Monday, December 2, 2013

MOVIE: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Episode 2 of the trilogy.  If you did not see the opening movie or read the Suzanne Collins novels, you will probably not appreciate this film despite some excellent acting performances, particularly Jennifer Lawrence’s continuing role as Katniss Everdeen.  The games are an annual survivalist test sponsored by a suppressive government called Panem.  The opening episode introduced us to the Game and the surviving couple, Katniss and Peeta.  This episode opens with Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) embarking on a tour of the government districts.  Panem is a society comprised of a very rich elite living in the capitol city while the rest of the population, who reside in twelve different districts, are required to support the elite while working for minimal wages and with no political freedom.  Panem’s leader, President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland, is aware that Katniss has become a symbol of freedom to the population and would prefer her dead.  As she travels, Katniss observes revolutionary graffiti.  The individual in charge of the games, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, suggests to President Snow that there be a rule change as part of the 75th anniversary celebration of Panem surviving a catastrophic war.  The new rules are that prior winners must again play the survivor game.  There are a number of good actors in this film, including repeat performances by Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks as well as the addition of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer.  The majority of the 146 minute movie  is spent laying the ground work for the revised version of the Hunger Games and episode 3.  Frequently the middle film in a trilogy is a transitional link and Catching Fire is more so than most.  If you come into the film without knowing anything about Panem or the Games, it will only be the acting that holds your attention.  Lawrence proves once again that she is the best among the young film actresses.  While the storyline kept me involved, the movie itself felt longer than its almost 2 and half hours - not a good sign when I catch myself looking at my watch.  My hunch is that episode 3 will be superb and may even require Sutherland to do more than just read his lines.  Unfortunately, as in “Harry Potter”, it appears the final episode will be split into two parts.  Bottom line on this film is that if you enjoyed episode one or have read the trilogy, there are enough good things about the movie that you should see it.  However, the opposite is equally as true.

 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

MOVIE: All is Lost


All is Lost: Robert Redford battles for survival in the Indian Ocean.  Redford is on screen for virtually the entire 107 minutes of this movie and, when he is not on the screen, there are primarily ocean scenes.  There is no appearance by any other actor.  To say the dialogue is minimal is to exaggerate.  The movie opens with Redford’s voice describing his situation then the words “8 days earlier” appear on the screen.  Thereafter, words are spoken only twice: a mayday sequence when Redford gets his radio to work briefly; and a one word yell when a particular negative event occurs.  The movie action consists of a survivor’s tale.  We never learn the name of Redford’s character.  We surmise that he is on a solo around the world journey and somewhere between Indonesia and Madagascar.  The sail boat is well stocked with both food and emergency items.  Clearly, Our Man (closest we come to a character name and appears in the movie credits) is a skilled, experienced and organized sailor.  As the film unfolds, we learn things about him.  He has, for example, a wedding ring.  The boat is named “Virginia Jean”.  Connected? Probably, but if so, it is our conclusion.  His problem starts - shown at the beginning of the film right after the “8 days earlier” screen shot - with ocean trash.  While Redford is in the cabin asleep, an ocean container that had fallen off a cargo ship punches a hole in the boat’s hull.  Our Man is able to patch the breach but water had entered his cabin and damaged his navigational and  electrical systems.  More bad things happen including a world class storm.  Through all the problems, Our Man addresses as best he can what he is forced to deal with, including navigating with the use of only a traditional mariner’s sextant.  Despite all the technology on the boat, the elements push him towards a fundamental fight for his survival.  As with Gravity, it is not obvious how the story will end.  Redford is 77 years old.  To give this type of performance, which is remarkable regardless of his age, is awesome and it may be his best performance ever.  Based upon his movie history, I had to think about whether such praise is warranted.  It is.  The writer and director of this impressive film is J. C. Chandor.  The cinematographers are Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, the latter being in charge of the underwater scenes which are truly beautiful.  These individuals along with Redford should receive Oscar nominations.  The movie takes Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea to a whole new level.  This is a movie you should see.  Due to the level of Redford’s performance and Chandor’s skills, this is much more than just a boat adrift at sea movie. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

MOVIE: 12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave: a brutally honest portrayal of slavery.  This film is neither a Gone with the Wind whitewash nor like any other Hollywood production you have seen regarding the pre-Civil War South.  The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, one of the few free Black individuals who successfully regained his freedom after being kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Solomon wrote of his experience 8 years prior to the Civil War (1853 publication date).  I will be shocked if John Ridley is not nominated for an Oscar for his screen play adaption.  The director is Steve McQueen, a British citizen, and I’m confident that he, too, will receive a nomination for Best Director, as should the film.  The movie opens with a brief slave quarter scene that is reshown in part later in the film.  You are then presented with the life Solomon had been living in upstate New York with his wife and two children prior to being tricked, chained and sold into slavery.  Solomon, played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, made his living as a violinist.  Solomon is introduced to two men who ask him to accompany them to Washington D.C. for a 2- week job playing with a circus.  In D. C., they buy him an expensive dinner and drug his wine.  Solomon awakes chained and his 12 years as a slave commences.  The year is 1841.  The cast is excellent with appearances by well-known actors in brief but critical roles.  Paul Giamatti plays the heartless seller of humans.  Alfre Woodard has a short scene as the well cared for mistress of a slave holder.  In a more extended role, Benedict Cumberbatch, one of my favorite actors, plays the so-called good slave master while Michael Fassbender, another excellent actor, is the abusive plantation owner, Edwin Epps, who buys Solomon’s contract from the Cumberbatch character.  Both the good and evil slave owners conduct Sunday church services and quote bible passages to justify their behavior.  The savagery of the system is shown, including the common use of whippings, the prevalent rapings of Black women, the ease with which people were killed, and the physical and psychological violations committed.  The film also depicts the twisted mind-set of the slave owners’ wives.  The character played by Brad Pitt, a Canadian who is hired by Epps to work on a construction project, is a bit odd but perhaps it was just the accent Pitt chose to use.  Pitt was a co-producer.  The second half of the 134 minute film takes place on the Epps’ Louisiana cotton farm and these scenes will stay with you.   There are many strong performances.  Of particular note is Lupita Nyong’o’s portrayal of Patsey, Epps brutalized favorite.  Both Fassbender and Nyong’o will probably receive nominations for best supporting actor and actress.  The fact that a significant percentage of the U.S. population once supported the slavery system is deplorable.  So, too, is the fact that it has taken until now, 150 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to finally and accurately dramatize the absolute evil and horror of America’s slavery system.  This movie is not entertainment but rather a realitistic depiction, the consequences of which continue to impact us today.  This is a must see film.    

 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

MOVIE: Anita


Anita: an excellent documentary that focuses on what Anita Hill has done with her life since the Clarence Thomas hearing.  The first half of this 85 minute film places Hill’s testimony in the context of being heard by an all-male, White judicial panel addressing a subject that most of them probably never spent any time thinking about:  sexual harassment.  If the same testimony was given today, I’m quite sure the final confirmation vote, if it even got to that point, would be different.  As it was, the vote was the narrowest favorable confirmation ever for a Supreme Court justice, 52 to 48.  I had forgotten just how close the vote was.  The film clips used by the director, Frieda Lee Mock, included a scene of female members of the House of Representatives, including Patsy Mink, walking up the Capitol steps with the intention of addressing the senators on the issue of sexual harassment.  They were not given the opportunity to testify.  The movie notes that there were other women prepared to give testimony consistent with Hill’s but the committee chose not to call them.  The 1991 Senate clips are not lengthy.  There are segments of interviews with individuals in whom Hill had confided in the previous 7 years regarding the exact events in which Senator Spector tried so hard to create disbelief.  The film also shows the brilliance of having Thomas use the phrase “high tech lynching” in his defense and ignore the substance of Hill’s testimony.  The lack of either a female or a non-White on the judicial panel had historic impact.  But this film is not just a retelling of an historic event.  The movie explores Hill’s positive life and actions during the 20+ years since the hearing.  She has been active with community groups addressing the all too present issue of sexual harassment.  Hill left her tenured position at the University of Oklahoma law school  for a professorship at Brandeis University.  Frieda Mock previously won a documentary Oscar and this film could result in a further nomination.  The movie immediately gets your attention as it opens with a phone message recording Hill received in 2010 from a person identifying herself as Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife, asking if Anita was finally ready to apologize for her testimony.  The recording is real but no one knows if the speaker was actually Ginni Thomas and, if so, why it was made on a Saturday morning to Hill’s office number.  The film leaves no doubt that Hill has no reason to apologize and also how one does not let a single event control one’s life.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

