Monday, May 23, 2011


Rated: R

Stars: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Genre: drama/romance

When Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) first meet, they are a couple of rather likable young adults. Cute kids, as it were. She is playful, with a wicked sense of humor. He's the sensitive type, who has a soft spot in his heart for old people and children. What happens to them in Blue Valentine is an all too common tale (told in an uncommon manner) of relationships struggling to survive, in a world where the rules have changed since the days of 2.3 kids and a house with a white picket fence being the ideal. The film hops, skips, and jumps around in non-linear fashion, so we alternately see the hopeful beginnings of Dean and Cindy's relationship juxtaposed with what they have become today, which is akin to the last minutes of the Titanic treading water.

They have a young daughter who is Dean's pride and joy. And he's good with her. Perhaps he should use some of that charm on his wife, who, as each of them approaches middle-age, has gained weight and doesn't like sex anymore (at least not with him). When people tie the knot, they awaken to the stark reality of who the other person REALLY is...and things that they may have glossed over in their initial romantic haze begin to stick out like a sore bum. But give Dean credit for trying to rekindle the spark, when he sets up a "romantic" weekend at one of those cheesy love hotels. He tries to make it work with her in a steamy shower scene, which only serves to illustrate the depths of Cindy's sexual ennui.

The plot of Blue Valentine never points directly to the root cause of their marital discord, other than the old saw that familiarity breeds contempt. Dean is a high school dropout with a menial job. Cindy tells him that he has no ambition. Maybe because of this, he drinks and smokes too much. It's amazing how a sensitive man can seem just the opposite when he shows up at his wife's workplace, careening in a drunken daze and picking a fight with her boss. (A truly wild scene!)

Cindy was a tad promiscuous in her youth, and when she informs Dean that she's pregnant, he asks her if it's his. She doesn't know. She says probably not. He takes it in stride because he loves her. Years later. she runs into the truly unlikable guy who probably is the real dad, and she's uncomfortable talking with him. Is there something still there? Cindy's dad was a butthole, and they say girls grow up looking for their fathers, so maybe she's more attracted to the bad guys. Not an uncommon thing. Maybe you'll get a different impression. That's what's intriguing about Blue Valentine. It's open to interpretation.

Good, and often times raw performances from the two leads. Michelle Williams gives us a double whammy--she's a true talent AND she's willing to do about any kind of raunchy scene just short of hardcore in her movies. In the old days, it was just the up and coming actresses who would do that--trying to get noticed and make a name for themselves. But now, more and more established talents--like Marisa Tomei and Anne Hathaway--are willing to "give their all for their art." Whether it's for the sake of gritty realism--or, in Tomei's case--just to explore her exhibitionistic tendencies as she did in The Wrestler.

The growing number of celebrity sex tapes out there are laying (pardon the pun) the groundwork for established actors to someday do the real thing in a serious film. When that happens, the last vestiges of let's pretend will be stripped away, and films will be as real life as anything you can imagine. And we'll shrug our shoulders, because the envelope keeps getting pushed farther and farther in the name of the almighty dollar.


Friday, May 13, 2011


Rated: R
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightly, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mark Romanek
Genre: Sci-fi/drama

Adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a disturbing, yet poignant film set in an alternate world of the mid to late 20th century where, in human terms, the sum is worth less than its parts. The average life span has been extended to more than a hundred years, due largely to the existence of human clones who are born and bred for the specific purpose of donating their vital organs to others--sacrificing themselves for the greater good of humanity.

Ayn Rand would have a conniption.

The story line picks up at a British boarding school called Halisham. (Charlotte Rampling, who in younger days appeared naked in most of her films, shifts gears as the staid headmistress, Miss Emily.) The children there appear to be clueless about their purpose in life, until a compassionate teacher clues them in, and is subsequently fired for doing so. What I found most disturbing were the children's reactions. They do not protest. They do not run screaming for the gates. It's as if a child were told by his parents that he is being groomed to be a doctor when he grows up, and this is really what we want you to become, so under such pressure, the child accedes.

As young adults, The "donors"" are allowed to live their lives in something of a normal fashion-- until their first appointment comes due. The clones usually expire after the second or third donation because really, how many vital organs can a body get along without? This is referred to as "completion." (The euphemisms seem more relevant to present day political correctness, rather than to any bygone era.) We get the chilling sense that if the clones were to rebel against their fate, measures would be taken. But still...

The story follows three of the clones from childhood, through adolescence, and into young adulthood. There is Kathy, (Carey Mulligan) Tommy, (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly.) A romantic triangle among them shows that they are obviously human. They have emotions. They fall in love. Yet, some of the "normal" people around them speculate as to whether or not they have souls. The parallels with real life that Never Let Me Go invokes are cause for introspection. In the past, some of us humans have viewed those of certain other cultures that appear alien to us (indeed, we refer to them as aliens) due to race, customs, religious or political differences, as almost sub-human--giving us the green light to conquer, subjugate, and do with them what we will. The most infamous example of this in recent history was called The Holocaust.

