. And in that time, we were treated to some of the most visually stunning nature photography I've ever seen. It's nearly impossible to believe that this same director filmed Birdman -- which took place largely in dressing rooms and on stage.

I can't heap enough praise on this movie. And when DiCaprio accepted his win at The Golden Globes ceremony, I was gratified to hear him thank all the Native Americans that helped make the film possible. I'd like to come up with a criticism, no matter how minor, but I'm finding it difficult to do. Perhaps the title could have been less obscure. A friend told me it meant "someone who seeks revenge." But when I looked it up, the definition read: "a person who has returned, especially from the dead." Either definition works. But obscure movie titles aren't my thing.

Grade: A


  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

CAROL (2015)



Rated: R

STARS: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes
GENRE: Drama/Romance

How can I know what I want when I always say yes to everything is the line that nails the character of Therese (Rooney Mara), looking for all the world like a young Audrey Hepburn and exuding a similar Holly Golightly air of innocence and naivete. She is the perfect prey in waiting for Carol (Cate Blanchett), something of an older lesbian cougar who locks gazes with Therese at the New York City department store where the younger woman is employed behind the counter.

Carol is set in the early fifties, and the title character is a married woman, as many gay folk were during that era, due to the ubber stigma that homosexuality carried with it at the time. They played the game and tried to fit into "normal" societal roles... peering cautiously at the world from behind stacks of hatboxes inside the closet.

To further complicate matters, Carol is in the middle of obtaining a divorce from her from her hapless hubby, Harge (Kyle Chandler). He knows what she's up to, as she's had a previous lez affair with one of her longtime friends, Abby (Sarah Paulson). But he still loves his wife, and doesn't want to lose her. They have a young daughter, Rindy, and Harge is threatening to out Carol and have her declared an unfit mother--in which case she will surely lose custody of the child. So as Carol pursues her passionate desire for Therese, she must consider the consequences of her actions.

There is the obligatory lovemaking scene between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, with an ample amount of skin on display. (In case you're curious about these two in real life-- Blanchett, who is married, has stated she has had previous relationships with women. Mara, who starred as the gender-bending Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is also rumored to be bisexual).

These are two heavyweight performances from the co-stars--Blanchett as the somewhat jaded, chain smoking Carol; Mara as the young ingenue discovering herself as a sexual being breaking through boundaries, pulled in different directions by members of both genders who want her.

Carol--adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price Of Salt--is a tale of how two people find love and try to keep it alive in an us-against-the world scenario. It deftly captures the mood and the feel of a repressive era in our history when we weren't allowed to love just anyone of our own choosing.

Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

Before commenting on Carol, I have to confess that I wasn't really in the mood for a movie, having seen two previous flicks in the past three days (The Big Short and Joy). My lids kept getting heavy and I was concentrating more on not nodding off than whether these two love-starved ladies would get it on or not. Like me, Carol was a bit lethargic.

In discussing it afterwards with Tim, I was still able to voice my dislikes (slow-paced direction, lugubrious content) and likes (Cate Blanchett's acting and Carter Burwell's score). Edward Lachman's cinematography also stood out for me as it lavishly set the stage for this clandestine love affair. I was reminded of John A. Alonzo's cinematography in Chinatown which had the same haunting feel to it. I guess my main gripe was how quickly these two ladies' sexual attraction turned into genuine love. (I'm sure it took longer in Highsmith's novel!)

I was also amazed that a mid-week, mid-afternoon showing of the film packed the movie house with viewers. I guess the promise of seeing two well-known movie stars getting naked in bed is a major draw.

Grade: C









Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CREED (2015)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
DIRECTOR: Ryan Coogler
GENRE: Drama

Creed might have aptly been named Rocky 17 (or whatever number fits in there). It follows the tried and true Rocky formula from start to finish. And since Rocky was number five on my Top 100 Favorite Films of All Time list, that's absolutely fine with me. (I"m going to use "absolutely" a lot in this review-- as, if you remember, it's one of the champ's favorite words.)

Sylvester Stallone was born to play Rocky Balboa. He IS Rocky Balboa. And this current incarnation of the ultimate underdog who inspired an entire generation has been rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I absolutely concur.

Apollo Creed, the flashy heavyweight champ whose epic duels with Balboa were a cornerstone of the first two films in this franchise, is no longer with us. But his son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), is a chip off the ol' block. A born fighter. From an early age, he gets into scrapes and plenty of trouble. Eventually, he's taken in by Apollo's widow, Mary Anne ( Phylicia Rashad). She raises him right. He has a good job in the business world. But a leopard can't change its spots. Donny wants to be a boxer. He secretively piles up some victories over a series of tomato can fighters in Tijuana. He feels he's ready to follow in his dad's footsteps. He quits his job (to Mary Anne's chagrin) and looks for someone to train him. Lo and behold, he finds Rocky, living a quiet life as the proprietor of Adrian's Restaurant. It takes some doing, but Donny convinces the retired ex-champ to take him on as a project. I shouldn't have to tell you the rest. Together, they will take on the world.

