The Big Short: economics with humor. There were a few individuals who accurately predicted the 2007 economic collapse and this is their story. The film opens with the feel of a documentary but quickly morphs. Part of the film’s brilliance is using movie and television celebrities to explain the machinations of Wall Street. It starts with Anthony Bourdain, who uses an analogy involving three day old fish. He’s followed by Selena Gomez at a Black Jack table explaining lingo such as a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). The first person we meet who notices the housing bubble and realizes that it will crash is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who was educated as a neurologist. In 2005, Dr. Burry correctly predicted that the bubble would burst during the second quarter of 2007. As he listens to heavy metal at full volume, Burry deciphers the signs and recognizes the economic fraud that is occurring. We then meet investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who learns that Burry is creating a market to short the credit default swap investments. Through a misplaced phone call, Vennett connects with Wall Street trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell). It is at this point that the film takes off. Steve Carell deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. Then two young investors, Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock) appear on the scene. They find Vennett’s investment flyer and bring retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to the table. Rickert has the capital to short credit default swaps. It is Pitt’s character who delivers the lines which remind us that while these few individuals were making millions upon millions, millions more ordinary folk lost their jobs and their homes due to the massive Wall Street fraud. The film is based on Michael Lewis’ book by the same name. This is the second time Pitt has successfully connected with a story by Lewis, the first one being Moneyball. Adam McKay, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed this masterpiece, should receive Oscar nominations for both jobs. I use the term “masterpiece” because while this film involves very technical discussions concerning Wall Street investment concepts and a plethora of technical terms, it never loses the audience. In fact, you will be laughing even as you learn of the full scope of the fraud. If only the reality was as enjoyable as this 130 minute film. This is a must see film for anyone who wants an entertaining education as to why there was a 2007 crash.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
Brooklyn: an Irish immigration story. When the film opens, we are introduced to a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey, who lives in a small town in Ireland. We quickly learn that her older sister has arranged, through the Church, for Eilis to immigrate to America. Thus we meet a remarkable character played by Saoirse Ronan. The film’s storyline is direct; there are no flashbacks. Rather, the film progresses with Eilis leaving her mother and sister and Ireland, and traveling via boat to America. We later learn, when Lacey goes to a movie, Singing in the Rain, that the year is 1952. As the story moves forward, Ronan’s performance lures us into wondering more and more about Eilis fate. Brooklyn is based on a novel by Colm Toibin and, as such, the characters are complex and very real. The films offers a realistic presentation of the difficulties associated with relocating from one country to another, even when there is a common language. Dealing with homesickness and the challenges of building a new life in a foreign environment is presented in this film as Eilis maturing as a person. She meets an Italian plumber, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), and watching that relationship develop is handled nicely by the film’s director, John Crowley. The story becomes more complex when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit. To learn what happens next, you will need to see the film. What allows this 112 minute movie to work is the superb quality of the acting. Eilis’ supervisor at work, a minor character played by Jessica Pare, advances both the film and the primary character, and you are pleased when Pare’s character reappears. The dinner scenes at the boardinghouse where Eilis resides add just the right touch of comedy. This film has no special effects, just excellent acting and a story about an individual who touches your heart.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Bridge of Spies: a Steven Spielberg movie. Tom Hanks plays the lead character, James Donovan. When we first meet Donovan, he is a lawyer representing insurance companies. Now how many films have you seen where the good guy is an insurance defense lawyer? Ethan and Joel Coen are the co-writers who revised Matt Charman’s original script. The film is based on real events which started in 1957. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in New York City, is arrested. Rylance gives an excellent performance. The Justice Department wants the public and the international community to believe that Abel is receiving a fair trial. During a meeting that includes the law firm’s senior partner, played by Alan Alda, Donovan is asked to represent Abel. The CIA, an active player throughout the film, is not portrayed kindly. Once Donovan accepts the offer to represent Abel, he takes his job seriously. The case ends up going all the way to the Supreme Court where Abel ultimately loses in 5-4 decision. But Bridge of Spies is not a film about lawyering. It is a tale about the Cold War, and its focus is on Donovan negotiating a trade in 1962 whereby Abel will be returned to the Soviet Union in exchange for the release of U-2 pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a 25 year old American student who was arrested in East Berlin shortly after the Berlin Wall was built. The film includes a short clip showing the building of the Wall. The scenes in East Berlin leave no doubt in one’s mind why the East Germans built the Wall. The tense atmosphere of the Cold War is accurately conveyed. By agreeing to represent Abel, a Soviet spy, Donovan put his entire family at risk, and by earnestly defending his client, seriously jeopardized his career. However, Donovan’s outstanding success as a negotiator subdues the negative fallout. This is a story based on real events so you know the ending. Nevertheless, this movie holds your interest for its entire 141 minutes. The underlying themes and the points of emphasis are constitutional rights and the attorney/client privilege. As only Spielberg can do, these lofty concepts are entertainingly integrated into the storyline. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is excellent throughout the film. I think this movie will be nominated for a number of Oscars, with Spielberg at the front of the pack. He consistently strikes the correct mood in this film that serves to remind us about an important piece of U.S. history while keeping us thoroughly entertained.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Martian: a survivalist film. Matt Damon shows us how to survive on the planet Mars while awaiting rescue. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to the Mars Mission crew. Following the short introduction, a Martian sandstorm forces the crew to abandon its mission and leave the planet. Mark Watney, the Damon character, is hit by debris as he’s running for the ship. The Mission crew presumes Mark is dead and departs the planet. When Mark awakes, the storm is over and his crewmates are heading back to Earth. As the only person at the Mars NASA facility, Mark has enough food to last sixty days. However, the flight time from Earth to Mars is nine months and Mark has no immediate way to let NASA know he is alive. As the film unfolds, we learn how Mark survives by tackling one problem at a time: creating a scheme by which he can provide himself with sufficient water; growing potatoes; and figuring out how to communicate with NASA. The film is directed by Ridley Scott who again shows his ability to present intelligent and entertaining science fiction. The Mars scenes were shot in the Wadi Rum in Jordon. Some of the scenes were reminiscent of Monument Valley. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is superb. The supporting cast, including Jeff Daniels as head of NASA and Chiwetel Ejiofor as head of the Mars Mission, are also first rate. The film could have been more tightly edited as it runs a little long at 141 minutes. The running joke throughout the film involves the Mission commander’s love of disco music. Since I’m not now and have never been a fan of this 1970’s genre, the musical score did not thrill me. The humor, however, works. The film is based upon Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same title. The science appears to be reasonably accurate. I’ve read that in planning its Mars Mission, NASA intends to use the same basic process Mark used to produce water. An interesting segment of the storyline is that it is China’s National Space Administration that provides NASA with the booster rocket needed to get to Mars within the timeline required for Mark to survive. Ridley Scott may have earned himself an Oscar nomination and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are a few other nominations. The Martian is an excellent film.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Phoenix: a post WW II German story. This film takes place in Berlin. In the opening scene, we learn that the protagonist, Nelly, is a concentration camp survivor whose face has been so badly damaged it is completely bandaged. We soon learn that prior to the war, Nelly had been a successful singer. We also learn that although Nelly is Jewish, in 1938, she chose to return to Germany from a singing engagement in London. As the film unfolds, we also learn that Nelly’s husband is not Jewish and that she had not been sent to the Camp until early 1944. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is the only member of her family to survive. The film deals only with her return from the Camp, not her incarceration, and her coping with being a sole survivor. We learn of events that occurred prior to Nelly’s imprisonment during the course of her numerous plastic surgeries and as she searches for and interacts with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). When Nelly finally meets Johnny, he does not recognize her due to the complete facial reconstruction. Johnny believes Nelly is dead; he knows the rest of her family is deceased. If Johnny can convince the right people that Nelly is alive, he will be a wealthy man. Nelly chooses to withhold her true identity and assist Johnny in his scheme. A significant portion of this 98-minute movie involves Nelly pretending to be learning about herself so that Johnny’s scheme will work. This is one of those tales where if you can accept the bizarre premise, the morality play that unfolds is engrossing. Nelly clearly loves Johnny and tells her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) that the thought of reuniting with him is the force that allowed her to survive the Camp. Nelly remains in denial as to Johnny’s character throughout the film. Lene knows Johnny’s true story, but will Nelly abandon her love for Johnny to face the reality of who he is? Christian Petzold directed and co-wrote the script. He creates a period piece that accurately depicts life immediately after the war. However, it is the performances of Hoss and Zehrfeld that overcome what I believe is a defective storyline. Why the title? On the surface, it is the name of the nightclub where Johnny is working when Nelly finds him. Based upon the serious themes addressed in this film, it is an appropriate title. Most of the movie is in German and the subtitles are excellent.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
The End of the Tour: not much happens but a lot is said. David Foster Wallace, the author of “Infinite Jest”, is nearing the end of his book tour when Rolling Stone gives the green light to David Lipsky to do a story. For the most part, the film focuses on the interactions between Wallace and Lipsky during the final week of the 1996 tour. It opens, however, in 2008 with Lipsky getting a call about Wallace’s suicide, then pulling out a shoebox containing tapes from the 1996 interview. This 106 minute film revolves around the conversations that took place between Wallace and Lipsky. The source material is Lipsky’s memoir titled “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” If you’re a Wallace fan, this is a must see movie. The conversations occur at Wallace’s home in Illinois, while driving to the Minnesota bookstore, and during interactions while in Minnesota. Jason Segel is very likely to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance as Wallace – it is brilliant. Jesse Eisenberg is also excellent as Lipsky, however, this movies revolves around the complexity of who Wallace was. For those of us who are aware of Wallace but not a particularly devoted fan, or for those who’d never heard of Wallace, it was an unfortunate decision to open the film with the telling of Wallace’s suicide. Donald Margulies’ script is all about the dialogue, and the fact that I’m told of the suicide before having had the chance to hear Wallace speak and tell his story was distracting. There is also the interesting decision to show, after the story telling is over, a scene of Wallace dancing at a church social with a joy you never see during the movie itself. There is also a scene after the credits start rolling which shows that Wallace had a sense of humor. The movie is directed by James Ponsoldt. He allows space for the two authors, one already famous and the other, published but as yet without media attention, to interact. The conversations in the film actually occurred and there was a seriousness to them. This film, like My Dinner with Andre, is one you could watch over and over and, each time, learn a little more about human interaction. P.S. - There is the memoir but no Rolling Stone article; I checked. P.P.S. - There are other actors, including Anna Chlumsky, who have amusing lines but this is really a two actor film.