Wednesday, December 26, 2012

LES MISERABLES (2012)






















Rated: PG-13



Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Banks
Director: Tom Hooper
Genre: Musical/Drama



The 2012 screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel of 19th century France, Les Miserables,  hits your eye like a big pizza pie! And like the pizza, it's huge, and messy, and satisfyingly delicious. Add to that the surprise of seeing that some unlikely bedfellows, e.g., Russell Crowe and Sacha Baron Cohen, can actually sing (passably). Though I wouldn't quit my day job to join the opera just yet, Sacha, as you're much too naughty, and those large-lunged divas would punch your lights out. .

Hugh Jackman heads up a stellar ensemble cast as Jean Valjean, a man who served 19 years at hard labor for a petty theft. As a free man, he breaks his parole and goes undercover, becoming  a respected citizen. Russell Crowe, as Inspector Javert, is the long arm of the law who pursues Valjean relentlessly, and is one of the tragic figures in the story. Anne Hathaway is Fantine, a young woman who resorts to prostitution to survive. She becomes pregnant with Cossette,  played here as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter--who have a lot in common because they both have long names--are the innkeepers Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, who become the young Cossette's foster "parents." They add some levity to the mostly serious proceedings with the bawdy antics occurring inside their establishment. (Valjean later bribes them to to let him take the child.)  As time skips ahead,  Marius, a student who joins the impending revolution, (Eddie Redmayne) and the blossoming Cossette fall for one another. Eponine, (Samantha Banks) the Thenardier's daughter, is also smitten with Marius, but her love is unrequited.  

The stage musical of Les Miserables has been around in one incarnation or another since 1980. Now its true potential is reached, lending itself to the giant screen so effectively because the street battle scenes can be played out to scale, with stark and bloody realism--and while you normally would't expect to have people singing while they're shooting each other, that's the musical for you, and you'll soon get in the swing of it. 

Anne Hathaway is likely to get a nomination, mainly for her visceral  rendering of "I Dreamed A Dream."  But for my money, it's gotta be Jackman's achingly beautiful "Bring Him Home."  Other songs feature multi-layered harmonies that build to a soaring crescendo that is guaranteed to raise the hair on your back (unless you've gotten it waxed recently). And of no lesser genius is the deft jump cut editing here.  

Two minor annoyances. Many of those who have solos are shot in that kind of ubber closeup that was popularized by the spaghetti westerns of the sixties and seventies. Literally "in-your-face." It isn't necessary (or aesthetically pleasing) to see the size of every pore on someone's face, or whether or not they brushed their tongue beforehand. (You should always brush your tongue when you get up in the morning, because a layer of sulfur forms on it overnight, which can contribute to your friends giving you a wide berth when they are around you.)  The other thing is that the movie runs two and a half hours and then some, so it feels a tad long. These things I will  forgive in light of a preponderance of the evidence that Les Miserables  is a work of considerable genius.

That and the fact that I always like a good revolution.   

Grade:  A

Thursday, December 13, 2012

HITCHCOCK (2012)


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston

Director: Sacha Gervasi
Genre: Biopic/ Drama

First off, don't even bother with this movie if you haven't  seen Alfred Hitchcock's signature film, Psycho.  Hitchcock, which is about the making of Psycho, interwoven with the legendary director's difficult relationship with his wife, Alma Reville, simply contains too many inside references and tongue-in-cheek memory joggers relating to the film--and to his long running television series, (e.g., his shadowy silhouette upon the wall) that you just wouldn't get it otherwise.  Fortunately, for the sake of my labors here, most everyone besides the very young and those who just stepped off the boat from Timbuktu are familiar with Hitchcock's work...so let us proceed.


Anthony Hopkins, in a fat suit, has the late director's mannerisms and pretentious speech patterns down pat, but the small  beef I have with his performance is the same one I had with Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, in which the actress plays Marilyn Monroe too close to her public persona--that of the dumb blonde--even in private. I can't imagine Alfred Hitchcock, in intimate moments, saying "Gooood ev-en-ing " in that oft caricatured way to his wife as he's about to plop on top of her like a grand piano falling from a fifth story window.  

  
What will be truly revealing to most about Hitchcock is the role that Alma played in the making of his films (the veracity of  this information comes from the writings of  their daughter, Patricia). A talented editor and screenwriter, Alma was the wind beneath Alfred's wings--acting in the background as collaborator and sounding board to the great director. 

Helen Mirren , superb as usual, plays Alma as a woman who is fooling herself, as well as her husband, about the nature of her "working" relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Hitchcock's well known eye for the ladies is only referred to in passing,  but it gives the viewer some insight into one of the reasons why the couple's relationship was strained, and why Alma's eye may have been roving as well.  


Scarlett Johansson brings a subtlety to her role as Janet Leigh (the star of Psycho UNTIL...) that I felt was spot on.


As in most films about real figures from the past, strict attention to detail is not sacred here. For example, in Psycho's famous shower scene, it is implied  that Johansson/Leigh  is nude, and that they are trying to work the camera angles so as not to reveal too much--as this was the day of heavily repressive censorship in the movies--but in reality Leigh had some semi-sheer fabric strategically covering her in critical areas,. which gave the impression of nudity in some of  the quick out of focus shots in that scene.


