Saturday, January 24, 2015

Whiplash

Tonight I saw Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons.

Based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle's own experiences, the film chronicles the study of Andrew (Teller) under the direction of Fletcher (Simmons) at the country's most prestigious school of music.

Andrew is just 19, the youngest one in the studio program, when he begins his jazz drills under the tough instructor. And when I say 'tough', I don't mean 'difficult' or 'challenging,' I mean downright menacing with a touch of evil.

Fletcher's character is the kind of guy who will pretend as if he's interested in you to learn personal things about you, solely for the purpose of someday using them against you. He's also (apparently) homophobic judging from the theme of his many slurs—used to make the students 'better' musicians, of course.

Although he's stronger than many of his classmates, Andrew does have moments of weakness, which Fletcher preys upon every chance he gets. It's really 107 minutes of watching excruciating pain and discomfort. But that doesn't mean it's bad.

Perhaps I had a visceral reaction to it because I had a family member and a dance coach who behaved in very similar fashions, but the fact I did recoil tells me there was something there to feel.

The performances are first rate, and the Oscar nomination Simmons received may even be unfairly shadowing the brilliance of Teller, who wears every moment of his journey on his face. We always know what he's thinking, even when he's not vocalizing.

I also appreciated the camera angles on the instruments, and the director's gift of perspective. I always felt like I was in that band room or on that stage.

Forgiving the painfully formulaic aspects of the movie, and going in to appreciate it vs. enjoy it makes it a fully worthwhile watch.

~~~

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mortdecai

Tonight I screened Mortdecai, starring Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor.

Art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is going broke and in danger of losing his luxurious estate. To keep wifey Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) happy, he agrees to work with rival Martland (McGregor) to try to help recover a prized painting.

Along the way, he's confronted by many others who are hungry for the artwork and faces grave danger each step of the way. Luckily, he has backup in his "man servant" (Paul Bettany) along with his endless wit.

Sound ridiculous? Well, it is ... but it's supposed to be. And if you can embrace the absurd and hang on for the ride (which takes you from London to Russia to America and back again), the charms of the leading men and the fast pace of the caper will delight you.

~~~


Monday, January 12, 2015

Selma

Tonight I saw Selma, starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo.

The year is 1965 and a team of activists, led my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are planning a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for their right to vote. The Civil Rights movement is brimming with electricity and the South is having none of it.

In this film, we see Dr. King (Oyelowo) like we never have before: vulnerable, hesitant, guilty—even remorseful. He's still the hero we all recognize, but here, Director Ava DuVernay shows him for the human he was. Imperfect, troubled, brilliant and thoughtful. Oyelowo resembles him so much that each frame of the movie feels like one more step into a time machine. One that reminds us even the greatest of men have their flaws.

His wife Coretta (Ejogo) is also refreshingly real, taking her husband to task for his alleged infidelity, and expressing her (prophetic) fears about his certain death. She's quiet and stoic, but definitely no pushover.

And the film isn't just about the Kings; it's about so much more. It's about everyday people who fought for justice in a time of horrible racial tension. It's about overcoming ignorance. It's about coming to the end of one's collective tether. It's about righting decades of wrongs. It's about growing an America we can all be proud of, someday.

The film filled me with such rage, I only wish I'd been alive at the time to march alongside the group (I would be born 10 years later, unfortunately). Today's demonstrations, which are sadly still necessary, just don't seem to possess the same conviction these noble Americans had.

Our present day protesters don't have the organization, the discipline, the strength of spirit that those in the 60s worked so hard to perfect. Instead, the core good people that mobilize for change now are overshadowed by the directionless, needy idiots who only want to be sure their mug makes it to social media.

Everyone should see Selma. If not for the history lesson, than for the reminder that justice is worth the fight at any cost.