MOVIE: Mandela


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom:  the man overwhelmed both the screenwriter and the director.  The movie, especially the first half, is a series of sketches of Nelson Mandela’s life history, almost a Cliff Notes presentation.  I think most people viewing this film already know some of Mandela’s history and many of you reading this review know a great deal.  However, if your knowledge of South Africa’s history is limited, this highlight reel will not be very educational.  Mr. Mandela’s life is extraordinary and this film attempts to tell the entire story.  Although it runs for 152 minutes, it is not enough time to go from Mandela’s tribal childhood to the presidency of his country.  Further, by trying to tell the whole story, the film feels even longer than its almost 2-1/2 hour running time.  The contrast with a film such as Invictus, which told just part of Mandela’s story, is striking.  The movie style is reminiscent of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.  Nevertheless, there are some positive things to say about the film, especially with respect to Idris Elba’s performance as Nelson Mandela and the even stronger performance by Naomie Harris as Winnie.   One subject this film does quite well is to explain why Winnie became so bitter in contrast to Mandela’s ability to forgive while never forgetting.  Both Elba and Harris may receive Oscar nominations for their strong performances - the actors did their part.  Another interesting element to the film and part of its problem was the decision by its director, Justin Chadwick, to open the film with tribal childhood scenes and to include adult tribal vignettes.  Based upon Mandela’s actions, the tribal presentation may say more about the two Englishmen,  Director Chadwick and Screenwriter William Nicholson, than the man they are presenting.  This opening five minute sequence is beautiful to see but it sends the wrong message.  The source material for the movie is Mandela’s memoir and based on my limited knowledge of him, I think the film is factually accurate.  But a little lightness would have helped as would have a greater emphasis on the person rather than the events. 

 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

BOOK: In Times of Fading Light


In Times of Fading Light: a German novel written by Eugen Ruge and translated by Anthea Bell.  The novel takes place primarily in East Berlin between 1952 and 2001.  Three central characters are Wilhelm and Charlotte, a husband and wife who are believers in Communism, and their grandson, Alexander.  The novel is subtitled “The Story of a Family”.  In a series of short vignettes, we learn about these individuals, their family and friends, and  the intrusion of a belief system that invades everyday life.  While this a story about family, it is neither an American family nor a traditional telling of family life.  The chapter headings are dates and not ordered chronologically.  I’ve commented before as to my dislike of flashbacks, however, in this novel, the author is addressing specific events and retells certain critical occurrences from the perspective of different characters.  The story opens with an introduction to Alexander after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The second chapter occurs in 1952 as Wilhelm and Charlotte are leaving Mexico, where they were employed, and returning to Germany.  We have six tellings about a family event, Wilhelm’s 90th birthday party on October 1, 1989.   Each telling is presented by a significant character in the novel.  In between, we learn about Alexander during his first days of compulsory military service, see him introducing his girlfriend to his mother and learn of other family events, all told with a Big Brother background.  There is even, through marriage, a  Russian element.  Eugen Ruge is the son of an East German historian who I believe did time in a Siberian labor camp.  This 307 page novel was awarded the German Book Prize in 2011.  The English translation was published this year.  This is Ruge’s first novel and he scores.  The light in the novel is presented with wit as it skips through time.  One chapter occurs in the year 1961 - Charlotte is debating democratization and Stalinism with her son Kurt while his son and his wife are feeding swans at a park with the catalyst for the discussion being the building of the Berlin Wall.  This book is well worth reading. 

MOVIE: Captain Phillips


Captain Phillips: a Paul Greengrass movie.   There are a few directors that if I know they’ve made a movie, I’ll make a point of seeing it.   With this excellent movie about Somali pirates and a ship’s captain played by Tom Hanks, Greengrass stays on that list.  As with United 93, you know how the movie will end because the film is based on true events.  In this case, what took place over 5/6 days is condensed into 134 minutes, including a preamble showing Captain Phillips with his wife before arriving in Oman and heading out to sea.   It is the British filmmaker’s camera work that initially draws you in, however, it is the excellent acting that keeps you involved.  Hanks is superb as Captain Phillips but what also holds you is the fact that the primary Somali characters are presented as real people.  Barkhad Abdi, as Muse, the “captain” of the small pirate boarding party, matches up quite well with Hanks.  Muse is the only member of the boarding party who is still alive; he is serving time in a U S prison.  These four pirates, as were the ones I read about as a youngster, are in it only for the money; they have no knowledge of the cargo they are hijacking.   One of the interesting twists in this storyline is that the cargo on Captain Phillips’ ship included a significant number of food containers from the United Nations’ World Food Program bound for various African countries.   There has also been some controversy over the incident.  A lawsuit was filed by crew members against Captain Phillips and the ship’s owner questioning whether the course navigated by the Captain was too close to shore; the movie has a scene where some of the crew raise this issue.  However, the movie points out that the pirates were operating from a mother ship and that the cargo ship itself was hundreds of miles off the African coast.  I believe the lawsuit is still pending.  A pirate side note: pirates also operate off the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines; the Strait of Hormuz is not the only area infected with pirates.  Although the movie focuses on Captain Phillips, it also shows that other crew members acted bravely.  Shane Murphy and Mike Perry, played by Michael Chernus and David Warshofsky respectively, are two of the crew who are highlighted.  What I found incredible was the merchant ship’s utter lack of any defensive weapons.  I understand this has now changed but even as of 2009 when the incident occurred, there had been sufficient pirate activity in the Hormuz Strait to render the total lack of any weapons shocking.  The SEAL rescue operation is all business with no light talk.  Greengrass has the reputation for being factually accurate while engrossing the viewer in a storyline we already know.  United 93 was one of the best films of 2006 and more people should have seen it.   With Tom Hanks being at the top of his trade, this film is deservedly receiving a wider viewer audience. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

MOVIE: Gravity


 
Gravity:  a simple story told with some of the greatest special effects you’ve ever seen.  Sandra Bullock gives the best acting performance of her career and George Clooney is his usual charming self.  Functionally , there are only two actors in this movie.  There is the voice of Houston, Ed Harris, and a third person you see in the opening sequence before things start happening.  But once the action commences, it is the Bullock-Clooney show.  The movie opens with Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) working in space on her NASA experiment and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski flying around having a joking dialogue with Houston (there are some funny lines in this movie).  Houston then announces that a missile has struck a Russian satellite creating a bunch of space debris.  The initial announcement is for information purposes only, however, a few minutes later Houston issues a warning that the debris is more extensive and dangerous than originally thought.  This is when the movie gets interesting.  I had no clue how they were going to end this relatively short film (91 minutes) and therefore, I won’t say anything more about the storyline.   Gravity was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also co-wrote the story with his son, Jonas.  The director of photography was Emmanuel Lubezki.  These two gentlemen, along with Tim Webber for visual effects, have earned themselves Oscar nominations.  A well done space film can be special.  2001: A Space Odyssey has been the gold standard.  Because the technology has improved, it now has a rival.  I strongly recommend that you see this film in 3D.  Most 3D showings are not worth the extra money, however, Gravity is the exception.  The film is not limited to its special effects and beautiful Earth shots.  This survivor story will keep you interested and is well worth seeing.  I’ve heard chatter as to the storyline not being realistic.  But like those who criticized The Butler for inventing a son and giving him an unrealistic life history, they are missing the glory of what Cuaron has accomplished using state of the art technology.  The scenes of silence are particularly spectacular.  I may see this film again.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

MOVIE: Enough Said


Enough Said: a comedy with adult humor and conversations.   Yes, the rare film that is funny without slapstick humor or a stream of what was once called foul language.   Instead, this is a movie about two intelligent divorced individuals, each having a teenage daughter who is a senior in high school when the movie commences.   Repeat: it is a film about two adults and it does not focus on the teenagers.    The primary character is Eve, a massage therapist working in LA played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.   From Seinfeld, no surprise as to her abilities as a film comedian.  Male lead is played James Gandolfini.  As Albert, he is excellent.  His grin is enough to make you know this is a good man.  A very different role than the gangsters he frequently played.   I understand there is at least one more film to be released with Gandolfini.   He is an actor we are going to miss.  His role is secondary to Eve.   In the opening scenes we learn that Eve has been divorced for a few years and has no steady boyfriend.   Her friend Sarah (Toni Collette) invites her to a party where she meets two new people, Albert  and Marianne (Catherine Keener).    Marianne becomes a client.   Unbeknownst to Eve when relationship commences, Marianne is also the ex-wife of Albert.   As the movie unfolds, you have Eve developing a relationship with Albert as she is hearing negative information about the fellow from Marianne.   The setup allows for a number of funny scenes and the writer/director Nicole Holofcener expertly exploits them.   Her characters appear as real people living real lives.   Both teenagers are centered with relationships with both their mothers and fathers.   There is no Hollywood scene as to them becoming acquainted.   The script will probably get Holofcener an Oscar nomination for original script.    Humor runs throughout the movie but flows from who these people are.   The film is short, only 91 minutes.  Viewing this film will be one of the more delightful 91 minutes you will spend.