With all that was working against Psycho getting produced--as in the studio balking on the making of the film to begin with; the perverted censors (as all censors are) breathing down the director's neck; and the couple having to pony up their own funds to finance the film--Hitchcock leaves us with the impression that Psycho stumbled its way to success. But I think maybe that was for dramatic effect. They didn't call Alfred Hitchcock a genius for no reason, and now we know that at least part of that genius came from his "better" half.  


Grade: B

   

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


CUTTING TO THE CHASE!

 RECENT DVD RELEASES

GRADE:  A
Margaret

GRADE:  B +
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
The Cabin In The Woods
God Bless America
Sidewalls
Answers To Nothing
The Hidden Face

GRADE:  B
The Myth Of The American Sleepover
A Dangerous Method

GRADE:  C
Big Miracle

Sunday, November 25, 2012

LIFE OF PI (2012)


Rated PG

Stars: Suraj Sharma,  Irfan Khan
Director: Ang Lee
Genre: Drama/Action-Adventure

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is like an almost exquisitely beautiful woman who has one noticeable flaw--and that is her Pinocchio nose. Which is another way of saying that the movie stretches too long. By about half an hour. The strength of the film, which is its breathtakingly stunning CGI, is also its weakness because it nearly  reminds one of the early days of 3D, where it was all about the visual effects, with little substance to the story.

The story--such as it is--begins around a young, spiritually precocious  boy named Pi Patel, (played by four different actors, including Suraj Sharma and Irfan Khan ) who investigates numerous traditions (Hinduism, Christianity, Islam) and sees the commonality among them above the illusion of separateness many adherents of religion seem to be mired in. All paths lead to the one creator.

His longing to find God will serve Pi during the immense trial of his life, when he is cast away at sea after the freighter his family was traveling on sinks. (Gerard Depardieu has a cameo as a cook on the ship!) The family was en route from India to Canada to begin a new life--with numerous animals from the zoo they had previously run on board. Four of the animals survive, and end up in the lifeboat with Pi--a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. (Don't ask!) The tiger eventually dispatches  the other animals in some graphically violent scenes Take heart that this is accomplished through CGI, though the technology has been perfected to the point where it is difficult to tell anymore what is real and what is an illusion, as the Moody Blues once said.

With just the lad and the tiger left alive, the struggle now shifts to Pi's attempt to effect some kind of truce with Richard Parker, so that hopefully they can both survive and reach dry land. But all this goes on for about an hour of film time, with the two of them battling the elements as well as each other. Which becomes anti-climactic because we already know the boy survives, as the story is being told in flashbacks  by a middle-aged Pi  Additionally, the film trailer shows Richard Parker walking along a sandy beach, so the suspense factor here is nil.  It seems obvious that Life of Pi  wants to be appreciated primarily for its technical achievements.

The one thing that is realistic about Life Of Pi is that the anthropomorphic fallacy is not in play here. We come away with the stern realization that wild animals are just that. Which is good. I hate those animated films that have talking lions dispensing human-like wisdom, or the TV commercial where these bears are doing what bears normally do in the woods, while extolling  the softness of a particular brand of butt-wipe.

So point well taken.

And that means, parents, don't be taken in by this film's PG rating. There are extended scenes of  graphic brute violence here, and the disturbing sound effects that go with it.  I wouldn't take any child under the age of twelve to see it.

Grade:  B

Monday, November 19, 2012

LINCOLN (2012)



Rated: Pg-13

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis,  Tommy Lee Jones,  Sally Field,  James Spader,  David Straithairn, John Hawkes,  Hal Holbrook 
Director: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Historical Drama

I felt like Steven Spielberg's latest epic, Lincoln,  was dragging a bit in the early stages because I'd gotten the impression from the previews that this was to be a sweeping drama--with battle scenes and wailing and gnashing of teeth from the womenfolk pining for their men away in the war. That's because I hadn't yet grasped that Lincoln was to be a film of limited scope. An intensely personal drama about the 16th president of the United States in the latter part of his second term in office, and his fight to get the thirteenth amendment to the constitution through congress--abolishing slavery once and for all.

Indeed, the appalling carnage of the Civil War is given scant attention. A brief battle scene in the beginning, and the aftermath of a battle near the end. But an artist knows just how much and what shade of a certain color to use, and Spielberg is an artist. Thus the spectre of the president riding through a battlefield with the myriad corpses of young men desultorily draped across one other is one of a number of goosebump-inducing  scenes in the movie, and imparts to us the primary truth of any war--and that is its futility.

Not to imply that there isn't spectacle here. The spectacle is provided by the costume and makeup department, as much of the high drama in Lincoln occurs in the chambers of the House of Representatives, as the debate over what was arguably the most monumental decision that body has ever taken up for consideration rages. These dudes are nothing if not authentic looking, with their mutton-chop cheeks and hair down to there. (Makes me think about back in the day when an employer tried to get under my skin about my beard, implying that guys who wear beards are "hiding something."  I'd have liked to have seen him say something like that to old Honest Abe. HE'D SQUASH YOU LIKE A BUG!)

  There are more Oscar-worthy performances in Lincoln than you can shake a porkpie hat at. Daniel Day-Lewis melts and merges into the character of the president like butter on a hot baked potato. His Lincoln is an avuncular man who relates humorous anecdotes to get his point across, and sometimes to ingratiate himself with members of the opposite political party (the democrats) to sway them over to his side. Observing that backroom deals where someone is promised some kind of perk or promotion in exchange for his vote has always been going on in our government is sort of strangely...comforting.    

Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock for an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and I wouldn't be surprised if  Tommy Lee Jones--as representative Thaddeus Stevens--gets a nod for Best Supporting Actor.

Sally Field is also superb as the president's wife, though if the real Mary Todd Lincoln had been as comely as Ms. Field,  I doubt that their relationship would have been quite as stormy as it was. A pretty face can go a long ways toward inducing a man to put up with a little craziness.    

Lincoln is a film that serves to remind us that history has judged (and will judge) harshly those who attempt to deny basic human rights--be it based on race, gender, or sexual preference. 
      
Grade: A

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS (2012)


Rated: R

Stars: Tom Hanks,  Halle Berry,  Jim Broadbent,  Doona Bae,  Ben Whishaw, Keith David,  Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Genre: Drama / Sci-fi / Action-Adventure

The premise of Cloud Atlas--a sweeping, sprawling, romantic, ambitious, tour-de-force of a saga--is that souls are connected throughout their various physical incarnations by their deeds and misdeeds of the past, present and future.

That's what they call KARMA around these here parts, mister...poke a mule in the butt and you're likely to git a big kick out of it. (And that's called INSTANT karma!)

The film takes the scenic route (a bit under three hours) in illustrating the point, which is no big "aha" moment for anyone with a spiritual bent toward the east, but it might give Joe and Jane Sixpack some food for thought--if you could somehow kidnap them and pull them kicking and screaming out of the latest vampire movie,  and promise that you will remove the duct tape from their mouths if they will only give a thoughtful film a chance.

There are six story lines featuring the same actors in multiple roles as different versions of themselves during various eras of history. The makeup artists had a field day, as some of the actors are unrecognizable as themselves unless you squint and look real close. I kept saying THIS guy looks so familiar...in a way...OMG--IT'S HUGH GRANT! 

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry's characters, for example,  interweave and get to hang out with each other wearing the "masks" of each incarnation as another personality.  He plays a gangster, a primitive tribesman, and a doctor--among others; she is a 20th-century journalist, a Jewish-German woman, and a plantation slave.   

I'm only going to touch the surface here...ain't going to describe each story line...it's better if you just wade into it,  like I did,  and be swept away on the tide of some brilliant film making from the team that brought you The Matrix. It's great excitement and fun, if you don't try to over think it and keep track of everything that is going on without getting overwhelmed--which you will be at times--and that's why a second and maybe even a third viewing of Cloud Atlas would undoubtedly reveal more nuance and meaning, if you want to take it that far. 

Another theme of the movie pops up in the Darwinian mantra: The weak are meat and the strong shall eat. I guess this was a way of preparing us for some of the graphic violence that appears at certain junctures in Cloud Atlas--which was the only thing in the film that I began to question after a while. Just be forewarned that there is more blood spilled here than in your average slasher movie, though it never feels like it is there simply for its own sake. 

What impressed me the most about Cloud Atlas was the feeling I got that everyone involved in this monumental  endeavor--which, surprisingly, only took about a year to complete from the beginning of filming--was dedicated to the vision of making something truly noteworthy out of  David Mitchell's ponderous 2004 novel. 

On that level, they succeeded.

Grade: A -

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

FLIGHT (2012)


Rated: R

Stars: Denzel Washington,  Kelly Reilly,  John Goodman,  Don Cheadle
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Genre: Thriller/Drama

There are the fortunate, and there are the unfortunate turns we take in life. There are fortunate and unfortunate turns in a film script as well--which can transform a movie into something truly special, or just standard run-of-the-mill fare. If you don't think too much about the unfortunate turn that you can see coming from a mile away (at least I could) in Flight, the latest Denzel Washington vehicle, it can be a pretty enjoyable ride on the way to its crash landing.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is this  hotshot commercial pilot who flies a crippled airliner upside down in a hellacious storm and lands it in a cow pasture with nearly all the souls on board surviving to tell about it.  But Whip has a dirty little secret. He's a drunk. (Think Captain Sullenberger on the sauce.) He was ripped when he boarded the aircraft, and he surreptitiously  imbibed during the flight. His boozing didn't cause the plane's troubles--that was due to mechanical failure--but rules are rules and laws are laws, and after some edge-of-your-seat excitement at the beginning that puts us right in the cockpit as the aircraft pitches, tosses and turns, (and we get ready to toss our cookies) Flight becomes a tale of a man fleeing his own conscience, as he tries to keep his in-flight indiscretions from being discovered during an upcoming NTSB hearing.  There to assist him in the cover-up are his lawyer, (Don Cheadle) an old friend and pilot's union rep, (Bruce Greenwood) and his drug connection, (John Goodman)  whose job is to bring Whitaker out of his binge induced stupors with an occasional toot of cocaine. 

There is a subplot involving a young addict (Kelly Reilly) who is there--near as I can tell--to provide some eye candy and female presence in what is otherwise a  male dominated cast.   

John Goodman absolutely steals (or hijacks) this movie, and it is worth the price of admission just to ingest his bodacious, wickedly funny portrayal of dope dealer Harling Mays, for whom it's all in a day's work.            

