The Imitation Game: the story of Alan Turing, the individual who broke the Nazi Enigma code and arguably one of the primary individuals responsible for the invention of computers. Turing was a mathematician. During the 1930s, he wrote articles about what he called the “universal machine.” It was his writings that brought him to the attention of MI-6 who employed him to break the Nazi military communication code. Turing, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, uses his employment at Bletchley Park to build a computer. His computer, coupled with human insight, breaks the German code. In 2001, a film called Enigma told the basic code breaking story. The Imitation Game’s focus is on Turing. The film’s structure is somewhat awkward. The opening scene takes place after WWII at what appears to be a break-in at Turing’s residence. As the movie unfolds, there are flashbacks to Turing as a school boy then flash-forwards to the events which lead to Turing’s arrest and conviction in 1952 for being a homosexual. Unlike Engima, this script by Graham Moore, which is based on the biography by Andrew Hodges, is for the most part factually accurate. For me to disclose the “Hollywood” moment would not be appropriate. The primary reason Turing is not better known is because the British intelligence service kept Turing’s code breaking work a secret for approximately 50 years after the end of WWII. This 114 minute film is directed by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian making his English language film debut. The supporting cast, particularly Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, another brilliant mathematician, is excellent. The flashbacks offer explanations as to Turing’s behavior, and Alex Lawther as the young Turing is quite good. Turing had a form of autism which prevented him from understanding the figurative meaning of words and, as such, sarcasm and most jokes failed to register with him. Turing’s difficulties interacting with people as an adult were shown in his dealings with his direct superior, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). There are some light, humorous moments in the film, particularly when it creatively displays the effects of Turing’s literalism, such as the scene in which a co-worker tells Turing that his fellow workers are going to lunch. Sometimes you just know a film is going to be enjoyable from the preview. This is one of those films. The key is Cumberbatch’s performance. Turing is a complex person trying to solve what may have been unsolvable without the aid of the computer he invented. I doubt that Turing was likeable in real life but he is on screen. This film is on my 2014 Ten Best list.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
FORCE MAJEURE: a film about relationships. This film takes place at the Les Ares Ski Lodge in France. The opening scene of the lodge is gorgeous. The main characters are a Swedish family of four, and the film chronicles the family’s six days at the resort. In an early scene, the wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), tells another guest that this vacation is to give the husband an opportunity to reconnect with his family. The husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is some type of businessman; we are not given any information about his work. Based on events of the first day, you would think they are an ideal family; European picture perfect. However, on the second day, while they are having lunch on the lodge’s deck, it appears that a controlled avalanche has gone out of control. The rest of this 118-minute film deals with the fact that rather than acting to save his family, Tomas reacts out of fear. As it turns out, the avalanche does not harm anyone and all the lunch guests return to their tables and finish their meals. Ebba stays with the children throughout the incident. When she later tells the story, Tomas does not acknowledge his fear reaction. Over the next two days, the couple’s relationship deteriorates. By the third day, Ebba skies alone. On the fourth day, Tomas skies with a male friend, Mats. The previous evening there had been an awkward but funny interaction among Mats, his girlfriend, Ebba and Tomas. While addressing a serious issue – Tomas’ manhood and courage – the film intersperses humor. The movie, directed by Ruben Ostland, appears on some critics’ Top 10 list. While it won’t be on mine, this film is definitely worth seeing. If you’re into skiing, it might be a must see. I found the ending sequence of the film odd; I would have ended the story five minutes earlier. The fact that the director structured the story to coincide with each new day, without using any flashbacks, gives an element of suspense to the story.
Monday, December 8, 2014
The Homesman: not your typical western. The film opens with Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) plowing a field. It is Nebraska in the early 1850’s. The film initially focuses on Mary Bee and her uniqueness in the small farming community. She is single and self-supporting. She also wants a husband. As the storyline develops, we learn how lonely and devastating life is for most women living on the frontier. In fact, three women have become mentally ill and need to be returned to civilization which, in this story, is Iowa. Mary Bee is the person who will take the women to Iowa because no one else in the community appears willing or capable of handling the multi-week journey. Shortly before her journey begins, Mary Bee meets the Tommy Lee Jones character, George Briggs, who is sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck and the rope tied to a tree. She saves Briggs from the hanging and extracts his promise to help her take the women to Iowa. Once the journey begins, there are clips of traditional western footage with a bad man scene and a scene with Indians. The bleakness of the journey and the landscape is fully developed. Although the three women are in many of the scenes, this film is about Mary Bee and, later, about Briggs. Tommy Lee Jones directs this 120 minute movie and the script is based upon a book with the same title. There are surprises and I won’t comment further on the storyline. There are three actors with short but memorable roles: John Lithgow in the first part of the movie as the reverend who organizes the trip; Meryl Streep at the end of the film as the Iowa minister’s wife; and James Spader in a short but memorable scene - as only Spader is able to do: you will remember his character. The film plays out as a critique of virtually all female characters in every western movie you’ve ever seen. Swank’s performance could result in another Oscar nomination for her. Jones is also superb but, like Bill Murray in St. Vincent, Briggs is a character Jones has done many times before. Rodrigo Prieto may receive a nomination for cinematography. I recommend you see this movie.
Monday, December 1, 2014
The Theory of Everything: the Stephen Hawking movie. Sometimes an interesting story, when coupled with excellent acting, is enough. This film, which is based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s autobiography, opens with Stephen Hawking as a 21-year old doctoral candidate at Cambridge and runs through the publication of his best seller “A Brief History of Time”. It is a story about the individuals, Stephen and Jane, and their marriage. Eddie Redmayne gives a magnificent performance as Hawking. (I’ve now seen three films in a row where the leading male actor offers an Oscar quality performance.) Prior to seeing Theory of Everything, I knew nothing about Hawking’s personal life. Hawking and Jane meet at Cambridge and become involved prior to learning that Hawking has been diagnosed with what the film calls “a motor neuron disorder” - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or, to most of us, Lou Gehrig’s disease. At the time of diagnosis, Hawking is told he has only two years to live; he is now 72. The film’s strength lies primarily in the scenes with Jane (Felicity Jones), particularly when she motivates and convinces Hawking not to let the disease own him. Jane, Stephen or both are on screen for most of the film’s 123 minutes. The first half of the movie is a true love story. There are also some comic lines, partly based on the fact that Hawking was able to father 3 children, the last one after the disease had taken considerable control over his body. James Marsh is the director and he allows the story to unfold. Unfortunately, the film drifts into focusing on Hawking’s awards without really explaining the change that had occurred in the couple’s relationship. Also, one is left to wonder whether the fact that Hawking has lived 50 years longer than originally predicted is due solely to excellent medical care. The films holds your interest because it doesn’t try to explain the math. It would, however, have been a more fulfilling story if we’d been given more of an explanation as to what happened in the relationship and why Hawking has so thoroughly surpassed the ALS survival odds. That said, fundamentally, Redmayne and Jones’ performances are sufficient reasons to see this film.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Whiplash: the title refers to a jazz song. This film has nothing whatsoever to do with a litigation lawyer or a neck injury. I have two perspectives on this film. First of all, it is a riveting story about a music teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and his student, Andrew (Miles Teller). The quality of the acting and the music is outstanding, and J. K. Simmons deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. Fletcher and Andrew are individuals driven to attain perfection. A significant portion of the movie takes place at the music college (Julliard in all but name) where Andrew is a freshman jazz drummer and Fletcher is the teacher of an elite jazz group. In the opening scenes, Andrew appears as a shy teenager, particularly in his initial interaction with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a college student at Fordham who works at a movie theatre. There is a nice charm to Andrew and Nicole, and Nicole has a wonderful smile. We are shown, however, the extent of Andrew’s drive for perfection when he walks away from the relationship. Through an interaction at a family dinner scene, we also learn he has no social skills. This film is about the music and what it takes to become a true artist.
A story about what motivated Charley Parker to become a great jazz artist is told more than once. My alternate perspective stems from the fact that some of the scenes are difficult to watch. The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Based on what Chazelle is presenting, it is a tribute to his skills that, at times during the film, I became physically uncomfortable due to the intensity of the psychological violence. Fletcher’s teaching style is tyrannical to the point of being abusive and, while admiring his talents, he is not a character you like. The excellent jazz score is by Justin Hurwitz. There is a lot to appreciate during this 105 minute film and it should receive a number of Oscar nominations. This film leaves you feeling uncomfortable about the extent to which ambition should or could control one’s life. Fletcher tells Andrew that the two words to avoid are “Good Job”; this film presents a viewpoint as to what it takes to go beyond “Good.”
