Friday, December 20, 2013

NEBRASKA (2013)




Rated:  R

STARS:  Bruce Dern,  Will Forte,  June Squibb,  Stacey Keach,  Bob Odenkirk
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
GENRE: Drama

I wonder what the folks in Nebraska  think of Nebraska, and what they are saying about it. Having spent a goodly number of my formative years in the Cornhusker state, I imagine it's to the effect of:  Geez, we're not all such rubes!  While it's true that director Alexander Payne  has portrayed the locals, by and large, as  a mass conglomeration of hicks from the sticks, it goes with the territory in a film where most of the characters are varying degrees of over the top. 

Nebraska is a funny movie. Funny in the way that Peyton Manning pizza commercial on television is funny (the one where he's "tossing the dough") because it relies on someone being totally naive and out of his depth.  You are going to hear that  the film is charming, heartwarming, and rife with cackles. And I agree. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its warts.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a crusty old guy who isn't  all there--at least according to his wise-cracking wife, Kate (June Squibb). When Woody receives one of those come-on sweepstakes notices saying he's won a million dollars, (you've got to read the fine print) he takes it at face value and is determined to make it to Lincoln, Nebraska--even if he has to walk--to collect his prize. When his efforts to convince old dad that he is being lured in by a scam are unsuccessful, son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive Woody from Billings, Montana to Lincoln. 

On the way they will spend some time  reconnecting with folks in Woody's central Nebraska hometown of Hawthorne (a fictional place). When the locals get wind of Woody's apparent good fortune,  they come out of the woodwork--each with a different story claiming Woody owes them dough from long ago. And  then there is Ed Pegram, (Stacy Keach) who's a little more emphatic about what he wants,  and literally threatens father and son with dire consequences if they don't pay up. 

The ubiquitous use of non-actors playing the local townsfolk (they ARE the local townsfolk) who deliver their lines in monotone--as if they were reading them right off the page--hinders one's ability to grant the "willing suspension of disbelief" that allows you to forget that you are watching a movie. 

June Squibb, as Woody's eccentric wife, nearly steals the film right from under Bruce Dern, but it's due to the lines she's been given and not her dubious acting ability. Put some naughty words or sexual innuendo into the mouth of a senior citizen and folks in the audience are going to spew their drink onto the person sitting in front of them. 

Stacy Keach playing the heavy  was not terribly believable for me...he comes off more like a city thug than a small town midwesterner. If there's anything Nebraskans are know for, it's their politeness, and I felt Keach's role required more subtlety.

Then there was the decision to film Nebraska in black and white, which gives the landscape an aura of desolation that seems better suited to a desert setting. Though the season depicted is winter, I feel the film may give those unfamiliar with the area a distorted view of what it's like. If you've ever been there--especially the eastern portion around Lincoln--you know that rural Nebraska in the spring and summer is one of the greenest places in the country--with cornfields and trees extending as far as the eye can see. But director Alexander Payne is making a  point about the winter of Woody's discontent--and maybe about people who live a kind of colorless existence. 

Anyhoo...Nebraska IS a cute, funny, and poignant film, and if you're not from around there and wouldn't notice any of my aforementioned  concerns, you'll probably give it a higher rating than I did.

Grade:  B 

Speaking of which...


JILL'S TAKE

Picky, picky. All I can say is, I'm glad I'm from New England so none of the aforementioned flaws bothered me. NEBRASKA is a delight from start to finish. I'm not surprised Bruce Dern has garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, Musical or Comedy. You really believe he's that stubborn old codger, determined to get his million bucks. Even if he has to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. (837 miles) . I particularly liked the way Dern shuffled, all stiff-legged, feet pointing in opposite directions. And the gal who played his gossipy, super critical wife was absolutely brilliant. As we left the theater, Tim insisted she had little or no acting experience. I disagreed. Sorry, Timoteo. You lose! Among June Squibb's credits? Scent Of A WomanMeet Joe BlackAbout Schmidt.

As for the film being in black and white. For me, it only accentuated the absurdity of the situation. Those long stretches of highway, the desolation one feels while viewing it. Handled differently, NEBRASKA could have easily turned into something maudlin and depressing. But director Alexander Payne (also a Golden Globe nominee for Best Director) knows how to make funny with audiences. And believe me, this audience was laughing nonstop. Maybe the monosyllabic dialog between hayseed brothers, watching a football game on TV, was exaggerated. But I bet most of the women could relate. I sure could!

GRADE: A+








  






Friday, December 13, 2013

OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)



Rated:  R

Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson,  Zoe Saldana,  Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafole, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Genre: Drama


Out Of The Furnace is evidently trying to make a point about senseless violence. The senseless violence of war. The senseless violence that permeates the drug culture. The senseless violence of clandestine bare-knuckle boxing (the human equivalent of cockfighting). The senseless violence of shooting animals at close range for "sport."  So as you might have guessed, there's a lot of senseless violence in this film,  but the only point that gets made is that Americans continue to possess a disturbing and unrelenting blood lust for senseless violence in their films, TV shows, video games, and sports. (Soccer--another excuse to hold a riot!)  

We're a bunch of sick puppies.

