Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

Tonight I screened Million Dollar Arm, starring Jon Hamm and Suraj Sharma.

The real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein was at a crossroads in his career, in danger of losing everything when he had the idea to recruit and train the first Indian major league baseball players from a crop of cricket players in their homeland. This film, tells his—and their—story.

J.B. (Hamm) isn't really that nice of a guy. He has a great house and a great car, but as he begins to lose his great career, he's more concerned about maintaining his glamorous lifestyle than he is preserving the integrity of his players. When everything is on the line, he travels to India with a talent scout (Alan Arkin) to host a contest to find a "million dollar arm." While there, he finds Rinku Singh (Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal); neither have ever played baseball, but both have the potential to pitch their way to greatness.

He brings them both back to California and a typical fish-out-of-water story ensues. They stumble over the language, try foods unknown to them and awkwardly acclimate to a technologically advanced world. The movie comes close to furnishing too many of these situations, but is luckily saved by the welcome presence of Lake Bell, as J.B.'s tenant Brenda, who flirts her way into the hearts of the men on-screen as well as the audience.

Jon Hamm is solid in the role (though I'll admit I was puzzled by his hoarse-sounding voice throughout—maybe the real man has a gravely voice?) and the boys who play the recruits and their translator were perfectly sweet.

You can't help but root for them—even Bernstein—as they rapidly make sense of their new world while thrown into a pressure cooker of tryouts.

If you enjoy a good, old-fashioned sports movie, this should be right up your alley.

~~~

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Today I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, starring Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson.

Captain America (Evans) is as apple-pie appealing as one could imagine a frozen-in-time superhero could be. His eyes glisten blue, his skin is white as porcelain and his body resembles that of a Ken™ doll. It would be really hard not to root for him.

It seems that everywhere we turn these days, us Americans are reminded of our past rivalry with Russia. In this film, it comes in the form of a long-forgotten foe called "The Winter Soldier," a fierce Soviet agent.

When the good guys discover this entity is the cause of their recent drama, Captain, along with Natasha (Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) team up to go get him.

I'd be spoiling it all if I went any further, but let's just say there's an abundance of kicking and gymnastics and throwing the shield around like a Frisbee. Plus, car chases and explosions!

I enjoyed the chemistry and banter between Captain and Natasha, and Robert Redford's time on screen as the powerful Alexander Pierce kept my attention.

Other than that, I wish it had been about 40 minutes shorter.

Still, not a terrible way to kick off a pre-summer season of popcorn films.
~~~

Friday, April 11, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier

Tonight I saw the documentary Finding Vivian Maier.

Part hoarder, part loaner, part voyeur, part genius—Vivian Maier was comprised of many things. Like the photos that are now making her famous, there was a raw, yet mysterious, aspect to her persona, which she guarded her whole life like a national secret.

The film chronicles how a student hoping to find historical photos for an assignment purchased a storage locker full of negatives and stumbled on a treasure trove of never-before-seen brilliant images. All of the pictures were taken (and hidden) by Vivian, a nanny who bounced from family to family all of her adult life.

As the student dug deeper and deeper into her past, he discovered a tragic soul—described as everything from eccentric to angry. What was so remarkable about uncovering the photos was that none of the people who knew her realized that they existed. Sure, they saw her with her camera around her neck, and the children remember being photographed and filmed, but no one had any idea her catalog boasted thousands of museum-quality shots. Some which Vivian herself never had the privilege of viewing.

The film emphasizes Maier's "stern spinster" status, but she was so much more complex than that. As one of the former children she cared for points out in the film, Vivian probably suffered from mental illness, but that didn't dim her gift for creativity and her technique for capturing wonderful moments on film.

It's a wonderful way to spotlight the legacy of someone who didn't crave fame, but most certainly needed validation.

To view some of Maier's work, visit her official website.

~~~

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lunchbox

Today I saw The Lunchbox, starring Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan.

Ila (Kaur) feels disconnected from her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid). She consults with her Auntie (Bharati Achrekar) who lives upstairs and primarily communicates with her by yelling through their open windows. Auntie encourages her to try new recipes and send a delicious meal to her husband through the lunchbox delivery service that everyone in town uses.

Ila does this, and the dishes come back empty, so she thinks she's pleased her man; unfortunately, the lunches got mixed up in transit and her meal instead went to Saajan (Khan), an lonely widower who works for the government. Even worse, her husband didn't realize his meal wasn't made by her.

Pleased nonetheless that the mystery man appreciated her cooking, Ila sends him a letter in the next delivery, assuming it will go back to him. It does, and he writes back.

So begins an innocent flirtation between two people at very different places in their lives who are desperately starved for attention and validation.

As their letters get more personal and honest, the connection they feel for one another only deepens, leading them to believe they may be destined to end up together.

Kaur is phenomenal as the stunning wife who feels ignored by her partner, and makes every attempt to win him back though it's through no fault of her own that she's lost him. Khan is his usual, appealing self and makes an otherwise unlikable character extremely sympathetic and warm.

Though the reasons for their correspondence border on depressing, it's delightful to watch these two strangers meet in the middle and discover comfort in old-fashioned letters.

A satisfying romance that keeps us guessing to the very end.

~~~

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

Today I saw the documentary Tim's Vermeer.

Tim Jenison is a longtime friend of Penn & Teller. When they learned that he had developed an obsession for determining whether or not famous Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used technology to create his works, they decided to film the process.

The result is this funny, smart, captivating film.

Jenison, so certain that British artist David Hockney is on to something with his theory that some of history's finest artists used camera obscura techniques to complete their paintings, decides to take the idea one step further and teach himself how to paint with that process.

Using a homemade mirror-on-a-stick contraption, he tests his skills and it works. Next, he decides to go full on and renovate a warehouse in San Antonio to look just as Vermeer's studio would have looked, painstakingly re-creating the windows, objects, floors—and people from The Music Lesson. He also mixes the paints the way Vermeer would have had to in the 1600s for the most authentic match possible.

Then, for several months, Tim paints. He paints every inch of his canvas in the exact way that he proposes the original artist did. What he discovers along the way had the audience I sat with gasping in wonder and delight.