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
St. Vincent: Bill Murray’s latest quality movie. This film offers a simple story line: down on his luck elderly guy gets a new neighbor with a 12 year old son. The mother, played by Melissa McCarthy, is forced to leave Oliver, played by Jaeden Lieberher, with Vincent (Bill Murray) due to work commitment. Vincent and Oliver become pals as Vincent takes the boy to places like the race track and a bar. Murray also has a pregnant “Woman of the Night” friend named Daka played by Naomi Watts. The character is not believable as written, however, Watts’ performance is enjoyable. The film is a perfect set up for Murray who is a master of these types of roles. But for the movie to work, you have to like Oliver and you do. The 102 minute movie is written and directed by Theodore Melfi. There is nothing new here but old tales can be fun when so well acted. Why the title? Oliver attends a Catholic school even though his father is Jewish. The teacher/priest gives the students an assignment to present someone they know as a present day saint. After seeing Vincent be, among other things, a mean drunk, we learn his history which is part of the movie’s fun. No Oscar nominations for this film but it is quite entertaining.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance: a comedy, sort of. I decided to see this film in violation of one of my self-imposed rules: if the preview leaves you uninterested, don’t spend money to see more of the same. This film, however, is not more of the same. In fact, I’m wondering how many Oscars nominations Birdman will receive, including a best actor nod to Michael Keaton for his portrayal of Birdman, aka Riggan. So who is Birdman? - - an invented movie character who made 3 films, the last one at least 20 years in the past. Riggan, in an attempt to show the world that he is a real actor, has written a play based upon the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.” The film opens with the play’s New York preview to occur in just a few hours. The film moves between getting the play ready for opening night and Riggan’s fantasies about being Birdman. Another self-imposed rule blown: if you’re really aware of the music but are not watching a musical, there is a problem. I became extremely aware of the music and I loved it. Antonio Sanchez should receive an Oscar nomination for best original score. Oscar nominations could also include Edward Norton as the actor with the oversized ego and, perhaps, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer and the play’s producer. Galifianakis has no comedy lines, which is a pleasant surprise. There is also Emma Stone’s supporting role as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, who initially comes across as a stoner but is much more. There are also fine performances by Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan. The original script is by the director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Amando Bo. An excellent cast working with a very imaginative director and a creative script produces what is definitely a picture to be both seen and heard. The 119 minute film is not predictable. The presentation includes showing a specific scene from the play many times but each time there are distinct differences. Much of this movie takes place at the St. James Theatre in Times Square. The camerawork is outstanding and another probable Oscar nomination. The NY Times theater critic, played by Lindsay Duncan, also offers an interesting rip on critics. I was entertained from the beginning to the end. I highly recommend this movie.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Fury: a WWII film starring Brad Pitt. Timeline is Spring 1945. The Allies have crossed the German border but Germany’s war defense effort remains substantial. Pitt’s character, Sgt. Don Collier, is a tank commander. His crew has been with him since North Africa. When the film opens, we learn that Collier’s tank is the sole survivor from an encounter. This film is presented in the style of Saving Sargent Ryan, and war is shown in all its brutality. There is also a sense of Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards present, a prior Pitt WWII film. Both films are clear that the enemies are the Nazis and they deserve to be killed. The tank’s crew is diverse, which is expected in a 21st century movie. Michael Pena as Gordo, the Mexican-American, and Jon Bernthal as Grady Travis, the Southerner, play effectively off each other. Shia LeBeouf gives an Oscar quality performance as the Bible quoting Christian. The counterpoint character is a private, played by Logan Lerman, who is assigned to the crew as they are heading into another battle. Lerman is a transferee from the typing pool and has no experience with death. He is also presented as an intellectual who has read Hemingway and plays classical piano, which we learn during an interlude between the taking of a German town and the next battle. The break in the fighting allows Pitt to reveal the complexity of the tank sergeant. Collier speaks fluent German but how that came to be is left unexplained. The film was written and directed by David Ayer. The battles have a realism that propels the movie. The film’s title is taken from the name painted on the tank’s main gun. This emotion is also reflected in Sgt. Collier character and in the battle scenes. Veterans of war speak of the savagery of battle and the need to act with decency once the fighting has ended. My father did not watch war movies because he found their treatment of war silly and unrealistic. I think he’d find this 134 minute film to be the exception. This film grabs your attention with the opening scenes and holds it firmly to the end.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the latest novel by Haruki Murakami. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you are missing a very talented writer. This summer I read Kafka on the Shore. When I saw the announcement of Murakami’s newest novel, I immediately ordered a copy. Colorless is relatively short making for a good weekend read. The story opens with Tsukuru, as a college sophomore, learning that his four closest friends from high school cut off all communication with him. This act changes Tsukuru for life. The novel has three time periods: Tsukuru’s high school years in Nagoya; his college years in Tokyo; and as a 36 year old employed engineer. Although much of the storyline takes place during Tsukuru’s adulthood, the story keeps returning to his time in school, and it is only towards the end of the novel that we learn why his friends, 2 males and 2 females, terminated their relationship with Tsukuru. Unlike his friends, Tsukuru’s name does not translate to a particular color. His friends’ surnames reflect a color: Miss White; Miss Black; Mr. Red and Mr. Blue. Tsukuru’s name means “to make”. Tsukuru’s only other college friend’s name, Haida, means gray. The colors are metaphors for personalities. As in Kafka on the Shore, this novel explores the difficulties of a young male coming of age in a society without the companionship or relationship of a father; Kafka and Tsukura, however, are very different males as were their fathers. Tsukuru’s efforts to learn what happened with his friends allows him to finally grow as an adult. Interestingly, the individual who pushes Tsukuru to make peace with his own history also has no color in her name. Her dress and her life, however, are very color-coordinated. The underlying story holds your interest and the quality of Murakami’s writing is world class. For example: “There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage of acute loss.” I’ve read that Murakami has been considered for the Nobel Prize in literature. Colorless, a relatively short work, will give you a feel as to why he is deserving of such consideration. Then, after reading longer tales such as Kafka on the Shore, I believe that you, too, will be convinced that Murakami is deserving of such an honor.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Dear White People: a comedy addressing current issues. This film takes place on a fictional Ivy League campus named Winchester. The source of the film’s title is the lead character’s campus radio show, “Dear White People”. The movie can be viewed as an updated version of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing set on a college campus. Samantha (“Sam”) White, who is more than just a witty radio host, is played by Tessa Thompson. Through Sam’s eyes, we are shown the complexities of stereotypes. For example, Sam informs a professor that the 1984 movie Gremlins is about suburban white fear of black culture as “Gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken and freak out when you get their hair wet”. I would need to see the film more than once to remember more of Sam’s clever lines as well as those of the second lead character, Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams). Lionel is initially presented as a shy, gay student who insists he does not identify with anything while not fitting in anywhere on campus. Lionel is told by a white person, who thinks she’s complimenting him, “You’re only technically black.” The incident that is the catalyst for the movie is a Halloween party sponsored annually by a satirical magazine. Blackface hip-hop becomes the party’s theme and this leads to some serious scenes. Writer and first time director, Justin Simien, did not invent the party concept; post-film credits show photos from such parties at Dartmouth, UC San Diego, Pennsylvania State University and other schools. Simien has a person from the Southside of Chicago present the idea of having the hip-hop party (Teyonah Paris as Coco Connors). Coco’s character presents other issues underlying human relations. This film isn’t limited to the Black/White issue. The sons of both the University President and its Dean of Students attend Winchester and both sons have issues with their fathers. Dean Haysbert plays the Dean of Students and Peter Syvertsen the school President. There are also core Black issues presented such as how Black is Black. A lot happens during this 108-minute film and it is all presented with a sense of humor. You will be amused as the movie unfolds. Then, when you further consider what you saw, you’ll have a lot to think about regarding race relations in the USA. I highly recommend this film.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