 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Movie: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt:  there are reasons to see films beyond their entertainment value.  This movie about author and philosopher Hannah Arendt is one of those films.  The movie’s focus is on the controversy that arose from her commentary on Adolph Eichmann and his trial.  While there are historical biographical scenes of her pre-WW II life as a student in Germany, the flashbacks, with one exception, are really a distraction.  The movie assumes the viewer has knowledge as to who is Hannah Arendt.  The opening is a slow go.  The dialogue shifts back and forth between German (subtitled) and English.  The director, Margarethe von Trotta, presumably intended the use of both languages to add realism as well as to illustrate the Arendt’s complexity.  Arendt’s reputation stemmed from the publication of “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, which I read as a college student.  The movie does not give us a start date but most of the film takes place in 1961 when Arendt contacted The New Yorker to write about the Eichmann trial.  One of the few light moments in the film are the scenes with William Shawn (Nicholas Wodeson), the legendary New Yorker editor.  The controversy, which arose after five segments ran in The New Yorker,  involves 10 pages in a 300+ page essay published as a book entitled “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”.  In these 10 pages, Arendt notes that in an attempt to survive, various local Jewish community leaders in Eastern Europe cooperated with the Germans.  Her comments were interpreted by some as blaming Jews for their own massacre.  The movie portrays Arendt as becoming fixated on this issue after hearing testimony about this factual reality.  The movie also notes that the underlying point of Arendt’s essays was that you can never cooperate with evil regardless of what the short term gains (food, for example) appear to be.  Arendt speculated that although millions would still have died, the total number may have been smaller if there had been no cooperation.  Her speculation is impossible to prove or disprove.  But many survivors were still alive in 1961, and reading that they may have assisted in the killing of family and friends brought wrath upon Arendt; her reputation still suffers.  Arendt died in 1975 but the ending of the movie appears to occur in the Fall of 1962.  Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt as a serious woman in a loving relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg).  Her biography of having escaped to America from a French detention camp is noted but the only pre-1960 events shown are scenes with her professor mentor/lover  Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), another controversial figure.  Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and never publicly repented although he survived the war.  In other words, there is a minefield of fascinating storytelling that could have occurred but was not present.  However, in the 113 minutes, the viewer is given serious, thought provoking material.  This is a film to watch at home.  The film’s Honolulu showing was limited to the Doris Duke Theatre and it is unlikely to have a general run, therefore, an at-home viewing is probably the only way you will be able to see it.  But make the time and then be prepared for some serious thinking.  For those of you who have seen the film or have read about Heidegger, the pun is intended

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Lee Daniels’ The Butler: a love story weaving civil rights events with family dynamics.   The Butler is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an individual who worked at the White House from 1952, at the end of President Truman’s term, through 1986, when he retired as head butler and Ronald Reagan was president.  The movie ends with a sequence involving the election of President Obama.   The film intersects White House scenes with what is happening in the USA by having the butler, Cecil Gaines, overhear political discussions and then having his oldest son, Louis Gaines, being involved in the civil rights actions.   Louis attends Fisk University and becomes part of the first lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworths.  He then becomes a Freedom Bus rider, a Black Panther and present at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King is assassinated.   Danny Strong’s script, by intertwining Presidential behavior with the butler’s physical reactions as he is hearing of events he knows his son is a participant while also presenting working class family life, should result in his receiving an Oscar nomination.   Because so much American history is being covered within 130 minutes of movie time, the characters, with the notable exceptions of the butler, his wife and their two sons, are not given a lot of depth.  It is a tribute to Strong’s writing skills that you care about the central characters while being both entertained and reminded as to just how much has occurred in this country during the life time of a single man.

However, this film is not a biography.   At the end of this review variants between the movie character Cecil Gaines and Allen’s life are outlined.   
Forest Whitaker gives another Oscar nominating performance as Cecil Gaines, the butler.   During the course of the movie, Whitaker goes from a young man in his late ‘30s to an individual approximately 90 years old.   The aging is more body movement than makeup.   Whitaker is a remarkable actor and this role allows him to show a range of emotion and not just that he can play old.  Cecil’s wife, Gloria, is played by Oprah Winfrey and her performance is also praiseworthy.   In her 15 years away from the movie screen, she has not lost any of her acting talent.  This film is loaded with big name stars.   In the opening sequence on a cotton planation in Georgia, Miriah Carey plays Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl, and she does not say a word.  Daniel Banner plays the father.  We then have Vanessa Redgrave appear as Annabeth Westfall, the owner of the planation.   The movie has Cecil starting his career at the White House under Dwight Eisenhower.  Robin Williams plays Eisenhower and there are no comic lines in the performance.   John Kennedy is played by James Marsden followed by Liev Schreiber as LBJ.   Liev is given some of the few comic scenes.  John Cusack plays Nixon and his performance is a stereotype characterization.    Ford and Carter are only shown in news videos.   In real life, Ford and Allen had the same birthday.  The President who I thought came across as the most human was Reagan, played by Alan Rickman.   Interesting selection having Jane Fonda play Nancy Reagan.  Her short screen presence was nicely done.   Also deserving special praise is David Oyelowo's performance as Louis.   The film is not all seriousness and LBJ doesn’t have the only comic lines.   Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Carter Wilson, another butler at the White House, and he brings lightness to the screen whenever he is on camera.  Two other stars are Terrence Howard, a neighbor to Cecil and Gloria, and Lenny Kravitz as James Holloway, the individual who oversaw the daily running of the White House.   Daniels shows his breath as a director as this is a very different film from the ones that made his reputation (Precious and Shadowboxer).   But the real reason this film works and is more than a telling of historical events is the interplay between Whitaker and Oprah.     As they age on screen, the depth of the relationship also grows.   Daniels skill is in using the butler, an “invisible man” when doing his job correctly, to present with positive force a family and a country coping with the struggle for equal rights to all its citizens.  This is a film worth seeing.

As to why this is a film “inspired” by Allen’s life and not a biography.   Allen was born in Virginia in 1919, not Georgia.  He was a planation “houseboy” and there is no evidence of the movie opening scenes being part of Allen’s life.  He met his wife at a birthday party, not at work.   She called him for the first date.  They had only one son, not two.   The son, Charles, served in Vietnam and is still alive.   While Allen apparently was present when Eisenhower spoke with his advisors as to sending troops to Little Rock, it did not happen on his first day at the White House.  He had already been there a few years having started with Truman as a pantry hire, not a butler. The tie incident in the movie is partly true, Jackie Kennedy did give Allen a tie worn by JFK after JFK was killed.  Allen framed the tie and never wore it.  Also true is the Reagan invitation for him and his wife to attend a White House dinner involving the West German Chancellor.   Allen and his wife were married for 65 years and she died a few days prior to President Obama’s election.  Allen had a VIP invitation and attended the swearing in ceremony with a Marine guard escort.  There is no evidence as to Allen, who died at 90 in 2010, ever having personally met President Obama.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

MOVIE: Blue Jasmine


Blue Jasmine: did you ever wonder about Mrs. Madoff after her husband went to jail?  This movie presents Woody Allen’s perspective on a spouse’s afterlife following exposure of the Ponzi scheme.  Cate Blanchett, in an Oscar caliber performance, is Jasmine French, the spouse who lived the Good Life.  In the opening scene, Jasmine is on a flight from New York to San Francisco, talking non-stop to the elderly lady sitting next to her.  We learn that Jasmine has a sister named Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, whom Jasmine has always looked down on (Jasmine “has the good genes”).  Jasmine’s former life is told through a series of flashbacks.  Alex Baldwin is excellent as Alex, the Madoff-type husband (all smiles and no substance).  The entire cast is superb, including some folks who are not your usual suspects: Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, the former husband of Ginger who invested $200,000 with Alex; and Louis C. K. as a would-be Ginger boyfriend.  Bobby Cannavale also gives a noteworthy performance as Ginger’s boyfriend.  But the primary reason to see this film is Blanchett’s performance.  Jasmine still dresses as if she has money.  Although she claims to be destitute, her NY to SF flight is via a first class ticket.  She is in denial of her circumstances and clearly has mental health issues as well as a love for vodka and Xanax pill popping.  During the film’s 96 minutes, Blanchett presents a range of emotions that are incredible.  I understand she has played Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, which must have been incredible to watch.  There are parts of Blue Jasmine that may remind you of Williams’ play.  This movie is a series of set pieces starting with our introduction to Jasmine, then moving on to her relationship with her sister and finally to her attempt to create a new life in SF.  The film is presented with a musical score that is also excellent.  Allen wrote and directed the film but does not appear in it.  To those of you who have placed yourselves in the anti-Allen category, make an exception for this movie.  You can pick at the script but not at the actors’ performances.

