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.
OLDBOY: a Spike Lee remake of a Korean film based on a Japanese manga tale with the same name. This is not a typical Spike Lee film. This is a very violent film. It is one of the more violent non-horror films I’ve ever seen. I’m told the Korean version is even more violent. People whose opinions I greatly respect have praised the Korean film, however, after viewing the Spike Lee version, I have no intention of seeing the original. Although the violence flows from the storyline and is not gratuitous, it is a bit too much. The film’s opening gives no indication as to the road it will travel. Josh Brolin plays the lead character, Joe Doucett. Joe is an alcoholic. He is also an advertising executive, a divorcee, the father of a 3- year old female child and views himself as a ladies’ man. After he loses a potential big-time client due to his drinking and flirting with the client’s girlfriend, Joe meets a lady in Chinatown with a big umbrella. The next scene shows Joe lying in bed alone. What’s occurred up to this point is merely a preamble to the rest of the film. The room is sealed. There is a door slot. Food (Chinese) is slid through the slot along with a pint of vodka. Joe is locked in the room for 20 years. For the first part of his stay, he remains an alcoholic. The room has a TV, which allows you to mark the passing of time. Joe learns his wife has been killed and that he is the suspect. By way of periodic updates from a TV series about unsolved crimes, Joe receives information about his daughter. He becomes inspired, stops drinking and writes his daughter letters that he hopes to send her. He also figures out a way to escape. At this point, Brolin has given another excellent performance and you are still clueless as to where the film is going. Upon Joe’s escape from his 20-year lockup, which occurs approximately halfway through this 97 minute film, things turn violent. Shortly after the escape, you learn who had locked Joe up. You also meet the Samuel Jackson character, Chaney, a truly violent man. Jackson’s on screen time is not long but it is powerful. Only at the very end of the film do you learn why Joe was imprisoned; the reason was not one I had anticipated. There are gaps in the storyline, for instance, how did Joe end up in a casket? I understand the original film cut was 140 minutes long. Presumably the longer version fills in the gaps and offers an explanation as to what attracted Lee to retell this particular story. The violence notwithstanding, this is a very disturbing vengeance film with excellent acting performances. Its Honolulu run is short and I suspect the majority of you will not be seeing this film. As you know, I generally do not comment on a film’s ending, however, this review is an exception. Therefore, if you think you might be seeing either version of this film, stop reading.
Joe’s imprisonment is the result of things that occurred when he was in high school. His capturer, referred to initially as The Stranger, is played by Sharlto Copley. The Stranger and his sister were classmates of Joe. One day, Joe sees the sister having sex with an older man, and through Joe, classmates learn the sister is sexually active. Unbeknownst to Joe, the man with whom the sister was having sex was her father. The Stranger and his sister leave school. Subsequently the father kills the sister and the mother and wounds The Stranger. We learn this information only at the very end of the story, after Joe and a character played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is presented as a nurse, have sex. We then learn that the Olsen character is Joe’s daughter. The lock up occurred because the Stranger specifically wanted Joe to experience what his family had experienced before it was terminated. Joe does not terminate his daughter. Rather, he engages Chaney to again lock him up. As stated above, this is a disturbing and bizarre movie.
Inside Llewyn Davis: a Coen Brothers movie. Another excellent and, as one has come to expect, a very unique film from Joel and Ethan Coen. This time the year is 1961 and Llewyn (a Welsh name we are told) Davis is a folk singer. The film opens with Davis singing at a Greenwich Village folk club. The song is “Hang Me. Oh Hang Me” and Davis also sings it at the end of the movie. It is his best song. The story is dark. Davis recorded an album with a partner who committed suicide. Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, has a good voice but lacks the strength and stage presence to be a lead solo act. Davis is adrift. He sleeps on couches at friends’ apartments. There is a strange sequence of Davis driving to Chicago with Roland Turner, a heroin addicted jazz singer played by John Goodman, in the back seat. The Turner character is fascinating and could be a Coen movie all by himself. Davis sleeps at the home of a folk singing couple played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. Mulligan has some of the best lines – truly, sarcastically funny – in the movie. As is often the case with Coen Brothers films, the minor characters are more interesting than the main character. F. Murray Abraham has a brief scene as the Chicago folk club owner who defines Davis and defines Isaac: a weak lead. There is a repeated scene outside the Village club that presumably tells us that our acts have consequences. The second time the scene is shown it makes sense, however, when first shown, its purpose is a mystery. In its 105 minutes, the movie nails Greenwich Village circa 1961 with strong dialogue and music I haven’t heard in a long while. There is a lot to like about this film, especially if you’re of a certain age. If you are a Coen Brothers fan, this film is a must see. And the opposite also holds true partly because the Davis character is just not a nice person.