The Notebook: Hungarian WW II film. The story revolves around 12 year old twin boys. The twins are played by actual brothers, Laszlo and Andras Gyemant. The time period is 1944/1945. The opening scene shows the father returning home on military leave to a loving wife and two sons. When the father returns to the front, the wife takes the boys to her mother’s farm. We quickly learn that the grandmother has neither seen her grandchildren nor met her son-in-law. The boys’ mother left home upon the death of her father. There are hints as to how the father died and why a schism exists between mother and daughter. If you understand Hungarian, the background story may be clearer. The film’s focus is on what happens to the boys when they are left at their grandmother’s house, not on the mother-daughter relationship. The title originates from the father giving the twins a notebook and telling them to write down everything that happens to them while he is gone. The boys are diligent in their task. The fact there is a war is very present throughout the film, and the village’s anti-Semitism is part of the story. The twins are not Jewish and the anti-Semitism we witness is viewed through their eyes. We never learn the names of the twins; they are either “One” or the “Other” or, per the grandmother, “the Bastards”. Until the twins’ father arrives at the farm, the grandmother believes there is no husband. This 112 minute film, directed by Janos Szasz, is based on a French novel by a Hungarian author named Agota Kristof, who also co-wrote the script. The story deals with unpleasant times. The grandmother initially appears to be an angry and evil woman. She is undoubtedly angry, however, as to the story develops, not evil. The twins learn to survive and in the process, are changed; they are not the same individuals they were when the films opens. Some of the characters are stereotypes, but the film’s focus remains on the twins and what happens when young males are forced to grow up without the presence of a sane adult male to interpret the barbaric events of wartime. The Gyemant brothers give an excellent performance. The film will linger in your thoughts for a long while.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Gone Girl: a mystery based upon the same-named novel. I suspect those of you who haven’t read the novel will enjoy the movie more than those who have as the underlying story is premised on a gimmick. The script is by the book’s author, Gillian Flynn. Because I had not read the book, the movie held my interest. Notwithstanding the manipulative plotline, there are some quality acting performances. The story raises the question of who can you trust. After a short, chilling opening scene, we are introduced to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a husband whose marriage is off track. We learn of the teetering marriage through a conversation Nick has with a bartender, whom we later learn is his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). Nick and Margo operate “The Bar” in North Carthage, a fictional town in Missouri. Following the bar scene, Nick returns home to find signs of a break-in and his wife missing. Nick calls the police and we meet detectives Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gilpen (Patrick Fugit). The police are suspicious and we begin wondering whether Nick’s wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has been killed. Amy is a public personality due to her parents having written and promoted “Amazing Amy”, a famous series of children’s books based on enhanced episodes of Amy’s life. The media become promptly involved. The parents, Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes), through years of exposure, are very media savvy. Media personalities include a Nancy Grace character who pounds on the evils of men. As the story unfolds, the institution of marriage takes a beating. One of the more interesting characters is an individual named Greta (Lola Kirke), but explaining how she fits in would detract from the suspense created by director David Fincher. There is also Amy’s very wealthy but naïve ex-boyfriend, Desi (Neil Patrick Harris). Desi becomes a key character. Tyler Perry gives a good performance as the high profile defense attorney. The story from Nick’s perspective is told in the first person; Amy’s story is told primarily through her diary. The first half of this 145 minute film focuses on Nick while the second half focuses on Amy and the backstory of their relationship. There are some violent scenes. David Fincher directed “Fight Club” and, if you saw that film, you know Fincher enjoys inter-personal violence. Ben Affleck is outstanding and the two detectives, Boney and Gilpin, are entertaining as Fargo-type characters. The story held my attention. In retrospect, however, I enjoyed the film more before I had a chance to think about the numerous defects in the storyline, but discussing the film’s plot problems would reveal too much. This movie works because the ending is not obvious. On a scale of 5.0, this is a 3.5 star flick.
Monday, October 6, 2014
A Walk Among the Tombstones: a Liam Neeson film with a quality script. I enjoy Neeson’s acting but, generally speaking, not the films he appears in. This time, however, Neeson is working with a quality script and director, Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplay for Get Shorty. The film is based on a novel by Lawrence Block and takes place in 1999. Neeson’s character, Matt Scudder, is a former New York city cop and a recovering alcoholic. Technically, Scudder is not a private investigator because he never obtained a license. He just does “favors” for people who, in turn, offer him “gifts”. In the film, Scudder is approached by a prospective client, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who asks that Scudder find the individual who kidnapped and killed Kristo’s wife despite payment of the ransom. Because Kristo’s income is related to drugs, he chooses not to go to the cops. Scudder discovers that the kidnappers/killers have a prior history. Part of the drama is finding out the killers’ connection to the DEA since it’s obvious they are targeting drug dealers. Another kidnapping occurs and the story’s details are further revealed along with the reason why Scudder retired from the police force. Scudder does his research at a library, a refreshing departure from today’s omnipresent internet, and meets TJ (Brian Bradley), a teenager with artistic talents. TJ provides a lightness to what is mostly a serious crime story. Boyd Holbrook also gives a good performance as Kristo’s drug addicted brother, Peter. There is onscreen violence. The two bad dudes are truly evil, particularly Ray, played by David Harbour. A lot happens during the film’s 113 minutes and, as with The Drop, if you enjoy crime stories, you will be entertained.
Friday, September 26, 2014
The Drop: an excellent crime film. There are reasons to see this film beyond it being James Gandolfini’ s final cinematic performance. The movie takes place in a working class Brooklyn neighborhood. A significant portion of the film involves a bar managed and once owned by Marv, the Gandolfini character. The lead character is the bartender Bob Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy. Marv is Bob’s uncle. In the opening scenes, Bob, in a voice over, describes “The Drop”, a process to launder dirty money through various bars, including Marv’s place. As the film progresses, we learn the cash belongs to a Chechen gang and that its leader (Michael Aronov) is the silent owner of the bar. Two guys rob the bar, and the rest of the film consists of the whys and how of the robbery. There’s also talk of a decade old murder. And we learn more and more about Bob. One night as he is walking home from the bar, he hears a noise, which turns out it is a puppy abandoned in a trash can. Bob adopts the dog and becomes friends with the woman, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), in whose garbage can the dog was found. You will like the dog. The woman, Nadia, has a past. We meet Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). We also meet Detective Torres (John Ortiz) who, every morning, goes to the same church as Bob. The film is a collection of interesting characters, all of whom have stories. During the 106 minute running time, the underlying story becomes more and more complex. The director, Michael Roskam, establishes a mood and atmosphere in which the story is allowed to unfold. For Gandolfini, Marv was probably an easy role and, as with the Sopranos, is part of what draws you to him. Tom Hardy’s character, however, is the reason to see the film. The movie is based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the script. If you are not a fan of “hard boiled” crime stories, you should skip this movie. The opposite is equally true.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Saw last night the Pulitzer Play winning play Ruined, performed at the Earle Ernst Lab Theatre behind Kennedy Theatre. The play takes place at a bar located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The play addresses human trafficking in woman with the background story being the on-going Congolese civil war and children soldiers. The storyline is more than engaging. Understandable why it won the Pulitzer in 2009. Lead character is Mama Nadi, played by Lillian Jones. She is on stage for the majority of the play. When she is on stage with Quantae Love, the play comes alive. He is a traveling salesman (liquor, cigarettes, lipstick, Belgian chocolates and women). The bar is also a brothel. In the opening sequence, he sells two woman for the price of one, Sophie (Denali Lukacinsky) and Salima (Alexis Harvey. As the play unfolds, we learn that Salima was a young married mother who was captured and held for five months by rebels soldiers before escaping. As to Sophie, the play takes its name from her condition: the eighteen year old’s genitals were damaged. After the intro scene, we start meeting the government and the rebel soldiers (never on stage in the bar at the same time) along with Mr. Harari, played by Neal Milner (excellent, as always) and Josephine (Susan Veney), who is the female counterpart to Salima. Mr. Harari is a diamond merchant. Lynn Nottage’s play runs approx. 2 hours 30 minutes + intermission. This play is worth seeing. Unfortunately, it’s only remaining performances are tonight (8:00) and tomorrow afternoon (2:00). Last night showing was a sellout. It is a large cast (15 characters) for the size of the theatre but play runs smoothly under the direction of Troy Apostol. By focusing on the characters, the audience becomes engaged and only afterwards do you realize the political complexities presented. Play was done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 but I missed it. I doubt if anyone toped the performance given by Quantae. Most of the cast members are UH students. With such a strong script, they all did fine. The play presents the complexity of a civil war in the context of one woman trying to make a living amidst the chaos of a violent war. As presented by the play and Lillian’s performance, Mama is a very complex character. The play is a success because Mama is not presented as a stereotype madam.