 

Monday, July 29, 2013

MOVIE: Fruitvale Station


Fruitvale Station: Oakland, California, New Year’s Eve and Morning 2009.  The movie opens with a phone camera sequence of what occurred at the BART station that fateful New Year’s morning.  The film shows us what happened in the life of Oscar Grant III during the approximate 20 hours leading up to the fatal interplay between BART security guards and Oscar Grant at approx. 2:00 a.m. on January 1, 2009.  The film’s goal and that of Ryan Coogler, the writer and first time director of this excellent film, was to show that Oscar’s death was absolutely unnecessary, and this was accomplished by focusing on the individual and not the actual tragic event.  Michael B. Jordon, playing 22 year old Oscar, gives an Oscar-worthy performance.  We are shown his flaws and his temper; for instance, the flashback scene to Oscar’s time at San Quentin (drugs).  We are also shown Oscar’s devotion to his five year old daughter, “T” for Tatiana, played delightfully by Ariana Neal.  The power of the film lies in the honesty with which it presents its characters as well as the excellent acting.  Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother.  One of the film’s more powerful scenes is when she is visiting Oscar at San Quentin.  All the scenes between Oscar and his mother have a real honesty to them.  Melonie Diaz plays Sophina, the mother of T, and she shows the right amount of skepticism about whether Oscar will make good on turning his life around.  Diaz and Jordon play well off each other although not quite to the extent as Jordon and Spencer.  The events at BART comprise only a short part of this short film (just 85 minutes long), and occur more than an hour into the film.  Oscar was an unarmed Black man who was restrained and shot in the back.  The postscript tells us that a BART officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter (defense was he confused his gun for his laser) and served 11 months of a 2 year sentence.  Unlike the Florida events involving Martin and Zimmerman, there were numerous camera shots from people heading home on BART so we know what happened, including the fact that Oscar and his friends didn’t need to be restrained by the BART police in the first place.  This is a well done film that shows the randomness of a Black man being killed.  To say more would go beyond reviewing a film.  The movie is a Sundance Film Festival award winner and truly deserves the honors it has received.  BART allowed the film to be shot at the Fruitvale Station – this film has realism that can bring tears.  Forest Whittaker gave Coogler the backing to make this film.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

MOVIE: Fill the Void

Fill the Void: finding a husband orthodox Jewish family style.  This Israeli film by Rama Burshtein, a female orthodox Jewish director, tells the touching story of an 18 year old girl whose older sister dies giving birth to her first child, a baby boy.  The movie opens with Shira, our 18 year old, at a market with a marriage broker looking from a distance at a prospective husband.  The movie moves on to a festive Purim ceremony at the home of Shira’s father, a orthodox rabbi.  We meet Shira’s 28 year old sister who, by her size and the apparent position of the baby, is close to giving birth.  We also meet the sister’s husband, Yochay.  From this festive perspective, the atmosphere changes when the sister unexpectedly dies.  Primary care for the baby falls to Esther, Shira’s mother.  Esther watches how Shira cares for the baby and comes up with the idea that Yochay should marry Shira.  For those of you not up to speed with Old Testament stories, there is precedent for such marital arrangements although the story in Deuteronomy involves a male being encouraged to marry his brother’s widow.  Within a religious context, this film shows Shira wanting to be a dutiful daughter while having concern as to the age difference between herself and Yochay (not specified but he has to be in his 30’s) and wanting to have a husband not already experienced in marital affairs.  Shira is a complex individual who clearly has her own desires.  A lot happens within the 90 minutes of screen time.  All of it is done with respectfulness to religious traditions while managing to tell a coming of age tale.  This is Burshtein’s first film and it is a remarkable premiere.  The marriage ritual tradition displayed in the film is totally outside my life experience.  The roles of females and males are clearly segregated but with respect and not domination.  The storyline addresses family loyalty verses individualism but within a structure that focuses on the importance of marriage.  Beyond Shira, the film also addresses Yochay’s situation.  He is a good man who has options - an offer to move to Belgium and marry a widow with two children.  The widow character is discussed but never shown.  I found the film entertaining, however, it challenged my western suburbia upbringing.  For the first time ever, promptly upon leaving the film I felt compelled to call my sister.  We had a discussion regarding the life style of an orthodox woman as opposed to one who adopts a conventionally modern life style.  The movie is subtitled in Hebrew.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

MOVIE: Twenty Feet From Stardom


Twenty Feet From Stardom: a musical delight.   If you enjoy the music of the 60’s and 70’s, you are going to love this movie documentary.  Over the opening titles, Lou Reed is singing the stanza from “Walk on the Wild Side” of “and the colored girls sing/doo, da-doo, da-doo, doo, doo …”, which serves as the launching pad for this story of the backup singers on some of my favorite songs.  Most of the backup singers are African-American woman.  The movie intertwines the music with interviews of the singers and clips from early performance days.  At various points in the film you see Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger talking about the importance of the backup singers.  The smile that comes across Jagger’s face as “Gimme Shelter” plays in the background is joyful and later in the film, there is a brief live performance.   Merry Clayton tells the story of how she became the female voice in “Gimme Shelter”.  While I’m still not a David Bowie fan, I have new respect for his “Young Americans”.  The movie is directed by Morgan Neville, who has carved out a documentary film career with stories about Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and Stax Records.  I love Neville’s music selections.  I gained new information while being entertained; for instance, I knew White singers had covered R/B songs but I didn’t realize that Black groups such as the Crystals  were actually lip singing to records made by other Black singers.  The 90 minute film keeps you entertained (how can you not be with segments that include Ray Charles’ Raelettes and the Ike and Tina Turner Review).  My only criticism of the film is that for brief periods, I wasn’t sure which artist we were focusing on due to the shifting back and forth among the singers while weaving between the past and the present.  The film provides new information as to the nastiness of Phil Spector but, fortunately, scenes involving Spector are kept to a minimum.  The power of some of the voices to this day are magnificent.  Apparently, Darlene Love is the only backup singer to have been inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”, however, artists like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer are highlighted.  There is a remarkable scene with Sting and Fischer.  There are also the Wright Family members who, I learned, produced some of the bird sounds in Aviator.  Clayton is the best storyteller of the group and, as noted above, her tale about the late hour call to join Jagger in the studio or to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” are particular highlights.  The film is not entirely historic.  There is a segment on Judith Hill and her current dilemma of having to decide whether to continue being employed as a backup singer or refusing backup gigs so she can focus on crossing the 20 feet to be a star.  The movie is quite a delight.  And if you haven’t seen any of Neville’s other works, you are missing out. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

MOVIE: What Maisie Knew


What Maisie Knew: updated version of the Henry James 1897 novel.  Maisie is a six year old living in NYC.  The movie begins with a scene of her parents arguing.  Soon they are divorced.  The mother is a rock musician and the father is an Englishman earning his income as an art dealer.  Neither knows what it means to be a parent.  The movie tells the story of two people with no true desire to be parents but who are aware that they are supposed to care about their daughter.  Onata Aprile plays the 6 year old and she is a delight.  Her spirit saves the film from being a depressing story.  The movie leaves you with the question of whether Maisie can be a whole person come adulthood.  There is much political rhetoric as to the potential disadvantages of one-parent children but what happens if both parents, although present, have priorities other than the children?  The script has both parents remarrying shortly after the divorce with a subplot as to the father marrying Maisie’s nanny, Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham.   Susanna, the touring rock musician mother played excellently by Julianne Moore, also remarries.  Maisie’s stepfather is played by Alexander Skarsgard, the lead male in the excellent film The East, which I reviewed last week.  Skarsgard, in a very different role, is again excellent.  Steve Coogan plays Maisie’s father.  A lot happens in this 98 minute movie directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel from a script by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright.  I don’t remember reading this James novel so I can’t personally comment on differences between  the book and movie.  In this movie, Maisie is a very real person  and you will care deeply about her while wondering how parents can be so insensitive to their own child.  The contrast between Maisie’s biological parents and her step-parents is quite stark.  The title is a little odd because contrary to its implication, this is not a retrospective by an adult Maisie.  I understand the book has a moralistic governess named Mrs. Wix.   Margo is a very contemporary character and she is not a modern version of Ms. Wix.   This film takes places in 21st century Manhattan and  reflects today's morality.  Maisie is living in present times.  Excellent film.