It's a good thing too, because the climax of  this film is as moralistic and predictable as any network TV cop or detective show. In making that turn for home, the movie takes the road usually traveled. There are more imaginative alternate endings that even I came up with in my wee little brain that would have given us more food for thought than the peanuts we were served on this Flight.

Grade:  B -

Saturday, October 27, 2012

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012)


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Sixto Rodriguez and friends
Director: Malik Bendjellout
Genre: Documentary

He had a Roy Orbison-like affectation, (never took off his sunglasses) a Dylan-esque musical style and sound, and looked a bit like Jose Feliciano.  Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez (who went by "Rodriguez" professionally) was discovered by two record producers who caught his act in a Detroit bar during the late sixties. They signed him to a record contract, figuring the guy would take off like gangbusters. But the two albums Rodriguez put out flopped in the United States.

Curiously, his music--which paid homage to the common man, with anti-establishment political overtones--caught fire with opponents of  apartheid in South Africa. And was promptly banned--which is always going to make something seem more enticing for people to seek out. (And yes, South Africa's racial policies were disgraceful, but  as you nod your head in agreement,  don't forget about our own appalling segregationist laws which prevailed in America prior to 1964.) That Rodriguez was not aware that he had become more popular than Elvis on this other continent seems incredible in this day of instantaneous communication via the internet. Here, he faded back into obscurity--which wasn't hard for him to do--working manual labor construction jobs, and occasionally doing some singing gigs in Detroit bars. 

Searching For Sugar Man is the documentary that begins with the compelling mystery of Rodriguez. Rumors can take on a life of their own, and sometimes become legend. Many believed that he had committed suicide by setting himself afire onstage. Through interviews with friends, family, and former record producers, we discover what really happened to the man. Interspersed are songs from his albums Cold Fact--1970,  and Coming From Reality--1971.  

While listening, you will wonder why Rodriguez--whose songs were plaintive and poignant, and whose voice was as distinctive and mellifluous as any you will ever hear, didn't catch on in the states. Such is the fickle finger of fate. Though now, since the release of Searching For Sugar Man--a compelling, inspirational film that will make your spirit soar--perhaps he will. 

Bring tissue.    

Grade:  A


P.S. My movie-going friend thinks Searching For Sugar Man is surefire Oscar nomination material.  But then, she predicted the Edsel would be the most popular car on the market. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)


RATED: PG-13

Stars: Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Mae Whitman
Director: Steven Chbosky
Genre: Drama

Steven Chbosky brings his coming-of-age novel to the screen as writer and director of  The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. The central character is Charlie, (Logan Lerman) a high school freshman with some unspecified mental problems (the bulk of which are revealed near the end) that cause him to be so shy that he won't raise his hand in class when he is the only one with the right answer to the teacher's question. 


The story is set in an unspecified time, but we see Charlie, who wants to be a writer, pecking away on a manual typewriter, so we know the era is pre-internet. (In fact, it is the early nineties.) 


As an incoming freshman, Charlie doesn't know where he fits in, but step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam, (Emma Watson) a couple of other misfits, come to his rescue and befriend him. Patrick is gay and still in the closet. Sam has been around the block some for her age, and her thing is that she picks the wrong guys to get attached to. But they are both good dancers, and much of the process of learning to navigate one's way through the perils and the pitfalls of high school is played out at teenage house parties where Charlie eventually gets his back up off the wall and ventures onto the dance floor. Then, being the total innocent he is, unwittingly consumes a pot brownie and becomes a much more interesting conversationalist. (While  the energy kicks into gear with some great eighties tunes like "Come On Eileen" and "Don't Dream It's Over.") 


Charlie is developing a thing for Sam, but it's that unrequited love of the painfully shy, who always seem to end up with someone less appealing but more accessible, as when he gets involved in an awkward pairing with punk rocker Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman). 


Ezra Miller gets a "A" on his report card for his work in this one. 

But there are things about The Perks Of Being A Wallflower that feel slightly off-kilter. Maybe it has something to do with the age of the actors.  At this writing, Logan Lerman is 20,  Ezra Miller is 20,  Emma Watson is 22, and Mae Whitman is 24. All just a bit past their sell-by dates to be totally believable as high-schoolers.  

But I really think it's because The Perks Of Being A Wallflower wants so terribly to be precious and poignant, and tries too hard to convince us that it is, and as a result its affectation is showing. Sort of like a figure skater with a lot of potential who hasn't quite mastered the art of making it look effortless.

The movie wants to be in the same class with similar themed classics like The Breakfast Club and American Graffiti.  But it isn't.

GRADE:  C

Monday, October 15, 2012

ARGO (2012)



Rated: R

Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck
Genre: Suspense/Thriller

Argo is a real film and a fake film. The fake film is what the real film is about. Ben Affleck does a masterful job of directing the real film, including himself in the pivotal role. (It must have been weird to see him do his split-second switch from actor to director, yelling "CUT" right after delivering his own lines.)  

The fake film Argo is a cover story to spirit six American diplomats out of Iran during the infamous hostage crisis that began in late 1979 and continued on into 1981. Having overthrown the corrupt Shah,  Islamic militants are hungry to have his head on a platter, but he has been given asylum in the U.S. The American embassy has been stormed and fifty-two Americans have been taken  hostage.  But six others have managed to evade capture and are given shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador. However,  it's only a matter of time before they are sniffed out and meet a truly unpleasant fate.

Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is a CIA guy who heads to Iran with the hair-brained scheme (but the best one they have) of turning the six fugitives into Canadian crew members of  the nonexistent  movie--supposedly to be filmed in Iran--to get them out of where they are holed up and on a plane to freedom.   

Affleck and company--with special kudos to the editing and music score--deftly ratchet up the tension and suspense throughout Argo, keeping us on the edge of our gooey gummy seats (don't reach underneath there) from start to finish.  

With any film that is "based upon a true story," as is this one, you can expect a certain amount of embellishment of the truth and dramatic license to be taken, and there is a goodly amount of that in Argo.  But when you look into how the real events of this joint Canadian-CIA operation unfolded, (which weren't revealed publicly until years after the fact) you will see where a little tinkering with the truth was necessary to end up with a film as compelling as Argo. 

Now, let me pander a little to the conspiracy theorist lurking somewhere in all of us. Is it just coincidence, or just COULD it be the timing of this movie's release is designed to coincide with the stirring up of anti-Iranian paranoia over that country's impending nuclear capabilities,  and with Israel ostensibly on the brink of making a preemptive strike? Ya gotta sell it to the public, ya know,  just like some people think the "unthinkable"--that 9/11 was staged to provide our government a rationale for the invasion of  Iraq. 

Well,  I'll leave that kind of speculation up to you. But as they say in the world of comedy: Timing is everything.

Grade:  A -

   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012)


Rated:  PG-13

Stars: Clint Eastwood,  Amy Adams,  Justin Timberlake,  John Goodman
Director: Robert Lorenz
Genre: Drama 

The latest Clint Eastwood vehicle, Trouble With The Curve, is standard formulaic fare, with the major plot developments pretty easy to spot coming straight down the pike.  And yet, I'm still just enough of a romantic sap to have gotten drawn in by the emotionally manipulative Walter Mitty-in-a-baseball-cap climax, which saves the win for this movie in the final inning. 

Clint Eastwood is Gus Lobel, a snarly over the hill major league baseball scout who possesses a sixth sense about evaluating the upcoming young talent he has been hired to observe. And he needs it, because his eyesight is failing. (Eastwood is now 82 years old. In the real world, a Gus Lobel would have been put out to pasture long ago, but Eastwood can pass for ten years younger than his chronological age, so the bounds of believability are not stretched too terribly tight on that score.)  

So Gus's thirty-something daughter, Mickey, (Amy Adams)  an attorney with a good shot at making partner in her firm, puts an important case on the back burner to become dad's seeing eye dog in the evaluation of one particular player--a hot prospect named  Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill.)  But is she ultimately sacrificing her own career for the sake of saving not-so-dear-old-dad's?   (They've had a strained relationship over the years.)     

Enter the obligatory romantic interest for Mickey in the person of Johnny Flanagan, (Justin Timberlake),  former pitcher and now working as a scout for a different team. But Mickey has had trouble getting close to people, and it's tied up with the abandonment she felt about her father's absence during her formative years.

Amy Adams turns in the only noteworthy performance in Trouble With The Curve. though they've tried to make her character some super-human savant, like the ones who have memorized the contents of the telephone book. Yes, she's a chip off the old block, but she spouts off obscure details of decades old baseball games (who were the three batters that Sandy Koufax retired in the bottom of the ninth when he pitched his perfect game in 1965?  That kind of stuff.)   Nobody who doesn't sit around and devote their whole life to memorizing baseball statistics would come up with that stuff, and as an attorney we assume she has better things to do, so here they HAVE stretched the bounds of believability to the breaking point. It may be a small thing in the context of the entire film, but for me the devil is in the details.     

Clint Eastwood will never veer too far from some modified version of Dirty Harry, or the sullen cigar-chomping tough guy from his spaghetti western days, and he growls his way through Trouble With The Curve in similar fashion. He does  get a shot at demonstrating some emotional depth here, but comes off sort of  like Popeye crying in his spinach. But fans won't care, because if they are true fans they have long ago accepted his limited range, and they are in love with the persona--kind of like the way that I will watch anything Zooey Deschanel is in and become completely absorbed into the black holes of her eyes, and not remember or care about anything else in the movie.

It's all wrapped up in a neat bow at the end, but the climactic scene is a real fist-pumper, and for that reason I am grading this movie on the curve. 

GRADE:  B

  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

BEING FLYNN (2012)


Rated: R

Stars: Robert De Niro,  Paul Dano,  Jullianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby
Director: Paul Weitz
Genre: Drama 


Being Flynn opens with Jonathan Flynn's bombastic narration: America has produced only three classic writers: Mark Twain...J.D. Salinger...and ME!  Of course, we've never heard of Jonathan Flynn, (Robert De Niro)  so at the outset we know the guy is off his nut. 

The narrative passes from father to son--like the writing ability Jonathon has purportedly passed on to Nick Flynn.  Nick (Paul Dano) weaves a tale about his alcoholic, delusional , con man of a dad who shows up in his life after being absent for most of it. The story centers on a homeless shelter where Nick has landed a job, and where his dad has taken up residence. Faced with having to deal with the man up close and personal, Nick struggles to not become his father--though his sometimes girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) begins to observe more and more similarities-- as the debate of nature versus nurture is opened once again. We see the nurture aspect of Nick's life in flashbacks to his deceased mother (Julianne Moore) who raised him in her husband's absence.