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Straight Outta Compton: the rap group NWA’s story. You don’t have to be a rap music fan to enjoy this film. The movie opens in 1986 with a drug house. We are introduced first to Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and soon meet Dr. Dre (Cory Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow are the film’s co-producers and the story is told with realism from their perspective. Compton, particularly in the mid-80’s, was a violent place. The film’s story provides a basis for understanding the gangster rap lyrics that made NWA famous. By March 1987, the group had recorded its first single, “Boyz-N-The Hood”. The first hour of this 142 minute film focuses on how the group and the music got together. The balance of the film tells of how the group performed and how it eventually broke apart. The dialogue is street language throughout. While MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), the other two NWA members, are present and though other people float in and out, this film’s focus is primarily about the clash that developed between Eazy-Z and Ice Cube, both of whom recognized the importance of Dr. Dre to NWA. The bad guy is NWA’s manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who is white and Jewish. Heller is presented as the person responsible for NWA’s split up. The film portrays Heller as ripping off NWA while still acknowledging his ability to get the group before an audience. The film does not ignore the anti-Semitic comments, many of which are made by Ice Cube. Giamatti may have earned himself another Oscar nomination. O’Shea Jackson, Ice Cube’s son, did an excellent job. The director, F. Gary Gray, deserves a lot of the credit for keeping the film honest and connected to its historical roots. There are numerous party scenes during the second half of the film, a significant number of which include scantily clad females. There are also disturbing scenes of violence, particularly those associated with Suge Knight. Knight is currently under arrest for murder. I think any potential juror who has seen this film is automatically disqualified from serving on the jury. This is a film worth seeing.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Ricki and the Flash: Meryl Streep in another successful performance. Streep is Ricki, a rock ‘n’ roll performer with The Flash. No surprise that Streep can sing; news is she can also play the guitar. The movie opens with Ricki and her band playing at a bar in Tarzana, California and singing a Tom Petty song. The Flash includes Rick Springfield as the lead guitarist. The keyboard player is Bernie Worrell from Parliament/Funkadelic. The other two members are Joe Vitale and the recently deceased Rick Rosas. The band performs a total of 10 songs, which is reason enough to see this film. But there is much more. The script is penned by Diablo Cody, who also wrote Juno, and the director is Jonathan Demme. There is real talent connected with this film. The storyline is that many years ago, Ricki left the Midwest and her family to pursue her musical dreams. Left behind were Pete, the husband, played by Kevin Kline, 2 sons and a daughter, Julie, played by Mamie Grummer, who is Streep’s real life daughter. Although Ricki has produced 1 album, she pays her bills by working as a cashier at a Whole Foods type of store. In the meantime, Pete has done extremely well financially. He has remarried (Audra McDonald) and the kids have grown up. Then Julie has a marital crises and becomes suicidal. This prompts Pete to call Ricki, who immediately departs California for Indianapolis. In light of the long estrangement, the call for help is not realistic, however, if you accept it, the rest of the story falls into place. The acting is uniformly first rate. The dialogue is realistic as are the personal dynamics. The use of music to emphasize the drama works and the song selection is superb. Springfield is particularly good and delivers the best line in the movie as to what it means to be a parent. A lot happens throughout the 101 minute playing time, most of which is entertaining while presenting multiple life dramas. And did I mention that I enjoyed the music?
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Mr. Holmes: the year is 1947 and Sherlock is retired. In this very enjoyable film, Sherlock is 93 and living in an unspecified location on the English coast. Ian McKellen, who is 76, gives a superb performance of a Sherlock whose memories are fading. Dr. Watson and Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, are deceased and Sherlock has been retired for 30 years. He has a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who has a young son named Roger (Milo Parker); the husband/father perished in WWII. Mrs. Munro is protective and provincial, but not so the son. Roger has read the stories of Sherlock Holmes, as penned by Dr. Watson, and talks with Sherlock about the memoir Sherlock is writing concerning his last client. It seems Dr. Watson didn’t get this story quite right. Much of this 104 minute movie deals with Sherlock slowly remembering what had occurred 30 years ago. The case involved a married woman (Hattie Morhan) whose husband saw her as overly brooding about her two miscarriages. I don’t want to say much more as the plot line regarding the woman is not obvious. There is also a flashback sequence involving Holmes traveling to Japan shortly after WWII to meet with an herbalist (Hiroyuki Sanada) who lives near Hiroshima. Holmes makes the long trip because he believes the herbalist may have discovered a plant that will stop memory loss. Fundamentally, the story deals with aging and longevity, and one’s unwillingness to admit to and accept its consequences. Interspersed among the storylines is the friendship that grows between Sherlock and Roger. It is their relationship that imbues the film its special flair. The movie, based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, is directed by Bill Condon. On the 70th anniversary of the devastation of Hiroshima, there is a touching scene where Holmes, while in Japan, watches a group of Hiroshima survivors create a ring of stones, which serve as a place to recall loved ones. The film ends with Holmes creating his own ring of stones.