Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Older Than Ireland

Tonight I saw the documentary Older Than Ireland, featuring a group of lively centenarians telling tales of life in the old country.

Some of them still smoke, one credits her longevity to the lack of vegetables in her diet—another claims he died when his wife passed. A colorful cast of characters indeed, and the one thing they all have in common? They were around before Ireland as we know it existed. One of them personally met Michael Collins; another watched the fires of Easter 1916 from a nearby tower; a different man (just a boy at the time) was an eye witness to Bloody Sunday in Croke Park.

They came from all walks of life with a range of careers and economic backgrounds, but all have lived to be at least 100 years old (the eldest of the bunch, who emigrated to America in the '20s, is 113).

The stories range from sweet to heartbreaking, but all are undoubtedly charming. They speak of religion, politics, family life and culture—some wistful for the days gone by; others proud of the social progress their country has made. The main takeaway: they're all continuing to live their lives, whether it be by playing cards, baking cakes or taking a bus to the market to buy their own groceries.

I think about the (much younger) lazy people I know and shake my head. If these folks, who lived through some of the most tumultuous times in modern history, can face the day with a smile and a purpose, what the hell is wrong with the rest of the world?

My only criticism of the film is that I don't feel they spent enough time on the "big" political topics, but perhaps additional footage will show up on a DVD version.

I can only hope so—I'd be glad to spend more time with this lovely bunch.

~~~


Friday, July 15, 2016

Ghostbusters

Today I saw Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.

Years ago Erin (Wiig) and Abby (McCarthy) wrote a book together about the paranormal. Abby has continued her passion, working as a scientist alongside the eccentric Jillian (Kate McKinnon) while Erin shifted gears and pursued a career in education.

They're reunited when Erin gets a visit from a fan of the book, claiming a nearby mansion is haunted. She tracks Abby down, angry that she put their book on Amazon without asking, and they end up checking out the site with Jillian. Of course, it's legit haunted.

From there, we're taken on a predictable-yet-delightful ride through New York as the ladies form a real ghostbusting firm and set out to capture some spirits. Along the way they pick up Patty (Leslie Jones, who stole the show), a transit worker recently stirred by a ghost she witnessed on the subway tracks.

I'll admit: it was hard for me to watch this through anything but a defensive lens. Since the new cast was announced, certain types of men have been screaming about the travesty that is women remaking this beloved film. They didn't care that it was a re-make (though that would have been a valid concern because most re-makes suck). They only cared that the main roles were to be played by humans who possessed vaginas.

Well, chauvinistic pigs, you lose. Though it's of course not as magical as the original (how could it be?), this movie succeeds on many levels.

The special effects are far better thanks to technological advances that didn't exist in the '80s when the original was made. Though the story is recycled, it's told in a fresh new way that incorporates the essence of the old film beautifully (even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's cameo is clever); it's also really scary in certain sequences. And above all else: the women are hilarious.

I personally loved Leslie Jones the most. Her physical comedy is spot on and some of her expressions alone had me laughing out loud. That's not to say the others weren't great, because they were, but we've seen all of them enough to know their rhythms and strengths.

Also fun was the addition of Chris Hemsworth, who was objectified for his looks much like every woman who's ever played a secretary or assistant or flight attendant or waitress or librarian. I could go on, but I think you know where I'm going with that.

I also liked the winks to feminism via reverse psychology lines (jokes about girls being late, etc.)—it was just enough to stick it to the haters.

Overall, you'll have a good time at this film. Don't let a few vaginas—or dicks—get in the way of that.

~~~


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Finding Dory

On July 4, I saw Finding Dory, starring Ellen DeGeneres and Ed O'Neill.

Dory (Degeneres) is a blue tang with a short term memory impairment. As a baby, her parents tried to train her to come home, but when she was young she got separated from them. She made friends along the way, but never got over the loss of her Mom and Dad.

As an adult, she sets out to find them using techniques she's learned and taking some friends with her—like Hank the Octopus (O'Neill)—to keep her focused.