And we still have so far to go.

~~~

Friday, January 09, 2015

Into the Woods

Tonight I saw Into the Woods, starring Emily Blunt and James Corden.

The famous Sondheim musical is translated to the big screen here under the direction of Chicago's Rob Marshall.

Along this journey of fractured fairy tales we meet Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and [The Big Bad] Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt), as well as an evil witch (Meryl Streep) along with a whole host of familiar supporting characters.

When we arrive, the witch has promised to remove the spell of infertility she cast upon the baker and his wife if they bring her four specific items: Little Red Riding Hood's cape; hair like a cornstalk; Cinderella's shoe and a white cow.

The couple desperately seeks to gather the items and while they search, we see the characters play out the narratives we all know from childhood.

At heart, this is a comedic slant on all of the most famous stories, brought to life by some of the most recognizable faces in show business.

Though Meryl Streep is getting all of the press, I was actually most taken with Emily Blunt's performance. Who knew she had such a gorgeous singing voice? When did she become just as great at comedy as she's always been at drama? Here, she absolutely shines.

James Corden makes a lovely complement to Blunt's sincere performance as well. You can't help but sympathize with his ridden-with-guilt face and root for him, despite his weaknesses.

The children are more precocious than cute, but perhaps that was intentional, and Tracey Ullman and Johnny Depp were sorely underused. Depp's howl at the moon was a nice touch, though.

Kids may squirm through the singing, and adults like me will be ready for it to end long before its finale, but there are worse ways you could spend your time.

~~~

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Imitation Game

Tonight I saw The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Matthew Goode.

Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) was a mathematician seeking a challenge during World War II. He found it when he scored a job with the British government and joined a team tasked with cracking a difficult German code.

Always perceived to be 'difficult', Turing had trouble getting along with his peers and preferred to work alone. When that wasn't an option for the top-secret, highly time-sensitive project he was assigned to, he became rivals with Hugh (Goode), a more attractive, sociable genius that really couldn't stand the sight of him.

As the months go on and the solution the government is looking for isn't found, they threaten to pull the plug on the whole operation, which is devastating to all who have worked so hard. To avoid any spoilers, I'll leave it at that.

Because this is based on a true story, much of the film is also about the personal life of Turing, which is just as tragic as his professional reign. He was conflicted in every way, and one may assume the finality of solving math problems was the only true coping mechanism that brought him comfort.

The film does a beautiful job of celebrating his genius and drawing sympathy for his inability to fit in during that era. The cast is fantastic and the actual WWII footage gives the setting a frighteningly authentic touch.

Cumberbatch is a lock for an Oscar nomination, and the film may be as well.

I'd be okay with both.

~~~

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Today I saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Julianne Moore.

I never thought the word "boredom" would ever go hand-in-hand with "Hunger Games" but unfortunately sitting through this movie proved it to be true.

In this installment, our heroine Katniss (Lawrence) agrees to become the fighting Mockingjay for President Coin (Moore) in a symbolic move for the survivors in Panem.

Never mind that she has severe PTSD from her previous exploits defending the good people, or that her partner/perhaps love-of-life Peeta still remains captive in the capitol. They figure, the more angry she is about the whole situation, the better a fighter she'll be.

Unfortunately, we barely get to the fighting by the time this film is over.

Spending time with Lawrence, Moore, Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman (R.I.P.) should never feel like a chore, but the endless dialog they pull out of these characters unfortunately commits that crime-against-audience.

I hurried through this book to make sure I'd finished it before seeing this, and now I wish I hadn't. Only the first fourth of the novel is truly represented here, which makes this a huge waste of about and a half.

Instead of all of the exploration, I wish they'd just have made one long film to close the franchise out.

Having to pay a full ticket price for so much chit-chat feels greedy.

~~~


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Big Eyes

Today I saw Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

Margaret Keane (Adams) was a single mother in the 50s when she met her second husband Walter (Waltz). They shared a love for art and quickly made a home together in San Francisco celebrating their creativity.

Margaret's signature style of painting included somber children with large eyes, as she claimed eyes were a "window to the soul." Walter instead created city landscapes of his travels.

They both struggled to sell their works until Walter convinced a local nightclub owner to display them, and patrons begin clamoring for her portraits.

This doesn't sit well with the egotistical Walter, so he begins to pass the paintings off as his own, and when they become a cash cow practically overnight, his greed only gets worse. He forbids his wife to reveal their secret and commissions her talent as if she was a factory worker, churning out loaves of bread.

She resents him for this, but dutifully keeps her mouth shut and continues to produce her art.