The most sympathetic character here is Russell Baze, (Christian Bale) a steel mill worker in a depressed area of Pennsylvania. More than the rest, you could say he's a victim of circumstance. He has a sweet thing going with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) until he gets convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sent off to prison. She drops him, but he will attempt a reconciliation when he gets out. 


Russell has a loose cannon brother, Rodney, (Casey Affleck)  who just returned from four tours of duty in Iraq. Russell tries to get Rodney to see the practical wisdom of working at the mill, but Rodney would rather get involved with a scumbag bookie (Willem Dafoe) who sets him up in the world of bare-knuckle boxing. His handler is a twisted sociopath named  Harlan DeGroat, (Woody Harrelson) a local drug mogul whom  you don't want to cross. If you owe money to DeGroat and don't ante up, you could be paying with your life.  Rodney has stepped out of the furnace and into the fire, and there ain't no turnin' back.  


Out Of The Furnace is an old-fashioned revenge tale, pure and simple, which skulks  with a palpable sense of dread toward its inexorable climax, aided by yet another winning score from Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter's Bone, Project Nim, Last Chance Harvey).


Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck turn in  memorable performances--Affleck as the ticking time bomb, and Harrelson for the brooding evil he summons forth from the darkest regions of the human soul. Why Harrelson, who by all accounts is one of the good guys in real life,  (environmentalist, vegan) continues to take on these kinds of lowlife roles is a curious and intriguing mystery to me--but he probably just wants to demonstrate his range. 

Out Of The Furnace is superb for what it is, but it covers no new ground. In fact, it covers some very ancient ground. The eternal, relentless, and invariably futile barbarism of exacting an eye for an eye.  

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

It's a funny thing about OUT OF THE FURNACE. The script has more holes in it than a pound of Swiss cheese. For this reason alone I'd normally give it low marks. But I was hooked from start to finish. Even when the finish didn't make any sense whatsoever. Kill me, shoot me, but I like violent flicks. And believe you me, writer-director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") kept me tense and terrified throughout. I definitely wasn't bored. But after the movie ended, I wasn't particularly inspired, either. Or moved. Just confused.

I could pick on plenty of stuff about this movie that got my nose out of joint: e.g. hard to buy into the idea that skinny Casey Affleck could beat up on guys twice his size. And why did Forest Whitaker choose to play such a minor and meatless role? But I've got to be honest. For all it's flaws and implausibilities, OUT OF THE FURNACE had me jumping at every punch thrown, completely gripped by the madness I kept on witnessing. So even though my head tells me I should be objective about the script's structural flaws (cowritten with Brad Ingelsby) and grade this flick accordingly, I refuse to do it. Why? Because part of movie-going for me (and millions of others, I suspect), is to escape. And OUT OF THE FURNACE is perfect escapist entertainment. Especially for psychopaths....

GRADE: B

Saturday, November 23, 2013

THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)



Rated:  R

STARS: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto,  Jennifer Garner,  Steve Zahn
DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallee
GENRE: Drama


Ron Woodruff was a Texas good ol' boy who was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986--back when AIDS was a highly misunderstood, feared and maligned disease. Rather than accept a doctor's bleak prognosis, Woodruff became a crusader (without the cape) for alternative drugs and supplements not approved by the FDA, but which showed some promise in treating the disease. And that's how The Dallas Buyers Club came into being. Woodruff became a smuggler--obtaining his meds by hook or by crook from far-flung locales such as Mexico and Japan. He then sold them to AIDS patients who, by all accounts, benefited through his efforts. And he kept himself alive for several more years. 

In The Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey plays Woodruff as a foul-mouthed, bigoted, chauvinistic, homophobic, drug and sex addicted redneck rodeo cowboy who wants to take a swing at anybody who slights him or doesn't give him his way. The real Ron Woodruff was reportedly a bit of all that, but everything gets magnified in the movies. McConaughey has the look down pat--he dropped more than 40 pounds for the role--but the real Ron Woodruff had a softer, baby-faced kind of look, and he is remembered fondly by those who knew him. So I suspect he wasn't quite the scowling first-class A-hole portrayed here.  

Jennifer Garner plays Dr. Eve Saks, who becomes Woodruff's ally and friend. Jared Leto is Rayon, a transgender fellow AIDS sufferer who helps turn Woodruff from homophobe to seemingly compassionate advocate. Both characters are composites, and not based on actual persons. 

How much of Woodruff's motivation in forming The Dallas Buyers Club was selfish--to provide an income and keep himself alive--and how much of it reflected a compassionate activism, especially as time went on, is open to speculation. He stated in an interview that his mark-up on the drugs only covered his operating costs.

How much of Matthew McConaughey's motivation in shedding 40 to 50 pounds to be appropriately gaunt looking for this role was motivated by his paycheck, or wanting passionately to tell a compelling story is also open to speculation. Sacrificing for one's art is a noble endeavor, but in this case--messing around with his health in such a manner--I think he's plain nuts. 

But he's a lock for an Academy Award nomination, and most likely wins for Best Actor. (Anthony Hopkins has to consider himself lucky in that all he had to do to become Alfred Hitchcock was wear a fat suit!)