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Trainwreck: Amy Schumer’s lifestyle comedy. A very clever opening scene lays the foundation for the film’s storyline, which begins with two pre-teenage girls being told by their father (Colin Quinn) why he and their mother are separating. The issue is marital fidelity and the explanation given for the lack thereof is worth the movie admission price. Amy takes her father’s sermon to heart and is living her life accordingly. Her sister, Kim (Brie Larson), is living a happily married life. The interplay between the sisters is weak. Amy works as a writer at a magazine that is an over the top male version of Cosmopolitan named S’Nuff, specializing in comical sex story headlines. I did not like the magazine editor character played by Tilda Swinton. Amy is assigned to write a story involving a celebrity sports surgeon named Aaron. If you liked Bill Hader on “Saturday Night”, you will be good with his performance in Trainwreck. Aaron’s clients include LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. The film’s energy level increased with every appearance by James - this man could have a second career. Having James show concern about his money was a nice touch. The interaction between Aaron and James was solid and, personally, I would have been happy with more scenes involving these two. The short scene that included sports broadcaster Herb Albert was funny. Both Schumer and Hader know how to deliver their comedic lines, and there are quite a few. Unfortunately, I never felt any real chemistry between the would be lovers, Amy and Aaron. This 124 minute film is definitely funny. Amy Schumer’s script provides many laugh lines. It is long on sex jokes, which is no surprise if you have seen any of Amy’s work. A real weak spot were the handful of race jokes that sounded like 70’s comedy; Amy should stick with her sex jokes. The movie was directed by Judd Apatow, who may be the best current director of comedic films.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Amy: an excellent documentary on the short life of Amy Winehouse. Tony Bennett ranks Amy’s abilities as a jazz singer with those of Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holliday. I knew from her two albums, particularly the Grammy award winning “Black to Black”, that Amy’s voice was unique. I also knew she drank and drugged herself to an early death at 27, a 21st century rendering of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. What I didn’t know was how thoroughly her lyrics in songs such as “Rehab” were autobiographical. Director Asif Kapadia shows the autobiographical alignment by way of film clips of her self-destruction interspersed among performance sequences as the lyrics appear on the screen. The film follows Amy’s life from her singing “Happy Birthday” at age 14 to her death in 2011. The callous destructiveness of the paparazzi is fully exposed. Kapadia explores Amy’s relationship with her father and lays her ultimate downfall in his lap. As it turns out, that portion of the “Rehab” lyrics about her father telling her she didn’t need to go into rehab was true. Whether Amy’s not having entered rehab following her first album and prior to mega stardom was the critical factor in her early death - a serious charge that cannot at this point be proved - I have my doubts. I think a Whitney Houston analogy would have been the probable outcome had she received treatment early on - live longer but still die from drugs. Ultimately, Amy will be remembered for her astonishing musical contributions. The 128 minute film explores why hers was destined to be a short but spectacular life. One of the few touching moments are her recording scenes with Tony Bennett towards the end of the film. The sadness that her life had become is a focus of the scenes from her final mega concert in Serbia. Kapadia and editor Chris King present both the glory and the misery of stardom, and what can happen when one makes poor choices in selecting friends. At the end, you’re left with the thought that perhaps, if Amy had remained connected to her two 14 year old “Happy Birthday” friends, she might still be with us.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
I’ll See You in My Dreams: an adult film about the importance of having a dog in your life. Blythe Danner plays the lead character, Carol, who has been a widow for 20 years. In the opening scenes, Carol’s dog of 14 years has to be put to sleep. Shortly afterwards, she has her first date since her husband’s passing. We learn more and more about Carol as the story unfolds. Prior to getting married, she’d been a performer with a band in NYC. After her marriage, her life was focused on being a spouse and a teacher. Part of what we learn of Carol is through a relationship she develops with her pool cleaner, Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who gives an excellent performance as a young male adrift seeking some intelligent conversation. On screen for far too short a time is Carol’s daughter, Katherine (Malin Akerman). Carol spends a lot of time with three female friends who reside at a senior assisted living facility. They play bridge and sip chardonnay. Carol is not an alcoholic and this film is not a story about drinking buddies. She does, however, have a remarkable capacity for alcohol. The three friends are played by Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb. The four ladies play off each other with humor and intelligence. All appear to be in good health and, it’s implied, their financial comfort stems from having significant life insurance proceeds. In Carol’s case, insurance money as the funding source is expressly stated. As to what gives this film its true charm is the interaction between Carol and Bill, played excellently by Sam Elliot. Bill is a retiree with no family, who has moved from Texas to Southern California with the singular task of enjoying life and spending his retirement money. The adult exchanges between Carol and Bill are too rarely seen in today’s film offerings. Brett Haley co-wrote and directed this excellent 95 minute film. Although the movie gets a bit wordy at times, it addresses an important question: what do you do with your life after you retire? This is a movie worth seeing.