The film shows this absurd, true-life journey in a kaleidoscope of gorgeous Tim Burton hues. Cars that pop, lipstick that traces every sigh and of course the myriad of paintings that haunt anyone who observes them.

Adams is a pillar of pent-up pain and Waltz is a charming son-of-a-bitch who you alternately love and hate—though he only deserves your pity.

Oscar-caliber performances for sure, set against a gorgeous, retro Viewmaster palette, make for a satisfying delight of a movie.

A work of art in itself.

~~~

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wild

Tonight I saw Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Everyone processes grief differently: some hide and retreat for the privacy; others weep every day until their tears run dry. Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) coped with the loss of her young mother (Dern) by having extramarital affairs and shooting heroin.

When those recreations weren't satisfying her anymore, she divorced her husband and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon—completely alone. She wrote a book about her journey, which is what this film is based upon.

Of course, because she wasn't a nature enthusiast or even regular hiker, Strayed wasn't truly prepared for what was in store. She read guidebooks and bought fancy supplies at REI, but when she got to the trail, her bag was too heavy, she didn't know how to pitch a tent or use her stove properly and her shoes didn't fit. Admirably (or stupidly, depending on how you look at it), she pressed on.

She encountered everything from foxes to snakes along the trail, and with the exception of one pair of creepy men, several human beings who were nothing but kind. Watching this just may restore your confidence in humanity.

Witherspoon does a stellar job of making Strayed's pain seem authentic and her mistakes almost necessary. What judgmental folks who scoff at the path she took will overlook is that at the heart of everything, she was searching for an experience to expel the grief that she couldn't let go of in any normal scenario.

I've never lost a parent, but I have lost love in life and it took me years to recover from it because I wasn't able to completely lose myself in that grief and step outside myself to process it.

Strayed gave herself a great gift by completing her trip and she gave us a great gift by sharing that journey. More than a story of pain, it's a meditation on healing.

We could all learn a thing or two from her courage.

~~~


Monday, November 24, 2014

John Wick

On Wednesday, I saw John Wick, starring Keanu Reeves and Willem Dafoe.

John (Reeves) is a man of few words. Then again, he doesn't need many. He left a legendary life of crime when he fell in love with his wife, but now she's passed on and he's alone. Oh, so alone.

Until ... a puppy arrives. A gift arranged by his late wife, this little guy (who is painfully cute, but devoid of a name) becomes the light of his life. We see the puppy navigating his new life in the mansion that years of bloodshed built, and we can't help but fall for him too.

Of course, it's all a ploy to get us so emotionally attached to the dog that we won't be able to bear it when he's horrifically killed. What's worse? It's by some painfully dumb bad guys who don't realize this man's best friend belongs to John Wick.

Uh-oh.

That's when things get interesting. They stole Wick's car and killed his dog. Now, he wants revenge.

After unloading an arsenal of weapons that look like something out of a Middle-East military bunker, he begins to make that happen.

With a lot of clever choreography and some token at-the-loud-and-flashy club scenes, his fury is unleashed. Keanu broods a lot.

And it's fun, if you're into that sort of thing.

~~~


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Last night I saw The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Most people have heard of Stephen Hawking's famous book A Brief History of Time, but perhaps less know of his personal struggles with ALS.

Diagnosed at age 21, Hawking (Redmayne), refused to accept the death sentence delivered to him (two years) and decided to accelerate his study of scientific theories while he battled the unimaginable physical hurdle of his body failing him day after day.

Of course, as he is still living today, we know that he triumphed, but there were a lot of things that propelled him to success along the way; not least of which was his first wife Jane (Jones), who married him after she learned of his ailment, bore his three children and nursed him day-by-day as his condition got progressively worse.

This film (based on a book written by Jane), is just as much a story about her as it is the famous scientist.

Basically, we see their life beginning when they meet at college and ending just a few years ago, with a satisfying post script explaining their present day existences. Everything in between is like any other family: uplifting, gut-wrenching, confusing, amazing and joyous. It's life.

That's not to say that it's normal—of course marrying someone who is 'supposed' to die in two years is admirable, but hanging on for the long haul is the behavior of a saint, for sure.

Both lead actors master their parts here in an almost eerie authenticity. Jones wears the pain of her situation not in her words, but in her eyes, and a lesser actress may not have pulled it off quite so flawlessly. Redmayne was so chill-inducing accurate (and physically similar) that Hawking himself thought at one point he was watching old footage of his life. There can be no greater endorsement, right?

Although the story is scripted well, and there are no points of boredom for the audience to endure, the real reason to see this sure-to-be-Oscar-contending film is the performances.

Acting doesn't get any better than this.