Grade:  B  +


JILL'S TAKE

Is it me or are more and more movies being made these days that are 'based on real people'? I guess Hollywood moguls have finally bought into the idea that "truth is stranger than fiction." Only in their eyes, "truth is more lucrative than fiction." Is it? If The ButlerCaptain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks are any indication, I'd say it is. Personally, I'd much rather watch something based on reality even if the screenwriters take a lot of liberties with the story line and the main character. No doubt Tim's research about Ron Woodruff being less of an asshole than the Ron Woodruff we see in The Dallas Buyers Club is accurate. But just like I prefer nonfiction movies, I also gravitate towards 'bad boys.' Nobody does bad boy better than McConaughey. And once you get over how incredibly skinny he is in this film, you can't help but love/hate the guy.

Those early days of AIDS are quickly established in the beginning of this movie when a bunch of redneck rodeo riders sit around gay-bashing Rock Hudson who, it has just been announced, has AIDS. (Of course I loved one knucklehead's reaction: "Who's Rock Hudson?") It's a poignant film and often painful to watch. And the person I predict will get an Oscar nod is Jared Leto who, aside from being a brilliant actor, is an accomplished musician and the main songwriter for the rock group Thirty Seconds to Mars.

I'm with Tim on this one. It's worth the price of admission—and then some.

GRADE: B+




Sunday, November 17, 2013

ALL IS LOST (2013)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Robert Redford
DIRECTOR: J.C. Chandor
GENRE: Action--Adventure/ Suspense

Going to a movie called All Is Lost,  you may psych yourself into being depressed by the time you hit  your seat.  Sometimes a title is meant to mislead you. Not here.  Robert Redford's character is in trouble from the get-go. He's piloting a small yacht  in the middle of the Indian Ocean , and his craft has just collided with a huge railroad type shipping container. Now there's a hole in the side of the boat, and it's taking on water. 

Plot aficionados, this won't be your cup of tea. Because there is only one question--will he or won't he survive?  If you enjoy character-driven drama,  you're S. O. L. as well.  We learn next to nothing of the man. Not his name, nor why he has embarked upon his foolhardy journey. He apparently has a family somewhere. But then, most people do.

All Is Lost is pure action and a man's will to survive. Redford gets jostled about in the craft during storms and knocks his head. He tries unsuccessfully to send a mayday call on his radio. He climbs up and down the mast and does other manly type things. He charts his course on a map and sees that he is drifting toward the shipping lanes, and potential rescue. But will help arrive in time before he runs out of food and water, or becomes some shark's dinner entree?

There is one moment of comic relief where the man rears back and lets fly with an expletive to ring through the universe. You would too in his predicament.  It's a truly existential moment. Why are we here? What the hell is going on? The only entreaty to the gods that seems to make any sense is:  F_  _ K!!!!!!

All Is Lost is a unique kind of movie that won't challenge you much, in the sense that if  you nod off for a minute or two, you haven't missed anything. You may wonder why Robert Redford would make such a film. I think it's because he wanted to demonstrate what a tough and spry old fart he is at age 77.

GRADE:  C +


JILL'S TAKE

As I watched this movie, I kept thinking of nasty headlines I could write: "Stick to directing, Bobby!" "All will be lost at the box office with this turkey!" or"See Spot Sink." I know, I know. It's mean-spirited of me. But so is ALL IS LOST.  Mean-spirited in the sense that it totally disregards the needs of the average film-goer. Now if you're an avid sailor, that's different. Or if—like most men—you are map-obsessed, ALL IS LOST will certainly keep you 'on course.' Just out of curiosity, I looked around the theater and I'd say 80% of the audience was male.

Yes, Mr. Redford is certainly nimble for his age. But the dyed hair (possibly enhanced by a wig?) and withering biceps were a dead giveaway. Much as I liked him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  I've always felt Redford's performances were pretty wooden. As a director, however, the man is a genius.

While trying not to nod off, I developed a mad-on for Redford's character labeled in the credits as "Our Man." People whose egos are so huge they think they can overcome any and all obstacles piss me off. This guy reminded me of the bear activist in Grizzly Man who thought he could communicate with grizzlies -- to learn too late that he was wrong. Part of me was hoping Our Man would get eaten by the sea. Oh well. The underwater photography was beautiful.

GRADE: D








Saturday, November 9, 2013

ABOUT TIME (2013)



Rated: R

STARS:  Domhnall Gleeson,  Rachel McAdams,  Bill Nighy,  Lydia Wilson,   Margot Robbie
DIRECTOR:  Richard Curtis
GENRE: Romantic Comedy/ Fantasy


Cross Groundhog Day with The Time Traveler's Wife and you get something called About Time--with much of the humor, cleverness, and charm of the former, and a little of the head spinning stay-on-your-toes-and-try-to-keep-up aspect of the latter. 

The romantic lead,  Domhnall Gleeson, is no Hugh Grant-- the common denominator in previous Richard Curtis faves such as Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary.  He's an average looking bloke, but he grows on you. 