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Inside Out: another astonishingly complex, enjoyable hit from Pixar. The basic story line is simple: Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11 year old girl, has to move with her parents from Minnesota, where she has enjoyed her life and her friends and ice hockey, to San Francisco, which causes much stress. The complexity of this animated film and the reason it works for both adults and children lies in its visual explanations about what is happening in Riley’s brain. The emotions that are given physicality are fear, anger, disgust, sadness and joy, and each emotion has a different body and voice. The good news is that Joy is the controlling emotion, however, when Joy (Amy Poehler) is not in control of the thought process, bad things start to happen. Anger provides many of the laugh lines for adults. Lewis Black, one of my favorite comedians, is the perfect voice for Anger. Another key emotion is Sadness and Phyllis Smith’s monotone fits perfectly. Fear is voiced by Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling is Disgust. All are superb. A principal underlying theme is that as we grow up, our memories fade. Some memories are core to who we are while others are easy to discard. Certain of the memories are also given physical shape and a voice. These seemingly “simple” ideas are the key to the movie and work to keep adults involved in the film. When Riley gets sad, she starts losing memories. Although Joy tries to retain the memories, the process becomes complex and Riley’s sad memories continue to multiply. The San Francisco ice hockey scenes are both touching and illuminating. Pete Docter wrote and directed this 102 minute delight. The film deals with very abstract concepts, but by giving physicality and dialogue to the emotions, the result is a marvelous movie experience. A nice added touch is showing that the emotional chaos happening in a child’s brain also occurs in adults. Wall-E had been my Pixar favorite but I now have a new favorite. Inside Out is truly a movie for all ages.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Escobar: Paradise Lost: The paradise that is lost is a surfing spot near Medellin, Columbia. The Escobar reference is to Pablo Escobar, the Columbian drug lord. The years are 1983 and 1991. A young Canadian named Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and his brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet), come to Columbia to run a surf camp. Nick becomes infatuated with a woman named Maria (Claudia Traisac) who is opening up a medical clinic for the poor. The clinic is paid for by her uncle, Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro). I had forgotten that Escobar was an elected Columbian senator. In the early scenes when you see Escobar interacting with his extended family, you start to wonder whether the storyline is going to present Escobar differently than his media image. Andrea Di Stefano, who authored this fictional script, is also the director. He has an interesting idea and, with Del Toro as Escobar, a superb actor giving a superb performance. Unfortunately, part of the potential suspense was lost by opening the film in 1991 and then returning to 1983. The second and larger problem is Nick as played by Hutcherson. You have no idea why Maria is attracted to Nick nor do you have any idea why Escobar takes Nick under his wing, even knowing that Maria is a very favored niece. Dylan, the brother, is more complex a character, but he virtually vanishes from the film once Maria and Nick start living at the Escobar compound. Hutcherson has some strong scenes towards the end of this 120 minute film, which leaves you wondering where this guy was earlier when he could have listened to his brother’s warning. The film is in English and Spanish. While there is an undertone of violence, there is no on screen violence during the first two-thirds of the movie. The film kept me involved, but Nick was just not a believable character. If, like me, you are a fan of Benicio Del Toro, you won’t be disappointed. Del Toro’s performance is the primary reason for seeing this movie.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared: a Swedish comedy. I have no experience with Swedish comedy or even knew it existed. The underlying premise of this delightful film is that things happen and, in the spirit of Forest Gump, you just flow with it. The movie opens with plans to celebrate Allan Karlsson’s 100 birthday. Allan is ensconced, unhappily, in a retirement home. Instead of joining in his birthday celebration, Allan escapes by climbing out his bedroom window. He walks to the bus station where he purchases a ticket for as far away as his money will take him. While waiting for the bus, a biker crosses Allan’s path. The biker needs to use the bathroom but the suitcase he’s carrying won’t fit; he tells Allan to hold the suitcase. The bus arrives but the biker is still in the bathroom so Allan boards the bus with the suitcase. As things happen, the suitcase is full of drug money. The nominal storyline is that both the drug traffickers and the police are looking for Allan. I’m not familiar with any of the actors, but a character named Benny (David Wberg) merits special mention as the most indecisive individual I’ve ever seen portrayed. There is also a scene involving an elephant that is hilarious. The real story, however, is the life of Allan. As he embarks on his road trip we learn that since he was a kid, Allan has had a propensity for pyrotechnics, and his fetish for explosives has lead him to an interesting life. The flash backs include drinking scenes with Franco, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin as well as scenes with Ronald Reagan and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Robert Gustafsson plays Allan, a person who simply tells everyone exactly what he’s doing and who embraces life in a free flowing dance. You will be amused for most of this 115 minute film. While the majority of the dialogue is in Swedish, there are transitions to English when Allan is in America working on the Manhattan Project, Russian while with Stalin, and in Spanish when with Franco. There are also dialogues in French, German and Italian. The subtitles are very readable. I’m told the novel upon which the movie was based is even more delightful. Felix Herngren is the director. Remember: “Life is what it is and does what it does.”