Her voice, Ellen DeGeneres, hits all the right notes to trigger empathy and sympathy. You can't help but root for her as she navigates the wild waters she first explored with her friend Nemo (Hayden Rolence), who makes an appearance here as well. In fact, all of the voices are great from legend Diane Keaton (Dory's mom) to the 7-year-old Sloane Murray, who gives a precious performance as the young version of Dory.

It's frankly hard to find fault with anything that Pixar does and Finding Dory is no exception. Excellent animation? Check. Brilliant casting? Check. Screenplay that ignites tearful waterworks? Check. Charming jokes to keep us laughing as we cry? Check.

The film is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable—my only complaint would be that as a sequel, it took too long to come out after the original.

Let's hope we don't have to wait as long for the third.

~~~

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lobster

On Tuesday I saw The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

The world represented in the film looks much like ours except for one main thing: every adult who lives in the city is part of a couple. There are no exceptions to this rule and those seen wandering alone may be asked to show their "papers" to prove they have a spouse.

David (Farrell) is recently divorced and devastated by the breakup. He is immediately transported to an inn where he is expected to find a partner in 45 days. If he does not complete this task, he will be turned into the animal of his choice. He has decided on a lobster.

As he earnestly attempts to find a new mate, he witnesses the horrors of those who try to game the system. Punishments are delivered. People become animals. It's not pretty.

I can't go any further than that without spoiling the ending in major ways, so I'll start by saying Colin Farrell is fantastic. It's a very odd role for an Irish heartthrob to play, but one he owns beautifully. His tension (both social and sexual) is palpable and the longing you see in his eyes once he zeroes in on a possible object of affection is painful.

Rachel Weisz, who has significantly less screen time but just as important of a role is also solid as a "loner," who has left the inn and rebelled against the establishment. Her energy mixed with her restraint produces an impressive result that not every actor could achieve.

The movie is weird, and there are a lot of winks in the dialog that could be cheesy to some, but I actually enjoyed them.

If you've ever felt persecuted for being alone (or just simply being different), you may take great comfort in the satire of The Lobster. I know I did.

~~~

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Tonight I saw The Conjuring 2, starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson.

After experiencing the evil energy of the famous Amityville haunted house, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren needed a break—the demonic presence that Lorraine sensed was just too disturbing. So they took one, until another high-profile case demanded their attention.

Reprising their roles from 2013's The Conjuring, Wilson and Farmiga feel so familiar as the real-life Warrens it's easy to buy the story they're selling.

From their cozy home in Connecticut, they travel to London to investigate the haunting of a house on Green Street in Enfield, occupied by a single mother and her four children. The second-oldest daughter, on the cusp of puberty, is the target of most of the paranormal activity.

After the police visit and watch a chair levitate and move across the room on its own, determining they can do nothing to help the family, the home becomes the focus of a media circus. Tabloid journalists descend upon the street to try to capture the happenings on film. Some they do; some they don't. And the debate rages on (to this day) as to whether or not this was a hoax.

In the midst of the chaos, the Warrens stopped by and spent time at the house, witnessing and documenting the alleged possession of young Janet (Madison Wolfe). Wolfe does a tremendous job of appearing both terrified and terrifying depending on who her body was representing, making this less a "gotcha" horror film and more of the psychologically troubling kind.

Speaking of psychologically troubling: the demon that Lorraine sees in her visions throughout the film looks like Marilyn Manson dressed as a nun for Halloween. More disturbing than cheesy, I still have to mention the reference, as I can't be alone in seeing this.

If you're looking for a movie that will scare you, this sequel will not disappoint you. I sat in the very back of the theater and watched folks (both male and female) jump out of their seats throughout. There's something much creepier about a story that could actually be true vs. something admittedly fictional.

