Thursday, December 31, 2015

CAROL (2015)

Rated: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade:  B +


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

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

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

Grade: C

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CREED (2015)

Rated: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's the same thing here. Absolutely. 

Grade:  A   


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

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

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

Grade: C


Friday, December 4, 2015


Rated: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A


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

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

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

Grade: A +

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SICARIO (2015)

Rated: R

STARS: Emily Blunt, Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin
DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve
GENRE: Action/Thriller

There's an old song from the seventies by Dave Mason, with a refrain that goes: ...there ain't no good guy...there ain't no bad guy...and that seems to be the not so subtle point Sicario is making about the failed and misguided American war on drugs. 

Emily Blunt is Kate, an idealistic FBI agent who gets recruited to join an inter-agency task force that aims to bring down a brutal Mexican drug cartel jefe.  
To accomplish their objective, they must first make a foray into the most lawless and dangerous cesspool in the western hemisphere--Juarez--to kidnap one of the cartel's top men. As she is drawn deeper into the violence and moral ambiguity of the mission, Kate's ethical compass is spinning out of control. 

Blunt has shown she is capable of much more depth and nuance (in films such as Sunshine Cleaning and The Adjustment Bureau) than what this role affords her the opportunity to display. And I scratch my head as to why she was drawn to the film to begin with, other than maybe she's always wanted to play an action hero?   

The pros of Sicario are the gritty performances from Josh Brolin, as undercover CIA guy, Matt Graver;  and Benicio Del Toro, Matt's partner--a loose cannon intent upon exacting a personal revenge. The cons, in my opinion, are the grisly scenes of violence (unless you are pathologically drawn to that sort of thing, like SOME people I know), particularly the shocker near the end that only serves to attempt to justify the utter depravity that we, as humans, will resort to with our eye for an eye, end-justifies-the-means mentality.

 Bottom line...if you're thirsty for blood, forgo the latest vampire movie and see Sicario instead.    

Grade:  C


I can't imagine who Tim might be referring to when he talks about aficionados of violence! Me, I thirst after blood when it's part of the story. And, indeed, Sicario offers a lot of it. It also offers an abundance of confusion. Not just for Emily Blunt's character, who is kept in the dark for two-thirds of the film. I, too, was totally confused. As a rule, I like good villains (good as in nasty, cruel, sadistic, etc.). But I couldn't decide between Josh Brolin's perpetual sneer and Benicio Del Toro's squinty eyes. I will, however, give mucho kudos to Benicio (Benny for short) for his stellar performance.
For me, the real star of this vehicle was the scorer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose repetitive themes set a scary mood from beginning to end. Not unlike John Williams' theme in Jaws.
I walked away from this movie, fascinated by the fact that ISIS has now taken over the headlines. You don't hear much about the drug war south of our border these days. The fact that the biggest drug lord of them all, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who tunneled his way out of a Mexican jail nearly four months ago, is still on the loose is hardly mentioned. Guess that's the point of Sicario. You can't catch 'em all, even in the movies.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Last Tango In Timbuktu by Tim Schaefer

Last Tango In Timbuktu

by Tim Schaefer

Giveaway ends December 01, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Rated: R

STARS: Bill Murray,  Bruce Willis,  Kate Hudson, 
Zooey Deschanel,  Leem Lubany
DIRECTOR: Barry Levinson
GENRE: Comedy-Drama

How much you like Bill Murray--meaning the vintage SNL Bill Murray--will determine whether you get a kick out of Rock The Kasbah, or sit there somewhat embarrassed for everyone involved in the endeavor. And there are a lot of big names involved. 

Rock The Kasbah follows has-been music promoter Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) on a USO tour to Afghanistan, with lounge singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel),  presumably his last client who still believes in him. They're counting on an in and out, take the money and run one night stand deal. But Ronnie despises the place from the get-go, whining and making bratty faces (but alluring faces nonetheless), and climbing the walls to get out of there. So it's no surprise when she skips out on Richie, heading for Dubai--leaving him high and dry-- sans money or a passport. I say no surprise in terms of the plot, but it was a shock to me as to why they pulled Zooey Deschanel--whom I like as much as Bill Murray, and if you consider appearances, a whole lot more--out of the movie early on and never brought her back!  I CONSIDER THAT TO BE THE MAJOR FLAW OF THIS FILM. And that's why I'm giving you a heads up so it can factor into your decision as to whether you want to spend your hard earned coin on a movie that makes such questionable choices. (There is Kate Hudson, though, as an affable hooker, which helps to ease the Zooey withdrawal. ) 