Monday, May 4, 2015
Ex Machina: an expertly done artificial intelligence themed film. The movie opens with a software company employee winning an employer sponsored contest. The employer is a Google-like search engine company owned by an individual named Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. As the prize for winning the contest, employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets to spend a week with Nathan. The next sequence shows Caleb flying via helicopter to Nathan’s estate. Caleb asks the pilot how much longer until they arrive. The response is that they have been flying over the estate for the past hour. We learn that Nathan’s home is also his laboratory and research facility. We also learn that Nathan has created Ava, a strikingly beautiful female A.I. being. Nathan wants Caleb to assist him in testing Ava to find out whether she really can think for herself. The central concept of this film is the Turing test: If you don’t know you are talking to a computer, would you think the computer is an intelligent being? A series of conversations occur Ava and Caleb and a separate set of conversations between Nathan and Caleb. The fact that Nathan’s home is designed as a “man cave” helps retain your interest pending the start of the action segment. For most of the movie there are only four characters, with the 4th character being Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who is the cook and Nathan’s sleep mate. By stepping beyond just a voice, as in Her, writer and director Alex Garland establishes a more intricate A.I. character and a more complex film. During the film’s 110 minutes, a fascinating set of relationships develop. Part of the reason the film works so well rests with the character of Ava. Alicia Vikander is superb. There is a violent scene towards the end of the movie and, after seeing the movie, you may question whether the development artificial intelligence is a good idea. This is Garland’s first film as a director. I think we will see more. I found the film to be fascinating and enjoyable.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Wild Tales: a film from Argentina that received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film. It is the most-viewed locally produced film in Argentina. The praise Wild Tales has received is well deserved and the film is a delight despite some violent scenes. The movie consists of six short stories, each dealing with vengeance. While most of the stories have a tragic ending, they are each told with humor. The closing story, “Til Death Do Us Part”, is hilarious and like no wedding dinner you have ever seen. The interaction that occurs when the bride discovers her husband had an affair with a female co-worker whose been invited to the wedding dinner – this alone makes the film worth seeing. Unfortunately, the opening story, “Pasternak”, is a variation on the recent Germanwings tragedy. There is, however, an important distinction between “Pasternak” and the real event which you will recognize as the story unfolds. After “Pasternak” is an episode in a diner. You will immediately like the waitress and despise the customer whose retort to the waitress’ inquiry about whether he is dining alone is to compliment her mathematical skills. The diner scene is followed by “Road to Hell” which elevates road rage to an entirely new level. Episode four is “Bombita” which opens with a car being towed. “The Deal” involves lawyers and is the only story lacking a wicked comic kick. The six stories comprising this 114 minute film vary in length, each with a different cast. I am not familiar with any of the actors. This masterpiece is written and directed by Damien Szifron. It is in Spanish with very readable subtitles; the comedic scenes often do not need subtitles. I highly recommend this movie.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Timbuktu: a French-Mauritanian drama. The year is 2012. Islamist extremists have taken over the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu. The director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako does an excellent job of showing the day to day life of people trying to survive when Shariah law is imposed on them by outsiders. Sissako tells his story primarily through a married herdsman, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who has a young daughter (11) and a wife whose opinion he seeks even though he doesn’t always follow it. Ahmed’s blissful, simple life goes very bad. Ahmed’s performance is remarkable. During the opening sequence, there are scenes of jihadists who cannot successfully shoot an animal running for its life. There are also men entering a mosque toting guns and, when asked what they are doing, state that they are carrying out jihad. The resident Imam has to tell them the obvious - that is not what one does in a mosque. There are a series of scenes showing the town crier announcing various prohibitions: music is not allowed; adultery is particularly bad during Ramadan. There are brief scenes of a woman receiving 40 lashes for singing and a couple, accused of adultery, buried to their necks in sand then stoned to death. Even the leaders of the extremist group are unable to live up to the absurd standards dictated by Shariah law. The movie shows that faith is not the problem but rather people who believe they are God’s messenger acting in the name of God. The city’s traditional Imam tries to explain the local customs and common courtesies to the jihadists. The jihadists’ response is that everything is done in the name of Allah. The reality is that the jihadists have the gun and the gun controls all. Although Timbuktu was under the jihadists’ control for a relatively short time, much damage occurred. The film is subtitled as the characters speak in their native tongues. I think 6 different languages are spoken including a few words in English, however, there is not a lot of dialogue. The city and its surrounding geography are part of the story. This is a remarkable film.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Leviathan: a Russian movie with subtitles. The film is 141 minutes long and feels even longer. It is not a good sign when you are displeased with certain scenes because you know they will only prolong the film. Liviathan was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign film and received the 2014 Cannes Best Screenplay award. Clearly, some people have a different view of this movie. Perhaps something was lost in the translation. The film is set in the present and takes place in the Northern Russian coastal town of Pribrezhny. It focuses on an individual who is losing his home in an eminent domain battle. In addition to the injustice of losing his property by force, life with his family, which consists of a second wife and a teenage son from a prior marriage, is not good. The mayor of Pribrezhny, the main character and virtually everyone else in the film spends an inordinate amount of time drinking vodka. The film’s title is interesting; during the middle ages, leviathan was a Christian symbol for Satan and in the Satanic Bible, it represents water. The film opens and closes with water. Near the end, there is a long scene in a Russian Orthodox church and there are two major scenes with the mayor, who is clearly evil, and a priest. There are also references to Job. Considering that Liviathan portrays a corrupt political society, I found it interesting that it received the financial sponsorship of the Russian government. The bleakness of the society is portrayed along with the corruption. But it is a long film.