I won't spoil the ending and tell you what his conclusion came to be, but I will say that I never dreamed that watching paint dry could be so entertaining.

~~~

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Labor Day

Today I saw Labor Day, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Adele (Winslet) is a single mother to Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and has such severe depression, she seldom leaves her home. Only when she has to tend to Henry's needs, does she depart.

Frank (Brolin) is an escaped convict who takes the two hostage and demands a safe haven as the manhunt for him begins. In their sleepy New Hampshire town, there are only so many places he could be (especially since he was injured during the escape), so one does wonder why there are no door-to-door searches.

That aside, I fully admit that I found this film completely satisfying.

Winslet recalls the pain she showed in Revolutionary Road, but plays it more understated this time. She's terrified of her intruder, but also drawn to what appears to be his kindness. Brolin is brooding, yet tender and Griffith is alternately horrified and curious. They all hit the right notes.

The longer Frank stays at the family home, the more useful he becomes. His handyman skills are put to use and for reasons we never learn, he's also an amazing cook/baker. As the film turns from suspense thriller to love story, we go with it. If someone as damaged as Adele really did receive a dangerous criminal in her home, who happened to be handsome and helpful, she may just fall for him. Hell, I would.

While other critics have nit-picked the obvious flaws (Frank is often outside; the townspeople are nosy but never discover him), the oversights didn't bother me here. I enjoyed spending time in this world; watching them drink Yuban coffee, bake peach pies and play vinyls on a record player while life just kept happening.

I'll be happy to watch this again.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop

Tonight I saw Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a troubled U.S. Air Marshall, embarking on a flight from New York to London. Jen Summers (Moore), a stereotypical, chatty passenger on her phone, trades places with another man for the window seat next to Marks.

Things are business as usual until folks start relaxing to sleep through the flight. As the plane grows quiet, the chime of Bill's phone goes off as he begins receiving messages from a would-be hijacker. He/she says that one passenger will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired to a specific account—which we soon learn is under the name "Bill Marks."

Soon, a passenger is dead and all aboard have to wonder if Marks himself is the hijacker.

From there, the familar-Taken-like-version of Liam Neeson emerges and the film becomes a full-on thriller.

Only Nancy the flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) and Jen trust in his innocence—but are they making the right choice by supporting him?

The script plays a fun game of ping-pong with the audience, allowing them to believe that several different people could potentially be the hijacker and it all leads to a nerve-wracking, if not predictable, ending.

The acting is solid, the effects are decent and the script refrains from too many "catchphrase" quotes.

If you just want to get lost in something entertaining for almost two hours, I think you'll like this film.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2014)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

HELIUM (Denmark)

I want to know where Denmark trains their child actors because I have yet to see a weak performance from any of them. In this story, a young child named Alfred is terminally ill. He has a love for balloons—hot air, blimp, etc. so the adults fill his hospital room them to cheer him up. It's not until a hospital worker develops a special bond with Alfred, and makes up a "Helium" heaven that the child is able to accept his tragic fate. Beautifully written and wonderfully acted; a tender reminder of what's important in life.

THE VOORMAN PROBLEM (United Kingdom)

Familiar actors and an unbelievable situation make this lighthearted entry one of the easiest of the nominees to digest. A psychiatrist is sent to a prison to evaluate an insane inmate who thinks he's a God and is forced to confront the fact that he may indeed be one. Brilliant "what if" that reminds us to be careful how we define "crazy."

JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING (France)

The strongest entry (and my pick for the win) comes from the lengthiest of the nominees, with a 30-minute running time that flies by. A woman is desperate to escape her abusive husband and take her children with her in this race-against-the-clock situation. If this film were a book, it would be one of the best page-turners I've ever read. It conveys the fear, the pain, the shame and the hope associated with such a plot and has you wondering if she'll pull it off right to the very last frame.

THAT WASN'T ME (Spain)

The horrific dangers of the Sierra Leone are magnified in this brutal, violent look at what can (and probably has) happened in one of the most volatile patches of the world. Two humanitarian doctors are taken hostage trying to cross a sensitive border and the torture that follows is unspeakable. The humanity that emerges from the awful situations they endure is what redeems the images in the end. Still, certain parts of this story will be forever burned into my brain and I'm not sure I'm okay with that.

DO I HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF EVERYTHING? (Finland)

Women everywhere will cheer and laugh along with this sweet, hilarious take on an over-scheduled family trying to get themselves ready to attend the wedding of their friends. The husband is endearing, the kids are adorable and the mom is—well—super. Delightful romp, without question.

~~~

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lone Survivor

Last Sunday I saw Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch.

It can't be overstated how damaging a spoiler title can be to a film.

Based on the memoir by real-life soldier Marcus Luttrell, the movie captures all of the horrors of war and combat without an ounce of suspense or hope since we all know that only one man will emerge with his life.

It shakes down like this: an American team of Navy SEALs is sent to Afghanistan to capture and/or eliminate a known Taliban leader. They quickly locate him and then everything that can go wrong does go wrong, all because of some goats.

The violence we witness in the injured soldiers who keep fighting until their last breath is alternately inspirational and gratuitous.

We know going in that we're going to see a lot of blood—it is a war movie after all. But scene after scene, shot after shot only serves to desensitize us viewers in the same way that the repetitive nature of the nightly news does.

I'm thankful that Mr. Luttrell emerged safe, if not scarred, by his experience in Afghanistan, but dismayed by the fact this wouldn't have been a movie (or book) had his fellow troops not given their lives.

I'm sorry for the cause and disappointed in the result.

~~~

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Frozen

Today I saw Frozen, starring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel.

Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Bell) are sisters. Elsa is older and blessed with superpowers; Anna excitedly wakes Elsa to play using those superpowers, which create magical landscapes around them.

One morning when they're having fun, Elsa loses control of her powers and Anna gets hurt. Their parents rush to their aid and are advised to lock Elsa away and hide her powers from Anna going forward.

When they're older, Elsa reveals those powers and her emotions get the better of her as her sister announces her engagement. She essentially freezes their whole village, but doesn't know it as she escapes immediately thereafter.

Anna decides to save the town by finding her sister and asking her to thaw everything out. This, of course, is harder than it seems and true to fairy tale form, we learn it is true love that must save them.

The film is a delightful romp, rich with beautiful, snowy visuals that actually make you chilly while you watch. The strength of Anna's character is refreshing in a female lead (animated or not) and the snowman, who could be obnoxious, is actually pretty cute. I also liked the men (both the dreadful ones and the nice ones).

Sitting next to an adorable 3-year-old boy for the duration, I heard him once reason with his mother, "Maybe one sister can be the cold weather queen and the other sister could be the warm weather queen?"

His innocence speaks to the vibe of the movie, which concentrates on simple justice and the pursuit of happiness. Truly delightful.

~~~


Friday, January 10, 2014

August: Osage County

Tonight I saw August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Vi (Streep) is short for "Violet," but really it should be short for "vile."

Her character, the matriarch of a severely dysfunctional Midwestern family, is the verbal equivalent of Mommie Dearest, spitting venom in every direction to her three grown daughters (and everyone else in her path).

Her sainted husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd), has just died and the crowd has descended on her home for the burial and mourning.

In the days that follow, her girls Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) alternately uncover and reveal secrets about themselves and others, which culminates in an eruption of emotion that plays out mostly during one tense, long, hilarious, draining dinner scene.

My favorite person in the whole movie? Chris Cooper, who plays Violet's sweet brother-in-law Charlie. He's the voice of reason—the calm before, during and after the storm—and is also a victim of the poisonous clan. Cooper plays it with such good-old-boy grace, I wanted to hug him at the end.

Meryl Streep is unsurprisingly fabulous in the role. It's a film based on a play and she plays it like a play, but that's not a bad thing. Also endearing is Julianne Nicholson, who I've admired since Flannel Pajamas, and really gets the chance to shine here with her character of several dimensions.

Margo Martindale owns her hilarious and tragic role as Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, and sparkles in authenticity.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thoroughly entertained: laughing, crying and gasping all the way through. But I do wish they hadn't talked about the heat so much (we got it after the first two fan scenes), I thought the Native American jokes got old and there are a few others who probably could've tackled the role of Barbara in a less abrasive way and made her more sympathetic.

But overall, well done. A slice of life that cuts deep.

~~~

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Today I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Issac and Carey Mulligan.

Llewyn Davis (Issac) is a 'starving artist' musician in New York. The year is 1961; the mood is grim.

Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) are fellow folk singers who run in the same circles as Llewyn, and Llewyn may or may not have impregnated Jean. This is only one of the apparent many reasons that she hates him.

Davis seems to have a case of perpetual bad luck, but it's terribly hard to sympathize with him because his demeanor is so unappealing. You've met those people—the ones who whine and whine and act as if they're the only person in the world that has to struggle? That's the type of sad sack that Davis encompasses.

So… light attracts light and dark attracts dark. When you fall into a tunnel of darkness and refuse to climb out of it (or lose the will to at least try), you'll only spiral further down. And Davis, who couch surfs his way though his miserable life, is one big ball of darkness.

Jean is so full of venom that we barely even notice when Mulligan's American accent slips or her character tries to do a nice thing for Llewyn. We're way past her by then, having coated us in such anger.

That leaves the brief (but shining) performances by Timberlake and John Goodman to keep things light, and for a few moments they do. Timberlake leading the best song in the film, "Please Mr. Kennedy," and Goodman a passenger on the road trip from hell. Both brilliant performances that gave great flavor to the film.

I can't pretend the Coen brothers haven't done better. This isn't in the same ballpark as No Country for Old Men or The Man Who Wasn't There, but it's not terrible either.

Just make sure you see it when you're in a bright mood or it might bring you down.