Last night there was a Q/A after the play. It was stated that this is the first African-American play presented at UH. If this is true, a very sad commentary as to UH. How could a college that prides itself on its diversity wait until 2014 to present an African-American playwright?
Monday, September 15, 2014
Calvary: an Irish film about faith. The movie opens with the local parish priest sitting in the confessional. An individual enters the confessional. All we hear is the individual’s voice as he proceeds to tell the priest that he was molested as a child and that the priest who committed the acts is now deceased. His closing remarks are that he knows he is speaking with a good priest and in one week he will return to meet the priest and kill him. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” The next scenes are of the Irish coastline with individuals surfing. (I had no idea folks surfed in Ireland.) For the next seven days and the remainder of this 104 minute film, we follow Father James and explore whether he is “innocent”. Each passing day is marked on screen, a questionable ploy since there are no flashbacks. Brendan Gleeson gives a superb performance as Father James and the movie works because Gleeson takes full advantage of the script. We learn about the daily life of this good priest. We also learn of his personal history: that he was married and only became ordained after his wife died; we meet his adult daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly) and explore their relationship. We meet various parishioners and learn of the daily issues that arise among them. And we keep returning to the ocean and a large stone mass but no reappearance of surfers. The film is shot in the northwest corner of Ireland in County Sligo. James Michael McDonagh is the writer and director of this excellent movie. The supporting cast includes Dylan Moran as Fitzgerald, a wealthy baron without friends, who has theological exchanges with Father James in which questions are raised such as whether tainted money given by a person without values should be accepted by a church. The conversations in the film are intense, however, the subject is not directly related to religion and presented with a sense of humor. I did not like the closing scene, but to describe why would answer the mystery presented in the film’s opening scenes. I would have no objection to McDonagh receiving a nomination for best original screenplay or for director, and none whatsoever to Gleeson receiving a nomination for his performance.
Friday, September 12, 2014
Ida: a Polish film. Timeline is 1962. There is a significant difference between the opening scenes and what ultimately unfolds. The opening scenes take place at a convent where we are introduced to Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice who grew up in the convent and is scheduled to take her vows. She meets with the Mother Superior who insists that Anna meet her Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), Anna’s sole living relative, prior to taking take her vows. The movie changes once Anna meets Wanda. Prior to their meeting, all Anna knows is that Wanda is her aunt and there are no other family survivors. Anna then learns that her birth name was Ida Lebenstein. During this relatively short film, we learn who Wanda is, who Ida is and how Ida ended up at the convent. In the early 1950s, Wanda was a State prosecutor (“Red Wanda”) for the communist political trials. As a reward, she is appointed a judge. Wanda chain smokes, drinks and has one night stands, all in stark contrast to the convent-raised Ida. As the story unfolds, we learn why Wanda never visited her niece. The anti-Semitism that allowed the Nazi program to be so successful in Poland slowly unfolds as Ida learns about her heritage. There are additional surprises; the opening convent scenes are not the only misdirection in this 100-minute film. The movie is in black and white with subtitles. The dialog is surprisingly sparse. The writer and the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, allow a significant portion of the story to be told visually. The pacing and cinematography of Polish films, at least those that make it to US, are quite different from films created in Hollywood. This is something I first noticed in Polanski’s Knife in the Water; I can still recall scenes from this film that I saw back in the 1960s. This cinematic difference is also apparent in Aftermath, an excellent film shown at last year’s Honolulu Jewish Film Festival. I’m not familiar with Polish cinematographers but their insight is clearly different from what is typically presented in US cinemas. I don’t want to interfere with the surprises that unfold and, therefore, will not comment further on the storyline other than to say that just because Ida’s place in the world was a product of the holocaust is not a reason to avoid the movie because you don’t want to see another holocaust movie. There is humor as well as human tragedy. This is a well told story that will stick with you with excellent acting by the two central characters.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Lucy: a frenzied Scarlett Johansson movie. The plot line is simple. Lucy is forced to become a drug mule, the package bursts inside her and the released drug turns her into a woman with superpowers, both mentally and physically. In the opening scene, which takes place in Taiwan, Lucy’s boyfriend has her deliver a briefcase. The recipient is a gangster who intends to distribute a new and powerful drug. Choi Min Sik is excellent as the gangster. Lucy is part of a group of mules, the others of whom are male with brief screen time. Each mule is given a passport to a different European city. Interspersed through the opening scenes are shots of a lecture being given by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an expert on chartering brain power. The underlying theme is that we humans are using only a small percentage of our brain. Through Professor Norman we learn what’s happening to Lucy as her brain usage expands. The movie entails lots of killing and, at times, the scenes play out like a western kung fu film. All the killers are Asian. The director and script writer is Luc Besson, who brought us La Femme Nikita, and Lucy is in the same tradition; always good to see strong women. Unfortunately, during the film’s 89 minutes, the storyline becomes ridiculous. If you enjoy action films with lots of bodies being shot up, then this one’s for you. Otherwise, I think you can skip this movie. I know a number of you who receive my commentary have already seen the film. I was surprised by the number of diverse comments I received and, because of the disparity, I decided to see the movie. While I enjoy Marvel comic character movies, I still need an accompanying plot that makes sense. For me, this film was just nonsense.
Saturday, August 9, 2014
Get On Up: the James Brown story. The film allows Brown’s music to dominate the story without concealing his troubled life. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as James Brown. He was superb as Jackie Robinson in 42, and in Get On Up, he manages to top that fine performance. The director, Tate Taylor (The Help), wisely allows Brown’s voice to be heard instead of substituting the actor’s voice as Eastwood did in Jersey Boys. Both movies deal with singers whose lives were quite unique. The treatment of their stories, however, is entirely different, including the use of Brown’s actual voice. The film’s music producer is Mick Jagger, who has acknowledged his artistic indebtedness to Brown. Another difference between the two films is that Taylor chooses to use a non-linear presentation. Childhood scenes are interspersed along Brown’s path to stardom. While I usually find time jumps an annoyance, that is not the case in this film in part because dates/places are flashed on the screen. The film doesn’t hide Brown’s rural, violent and impoverished background. Nor does it hide Brown’s lack of formal schooling. Brown’s mother left when he was a young boy and his father eventually left him with a paternal aunt named Honey. Both Viola Davis as Brown’s mother and Octavia Spencer as Aunt Honey give powerful performances during the very limited time they are on screen. Also deserving of special mention is Brandon Mychal Smith as Little Richard. A pivotal point in Brown’s career was seeing Little Richard perform at a juke joint in 1954. The film has Little Richard giving Brown advice as to recording a demo, which leads to his first hit, “Please, Please, Please”. (I remember being blown away the first time I heard the song). During the film’s 138 minutes, the longtime relationship between Brown and Bobby Boyd (Nelsan Ellis) is explained as well as the important role that Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), Brown’s record promoter, played in Brown’s life. The film implies that Brown’s money problems occurred after Bart’s death. I don’t know enough about Brown’s life to say whether it is factual. What is factual is that Brown’s musical talents were unique and this film highlights his performance abilities.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