MOVIE: Lone Ranger


Lone Ranger: a film raising the question of whether Johnny Depp can salvage a sophomoric script.  Sometimes you know  from a movie’s opening scenes that you are in for a long viewing session.  Most of the film occurs in Texas 1869.  It opens in 1933 with a young boy ambling through a traveling Wild West fairground wearing a Lone Ranger costume.  He stops before a glass-screened exhibit of an Indian teepee with an elderly Indian labeled “The Noble Savage in his Native Habitat”.  Then the Indian starts talking.  Soon we are fed a hokey bank robbery scene that is later replayed, unfortunately.  The movie improves, thank you Johnny Depp, and there are some unintended funny scenes, however, this 149 minute movie falls short of what could have been a fun film.  What were Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures thinking?  Disney was criticized last year for John Carter but Carter was a much better film.  I remain a Johnny Depp fan and those of you who are in this category will find enough decent scenes to be pleased you saw the movie.  But Depp’s Tonto is almost the only interesting character.  Armie Hammer is a weak Lone Ranger who is not helped by a terrible script attributed to three individuals:  Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio.  Hammer’s character, John Reid, is just plain silly.  He has a cute introductory scene that could have been written by Bill Mahr (anti-religious joke) but that’s it.  The Lone Ranger grew up in Texas but is anti-gun?  The bad guys, especially Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), are one dimensional stick figures.  Tom Wilkinson, a very good actor, is wasted in a stereotypic role of an evil railroad honcho that is not even salvageable by having been a civil war veteran.  Chief Big Bear (Saginaw Grant) and a feisty madam played by Helene Bonham Carter were among the only other interesting characters.  The Chinese railroad workers and the Indians could have come straight from a pre-Vietnam Hollywood movie.  Depp’s Tonto stands in striking contrast from the rest of the film.  Gore Verbinski is the director and I hope he doesn’t attempt any other Westerns.  There are, however, some beautiful non-Texas western scenery shots.  The cinematographer is Bojan Bazelli and the pretty stuff is Monument Valley.  I miss seeing Westerns; I grew up with them and some of my favorite films and old television shows are Westerns (“Lone Ranger” is not on my list).  I was looking forward to seeing the Lone Ranger but unless you are a diehard Depp fan, which I am, there is no reason to see this movie.   

Trivia information: original “Lone Ranger” radio series commenced broadcasting in 1933.     

Saturday, July 6, 2013

NBA: College Coaches in the NBA + Dwight Howard comments


I hope Brad Stevens is successful with the Celtics but I really think it was an odd choice.   I’m trying to think of a successful college basketball coach other than Larry Brown who also had success as a head coach in the NBA.   I can think of a number of unsuccessful coaches in the NBA who have had a stellar college career.  The list would include the disastrous one year term of Tim Floyd with the Chicago Bulls.  Jerry Tarkanian is one of my favorite college coaches but he didn’t even last a year in the NBA.   Everyone knows about Rick Pitino and John Calipari but they are just the most famous of a long list.   Mike Montgomery was quite successful at Stanford but not with the Warriors.   I know Gregg Popovich, clearly the best current NBA coach, coached at Pomona-Pitzer but does that count?  Probably more important to his NBA success is the year he spent with Larry Brown at Kansas.   PJ Carlesimo had success at Seton Hall and has had a mixed career in the NBA: definitely second tier as to professional jobs.  As I’m typing this two names have come to mind in addition to Larry Brown:  Chuck Daly and Bill Fitch.   Bottom line is that I think it is a very short list as to individuals who successfully made the transition from college to the NBA.   Can you think of anyone else?  I admire what Stevens did at Butler and hope he proves to be the exception.  
 
Current headline story is Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers and joining the Houston Rockets.   I think both the Lakers and the Warriors, especially the Warriors, will be pleased he elected to move to Houston.   Andre Iguodala will fit with the type of ball Warriors are playing much better than Howard.   Howard is talented but he definitely has a Shaq mentality, unlike James who is very much the team player.  I know Howard was hurt part of this past year and unlike Rose, he chose to play when he may not have fully healed.  But there are certain guys who just seem to have issues.   The Lakers may have felt obligated to make the pitch but I think a Howard/Bryant combination will never have worked, partly because Howard is not as good a player as Shaq was in his prime.   I’m more of a college hoops fan but next year there are some interesting NBA teams that should make for an interesting season and the Rockets are not one on my list.  I’m wondering if the Spurs with Duncan have one more run in them and I think both the Warriors and the Clippers will be fun to watch.  The Western Conference has some real excitement for the coming year along with clashes between the Bulls and Indiana.        

Movie: The East


The East:  an excellent Ridley Scott thriller directed by Zal Batmanglij from a script he wrote with Brit Marling.  The primary characters are anarchists (“eco-terrorists”) operating under the name “East”.  The lead character, Jane, is played by co-writer Marling, works for a private security company.   She is a former FBI agent whose boss at the private security company is played by Patricia Clarkson, a very chilly and mercenary persona.  Although the head of East is a male, Benji, played by Alexander Sharsgard, the truly interesting East members are female, including a strong performance by Ellen Page as Izzy.  Jane is sent into the field with the pseudonym, Sarah, to locate the East.  She rides the rails along the Eastern seaboard to make her connection with East, and even though this is a contemporary film, the brief rail scene with the railway men could have been taken from a 1930’s film.  Once Jane makes her connection with East, the movie becomes quite interesting.  The group lives at a burned out house in a forest that I think is in Pennsylvania (movie does not provide a specific location).  The transformation of Jane into Sarah and the subsequent integration of Sarah into the group is well done.  Key question becomes whether Jane, as Sarah, will be a Stockholm syndrome victim.  Part of the film’s fascination is trying to guess which person, Sarah or Jane, will dominate; the conclusion is not obvious.  The actions of the anarchists, which they refer to as “jams”, include giving drug company executives champagne laced with their own FDA approved drug at a celebration party (the side effects are real) and having chemical company executives go swimming in water that contains their own contamination – the latter has a hokey element but well done because of Page’s excellence as an actress (one of the chemical executives is Page’s father).  The East wants to hold the executives responsible and accomplishes this by turning their own activity against them.  The film works because it dwells more on the individual characters than on their jams.  In fact, only brief parts of the 116 minute film are devoted to the actual jams.  All the East members appear to come from privileged homes but were spurred towards activism by their own underlying issues.  The only character whose life choice is fully explained is Doc (Toby Kebbell), who took the drug while working in Kenya  as a medical aid.  While watching this film, I did not know how it would end and I was pleased with the ending.  So far, this is my second best movie of 2014 with ”Mud” still holding first place.  

 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

MOVIE: This Is The End


This is the End: rapture cometh with drugs.  Six male friends are ensconced in a Hollywood house as the Book of Revelations is played out.  The film is a series of comedic sketches, some of which are truly funny, with no pretense of reality.  The movie opens with Jay Baruchel, playing himself, flying into LAX to visit his buddy, Seth Rogen, who is also playing himself.  Rogen drags an unwilling Jay to a party at the house of James Franco, also playing himself (think we have a theme?) where drugs abound.  Jay leaves the house to buy some smokes and, at the liquor store, watches as a blue light lifts some of the people towards the heavens.  Initially, you don’t know whether this will be just another druggie film.  Instead, this apocalyptic movie contains individual episodes focusing on whether any of the six friends will be lifted to Heaven – not all are.  The movie is directed by Seth Rogen and co-written with Evan Goldberg.  Other actors playing themselves include Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd and Rihanna.  Channing Tatum appears late in the movie in a funny scene that is 180 degrees from his John Cale role in White House Down.  To categorize the humor as sophomoric is an insult to sophomores, however, you will laugh while watching this 119 minute movie that has no redeeming quality other than just being funny.  The movie makes fun of the actors:  “ You always play the same guy in every movie. When are you going to do some acting?” says a heckler at LAX to Rogen.  Franco is mocked with references to Pineapple Express.  No one in this film had to do any emoting, with the possible exception of Tatum, as everyone seemed to be within a comfort zone of being themselves.  The primary female in the film is Emma Watson.  She appears in a sketch that begins with Jay in the next room saying she must be fearful about being raped with all the Rapture events occurring.  When Watson hears the word rape and knowing there are six males outside her door she starts reacting by attempting to “defend” herself.  I could describe the sketches, which range from food fights to sleeping arrangements, but the descriptions would only make you wonder why anyone is laughing.  This film shows that pedestrian ideas can be successfully translated to humor on screen.  This film is crass with barely a plot and presents a plethora of narcissistic and social disorders, however, unlike White House Down, this movie intends to be funny and it succeeds.     