~~~


Sunday, November 09, 2014

St. Vincent

Today I saw St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy.

Maggie (McCarthy) is a single mother enduring an ugly divorce, who is determined to provide a good life to her young son, Oliver (Jaeden Leiberher).

Vin (Murray) is the drunken next-door neighbor who they meet after their moving truck smashes into his tree, damaging his car and fence. Understandably, he's less than pleased.

Though they get off on the wrong foot, Vin soon becomes Oliver's babysitter by default and an odd, if not sweet, bond begins to form between the two after-school friends.

Though at first Vin seems like a very one-dimensional loser, we quickly learn there's more to him than meets the eye: He's unimaginably kind to the prostitute (played by Naomi Watts, sporting a Russian accent) he patronizes regularly; he makes sure his wife in the nursing home is treated with the best care possible and he treats his fluffy white cat, Felix, like royalty.

Children are typically good judges of character and Oliver is no exception. Though he deems Vin as "grouchy", there is something about him that he admits is redeeming.

The first half of the film is very much like About a Boy, with Vin playing hero to Oliver when he's bullied, etc., but then the second half takes a darker turn.

McCarthy's performance as a woman scorned is fantastic—it's actually nice to see her play it straight in this movie, instead of her usual comedic self. She's very raw and convincing as a woman trying to keep it together as her world is crumbling around her.

Murray is predictably phenomenal as well, playing both the dramatic and comedic parts with equal swagger. He's just a master, that's all.

And newcomer, Lieberher doesn't fall prey to the typical annoying kid acting traps. He is wise, but not mature and smart but not precocious. Delightful at any angle.

The only major flaw this film has is its formulaic script. Though there are a few small twists that you may not see coming, the end result is pretty obvious from the time the opening credits roll.

But sometimes, that's okay.

~~~


Saturday, November 08, 2014

Interstellar

Tonight I saw Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a mid-western widower and father of two who is stuck farming corn after earth becomes nearly inhabitable. In a former life he was an engineer and astronaut, and he's never gotten over the fact that the technology died out before mankind could be saved.

Murphy (Chastain) is Cooper's daughter who is convinced that a ghost in her room is trying to communicate with her. He's certain she doesn't have a ghost, but can find no scientific explanation for the weird occurrences.

The whole family (which also includes a son and a grandpa) is tested when Cooper discovers a way to possibly remedy the predicament humans have gotten themselves into. Of course, this means he has to travel through a 'wormhole' in space to explore other planets that may provide favorable living conditions, and take years off his life, but hey—he's up for the challenge.

He has a few comrades on his trip; Dr. Bryant (Anne Hathaway) the only female. When they set out on the trip, you wonder if they'll even come close to accomplishing their mission since their pleasantries are so icy, but of course they thaw out. How could they not? They have three hours to do so.

Therein lies the problem: a movie that's already been done—whether you call it Moon or Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey—is what you see, plus the family back home waiting for dad to come home, plus the folks at the command center, plus a few surprises in the next galaxy, plus a few cameos that you're sure were put there just because the actors wanted cameos. And a lot of spinning.

I've never been so alternately nauseous and exhausted.

Of course the acting is top notch, but with a script that struggles and sequences in space that carry on far too long, it almost feels as if you're hanging out atop a roller coaster right before it's about to go off the edge and then you drop and take that long way back to the top. Several times.

There were some jumpy moments, some tense-filled scenes, no doubt. But not enough when woven together to create a seamless film.

~~~

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Before I Go to Sleep

Tonight I saw Before I Go to Sleep, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.