So if you go—and I recommend strongly that you do—stay through the credits for a "real" surprise.

~~~




Saturday, June 11, 2016

I Am Belfast

Tonight I saw I Am Belfast, a documentary about the Irish city.

Conceptually, I was on board. An elderly woman narrates a historical travelogue about Belfast, personifying herself as the city as we see the visual representation of what she's referencing.

Cool, huh?

Well, yes and no.

Visually, I have zero complaints. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle of In the Mood fame does a marvelous job capturing the beauty and the horrors of this famous location. Whether it's a bombed-out street corner or a landscape of breathtaking proportions, Doyle puts us there, not as viewers, but as visitors.

The issues come with the scripting. Though I love the idea of the star of the film—Belfast itself—having a voice in human form, the commentary had a few too many winks to avoid being cheesy. The pace in the beginning was brutal too. With landscapes that calming, I was nearly tempted to doze off.

Because the film was more like poetry than prose, I expected more of a definite rhythm but instead got lengthy flashbacks and abbreviated stories. All of the humor sat near the end, when really the beginning needed it most.

I applaud the inventive approach, but feel the sentiment suffered as a result.

~~~

Big Sonia

Last week I saw Big Sonia, a work-in-progress documentary about a spirited Holocaust survivor.

Since it's not an officially "complete" cut of the film, my review will be preliminary bullet points:


  • Sonia is definitely a worthy subject of her own documentary.
  • The pieces about the Holocaust, though strong, feel discombobulated in places.
  • It feels as though many sections of Sonia's life are under-represented, while too much time is devoted to her career.
  • It would have been great to see her interacting more with her kids/grandkids instead of the majority of the interviews being separate.
  • The brief animations are great.
  • I want a sequel to see what happens next in Ms. Sonia's colorful life.
~~~

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beware the Slenderman

Today I saw Beware the Slenderman, a documentary about the stabbing of Petyon "Bella" Leutner.

Two years ago this week, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier had a sleepover at Morgan's house with the victim. They woke up in the morning, had doughnuts and strawberries for breakfast, and asked Morgan's mother if they could go to the park. Without hesitation, she told them they could. Once there, they initiated a fake game of hide-and-seek (though Bella didn't want to play) and brutally stabbed her 19 times, missing a major artery by just a millimeter. They left her for dead, but she crawled her way to an area where a bicyclist discovered her and called for help. When questioned about why they did it, they both blamed a fictional boogie man named Slenderman.

Bella is alive today—physically recovered from her injuries, but continuing to battle the emotional scars left by the event. Morgan and Anissa are being held in separate locations (Morgan in a state hospital; Anissa in a juvenile jail) as they await word on a decision about their case.

This film explores what led each of the accused to commit such a heinous act, with frank, tragic conversations by both sets of parents. In Anissa's case, it's the classic problem of being bullied; not having a lot of friends; feeling an outcast. She wasn't inherently evil; just a 'follower' prone to frightening easily. In Morgan's case, she is mentally ill and the parents saw signs at a young age. Additionally, mental illness runs in their family, so they knew she had a genetic predisposition for it.

The story is both fascinating and disturbing—how seemingly normal kids with loving families can go so horribly wrong in the blink of an eye. Extensive footage is shown of each girl's interrogation with detectives and there's a shocking lack of remorse in both instances. Anissa asks how far she walked out of the woods because she was "never very athletic" and Morgan questions Bella's condition without so much as a tear. Not what you'd expect from two humans who committed a vicious act of brutality just hours earlier.

My main issue with the film is the lack of information and attention for the victim. Sure, we're all interested in understanding why such a crime happened, but I inadvertently found myself sympathizing with the parents and friends of the accused rather than thinking of Bella. Perhaps her family didn't choose to participate in the documentary (that would be perfectly understandable), but there were still ways the filmmakers could have represent her more prominently, even in the absence of interviews.

I also could have done less with the dramatic music in certain sequences. Really, the true story is awful enough to invoke horror.

~~~

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Summertime

Today I saw Summertime, starring Izïa Higelin and Cécile de France.

Delphine (Higelin) is a farmer's daughter in rural France who decides to move to Paris for financial and social independence. Once there, she embraces the spirit of the city, joining a feminist group and falling in love with Carole (de France), a straight girl who is transfixed by her new friend.