So now the plot veers in another direction, with Murray and Bruce Willis-- typecast as a menacing mercenary--playing off of each other. Then Richie overhears a young Pashtun girl named Salima (Leem Lubany), who sings just as sweetly as Shakira (and in fact looks like Shakira with dark hair), and the dollar signs spring up in his eyes. From this point, the movie is a poor man's Slumdog Millionaire, with Richie managing the girl through Afghan Star---the local version of American Idol.  But it will be a bumpy ride, as "uppity" women in this part of the world are frowned upon. In fact, they are often murdered. So after a sluggish start, things pick up in the second half, as momentum--and resistance--to Salima following her dream of singing stardom kicks into high gear. 

There is a lot of goofiness is this movie, thanks to Bill Murray being Bill Murray. That aside, Rock The Kasbah reminds us all too clearly of the plight of middle eastern women, who are little more than chattel to their misogynistic menfolk, and offers that little glimmer of hope that one day this part of the world may yet emerge from the dark ages. 

Grade:  C +


Ever watch a movie you know you shouldn't like but you keep watching it anyway? Rock the Kasbah was, for me, a good example of that. Not being a Bill Murray fan (except forGroundhog Day and Hyde Park On Hudson), I was prepared to suffer through this movie, eager for the end credits to start rolling. But I got hooked in spite of myself. Silly as the premise was, the message beneath that silliness was touching. I even found myself tearing up at the end, glad that at least one middle eastern woman wasn't stoned for wanting to sing. And sing she did. Beautifully.
Kudos for a musical score by Marcelo Zarvos that really 'rocked.'

I could carp about Bruce Willis playing two distinctly different characters which I still can't figure out. Or certain scenes – Bill Murray doing his happy dance around a campfire of stone-faced tribesmen--dragging on too long. But when I read at the end of the film that it was based on a real event, naming the real woman who won the singing contest, the first Afghan woman ever to do so, I forgave all the movie's imperfections and left the theater feeling hopeful.

Grade:  B

Friday, October 16, 2015


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
GENRE: Sci-fi/Fantasy/Drama

Imagine you are part of a manned mission to Mars, and you're just hanging out on the red planet, enjoying the landscape and doing your job picking up rocks and stuff...doo n doo...when along comes a monster storm that sends you reeling in a big we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore way--and your fellow crew members figure you must be dead, so they make a hasty decision to abort the mission, get outta Dodge, and head back to the friendly confines of mother earth. But you're not dead, because you are Matt Damon (as astronaut/botanist Mark Watney), and now you have to figure out how to survive up there all by your lonesome for as long as you can. And then determine how in the world (in an other worldly sort of way) you're going to get back home.

That becomes the one and only story question of The Martian--a highly imaginative film from a highly imaginative book (which I haven't read) by Andy Weir, but I know it must be so because there's a lot of techie sci-fi jargon just in the movie itself, which is always a watered down version of the book. Which would be easier to follow if you were a techie type, which I'm not, but not essential for enjoyment of the film on an empathy level, as we can all identify with a guy who is stranded high and dry many millions of miles from home but can still maintain his sense of humor.

The first thing Watney sets about doing is planting and growing some food in the controlled environment of the Mars mission base. He grows potatoes, because there are lots of spuds in the rations on hand. This made me enjoy the movie more, because I like potatoes. I eat a lot of potatoes. And so does he. Someone once told me about a girl who ate nothing but potatoes---that was the only thing she liked--and she seemed just fine.

Watney eventually figures out how to communicate with NASA back on earth. Now it's up to Jeff Daniels, as the NASA administrator, to consult with our best and brightest minds so he can be the man with the plan. But Watney's fellow crew members, who originally thought they were heading back to earth,  have their own ideas--and it's a bit more complicated than simply making a U-turn in space and going back to pick up our spaced out hitch-hiker. In fact, it's one of those deals where seemingly hundreds of things have to go right, and if any one thing goes haywire, everybody can kiss their rear ends goodbye. Of course, the odds of pulling off something like that in reality are...well...ASTRONOMICAL!  But never let that get in the way of a good story. (Perhaps the most far-fetched aspect of the tale is the idea that China and the United States would cooperate closely in developing and carrying out the rescue mission!) 

As word spreads, there's a lot of feelgood rooting and cheering for Watney around the globe--a la Slumdog Millionaire--suggesting that we are all better off when there is something that captures the imagination of this bickering, worn out old planet to bring us all together, if only for a while.  