Chris Lucas (Kidman) wakes up every day remembering nothing about her life for the past 18 years. She's 40, but in her head, she's 22. During the day her husband (Colin Firth) tries to catch her up by placing post-it notes and photos around the house, reminding her of their life, but by the time she retains it all, it's time for bed.

Her amnesia is the result of a traumatic attack she suffered at the hands of a mystery man several years ago. He was never caught or punished due to her lack of recollection about the incident.

Attempting to help her is Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who has developed an experimental therapy that has Chris recording a diary on camera each night. He hopes that the ritual will gradually begin to bring things back for her, but decides to remove himself from her case when he becomes too close to her.

Her instincts tell her that there are people in her life who should not be trusted, but determining who causes her great peril.

Kidman is convincing as a confused, disturbed woman trying to piece together her history from conflicting stories and evidence; Firth is effortlessly handsome (as usual) and compassionate as he's forced to repeat the same retelling of his wife's life every day.

I'll have to admit I found this story very depressing until the unexpected twist took hold of the plot and turned it upside down. I didn't see it coming, though I suspect if I went back and watched it again, the clues would all be there staring me in the face.

What started as a quiet drama evolved into a nail-biting thriller with a an ending that gave the characters a well-deserved exploration.

One of the nicest surprises I've had at the cinema in a while.

~~~

 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Nightcrawler

Tonight I screened Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is an aspiring breaking-news photographer in Los Angeles who covets a relationship with Nina (Russo), a news director at a local station that's suffering in the ratings.

Though he has no formal training, Bloom is confident that he's a quick study, and begins to apprentice professionals already on the job—without their permission. He soon becomes good enough to get some clips on the air and hires a homeless assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), who is as desperate for employment as Bloom is for success.

The trouble is, Bloom doesn't seem to have a conscience when it comes to reporting. Ethics aren't what advances a photographer's career, so he focuses on the things that do: bloody crime scenes and accidents in suburbia. His methods cross the line of appropriate and his negotiating tactics, for more money and more recognition, are beyond reproach.

Scene after scene, Gylenhaal impresses us as the dangerous kind of narcissist that can't see beyond his own ego. His hollow smile coupled with his sharp, yet condescending lectures show a level of crazy that we haven't seen before in the actor. Perhaps what's so frightening is that he seems such a natural fit.

Russo matches his level of energy as the boss who will risk everything to keep her job, even if it means rewarding reprehensible behavior.

To add to the fun, the dialogue will make you angry at yourself for partially appreciating Bloom's wit, and oddly (sometimes) even rooting for him to get to the story first. After all, he's working hard for it.

Of course no matter of warped charisma or set of brass balls can excuse the evil that sneaks out when anyone puts humanity second to their own pursuits.

It's just a shame that our society is presently so twisted, none of this seems too far-fetched to be believable.

~~~





Sunday, October 05, 2014

Annabelle

This morning I saw Annabelle, starring Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton.

The year is 1969 and the world has gone crazy. Charles Manson and his "family" of murderers are terrorizing Southern California and Mia (Wallis) just wants to start a happy life with her doctor husband John (Horton).

The couple lives in Santa Monica, near the beach, in an idyllic house with attentive neighbors and a friendly church where they faithfully worship. They're expecting their first daughter and preparing the home for her arrival.

John knows of Mia's fondness for collectible dolls and buys her one, which she immediately treasures, giving it a place of honor in the nursery.

Before long, tragedy strikes and members of a satanic cult get to the couple in the middle of the night. Though not everyone survives, the pair and their unborn baby emerge with only minor injuries ... at least physically.

Strange things begin happening not long after, and Mia attributes the hauntings to the doll, which was symbolic of that horrific night. Determined to make a fresh start, John accepts a position in nearby Pasadena and gives the family hope for a fresh start.

Cue the slamming doors and stereo that turns itself on—we now have a horror film.

Though the directing is quite good (Leonetti is undeniably skilled in creepy shots), the story falls short. While The Conjuring didn't give every surprise away, this one does, and there's much less peril for the stars.

Annabelle is indeed based on a true doll (that now resides in Ed and Lorraine Warren's paranormal museum), but the story here, with few exceptions, is purely fictional.