Everything is blissful until Carole leaves her boyfriend to pursue Delphine just as Delphine has tragedy strike back home. Will family duty get in the way of true love or will the couple find happiness?

This film gets a lot right: the chemistry between the two leads; the authenticity of the era; the sensual nature of erotic attraction—and of course—hate for the unknown.

Unfortunately, the pace of the story is very uneven. It speeds up and slows down almost as the rhythms of their relationship ebb and flow, and that makes the film feel a lot longer than it actually is. Plus, the scenes come dangerously close to being formulaic.

It gets points for its timely women's issues (despite the fact the film is set in the '70s) and superb acting. I just wish it could have condensed it's slower sequences to keep its viewers minds from wandering.

~~~

Friday, May 06, 2016

Purple Rain

On Tuesday I saw Purple Rain, starring Prince and Appolonia Kotero.

This was my second theater viewing of this film. The first took place when I was 9 years old—it was my first "R" rated film and the only film my older sister ever snuck me into. I'm still grateful.

With Prince's passing, the 'celebration' of seeing it has dimmed, but my friend and I still made quite a night of it, complete with cans (yes, cans) of wine, tears and enthusiastic singing. I can also not confirm or deny that I shouted "Fuck you, Tipper Gore!" during "Darling Nikki." But I digress.

In this 1984 classic, Prince plays The Kid, a young man obsessed with making it big in the music industry. His rival, Morris Day (playing himself), and his band The Time give The Kid a lot of grief, but here it's done in such a comical way that the banter is fun to watch.

There's also a girl, of course. She is supernaturally beautiful as well as talented. Her name is Appolonia (Kotero) and she also has her sights set on performing.

There are motorcycle rides and steamy sex scenes and domestic violence and above all else, epic music performances. Sure, the dialogue is cheesy, but the story—based loosely on Prince's real life—is solid.

In fact, it's hard to find fault with anyone as engaging and magical as Prince was. It's even harder to refer to him in past tense.

~~~

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Midnight Special

On Monday I saw Midnight Special, starring Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher.

Alton (Lieberher) isn't your everyday kid. He doesn't go to school. He lives on a cult ranch and provides accurate prophecies to his pastor. He also has an aversion to daylight.

When we meet him, he's on the run with his father (Shannon) and his father's childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) because the federal government is trying to take him into custody. At one stop he disables a satellite using just his eyes, causing the destruction of a gas station. This is apparently par for the course, as Dad doesn't seem so much surprised as angry. I couldn't help but think of Drew Barrymore's young Firestarter character when it all unfolded. Emotion = consequences. Just like normal life, but to a crazy degree.

As Alton searches for what the other dimension wants for him, the government remains in pursuit. Kirsten Dunst appears along the way to prove her worth as a nurturing mother. Adam Driver shows up as a borderline annoying cocky agent, way in over his head. He somewhat redeems himself eventually, but I could have done with less screen time from him.

In fact, I could have done with less screen time in general.

The main thing wrong with the film is it's pace: It doesn't really have one. There are moments of intense action and then moments of complete boredom. The fugitives encounter some people who have purpose and a few that don't. One incident that happens early in the film could make some dislike the dad. It was unnecessary—we get that he's loyal to the kid.

Also, Alton's eyes light up many times throughout the film, which had me cycling back in my brain to this '80s video by Bonnie Tyler. I couldn't help it. And if I'm that distracted during a movie in an otherwise peaceful theater, something's wrong.

