Thursday, April 28, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie, Stephen McHattie
DIRECTOR: Robert Budreau
GENRE: Drama/Musical/Art House 

It's become fashionable for biopics of famous people to begin at a point somewhere in the middle of the person's life where they are dealing with their greatest challenges. Get right to the dramatic part. No boring prologue--you can fill in some sketchy details along the way. And so it is with Born To Be Blue, about the life and times of jazz legend Chet Baker. A name only vaguely familiar to those who weren't around in the fifties and sixties, or aren't dedicated jazz aficionados, and that would be most folks on the planet today. So it would be easy to fictionalize much of their subject's personal life and no one is the wiser, which is what director Robert Budreau and company did--piecing it together primarily from stories that Baker told. Hey, all of these types of films are winging it to a degree if their subject is no longer around to authenticate the facts--and, for better or for worse, what most people end up with as their lasting impression is this photoshopped version of the person they saw in the movie. But I digress.

What is established is that Chet Baker was a great musician, arguably the best jazz trumpet player of his day. And that he was a junkie who allowed his habit to both enhance his ability, and become the ruination of him in the end. Dope and jazz. In most people's minds, they go hand in hand. And I'm afraid that Born To Be Blue will do nothing to discourage that impression for young musicians coming up in the world. But everyone makes his own choices.

Ethan Hawke plays Mr. Baker in an inspired performance. There are two things, however, that don't come through in the movie, through no fault of the actor. One: that Baker, at least in his youth, was a physically beautiful man--almost Elvis Presley good looking. Two: that he was a good singer. Hawke does all his own vocalizing in the film, and he's adequate--but unable to duplicate that certain je ne sais quoi that made a Chet Baker vocal/instrumental performance so haunting and hypnotic. But Hawke and a fine ensemble cast ultimately save the day, as the musician struggles in dramatic and dauntless fashion to relearn how to play his instrument all over again after being beaten up by some thugs and having his teeth knocked out. And in the process wins us over to his side.

P. S. Wear your shades during the movie so everyone can identify you as a hipster.

Grade:  B +

An Oscar contender already? You bet. My money is on Ethan Hawke to win the Best Actor statuette. (Hey, he didn't win last year for Boyhood so it's his turn!) I know it's off the subject but the day after I saw Born To Be Blue, I saw Miles Ahead. It got me thinking about biopics of addicted artists. Whether they're into crack cocaine or alcohol, there's a built-in problem: if their drug of choice turns them into assholes (which is often the case), it's hard to like them enough to watch their story unfold. I definitely felt that way when I saw Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock. Not so with Ethan Hawke's interpretation of Chet Baker. Despite his love of heroin, he had some redeeming characteristics. Like his determination to re-learn to play the trumpet after losing all his teeth! And when he wanted to be charming—in many scenes with his girlfriend, impressively portrayed by British actress Carmen Ejogo—he was quite likable. 

It was interesting to see how both Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle (in Miles Ahead) played their trumpets. It looked so real, so authentic, that I really believed they were blowing those horns. And that brings me to another plus about Born To Be Blue.The music. It was tastefully done and never overwhelmed the story. (As I felt happened in another musical prodigy film, Whiplash.)

I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying Chet Baker is no longer alive. Before the end credits, they tell you that he moved to Europe and continued playing the trumpet and using heroin until his death. What they don't say—and what I later looked up online—is that he fell out a window in Amsterdam and died as a result of the fall. No one knows if it was intentional or accidental. But you want to know another odd coincidence? He died on my birthday!

Grade :  A

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Christian Bale, Brian Dehnehy, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas
DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick
GENRE: Drama/Romance

To frame it in language that my uncle Lemuel back in Nebraska would find user friendly: Terence Malick makes weird movies that some consider to be absolutely brilliant, while others just shake their heads and say:  Shit...I'll never get  those two hours back!

Case in point: Tree Of Life.  It was lauded as a masterpiece by many and was nominated for three Academy Awards. I found it to be disjointed and tedious. However, if I were to view it a second time, I might get a better grasp on what Mr. Malick was trying to convey. The same can probably be said for his latest offering, Knight Of Cups.