I would've been much more interested in seeing a documentary of the actual events than attempt to be startled by a plot that's too conventional to be frightening.

~~~


Friday, October 03, 2014

Gone Girl

Tonight I saw Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

Remember when Scott Peterson's attorney called him a 'cad' for having an affair with Amber Frey, but implied that didn't make him a murderer? That his wife Laci's disappearance wasn't necessarily connected just because of his bad behavior?

Well, Nick Dunne (Affleck) has found himself in a similar situation.

Without giving anything away about what his character is actually guilty of doing, Nick's wife Amy (Pike) has gone missing and his judgment has been admittedly poor as the small Missouri town where they reside rallies to search for her.

On his side are his hot-shot attorney Tanner (played to perfection by Tyler Perry) and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon); both think he's a certain degree of idiot, but neither thinks him a murderer. Sure, his wife is/was an uppity, cold New Yorker with few—if any—friends to speak of, and he's an out-of-work writer, numbingly co-owning the town bar with his sister, but for all their typical married couple problems, he had no reason to kill her.

And that's about all I can tell you about the story.

Those who were fans of the book for which the film is based won't be disappointed in how the original author, the amazing Gillian Flynn, adapts it for the big screen. The characters gain even more dimension, and smaller players emerge stronger and more visible in the chaos.

I wasn't surprised I loved this film, but I was shocked at how long it was since it felt like it went so fast (it's actually well over 2 hours). I loved being on the edge of my seat, though I knew (generally) what was going to happen. I adored seeing the state where I went to college re-capture all of its small-town charm with endearing cops and annoying neighbors amongst the flood of do-gooders. I relished in the graphic scenes of sex and violence; none of which felt gratuitous.

I appreciated the way the men gasped more than the women did in my theater, and no matter how unlikeable the characters became, I still ended up rooting for them in some weird, warped, dark way.

The world needs more satisfying twisty thrillers like this one.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Love is Strange

Tonight I saw Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Marisa Tomei.

Ben (Lithgow) has loved George (Alfred Molina) for nearly 40 years. When we meet them, it's their wedding day; a joyous occasion celebrated intimately with close friends and family. A short time later, we see them gathered with the same group of people for a more somber reason: George has lost his job.

As a longtime music teacher in a faith-based school, the higher-ups can no longer ignore his homosexuality and let him go. As a result he and Ben have to find someplace to live, but the only one of their loved ones that has a spare room lives over two hours away, so they must split up.

George remains close to their prior home with friends, sleeping on their living room couch; Ben moves in with his nephew and his family, bunking with his grandnephew, teenage Joey. It's not an ideal situation, but they appreciate the kindness they are shown and do their best to be good houseguests.

Life goes on, but the strain is hard on everyone including Kate (Tomei) who can't focus on her writing with her houseguest always around. And poor George, who can't sleep because his hosts like to perpetually party.

At first, it feels like the film isn't really going anywhere, it's slow pace begging to be accelerated, but when it nears the end, your heart is undeniably full.

The touching performance by Lithgow, complemented by the conflict reflected in Tomei's eyes make you ache for a better solution for all of them. It's a cast of likeable, humble characters just trying to get through life's injustices without feeling sorry for themselves.

They're doing the best they can with the bad hand they've been dealt and that's a feeling I suspect all of us have had at one time or another.

It's also a lesson to keep love close to your heart if you're lucky enough to find it.

~~~


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Guest

Tonight I saw The Guest, starring Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe.

When David (Stevens) arrives at the doorstep of the Petersons, they believe him when he tells them that he's a soldier who once served with their now-deceased son. They welcome him into their home, and their family, with open arms.

Soon he's helping their son fight off bullies, protecting women at parties and helping Mom negotiate a lighter punishment at school for her suddenly violent son. He's a peach!

Until ... he isn't.

Of course, there's soon a fair amount of bloodshed, there's a lot of loud music (warning you of the upcoming bloodshed) and David develops a habit of coldly staring at pretty much everyone.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't love seeing the former Downton Abbey star with his shirt off, sporting a damn fine American accent; but I'd also be lying if I said I didn't know exactly how this was going to end before it was even half way over.