Born into a well-to-do English family, Tim Lake (Gleeson) has just turned 21, and it's time for the fatherly talk from dad (the irrepressible Bill Nighy) on the subject of stepping out into the world. But it's not what Tim is expecting. Dad informs him that the men in the family have always had the ability to travel through time, and Tim has it too. He can't change the world in any monumental way--just his own personal experiences.  So naturally, Tim takes advantage of his newly found abilities and zips back to a crappy New Year's Eve party where he failed to kiss the girl...and...kisses the girl. Hey, this works! You pretty much know  where it's headed from here. Tim uses time travel to find the perfect girl, (Rachel McAdams) fall in love, and make the events of his life work to his liking. Except every act creates some kind of karma, so he finds himself having to go back and tweak things here and there, with consequences that set the theater audience laughing uproariously or wiping away a little tear.


Love Actually is on my top ten favorites of all time list. So I was eagerly anticipating About Time. It's not a perfect film. It's overly long--a little over two hours--and not in the way that leaves you thirsting for more. It could have easily been condensed by twenty minutes and the movie would have been less wobbly on its feet.  As it is, it's not so much a story as it is a saga. And the theme that kept coming into my mind--whether it's moral to manipulate people and events to one's own advantage without informing them of what you've done--is not explored.


But About Time has all the hallmarks of any feel-good Richard Curtis film, and despite its shortcomings, (or long-comings) profound life lessons are imparted, and your spirits will soar.


Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

Feel-good, schmeel-good. When a film presents a premise such as being able to go back in time, I don't like it when that premise gets tinkered with halfway through the movie. I won't bore you with the details of how it gets tinkered with (and why the final turnaround doesn't make any sense). Suffice it to say that neither Tim nor I could justify the obvious inconsistencies. Clearly it didn't bother him. But me? I'm more anally retentive than that. Still, it was—as the Brits would say—a rollicking romp of a movie.

Of course I have a secret crush on Bill Nighy ever since I saw him in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" – which I hear is slated for a sequel. And he is utterly charming as the head of a rather bizarre household that includes an uncle whose suits are tailored to a fare-thee-well but whose conversational skills leave a lot to be desired. Rachel McAdams is a treat to look at and personally I found it hard to believe she'd fall for a geeky-looking guy like Tim. (Hugh Grant, yes. But Domhnall Gleeson? 'Fraid not.) In researching her other films, I found it rather amusing that she was paired with yet another time-traveler (Eric Bana) in "The Time Traveler's Wife." I didn't hate ABOUT TIME. But compared to other Richard Curtis' offerings, I was disappointed.

GRADE:  C +

Thursday, October 31, 2013

THE COUNSELOR (2013)



Rated: R

Stars: Michael Fassbender,  Javier Bardem,  Penelope Cruz,  Cameron Diaz,  Brad Pitt

Director: Ridley Scott

Genre: Crime Thriller/  Drama

Jolly good, then. Let's get to it. Most of the characters in The Counselor are assholes. No, make that stupid assholes. We know that early on because two of them, a drug mogul and his raunchy girlfriend--Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz--keep cheetahs (with pretty collars) as pets. These folks have nothing to recommend them to any higher authority as having played the game of life with a whit of conscience, decency, or human compassion. And I've always found it strange (because the mentality exists in real life) that people would risk their freedom, and more often than not their lives, for illicit material gain--when they already have fresh air, clothes on their back, food on the table, a roof over their head, a nice dog (or girlfriend) to lick their face...what's missing here besides your sick, twisted obsession to prove to yourself that you are unworthy of happiness?  


Central to this charming tale of unmitigated greed is the defense attorney known only as "Counselor" (Michael Fassbender). He buys his girlfriend (Penelope Cruz) a 3.8 carat diamond ring, then falls in with a big-time drug ring to finance it.  One would think that it takes some smarts to become an attorney . There are multiple times when Counselor is asked if he's sure he wants to get involved in all this nasty business, and he never flinches. Ugh. Big ring make need for big money. Mmmm...what possibly go wrong?


Of course, things start to spiral out of control in short order and the noose begins to tighten around Counselor's neck (a pun I won't spoil if you are indiscriminate enough to plop your money down for this) as the Mexican drug deal he is counting on to save his financial ass goes awry. And somebody has to pay.


Along the way, The Counselor pauses now and again for some pretentious philosophizing about life. The movie is getting slammed for that more than for the fact that it's difficult to keep straight who's connected to whom and just how and why.  Stuff like when Bardem's character, Reiner, says: "Are you really that cold?"  And sleaze-squeeze Malkina (Carmen Diaz) replies: "The truth has no temperature."  The screen heats up, though, when Diaz demonstrates the fruits of her workout ethic by doing  the splits on the windshield of Reiner's Ferrari--grinding panty-less as he observes from inside. (
See artist rendering above!)  Later, when relating the story of the incident, he states: "That kind of thing changes you."

A stellar cast will draw filmgoers to this one just out of curiosity. But Cormac McCarthy's bleak and cynical script (his first screenwriting effort) may turn me into more of a misanthrope than I already am. (For the record, McCarthy's The Road was  the most soulless and depressing book I've ever read. )


Penelope Cruz provides some sweet steaminess. Javier Bardem adds some darkly comic relief. Fassbender is a clueless wonder. Carmen Diaz has an evil-looking face to begin with--she better guard against getting typecast.  Brad Pitt is a drugstore cowboy type who may be the most likable character in the movie.     