Saturday, June 29, 2013

MOVIE: White House Down


White House Down: this is not a Bill Clinton biography.  Instead, it is Channing Tatum starring as a John McClane (Bruce Willis/Die Hard) character named John Cale who just happened to be visiting the White House on the day bad people decided to take over the building and launch WW III.  The headline for the Associated Press review that was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser was “silly fun” and this time the headline is accurate.  But amid the chaotic story is a political theme with some funny lines.  If Oliver Stone had made the TV series “24”, this might be what he would have come up with assuming he had a sense of humor.  The film is the work of German born director Roland Emmerich  and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, with a repeat of Emmerich’s White House burning idea from his Independence Day film.  For those of you who like doomsday political films, you will see analogies to a number of movies ranging from Dr. Stangelove to Rambo during this 131 minute anarchist film in which Tatum saves our President (Jamie Foxx) and Cale’s 11 year old daughter, Emily (Joey King)There is a plot: President James Sawyer returns to the White House after making a deal with Iran to bring peace to the Middle East.  This angers the military industrial complex.  Cale, an Afghan veteran working as a Capital police officer, is at the White House interviewing for a job with the Secret Service.  The interviewer is a do-gooder liberal who just happens to be a former Cale flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Later in the film, she has some lines that appear to be unintendedly funny.  Cale takes his daughter with him and following his interview, the two begin a tour of the White House.  This is when a group of right wing extremists launch their attack with assistance from the head of the Secret Service (James Woods) who is bitter  over the death of his son who was killed in a failed mission authorized by the President.  The script is topical and frequently ludicrous.  Emily asks the best question as to the underlying political event (pulling all troops out of the Middle East): how do you stop the violence between Shities and Sunnis by having the U.S. enter into a peace treaty with Iran?  Emily referenced Pakistan in her question but it exemplifies the political simplification of the film as well as the real underlying questions that our politicians address only with rhetoric instead of substance.  As for Foxx’s performance and character, there are many ways in which we are told to think “Barack Obama” beyond skin color; i.e., he has a wife and a teenage daughter, when he changes out of dress shoes he puts on basketball shoes, he chews Nicorette gum, etc.  Foxx isn’t asked to do much and he fully complies.  It is easy to make fun of this film but if you watch it, you will probably find yourself enjoying much of it as the first part has Cale as a divorced parent trying to do right with his daughter and the second half has over the top shoot outs that appear to be a common theme in today’s blockbusters.  You will not be bored - I was surprised by how many times I laughed.  Just wish I was sure the director intended his audience to laugh as often as I did.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

MOVIE: Man of Steel


Man of Steel: entertaining with a different perspective on a comic book character.  The director is Zack Snyder and the producer is Christopher Nolan.  Together they bring creativity to an old story.  The script is credited to David Goyer of Blade fame.  The combination of Snyder, Nolan and Goyer makes for a complexity not seen in prior Superman films although, at 148 minutes, the story runs a little long.  This is not a remake or a typical superhero production.  Presumably, they decided to send a message by not including the word “superman” is in the title of the movie.  Instead, there is a Dark Knight attitude.  The movie opens with Superman’s Krypton parents.  There is time spent in explaining the consequences of ignoring science and global warming (not really, but there is a political tone to this film).   Russell Crow plays Jor-El, Superman’s biological father.  Kevin Costner plays the Earth father with Diane Lane as Ma Kent.  This is the best Costner performance in years.  Costner and Lane are part of an excellent cast, which also includes Michael Shannon (from last week’s Iceman review) as the master race villain Krypton General Zod.  Henry Cavill is a very credible Superman and in this 21st century movie, Amy Adams as Lois Lane is given more to do than just being a damsel in distress.  The part of the movie I enjoyed most was Superman as a young kid knowing that he’s an outsider and learning to adapt to his environment.  There is a dialogue between young Clark Kent and his father, which would not have occurred in a pre-21st century version, about whether young children should have been left to die rather than Clark revealing that he is not an ordinary kid: Clark asks his father, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?”  The father responds, “Maybe”.  The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Ayelet Zurer as Superman’s biological mother.  The  underlying theme of the movie is whether humankind could really deal with a person from another world – after all, look at our “success” in interacting with each other.  Most of you know the Superman storyline and I’m not going to repeat it.  I will note that  what I liked least about this film was the traditional superhero/villain fight scene between General Zod and Superman; it went on for too long.  How many times do you need to see one of them throwing the other through a building and everything collapsing like a big erector set?  Based upon what had preceded the extended fight scene, I found the ending a disappointment.  Nevertheless, there is a lot to like and entertained you will be.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Easy Rawlins


Easy Rawlins is back.  His creator, Walter Mosley, appeared to have killed him off about five years ago following a series of excellent novels commencing with Devil in a Blue Dress.  The Denzel Washington movie was well done but the book is better.  The 1990 publication and subsequent novels will tell you things about LA you probably will not have read anywhere else.  Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a WW II vet living in Watts.  When you first meet Easy, he is an unemployed defense plant worker circa 1948.  The 11 prior novels carry you into the 1960s.  The most recent novel, Little Green, takes place in 1968.  The book opens with Easy recovering from the auto crash which we thought killed him.  While Easy flows from the Phillip Marlowe tradition, the character and the novels explore the racial and social injustices of LA and do so while contrasting  with what existed in the South.   Easy was born in Louisiana and spent his pre-WW II teenager years in the Houston’s Fifth Ward.  Little Green continues the Easy tradition with the storyline of finding a friend’s son while exploring people’s reaction to a Black man who is a licensed private investigator (quite rare) and owns apartments.  I’ve tried reading Mosley’s non-Easy Rawlins novels.  I only recommend the Rawlins series.  Easy is a complex man and the underlying stories will hold your interest while providing needed information.

 

Movie: The Iceman


The Iceman: an O’Neill play it is not.  Rather, this movie is based upon the true story of a mob contract killer named Richard Kuklinski.  The movie is worth seeing just to partake in the performance by Michael Shannon as Kuklinski.  When the movie opens, Kuklinski is a shy individual on a date with a waitress named Deborah, played by Winona Ryder.  They are sitting at a New Jersey diner - timeline approximately 1960 -  and she asks him what he does for a living.  He answers, “I dub cartoons for Disney”.  The answer had some truth but the real story was that he dubbed porn for the mob.  When the mob decides to close the film lab, Kuklinski is offered a new position following an “interview” with a small time crime boss played by Ray Liotta in which Kuklinski makes a favorable impression when he’s not blinking as a gun is pointed at him.  The career move is to that of a paid assassin.  In real life, Kuklinski reportedly killed over 100 people.  The character and the movie, however, are more complex than just watching a killer do his job.  Kuklinski was a loving family man whose wife (Deborah) and two daughters thought he was a Wall Street trader.  Deborah was told that the film lab had closed.  By the time Kuklinski was arrested in 1986, shortly after his oldest girl turned 16, we have watched a man living two lives and operating on a very short fuse.  The director, Ariel Vromen, gives us only two short scenes to explain Kuklinski; one involves his brother who is to be tried on an anger murder charge, and the second is a very brief scene showing Kuklinski being severely beaten by his father.  The movie implies that as a result of the violence he suffered as a child, Kuklinski had two personalities.  Total movie time for both scenes is less than five minutes and they are the only explanation given for Kuklinski’s behavior.  The film is violent and one scene, which explains Kuklinski’s nickname, Iceman, will remind you of Showtime’s Dexter.  The joint scenes with “Captain America”, another mob killer played by Chris Evans, are marvelous.  I did not realize who the ice cream killer was until the credits.  Liotta has played his role in this movie before but new respect for Evans.  A title card at the end of the end of the 104 minute movie tells us that Kuklinski died in prison in 2006 and never saw his kids after his conviction.  For this man, not seeing his children was a greater penalty than death.  Personally, I wonder how either daughter could ever trust a male after learning the truth about their father.  This is an excellent crime drama with superb acting.  These are crime characters you can believe.  And like an O’Neill play, this movie raises real questions about the human condition.  Because of the violence (short scenes but a couple are graphic) this film is not for everyone, but if you enjoy the crime film genre, the excellent acting makes Iceman a must see.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

MOVIE: Fast & Furious 6


Fast & Furious 6: car racing and car crashes with a nominal storyline.  This is the best Fast  & Furious yet!  It’s not often that a series improves over time but in this case, the sequels get better at staging crashes and giving the actors better scripts.  Now keep in mind, we are starting from a very low threshold as the initial Fast & Furious films had virtually no substance.  The heart of these films hasn’t changed.  Either the action provides a sufficient 128 minute diversion or you stay far away.  As a teenager I went to hot rod and sports car races.  Part of me continues to enjoy fast cars, and devoting 2 hours to watching auto racing with a semblance of a story remains a pleasurable experience.  Also, you know going into the theatre what will be delivered.   I’m already prepared to see the next “Fast & Furious”.  The addition of THE ROCK (Dwayne Johnson is so buff I felt I should put his nickname in bold letters) in the last two “Fast & Furious” films has improved the series.  He and Vin Diesel, the primary star as the devoted family man Dominic Toretto, play off each other and both are better when they’re together on screen.  The movie opens with Luke Hobbs (THE ROCK) informing Toretto that his former girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, played by Michelle Rodriquez, who Fast/Furious fans thought was killed off in a prior episode, is still alive and working with a true bad guy mercenary because she has amnesia and doesn’t remember Toretto (honestly, the script exists only to transition between car crashes).  Toretto, being the loyal family man, reassembles his team and joins government agent Hobbs in stopping the bad guy and reuniting with Letty.  Justin Lin is again the director.  He keeps the camera active and the actors appear to be enjoying themselves.  There are even some comedic lines.  Part of me feels that I should reflect upon the statement being made about me and a significant percentage of the population that this film grossed more than $100 million over the Memorial Day weekend, but I won’t.  Instead, my closing comment is this: if you slow down to check out the car crash that caused the traffic jam, then ”Fast & Furious” films are for you, and vice versa. 

