Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chef



On Saturday I saw Chef, starring Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara.

Carl (Favreau) is a chef who is predictably passionate about food. He cares about the flavors, the art, the romance—all of it. And he cares about the review he’s going to receive from a famous critic due to dine in his restaurant that very night.

After he’s visited his local farmer’s market stand, crafted an exciting menu with his team and has his A-game ready to go, his boss throws a wrench into his creative plan and instructs him to cook the same menu he’s been cooking for years. Devastated, he complies. 

Unfortunately, the critic is not pleased and rakes him over the coals in his review. This sparks a Twitter war between the two and Carl is left without a job (or options).

The mother of his child, Inez, (Vergara) has a connection that she thinks can help him get back on his feet and before he knows it, he’s cooking again, making himself (and everyone around him) very happy.

The story is a great illustration of the benefits of following your bliss. 

Sure, there’s a bit of the “corporate big brother” feel in the boss character; and the point of him ignoring his boy is driven home more than it needs to be, but the joy Carl finds in his passion for food is nothing short of inspiring to see.

Let it be a lesson to us all.
~~~

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

Today I saw A Hard Day's Night, which has been restored for its 50th anniversary.

The 1964 classic, which could have been named for another Beatles hit, "A Day in the Life," shows just that as it follows the four most famous men in the world around on a 'show day.' Though not a documentary, the parallels between the real lives of the stars and their fictitious counterparts cannot be understated.

At this time in their lives, John, Paul, George and Ringo most certainly had screaming girls chasing them around every corner and most definitely made light of their unprecedented circumstances with sharp sarcasm. This, along with a clean grandfather, an important concert gig, a spirited train ride, a dance club and a wandering Ringo round out the main activities in the film, not one of them bordering on dull.

I think what I love most about this movie is the joy.

The men are still boys—barely scratching the surface of their talent—but they're already dominating the world. They've amplified England and cheered up a sad America in the wake of their president's assassination. They've created the happiest, catchiest, music around, and its melodies are infectious.

It's hard not to smile while you watch A Hard Day's Night.

Aside from the clever dialog, the abundance of brilliant music is its greatest asset. Though the live tracks at the end bring the true crescendo of 'happy,' there are several performances sprinkled throughout to keep even the most hungry of fans satisfied.

Seeing this restored version, with digital restoration approved by its original director, is a cinematic feast for the eyes and ears not to be missed.

~~~


Friday, July 04, 2014

Life Itself

Today I saw Life Itself, a documentary about the legendary Pulitzer-prize winner Roger Ebert.

When Steve James set about to direct a film about the world's most famous film critic, he knew there was a chance his subject wouldn't live to see its completion. Unfortunately, that prophecy came true.

In some ways, though, it feels as if it was timed just right. Ebert deserved a public coda to that amazing life of his, and capturing some of his last moments and words brings a depth to the poignancy and prestige of the project.

The film begins with the star's birth in 1942 and shares memories from his youth as an only child in Illinois as well as his drinking days as an early "newspaper man." There's no glossing over his alcoholism or his tendency to be pompous, especially after he won a Pulitzer. The man wasn't perfect—but he was refreshingly real.

Much of the commentary is provided by Ebert himself, along with his beautiful wife Chaz; Gene Siskel's widow Marlene; various newspaper buddies; former producers of his television shows; his stepchildren and stepgrandchildren; and a few famous directors. Everyone speaks candidly and from the heart, which is both hilarious and heartbreaking at every turn.

Equal time is devoted to the romanticism of his past and the devastating realities of his last decade of life, which was spent overcoming one medical battle after another. The sheer strength of his wife dealing with all of this pain will leave audiences in awe.

The remarkable thing is that he never felt sorry for himself.

Here was a man who had lost the ability to speak and eat, but was as sunny and happy as ever, offering his trademark "thumbs up" in response to those checking in on him. He became a trailblazer in the social media space and spent his hours doing what he had always done best: writing.

Although I could watch footage of he and Siskel arguing until the cows come home, I did wish there was more of the love story he shared with Chaz included. Perhaps the DVD will be packed with extras and I'll get my fill.

I grieved the day we lost him and I continue to grieve every time that I see a film and instinctively go to check IMDB to see what Roger thought of it too, only realizing after a few seconds that his reviews ended a year ago.