Conceptually, I loved the idea of the film. A child with a gift that cannot be defined—even by those closest to him—is an interesting problem. The supernatural element only intensifies that challenge, which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the gratuitously lengthy journey getting there and the anti-climactic ending, which answered few questions, fell short.

~~~


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris

On Sunday I saw Hello My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field and Max Greenfield.

Having a workplace crush is fantastic—you plan your outfits carefully, worry about your makeup and get excited when circumstance forces you into their presence. And you flirt. Shamelessly.

That's the predicament Doris (Field) finds herself in when new hire John (Greenfield) arrives in her office. Though they're both unmarried, there's a slight problem: they're about 30 years apart (Doris is older).

John accepts Doris's awkward advances with grace, as he's somewhat oblivious to her intentions and they soon become genuine friends. No matter how absurd her methods, Doris does succeed in getting close to him and his contemporaries. And it gives her a new lease on life, having just lost her mother and currently battling a serious case of hoarding.

Field is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as the star character—and "character" is a good term for her. Doris makes unintentional fashion statements with her individuality. Doris does her job and she does it well; but at this point it's just habit. Doris doesn't mind riding the ferry to work every day. It takes her back to the house she grew up in, which is where she still resides. She's someone I could see myself being friends with (or turning into) later in life.

Greenfield is undeniably charming as the aloof object of affection. His kindness and gentle nature make it easy to see why any woman would be smitten. The fact he doesn't realize it makes him all that more appealing.

So, when all of these factors come into play, however unconventional it may seem, you can't help but root for a Doris & John happy ending. Maybe it could work? They could probably have a few good years? There's nothing wrong with an age difference as long as the chemistry is there, right?

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say it was both difficult to watch and ultimately satisfying. The attachment you'll have to Doris by the end will make you hurt when she hurts and rejoice when things go her way.

Only a good movie could do that.

~~~

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

This morning I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman.

Michelle (Winstead) has decided to move on and sets out on the road with a bag of stuff that doesn't include her engagement ring. It's not clear where she's headed (except that she most likely won't be going back).

After a heart-stopping surprise event, she ends up in an underground bunker with Howard (Goodman), a doomsday conspiracy theorist who claims to be saving her from chemical warfare outside. But is he telling the truth? Or is he telling her what he believes to be true, but has little basis in reality?

Michelle soon learns she's not the only captive of Howard's, as Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) emerges from the next room. He's a decent guy, if not a bit simple, and soon becomes a strong ally for her.

What's great about this film is that just when you think it's going to get formulaic, the screenwriter turns everything upside down and changes your mind. Over and over again.

Michelle's quest to learn the truth gets her in trouble, but that doesn't slow her pursuit. She's always one step ahead of her captor, though he's bigger and stronger and perhaps psychotic. Not to get too feminist-y, but I found it incredibly refreshing that the girl was the smartest in the room. And she was the youngest of the bunch, too.

I can't tell you what transpires or who survives, but I can tell you that if you go to this movie, you'll be on the edge of your seat for the full 105 minutes. Enjoying the clever, well-acted, well-scripted thrill ride.

~~~

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscar Picks and Predictions: 2016

Here are my final picks for tonight's ceremony:

WRITING: ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy for SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy for SPOTLIGHT

WRITING: ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: Charles Randolph and Adam McCay for THE BIG SHORT
My Pick: Emma Donoghue for ROOM

VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Win: Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver and Andy Williams for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer for THE REVENANT

SOUND MIXING
Who Will Win: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin for BRIDGE OF SPIES

SOUND EDITING
Who Will Win: Alan Robert Murray for SICARIO
My Pick: Oliver Tarney for THE MARTIAN

SHORT FILM: LIVE ACTION
Who Will Win: DAY ONE
My Pick: EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY

SHORT FILM: ANIMATED
Who Will Win: WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS
My Pick: WORLD OF TOMORROW

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Who Will Win: Eve Stewart & Michael Standish for THE DANISH GIRL
My Pick: Eve Stewart & Michael Standish for THE DANISH GIRL

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Who Will Win: "Till it Happens to You" from THE HUNTING GROUND
My Pick: "Till it Happens to You" from THE HUNTING GROUND

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Who Will Win: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT
My Pick: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Who Will Win: Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini for THE REVENANT

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Who Will Win: MUSTANG
My Pick: A WAR

FILM EDITING
Who Will Win: Tom McArdle for SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: Tom McArdle for SPOTLIGHT

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
Who Will Win: A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS
My Pick: A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)
Who Will Win: AMY
My Pick: AMY

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Who Will Win: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT
My Pick: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT

DIRECTING
Who Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñarritu
My Pick: Lenny Abrahamson for ROOM

COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Win: Sandy Powell for CAROL
My Pick: Paco Delgado for THE DANISH GIRL

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Who Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki for THE REVENANT
My Pick: Emmanuel Lubezki for THE REVENANT

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Win: INSIDE OUT
My Pick: INSIDE OUT

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Kate Winslet for STEVE JOBS
My Pick: Kate Winslet for STEVE JOBS

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone for CREED
My Pick: Mark Ruffalo for SPOTLIGHT

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Brie Larson for ROOM
My Pick: Brie Larson for ROOM

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT
My Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Win: SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: ROOM