The "plot" is as follows. Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood writer who drifts in and out of reverie with six pivotal women in his life--played by Imogeen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, and Brian Dennehy. WHOOPS...Dennehy plays his father...heh heh...with whom Rick has flashback encounters designed to give us an inkling of past tragedies.

The characters in Knight Of Cups speak solely through their own interior monologue--in other words, they are talking to themselves. The action moves from one dreamlike sequence to another, through the kaleidoscopic cityscapes and the "beautiful people" of L.A. and Las Vegas--to the beach, to the bedroom, to the boredom (my own).Through all of this cinematically pretty navel-gazing, Christian Bale, as Rick, is trying to figure out who he is...or what his life is all about...or maybe what he is doing in this film in the first place.

It's a lot of weirdness, Uncle Lemuel (which I'm not averse to), but after awhile it gets to be too much of the SAME KIND of weirdness--like watching Freddy Krueger come back to life every damn time they kill him, or listening to Marco Rubio up on the debate stage!

Maybe Malick is making a statement about the dreamlike nature of life. That I can grasp. You sit in your living room gazing at a chair where somebody sat weeks, or months, or years ago and you wonder...were they ever really there?

I didn't love Knight Of Cups. I didn't exactly hate it (it's smattered with " T " and "A"). But it's true. I'll never get those two hours back.

Grade: C


I suppose after seeing Remember, a movie I felt was one of the best I'd ever seen, it's only fitting that the next one should be – bar none -- worst movie I've ever seen! I have very little patience with stories that have no discernible story. Obviously the producers of this turkey knew what they were dealing with and decided (after seeing the final cut and tearing their hair out) to make the trailer look as if it was a triangle love story between Bale, Blanchett and Portman. That's what I thought I was going to see!

Instead I was subjected to long silences, Tarot card headings, self-indulgent soliloquies and a film that seemed to go on forever. The only people I think might get something out of this meandering mishmosh are the 420 crowd. Warning: Take a BIG toke before entering the theater...

Grade: D ----

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris, Bruno Ganz, Jurgen Prochnow
DIRECTOR: Atom Egoyan
GENRE: Drama/Suspense

Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a 90 year-old man with dementia who's grieving the recent passing of his wife. That is, when he can remember she's not still there with him when he wakes each morning.  Zev gets a letter in the mail from his friend at the retirement home where they both live, instructing him to set upon a journey that will culminate in a grizzly personal vendetta. Max (Martin Landau), who is wheelchair bound, has provided the blueprint for Zev to find and kill the Auschwitz guard--now living under an assumed name--who is responsible for the deaths of both their families.  Max has it all written down to keep Zev on point, knowing his friend will have trouble remembering the why, what, and the wherefore of the task from day to day. (Plummer himself is only 86, so he had to "grow" into the role somewhat. Alternate version of the preceding sentence: Plummer himself is only 86, and that's why he was still able to remember his lines.)  Zev sets out surreptitiously upon his journey and becomes a missing person, setting off a secondary search by his family. Can his son find him before some major nastiness occurs?

Zev is tracking a man going by the name of Rudy Kurlander. There are four such individuals in the United States and Canada. So it's a process of elimination (pardon the pun) for the former Auschwitz prisoner to find the right Rudy Kurlander.  Further revelation of the plot would send us into spoiler territory, and we don't want that. Suffice it to say that Remember has  jaw-dropping plot twists that place it in that rarefied air with The Sixth Sense--in that you will NEVER see them coming! They are also what make the story--when all is said and done--a bit far-fetched. Okay, a lot far-fetched. But the performances from Oscar winners Plummer and Landau--and Dean Norris as a Nazi sympathizer Zev encounters along the way--are out of the park, and overshadow these manipulations.

And it's probably good that director Atom Egoyan didn't take my suggestion to include Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" (send it off in a letter to yourself) in the soundtrack.