I'm thankful that Steve James made this moving portrait of his life, as his influence will live on forever.

~~~

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Tammy

Tonight I saw Tammy, starring Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon.

Tammy (McCarthy) is a mess of a woman—both physically and mentally. She's lost her husband, her job and her car all in the course of one day. This trauma causes her to go of the rails and seek escape. The trouble is, the only way she can get out of town is to use the car owned by her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon), and that comes with strings attached: Pearl wants to come along for the ride.

And so it goes, the cliché road trip begins.

I adore both of these ladies, I really do, but their talent is wasted here. After a series of mistakes and hints that these two family members have a more serious past than the tone would imply, some not-so-fun things start to happen.

Thank God Mark Duplass arrives to save the day!

He plays Bobby, the most normal, sane person in the story. He meets Tammy at a bar where his father is shamelessly pursuing her grandmother. Tammy embarrasses herself going after Bobby and then they both bond over embarrassment. It's as if the screenplay said "Just kidding! This is really a heartfelt drama," and picked up in the middle of a different film.

Unfortunately, I liked that other film better.

Duplass and McCarthy have a lovely chemistry, but they barely get enough screen time to explore it. Every time he appeared on camera I'd breathe a sigh of relief and then before I knew it he'd be gone.

Also refreshing are Sandra Oh and Kathy Bates as a wealthy lesbian couple who throws a lavish party that the misfits attend. And I would be remiss to mention Dan Akroyd and Allison Janney who play Tammy's parents. Of course, they're awesome.

McCarthy will always succeed in getting a laugh out of me, but here it feels as if she's trying too hard.

~~~

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Deliver Us From Evil

Tonight I saw Deliver Us From Evil, starring Eric Bana and Edgar Ramirez.

Ralph Sarchie (Bana) is an undercover detective for the NYPD. He has a knack for sensing harm and an unfortunate habit of putting his family last. Father Mendoza (Ramirez) is a young priest who keeps turning up where Sarchie seems to need him the most.

When a mother loses her mind at the Bronx Zoo and throws her child into a ravine, Sarchie and his partner are called upon to investigate. What they find is a disturbed woman and a mysterious painter who disappears into the night.

After reviewing surveillance tapes, and putting puzzle pieces together from a few other calls they've responded to, Sarchie and his partner (played by an especially youthful Joel McHale) trace the chaos to a trio of soldiers who served together in Iraq.

Though Sarchie doesn't want to admit it at first, their problems run deeper because all parties involved are influenced by a supernatural force.

Reluctantly, Sarchie allows Mendoza to offer his services and the real "fun" begins. The crucifixes come out, Latin is spoken, insects appear and ... welll ... you know the rest.

Though certain shots are definitely creepy and the actors completely "sell" their fear, I can't honestly say I was too disturbed by it. For a horror movie that's "based on true events," I was actually expecting much worse (and of course, once I did my research I realized that the narrative here is almost completely fictional with the exception of the priest and the cop working together to battle demons, which they apparently still do to this day).

There's a lot of gore and children's toys that get unruly, but nothing here will really send shivers down your spine.

If you want to watch a few hot men battle evil for a few hours, you're in luck, but that's about all you'll get.

~~~


Saturday, June 21, 2014

22 Jump Street

Today I saw 22 Jump Street, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are back in this sequel to 2012's 21 Jump Street, which was based on the television show.

This time, instead of going undercover at a high school, the partners are tasked with finding a drug dealer at a college. All they have to go on is a photo of the supposed dealer with a girl who died from her actions while on the drug she was sold.

The usual silliness ensues as the pair begin to acclimate to the community. Schmidt hooks up with a beautiful art student and Jenko befriends the primary suspect in the case, convinced that he's not the real drug source.

After their worlds on campus grow too far apart, they decide to take a break from one another, which devastates Schmidt. The whole movie is basically a joke about the rough patch they're hitting in their 'relationship' so there is a predictable amount of parallels to romantic comedies.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh a lot at this movie. Sure, it's formulaic, but sometimes when you just want to be entertained, that simple familiarity is not unwelcome.

Hill and Tatum have enough of a spark in their chemistry to keep the comedic fires burning, so go see this if you're okay with knowing what you're in for at the theater.

~~~

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SIFF REVIEW ROUNDUP: Week 4

The 40th Seattle International Film Festival has now concluded. In its final week I caught five screenings. Countries of origin in this batch include the United States and Ireland.