McFarland, USA: a Kevin Costner film. This feel good story is based on real events that occurred in McFarland, California, a town in the Central Valley, which is a farming community with a predominantly Mexican-American population. The events take place in 1987. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a high school football coach who has had issues with his temper. He is hired as a physical education teacher and an assistant football coach. In the opening scenes, White, his wife and two daughters, are moving to McFarland. After he starts teaching, White notices he has the talent pool for a cross-country team. White had never taught cross-country. As the team develops, White and his family become involved with the community. The seven runners who comprise the team are presented as individuals and certain of their family members are integral to the story. This movie works because it goes beyond stereotypes. The screenwriters, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson, are to be praised as the story could have become quite condescending but never does. The director is Niki Caro, a New Zealander, who brings a fresh approach to what could have been just another Hoosiers tale. This is more than just a sports story and Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography during the cross country races are excellent. After watching this 128 minute movie, I left the theater feeling real good. Part of the reason was Costner’s excellent performance. Also, the writers allow you to see a community working well together in spite the poverty and difficult environment. I could see this film a second time.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
With one exception, there were no real surprises at the Oscars this past Sunday evening. The exception was awarding the Oscar for editing to Whiplash. Personally, I wouldn’t have given Whiplash even third place for editing. J. K. Simmons deserved his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Whiplash as the music teacher, a truly dislikeable human being. Moore, as noted above, was deservedly an overwhelming favorite to win the Best Actress award. For Best Actor, I was fine with any of the nominated actors winning. If you have been reading these reviews, you know I was also fine with the awards given to Birdman as well as the four Oscars to The Grand Budapest Hotel. As for Best Foreign Film, I only note that the winner, Ida, was shown briefly in Hawaii at the Kahala Theatres, which is also showing a preview for one of the other nominated foreign films. I enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris. I truly enjoyed the presentation of the song Glory. But what’s up with John Travolta? Lady Gaga singing the Julie Andrews songs worked for me. I even enjoyed the Cadillac commercials. The ceremony could have been shorter, for example, the opening Harris number could have been omitted. But, overall, I enjoyed my Sunday night.
Still Alice: based upon the Lisa Genova novel, this drama tells the story of a highly intelligent, very competent and popular Columbia University linguistics professor who, at age 50, realizes her ability to remember is slipping away due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Julianne Moore deserves the Oscar she received for her role as Alice Howland. Alice is married (Alex Baldwin as the husband) with three grown children. The movie provides a realistic portrayal of how a family, and particularly the two daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart), react. While the film’s focus is on Moore, Stewart gives an excellent performance as the younger daughter who is trying to fashion a career as an actress without losing track of her obligations as a daughter. Baldwin is presented as a career driven research physician who is also trying to be a good husband. His performance can only be described as adequate. The son and older daughter are not fully presented as individuals. The 99 minute film is written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Glatzer has ALS, which I reference only because it may explain the sensitivity to illness shown throughout the film. The disease overcomes Alice in a relatively short time which is, apparently, the reality of early-onset Alzheimer’s. As the disease progresses, Moore’s appearance changes, her eyes become duller and her jaw slackens. The reason to see this film is Moore’s performance.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Mr. Turner: a film about the last quarter century of British painter J. M. W. Turner’s life. Timothy Spall won the London Film Critics Circle award for Best British Actor of the Year for his marvelous performance as Mr. Turner. Marion Bailey, who played Sophia Booth, the person with whom Turner was living when he died in Chelsea in 1851, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. An equally superb performance was given by Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby, Turner’s loving but long suffering housekeeper. The quality of the film’s cast is outstanding and their performances animate and propel a subdued storyline. Both Turner and his paintings were well known in British society. During this 149 minute film, Turner’s brutishness as an individual is emphasized. Based upon the complexity of Turner’s life and the methods he utilized to create his great paintings, I think the film could have incorporated much more than it did. My recommendation for this film is based on the high quality of acting and the excellent cinematography. Mike Leigh, the writer and director of the film, is certainly versed in the particular time period, however, for those of us whose knowledge of Turner is limited to his paintings, trying to figure out who are the actual people depicted is a distraction. Dick Pope is deservedly nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar; some scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. In a scene with Booth, Leigh had the perfect ending. He chose, however, to include an additional scene, which seemed an odd way to conclude the film. For those of you who enjoy traditional British drama, you will enjoy this movie which at times is filmed like a stage play. Personally, the acting and cinematography were so superb that I’m pleased to have seen this film. But if your thing is action, go see a different movie.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
A Most Violent Year: a riveting drama. The film takes place in NYC in 1981. The title does not derive from an abundance of violent scenes; a summary of the storyline would not focus on violence but on the tale of an immigrant trying to do right by his family and working to succeed in his business. The films’ title refers to an ambience that is present throughout the film; radio broadcasts of numerous, violent NYC incidents unrelated to the underlying story and the extreme graffiti that embellished certain sections of NYC’s subways are given prominence. This undercurrent of violence creates the mood and tone against which this story is told. Oscar Issac plays the lead character, Abel Morales, and Jessica Chastain plays his wife, Anna. At the opening, Abel is paying a non-refundable deposit to purchase certain waterfront commercial property from an Hassidic owner. Abel has 30 days to close the transaction or he forfeits his money; the clock is ticking. We learn that Abel and Anna have 3 daughters and that Anna’s father has a criminal history. We also learn that Abel has grown his business by doing things “the right way”. Still, Abel and his competitors are the target of a government investigation into the home oil heating business. David Oyelowo, in another excellent performance, plays the Assistant District Attorney in charge of the investigation. The final ingredient in the plotline is that someone is hijacking Abel’s trucks causing him to lose significant revenue. The 125 minute film is written and directed by J. C. Chandler, whose last picture, the Robert Redford film All is Lost, was one of my favorites from 2013. Chandler skillfully presents what turns out to be a complex story. Some of the credit goes to the director of photography, Bradford Young. The actors also deserve high praise, including Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer. Prior to this film, I had not been particularly impressed with Oscar Isaac, however, in this film, playing a Robert De Niro/Al Pacino type of character, he delivers. Oyelowo’s time on screen is limited but he has your attention every time he appears. Also, in this film, the musical score complements the mood Chandler creates and the actors deliver. Every year there is one film that fails to receive any Oscar nominations but is better than many which do. For 2014, that film is A Most Violent Year. Do not let the title stand in your way of seeing this remarkable movie.