~~~

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle

Tonight I saw American Hustle, starring Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams.

The Abscam scandal of the 1970s was the inspiration for this David O. Russell film about the FBI's use of a real con man to take down members of the U.S. government. In this dramatized version, we see two clever con artists: Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Adams). They have a passionate personal relationship in addition to their professional collaboration, though Irving is overweight and married.

Enter Riche DiMaso (Cooper), an FBI agent hungry for a big sting, who after catching them in the act, recruits the pair for a bigger operation. They don't have much choice to accept the challenge and do their best to make the most of it. And the audience are the lucky recipients of their sparks.

Sydney flirts with Richie, Richie abuses his boss (played by the always-hilarious Louis C.K.), Irving fights with his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and the mayor (Jeremy Renner) acts like... well... a politician.

All of this is wildly entertaining, but nothing is as perfect as every scene-stealing moment that Jennifer Lawrence takes the screen. The whole cast is terrific, but Lawrence lights up the room with her impeccable comedic timing and charisma. Let's just say I wouldn't be too surprised (or disappointed) if she took home another Oscar this year.

Also of note is the director's brilliant use of music. Taking cues from Tarantino and Scorsese, the music is of-the-era (the deliciously gritty '70s) and just as much a part of the script as the dialogue.

The twists and turns, though not complex, are clever and the ending is undeniably satisfying.

Believe the hype about this one—it's all true.

~~~


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Today I saw Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.

The life of South African leader Nelson Mandela is inspiring under any lens, but actor Idris Elba brings a special spirit in his portrayal of the peacemaker in this film.

From the early scenes of him as a womanizer during his first marriage, to the angry scenes as his activism took flight in his 30s and on to the duration of his imprisonment, Elba nails it. His passion, his patience, his love, his grace.

Alongside him throughout the film was Naomie Harris, playing his second wife Winnie. Harris shows the fire within Winnie that fuels her ability to change the world. She did too, after all, though her tactics weren't always as kind.

The details we see here show more of the personal side of Madibe (as he is more often called); the father who didn't know his kids as they grew; the husband who never stopped loving his wife, though he couldn't physically touch her for 21 of his 27 years in prison. The time he lost will always be heartbreaking, no matter how many times we remind ourselves he had a happy ending (and speaking of happy endings: don't miss the end credits featuring a U2 song over real photos of his life).

In our modern, selfish world it's difficult to contemplate the integrity of someone so morally focused. Inconceivable to imagine the sacrifice of one's prime years in life, though it's painfully refreshing to watch.

As some of the scenes during his imprisonment lingered on quietly, I began fidgeting in my seat, mentally preparing to make a note of the slow pace for this review. And then it dawned on me: the filmmakers are trying to convey a 27-year imprisonment of an innocent man in less than three hours.

Shame on me for even considering a criticism of wasted time.

~~~

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Her

Today I saw Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.

If you've ever panicked, thinking you've lost all the data on your smartphone, remember how fast your heart beat in those moments, and then think how much faster your heart would beat if you thought you were losing a relationship in there too. That's what's at stake for the virtual lovers in Her.

Theodore (Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Heartfelt, beautiful letters that get sent the old-fashioned way since our society has given up doing so. He is sadly separating from his wife (Rooney Mara), who we at first only see in brief flashbacks that make us wonder why their love died.

Though his profession clings to the nostalgia of the past, his life revolves around the technology of the future. Though he's barely social with humans anymore, he does sign up for an Operating System (OS) personal assistant and soon develops feelings for Her (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). She goes by the name Samantha. Amy (Amy Adams) is Theodore's closest human friend and she is just glad he's got a thirst for life again.

Soon the feelings between Theodore and Samantha are "mutual" and they become a fashionable couple. They have steamy phone sex, go on double dates with fully human couples—hell, she even shops for him. Though as I write this, it sounds absurd, the dynamic is not so unbelievable when presented on screen.

Aside from Joaquin's overacting (which happens throughout in his exaggerated facial expressions), the story borders on sweet. Theodore is a nice enough guy, and what harm is it doing for him to keep company with his computer, right?

Well, the Big Looming Lesson here is that our world is becoming too disconnected as we try to perpetually stay connected. Nothing can replace human love or interaction; not even an entity programmed to our specifications.

Director Spike Jonze also makes a point of showing countless wide open spaces (both in nature and indoors), which illustrate how hollow our landscape is; certainly meant to be a metaphor for our hearts in this modern world.

Johansson did a fine job with the voice of Samantha, but I have to wonder if the effect might have been greater if an unknown actress (who we couldn't picture so easily) had played the part.

It's an interesting (and timely) concept to explore the obsession we have with technology; I only wish this had been more multidimensional and less preachy.

~~~

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Yesterday I saw The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) wasn't born rich, but he was obsessed with becoming rich. He used his smarts to get an entry level position on Wall Street and a few years later started his own brokerage firm, where he sold penny stocks and performed countless acts of fraud against his investors.

In this lively retelling of his life (so far), Martin Scorsese returns to his Goodfellas pacing and explodes the story across the screen. For three hours. No joke.

It's alternately exhilarating and nauseating, and the DiCaprio really couldn't be better, but I wonder: does it glamorize the excess too much?

Belfort was (maybe is?) not a nice guy. He swindled money out of people who were of the same class or lower than the honest parents who raised him in the Bronx. The only "victim" of his nonsense we see in the film is his first wife, who catches him cheating. But we do believe he loved his mistress (he did marry her, after all) so even that doesn't sting as much as it should.

The drug scenes happen almost constantly (as does the sex) and I can't help but think if I was young and impressionable, some of this stuff would be undeniably enticing.

Donnie Azoff a.k.a. the real Daniel Porush (Hill) was Belfort's right hand man, and committed as many sins as his boss. His character is hilarious and there are moments where Hill clearly steals the show. Also fantastic are cameos by Matthew McConaughey and Jon Favreau.

I can't imagine what Thelma "cut" to get this from an NC-17 to an R; it's plenty filthy, but oddly not gratuitous because it's necessary to convey how insanely out of control Belfort's world became.

There isn't anything wrong with this film, save for the common consequence of Scorsese's hallmark: he makes people who commit reprehensible acts appear invincible and heroic.

If only he also gave us a glimpse of those on the other side of the fence.

~~~

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Tonight I saw Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner.

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) was a cowboy in the 80s in denial about his HIV diagnosis. After doing independent research, and realizing straight men could indeed contract the virus through unprotected sex, he came to terms with his situation and decided to take action.

Since the experimental AZT treatments were causing more harm than cure in their first stages, Woodroof sought alternative solutions, traveling abroad to obtain drugs that hadn't yet been approved by the FDA in the U.S.

When he returns, drugs in hand, he starts a "buyers' club" and sells memberships to fellow HIV patients. With their membership, they get a supply of the drugs.

Soon the authorities are on his tail and his operation is in danger of folding.