Grade: B+


Usually I love Tim's off-the-wall sense of humor but in this case he is toying with the sacrosanct. Huh? In my view Remember is one of the best films I've seen in years. Maybe ever. It had me on the edge of my seat from start to long after the ending credits. Reminiscent of Marathon Man where Laurence Olivier played a fugitive Nazi war criminal, Remember had the same feeling of unrelenting suspense. And when the main character, whose memory was spotty at best, was able to recall how to play Wagner with such precision and passion, it reminded me of The Pianist. A film about a famous Jewish pianist who was hidden in the attic of an empty house and supplied with food by a German officer who also shared a love of Chopin.

Prejudice has produced some incredible films.

So has the formula of hunting down the bad guy. Like Tim, I found some of Plummer's character's dementia-ridden exploits hard to believe. But I got so caught up in the chase that plausibility went right out the window. There aren't enough laudatory words to use in connection with this man's talent. What a consummate actor! All the cast was superb, actually. And kudos go out to Jurgen Prochnow (of Das Boot fame) for his portrayal of Rudy Kurlander #4, whose remade life looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Please, if you never see another movie, go see this one.

Grade: A+++

Tuesday, April 5, 2016



STARS: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Wren Schmidt, Maddie Hasson, Bradley Whitford

DIRECTOR: Marc Abraham
GENRE: Bio-pic

My standard line with Jill whenever she wants to drag me to a bio-pic of a famous person is: I know how it came out. Meaning that I, like most, am familiar with the subject's life, and don't really care to sit through a retelling that plays it loose with the facts for the sake of creating a more compelling story (which most of them do).

In I Saw The Light, director Marc Abraham has chosen to tell a LESS compelling story of the life and times of country music icon Hank Williams--playing down his subject's glory in order to hone in on his pain. In his brief tenure, Hank Williams had 35 songs that were on the country music top ten charts--eleven of them shooting to number one! "Your Cheatin' Heart," for one, has been covered by too many artists to count. But the music is given short shrift. We see Hank (Tom Hiddleston) in a few stage performances--and the music sounds good--but that's the only hint we get of the prolific creative genius the man possessed.

I understand that Abrahams is trying to tell a more personal story--of Hank Williams' struggles with the demons of alcoholism and his up and down relationships with women--but these are often the unfortunate side-effects of unfettered brilliance. There are no fist-pumping inspirational moments here, and you know ol' Hank must have had a few. Instead, I Saw The Light is an unrelenting portrait of an individual bent on self-destruction. The gloomy inevitability of it is what had me glancing at my watch about half way through.

Part of the problem is roots. Tom Hiddleston is a good enough singer, but he's British, and his attempts to master Hank Williams' trademark twang yield mixed results. That's a difficult assignment, unless you come from where Hank came from, and I'm not referring solely to geography. Fortunately for Hiddleston, his acting--the way he inhabits the character--is what shines here. It also helps that he's pretty much of a physical dead-ringer for his subject.

Elizabeth Olsen, another fine actor, plays Williams' headstrong first wife, Audrey. The performances are not the problem. The problem with I Saw The Light is that we are subjected to too much of the gloom of Hank Williams' story, and not enough of the light.

Grade:  C

Before going to see I Saw The Light,I started thinking about all the Brits who've played famous Americans: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon, Christian Bale as money mogul Michael Burry in The Big Short. And let's not forget about famous American comic book characters. Who's the latest Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Henry Cavill. A Brit, of course!

Granted Tom Hiddleston is the spitting image of Hank Williams which works in his favor. His tall lanky build looks delicious in those hokey cowboy outfits and rakish Stetson. Hey! When you think about it, we have a living country legend, as prolific as Williams was, who's Australian: Keith Urban. (Go figure!)

But the movie was a definite letdown. I was expecting more drama, i.e. bar fights, drunken rages, a sex scandal here and there. What I got instead was a mini concert of Williams' hits. Enjoyable, yes. But those twangy tunes don't make up for a complete lack of conflict. For me, the biggest shocker came at the end of the film when I learned that Hank Williams was only 29 when he died.

I wish I had liked it more. But I'd say you're better off buying a used CD of his biggest hits. Some really marvelous lyrics there!

Grade: C -