A Most Wanted Man: a movie to see for reasons beyond the fact that it was Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last movie. The film is based on a 2008 John LeCarre novel. It takes place in Hamburg, Germany. Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a German intelligence officer with a drinking problem. Bachmann is the head of a small outfit operating without official German government authority. His outfit is assigned the job of forestalling another September 11 attack. The movie opens with two plotlines: Hoffman’s organization is to trace certain funding by an individual who is running a legitimate non-profit organization but who is also diverting some of the money to terrorist organizations; the second involves an illegal immigrant, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who is identified as Chechen. The storylines intersect after we learn that Issa’s father deposited a significant amount of money with a Hamburg banker. When the film opens, both Issa’s father and the banker are dead. We are not told exactly how the funds were accumulated but we know it was not through good deeds. The movie pivots around Issa, even though he is not on screen for a significant portion of the movie. Issa wants sanctuary. The story unfolds through the actions by his lawyer, played by Rachel McAdams, and the banker’s son, Tommy Brue, played superbly by Willem Dafoe. We learn that Gunther does not have a good working relationship with the German authorities and that he is, with cause, distrustful of the Americans. Gunther had headed up an operation in Beirut that was compromised due to an American “error”. The Hoffman character is on screen for most of the film’s 121 minutes and he is a brooding presence. The film is directed by Anton Corbijn, who sets the appropriate tone and mood for what unfolds. The cast is predominately German but the dialogue is in English. Under Corbijn’s direction and with Hoffman’s performance, the narrative is allowed to unfold with the typical subtleties one expects when LeCarre is the source material. In other words, this is not a Tom Cruise film where action rules regardless of logic. Rather, this is a grim narrative with a moral foundation that will hold you to the end. With the amount of cigarettes and alcohol he consumes throughout the film, Hoffman gives a fine closing performance.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Snowpiercer: amazing what can happen on a train ride. This post-apocalyptic flick is a remarkable albeit violent piece of film making by Korean director Bong Joon-ho. In 126 minutes you are given a full picture of mankind within a political structure as a train circles the earth. In the opening, a voiceover tells you that a chemical program intended to combat global warming had gone bad, the planet is frozen and the human survivors are on a train circling the planet. There is then a scene showing individuals living in poverty, huddled masses living on protein bars who are dominated by a ruling class living a luxurious life and enjoying fresh food. Those in poverty are relegated to the back of the train while the rich upper class lives in the front. The train was built by an individual named Wilford. People speak of Wilford as a god but, like Oz, you begin to wonder whether or not he really exists. A portion of the film plays as a dark Wizard of Oz. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the main character. He is on a mission to lead the impoverished masses from the back of the train to the front and to take command of the entire train. Chris’ advancement, moving from cabin to cabin, presents a Yellow Brick Road analogy. As Chris plans the takeover, you learn about previous liberation attempts by an individual named Gilliam, played by John Hurt, that resulted in a significant number of deaths. To break through the train locks, an individual named Minsue, played by Song Kang-ho, is awakened from his drug induced sleep along with his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-soung)n. There are subtitles for much of their dialogue. Minsue has his own agenda based on his belief that he can survive outside the controlled environment of the train. Tilda Swinton gives a superb performance as the spokesperson for Wilford. One of Swinton’s scenes flashed me back to Tarentino’s Kill Bill films. The acting is first rate with fine performances by Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris and Jamie Bell. Within the confined space of the train, there are remarkable visuals and images. Joon-ho should receive an Oscar nomination for best director and, with Kelly Masterson, for adapting the story from the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”. I understand the movie distributor wanted to shorten the running time, presumably to tone down the violence; some of the fight scenes are quite graphic. The film’s message could have been delivered with less violence. Nevertheless, this is one of the best post-apocalyptic films I’ve ever seen. There is plenty of action with first rate performances and all done with a surprising touch of humor.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Jersey Boys: a drama with music. Clint Eastwood’s movie version of the play by the same name. Both tell the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The group’s history is complex. The movie version is a tale of East Coast Italians. The fact that the group featured a singer with an unique falsetto sound becomes, at times, incidental to the storyline. Starting with “Sherry”, the group had many major hits including “My Eyes Adored You”. With the group’s musical heritage and with Eastwood having done the Charlie Parker film Bird, I was expecting more scenes such as the film’s closing number and the scene during the credit run of the group singing at night under a street light. Instead, the focus is on how Valli escaped the neighborhood mafia allure. The film has a slow start; the second half is much more entertaining. Whenever Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarolo, the local mafia fixer, is on screen, the movie has a positive energy. I was not so enthused by John Lloyd Young as Valli. I understand he played Valli in the Broadway version, however, on screen, there was something missing. Also, his voice lacks that Valli magic. There are amusing scenes, particularly whenever a character named Joey appears - the future Joe Pesci, played by Joseph Russo. I didn’t know Pesci and Valli were from the same neighborhood. There is also an excellent acting performance by Mike Doyle as music producer Bob Crewe. I also liked the Rawhide clip that runs before the Bob Gaudio (Eric Bergin) character losses his virginity. What doesn’t work are the drop-in scenes between Valli and his wife Mary (Renee Marino). For instance, out of the blue, Valli and Mary have three teenage daughters with one, Francine, being quite troubled. During the 134 minute playing time, there is a lot to like about the film and if you are a Four Seasons fan, you should see the movie. The film, however, is choppy and at times, particularly during the first half, it drags. It seems as if Eastwood could not decide what he wanted to do with the material: West Side Story or The Godfather.
Monday, June 23, 2014
Words and Pictures: a romantic comedy. The story takes place at a New England prep school. Clive Owen, as English teacher Jack Marcus, is the “words” and Juliette Binoche, as art teacher Dina Delsanto, is the “pictures”. In his classroom, Jack declares war as to which is more important, words or pictures. Jack is a published poet who has lost his creative spark and now has a problem with alcohol. He has been teaching at the prep school for a few years but due to his alcohol consumption, his job is in jeopardy despite the fact that he is very popular with the students. Delsanto is new to the school and she has a medical issue, rheumatoid arthritis. The obvious analogy is to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but for this type of film to work, there must be a certain chemistry between the lead actors and the storyline must contain crisp dialogue. When the Tracy/Hepburn scenes do occur, Gerald DiPego’s script succeeds and there are enough of these scenes to make the film enjoyable. Owen and Binoche are excellent actors. The personalities they project at the beginning of the story make you wonder how they’ll manage to connect with each other. Jack’s portrayed denial of his alcohol problem is realistic. The downside to this film, directed by Fred Schepisi, is too many subplots. The film could also have been more tightly edited. Jack is divorced and has a college age son, but their story is never developed. Although we never see the ex-wife, there are throwaway scenes with a female school trustee. There is also a sub-story involving a male student (Adam DiMarco) harassing a female student (Valerie Tian) which has nothing to do with the primary tale. In its 116 minutes, the film deals with a number of ideas, however, it is at its best when it directly involves Jack and Dina. The elimination of at least one of the sub-stories would have resulted in a more enjoyable film. Ultimately, this is a film whose parts are better than its whole. There are, however, enough positive parts that you will be pleased to have seen the movie.
Friday, June 13, 2014
The Immigrant: a drama set in 1921 New York. The film opens with a shot of the Statue of Liberty and two young women standing in line on Ellis Island. The women are sisters, Ewa and Angela. A medical clearance is required before the sisters can enter the U.S. Angela has a cough and is held on the Island. Ewa has a separate problem with the immigration officer. Something happened during the voyage from Poland and Ewa is accused of being of low moral character and banished to a separate line for deportation to Poland. Ewa then meets Bruno Weiss and her life changes as the film leads us down a fascinating but dark road to survival. Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno and he is outstanding. Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a woman whose raison d’etre is to gain her sister’s release into the U.S. Ewa is a difficult character but Cotillard’s acting makes Ewa believable. Corruption, including bribery at Ellis Island, moves the storyline forward. To say much more would detract from the film’s impact. Bruno is a complex character. The sisters are Catholic; Bruno is Jewish. While religion does plays a role in the story, this film is not about bigotry, notwithstanding the police’ use the word “kike” more than once. The Immigrant is a story about surviving in America. James Gray is the director and, along with the late Richard Menello, the co-writer. This two hour film is not the typical uplifting Hollywood immigrant story. Further, in this particular story, the parts are greater than the whole primarily because the story itself is a downer. In addition to uniformly excellent acting, the photography and the film’s pace set a tone that compliments the dialogue. Most of the scenes take place on the Lower East Side of New York. The look of the film is consistent with the sepia stills you’ve probably seen over the years. There are also some subtitles as not all the dialogue is in English. The cinematographer is Darius Khondji and his work, coupled with the excellent acting, results in a film worth seeing. But be warned - you may leave the theatre depressed as The Immigrant is a grim story.