A painfully thin McConaughey is the perfect fit for this role—he plays an asshole really well and nails the transformative nature of the character. Jennifer Garner is also strong as a doctor wrestling with the hospital treatments she's supposed to administer and the scientific evidence Woodroof provides that proves his club is helping people.

Jared Leto stands out, even above these two, for his turn as Rayon, a transgender woman who helps Woodroof manage the club.

Overall, the film was effective if not blatantly shaking its fist at bureaucracy and the evils that accompany it.

~~~


Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Golden Globe Picks

Though the Golden Globes aren't as prestigious as the Oscars, and they don't really serve as a great predictor for those award wins, I do stand by my statement that they're Hollywood's best party, and most often the most entertaining of all the award shows to watch.

I'm thrilled that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are returning to host again this January (and next). I'm elated that Netflix shows and stars are getting some love in the television categories. I still think it's ridiculous they split the comedies and dramas.

But enough of that.

Here is who I would vote for if I had an official ballot:

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

JOSH CHARLES
THE GOOD WIFE


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

SOFIA VERGARA
MODERN FAMILY


Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television 
 
MICHAEL DOUGLAS    
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA


Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

ELISABETH MOSS             
TOP OF THE LAKE 

 
Best Mini-series or Motion Picture Made for Television

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical 


ZOOEY DESCHANEL    
NEW GIRL

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Comedy or Musical 


JASON BATEMAN  
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

Best Television Series - Comedy or Musical

GIRLS

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

BRYAN CRANSTON
BREAKING BAD

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

 
ROBIN WRIGHT
HOUSE OF CARDS

Best Television Series - Drama

BREAKING BAD

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

“ORDINARY LOVE” — MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Music by: Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., Brian Burton
Lyrics by: Bono

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

HANS ZIMMER
12 YEARS A SLAVE

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

BARKHAD ABDI
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

LUPITA NYONG'O       
12 YEARS A SLAVE

Best Foreign Language Film

THE HUNT (DENMARK)

Best Animated Feature Film

DESPICABLE ME 2

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

LEONARDO DICAPRIO
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

JULIE DELPY
BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

JEFF POPE
PHILOMENA

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

TOM HANKS
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

CATE BLANCHETT
BLUE JASMINE

Best Motion Picture - Drama
PHILOMENA

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Tonight I screened The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.

As a child, I read the James Thurber short story of the same name and remember being captivated by its ability to transport me to wherever Walter's brain was going. In this film adaptation? Not so much.

Stiller plays Mitty in an almost stoic way, making him into a character who is not only sad, but perhaps mentally ill. He's bullied by colleagues, financially responsible for his mother and sister, and hopelessly trying to navigate eHarmony.com, which along with Papa John's and Cinnabon, enjoys some fantastic product placement here.

This version of Mitty is a negative assets specialist for the soon-to-fold Life magazine. He is responsible for the final issue's cover image, which he has misplaced. Sheryl (Wiig) works in a related department, but is new to the magazine. Walter has a crush on her. Soon he's off to Greenland to track down Sean (Sean Penn), the photographer of the final image.

It goes from being sort of sad to wild-and-crazy fantasy-like to a soul-searching mission with a love story sprinkled in for good measure. There's some comedy too.

But mostly it's a Forrest Gump-ish jumble of unbelievable events (without the endearing nature of a character like Gump) peppered with fantastic cameos from stars like Shirley MacLaine and Patton Oswalt.

I wish I could have enjoyed it more. All of these actors are likeable.

~~~

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Philomena

This morning I saw Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

In the 1950s, it was shameful to be a pregnant teenager in Ireland. For a girl who was brought up by Catholic nuns, it was unspeakable.

When it happened to Philomena Lee (Dench) in 1952, the nuns punished her by working seven days a week, allowing only one-hour visitations with her son Anthony (Tadhg Bowen). She loved him dearly and lived for the special—if not limited—moments she had with him.

At age 3, Anthony was adopted by an American couple from St. Louis, Mo. Philomena was never given the chance to say goodbye. She kept his existence a secret for over 40 years, though she kept in regular touch with the convent in case Anthony ever came looking for her.

Once her daughter found out about her missing brother, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), an out-of-work journalist with the investigative skills to track him down.

The film covers this true journey from start to finish, adding in unnecessary Hollywood embellishments, but thankfully that doesn't hurt its effectiveness. As depressing as the subject matter may be, it's a pleasure to watch.

Dench is simultaneously tragic and charming as Lee, showing the the pain of what she had lost with every glance. Coogan is also perfectly cast as the journalist who is at first in it for himself, but soon develops a genuine compassion for the mother.

As with all true stories, this one is being told too late, but there is hope that the conversations it will spark my soon make a difference in the practices of the church and the perception of sin in Ireland.

~~~



Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Tonight I screened Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.

PL Travers (Thompson) was an Australian author who had suffered a difficult childhood at the hands of her drunken father and depressed mother. It was her imagination that got her through it and led her to eventually write Mary Poppins, which achieved great success.

Walt Disney (Hanks), a legendary Missouri-born entrepreneur, of course created the Happiest Place on Earth™. After his daughter, Diane, fell in love with the book Mary Poppins, he promised her someday he would turn it into a movie. It took him 20 years, but he kept that promise.

This film tells that story in flashbacks to Travers' childhood (which can be quite disturbing) and throughout the process of convincing her to sell the rights to Disney. The two leads couldn't be better in their roles, Hanks capturing every mannerism Disney was known for; Thompson a hard shell of a woman with a heartbreaking past bubbling underneath. Sweet moments of humor, like a spoonful of sugar, help this "medicine" go down.

Travers really defined the Hollywood term "development hell" and took issue with just about every song, design and element proposed to her by the "Americans." It can't have been easy for the writer and songwriters to navigate, but obviously, in the end everyone got a classic.

The film is much more dark than I expected it to be, and I found myself crying at least four times.

That said, the writing is not emotionally manipulative or too far from the truth at any time. In fact, reading through this article, it comes pretty close. The real footage of the film and also the final credits (which hold real surprises) were a nice touch.

I enjoyed the story, and would recommend it for adults, but not for children due to the disturbing flashback sequences.

~~~

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nebraska

Tonight I saw Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #128, so please tune in a few weeks from now for our review.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Today I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

The film begins where the book also started, as Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) are gearing up for their victory tour of the districts, as the winners of the most recent Hunger Games.

Spying on the wildly popular couple, the president (Donald Sutherland) calls their bluff and fears their love story act will not sustain, so therefore Katniss must be eliminated. His new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (a perfectly cast Philip Seymour Hoffman) soon constructs a plot to bring the victors back into the games and seal her fate.

Though all of the excitement and horrors of the games is well executed, it's the performance that Lawrence gives that truly makes the film worth seeing. Every note of emotion is pitch perfect; every complexity captured in her eyes.

I also confess to eating up the love triangle between her, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). As with any well done triangle, I change my mind every few minutes about who I want for Katniss. My brain says Peeta will do everything in his power to make her happy from now to eternity; my heart sees the way she looks at Gale.

Only one more year until the first installment of Mockingjay hits theaters, right?

~~~

Friday, November 22, 2013

Delivery Man

Today I saw Delivery Man, starring Vince Vaughn and Chris Pratt.

David (Vaughn) is an unreliable "meat chauffeur" for the family business. He's in love with Emma (Cobie Smulders), who is carrying his child, but unsure of whether or not she wants him to be a part of said child's life.

He wants to do better—he really does—and gets the chance to prove it when his world is unexpectedly turned upside down. It seems that as a sperm donor years ago, he fathered 533 children, over a hundred of which have filed a lawsuit to try to learn his identity.

His lawyer/BFF (Pratt) works tirelessly to preserve his anonymity, but David's impulsive actions don't help. He begins reading through profiles of his children (all of whom magically live in the vicinity) and finds them, following them throughout their daily lives.

Vaughn is fantastic as someone in awe of what the creation of a child truly means (there are some tear-inducing, tender scenes with one of the children, which I won't spoil) and at the same time frustratingly irresponsible.

Aside from that, and the side-story of the lawyer's four kids driving him nuts, this is a very slow-paced, often sad-in-tone film.

I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I wanted to laugh as much as the trailer implied I would. But I didn't.