~~~

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Witch

This morning I saw The Witch, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie.

It's the early 1600s in New England and Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) is watching her baby brother while her mother tends to other household chores. As she's playing peek-a-boo with him, he disappears in what seems to be thin air (but what really is the creepy dark woods they live next to). An evil witch has snatched him up for her own purposes.

Predictably, Mom (Dickie) goes into hysterics and the family unit is altered considerably. Dad (Ralph Ineson) tries to keep things as normal as possible, but the baby's absence casts quite a shadow. The young twins are constantly babbling about speaking with "Black Phillip," who tells them their older sister is a witch. To get them to shut up already, Thomasin plays along and pretends she is one. She will later regret this action.

To tell you more would be to spoil... so I'll just say that I was underwhelmed by this film as a whole. It had great potential; a great setting with great actors and rich folklore. But for me, it missed the mark.

Though the abstract shadowy images are indeed a bit spooky, I never really felt scared throughout. We know what happened to the baby (and the others as the story progresses), but with the exception of a few gratuitous bloody scenes, there's nothing very 'horrifying' about the story.

Sure, it's clever that the main character's last name ends in "sin" and the mother longs for happier times in the past, in the place that really felt like home.

But crafty moments don't make for an overall good film. I actually shivered more at the trailer for The Conjuring 2. I'm hoping this spring after I see that one I'll be compelled to write a better review.

~~~

Sunday, February 14, 2016

45 Years

This morning I saw 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

Kate (Rampling) has loved Geoff (Courtenay) all of her adult life. The pair have been married for nearly 45 years and are in the midst of planning a party to commemorate that. What's normal for many is customary for them too—each have their rituals like reading the paper and walking the dog, though they're often done apart.

When the body of Geoff's first love, Katya, is found on the mountain he long left her on after she fell during a hike, their long-dormant marital tension comes to a head. You see, Geoff didn't tell Kate about Katya. Didn't mention that they were on the verge of marriage before he met her; or that her death had traumatized him ever since.

When Katya's perfectly preserved 27-year-old body surfaces (she's been frozen in the snow until now), Geoff's pent-up sorrow for his lost love does as well. This, of course, raises questions about what else he's been keeping from his wife all of these years. If he can hold a secret that serious for that long, upon what has their entire relationship been based?

This is a film that shows, not tells. This is a film that communicates pain through the faces of its actors; not through dialog. This is a film that moves along at a quiet pace, as life does when something tragic lingers in the air.

It's not an enjoyable movie to endure, but Rampling's performance is certainly worth its Oscar nomination, and watching her work will leave you speechless.

It will also leave you questioning every relationship you've ever had.

~~~

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Last night 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.

AVE MARIA (Palestine, France and Germany)

Of all the things Orthodox Jewish settlers could crash into in the West Bank, a convent of Catholic nuns is unlikely. But that's what happens here when a family trip takes a turn (literally) into one. Problem is: the nuns have taken a vow of silence and due to the Sabbath, the family is unable to use the telephone to call for help. Through a series of comedic events, the two groups together find a surprising solution. The one is light and the story is cute; I just don't think I'd consider this Oscar caliber material.