 Jessica Chastain stands out as the crew commander who made the call to abandon the mission when the storm hit, and must live with the guilt of that decision. But comic actress Kristen Wiig's talents are wasted here in an unchallenging and unremarkable role--and it makes you wonder why she, of all people, is in this movie.

The real star of The Martian--as is often the case with sci-fi films--is the CG wizardry that created the whole outer space milieu and the eerily fascinating martian landscape. Give Ridley Scott credit for not just throwing up those highly recycled images of Monument Valley, like nearly every other film ever made that required a desolate looking landscape as the backdrop. 

Grade:  B


Let me begin by saying I enjoyed Tim's write-up a lot more than the two hours and twenty-two minutes of The Martian. Aside from endless techie jargon (of which I understood zilch), the "will-he-ever-get-back-to-earth" plot got lost in space. I'm not a sci-fi fan so I went in with a huge chunk of orbital debris on my shoulder. And it only got bigger as the film progressed.

To me, this flick is the Red Planet's version of Castaway. Only Matt Damon didn't feel the need to create a companion like Wilson. Therein likes the problem: astronauts have to keep a tight lid on their emotions. So it becomes a matter of solving problem after insurmountable problem with as little emotional turmoil as possible. Bor-ing! Unless, of course, you are seriously into cosmology.... 
I'm not. 
But to give kudos where kudos are due, the folks in charge of production design and/or art direction will definitely get a nod at Oscar time.

Grade: C -

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Rated: PG-13

STARS; Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
GENRE: Comedy

It's the boomers versus the millennials in a friendly competition to determine who really has their act together--and 65 year-old screenwriter/director Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give) leaves little room for doubt at the end of The Intern as to where her sympathies lie.

Ben (Robert De Niro) is 70--a retired administrator, a widower, and at loose ends as to what comes next. So he signs up for a senior intern program at a start-up online fashion store that is going great guns, run by thirty-something founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway).  Jules starts out as a cliche--overworked, harried, and so absorbed in her job that she doesn't see what's coming with her emotionally neglected house husband (Anders Holm), who has taken on the role of Mister Mom. (That's the subplot.) As the character of Jules is fleshed out, she becomes a more sympathetic presence. She wants to do the right things, and she's not evil, which automatically puts her above most of the dramatis personae in the films that have been stinking up the big screen all summer.
So here we have Ben, the septuagenarian intern--a guy who wears a suit and tie to work each day--wondering how he's going to fit in with all these young'uns at the company. But when the house masseuse, Fiona (Rene Russo), happens by and gives him a frisky-fingered massage at his desk, Ben has an initially embarrassing response (unaided by any little blue pill), that elicits fist bumps from two of his wide-eyed male cohorts. That won't be the last encounter between Ben and Fiona, and that's subplot number two.

Anyhoo, Ben is assigned to Jules, and at first she doesn't know what to do with him. She even wants him reassigned to someone else. But time after time, he is placed in situations where imparting his wisdom--the kind that comes only from a life fully lived and learned from--saves the day for his tech-savvy (but otherwise rather clueless) counterparts. Sometimes it's just small things, such as the importance of carrying a handkerchief with you. His explanation for that one points up how far we have come, and what we have lost, in the scramble for gender equality and the resulting dance party on top of chivalry's grave. 

 In The Intern, we have De Niro and Hathaway--two of our finest--in a film about bridging gaps. Generation gaps. Communication gaps. Gender gaps. It will tap your funny bone and tug at your heartstrings. And being the emotionally sensitive type that I am, I can usually tell how much I'm going to enjoy a film when the music first kicks in, and how it resonates with me. The buoyant score from Theodore Shapiro hits all the right notes from start to finish.    

Bring a handkerchief. 

Grade:  B +


I realize readers prefer the verbal sparks to fly when Tim and I have differing opinions. Sorry to say that won't be happening with The Intern. It's a film that audiences of all ages will relate to. From the restless retiree who doesn't know what to do with himself all day, to the career-driven millenial who has to make a million before turning thirty, it deals with the many misconceptions we have about each other. Mainly about aging. One bit I particularly liked was how Anne Hathaway's secretary kept talking loudly to De Niro's character, assuming because he was "old" that he was also deaf. Very funny. Very telling.