Jonathan is an out and out racist and homophobe, and Being Flynn is that rare creative work where there are no punches being pulled in the name of political correctness to tone down his offensive language and behavior (the script tries to be faithful to the real Nick Flynn's award winning 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City.)  And that, in my opinion, is why Being Flynn had such a short run in the theaters. I was all set to see it, but I blinked and it was gone. Suffice it to say the average movie goer may feel squeamish with the in-your-face crudeness that spills from Jonathan's lips at every turn (though I couldn't help but cackle at some of it).  So in a climate where certain words and ideas have essentially been banned from public expression  in America,  let's just quietly make this film disappear, (I can hear them saying) and anyone who really wants to see it can wait for the DVD. Which I did.   

And I say too bad that not a lot of people saw it, because De Niro is on top of his game as an individual who has hit bottom. I was flashing back to Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman's character in Midnight Cowboy, though the similarity is only that they are two brilliant portrayals of down-and-outers.  But, you'll be happy to know,  the theme here is redemption, and whether it's possible for a man like Jonathan Flynn. Or his son for that matter. With a captivating soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy.

Being Flynn is not a pretty movie. But it is beautiful.   

Grade:  A

Saturday, September 15, 2012

THE WORDS (2012)



Rated:  PG-13

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde
Director: Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
Genre: Romantic drama/ Mystery


A friend of mine predicts that Jeremy Irons' performance in The Words  will garner him an Oscar nomination. My crystal ball is somewhat murkier on that score. It's a damn good turn, to be sure, but knowing how the Academy normally has to be ga ga about the film itself to bestow such individual recognition--and The Words is getting panned by a lot of critics--all bets are off.  Those who aren't dismissing the film, however, are glowing about it, creating a dichotomy of opinion that I always find intriguing, and therefore ready to jump into the fray and lay out the naked truth...the gospel...the straight poop. (Regular visitors to this site know that I've never dispensed any crooked poop!)

Fact is, that by the time the closing credits were rolling, I was blown away by this movie--but it wasn't until the actual ending that it had grown on me to that degree. The Words is a tale within a tale within a tale, which can make you forget who the Original Storyteller is to begin with...kind of like all of us wee lost souls here on planet earth (the "riders on the storm"  that Jim Morrison sang about). 

Bradley Cooper is Rory Jansen, a talented writer, but apparently not talented enough to get his novels published. When he discovers an old manuscript that he instinctively senses is better and more marketable than anything he has created himself, he does some soul searching--but not a whole lot of it--and decides to claim  the work as his own. Now a celebrated author, Rory's karma catches up to him in the form of the old man who actually wrote the book (Jeremy Irons) 

Interwoven is the story "Old Man" (he is never given a name) created in his novel, about his days as a GI in Paris, the woman he falls in love with, and the personal tragedy they bear together. 

Eventually we are steered back to the creator of both these fictional tales, writer Clay Hammond, (Dennis Quaid). 

Or ARE they fictional?  Heh heh.

Or...has a writer so fallen in love with one of his own characters that the lines between fiction and reality have become so blurred as to be indistinguishable? 

The ending of  The Words  should leave you questioning just what is and what isn't--which may be disconcerting to some--but as a writer I was entranced by the ambiguity...by the possibilities being raised...by  a film that actually made me think enough about it as I was heading for the exit that I forgot to stop and take a pee! And one that I will definitely consider seeing again. The only question in my mind is whether the average film goer is going to find it quite as fascinating as some of us literary types will be wont to do.  

Grade:  B +


   

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)





Rated: PG-13


STARS: Jared Gilman,  Kara Hayward,  Bruce Willis,  Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand,  Tilda Swinton
DIRECTOR:  Wes Anderson
GENRE: Comedy


You've got your quirky film characters, and then you've got your quirky films, and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom--a sepia-toned homage to young love--fits the latter category. 


Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) are two twelve year old social misfits who carry through on a pact to run away with each other. Sam is a would-be orphan who has  worn out his welcome with his foster parents, and has just "resigned" from his Khaki Scout troop because he feels he doesn't fit in . Suzy is a surly problem child in a family of parents who are bored out of their gourd with each other (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).


Their flight is largely symbolic, because they are on an island off the coast New England, and it's not like they won't eventually be sniffed out by police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) or the gaggle of Scout Master Ward's charges who are hot on the missing  couple's tail. Willis is playing against type here--as a sensitive kind of guy with a heart, and it's refreshing to see. 


Any film that Bill Murray is in, I'm expecting  him to be the dominant presence, (unless it's a true cameo) displaying his deadpan wit and charm to full advantage. But that takes a back seat in Moonrise Kingdom to the two young stars and Edward Norton's adultolescent Scoutmaster Ward. 


So Sam and Suzy traverse the island, setting up camp and relying on Sam's scouting skills to survive, while exploring  their puppy love in innocently provocative ways. But there's a big storm a-brewing off the coast,  creating a renewed sense of urgency amongst the adults to locate the runaways. The storm could be a metaphor for  all of the institutionalized societal and parental forces forever poised to quash amorous exploration by the young  with an iron fist. 