Sure, there's some jumpy scenes, and at one point you may find it difficult to root for the good guys, but above all else, this is just silly.

~~~

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Forrest Gump

This morning I saw Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright.

The 20th anniversary presentation in IMAX showcases the classic in better-than-ever visual clarity and sound. And somehow I thought my multiple viewings of the film these past two decades would make me immune from the obligatory flow of tears that always accompanies it, but I was mistaken.

The triggers for me are the same as they always have been (SPOILERS):  Forrest can't find a seat on the bus; the kids throw rocks at young Forrest; Jenny says goodbye to Forrest in Memphis; Mama's sick; Lieutenant Dan arrives at the wedding; Forrest talks to Jenny under the tree; little Forrest boards the school bus.

I can still smell the stale room in gritty New York before the New Year. I can still feel the heavy Southern air as Jenny and Forrest dance to "Sweet Home Alabama." I can remember the fear in the world as John Lennon and President Reagan were shot (those historical parts of the story I'm actually old enough to remember).

I grieve for those who lost soldiers in Vietnam; for anyone who was abused by a parent or a school bully; for everyone who has felt that they are not adequate; for children who miss their mothers; for years lost with a romantic love; for all who were lost to AIDS before we knew how to treat it.

For a movie that is so often lighthearted and funny, it really can wreck you.

It wrecked me today as harshly as it did when I saw it as a college student in 1994. And I'm okay with that—it's simply my primal response to the genius of Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks and Robin Wright and tragic music by Alan Silvestri.

Regardless of what the haters might say, it still holds up.

~~~


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

As Above/So Below

Tonight I saw As Above/So Below, starring Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman.

Scarlett (Weeks) is a woman on a mission to find the philosopher's stone and prove that it's real. She convinces her ex-boyfriend (?) George (Feldman) to accompany her on the exploration, along with a shaky cameraman and some locals she finds to lead the way, who claim to know their way around.

If I forgot to mention, said stone is supposedly buried deep beneath the earth in the ever-creepy Paris catacombs. Hidden far beyond where the tour guides take travelers.

As they descend, the music gets louder and the lines get cheesier. I'm delighted to jump a few times in the name of "gotcha" reveals, but the cues were so obviously laid out there was no way they were ever going to be a surprise.

The 'love' story, if it could be called that, doesn't have time to develop because the camera isn't still long enough to to concentrate on the characters. Except when they're getting scared, or hurt, or discovered for the first time.

And the claustrophobia. If you have it, don't go near this. If you don't have it, you may develop it. Either way, enduring such a directionless, predictable film is not worth your time.

~~~


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alive Inside

Today I saw the Michael Rossato-Bennett documentary Alive Inside.

Social worker Dan Cohen was commuting to work one day when he heard a story on the radio about iPods. This made him consider that it may be helpful to use the music players with some of his eldery clients in the nursing homes where he was assigned.

Soon, lives were being changed.

Dan began loading the residents' favorite songs onto iPods and saw evidence of the soul waking. Patients with dementia that never interacted with people began making eye contact, singing and dancing. Memories came alive and they began sharing them. The caretakers were stunned by their responsiveness.

Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks appears in the film to help explain why music can ignite parts of the brain that simple dialog cannot. Apparently we begin hearing music in the earliest days of our formation as embryos, and music bypasses other parts of the brain that fail when humans are stricken with ailments such as Alzheimer's.

Music allows patients to connect with the world in ways that may have gone dark for several years prior. Cohen soon sees the depth of positivity this is bringing to the nursing home community and begins a crusade to bring iPods to all U.S. nursing homes.

At first he is met with resistance (how can something considered a luxury be equated as medicine?), but soon transforms several communities and the groundswell for change begins.

The result is a nonprofit he founded called Music & Memory. The organization gathers donations of iPods, then trains students to go into the nursing homes and work with the residents to develop their ideal playlist.

His work reminds us that a little change in our way of thinking about therapy and treatment can make a world of difference.

This film will tug at your heart—and then leave you scrambling to find out how you can help.

~~~


Friday, August 15, 2014

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Tonight I saw the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

Created by the same team that made the award-winning Paradise Lost series, this film has a similar storytelling style, rich with candid conversations, court transcripts and aerial shots of the star city (in this case, Boston).