As I see it, the chemistry (non sexual but just as powerful) between the two leads was so convincing that the subplots became superfluous. Any time Hathaway and De Niro weren't in a scene together, the film lost momentum. And while I'm on the subject of subplots, I have to say that the casting of Anders Holm as Matt, the permanently baby-sitting hubby, was questionable. With his scraggly beard, glasses and lackluster personality, it's hard to imagine what attracted her to him in the first place? As the subplot thickens—I won't give it away—it is revealed that he gave up his successful career so she could pursue hers. Again, it's hard to imagine this nebbish succeeding in anything more taxing than changing diapers!

Still, it's a refreshing film that left the audience applauding at the end. The tagline for The Intern is: 'Experience never gets old.' Four words that really describe what this film is all about.

Grade: B

Monday, September 28, 2015

PHOENIX (2015)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold
GENRE: Drama/Suspense

In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss) is playing a role. She's playing herself,  as if she were someone not herself...playing herself. That's a head scratcher until you learn that she is a concentration camp survivor in post-war Berlin, recovering from reconstructive facial surgery due to a bullet wound.

Her friend and caregiver, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), wants her to come to Tel Aviv to start a new life. But Nelly is intent upon finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She was a singer--he was a piano player. They made a good team. Or so she thought. 

When she finds him, he doesn't recognize her because her face is different. In a poignant scene, he tells her of his wife (herself), convinced that she perished in the camps. But Nelly fits the same profile, he thinks, and he recruits her to impersonate herself in a scheme to collect inheritance money, as the rest of her family had been killed. Here is where we must decide whether to employ the willing suspension of disbelief and go with the idea that Johnny wouldn't recognize his own wife--face altered or not--by the sound of her voice, her mannerisms, etc.  My advice is to run with it, because you won't be disappointed the rest of the way.

Nelly doesn't reveal her true identity to Johnny, because Lene has told her that he is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. She doesn't want to believe it, but she must discern the truth, so she plays along with his scheme until a climactic scene so "heavy" (as we used to say back in the day) it will have you thinking about Phoenix for days afterward.

German born Nina Hoss shines as a woman torn between love and mistrust...between the past and the present...between the dark and the light.

Grade:  A


Phoenix, despite its basic implausibility, got my attention. And that wasn't easy. Forget about the mistaken identity plot used in literature throughout the ages. What irked me from the get-go were the indecipherable subtitles. (White type against a white background? Pul-eeze!) Then I got confused about the main character's relationship with her friend. Was this woman her sister? Her lawyer? Her wannabe lover? I realize that foreign films don't feel the need to explain everything the way American films do. Still, confusion doesn't sit well with me. All this being said, the ending was worth the price of admission.

And the musical score was beautifully integrated with the story. (Of course it didn't hurt that our facially mutilated heroine was a jazz singer.) That being said, I'm sure Cole Porter would roll over in his grave if he read the German translation of the lyrics to "Night and Day" sung in campy style by two plump, post-war strippers. Which reminds me of another weakness in this film: the title. "Phoenix" is the neon-lit name of the nightclub where the husband works. And, yes, it can also be symbolic of our leading lady's rise from the ashes. But it's a stretch – like so many things about this movie.

Grade:  C +

Friday, September 11, 2015


Rated:  R

STARS: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach
GENRE: Comedy 

Mistress America is reminiscent of a turn of the millennium TV show you may remember--Gilmore Girls--which featured Lauren Graham as a thirty-something mom engaging in rapid-fire repartee with her teen daughter (Alexis Bledel) throughout the show. It was always witty (thanks to the writers) and deadpan humorous. If you liked that show, you will love this movie--the talkiest film I've ever seen (other than My Dinner With Andre and Before Midnight). And yes, it's a total chick flick, but nonetheless I attempt to draw whatever minuscule comprehension of the female brain that I am capable of,  because I owe it to you, dear reader!  

In Mistress America, we have a similar pairing of an 18 year-old college freshman and aspiring writer named Tracy (Lola Kirke), and her thirty-ish future sister-in-law, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy's mother is marrying Brooke's dad, and so Tracy contacts her future "sis" with the intention of bonding. Brooke takes Tracy into her madcap Times Square world, and Tracy soon develops a strong admiration for this quirky, free-spirited individual, and is writing a story--thinly veiled as fiction but all about Brooke--that will come back to bite her later on.