SHOK (Kosovo and UK)

Amidst the Yugoslav wars two young boys form a deep friendship that is tested repeatedly by the pressures of the time. Instead of making choices about what games to play each night, they're faced with much more grim decisions—some even a matter of life and death. The film is about war, but above all else, about love. Though hard to watch because of the subject matter (these horrors took place not long ago, after all), it's expertly done with two lead actors that deliver on every note.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Germany and Austria)

A divorced couple shares custody of their young daughter. The father comes to pick the girl up for a routine weekend and the tension between the parents is evident. The father quickly takes his daughter shopping to spoil her with new toys, then makes a trip to the nearby bumper cars for additional fun. Things only go sideways when he tricks her into taking passport pictures at a nearby photo booth. The girl soon realizes they're not having a normal weekend and calls him out on it. Just how far (and how fast) this weekend goes off the rails is what makes this my pick for the Oscar. I don't think I breathed for the last 10 minutes. It was that good.

STUTTERER (UK and Ireland)

There have been six months of flirtatious Facebook bliss for a couple and now there's a chance for them to meet. The man has reservations because he suffers from a severe stuttering problem—so much that he's learned sign language to imply to strangers that he's simply deaf. As the day approaches, he at first hides, then practices his speech, hoping not to disappoint this love of his life. It's a sweet, sometimes funny story with a lot of heart.

DAY ONE (USA)


An Afghan-American interpreter is assigned to an Afghanistan tour of duty with the U.S. military, and on her first day the team is sent to investigate a report of bombs in a nearby residence. As the weapons are found and the man of the house is being arrested, his wife goes into labor—with complications. As the only woman present, the interpreter has to begin acting as a doctor to save the mother and baby. 

This was the only of the five films where people actually got up and left the theater. It was incredibly intense and touched on several sensitive subject matters (religion, birth, war, death, etc.). But I stuck it out and was glad I did, if not only for the life-affirming ending, but the photo of the real interpreter, for which the film was based, that appears at the end.

~~~

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Documentary Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

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

BODY TEAM 12 (Liberia)

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia devastated the country, leaving nearly 5000 dead and over 10,000 infected. In the midst of the chaos, 29-year-old Garmai Sumo is the only female on a team tasked with safely removing bodies from infected locations. In this film, as we watch the horror unfold, she describes what it's like—the fears, the sadness and even the hope. Her commitment and compassion for her fellow people make this otherwise gloomy subject bearable.

A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS (Pakistan)

In Pakistan, men sometimes beat or kill female relatives who they perceive to have 'disrespected' them. They call these 'honor killings,' as they are meant to restore honor to the family. One such attempted murder happened to 18-year-old Saba when she fell in love and her family told her the boy she wanted to marry wasn't rich enough. She defied them by gaining support from her future in-laws, who helped the couple elope. Her father and uncle then shot her in the face and threw her in the river to die. But ... she didn't die. She lived to tell the tale and tells it here, as she's in the midst of a legal struggle in her community. Her path toward forgiveness under pressure is hard to watch, especially considering that her attackers show no remorse, but it's so well done, I conclude that this is the strongest of the five films.

LAST DAY OF FREEDOM (USA)

A man has a younger brother. The younger brother gets hit by a car during adolescence and is never the same. With a middle school education, said brother enters the service. He goes to Vietnam. Bad things happen. He comes home, again a changed man. His PTSD gets really bad. He does a bad thing. His brother turns him in. He gets the death penalty. The brother is sick with guilt and tells his story here, but we only hear him as the entire short is animated. Though the animation is artistically brilliant, I didn't feel it was the right way to tell this story and it distracted me from the core of the emotion. Meh.

CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES (USA and Vietnam)

The effects of Agent Orange are still prevalent today, as evidenced in this documentary focusing on Chau, a disabled Vietnamese boy with a triumphant spirit. We're first introduced to him in the orphanage-like home he's living in, though he's still in touch with his family (and will go back to them briefly before setting out in the world on his own). The staff at the home, which primarily serves children affected by Agent Orange, don't recognize that Chau's a gifted artist with real potential; they discourage him from pursuing what they see as a futile dream. Thankfully, he ignores them and forges on, despite the fact he doesn't have a knee on one leg and his arms and hands are disproportionate to his body. If you're able to stop crying, this is a life-affirming gem of a film.

CLAUDE LANSMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH (USA)

In 1985, Director Claude Lansmann released a documentary that had consumed him for 12 years: Shoah. Remembered now as perhaps the most important Holocaust film ever made, the creation of it still haunts him this many years on. In this talking-head short—the most traditional documentary of the bunch—we hear from Lansmann directly as he shares stories of the horrors he drew out of various survivors. It's riveting and depressing and makes you respect the classic work all the more, even if his methods for making it weren't always noble.