~~~

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

This morning I saw Lee Daniels' The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) was a real-life man named Eugene Allen, who was employed by The White House from the Truman administration all the way up through the Reagan administration. He began as a pantry worker and was soon promoted to butler, utilizing the skills he'd learned working in exclusive places around Virginia and Washington, D.C. And, he was black.

The film shows how he was trained as a child as a "house negro" to serve and dazzle the higher class, and takes great pride in doing good work for his superiors.

His wife Gloria (Winfrey)—who was named Helene in actuality—has a drinking problem and turns to another man for intimacy as her husband works long hours. Winfrey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman who clearly adores her husband, but has so much brimming just beneath her emotional surface, she has to find other ways to cope.

The film has fairly been compared to Forrest Gump for its predictable trip down memory lane, but just as I didn't mind it in Forrest Gump, I didn't mind it here either. Though the big-name stars (Robin Williams, John Cusack, etc.) who play the various presidents are distracting, the overall message is clear: it really hasn't been that long since America was a terribly unbalanced country, devoid of human rights for all. In fact, it reminds us that though things are better, we still have a long way to go.

For all its unfaithfulness to the true story, it was still an engaging, well-paced movie that made me wish I was more like its main character: content in hard work, patient in times of injustice and lacking in envy of the riches that surround him.

~~~

Saturday, November 02, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Today I saw 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.

It will be the topic of our November Cinebanter episode, so tune in later this month for our review.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Captain Philips

Tonight I saw Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi.

Captain Rich Phillips (Hanks) is an east coast merchant marine leading a new crew through the dangerous waters of Africa to deliver cargo. Muse (Abdi) is a Somali pirate that leads a handful of fellow pirates to take over the Captain's ship. Despite the elaborate security measures, Muse succeeds.

After a nerve-wracking chain of events (all happening while the U.S. Navy Seals are getting their ducks in a row to initiate a rescue), the pirates leave the ship and escape on one of its lifeboats with Captain Phillips as their hostage.

What happened over the course of five days in real life is chronicled in just over two hours here, but it's no less harrowing. The Captain talks to them, negotiates the extension of his life and feels compassion for the youngest pirate, who is just a kid. Tempers flare, weapons are drawn and physical fights are commonplace.

What makes Paul Greengrass such a phenomenal director is how real it all feels, though it's not something everyday people will ever truly know. His gift for capturing the sound of desperate breaths, the temperature in a space and the discombobulation of chaos is unique.

All of the performances in this film are first-rate; most notably those of the pirates who weren't even actors before they took on these roles.

I can't imagine this won't get a ripple of well-deserved Oscar nominations.

~~~


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Prisoners

Today I saw Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Keller (Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello), have a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis).

Each couple has a young daughter and the girls leave together after the meal to go play. The adults don't realize they are missing until much later. They report a suspected abduction and soon are on the trail of the owner of an RV who was parked on their street.

Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) has solved every case to which he's been assigned, so the families are grateful when he takes on the challenge of finding their girls.

That same night he apprehends the RV owner, a mentally slow man named Alex (Paul Dano) who doesn't have any trace of the girls on his belongings. They hold him for 48 hours and release him to his aunt's custody.

Because Keller is convinced that Alex is guilty, he kidnaps him at gunpoint and takes him as a prisoner at an empty property he owns. He begins torturing him to get information from him, but gets no results.

Soon, he involves Franklin and Nancy, who don't feel right about what he's doing, but also choose not to stop him.

Meanwhile, at a candlelight vigil for the girls, a man's odd behavior catches the eye of Detective Loki and he gives chase. This is where, of course, the plot thickens.

From Hugh Jackman's desperation to the numbness of Maria Bello, each actor lives their role with frightful realism. The pain of the families is tangible, as is the frustration of the detective who is unable to decode the puzzle that may lead them all to the girls.

I was on the edge of my seat for the duration of this lengthy film, and with every twist and turn I held my breath, hoping for resolution.

Aside from a few key gruesome scenes, I never looked away.

I'm glad I didn't—a solid thriller is always a great way to get the adrenaline going.

~~~

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Enough Said

Tonight I saw Enough Said, starring James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced masseuse ready to send her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) off to college. She accompanies her best friends—a married couple—to a party and meets two people.

The first, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is a poet with a shoulder that is in desperate need of massage therapy; the second, Albert (Gandolfini) is Marianne's ex-husband.

When Eva meets them, she has no idea they were once married to each other. She begins dating Albert and immediately feels a chemistry with him. Alternately, Marianne becomes her client and they develop a genuine friendship.

It's only when Eva sees their daughter Tessa (Eve Hewson) at Marianne's house that she makes the connection.

Unfortunately, instead of coming clean then and there, she keeps her knowledge of their past a secret and mines Marianne for information about Albert. Because Marianne is so bitter toward her ex, the the things she describes that once bothered her begin to bother Eva.

This scenario is refreshing because it could (and probably does) happen in real life. Furthermore, both leads are so endearing, it's hard not to root for them to end up together, even with Albert's sloppy faults and Eva's bad judgment.

It's a relief to see Louis-Dreyfus not playing a silly or snarky woman and borderline heartbreaking to watch Gandolfini at his most gentle, the way most who knew him personally describe his real-life personality.

The supporting cast is fantastic too—Toni Colette effortlessly plays Eva's flawed best friend, who just happens to be a shrink, and Eve Hewson nails the self-absorbed teenage daughter part.

I've always been a fan of writer/director Nicole Holofcener's gift for painting such real characters and this movie may be her best of all.

Go see it as soon as possible. And then go see it again.

~~~

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Wizard of Oz - 3D

Today I saw The Wizard of Oz in 3D, starring Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton.

It always feels odd reviewing a classic, especially one of this magnitude, because everyone already knows the story and has made their mind up about its merit.

But I'll give it a go anyhow.

Dorothy Gale (Garland) has dog, Toto, that can't seem to stay out of trouble. He's bitten Miss Gulch (Hamilton), eats hot dogs in mid-barbecue (before being asked) and jumps out of any basket he's confined to; really, he's a pain in the ass.

When Miss Gulch attempts to confiscate little Toto, he escapes back to his owner and fearing the authorities will return for him, Dorothy runs away from home.

While she's out the storm picks up and a twister forms near the small Kansas farm where she lives.

Not making it to the storm cellar in time, Dorothy runs into the house for cover and is soon transported to a magical place where she's greeted by a good witch and about a hundred little people.

Soon, she embarks on a journey to find her way home, following the path of a trusted yellow brick road, meeting friends along the way, all the while dodging the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) who seeks revenge for the death of her sister, which she believes Dorothy caused.

The flying monkeys that help the witch never bothered me as a child, and they still don't now, but the dark forest is unsettling as are the voices and hairdos of the Munchkins.

The songs are fantastic (especially Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which makes her sound years older than she was at the time) and the colors pop (even more so in glorious 3D), and Hamilton sets the bar unimaginably high for any woman who dares to be a witch thereafter.