Brooke's ambitions are bigger than her follow-through. She's got grand schemes, one of which is to start a restaurant, but we can see that she's just a little too scattered to bring something like that off. And she wants to get even with the woman who stole some of her creative ideas, her boyfriend, and her two cats to boot! It will all culminate in a climactic scene that's like something from one of those wacky British stage plays, where everyone is talking a mile a second, and gesticulating wildly, and running in and out the door and up the stairs, and the audience just keeps tittering away. Only the humor here is more deadpan, more urbane, and inventively conceived.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with her real life partner, director Noah Baumbach, is at least as good as any (current) SNL actor in pulling off her Zooey Deschanel-esque character. Lola Kirke, a relative newcomer, brings a low-key likability to her role, but I get the feeling she is capable of much more. And then we have Jasmine Cephas Jones as Nicolette, the obsessively jealous girlfriend of  a fellow student Tracy might have some real interest in if he weren't already taken. And though she has a minor role, Jones has been given the best lines in the movie--blunt, jaw-dropping, and not repeatable here!  

At first I wasn't sure what to make of this film. But gradually, it began to win me over. As a small tale about two people in search of themselves, Mistress America has some heart. And it tries really hard. And in an unconventional kind of way, succeeds. 

Grade: B +


Don't you hate it when friends, people whose opinions you respect and trust, recommend a movie you wind up thinking is a piece of crap? Well, Tim. If Mistress America is "a total chick flick," I want to change my gender!

As happily Hollywood-married as Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach may be, they don't know bupkus about script-writing. Obviously, they've never heard of a "character arc" as no one really changes. (I mean really changes.) Everything is so slick and facile. From the get-go, it's hard to accept that the unpopular-at-school heroine, played somewhat believably by Lola Kirke, is in fact unpopular. She's gorgeous. And unless school values have changed drastically since I was in college, beauty counts. Then there's her new girl crush Brooke, who is so ADHD-ish and self-absorbed that her likablity factor is zero. Some of the scenes felt like they were straight out of SNL. While others, the overly talky ones, were just plain bor-ing. 

Thankfully, I saw this film with someone (clearly not Tim) who had the same brain-numbed reaction I did. And judging from the two other audience members, this film may be a critics' favorite but isn't exactly resonating with the general public. One scene, where all the players are simultaneously reading a script over one another's shoulders is pure slapstick. The rest? Pure schlock.

Grade: D -

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

NO ESCAPE (2015)

Rated: R

STARS: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
DIRECTOR: John Erick Dowdle

Appreciate a good plot? Not the movie for you. Enjoy character development? Not the movie for you. Like balls-to-the-wall action in an edge of your seat thriller?  Si, senor, this da movie for you! Which means that after the prologue and the who, what, when, and where have been established, No Escape is essentially one long continuous action sequence.

Texas businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters have arrived in an unspecified southeast Asian country, where he has been transferred by his company. Just in time for the assassination of the prime minister and a revolution in the making. Bands of roving killers sweep through the streets, invading the tourist hotels and executing Americans and their sympathizers on the spot. (It seems they don't like us.) 

 Jack finds himself careening through the streets with an angry mob in pursuit. He must make it back to the hotel and collect his family and get the hell outta Dodge. If they can. And that's what No Escape is about. They run and jump from rooftop to rooftop, from alleyway to alleyway, dodging bullets. An expatriate they have befriended, named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), falls in with them and is able to provide some cover fire. He may be ex-CIA. Or he may just be M.I.A. In a rare moment where the five of them are able to catch their breath, he intimates--in so many words--that all the stink is a reaction to American Imperialism. (So what else is new?) 

A deeper film might have explored some of the politics behind the turmoil, but that is not the intent here. The movie knows what it wants to do, and it's good at what it does. The only story question being: Will they survive? (Much like Robert Redford in All Is Lost.)  Unfortunately, it is telegraphed who is going to make it and who isn't (for anyone who has seen three movies and can put two and two together). Predictability in a film can be a bummer and make it just another ho-hummer, but things are moving so fast, and you came here primarily to get your adrenaline pumping anyway, so you're not going to dwell on it. 

Owen Wilson, with his basset hound mug (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), seems a peculiar choice for the part of a man who will be thrust into the role of becoming a do-or-die hero, but he grows on you. Lake Bell grows on you too. She doesn't possess Angelina Jolie features, but she has a presence that I find appealing, and sexy even. So I'm going looking for more of her work. 