And yet, the thought occurs that a possible future world could look eerily similar to the one in the movie.

The mood of this film, so achingly melancholy to begin with , is furthered along by the elegant, haunting soundtrack from Rachel Portman.

Never Let Me Go is a movie that will stay with me for a long time.

Fate is not fate unless you are willing to accept it.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christopher Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Director: Francis Lawrence
Genre: Drama

The stage is set for high melodrama in the film adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling novel, Water For Elephants.

Told in flashback mode, a ninety-something guy named Jacob (Hal Holbrook) relates the story of his youthful exploits in the circus back in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from graduating from veterinary school, when a family tragedy sets his life off-kilter and alters his destiny. He hooks up with a marginally run circus and learns to roll with the punches (literally) of life under the big top.

A little fudging of the truth gets him hired on as the outfit's veterinarian, by the (as we will see) amoral and sadistic ringmaster, August (Christopher Waltz). August treats his animals and his wife, Marlena, (Reese Witherspoon) with the same heavy hand. The Harlow-esque Marlena is steamy, and just low-brow enough to have been attracted to someone like August in the first place. But she has compassion for the animals, and a forbidden attraction between her and Jacob begins to develop.

Enter Rosie--a highly trained elephant who may be the most talented performer of this entire cast. August needs a new starring act to keep his near-failing operation going, and Rosie fills the bill in playful and adorable fashion. But August's methods of keeping Rosie in line are abusive, and hard to watch (even though we know the animal's not really being beaten for the movie--and I sat through all of the credits at the end just to see the statement that the animal action was monitored by the American Humane Association, and no animals were harmed during filming). What ensues is a roaringly dramatic climax to Water For Elephants that was easy to see coming, but that made it no less satisfying when it arrived. We can think of it as "poetic justice."

There is an amazing scene of chaos near the end where animals and people are stampeding every which way--an astonishing bit of choreography--and I'm still in awe of how they pulled it off!

Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) brings some depth to the character of August, to the point of where we can ALMOST dredge up some sympathy for the poor deranged bastard (spelled the correct way!)

Reese Witherspoon, who has that naturally wholesome looking face, shows us another side with her somewhat jaded, been-around-the-block Marlena.

The Most Wholesome award here goes to Pattinson, convincing enough as the fresh-faced good guy who tries to do the right thing in some emotionally charged situations.

While Water For Elephants is set in the thirties, I think you should know that circus animals are cruelly mistreated even today, and if you're a fan of the circus, I hope you will THINK about the price these wild animals pay--not the least of which is the loss of their freedom and dignity--just for the sake of providing circus entrepreneurs a living, and to give you a couple of hours of diversionary entertainment. If you think I'm exaggerating, I can direct you to plenty of web sites that contain actual photos and explanations of what goes on. I also encourage you to support some of the cruelty-free circuses, which feature human acts only--an increasing trend as awareness of the sad truth about animal-act circuses continues to grow.

Grade: A -

Sunday, May 1, 2011

127 HOURS--2010

Rated: R

Stars: James Franco, Clemence Poesy, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn
Director: Danny Boyle
Genre: Drama/Biographical Adventure

The trouble with loners is that when they get into trouble, they are usually alone. That's what led to Aron Ralston's bizarre, real life struggle for survival out in the wilds of Utah's Bluejohn Canyon. Dude falls into a deep crevasse...this big-ass boulder tumbles down and pins his arm...can't get it loose...out of food and water after five days stuck like that...he is faced with a literal do or die decision. Everyone knows the story.

The challenge for director Danny Boyle was how to make a compelling, standard length (about an hour and a half) feature film out of this situation. Even before I saw 127 Hours, I knew that he would succeed because, hey--he's DANNY BOYLE! (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting.)

Boyle uses flashbacks interspersed with the present-time mind f*ck Ralston's ordeal is putting him through--from the initial incredulity at his predicament, to the physical struggle to free himself, (whole) to going a little cuckoo and performing for an imaginary audience while his video camera records it as his possible farewell to the world, his family, and anyone who should stumble across his carcass. Meanwhile, we sit there wondering if WE would have the stones--or the stomach--to cut through the natural revulsion we would feel and do what he ultimately did in a last-ditch effort to save himself. The realization that everything that occurred previously in his life had been leading him to this one self-defining moment, was for me the most powerful element of 127 Hours.

The survival instinct must never be underestimated.

James Franco received an academy award nomination for his portrayal of Ralston--a gung-ho guy with too much confidence in himself for his own good--and he deserved it. DAMN-- this kid is a good actor !!!

Indian film composer A. R. Rahman, with two Academy Awards in his pocket from Slumdog Millionaire, again teams up with Danny Boyle--and it's as if Boyle told him: SURPRISE ME ! Given the subject matter, the surprises-- which include a song by Dido--hit with an OOH and an AHH, and brought a smile to my face at how compellingly apropos they were after all.

The gruesome part of 127 Hours is minimal, though you still might want to look away at certain moments, depending on how much of that jumbo size popcorn you've already gobbled. Be thoughtful of those around you and don't bring that up again.