But none can save The Counselor  from going down.


Grade: D


JILL'S TAKE

Never mind all the things Tim has already pointed out—a disjointed script, red herrings that never get resolved, unsympathetic characters—my main beef with THE COUNSELOR is not about the film per se. It's about the actors—damn fine actors, too—who let themselves be talked into appearing in such mindless drivel. I can understand why Michael Fassbender might say yes to this turkey, given his sexual track record in "Shame." The opening scene between him and Penelope Cruz (Javier Bardem's wife in real life) outdoes itself in the oral sex department.

But it's downhill from there.

I was so confused by who was gunning for whom that I found myself hoping the cheetahs would make a meal out of at least one of these gangsta narcissisistas. About the only good thing I can say about this endlessly talky film is....I'm thinking, I'm thinking!

I liked Carmen Diaz' fake silver fingernails.

Grade: F







Friday, October 25, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Tom Hanks,  Barkhad Abdi
Director:  Paul Greengrass
Genre:  Action / Thriller

Tom Hanks gets upstaged by a young Somalian immigrant with no prior acting experience. Fancy that. Which is not to say that Hanks doesn't do a hell of a job as the skipper of the  Maersk Alabama in Captain Phillips, based on the true story of the U.S. cargo ship hijacked by Somalian pirates in an international incident that made headlines in 2009. It's just that Muse (Barkhad  Abdi)  is so authentically lean, hungry, and monomaniacal as the leader of the four young psychopaths who commandeer the ship, hoping to garner a big ransom payout.  While it's hard to fathom that this is Abdi's  acting debut, I find it less difficult to speculate that he may have some actual pirating experience on his resume! (A prerequisite for getting the part?) 

Captain Phillips is a full-speed-ahead action tour-de-force.  It never pauses to wax philosophical, or poke around much inside the characters' heads--except for a brief moment  near the tension-filled climax when Phillips looks at Muse and tells him there must be something else he could do with his life. 


Teenagers.


It's a gritty and grueling turn for Hanks who, as Captain Richard Phillips,  must try to outwit capricious desperadoes with automatic weapons trained on him as best he can. For the most part, he is up to the challenge. The only stumble is that the Irish accent he is affecting gets totally submerged when he has to shout. The louder he shouts, the more the old familiar Tom Hanks voice that we know and love returns. Not a biggie. You may not even notice it.  But I notice stuff. That's why they pay me the big bucks.  


Going in, I vaguely remembered this incident from four years ago, (a long time for me to try to remember anything) and I didn't recall how it all played out in the end, which I'm certain made this viewing experience more thrilling for me because, as I have stated before, I AM BORED BY HISTORICAL DOCUDRAMAS WHERE I ALREADY KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!! So I would say that if the Maersk Alabama incident is fuzzy in your head as well, you should enjoy Captain Phillips tremendously!


Grade:  A



JILL'S TAKE

If I had to devise an acronymic blurb for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, it would read: Terrifyingly Exciting Nautical Saga Enthralls! Yes, this film is definitely T-E-N-S-E. I went to see it with two gents who are known to fall asleep during movies, a crime punishable by death in my view. But they didn't snooze in this one. They were both glued to the edge of their seats, eyes wide open, for the entire two hours and thirteen minutes. Tim has already filled you in on the nonfiction plot and the incredible acting job of the lead pirate Barkhad Abdi. As far as memorable villains go, Abdi is right up there with Anthony Hopkins in "Silence Of The Lambs" and Javier Bardem in "No Country For Old Men." His incredible skinniness makes you believe he's the real deal. (I agree with Tim—it's hard to believe this guy hasn't has some actual ship-robbing experience.)

Other reasons that make this film relentlessly tense are Henry Jackman's pounding score and Paul Greengrass' direction, demanding that these richly dark pirates never let up on their hysteria. Of course movies that use any type of closed-in location (ocean liners, submarines, airplanes) have a definite scare-factor advantage. I like to call them "no way out" flicks. And CAPTAIN PHILLIPS in no exception. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Tom Hanks. His controlled strength under duress eventually crumbles and that's when we really get to witness the range of his acting chops. If you're a nail-biter, I'd wear gloves to this one!

GRADE: A








Thursday, October 3, 2013

RUSH (2013)



Rated:  R

Stars: Daniel Bruhl,  Chris Hemsworth,  Alexandra Maria Lara,  Olivia Wilde

Director: Ron Howard

Genre: Action-Adventure/ Drama

There is a reason why those new car commercials on TV have some stunt driver careening wildly around hairpin curves, and turning doughnuts in a cloud of dust.  It speaks to the inner race car driver (or maniac) in most of us. That's why you don't have to be a racing fan to get off on Rush,  Ron Howard's new film based upon the true story of Niki Lauda and James Hunt--rival drivers at the top of their game on the Formula One racing circuit back in the seventies.There is something primitively sexual about the deafening roar of an engine that will propel you around the track at 170 mph.  That's why race drivers are surrounded by beautiful women. (Danica Patrick, not sure.)  