 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

MOVIE: Lore


Lore: a German 14 year old in the year 1945 surviving.  The movie opens with Lore’s parents destroying written records of their involvement with the Holocaust.  The movie is not clear as to the specific  S.S. position held by the father but it is clear he is not a mere soldier.  Lore is the oldest of five children with the youngest being a baby brother.  After the parents are arrested by the Allies, the five children, on their own, must find their way to grandmother’s house (honestly) in Hamburg.  The arrests of the parents occur off camera and the movie’s unusual storyline commences after their departure.  To reach their designation, the children have to travel through a forest and lands controlled by different allies (Russians, Americans, British).  In a war torn country, survival is difficult and food is always an issue.  The mother left Lore with cash, jewelry, silverware and trinkets to bargain for food.  Lore exchanges the items long before they leave the forest.  A young man named Thomas appears in the forest and for reasons not entirely clear, helps Lore, her younger sister, the twin boys and the baby.  Thomas is a Jewish survivor.  The movie presents the German perspective of the Holocaust as the war comes to an end.  Saskia Rosendahl, in her introductory role, is superb as Lore.  As Lore interacts with people who continue to believe in Hitler, she learns that what her parents taught her is a lie.  The film poses the question: what do you feel when you learn that your father was a murderer and your mother was complicit in the killing?  As Lore learns, hate spills from her mouth as she and her siblings become increasingly dependent on Thomas, played by Kai Malina.  The German citizenry believe the newspaper photos of concentration camps are merely portrayals by Hollywood actors.  The startling contrast between the background horror and the forest scenery is part of the film’s excellence.  The  director is Cate Shortland, an Australian.   Lines such as “Hitler loved his country too much” are hard to digest.  The story is based on actual events.  Source material is from a novel “The Dark Room” written by the daughter of the real life Lore.  The horror of the times is presented with surreal imagery.  This 108 minute German film (subtitled) does not have a Hollywood ending.  However, it is clear that by the end of this film Lore is no longer a na├»ve 14 year old with a racist belief system.  The movie attacks stereotypes, reminds you that horrors are perpetrated by individuals, and leaves you pondering the ability of humans to commit evil.   Showing the Holocaust aftermath from a German perspective makes for an unusual but brilliant film. 

Side note: the photos in Thomas’ wallet are from the director’s husband’s grandmother who left Berlin in 1937.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

MOVIE: The Sapphires


The Sapphires: an old story line with an interesting twist.  This movie, based upon real events, is about three sisters and a cousin who form a quartet.  The timeline for most of the story is 1968.  The place is Australia.  The twist lies not just with the fact that these are talented Aboriginal women but also in the presentation of blatant racism and the evil treatment of the Aborigine people within the context of an overall feel good movie about individuals overcoming Society’s plans for them.  The movie opens approximately ten years earlier with the girls performing for friends and family.  We later learn that at this performance the cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), was separated from her family by agents of the government to be raised as “white” due to her light skin color.  After the opening sequence, the sisters are in an Australian outback town to perform at a singing contest.  Although the sisters are clearly the star performers, they are ignored and a white girl who barely can sing is pronounced the winner.   At the contest, they meet Dave, the emcee who has alcohol issues.  One of the sisters shows Dave a Variety-type announcement regarding a tryout for singers in Vietnam.  Of course, the sisters get the gig and most of the second half of the movie takes place in Vietnam with a terrific assortment of ‘60s songs.  Pre-Dave, the sisters sing Country.  Dave introduces them to Soul music with a great line about how Country music embraces misfortune while Soul defiantly insists on hope in the face of misery.  Prior to the audition, the sisters reconnect with Kay, who was living “white” but shamed by Gail (Deborah Mailman), the oldest of the sisters, to rejoin the group.  Chris O’Dowd is excellent as Dave and is the only actor I recognized.  Julie, played by Jessica Mauboy, has the best voice.  Miranda Tapsell plays the fourth sister.  Each of the four women is a distinct character and the interactions among them are quite real.  The contrast with what was happening in America on the race issue is presented with short historical videos (King’s march speech, Ali’s defiance, RFK announcing King’s death), which are integrated into the storyline.  Although the war and racism issues may make the film sound heavy, it is, as I noted in the beginning of this commentary, mostly a feel good movie with a lot of good sounds.  The movie is based upon a play written by the son of one of the sisters.  The director is Wayne Blair and he pulls off the difficult task of presenting serious social issues while entertaining us.   With great music, some funny scenes, primarily involving O’Dowd, and very credible performances, you will have a fun 98 minutes watching this movie.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Movie: The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby: a combination of exquisite scenes and one dimensional characters.  It is a beautiful movie deserving of Oscar nominations for cinematography and costume.  The clothing, jewelry and autos offer much to behold.  If only the actors had a stronger script.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a credible Jay Gatsby.  Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway and he has more screen time than DiCarpio.  I think we are close to 30 minutes into the movie before we meet Gatsby.  This would not be a problem if Tobey had something to do besides observe and narrate.  There are too many scenes of Toby just observing.  The one dimensional characters are Daisy and Tom Buchannan, played by Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton.  Tobey is second cousin to Daisy and lives next door to Gatsby in the equivalent of servants’ quarters.  The Daisy character in the original F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is an idolized persona and is part of the reason none of the previous Gatsby movies worked, not including the lost silent movie version.  In this movie, Daisy is beautiful but without substance.  But the real weak link is Tom.  His performance would be apropos in a silent film but amidst all the spectacle in this movie, it is unfortunate.  Edgerton is at his best in the only traditionally filmed scene: a hotel room with all the major characters present.  The love both Gatsby and Tom have for Daisy is presented with Nick observing.  This is one of the few conventional movie scenes.  For me, there is enough glitter to sustain the movie.  The director, Baz Luhrmann, brings to life the times about which Fitzgerald wrote.  Using Jay-Z’s score works for most of the movie but, for this jazz age tale, not completely.  Most of you know the story: Gatsby lives in a mansion outside NYC and has virtually unlimited funds to throw elaborate parties.  In an earlier life, he met and fell in love with Daisy.  He recreated himself and became rich by being the public face for a Jewish mobster, all of which was done to reconnect with Daisy who during the intervening time had married Tom.  Gatsby befriends Nick to reconnect with Daisy.  The screenplay is jointly written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce and the anti-Semitism and racism of the times is presented.  But why cast an Indian actor, Amitabh Bachchan, as the Jewish mobster?  It has been years since I read the novel but I think the movie is true to the underlying story, which arguably has some of the same faults.  However, Fitzgerald’s work is closer to a novella while the movie lasts 143 minutes.  With tighter editing, this movie could have been worth all the promotional dollars spent.  Still, it is worth seeing and the viewing should be in a big screen theater with a wall to wall audio system.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Movie: Iron Man 3


Iron Man 3: the latest Robert Downey, Jr. installment.  My one sentence review: installment 3 is better than installment 2 but substantially short of installment 1.  This installment involves a character named The Mandarin.  For those of you who read the Marvel comics, you will remember The Mandarin as a racist character invoking a Fu Manchu image.  With Ben Kingsley playing the part, this is a very different character from the Marvel presentation, and Kingsley’s performance is one of the highlights of this film.  The introduction of The Mandarin character presents an Osama bin Laden-like bomber who has the technological ability to take over the television airwaves and broadcast a mass bombing live.  With Boston events still lingering in our memory banks, certain early scenes provoked an uneasy feeling.   After Downey’s character, Tony Stark, issues a mano a mano challenge to The Mandarin, Stark’s Pacific Ocean mansion is destroyed.  Of course, Stark survives and the rest of the film is his comeback victory.  When Downey is on the screen without the mask, the film is entertaining.  A fun interlude is an interaction that occurs after the house bombing when Stark finds himself in Tennessee and meets up with a fatherless kid played by Ty Simpkins.  As in certain scenes with Kingsley, the elements not going boom work.  Unfortunately , we have too much time spent with things blowing up and the ending sequence is way too long.  Also, the truly evil character is a mad scientist named Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce, and he is not credible.  Aldrich’s evilness is partly Stark’s fault because he stood him up a few years earlier by failing to keep an appointment.  Aldrich is out for revenge.  Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, and is given some macho scenes in the drawn out ending to this 129 minute movie.  The director is Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”) and he is given credit as co-scriptwriter.  Whoever is responsible for the Simpkins character and the remake of The Mandarin deserves praise.  Bottom line is that if you are a fan of watching comic book characters turned into movie heroes, there is enough good stuff in this movie to make it an enjoyable experience.  Downey makes the Stark character likeable and that is a key component.  Editing down the quantity of the boom-boom scenes would have made for a better movie.  With the huge gross revenue for this film, there will be an Iron Man 4.  As long as Downey is playing Stark, I will continue to watch the Iron Man films.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