Chef: a delightful food movie. When I saw the preview, I thought this might be an enjoyable film. After spending 115 minutes watching food being prepared and getting more and more hungry, I can report that words like “delightful” and “enjoyable” are inadequate. This film will bring many smiles and a few laughs. At Its foundation is a simple story line. The Chef, played by Jon Favreau who is also the writer and director, receives and reacts to a negative restaurant blog by first sending a twitter response to the critic (Oliver Platt), then physically confronting him. This face to face confrontation goes viral on youtube. Back story is that the owner of the L.A. restaurant (played by Dustin Hoffman) where Chef works refused to allow Chef to update the menu. The critic had previously praised Chef when he was young and starting out in Miami. After losing his job in L.A., Chef returns to Miami, puts together a food truck serving Cuban sandwiches and makes a triumphant return. In between, Chef connects with his 10 year old son (Emjay Anthony) who travels with him as they drive, cook and serve food from Miami to L.A., with stops in New Orleans and Austin. The film is filled with superb cameos including Robert Downey, Jr., playing Marvin, the ex-husband of Chef’s ex-wife, who is particularly charming. In one scene, it appears the script must have been misread by Marvin, nonetheless, he and Chef keep playing it out, which results in one of a number of funny episodes that occur throughout the film. Scarlett Johansson also has a charming role. Other prominent players are Sofia Vergara as Chef’s ex-wife and John Leguizamo as the line cook who follows Chef to Miami and back to L.A. In addition to the food, there is Cuban music present throughout the second half of the film. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the sound. The family story is positive, the music is wonderful and then there is the food. You owe it to yourself to see this film.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Belle: a British drama based upon the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. We first meet Dido in 1769 when she is approximately 8 years old. In the opening scene, her father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a Navy captain, has come to retrieve her. He, in turn, leaves Dido with his uncle and aunt, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Sir John is never seen again on screen. Also, we never see Dido’s mother, Maria Bell, an African woman. After introducing us to Dido and her new family, the movie jumps ahead ten years where we meet Dido, played superbly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a young woman. The movie was inspired by a portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), and shows the girls living at Kenwood House as aristocrats in 18th century England before slavery was outlawed. The painting still exists. It hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland. Lord and Lady Mansfield do not have any children and raise the two cousins, who are about the same age, as their own. Critical to the film is the fact that Lord Mansfield is not just an ordinary lord; he is the Chief Justice of England. Further, he has pending before him the Zong case, whose primary issue is whether an insurance company must pay a ship owner/slaver for the death of slaves who drowned allegedly saving the ship. While the legal story is a vital part of the movie, it is not the film’s central focus. Rather, the film is a Jane Austen telling of aristocratic courtship rituals in 18th century England. The film plays on the fact that Elizabeth Murray has no inheritance but her cousin, Dido, does. The acting is excellent and the script by Misan Sagay and Amma Asante holds your attention. Asante is also the director. Very little is actually known about life in the Mansfield home. The historical record validates the fact that although non-whites were permitted to interact with guests after the meal, the dinner itself was segregated. However, there is no “Butler tells all biography” regarding the cousins, their interactions with the granduncle and his wife, and their interactions with each other. Historical dates are treated loosely in the film. For example, the film presents the portrait painting of the cousins and the Zong case in the same time frame. However, the Zong ruling, which was an important link to the eventual outlawing of slavery in England, was decided four years after the cousins’ portrait was completed. When Lord Mansfield renders his decision in Zong, it has him commenting on slavery. The quote used in the film, however, is from the Somersett case in which Lord Mansfield made clear his anti-slavery views. If you research Belle, you will find a variety of factual inaccuracies, none of which interfered with my enjoyment of this excellent 105 minute movie. I highly recommend it.
Monday, May 26, 2014
Neighbors: a comedy. The opening scenes introduce us to a young couple, Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne), who have just bought a house, and their baby daughter. Shortly after they move into their new home, the house next door is sold to a college fraternity. The setup is obvious and at times the script delivers. The question is whether the film will work for you over its 96 minute duration. If your type of comedy is visual slapstick, you’ll be okay with this film. As for me, I found the characters one dimensional and the married couple’s behavior unrealistic. Neighbors is a Netflixer and not worth the cost of a movie ticket. I might have enjoyed the film more sans baby; you just don’t leave a baby home alone, and a lot occurs at the frat house while the baby is home alone. This was a distraction as were the scenes of Mac at work. They were merely fillers, which illustrates the thinness of the primary storyline. I also found the chemistry among the fraternity brothers odd. Zac Efron gives a good performance as Teddy, the president of the fraternity. Dave Franco plays the second in command, Pete, and this character had potential. Unfortunately, the film offers only hints of what could have been an interesting story about two seniors, one of whom matures through his college tenure. A possible nominee for Worse Supporting Actress in a Comedy is Lisa Kudrow as a college dean. The only other female with any substantive lines is Carla Gallo as Kelly’s divorced friend. The scenes with Gallo are funny. Hannibal Buress, who plays a police officer, also offers some humorous moments. Otherwise, the movie, directed by Nicholas Stoller, is mostly male humor with drugs.
Saturday, May 3, 2014
. Particle Fever: a brilliant science documentary. This is the story of the development in Switzerland of the Large Hadron Collider and the task of proving the existence of the Higgs particle. The Higgs particle has been referred to as “the God particle” because it may be the initial building block for the universe. In 1964, Peter Higgs postulated the existence of a boson, which is a type of subatomic particle. It cost the European Organization for Nuclear Research billions to prove its existence. The movie presents the cooperative partnership that developed between theoretical and experimental physicists in order to learn whether the Higgs particle existed. While the story’s premise may sound less than exciting, the whole process is explained within a structure that allows a non-scientist to understand and appreciate the tale. For the film to succeed, it had to offer an entertaining verbal and visual presentation of mathematical theories. The director, Mark Levinson, a physicist by training, successfully manages to keep the audience involved while remaining honest to the science. There is no dull moment in this 99 minute film. Part of the film’s success lies in allowing the individual physicists to tell the story with appropriate background scenes. By focusing on a select few physicists, you learn what is at stake while also learning various backstories. Levinson co-produced the film with David Kaplan, another physicist, who appears on screen. Presumably, the fact that both Kaplan and Levinson are themselves physicists helped to relax the various physicists, which allowed for a discussion of theories, such as how matter was created, without the usual insider jargon. Special acknowledgment also needs to go to the photographer director Claudia Raschke-Robinson, the editor Walter Murch, and whoever did the animation. The film covers a number of years including the House Republicans killing U.S. funding of the project. As you may recall, the Collider was initially intended to be built in Texas. As explained by American physicist, Monica Dunford, the five story structure was built to house two things, smash them together and see what happens. The resulting collision at astonishing speeds would either validate or repudiate the theory postulated by Peter Higgs. While sharing the joys of success, the film does not hide the failures that were encountered. If you have any interest in science, this film is a must see.