Hunt and Lauda were polar opposites. Englishman Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a pretty boy. A wild party-goer and a womanizer who hacked his guts up at the track before each race--presumably out of nervousness, or maybe it was just carried over from the night before. (And in the name of realism, we get to witness it multiple times.) Lauda, (Daniel Bruhl) an Austrian, was the cold, analytical type  who knew how to tune his cars to make them go just a little faster than the competition. He tried to calculate the odds of getting killed in any given race in terms of a percentage figure.  

With those engines roaring in your ears, jump-cut editing that matches the frenetic pace of the track, and an exhilarating music score from Academy Award (R) winner Hans Zimmer, Rush puts you in the driver's seat to experience all the heart-pounding, bang-up action--and there is plenty of it-- of the 1976 duel between Hunt and Lauda for the Formula One world championship. 

Of course, there's more to the film than that. It's a poignant tale of two rivals who drive each other to be the best that they can be, and in that sense--much like the legendary thoroughbreds Affirmed and Alydar--they feed off of each other 

I did a little research and found that the film sticks pretty close to the facts, except for portraying these guys as snarky adversaries with nary a kind word to utter to one another, at least in the beginning. In truth, Hunt and Lauda were friends. 

I'm going to declare Rush as the Rocky of racing films--in future years I think it will be regarded as such. And in a supporting role, Lauda's wife, Marlene, (Alexandra Maria Lara) makes a fine Adrian, as she gazes upon her man putting his life on the line, 
( forty-nine drivers have perished driving a Formula 1 car) outwardly composed, but her eyes reveal what her body language tries to conceal.

For some, the closer they come to death, the more alive they feel. That would be the only way to explain why these hyped-up adrenalin junkies keep tempting fate the way they do.  Lucky for you, all you need do is survive the city traffic and get to a theater to experience one danged realistic rush of a movie.
GRADE:  A
JILL'S TAKE

As Tim and I were leaving the movie theater, I got to thinking about other car racing movies and couldn't come up with a single one. Whereas horse racing flicks have always been a lucrative staple in the film business. (Or should I say 'stable'?) I decided to type in 'car racing movies' in my search window and, believe it or not, Netflix supplied a bunch of 'em: Dust To Glory, On Any Sunday, Love The Beast, Once Upon A Wheel, Yank Tanks, Octane, to name a few.
More amazing is the fact that I am not familiar with any of these gems. The only other movie I can think of that deals with car-racing--motorcycle racing, actually--was a brilliant movie starring Anthony Hopkins. Like RUSH, it was based on a real person, New Zealander Burt Monro, who spent years building a 1920 Indian motorcycle that helped him set the land-speed world record at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967. The name of the movie was The World's Fastest Indian and, like the two rivals in RUSH, the main character was obsessed with speed and winning. 
Although Formula One racing is a subject I know nothing about, I was still hooked on the movie because of these two diametrically different racers. Director Ron Howard made me feel like I, too, was crammed inside one of those pricey machines with Hunt or Lauda. Of course, Howard also took some liberties with reality when he prolonged the tire-changing scenes for dramatic purposes. True racing aficionados would have taken exception to this. 
Despite his brilliance, Daniel Bruhl seemed unfamiliar to me (although he did have a fairly decent part in Inglorious Basterds). I was blown away by how much the actor resembled the real life Niki Lauda pictured at the end of the film.

Grade: B+

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

THANKS FOR SHARING (2013)



Rated: R

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Tim Robbins, Pink, Patrick Fugit

Director: Stuart Blumberg

Genre:  Dark Comedy



Apparently, the difference between a "normal" guy and a sex addict is that the normal guy will see an attractive woman on the street and start having fantasies about her. The sex addict will observe the same woman, have those same fantasies, and then act on them in some inappropriate way. In essence, then, the difference is one of self-control. Which should confirm many of the suspicions you've had about us all along, ladies!

Thanks For Sharing follows three New Yorkers whose lives intersect as they work their 12-Step program for sex addiction. There is Adam, (Mark Ruffalo) who is a good looking, successful guy who would seem to have it all. He is now five years "sober". (It's interesting that they use the AA parlance in all of these programs  to denote the abstaining from self-destructive behaviors.) When Adam stays in a hotel room he has to have the TV removed because it would be too tempting for him to watch porn and fall back into his old ways. Committed relationships are encouraged in the program, and Adam begins something with a blonde named Phoebe, (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose overindulgence has to do with exercise and fitness.  

Mike (Tim Robbins) is a burly middle-aged guy who seems to have his doo-doo together and acts as a sponsor within the program. But he has issues with his son, Danny, (Patrick Fugit) who has his own issues with substance abuse.

And then there is Neal, (Josh Gad) who provides the true comic presence in this dark comedy that is otherwise mostly...dark. Neal is a roly-poly emergency room doctor who has been court ordered to do 12-Step because he does things like rub up against women on the subway.

The three story lines work well in Thanks For Sharing because each of our protagonists is struggling to keep it together in his own way, and there is nothing that renders one more human--and thus worthy of rooting for--than to have his demons laid bare for all to observe. And what come through loud and clear is that even those of us who are considered to be more or less normal--whatever that means in a world where the inmates appear to be running the asylum--may be regarded as such because we're a little more adept at keeping our compulsions under wraps. (Carlos Danger notwithstanding!)