To illustrate my next point, I'm going to insert an excerpt from my review of the original Rocky:  Bill Conti's music score MADE these films--and inspired a generation to tell their crummy bosses to shove it and go out and do...well, I don't know, and neither did they. They were just INSPIRED, dude!

Following in Conti's footsteps for Creed is Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson, who does the master proud with his stirring, fist-pumping score. 


There are just enough new twists on the familiar theme to make Creed feel fresh and up to date. Donny jogs through the streets, but instead of a big crowd of supporters fanning out behind him on foot, he's accompanied by a cadre of bikers showing off their riding acrobatics, as that exhilarating music kicks the scene into high gear.  It works.


Tessa Thompson, as Bianca, is Donny's love interest--the new Adrian, as it were. But unlike Talia Shire's introverted character in Rocky, she's a singer. She's eye candy, but she's got some fire to her as well.


Does a timeless story ever get old?  Methinks not. That's why, from stage to screen, Romeo and Juliet has been reworked and retold so many times.


It's the same thing here. Absolutely. 


Grade:  A   




JILL'S TAKE 

Methinks Tim is perhaps punch drunk. Or such a Rocky fan that the franchise and it's creator can do no wrong. It's not like I didn't dig Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky III. (After that, I got tired.) But seriously, folks. Creed is entertaining – for awhile. But the boxing sequences are really drawn out and the on-and-off romance between the boxer and his corn-rowed neighbor doesn't compare to Rocky and Adrian's love story. I will give Sylvester Stallone points for his acting chops. But is it award-worthy? Let's not go overboard.

I wouldn't want to give away too much of the story line, but I did like the motivation the scriptwriters (director Ryan Coogler for both screenplay and story, Aaron Covington and Sylvester Stallone for 'character') gave Rocky for continuing to coach his protégé against all odds—including his own.

In general, I'm not big on sequels. They rely too heavily on fans whose loyalty spells 'big box office' no matter how repetitive the story is. Creed may have a different title and age may have slowed Rocky Balboa down a bit. But I suppose if you are a fan of fight movies, this one is worth seeing. Then again, you might be better off renting Raging Bull.

Grade: C

   

Friday, December 4, 2015

BROOKLYN (2015)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen
DIRECTOR: John Crowley
GENRE: Romantic Drama

Normally I would keep you in suspense for a little while as I work up to my ultimate assessment of a movie, but this time I'm just going to gush, because Brooklyn may be the best film I have seen all year ( and we're very late in the year!)

Young Eilis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) languishes in her small town in Ireland, until she gets the opportunity to emigrate to America and live in Brooklyn (where there are so many Irish folks it feels just like home!)  There she will work in a department store, receiving pointers on how to be personable with the customers. She'll live in a boarding house for young women. She'll meet a great Italian guy (Emory Cohen) and fall in love. But circumstances will draw her back to her native land--temporarily, or so is the intent--to console her emotionally manipulative mother following a death in the family. There she will become drawn in by one of the local bachelors, setting up a bigtime emotional conflict-- her heart stretched between two continents...the small town and the big town...an Irishman and an Italian--as we ride the edge of our seats (and it's not even a thriller), fully invested in the outcome.

And the reason we are invested is because everything about Brooklyn is perfect. The early fifties milieu...the fashions...the giddy girls at the boarding house...a world where politeness and reserve in speech and manner still prevailed...but most of all the extraordinary talent of the two leads and the chemistry they develop.

Emory Cohen has the stage presence of a young Brando, and Saoirse Ronan --whose beauty shines more from within than without--inhabits her character so thoroughly and convincingly that it seems she was born to play Eilis Lacy.

It there's anything here for my critical eye to land upon, it's that Brooklyn moves rather languidly, from a plot standpoint, through the first third or so of the film. But you're getting tons of character development along the way, augmented by a fine supporting cast.

 If Brooklyn isn't well represented come Oscar night, someone will surely deserve a good whuppin with a shillelagh!!!  In light of the current immigration debate, it stands as a shining testament to a time when strangers were welcome here. 

Grade: A


JILL'S TAKE

    Ready for some more gushing? I couldn't agree more with everything Tim has said about Brooklyn. It's romantically nostalgic without being cloying. Although the times were far more innocent (nobody was texting during sex), I could totally relate. In fact, it made me yearn for those bygone days when being shy was endearing. And virtue wasn't a character defect. Yes, there have been plenty of movies about immigrants coming to America, hoping for a better life. But this one has a uniqueness that won't quit. Whether it's dealing with homesickness, the angst of being an outsider, cultural differences,Brooklyn has it all.

I hadn't heard of the two leads before. But I guarantee, after this film, both Saoirse Ronan (even with a name like that!) and Emory Cohen will become familiar to all of us. Both actors have such incredible eyes. Mesmerizing!

The cinematography by Yves Bélanger is superb. Whether it's a crowded Coney Island or the sweeping dunes of a deserted beach in Ireland, the visuals are poignant and perfectly memorable. My only beef – and it's a real stretch for me to find one – is an interior scene where snow flakes suddenly appear, falling slowly to the floor. I assume the director felt it added to the mood. I felt it was distracting. That being said, I urge anyone reading this to run right — NOW!—and see this gem of a movie.

Grade: A +