When I was a child, watching this film was an annual event. It would come on the television on some random Friday night and we would put sleeping bags on the floor and eat popcorn out of a huge bowl. I don't remember ever paying attention to the beginning before the tornado hits or noticing that the Cowardly Lion had a Jersey accent.

It's still magic though, 75 years on.

~~~

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Don Jon

Today I saw Don Jon, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is an east-coast bartender who likes his family, his church, his ladies and his porn. Barbara (Johansson) is a sexy girl who knows exactly what she wants in a man. When the two meet, sparks fly and Jon respects her in a way he doesn't respect other women.

They wait over a month to sleep together—a true testament to how much Jon likes Barbara—and he promises to quit watching porn at her request.

By all accounts, she makes him a better man: she has him enroll in night school to hopefully advance his career, she teaches him the virtue of patience, he remains faithful to her.

However, his porn addiction doesn't go away; he merely hides it.

The desire to watch porn consumes him so much that he watches on his cell phone as he's driving, attending class, etc. and absolves himself of the guilt by admitting his problem each week during confession.

It's not until a classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), befriends him that he realizes his addiction to porn stems from his inability to truly connect to his partner. And there are reasons that come clear as to why that connection isn't happening.

In the midst of a lot (and I do mean a lot) of boobs and thrusts, this film reveals a sweet, honest message about a character who's slimy enough to be annoying, but decent enough to be endearing.

All of the actors are first-rate and cast to perfection. An absolute pleasure to watch.

If the topic of sex doesn't offend you, you'll enjoy spending 90 minutes in this true-to-life world.

~~~

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Gravity

Tonight I saw Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

It will be the topic of our October Cinebanter episode, so tune in a few weeks from now for our review.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Airplane!

Tonight I saw Airplane! starring Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty.

Ted (Hays) is heartbroken because Elaine (Hagerty) is leaving him. She's a stewardess (that's what they called flight attendants in 1980) and he's a former soldier turned cab driver. Distraught at the thought of losing her, he spontaneously purchases a ticket on one of her flights and soon exhausts his fellow passengers retelling their love story.

Meanwhile, everyone on board (including the captain and co-pilot) who had fish for dinner is getting violently ill, and they need medical attention, fast. In a matter of minutes, when the crew passes out, they also need someone to land the plane. Ted is the only one on board qualified to do it.

If you've never seen this 80s classic, you may think all of the above sounds like an intense thriller, but really it's one of the most ridiculously wonderful, hilariously quotable films in existence.

Growing up watching this, I understood about 1/3 of the jokes; as an adult I realized how filthy it really is and that makes it 75 times more genius.

I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to write this screenplay, but my hat is off to the clever trio who did.

33 years later the jokes are still funny, the characters still fresh and the ending still satisfying.

I'm so glad I finally got to experience it in the theater.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Out of the Clear Blue Sky

Tonight I saw the 9/11 documentary, Out of the Clear Blue Sky.

In the twelve years since the tragic terrorist attacks there have been countless news magazines, documentaries and even a few feature films about that horrific day. And just when you think there couldn't possibly be a new story to tell about it, one emerges. That was the case with this film.

There were over 900 Canton Fitzgerald employees who reported to work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; 658 didn't survive.

But CEO Howard Lutnick did, and after a tearful interview with Connie Chung, became a sympathetic figurehead in the midst of the chaos.

But so quickly they turn.

Because most of their departments were completely wiped out that day (except for I.T.; they were on a fishing trip), Canton Fitzgerald couldn't turn out the amount of work needed to pay the salaries of the missing. Lutnick pledged to donate 25% of the company profits to the victims' families, as well as 10 years of covered healthcare instead. But that message—which was considerably generous considering what the company was facing—got lost in the shuffle and Lutnick (who lost his own brother in the tragedy) was vilified, soon getting death threats.

This film chronicles the rise and fall (and rise again) of Lutnick's image in the years up to now through survivor interviews, commentary from victims' families and news footage.

It's understood that he had a ruthless reputation on Wall Street before the terrorist attack and one wonders if some just held a grudge after the fact, as if it were some sort of karmic payback. In another sense, his raw grief in the weeks and months following the attacks seemed painfully real. And how can you be angry with someone who has to save an international company while mourning two thirds of his employees and his own sibling?

Though those wounds will never heal, the film does imply that a sense of community has emerged in the Canton Fitzgerald family as a result of Lutnick's efforts to help victims' families, and maybe, just maybe, the ordeal made him a better man.

~~~

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Today I saw Drinking Buddies, starring Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde.

Kate (Wilde) works at a brewery with Luke (Johnson). They're both in seemingly long-term relationships with Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), respectively.

When a double-date camping trip leaves them wondering if they're with the right partner, Chris and Kate decide to take a break, while Luke and Jill remain together.

As with any mumblecore flick, all of the dialogue feels like improv, and the actors feel like people we know.

Johnson especially, known for his endearing character on New Girl, fits the bill as a brewmaster who lacks ambition. A reference Jill makes to their "marriage" discussion hints at his procrastination to propose; the older, wiser Chris would probably not cause such a delay.

When Jill takes a trip for work, Luke is left behind to help Kate move residences. A "will they or won't they" tension ensues, and the film turns from a lighthearted rom com to a more serious indie drama.

But that's okay, because this group is refreshingly real without being pretentious. Their struggles are familiar and their behaviors are typical, if not ideal.

Each character, though flawed, also has redeeming qualities that cause us to root for them, which makes this a good bunch to watch.

If only mumblecore had sequels.

~~~


Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Today I saw The Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.

Sutter (Teller) is a popular guy at his high school. He makes everyone laugh, wins over his teachers with charm and has a hot blonde girlfriend named Cassidy (Brie Larson).

He also has a drinking problem.

To every party, in every class, on every car ride, he carries a flask full of whiskey. It's with him at all times like a sad security blanket.

After Cassidy has enough of his nonsense and breaks up with him, he begins hanging out with Aimee (Woodley). She's a classmate he's ignored for years, but she agrees to tutor him since he's struggling through his math course.

They have a genuinely sweet chemistry, and soon develop feelings for one another. At first, it appears that they make each other better, but later in the story we have to wonder if she's too good for him.

As we're watching this all unfold, we do feel like we're falling in love right along with them. Their scenes are tender and realistic; their magnetism completely believable though neither of them is conventionally attractive.

Teller and Woodley do a beautiful job of conveying young love and the ease of trusting the wrong people. Jennifer Jason Leigh's brief scenes as Sutter's mother are also powerful.

Though the story doesn't say much, it speaks volumes about the painful reality of addiction. If you're in the mood for something simple, but smart, with a satisfying ending, you should make a point of getting to this spectacular indie.

~~~


Monday, September 02, 2013

Austenland

Today I saw Austenland, starring Keri Russell and Bret McKenzie.

Jane (Russell) is a single American girl, obsessed with the world of Jane Austen books. She has a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy next to her couch, boasts an Austen-themed bedroom and "takes tea" a lot more than normal Americans would.

Her boyfriends scoff at her distraction; her friends just want it to come to an end. She can't get enough of the culture, so she spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland, a theme park dedicated to immersing oneself into the world the author so famously created.

Upon arrival, Jane isn't as dazzled as she thought she'd be—because she only booked the basic experience, she sleeps in the servants quarters and wears gowns that aren't as extravagant as those of higher paying guests.

Becoming claustrophobic to the clutches of the dominant owner of the place, she soon seeks solace in her moments away with Martin (McKenzie), the "hired help" that becomes as enamored with her as she does with him. Or does he?

Because the actors on the land are supposed to offer a romantic experience to each attendee, Jane soon becomes confused about what is real and what isn't. The glamour of behaving like someone in a novel becomes less and less appealing as true feelings fight their way to the surface.

Sure, there are several cheesy moments throughout the film with flamboyant supporting characters and cleavage jokes, but at the end of it all, we're all there to see an Austen-esque ending, and that's exactly what we get.

Russell's charms carry the film without effort and if you're willing to hang on for the whole ride, you'll probably leave smiling.