On the one hand, I want to say that Thanks For Sharing is one of the best movies I've seen this year. On the other, I wish they could have dialed it back a bit on the melodrama to make it more believable. In certain places I felt that the film was right on the verge of turning into Reefer Madness for sex addiction. (If you recall, the campy, moralistic melodrama from the thirties had people turning into monsters after smoking one joint.) Case in point: There is one character here, a young female, who is so over the top on the bizarre meter that her scene would be downright laughable if it weren't so godawful gritty and scary. 

So for the first time, I'm giving a film a dual rating. The first is for the performances of this fine ensemble cast and as a creative work as a whole. Grade : A  
The second is for realism. Grade: C 




JILL'S TAKE

Two ratings? Gimme a break, Tim. I agree wholeheartedly with your first one. THANKS FOR SHARING is an excellent movie on many, many levels. The acting is top-notch, the characters are spot on. And I would bet my virginity (long gone) that the script writers are all in some 12 Step program. They know the jargon, the games 'newbies' play, the egos that won't quit. Because all these 12 step programs encourage rigorous honesty—the hardest thing for addicts of any kind to get in touch with—let me begin by saying I am seventeen years sober and have attended a mountain of AA meetings. (As well as ACOA, Al-Anon and CODA) In other words, when I say THANKS FOR SHARING is the real deal, I know whereof I speak.

For me, the standout performance in this film is given by Josh Gad. Who is this guy and why haven't I seen him before? Probably because I don't watch The Daily Showwhere he plays a regular correspondent. Nor have I seen "The Book of Mormon" where he played Elder Arnold Cunningham. Anyway, he has the knack of turning his perversions into humorous bits—until they finally get him fired.

Another actor who deserves a nod is Pink (Alecia Beth Moore) who plays Dede, the female version of a sex addict. The interplay between her and Neal (Gad), really illustrates how vital friendships between fellow sufferers can be. They are one of the cornerstones of recovery. I remember when I was first getting sober, I connected with a gal named Brenda. Under different circumstances we would never have been friends. But our need to connect, to support each other in times of temptation was invaluable. What I'm curious to know is whether people with no personal 12 step experience will understand how essential going to meetings, working the steps, getting a sponsor is after seeing THANKS FOR SHARING.

GRADE: A +



Wednesday, September 11, 2013

THE SPECTACULAR NOW (2013)



Rated: R

Stars: Miles Teller,  Shailene Woodley,  Jennifer Jason Leigh,  Kyle Chandler

Director:  James Ponsoldt

Genre: Drama/ Romance-comedy


The Spectacular Now is a small gem of a movie with a splashy title that features a soon to be prominent film star (my prediction) in the young Shailene Woodley. (You might remember her as the George Clooney character's daughter in The Descendants.) More on the talented Ms. Woodley in a moment.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a popular high school kid who drinks too much. He and his girlfriend, Cassidy, (Brie Larson) are the life of the party because they can dance and know how to booze it up (the two main attributes a high-schooler must possess to be popular.) But as we enter their lives, they are breaking up due to a misunderstanding. Or maybe they just saw each other one time in the light of day when they were both sober. So Sutter begins to imbibe even more to deal with his loss.

Not surprisingly, Sutter is a slacker in school.  He has a teacher who cares, who knows that the kid would do well if he would just apply himself. Despite it all, he's a sympathetic character (a mite reminiscent of  Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate) with whom many of us can identify because he doesn't want to grow up. 

Enter Aimee Finecky, (Shailene Woodley) a rather plain-looking and plain-spoken--read nerdy--type who becomes Sutter's rebound girl.  That's not to say that she isn't beautiful. It's the kind of beauty that radiates from within and shines from without on her exquisitely expressive face. A face that hits all the right marks at the appropriate times. So unspoiled, so real, so sincere, and yes, a bit naive--that you can't fathom why he doesn't fall head-over-heels for her right away. And that is high tribute to the talents and fresh-faced appeal of Ms. Woodley. 


But Sutter is troubled, and the key to his alcohol abuse may lie with his estranged father, whom he hasn't seen since early childhood. He is compelled to find the man--and in the process, he hopes--to find himself as well.

The appeal of The Spectacular Now is that  we have a young couple--on the verge of high school graduation and facing major changes in their lives (undertones of American Graffiti) that we can root for, despite the odds that are stacked against them. 

Grade:  B +


JILL'S TAKE

This is our tenth joint review, Tim and I. And finally, at long last, we have a spectacular conflict of opinions. I felt there were more holes in this script than Sutter Keeley's propensity for telling untruths. The most blantant being how our leading brat's rampant alcoholism is never really addressed. All it takes in this coming-of-age saga is following your sweetheart to the college of her choice. (Who needs Alcoholics Anonymous?)

As for "the teacher who cares," he is prominently featured at the beginning and then conveniently disappears by the end. And then there's Sutter's mom. The first time we meet her, she's pissed at her son for forgetting to hang up her uniform so it won't be wrinkled when she has to go to work. The second time, she's pissed at her son for showing up at her place of business and demanding to know who and where his father is. Basically, theirs is not an ideal mother/son relationship. Then—with zero preparation—she becomes a validating parent. Convenient but totally unrealistic.