MOVIE: Mud


Mud: a well told coming of age movie focusing on a 14 year old named Ellis and his best friend Neckbone.  Movie takes place in Arkansas.  Ellis lives on a riverboat with his parents.  For you Arkansas people, the entire film takes place in the Arkansas Delta near the confluence of the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers.  The year is 2011 – only know this because of a wall calendar.  Story begins with Bone showing Ellis a boat that got lodged in a tree on an overgrown island in the Delta during a flood.  As they are rummaging through the boat, Ellis realizes that someone is living on the boat.  This is when we meet the Matthew McConaughey character, Mud.  We are never told his real name.  Mud had grown up in the area but left to follow his true love, Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon.  As the movie unfolds, we learn that Mud and Juniper met when Mud was 10 years old.  Mud is hiding out on the island because he killed Juniper’s husband after the husband had seriously beaten Juniper.  The backstory is told as current events unfold.  For most of this 140 minute film, the focus is on the two kids and Ellis learning about becoming a man.  I usually don’t read movie reviews prior to seeing the film however, in this case, I made an exception because the preview – let alone the title – offered very little sense of what this film was about, let alone its superb quality.  The reviewer drew an analogy to Mark Twain and, yes, this film is a modern Huck Finn tale.  The movie is written and directed by Jeff Nichols.  Way too early to invoke Oscar but, at a minimum, Nichols should receive a nomination for best original movie script.  Nichols hits all the right buttons as to life learning experiences while keeping you guessing as to how he will wrap up his story.  McConaughey is  excellent.  The Juniper character strikes me as not a particularly challenging role for Witherspoon.  Sam Shepard is excellent as the man who raised Mud and who also happens to be a neighbor of Ellis, although they’d never spoken prior to Mud’s appearance.  Ray McKinnon’s character, Ellis’ father and a man trying to survive as a fisherman, is also excellent.  The family’s economic status and the emotional consequences are presented as a dying reality.  But the focus and the star is Tye Sheridan as Ellis.  He is the central character and his reactions to events is consistently believable.  Ellis is drawn to Mud and their relationship is credible; Bone’s skepticism is equally credible.  I should note that Bone (Jacob Lofland) has some of the best lines in the movie.  Even the minor roles, such as Michael Shannon as the adult raising Neckbone, are well played.  During his short time before the camera your impression of Uncle Galen will change – for the better.  Joe Don Baker also has a small but critical role.  I loved Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as a kid (I still own copies of the Twain novels).  Ellis and Bone are similar characters in a similar environment placed in the 21st century.  The only physical  violence is near the end of the film and it is short and stylized.  Do you get the idea I really liked this movie?   Go see Mud.

Monday, April 29, 2013

MOVIE: The Company You Keep


The Company You Keep: a Robert Redford film.  The movie opens with TV news pictures from the late ‘60s and a short history lesson about the Weather Underground.  An appropriate beginning as many viewers are not going to understand the movie if they have no remembrance of how part of the anti-Vietnam war protest went violent.  This movie, which takes place in the present, is about individuals who were active participants in a Weather Underground incident and who then went underground.  Robert Redford plays the lead character, Nick Sloan.  He also directed the film.  After going underground, Sloan resurfaces as a public interest lawyer in Albany, NY.   His fabricated persona becomes suspect after the character played by Susan Sarandon is arrestedThis occurs at the beginning of the film.  The Sarandon character, who has decided to surrender, is instead arrested by the FBI.  The lead FBI agent is played by Terrence Howard.  The movie is not FBI friendly and Howard’s performance is not helpful.   Sloan is flushed out by a young newspaper reporter, Ben Shepard, played by Shia LeBeouf.  The film moves between how the reporter discovers what three decades of FBI work had not, and Redford on the run.  Turns out that some of the old radicals had maintained communication channels over the past 30 years.  It is these minor roles that make this film an enjoyable viewing experience.  Nick Nolte is not on screen very long but he dominates for his duration.  Julie Christie was Redford’s girlfriend in the day and he is traveling the country to find her because she is the one who knows the true story regarding the incident that forced Redford to recreate himself.  Christie is now a drug runner living in Northern California with Mac, played by Sam Elliot.  Christie does not look her 71 years and she remains excellent.  We also have actors Richard Jenkins and Stephen Root playing other members of the University of Michigan group.  Stanley Tucci plays the newspaper editor and Ben Shepard’s boss.  The film cast is excellent.  As to the storyline, I had mixed emotions after the recent events in Boston.  I bet if you asked most Americans to name the most successful organization in planting bombs in American history, they would not guess Weather Underground; in this instance, my reference to “success” relates to number of incidents and not death count.  Since I’m old enough to have been in college when much of what led to the formation of the Weather Underground occurred, I remember the incidents that are the understory for this movie.  I also recall that the acts of the Underground were not the modern indiscriminate bombings by religious zealots.   Still, a bomb is a bomb is a bomb.  The fact that the movie made me think is another plus to go with the excellent acting.  The movie kept my attention for the 125 minutes.  Unfortunately, Redford could not resist a Hollywood ending to his film.  I would have preferred the film ending about 5 minutes earlier than it does.  I will place at the end of my blog what should have been the closing scene.  One additional comment: the script is weak and most of the characters, despite the excellent acting, are too one dimensional.  Nolte and Sarandon were notable exceptions and more screen time for them would have been a plus.  Redford’s time as a lead actor has passed. 
POSTSCRIPT ON MOVIE ENDING:   Redford and Christie meet at a cabin in Upper Minnesota.  The FBI had tracked Redford character but has no idea Christie is present. They run from the cabin in opposite directions and Christie makes it to a lake wharf where a small boat is present.  Then there is a long shot of the boat in the lake.   I would have ented the movie with that scene. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Movie: 42


42: telling the story of Jackie Robinson integrating major league baseball.   The movie covers the period from 1945 through Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.   This is not a biography of Jackie Robinson.  Instead, using baseball and the Robinson story, a snapshot of America right after winning WWII is being told.  While every baseball fan should see this movie, “42” is more than just a  baseball film.  The movie opens with a background voice talking about the soldiers returning home but despite the victory over fascism, segregation through Jim Crow laws remain rampant throughout much of the country.  The racism that existed was blatant and the movie does not hide this fact.   Nor does it hide the anti-Semitism which was also prevalent.  A scene shows the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies asking reporters why can’t I call Robinson a Nigger if I can call Hank Greenberg a Kike.  The adventures of Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) provide an interesting counterpoint.  For you non-baseball fans, Durocher was the manager of the Dodgers who got suspended in 1947 for his lack of morals - he was dating a Hollywood starlet who got divorced over the relationship.  I could launch into a discussion of sexual morality verses treating each human as an equal, but I won’t.  Chadwick Boseman is a credible Jackie Robinson and Nicole Beharie plays his wife Rachel.  The movie is also a love story as they appear to have had a remarkable relationship.  Mrs. Robinson is still alive and actively working with the education foundation bearing Jackie’s name.  The integration of baseball happened as early as 1947 due to one man, Branch Rickey.  He was a lone voice.  Rickey was the general manager of the Dodgers and it was through his drive and the character of Robinson that baseball integration occurred when it did, with success.  Harrison Ford does a marvelous job portraying Rickey.  The movie was written and directed by Brian Helgeland and he is not into complexity.  The movie score is unfortunate.  It has the sound of a ‘40s movie, which is not meant as a compliment.  Using a movie score to tell the viewer what is important is not a device I endorse.  The 128 minute movie is complimentary to some baseball players (Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca) and shows the blatant racism of others (Dixie Walker and Enos Slaughter).  An individual who is shown to have evolved thorough his interaction with Robinson was Bobby Bragan.  There is also a father/son scene which shows how racist acts are passed from father to son.   I recommend that you watch history being told in an entertaining movie but afterwards think about what has transpired during the past 66 years.