Dallas Buyers Club: a masterpiece performance by Matthew McConaughey. Earlier this year I praised McConaughey’s performance in Mud, which remains on my list of 2013’s Best Movies. McConaughey’s character in this film, a real person named Ron Woodroof, is more complex than the Mud character. The year is 1985. Woodroof is a rodeo rider with a day job as an electrician. He is an over the top heterosexual with serious homophobic issues. When he is initially diagnosed with H.I.V., he is in denial because in Woodroof’s mind, H.I.V. infects only “certain types” of folks. Woodroof is very street smart and learns there are drugs available that can help but that the FDA is impeding their distribution. He also learns there is a suspended American doctor (Griffin Dunne) practicing in Mexico who is dispersing the medicine. The film’s title derives from Woodroof making the the drugs available to anyone who joins his Club. To obtain and bring the drugs into the U.S., Woodroof plays a priest. He also visits Japan and Israel where the drugs are made and sold. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Among other things, the storyline provides a sharp contrast of doctors’ attitudes: those driven by the revenue from AZT drug studies (Denis O’Hare) and those who know there are real alternatives are out there (Jennifer Gardner). Jared Leto gives an extremely strong performance as Rayon, a cross dresser disowned by his moneyed family, who introduces Woodroof to the gay community. Through Woodroof’s interaction with Rayon, the McConaughey character changes from a serious homophobe to a complex individual acting to save both his life and lives of others. Woodroof battled the FDA in court (he lost the legal battle) but these scenes are short. Most of the 117 minute film focuses on an evolving character, a Texan stereotype at the beginning who is a survivor and through his survivor attitude becomes a spokesperson for gay individuals needing alternative treatments in order to live. McConaughey’s performance is reason enough to see the film. So, too, is the story behind Dallas Buyers Club. The AZT story is not pretty nor is the attitude of the FDA, who is shown as being more concerned with procedures than with actual treatment outcomes. This is an excellent film. I usually don’t bother seeing films whose trailers leave me flat but I made an exception for this film because of McConaughey. The movie is so much better than the trailer.
Saving Mr. Banks: if you are a Mary Poppins fan (and there must be someone who isn’t), this is a film you should see. A second reason to see this film is the fabulous performance by Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins. This film takes place around 1961 and is about Walt Disney obtaining permission to make the movie Mary Poppins. Tom Hanks plays Walt and, as expected, he is excellent. Hanks and Thompson play well off each other but this is clearly Thompson’s movie. There are other excellent performances including Paul Giamatti as Ralph, Travers’ chauffer in Los Angeles, who has some of the best lines. There is a running joke in the movie as to Disney only using first names and Mrs. Travers, being a formal Londoner, not wanting to be called Pam or Pamela. The script also has some good lines as to why people may dislike L.A., especially when their presence in the city is prompted by an economic need to sell their treasured creation, Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, the movie also spends a lot of time recounting Travers’ childhood in Australia. I didn’t carry a stopwatch but it felt like a third of the movie was devoted to Travers’ childhood in the Outback. Once we learn that her father was an alcoholic, we know things will not end well for him or the family. Knowing that the father worked as a banker and loved his children and that Mrs. Travers was the eldest, we are armed with important facts that explain who Mrs. Travers is and how she ended up creating her characters. Collin Farrell plays the father and he is quite credible. However, the movie has too many scenes of the young Travers just staring at her father. The film’s running time is exactly two hours. If they had deleted about 10 minutes of the Australian backstory, this would have been a much better movie. There is an interesting scene where Walt informs Travers of his childhood as an 8 year old delivering newspapers. It is a long monologue. After all the Outback scenes, imagining a young Walt in the Missouri snow delivering newspapers would have been an interesting contrast and a visual view would have been more interesting than the monologue. The movie was directed by John Lee Hancock, who seems to specialize in sentimental movies (The Blind Side). I don’t know how literally true the story is but the movie validates one sequence as the credits are running. Mrs. Travers insisted that her interaction with the Poppins screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the Sherman brothers, who wrote the score, be taped. A segment of the tapes is played as the credits are run after showing us snapshots of the real Travers, Disney, DaGradi, etc. A nice touch to a nice movie that spent too much time telling us that we are a product of our childhood.