I could go on...and on...and on. But as is my custom with these mini movie comments, I like to end on a positive note. There is a beautifully directed and very real sex scene between the two leads that touched my heart and made me recall "my first time." I defy anyone to watch this particular scene without being moved. Nonetheless, I'd call this film a bomb-in-the-making.

Grade: C – 

Monday, August 26, 2013

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (2013)



Rated:  PG-13

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo

Director: Lee Daniels (What was your first clue?)

Genre:  Drama

Witnessing one's father being gunned down in cold blood because he stepped out of line in the white man's world in the pre-civil rights era will have a lasting effect on a child. . For Cecil Gaines, the central character in Lee Daniels' The Butler, it shaped his entire life. And while we could say that Mr. Gaines rose to the top of his profession as a butler at the White House--he was still walking on egg shells in another man's world. Don't express opinions. Especially about politics. Know your place and stay in it.  Ironic, then, that Cecil would have a son who became active in the civil rights movement of the sixties, throwing his lot in with the freedom riders down south, and later joining the militant Black Panther party. 

 The Butler is a tale of two generations as different as black and white. ( And please don't make me insert "Lee Daniels" as a prefix  every time I mention the name of this movie. Does Quentin Tarantino put his name in the title of his films? Let's just name another football stadium after its corporate sponsor and leave it at that.)


 It's a good thing that the character of Cecil  Gaines is a composite, loosely based (and blatantly inaccurate) on the life of Eugene Allen, the man who served eight presidents in the White House from 1952 to 1986. Because Mr. Gaines is not an admirable or likable individual throughout most of this film.  It's not his Uncle Tom attitude. Given the era he came up in, we can allow  him that.  It's his outright hostility and barely concealed resentment toward his son, Louis, who represents everything Dylan was waxing nasally about in "The Times They Are a--Changin."  The boy just seems to have a nose for trouble. Challenging authority and landing his ass in jail. Why ya tryin' to upset the apple cart?  Riding in the back of the bus ain't so bad.


But times change, and people do too. And if you are like me, you'll be rooting for Cecil to come around as well. 


I've felt that Forrest Whitaker was one of our finest actors since seeing him in The Last King of Scotland. He has solidified that opinion here. Oprah Winfrey, as his wife,  does a credible job as a woman starved for attention--seeking it elsewhere because Cecil is up in the big house...er,  I mean White House, doing his thing. And then we have all those cameos by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, James Marsden, Jane Fonda, and Liev Schreiber, representing the various presidents and/or their wives from Eisenhower to Reagan . Going strictly by appearances, some miss the mark,  as Marsden doesn't look much like Kennedy. But Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda absolutely nail Ronald and Nancy Reagan.  Especially Fonda, who has the first lady's mannerisms and walk down pat.  I was expecting to hear "just say no" dribbling mindlessly from her lips at  any moment. The irony of casting some of these Hollywood "pinkos"  as the likes of Richard Nixon and  Ron and Nancy Reagan is not lost on those of us who lived through the era.


And the era is the real star of The Butler. The turbulence of the civil rights struggle is dramatized,  then complemented with actual footage of redneck cops beating up peaceful marchers...the vicious dogs...the high powered water hoses--it's all there to remind those too young to have witnessed it that yes, these things really happened in a place  we called America. At times, however,  the film slips into mawkish stereotypes, as when Louis and his girlfriend sit down to dinner with his parents. Louis never removes his Black Panther beret, and his gal sports an Afro that rises about two feet atop her head. It's all for dramatic,  and rather humorous effect; but I tend to think that a real version of Louis, with everything he's been through, would have the sensitivity to remove his hat at the table. 


We aren't really sure whose side the movie is on until the closing credits, which give credit where credit is due. 

Grade: B+

JILL'S TAKE

Nice review, Tim. Well-expressed and thoughtful. But if we had gone to see this flick together and you had called Oprah Winfrey's performance "credible," I would've beaten you over the head with my ticket stub! Credible? She was (blankety-blank-blank) brilliant. Mark my Oscar-predicting words, she's gonna win this year's gold statuette for Best Supporting Actress. Kudos to everyone involved in this movie. But special praise must be given to the editors. The cuts—from a posh White House dinner to a lunch counter sit-in where the protesters are being spat upon—speak visual volumes about that era in history.

As far as the various presidential cameos go, the one of Lyndon Johnson played extremely well by Liev Schreiber is about as unflattering as you can get. No doubt, an accurate portrayal. (I encourage those of you with HBO to catch this actor in "Ray Donovan.")

When the end credits rolled and I tried to stop weeping and sniffling, choking down more tears, the fellow I went to see THE BUTLER with made a comment I agree with. (See, Tim? I do agree with some opinions!) He felt it was slow in the beginning, a bit confusing at that party with the bickering neighbors. Yes, the drunk guy—played with missing front teeth by Terrence Howard—figured into the plot later on. But if I had anything to criticize about this fantastic film, it would be the subplot between him and Cecil Gaines' wife. I felt it was unnecessary.

Grade: A