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Black or White: grandparents feuding over custody of their granddaughter. Kevin Costner is the grandfather, Elliot Anderson; Octavia Spencer is the grandmother, Rowena Jeffers. The opening sequence has Costner learning that his wife, Carol, has died from injuries suffered in an off-camera automobile accident. We then learn that Elliot and Carol have been raising their granddaughter since birth because the child’s mother, their daughter, died in childbirth. The granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), is now 7 years old and goes to a private school. Elliot is a lawyer; Rowena’s brother is a lawyer. Their respective law firms represent the grandparents in the custody dispute that is at the heart of this film. We are told through a few brief flashbacks that Rowena and Carol had worked out an arrangement, which is why Eloise’s custody has never been an issue. However, concurrent with Carol’s death, Eloise’s father, Reggie (Andre Holland), a man with a criminal record and a history with drugs, returns to Compton from Seattle claiming to be clean. We learn the backstory of Reggie and Elliot’s daughter as the film unfolds. The acting is uniformly good, and Eloise has a wondrous smile that lights up the screen. The movie is written and directed by Mike Binder. While the script sidesteps easy racial stereotyping, unfortunately this 121 minute film suffers a detachment from reality that muddles the story. For example: there is way too much happening in the courtroom; custody hearings are not held in open court among a bevy of active spectators; Elliot’s courtroom behavior belies his alleged success as a lawyer; and there is the unbelievable character Duvan (Mpho Koaho), who is initially hired as Eloise’s math tutor. Duvan is West African, speaks 7 or 9 languages (I heard both numbers mentioned), plays piano, has written scholarly articles with very technical titles, is far too polite and, due to Elliot’s drinking problem, has also become Elliot’s chauffer. This film has a “Hallmark Presents” quality and, while I basically enjoyed it, I recommend that you save your money and wait until this film airs on TV. Notwithstanding the script, Costner and Spencer show what fine actors they are by maintaining the viewer’s interest in a film which could have offered a far more interesting and invigorating story.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
American Sniper: the Iraq War as a Western. Directed by Clint Eastwood, this film has all the elements that have made Eastwood one of the great story tellers and directors of American West sagas. In telling the story of Chris Kyle, who completed 4 tours of duty in Iraq, we are presented with a 21st century version of the tale told by Eastwood in his 1992 movie The Unforgiven. In this story, based on Kyle’s autobiography, Kyle is presented as someone with a strong sense of justice, a clear vision and the ability to separate the good guys from the bad. Early on, his father ingrains in him that the world is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. American Sniper has been criticized by some as offering an idealized view of its main character. The film, however, clearly shows the psychological and emotional trauma that results directly from multiple tours in Iraq. Bradley Cooper as Kyle does an amazing job of portraying a man under stress. Cooper definitely earned his Oscar nomination and the film rightly deserves its Best Picture nomination. As with David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King in Selma, you can only surmise the existence of a political dynamic whose consequence is Eastwood not receiving the Best Director nod. At 84, Eastwood continues to work at an amazing skill level. This is not just a “sand movie”; the cinematography is superb and the constant level of tension possesses a brutal honesty. The counterpoints between Kyle and his wife Taya, played with honesty by Sienna Miller, further emphasize the inhuman consequences of the Iraq War. This 134 minute film quickly grabs your attention and holds it firmly to the end. I highly recommend this movie.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
Selma: a film deserving of its Oscar nomination for Best Movie. Also deserving of an Oscar nomination is David Oyelowo for his remarkable portrayal of Dr. King. This film focuses on the events which lead to the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. As depicted in the film, the march was a seminal event in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The film is not, however, simply a documented recitation of events. The historic figures are presented as real people with real lives. Selma opens with Dr. King commenting to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), about his tie shortly before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and there are other scenes showing the dynamics of the King family. The film presents with stark reality the issue of voting rights and its backstory. There is a powerful scene in which Oprah Winfrey submits her application to vote but is denied because she is unable to name every single county in the State of Alabama. We are given a face to connect with the factual reality that in Lowndes County, Alabama, where the majority of the population is African-American, not a single Black person had been allowed to register to vote in 60 years. We are also provided with the backstory as to what led to the events in 1965 Selma as well as dramatic footage of the Selma marches. The film includes many of the major civil rights individuals and does not limit its focus to Dr. King. As such, it entertains and keeps you actively involved. Films based on historical events can be boring but the director, Ava DuVernay, did a remarkable job, and this 127 minute movie deserves more than just Best Movie and Best Original Song nominations. There is, however, a major problem with this film, especially if you know the history of the passage of the Voting Rights Bill: the script writer confuses Lyndon Baines Johnson with John Kennedy. The movie depicts the Selma campaign as pushing LBJ (played by Tom Wilkinson in an unusually weak performance) into supporting the voting rights legislation. While Dr. King had to push President Kennedy to move on civil rights legislation, that was certainly not the case with LBJ. Due to this significant factual misrepresentation, the scenes with Dr. King and LBJ were annoying. But despite this historical error, Selma is a film you should see. The essential act of voting has never been more dramatically shown.