Philomena: a drama starring Judi Dench based upon actual events. The past year saw a number of strong roles for actresses. Dench’s performance was up to the task and she will probably receive another well-deserved Oscar nomination. The movie is based upon the nonfiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”. It is the story of a woman who, 50 years after her 3 year old child has been adopted, tells her adult daughter that she has a brother. Philomena then leaves to search for her son. A teenage Philomena, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark, is left at an Irish convent by her father after she becomes pregnant. We are told how it came about that Philomema was relegated to the convent. We are also told that her mother had previously died. There are flashbacks to 1952, including a scene where her son is taken away by the adopting parents. Philomena’s daughter connects with a reporter, Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan. The movie opens with the reporter and we first meet Philomena through his eyes. Sixsmith is upper class English, and there are amusing scenes where he and Philomena play off each other’s very different backgrounds and attitudes towards life. These differences include Philomena remaining a practicing Catholic and Coogan no longer believing in God. Other contrasts including Philomena being a people person while Martin is arrogant and dismissive. As this 98 minute film unfolds, we learn that the women who were left at the convent paid off the costs incurred for their care and that of their young children through virtual slave labor in a laundry. Later in the film Philomena learns that the convent received compensation from the Americans who adopted these Irish children. As the search in America continues, we learn that Philomena is much more complex than her original demeanor had indicated. The script, co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope, provides Dench with an opportunity to present a wide range of emotions and she takes full advantage of it. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, does not present a kind view of the nuns. Their negative attitude towards sexuality is at the heart of the storyline. Philomena does not lose her faith despite the information she learns, both as to her own son and the women who were under the nuns’ care. This movie walks a fine line between noting the bad deeds of the nuns in the context of the Catholic church’s institutional condemnation of premarital sex while showing why people maintain their faith. An excellent film with excellent actors.
Friday, January 17, 2014
American Hustle: a superb fabricated version of what led to the Abscam scandal in 1978. As stated on the screen before the film begins: “Some of this actually happened”. For those of you either too young or too old to remember Abscam, the federal government indicted a number of New Jersey politicians, including 6 Congressmen and a Senator (Harrison Williams), who received bribes from an individual whom they thought was an Arab Sheik seeking an Atlantic City gambling license. The story starts shortly after gambling casinos were legalized in New Jersey. While American Hustle is a tale as to what led up to the bribes from the perspective of the con artist, part of the story’s joy is in the backstory. Christian Bale is excellent as Irving Rosenfeld, con man extraordinare. This film has an excellent cast. Jennifer Lawrence, in a supporting role, plays Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. Her character is as distant from Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeem as Jack Benny is from Clint Eastwood. Amy Adams, as Irving’s mistress, is the female lead. This may be Adams’ best performance yet. The two FBI agents are played by Bradley Cooper and Louis C. K. Cooper’s character is the only one I did not find realistic. In the telling of the story, however, C.K., who plays Cooper’s boss, has some great scenes. Robert De Niro has a small but riveting role as mob boss, Victor Tellegio, an associate of Meyer Lansky. Initially, the FBI is after the Mafia; they then switch to the politicians. The primary politician is the mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito in the movie and Angelo Enichetti in real life. The mayor is played by Jeremy Renner. Bale and Renner are an excellent combination. The movie exploits the times, including the ugliness of men’s clothing, in a glitzy, funny and ever expanding con. While the details about the characters are not accurate, there is quite a bit of truth in the storyline itself. The director is David Russell, and he keeps you involved with a script he co-wrote with Eric Warner Singer. You will have a delightful 129 minutes watching this film. A comedy-drama is a difficult combination but when it works, as it does here, the level of enjoyment is outstanding, which is why I watch movies. Yes, I really liked this film.