While  Sam and Suzy are precociously testing the waters of adulthood, some of the grownups in Moonrise Kingdom are cartoonishly dorky and not terribly mature. But the story is set in 1965--a time when most adults WERE still pretty dorky--plaid pants and all.


And while the  film is listed as a comedy, the humor is so unswervingly  deadpan that nary a  chuckle was heard from the patrons at the showing I attended,  though I think most must have been sitting there, like myself,  with a bemused grin throughout. And any film where you haven't correctly guessed what is about to come next goes a long way toward winning me over.


The only misstep, in my opinion, is the magic realism  that literally strikes  from the heavens  in the latter part of the film, turning a tale that was still plausible--if unlikely--into the realm of a cartoon where Wile E. Coyote gets his ass blown up by a bomb, or falls off a cliff,  but jumps back up a second later no worse for the wear.


Tilda Swinton has a turn as the demanding and uncompromising bureaucrat known only as "Social Services," who wants to nab Sam and stick him in an orphanage. Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel also appear. 


With a creative and  imaginative soundtrack by Benjamin Britten.


Grade:  B +


        



Monday, June 25, 2012

THE INTOUCHABLES (2012)





STARS: Francois Cluzet, Omar Sy
DIRECTOR: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache
GENRE: Comedy/Drama (French with subtitles)


Rated:  R


I think about the great onscreen couples: Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. And now I must add Froncois Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables.


The odd couple who find common ground and make it work in spite of themselves has long been an appealing film premise. In The Intouchables, we have rich guy Philippe, (Francois Cluzet) paralyzed and wheelchair bound. Driss (Omar Sy) is a rude, crude, and lewd African dude (an ex-con) who shows up one day at Phillipe's palatial digs to apply for the job of caregiver/companion. After seeing a battery of milquetoast applicants for the job, Philippe sees something in the brash  Driss--a diamond in the rough--and gives him the job.


Driss propositions the female help in the household, and manhandles  people who park their cars where they may be blocking his access to the street.  But what Philippe sees in the man is freedom. With Driss, his spirit can be unleashed, even as he languishes in that chair--the result of a paragliding accident.  


Philippe's intuition is accurate.


Driss is the ultimate instinctive man--totally comfortable in his own skin. The kind of person who makes those who live by convention nervous. He takes Philippe on a wild high-speed ride through the streets of Paris with the cops in hot pursuit. They evade the gendarmes for a while, (some great stunt driving) but are eventually boxed in and surrounded. Apparently, they are now going to pay the price.  The way they finagle themselves out of their predicament is sheer bravado and comic genius.


Philippe's paralysis has not erased his desire for affection, and a subplot has him writing flowery letters to a female  "pen pal." Driss,  in his adorable cut-the-crap way, tells him to simply pick up the phone and call her. They may or may not meet someday--though initially she doesn't know that Phillipe is a quadriplegic.  


The Intouchables is an international hit because it's breezy, uplifting, touching, heartwarming, and funny--with sparkling chemistry between these two fine actors. And it's got a great everybody dance scene (except Phillipe, of course) to one of my favorite Earth Wind and Fire songs.  


Grade:  A

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A TITILLATING TRIO NOW PLAYING ON HOME THEATRE: SLEEPING BEAUTY***SHAME***A DANGEROUS METHOD





SLEEPING BEAUTY  (2011)


NR


An alternate title for Sleeping Beauty might have been: Wake Me When It's Over.  That pretty well sums it up for Lucy, (Emily Browning) a college student who sleepwalks through her life of working at odd jobs to get by--the oddest of all being a hired play toy for rich old pervs who have carte blanche to do what they will with her naked body, as long as there is no penetration (house rules) and they don't leave any marks.  


Lucy has been taken on by Clara, (Rachael Blake) the madam of a soft-core brothel, to be a kind of living doll that the pretentious old farts will work out their sexual fantasies upon in various ways--some pretty twisted--as she lies there in a drugged stupor, unaware of anything that has happened to her when she wakes up. Hell of an easy way to make a buck--if you have totally acquiesced to the precept that the end justifies the means.  The delicate, waif-like Browning is perfect for the part--the embodiment of innocence exploited--or at least the appearance of such


We don't get any real insight into why Lucy has numbed out on life, but we see the slippery slope that leads up to her becoming a Sleeping Beauty. She snorts cocaine in a club, then allows the flip of a coin to determine whether she will have sex with a man she just met. She propositions another guy at a bar--as directly and obscenely as any sleazy, tactless guy trying to pick up a woman.  When she does come into some money, she sets fire to a hundred dollar bill, watching dispassionately as it turns to ash. 


 It is apparent that much of  Lucy's behavior is one attempt and then another  just to feel something--the no penetration clause of her employment agreement serving as metaphor for the impenetrable shield between herself and life. Maybe this is writer-director Julia Leigh's indictment of life in the twenty-first century, with all of our technology providing interpersonal contact at the press of a button--but is it bringing us closer in any meaningful kind of way? 


There is a subplot involving an alcoholic friend named Birdmann, who seems to be the only male Lucy can relate to in a normal emotional way, and only because they're an odd couple and wouldn't be relationship material for each other.


Most everyone in Sleeping Beauty has a wistful, far away look in their eye--so if you ask me what the film is about,  I'd say it's about the uniquely human inability to inhabit and be fully present in the moment.  