Grade:  B


A nail-biter from start to finish. (And if you don't bite your nails? You will by the time this film ends.) The thing that impressed me was how the suspense kept building. And speaking of buildings, the scene where they have to heave their kids onto another roof to escape the angry mob is truly heart-stopping. (It's in every trailer of the movie so I'm not ruining anything.) Usually in these chase movies, I get bored after awhile. Not this time. Whether Owen Wilson's terrified family is running through an unfamiliar city, a blown-up hotel, or a bombed out American Embassy, the tension created is relentless.   

Who is director/screenwriter John Eric Dowdle and what has done in the past? Not much. A third place award from the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for directing and writing As Above, So Below (2014). This tells me he knows his way around cinematic scariness. And he's only 42. So I look forward to more of his directorial efforts.

As for what I didn't like? At one point, the Pierce Brosnan character gives a lengthy explanation of why American corporations are to blame for all this unrest. Ho hum. When I'm on the edge of my seat, completely wrapped up in a "will-they-or-won't-they-escape" drama, I don't need a sermon. Another thing that made No Escape great escapist entertainment was the use of silence. Although Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders are credited with writing the musical score, it was sparingly used -- to great effect.

Grade: B +

Friday, August 14, 2015


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme
GENRE: Comedy-Drama

Meryl Streep's alter-ego has long wanted to be a vocalist (she has sung in several of her other films), but most of us probably didn't realize to what extent. Well, here we have it in Ricki and the Flash--upchucked from her inner being like a late night bar stool confession.  It's a total vehicle for the purpose of showcasing Streep's musical talents, with a plot that weaves in and out between sets as filler. So let's bring in Rick Springfield to give some cachet to the project, and to play Streep's sometimes lover. And let's add Meryl's real life daughter (Mamie Gummer) to play her daughter, Julie. Now there's a stroke of genius, as the physical resemblance is scary (think of the various ways that can be interpreted).

So Ricki is a sorta hippie, sorta redneck mother of three--two sons and the aforementioned daughter--who, when she's not working as a cashier at the local supermarket, fronts a rockabilly band called Ricki and the Flash. Her kids aren't exactly welcoming to her when she comes a calling for the purpose of consoling Julie over the dissolution of her short-term marriage. Julie is so pissed off about being dumped, it's ugly. And she's all too happy to take it out on mom with recriminations of why weren't you there when we were growing up. Well, Ricki was off following her musical dream, and as she states in her clueless way, you can't follow two dreams at the same time.

One of Ricki's sons is gay, and he seems to have it in for mom just on general principles. The other is about to be married, and that will set up a riotous, rockin' climax at the reception where the band gets to let it loose full bore. Speaking of bores, Kevin Kline is Ricki's anal-retentive ex-husband--ostensible played for laughs at the ridiculousness of two polar opposites coming together in connubial bliss. But it only made me think of how the icy family dynamic was done so brilliantly and more convincingly by Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County.

As for Meryl Streep's musical abilities (she sings and plays guitar for real), she's a decent vocalist, and her ragtag band--an over-the-hill assemblage of guys who could be related to Willie Nelson--is good enough to pass for your average redneck barroom house band. But that made me think of how that scene was pulled off with more sincerity and straight ahead musicianship by Jeff Bridges and company in Crazy Heart.

But so what if Ricki and the Flash is a piece self-indulgent "slumming" by one of our greatest acting talents, who enjoys living out her dreams in the roles she plays? At this point in the game, she must feel she deserves it. 

Grade:  D


Before I share my impressions of this ridiculous movie (oh-oh, I gave myself away), I'd like to mention a scary reality I encountered this time: as I handed my ticket to the ticket taker in San Marcos, California, he asked to see the contents of my tote bag. It took me a minute to figure out why but I'm all for it. "Better safe than sorry."

And speaking of sorry, Ricki and the Flash qualifies. I don't know what it is lately about movie scripts but they have definitely forgotten the three act formula or how to follow through on the main theme. The author of this turkey is someone whose previous work I have loved. Both Juno (Best Writing Oscar, 2008) and The United States of Tara (Golden Globe winner, 2011) were brilliant. But Diablo Cody's work in Ricki is inconsistent at best and downright lazy. Once the family drama erupted, I quickly lost interest in Meryl Streep's rockabilly warblings. Yes, she's in great shape for her age. And if anybody can get away with a May-December romance, she can. But who cares? Once her daughter's suicide attempt is introduced (and quickly glossed over), another rendition of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" seems trivial indeed.

I always like to find something positive to say in these reviews. It's a challenge this time. But let's give credit where credit is due: The casting director. (Those aging band members were painfully real-looking!)

Grade: D -