~~~

The World's End

Earlier this week I saw The World's End, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #125, so tune in later this month for our review.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sharknado

On Saturday night, I saw Sharnado, starring Ian Ziering and Cassie Scerbo.

Fin (Ziering) runs a bar on the Santa Monica pier and surfs in his spare time. Nova (Scerbo) serves drinks at his bar and becomes nervous when he heads out to the waves during a horrific storm.

Soon, the storm—California's first hurricane—takes over the whole city and Fin must race to save his family.

His estranged wife April (Tara Reid) resists his help until a shark makes its way into her home (yes, you read that right). Then, it's off to save their son who is across town at flight school. With their high maintenance teenage daughter in tow, as well.

If this sounds absurd, that's because it is. And shamelessly so. In fact, it's so camp-tastic that the crowd we were with in the theater hollered throughout the entire film and it didn't even bother me. In fact, I found that it added to the festive atmosphere.

Of course, the most exciting part of the film comes when the tornadoes form and of course, they form with sharks inside of them. If I wasn't laughing so hard, I may have been slightly scared.

Even more hilarious is the way they combat the tornadoes, but I don't want to spoil anything, so I won't be specific. Just know that I was in hysterics at their scientific solution.

Really folks, it doesn't get any cheesier or any funnier than Sharknado. I can hardly wait for the sequel.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Jobs

Yesterday I saw Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher and Dermot Mulroney.

Steve Jobs (Kutcher) reigns as the most celebrated innovator in modern technology. As the man behind the Apple computer empire, Jobs wasn't known for being nice, but he was often referred to as a genius.

The film begins in his college years, as he experimented with drugs at a college in Oregon famous for its hippie culture. We see the visionary he became start to blossom at this time.

As he builds Apple with a couple of buddies in his parents' garage, the spark of something "great" is evident.

Investor Mike Markkula (Mulroney) recognizes this spark and foots the bill for getting the company off the ground. Once it's up and running, Jobs begins acting like a tyrant and develops a reputation for driving his teams too hard.

As someone with a background in marketing, I can appreciate Jobs' misunderstood passion and the frustration he must have encountered in people who didn't care about more than getting a paycheck. I found some of the scenes almost physically painful to watch because situations like his play out all the time in our industry.

Anyway, Ashton captures Jobs incredibly well—from the explosive temper to the distinctive walk, he nails him. All of the supporting characters do just fine as well. In fact, I'm not quite sure why so many critics are spewing such hatred for this film. Perhaps a buried resentment for the real guy? Who knows.

The only thing about the movie that truly disappointed me was that with few exceptions, Jobs' family life was totally ignored (including everything regarding his adoption), and we only got as far as him taking back the company.

For a man who gave so much to this world (including the MacBook Pro upon which I am now typing),  it seems like his entire life should have been covered.

But maybe that's what the rival Steve Jobs movie will deliver, with Aaron Sorkin's writing to boot.

~~~

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Yesterday I saw Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins.

Jeanette (Blanchette) changed her name to Jasmine years ago because her given name wasn't elegant enough. It seems everything in her life needs to be coated in luxury for her to feel normal.

She meets Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy businessman, marries him and lives a charmed life in Manhattan until her world falls out from under her when he's arrested for a white collar crime.

Broke and directionless, she attempts to start over in San Francisco where her sister Ginger (Hawkins) lives a much more middle class life.

A black comedy with the darkest of undertones, the absurdity of Jasmine's grief often gets the biggest laughs, as her mourning focuses more on the material things she lost than the husband she loved.

Blanchett gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a woman on the brink of cracking, popping pills and offering a healthy amount of product placement for Stoli vodka. She's both funny and tragic; ridiculous in most scenes, but still genuine enough to garner sympathy from the audience.

The supporting cast is nothing short of brilliant as well—Hawkins is a down-to-earth sister with more patience for her sibling than most would have; Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K. prove appropriately comical as her suitors. As usual, Baldwin is perfectly cast as the slimy former husband.

Allen is on a roll—Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and now this. Satisfying, delightful stories with colorful characters coming to life.

~~~

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Blackfish

Today I saw the documentary Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.
A visit to SeaWorld is something millions of Americans enjoy each year. But every so often, a story will make the news about one of the trainers getting injured—or worse killed—and the question comes back: Should we be holding these whales and dolphins in captivity for our own entertainment?
After watching this film, the answer is a resounding "no."
The piece traces the life of one orca, Tilikum, who has killed three humans since humans took him hostage as a two-year-old in 1983. Unlike domesticated dogs who are put down when they kill, Tilikum sees no such punishment, as his sperm is valuable for the breeding plans of the corporation.
What's more nauseating is that the most recent murder was blamed on the victim. I won't get into specifics (in case you haven't heard the story, I fear I'd spoil it), but the whole situation is nothing short of infuriating.
Several former SeaWorld trainers are interviewed here, expressing their horror at the deaths and the lack of real instruction they had going into their jobs (apparently, it was more important that they be physically fit than know anything concrete about the whales). It really is astonishing that more employees haven't been killed, as the accident list is incredibly lengthy.
There are several arguments for why humans shouldn't imprison whales, but the most compelling evidence presented in this film is the testing that was conducted on their brains and the emotional component that was discovered. Put simply: they're like us. They stay with their families. They feel things. They don't want to be kidnapped or trapped or starved just so they'll perform tricks.
Even if you're not an orca lover, you'll feel moved to take action when you see this film, and see it you should.
~~~

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Tonight I saw Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #124, so tune in next month for our review.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Way Way Back

This morning I saw The Way Way Back, starring Liam James and Toni Collette.

Duncan (James) is a socially awkward teenager on summer break with his mother Pam (Collette) and her jerk-of-a-boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). They land in a sleepy beach town where Trent has a community of colorful friends.

Not wanting to have any part of 'family time,' Duncan escapes to the nearby water park where Owen (Sam Rockwell) gives him a job, and more importantly, a sense of place. Owen is a misfit in his own right, annoying his colleague/girlfriend Caitlin with his immature behavior. Owen and Duncan make each other better.

Rockwell is especially good, portraying a fun-on-the-outside, yet broken-on-the-inside man. As an actor, Rockwell is criminally underutilized, but here at least, he gets to support the leads with some depth.

James is also great as the nerdy boy, loved by his mother who is too preoccupied with her own relationship to show it. Collette and Carell, who played a very different couple in Little Miss Sunshine, have a familiar chemistry that allows them to convince us of both their infatuation and discomfort.

There's not much more to this film than the standard coming-of-age argument scenes, awkward family moments and kinda-sorta first loves, but that's okay, because it's so easy to watch.

~~~




Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Conjuring

Today I saw The Conjuring, starring Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga.

Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) are a real-life married couple, famous for their paranormal investigations. Ed passed in 2006, but Lorraine is still going strong at 86 at corroborates the true story, which this film tells.

In the early 70s, the Perron family moved to a remote farmhouse in the Rhode Island countryside in hopes of beginning an idyllic life. Instead, their beds began levitating and a rancid smell filled their rooms at the same time each morning.

Not affiliated with any church, and fearing for the safety of their five young daughters, they sought the help of the Warrens who lived nearby in Connecticut. Lorraine, who is clairvoyant, immediately detected the presence of spirits during her first visit and after studying historical records of the property, identified them. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say they weren't the nicest entities to have around.