The work examines volumes of official documents pertaining to the case against legendary Irish mobster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, interviewing attorneys from both sides as well as witnesses, journalists and family members of Bulger's victims.

At the heart of the argument is whether or not Whitey was ever really an informant for the FBI.

Thought it's been believed for years he was a "rat," there is compelling evidence to suggest FBI agent (and Bulger childhood friend) John Connelly was so smitten with the mobster that he falsified records to look as if he was, but he wasn't.

Truly, the corruption goes deeper and deeper—all the way to a safe at the Boston FBI headquarters that has since been removed (so we think, based on the 82-year-old secretary's testimony). It used to hold documents that were strictly protected with every regime change, but no longer exists. Those documents also illuminated the fact that Bulger was never really an informant, but was protected by the FBI at the highest levels.

Some of the most compelling moments of the film are the phone calls we get to hear between Bulger's defense attorney and Bulger himself. Whitey's voice is as sharp, clear and confident as one may expect. In some sequences, it's hard not to believe the words coming out of his mouth, as they're stated with such conviction.

Whatever your beliefs on the matter, the arguments here are guaranteed to spark questions, and the sadness of the people he harmed will pull at your heartstrings.

One can only hope that with him finally behind bars, justice has been served.

~~~





Saturday, August 09, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Today I saw Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone.

Stanley (Firth) is a jaded magician brought to a wealthy mansion to disprove the psychic readings of Sophie (Stone), a flirtatious American with a meddling mother.

When Stanley arrives in the South of France, Sophie immediately gives him a reading that is accurate, yet vague. He is unconvinced and determined to prove her con.

Though annoyed by the hassle of the situation, handsome-yet-arrogant Stanley is admittedly drawn to the attractive medium and invites her on a road trip to Provence to visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). On the trip, Sophie gets at some of the most intimate details of his aunt's private life and his belief system is turned upside down. He submits to the unknown and shares a romantic evening with Sophie en route back to the mansion.

And then: A conventional, not-so-surprising, yet-still-welcome,Woody Allen twist.

In the midst of the dance of sarcastic dialogue and fluttering eyelashes, there's genuine heart here, pulled out by the flawless performances of the leads. To say more would commit spoiler crimes, but I'll admit to leaving the theater smiling and satisfied.

I've come to expect no less from Allen's sunshine-kissed, European-set romps.

~~~

Deepsea Challenge 3D

Last night I saw the documentary Deepsea Challenge 3D, about the journey James Cameron takes to a deep section of the ocean floor.

The director asks himself on screen whether or not he's a filmmaker who explores as a hobby or an explorer who makes films as a hobby. This film suggests the latter.

After seeing two men journey to the bottom of the ocean on television as a child in the 60s, Cameron held on to the dream of doing it himself until he had the means to duplicate the mission. That chance came a few years ago, when he commissioned the construction of a new submarine that would not only take him to those impressive depths, but also possess the capabilities to film and collect sediment samples during the journey.

A great portion of the film is spent watching Cameron, known for his tough treatment of employees, pushing the engineers and scientists to finish the build and fix the problems that keep surfacing (no pun intended). He can't be blamed for wanting them to get it right (after all, it is he who will perish if they don't); but I'm not sure viewers need such exploration of the preparation. For at least an hour, I was saying to myself "just get down there already."

After personal tragedies and systematic failures of epic proportion during testing are behind them, the trip finally takes place in 2012. The journey is long (over 35,000 feet) and insanely dangerous. It's hard to picture anyone but Cameron with the patience and passion to actually risk his life to do it—lucky for us it is him, and he does a beautiful job of capturing what he sees and experiences.

Though it could be argued that the sea life he encounters at elevations higher than his final mission are more illuminating than the desolate space at the bottom, there's an instant peace you can't help but experience, placing yourself for moments in his pod-like contraption and watching the quiet existence of nothing that is a magnificent something, wide-eyed in wonder.

If you've ever wanted to feel for a moment that you were part of an alternate world, treat yourself to this one-of-a-kind documentary. And enjoy the mysteries of the earth that are still yet undiscovered.

~~~

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.

~~~