Head over to Cinebanter for my full reviews of Seeds of Time; Alex of Venice; Calvary and The One I Love, and a capsule review of 4 Minute Mile.

Spoiler alert: I'm a blurry extra in 4 Minute Mile. Watch close for the girl in the bright blue shirt and black sunglasses.

~~~

Sunday, June 01, 2014

SIFF REVIEW ROUNDUP: Week 3

The 40th Seattle International Film Festival is well underway and I've had the opportunity to see even more fantastic films this past week. Countries of origin in this batch include Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Head over to Cinebanter for my full reviews of It's Only Make Believe and DamNation, and capsule reviews of One Chance and Boyhood.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!

~~~

Monday, May 26, 2014

SIFF REVIEW ROUNDUP: Week 2

The 40th Seattle International Film Festival is well underway and I've had the opportunity to see even more fantastic films this past week. Countries of origin in this batch include Spain, Georgia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Head over to Cinebanter for my reviews of Family United; Blind Dates; Words and Pictures; Still Life; My Last Year With the Nuns and A Brony Tale.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!

~~~

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Railway Man

This morning I saw The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

Eric Lomax (Firth) was a British soldier during World War II, taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. In an effort to learn what was going on in the outside world, he and his fellow soldiers successfully built a radio, but the discovery of that invention caused him to be severely tortured.

Lomax survived the war, but never forgot his hatred and disgust for one of his main captors, Tekashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). Nagase was an educated interpreter who Lomax felt should have shown mercy during the conflict, but instead displayed vicious cruelty.

In the 1980s, after a rocky career and numerous subsequent effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, Lomax met his second wife, Patti (Kidman). He shared his love of railways with her and their romance blossomed. Not long after their wedding, she realized how damaged he was.

Her love for him, and the support of the soldiers he survived with, led him to reunite with Nagase and ultimately forgive his actions. In fact, the two became close friends until Nagase's death just a few years ago.

The film, based on this true story, captures both the horrors of actual prison camps and the psychological pain that echoes decades later from the experience of violence.

Firth is his usual amazing self, exhibiting an aloof nature at first, then revealing his layers of agony for all to witness; Kidman gives her best performance in recent memory as the concerned and curious wife, desperate to bring peace to the love of her life.

It's a story that needed to be told, both to remember the errors of our combative past and to realize the power of healing through forgiveness.

~~~

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SIFF REVIEW ROUNDUP: Week 1

The 40th Seattle International Film Festival starts tomorrow and I've already seen cluster of great movies from the selection. Countries of origin in this batch include Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom and Greece.

Head over to Cinebanter for my capsule reviews of 1,000 Times Good Night and Burt's Buzz, and full reviews of Mirage Men, From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines and Standing Aside, Watching.

Stay tuned for more in the coming days!

~~~

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Heaven Is for Real

Yesterday I saw Heaven Is for Real, starring Connor Corum and Greg Kinnear.

Colton Burpo (Corum) is an adorable four-year-old boy with a preacher, Todd, (Kinnear) for a father. Though the family struggles financially, they cherish what's most important: family and God.

After a particularly rough patch, Colton's appendix ruptures and his chances of survival are in danger. Todd questions his faith and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) does her best to keep it together. Thankfully, Colton pulls through, but after he returns home, he begins talking about the supernatural experiences he had while he was in the operating room, including a visit to heaven.

At first, Todd assumes it's just his imagination, but when Colton begins telling him things about the family that he has never previously known, Todd is understandably rattled.

The town questions Colton's story; Sonja grows tired of Todd's obsession with it and the media descends on their close-knit community.

This is all, of course, based on the true events of the real-life Burpo family. We just get the highlights here, but I can imagine the circus it must have been when the real incidents happened.

Kinnear is easily believable as the sincere, conflicted Todd, and sweet little Corum clearly has a future on the big screen ahead of him.

In fact all of the performances were great—even those of supporting characters like Margo Martindale, who are only there to serve borderline-stereotypical purposes.

The film is enjoyable to watch, especially if you're open to the fact that Colton may really have met Jesus, etc. But aside from the cookie-cutter way the series of events is portrayed, there's not a whole lot to it.

I would've liked to see more "heaven" and explore more of why such a decent, hard-working family was struggling so much.

But for what it is, it was fine.

~~~

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 professional 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.

~~~