The Railway Man: a British drama based upon a true story. The movie, after an opening sequence that is partly repeated later, begins in 1980. You are introduced to Eric Lomax, played excellently by Colin Firth. Lomax enters a train compartment and meets a nurse name Patti, played by Nicole Kidman. Patti brings Lomax out of the shell of a life he had been living. They marry. The movie then gets quite interesting. First we see Lomax’s violent nightmares. Because he won’t share the reason for his moodiness and nightmares, Patti seeks out one of Lomax’s former army buddies, played by Stellan Skarsgard. We learn that Lomax’s WW II experience included being a member of the British troops who surrendered to the Japanese army in Singapore. At this point, the story becomes fascinating. The cause for Lomax’s post-traumatic symptoms becomes clear as we watch graphic scenes of the Japanese Army’s treatment of its prisoners, which includes water boarding. We are then returned to 1982. Lomax learns that the Japanese translator who was present when he was tortured is still alive and appears to be financially exploiting what occurred during the building of a railroad alongside the River Kwai (the same forced labor tale told in The Bridge on the River Kwai). Lomax travels to Thailand and confronts the translator. Jeremy Irving plays the young Lomax, Tanroh Ishida plays the young translator, and Hiroyuki Sanada plays the translator in 1982. Jonathan Teplitzky directed this 108 minute film based on the book written by Eric Lomax in 1995. This is an excellent film about events too few people know about.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Transcendence: a slow moving science fiction film. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever combined the words “slow moving” and “science fiction” in the same sentence. While there are positive aspects to this 119 minute movie, it is long 119 minutes. The film has an excellent cast, including Johnny Depp as the lead character, Will Caster. However, for the first time ever, Depp’s performance bored me. While his Tonto can be criticized on many counts, boredom is not among them. At its foundation, Transcendence has an intriguing premise: artificial intelligence using the brain of a single individual. The opening sequence, which held my interest, shows Caster giving a Steve Job type presentation about where his research is heading. As he is leaving the auditorium, he is shot but not killed. For storyline convenience, the bullet, which is laced with radiation, guarantees Caster’s death over time. The assassination is part of an organized eradication of people involved with artificial intelligence. From this initial premise, which makes scientists the bad guys, the story winds through a series of implausible events that are told with too much verbiage and too little action. Intertwined with the sci-fi/ thriller threads, the movie also tells a love story between Caster and his scientist wife, Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall. While Caster and Evelyn’s love for each other is eternal, there is no comparable chemistry between Depp and Hall and the connection falls flat. Morgan Freeman appears briefly as a colleague of Caster but his role is very limited. Also underused is Paul Bettany who plays Caster’s neurobiologist partner. Roger Ebert often talked about the need for a film to be believable within its defined framework. Transcendence falls far short of Ebert’s test. This failure combined with the film’s painfully slow pace leads me to say for the first time ever about a Johnny Depp movie: it is not worth seeing. The script, written by Jack Paglen, raises some fundamental issues about the potential power of machines and it is easy to understand what attracted Depp to the movie. Unfortunately, the director, Wally Pfister, fails to overcome the script’s defects. I hope Paglen and Pfister do not work together again.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Bethlehem: a contemporary Israeli movie. The primary characters are an Israeli secret service officer and a Palestinian teenage informant. In 2013, the movie was given an Ophir for Best Film. The Ophir is the Israeli Academy of Film and Television’s equivalent of an Oscar. In its 99 minutes, this movie offers a case study as to why there has been no peace in the West Bank. In this Cain and Abel tale, the political and social difficulties existing in the West Bank are starkly presented. Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) is a 17 year old living with his parents in Bethlehem. His brother, Ibrahim, is a Palestinian militant responsible for the death of Israelis. Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is a married Israeli secret service officer working for an antiterrorism unit and who has gotten Sanfur to assist him in tracking terrorists. The film gives different reasons as to why Sanfur chose to cooperate with Razi. You may view the Sanfur character as complex or as just a confused teenager living in a violent society. Ibrahim’s mission is simple - to kill Israelis - and while Ibrahim’s story is essential to the movie, the focus is on Sanfur and Razi. Bethlehem is written by Ali Waked, an Israeli Arab, and Yuval Adler, who also directed this excellent film. The violence of the place and times are shown primarily through Sanfur’s interactions with his family, friends and society. The film shows the mistrust many Israelis have for Palestinians as well as the mistrust that lies within the Palestinian community itself. Through the presence of the individual in Ibrahim’s Cell No. 2, the movie also makes the point that Bedouins are viewed as second class citizens within the Palestinian community. Hiham Omari, as the Bedouin Badawi, gives a powerful performance. This film appears to be an honest presentation of what is currently happening in the West Bank. Subtitled.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: a Wes Anderson film. I usually don’t lead with the name of the director but Anderson has become the leading off-beat comedy film director and, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he hits a home run. The script, which Anderson co-authored, was inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew from the 1930’s who may have been the most widely read German author of his time. This zany tale takes place at the dawn of WW II in a fictitious Eastern European country located somewhere between Germany and Russia. The movie was actually filmed in Gorlitz, Germany. The lead character, M. Gustave, played marvelously by Ralph Fiennes, is the concierge and ruler of the Hotel. The movie opens in 1985 and the country is under communist rule. An elderly writer, played by Tom Wilkinson, is recalling his visit to the Hotel in 1968 and his introduction to the Hotel’s owner, a Mr. Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham. Moustafa then proceeds to tell the then young writer, played by Jude Law, how he came to own the Hotel. The Hotel is the centerpiece of the story and the timeline morphs to the 1930’s where we meet Gustave and a newly hired lobby boy called Zero (Tony Revolori), who is the young Moustafa. Then the fun begins in earnest. The Gustave character reminded me of Max Bialystock of The Producers - both romance older women and are financially rewarded. Tilda Swinton plays Madame D, who is 84. Madame D does not want to leave the Hotel because she has a premonition she will die. And, off screen, she does die; Zero shows Gustave the newspaper article about her death. Gustave and Zero head off to Madame D’s home where they meet her family, who are reminiscent of Marx Brothers characters with Adrien Brody playing Madame D’s son and Willem Dafoe playing the family hit man. There are also three bizarre sisters. As the inheritance story unfolds, the totalitarianism of the era presents itself with Harvey Keitel appearing as Ludwig and various prisoners and other characters played by Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson and Jeff Goldblum. Unlike many movies with star ridden casts, everyone stays in character. The 100 minute film moves at a brisk pace and you never know what oddity will happen next. There is an undercurrent in the film as to the reality that will befall the region where the Hotel is located, however, it is presented with irony and charm and plain old fun.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Songs of Willow Frost, a novel by Jamie Ford. The story takes place in Seattle. It is 1934 when the story commences. A twelve year old Chinese-American boy is living in a Catholic orphanage. He has been living in the orphanage for the past five years. As with his prior novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, this novel addresses the issue of discrimination by sharing a story about the life of a young oriental male and his family. Hotel focused on a Japanese male living in Seattle and carried the story through the WW II internment camps. Willow ends in 1935 and backtracks in time to 1921 to tell the story of the boy’s mother and how the son ended up in an orphanage. The chapters are labeled by the year in which the events occur. Ford is an excellent storyteller and the 319 page novel will keep you interested to the end. First you become interested in the orphaned child, William Eng. You are then told about Liu Song, the boy’s mother, who takes the stage name, Willow Frost. Willow returns to Seattle in 1934 as an actress and singer. Her touring cast includes Stepin Fetchit, who, in real life, appeared on stage as well as in cinema. William’s father is Liu Song’s stepfather. The rape occurs shortly after Liu Song’s mother dies. As with Ford’s first novel, this is a story of bitterness and sweetness. William, who has believed for years that his mother is dead, sees a trailer in a movie theatre and recognizes his mother’s voice. While the nominal storyline is William’s hunt for his mother, the novel tells a far more complex tale with two very interesting lead characters. I enjoyed Ford’s first novel and Songs of Willow Frost is an excellent second novel.
Pompeii: a gladiator disaster film that is my first nomination for worst film of 2014. Mount Vesuvius is going to erupt, the year is 79 AD, and the question is whether you care if any of the characters survive. After observing them, you may be routing for the volcano by the time it erupts. The special effects people did their part. The problem is a weak script with horrendous acting as to most of the characters. The lead character is named Milo, played by Kit Harington. He is miscast as the lone survivor of a Celtic horse tribe. Never thought I’d miss Steve Reeves. From the opening sequence when we see Kiefer Sutherland order the massacre of Milo’s family, you know the film is going to be violent. I don’t know why the movie has a PG-13 rating. What you don’t know is that Sutherland, as Roman Senator Corvus, gives a terrible performance: worse I’ve seen from him. A love story is intertwined with the gladiator and volcano rumbling scenes. Emily Browning plays the aristocrat daughter Cassia who falls in love with Milo after observing him kill a horse. Cassia has returned to Pompeii after a year in Rome. As the story unfolds, we learn that she left Rome to distant herself from Corvus. Corvus, observing her affection for Milo, sets out to have him killed in the gladiator arena. Yes, the script is that silly. The only credible actor is Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, as gladiator Atticus. The interplay between him and Milo works. Of course, you have to ignore the question of whether gladiators became friends before going into the arena to kill each other. The sword fighting scenes are well done. The director is Paul W. S. Anderson and as long as he is not doing drama, the movie has entertainment value. But the 105 minute movie is not limited to sword fighting and the volcano.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity: a documentary tribute to a great musician. If you are a Charles Lloyd fan, you should see this film. The approximate two hour film traces Lloyd’s career from the late 1950’s through a performance in 2011. The movie splices commentary from a number of individuals such as Herbie Hancock, Robbie Robertson and Stanley Crouch with Lloyd’s music. The movie could have been edited better, however, due to the music, I didn’t mind. The movie was co-directed by Jeffrey Morse and Dorothy Darr, Lloyd’s wife of 40 years. Lloyd, who is now 75 years old, was born in Memphis in March 1938. Although the movie references his place of birth, the film is more a celebration of his music. The film hints at some of the negatives that occurred during Lloyd’s life (drugs) but skips over why he disappeared from the music scene for more than 15 years (there were no Lloyd recordings in the 1980’s). If you are under 40, you probably haven’t heard of Charles Lloyd, who became famous as a jazz crossover playing the Fillmore and Monterey in the 60’s and 70’s. Historical tidbit: as a result of Lloyd’s non-government sanctioned performance in Russia in 1967, Russia literally banned the saxophone from the country for a period of time and the private promoters who had sponsored Lloyd’s Russian performance ended up with a stay in Siberia. Arrows Into Infinity was shown at the Doris Duke Theatre as part of the African American Film Festival. I don’t know if the DVD is available or if any other venue will present this film. It has been shown at a number of film festivals but does not appear to have had a general theatre release. The film shown at Doris Duke was not of the best technical quality. But I was there for the music and sufficient performance sequences were on screen to please this viewer.