Grade: B




*****************

SHAME  (2011)


Rated: NC-17


Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is obsessed. With porn, with masturbation, with hookers, with picking up women in bars--wearing an ascot like some classy dude--and ending up rutting with them up against a wall somewhere. 

He consistently ignores phone calls from his sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan) as he and his dangling participle navigate au naturel around his upscale Manhattan apartment. Until one day he comes home to find her naked in his shower--totally freaking him out. She stands there in full-frontal repose for a good long while as they converse, neither of them acting like it's any big deal, which might be a clue to something in their shared past, or just an indication that they are totally at ease around one another.  But unlike Ms. Mulligan, their back story is never exposed. 

Sissy needs to put distance between herself and a bad relationship, so she wants to play roomie with her brother for a while. Brandon reluctantly consents. But they are oil and water. She's needy and clingy. He's cold and calculating.  And with the way he dispatches people to follow his one-track mind, not a very likable guy.

In a highly revealing scene, (well, they're all revealing) Brandon and his co-worker,  Marianne--who is interested in him on an emotionally deeper level than most of his consorts--are about to get cozy. But faced with the prospect of beginning something of a "normal" relationship with a woman, Brandon gives an underwhelming performance in the bedroom. After that, we see him back in his element--on top of his game again with some sleazy, anonymous sex played out against a Manhattan high-rise picture window with the drapes wide open.


But the real impact of Shame lies in the relationship between Brandon and Sissy, and whether he'll be able to  recognize her call for help before it's too late. They're both time bombs--he in his controlled way, though near the end his obsession drives him to make some highly risky choices; she in a way that could lead to overtly disastrous consequences. 


It's just a Shame that we don't know more about what makes either of them tick. 


Grade:  B

**************************


A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011)


Rated : R
       
Michael Fassbender is back in a very different kind of role, though sex is still at the forefront in A Dangerous Method--based on the real life love triangle of Carl Jung, (Fassbender)  Sigmund Freud, (Viggo Mortenson)  and Sabina Spielrein. (Keita Knightly).

Ms. Spielrein was  one of history's more  fascinating  characters. Initially a mental patient being treated by Dr. Jung, she went on to be his student, and later became one of the first female psychoanalysts. Keira Knightly's portrayal of Spielrein is straight out of  How To Act Like A Crazy Person 101. Can you say "overacting?" The woman's unbalanced phase could have benefited from just a touch of subtlety-- as I know plenty of folks who are totally off their nut, and they can pass for normal for a couple of hours straight on a given day. 

Speilrein got off on S & M, and in the scene where she is being spanked, (I don't think it was her birthday) Knightly is entrancing with her top falling down, but didn't convince me that she was truly enjoying it.  Maybe this was where she was bringing the subtlety.

Fassbender and Mortenson  give  interesting, chatty performances (and certainly look the part) as Jung and Freud respectively, as they begin their friendship and then have a falling out, with Sabina figuring prominently into the mix. 


Notable quotes: I think Freud's obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any.


On the subject of monogamy, for example, why should we put so much frantic effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts?     

Grade: B


  


Monday, May 28, 2012

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2012)





Rated: PG-13


STARS: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup
DIRECTOR: John Madden
GENRE: Comedy/Drama


A colorful assemblage of "elderly" Brits heads off to India where their retirement dollars will go further. Awaiting them is the "newly remodeled" (according to the brochure) Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. They arrive to find a structure that is crumbling and in disrepair. Sonny, (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire ) the young, buoyant  hotel manager has good intentions and a dream of renovating the place, but he needs to secure some funding. Some of the lodgers will make the best of it, and some will utter grouchy, mean-spirited things. In the end, each will find something or someone they've been searching for, and be transformed.


An ensemble cast as large as this one could be unwieldy, but there are many familiar names here, and I find it  easier to remember a character's story when it's a face that I recognize. These are stock characters, for the most part, but it doesn't make their stories any less poignant or compelling.


There's Jean and Doug (Penelope Wilton & Bill Nighy) the not so happily married couple who lost their savings when they invested it in their daughters business venture. Nighy, of course, is a great comic presence, but he's more subtly engaged with it here. 


Muriel, (Maggie Smith) a retired housekeeper who doesn't like India initially--maybe something to do with her being a racist and needing a hip replacement. 


Evelyn, (Judi Dench) a recent widow and all alone. 


Madge (Celia Imrie) is a wealthy woman on the prowl for a husband.


Norman, (Ronald Pickup)  an aging lecher (or "horny old dude" in contemporary parlance) on the prowl for one night stands.  


But the most poignant of the pensioners' story lines belongs to Graham, (Tom Wilkinson) a high court judge who grew up in India, and is back to find a man he loved when they were both teenagers, and hasn't seen since.  


A subplot involves Sonny and his true love, Sunainia, (Tena Desae) whom his domineering mother doesn't approve of. She wants her son to enter an arranged marriage. It's a clash of traditional and contemporary Indian mores. Things will come to a head, and Sonny will face his moment of truth with his mother.  


Beautifully shot and deftly paced, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  captures the bustle, the color, and the seductive allure of a land where cows and elephants saunter down the street--and the truly wise men are the ones who know enough not to follow  too closely behind either one.


 The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the best exotic movie I've seen since...well... Slumdog Millionaire.


Grade:  A