Carolyn (Taylor), who was the mother of the family, seemed to be the target of the spirit's angst, and briefly became possessed, causing all kinds of chaos. Taylor is perfect for this role, because she evokes such a nurturing "mom" presence anyway. Here she gets to show that off and go buck wild crazy under the spell of this demon. I enjoyed her performance most of all.

Farmiga plays the legendary Warren very understated, which is true to the real woman's behavior. Wilson is also convincingly "ordinary" as Ed, demonstrating both deep love for his wife and a sincere quest to rid this poor family of the energies that torment them.

As a standard horror film, the story here works on many levels: the narrative is packed with enough logic to pull you in and the surprises are jumpy enough to bolt you out of your seat.

This is a good one folks; and not just for paranormal geeks like me.

~~~


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: THE REENACTMENTS

This morning I finished reading The Reenactments, a memoir by Nick Flynn.

There are memories from our lives that we're desperate to re-live every day; then there are those we'd love to bury forever.

Flynn's memoir bravely chronicles the latter, as he recounts the filming of Being Flynn, a movie based on his earlier memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

His life was not ordinary: raised by a single mother in a Massachusetts beach town, his taxi-driving, alcoholic father was not around to see him grow up. Once he had grown up, his mother had committed suicide and his father was without a permanent address.

A lost soul in many ways, Flynn ended up with an addiction problem of his own, and was reunited with his father only when he began working in the shelter where his father sometimes slept.

He struggled with the loss of his mother as he tried to navigate his way through his 20s and maintained a complicated relationship with his dad; all the while becoming the brilliant writer that he is today.

This book shares in great detail what he felt like when each part of his existence was played out for the big screen, with Robert De Niro in the role of his father; Julianne Moore acting as his mother and Paul Dano representing him.

What's magical in the way he tells it is how capable he is of communicating surreality.

One can only imagine what it must feel like to watch real people behaving the way that people within your reality once behaved, right down to specific conversations—let alone the most traumatic stages of said life. Flynn somehow captures that, with his unique style of writing that reads more like short bits of poetry than prose, yet remains completely accessible.

Though much of it is painful to read, my hope for the writer is that by putting those words to paper, some therapeutic healing occurred that will allow him to move past those memories.

Flynn's courage in this raw retelling is nothing short of admirable.

~~~

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The East

Last night I saw The East, starring Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgard.

Sarah (Marling) is an undercover operative, working to learn the identities of a dangerous anarchist cell targeting large corporations. Benji (Skarsgard) is the magnetic leader of the group. They have all of the necessary talents for such a production (a doctor, a hacker, a beautiful girl, etc,) and live off the grid as they plot their next assault. They call themselves The East.

Moving in with the group, Sarah quickly adapts to their hippie existence and learns about the reasons behind their violent crimes. Though she doesn't condone their methods, she starts to see the group members as human beings and begins to develop true friendships with them.

All the while, she's doing her job and reporting back to home base every time the bunch plans a "jam" (their word for "attack").

The tension builds well here. Sarah's flirtations with Benji could get her closer to him (and possibly change the course of the plans) or they could backfire and blow her cover. The audience is in the dark.

Skarsgard and Marling command the camera with their natural ease and Ellen Page is all too convincing as the annoying righteous member of the tribe that can't see both sides of the issues.

I enjoyed the pace and intent of the film, if not the somewhat predictable ending and formulaic story arcs.

~~~

Sunday, July 14, 2013

More Than Honey

Today I saw the documentary More Than Honey, about the rapid decline of the world's bee population.

A frightening statistic—that 1.5 million bees have disappeared in 27 U.S. states in the past 15 years—serves as a catalyst for the extensive research that makes up this film.

Director Marcus Imhoof journeys to several faraway places to try and solve the mystery of why this species is dying out so quickly. He follows expert beekeepers John Miller and Fred Jaggi as they investigate their own work and try to make sense of the unknown, but their guesses are as good as ours.

Really, it could be anything (or a number of things), which may or may not include pesticides, global warming, invasive mites or even stress. Yes, there is such a thing as "bee stress."

Whatever is causing it needs to be figured out as soon as possible, though, because without bees to pollinate everything under the sun, we as humans will be without a food supply.

Scary, eh?

Though the film does a good job of showing us how it all works (from the mid-air mating of the bees to the glorious pollination of the flowers to the beekeepers transporting the bees to their locations for "work" and ultimately draining their honey), there really is no concrete theory put upon the viewer as to why the bees are disappearing, or how we could work together to stop it.

Not a lot of buzz for a message that really stings.

~~~

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Lone Ranger

Yesterday I saw The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer.

Not a big fan of Westerns, I'll admit I went primarily because my visiting mother loves Johnny Depp and I knew this was something she'd want to see. Luckily, there was enough of him to keep us both engaged.

To set the stage..

John Reid (Hammer) is an anti-violence attorney in the old west, where his brother is a successful captain in law enforcement.

He gets into a series of sticky situations alongside Tonto (Depp), an Indian (as they called them in those days). Eventually, Reid is the last man standing in a terrible ambush with the bad guys, led by Butch (William Fichtner), making him by default: The Lone Ranger.

The scenes are painfully long, but the acting is presumably great, and Hammer is endearing as the naive accidental hero. They made him more bumbling than I remember the Lone Ranger from my childhood (re-runs of the old black-and-white series were common in our house), but he pulls it off well, all things considered. I'd also be lying if I said I didn't smile the first time the iconic theme music ramps up during one of the chases.

Of course Depp nails his role too, as a sarcastic, smart native of the land—the brains behind the operation—and in many ways outshines everyone else (as he typically does).

The film, however, is much bloodier than it needs to be, and the action scenes have almost as much breaking glass as Man of Steel. It's unnecessary, and it wastes a lot of time.

Did I mention this film is just shy of 2.5 hours long? Well, it is, and it doesn't need to be.

That pretty much says it all.

~~~

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Man of Steel

This afternoon I saw Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill and Amy Adams.

Nothing can top Christopher Reeve as the iconic Superman, but kudos to Henry Cavill for trying. He's not bad, after all, but the screenplay sure is a mess.

We start with Superman's birth on a planet that isn't earth, with Russell Crowe dressed something like his Gladiator character and a woman screaming in maternal pain. I'm still with it at this point, but rapidly fading.

Superman grows up (with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as adoptive parents) and suppresses his gift, with a few impulsive exceptions (like lifting a school bus out of a river following an accident). Pulitzer Prize-winner Lois Lane (Adams) later catches on to his powers and his secret is out (in modern-day fashion, she leaked the story herself).

This doesn't bode well for her when the bad guys from his planet come to collect on his DNA, etc. and she's dragged along for whatever reason. 

At this point, I was craving the simplicity of the Superman movies I loved throughout childhood and making a game of counting how many times broken glass crashed during the action scenes (when I got bored of counting, I think I was up to 14).

Though the screen is coated with top-list talent (the guy from House of Cards; the guy from West Wing; the guy from Take Shelter)—and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy when Stabler from Law and Order: SVU showed up—their presence does not a good movie make.

The last (lengthy) half is all action and very little of it is exciting. There isn't a lot of fun or humor and only a trace of romance is to be found between the two leads.

This was a big, showy, loud, action-packed disappointment, which happened to be full of some of the best players in Hollywood.

~~~

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Heat

This morning I saw The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #123, so tune in late July for our review.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Love is in the Air

This morning I saw Love is in the Air, starring Nicolas Bedos and Ludivine Sagnier.

To read my review, visit Cinebanter.com.