The Monuments Men: soldiers saving art. The movie is based upon a true story. During the war, Hitler plundered Europe’s art collections and planned to build a museum to house his stolen treasures. However, when the war turned against him, Hitler issued a decree to have the art destroyed. A small group was formed to save the art work from destruction. The actual unit was a joint effort among a coalition of British and American military men. At the end of the war, this Monuments Unit consisted of approximately 66 men. The Unit continued to operate through 1951 but remained small, approximately 350 individuals. The first part of the movie tells how the Unit was assembled. It then goes on to describe the Unit’s efforts during WW II, which were remarkably successful given the limited number of individuals involved. The movie focuses on eight of the individuals, all of whom are played by high profile actors. George Clooney, in the lead, plays an individual named Frank Stokes in the movie but clearly represents George Leslie Stout. Clooney also co-wrote and directed this 159 minute film. The script is based upon a book by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, which is quite readable and provides a lot more detail as to what occurred. Despite the seriousness of the subject, there is a lightness to the film: the war is a backdrop to explaining the importance of art to civilization. With John Goodman and Bill Murray among the prominent characters, it should not have come as any surprise that there was as much humor as there was, the seriousness of the subject notwithstanding. The manner by which each member joins the Unit is also presented with humor. By their facial expressions alone, both Murray and Goodman can bring a smile to the viewer. The interaction between Murray and Bob Balaban is particularly funny. Due to the international affiliations of the Monuments Unit, the casting of Hugh Bonneville from “ Downton Abbey” and Jean Dujardin from “The Artist” was appropriate. Part of the Unit’s success was due to information provided by a French female art curator who had monitored the looting of the French Museum. This character is played by Cate Blanchett. Matt Damon also has a prominent role. If you want to learn what really happened with respect to the Monuments Men, those individuals who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit of the American and British military, you should read the book. The movie is enjoyable but touches only upon the depth of Hilter’s plan for the destruction of great art and the effort that was made to save the art from destruction.
Monday, January 27, 2014
The Great Beauty: the best foreign film Oscar nominee from Italy. It is a worthy nominee and may be the only one of the five films nominated in the best foreign film category that have been shown in Honolulu. Stylistic, Great Beauty, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is very non-Hollywood. Based on the opening scenes of this 142 minute movie, I wondered whether I had strayed into a dance flick. The opening sequence is an elaborate 65th year birthday party for the central character, Jep Gambardella. It is held on Gambardella’s outdoor terrace, which offers a view of the Colosseum. While dance scenes at the apartment reoccur, the movie uses the line dance and the individual as part of an elaborate metaphor to describe a society and a country. Many of you have asked if I start writing my commentary promptly after seeing a movie. I do not. I usually let the movie rumble around in my mind for a period of time. Sometimes, after further contemplation, I develop a growing respect for the movie beyond my initial reaction. While the opposite sometimes occurs, this is one of those movies where the more you think about it, the more you realize that this portrait of a life is really a commentary on a country that has gone adrift. Other than movie directors and opera singers, what has Italy produced in Jep’s adult lifetime? The film is probably also making a significant statement about Catholicism but I don’t have the knowledge to elaborate. Toni Servillo plays Jep, a wealthy socialite who wrote a singular award winning novel but is now just a journalist. In a reoccurring dialogue, someone asks Jep why he hasn’t written a second piece. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jep arrived in Rome at the age of 26 and the novel was published when he was in his 20s. But his ambition was to become “king of the high life” and, at this, he succeeded. There are numerous shots of beautiful paintings and statutes in addition to beautiful people, most with no substance. The movie is beautiful to look at, but my initial reaction was that the film dragged on for too long - I got its points. However, after thinking more about what I had seen, I realized that what Sorrentino has offered as a tale of love and work, was also a commentary on what is lost by focusing too much on present pleasures. I think this is where the religious intersects with a culture resigned to not meeting its potential, just as Jep never fulfilled his potential as a novelist. An excellent supporting cast although not actors with whom I’m familiar. I think the more you know about Italy and/or the Catholic faith, the more you will appreciate this film. What is remarkable is that politics are never discussed and most of the scenes revolve around the wealthy, but the social reality is always present. The movie is subtitled. For some scenes there are a torrent of words while in others, no translation is provided. I know that not speaking Italian is another reason, along with not being Catholic, that there is more to this film than I am equipped to comprehend, but I saw and understood enough to recommend this film. Jep is a vehicle by which to comment on modern Italian life. What triggered my realizing that Sorrentino’s points were more expansive than my first reaction is the scene of Jep viewing the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that ran aground off the Tuscan coast. It is a visual statement and no words are uttered as Jep looks down on the wreck. I’m left with the view that Sorrentino is the present day Federico Fellini of Italian cinema.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Oscar comments: I was surprised Robert Redford did not receive a best actor nomination for his solo performance in All is Lost. If you haven’t seen his performance, your loss. I saw there was a lot of commentary as to Tom Hanks not receiving a nomination. Personal opinion is that the vote for him got split with his 2 excellent performances, first as Captain Phillips and then as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. I was personally more surprised that Emma Thompson wasn’t nominated for Best Actress. As to this category, I continue to think Cate Blanchett should win it for her performance in Blue Jasmine. I mentioned Jonze nomination for best original screenplay. This is one of the tougher selections and my prediction is that it will be won by the writers of American Hustle. If I had a vote, it would probably be for the Dallas Buyers Club writers. I know I would vote for Matthew McConaughey’s performance in this film although Christian Bale is also deserving. I would also vote for Jared Leto for his supporting role in the Buyers Club film. 2013 started out as a weak movie year but the 4th quarter had a number of remarkable movies and performances. Still debating as to my vote for best picture and best director. I usually don’t split this vote but this year may be an exception. I know Gravity was not the best picture but inclined towards Alfonso Cuaron despite the significant achievements of David Russell for American Hustle and Steve McQueen for 12 years a Slave. As to screenplay from another source, easy choice as to the 12 years a Slave screenplay. Hope 2014 brings similar movie enjoyment but for the entire year.
Her: a non-traditional relationship movie. This film works due to the excellent performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly and the delightful voice of Scarlett Johansson. When the movie commences, Theodore is a depressed male who is separated from his wife. We meet the wife, Catherine, played by Rooney Mara, later in the film and after Theodore has commenced his new relationship with an operating system. While the movie is specific as to location, Los Angeles, it is not specific as to time. It does take place in a future which does not include LA being concerned with earthquakes as we only see NYC highrises. The apartment where Theodore resides appears to be overly luxurious for a guy employed as a writer. I was bothered by the lifestyle lived by Theodore not matching up with his employment but this is a minor criticism. The movie has a small cast. We meet Theodore’s supervisor Paul and his girlfriend. Theodore has a friend named Amy (Amy Adams) who is also a neighbor and married. The verbal interplay between Amy and her husband is presented in contrast to Theodore’s communication. Besides Amy’s husband, a singular blind date and one additional female character, I think I’ve fully described the cast for this 125 minute movie. The movie opens with a close up of Theodore’s face and Phoenix’s character is on screen for virtually the entire film. Phoenix pulls it off. The gimmick is the evolving relationship between Theodore and the operating system voice with the name Samantha. Theodore is able to speak with Samantha and reveal who he is in ways he never could with Catherine. This is a film that every family psychologist and psychiatrist should see. Because the operating system is programmed to favorably respond to the speaker without the speaker having any physical presences to react to, a sense of freedom to act and explore occurs. An interesting twist is that Samantha becomes the concerned party over not being a physical entity while Theodore, for example, is comfortable with phone sex and being stimulated by voices (His and Samantha). The movie was written and directed by Spike Jonze. He deserves the Oscar nomination he received for best original screenplay but not the Oscar. Jonze is one of the most innovative of present filmmakers and this is a singularly unique film about human relationships. This is also another film which is more enjoyable than I had anticipated from its trailer.