~~~

Friday, January 08, 2016

My 2016 Golden Globe Picks

Here are my selection and predictions, in order of how they're listed on the official site:

Best Motion Picture Drama

What I want to win: I give this to ROOM. No film has stayed with me more than this can't-look-away nail biter about a kidnapped woman and her son held in captivity.

What will probably win: I think THE REVENANT, which is also deserving, but didn't hit me as emotionally hard as the other.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Brie Larson from ROOM. Earth-shatteringly good.

Who will probably win: Brie Larson from ROOM. She is getting universal praise, for good reason.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Without question, Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT. He's good in everything he's in, but in this role he got attacked by a bear and had very few lines.

Who will probably win: Leo has terrible luck during awards season, so I think Eddie Redmayne of THE DANISH GIRL will take this one. I liked him in the role, but still think Leo had a more difficult job.

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

What I want to win: TRAINWRECK. Amy Schumer. Need I say more?

What will probably win: I have a good feeling about TRAINWRECK and Amy's string of success this year.

Best Performance by an Actress - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Who will probably win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Best Performance by an Actor - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Christian Bale was creepy good in THE BIG SHORT, right down to actually wearing the guy's clothes. He gets my vote.

Who will probably win: I think more people saw THE MARTIAN, and Matt Damon will walk away with the Globe.

Best Motion Picture - Animated

What I want to win: No film had more heart this year than INSIDE OUT. I hope it takes the honor.

What will probably win: Pixar rules. INSIDE OUT it is!

Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language

Shamefully, I have seen none of the nominees, so I will remove myself from weighing in on this race.

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

Who I want to win: STEVE JOBS was held together by Kate Winslet. She deserves the trophy.

Who will probably win: Alicia Vikander of EX MACHINA has gotten a lot of press. I'm guessing if Kate loses, it will be to her.

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

Who I want to win: Mark Rylance was absolutely charming in BRIDGE OF SPIES. I'd like to see his acceptance speech.

Who will probably win: Paul Dano, though probably should have been considered a lead, made an excellent Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY. He could be the night's showstopper.

Best Director - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: I go with Alejandro G. Iñarritu for THE REVENANT. Shooting in the wilderness, in natural light, using very little CGI and not a lot of dialogue. The film is a cinematic treasure.

Who will probably win: Ridley Scott and his crowd-pleaser THE MARTIAN will most likely walk away with the prize.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for SPOTLIGHT deserve the honor for their fast-paced, perfectly crafted script.

Who will probably win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay had a lot of crackle in THE BIG SHORT. Audiences will remember the dialogue; especially because a lot of it was spoken directly to them in the "how this happened" vignettes featuring famous cameos.

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Alexandre Desplat painted a beautiful picture of both the era and the landscapes of the two major European cities featured in THE DANISH GIRL, while managing to convey the emotion of the leads. I loved it.

Who will probably win: Ennio Morricone is the rock star of the bunch, so I'm guessing his work for THE HATEFUL EIGHT will yield the Globe.

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: When the subject of the movie is also the composer of the song in the movie, it's hard to argue with it. My vote goes to Brian Wilson for LOVE & MERCY.

Who will probably win: Everyone wants to see a Beach Boy on stage. I think Brian Wilson will indeed win for LOVE & MERCY.

Best Television Series - Drama

What I want to win: Funny story: I only started watching MR. ROBOT because when I lived in NY for a brief time last year for work, they filmed it on my Upper West Side apartment's street. It became a fast favorite and it gets my vote here.

What will probably win: I wasn't the only one who loved this show. I'm guessing MR. ROBOT will prove victorious.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: The intensity she exudes (in the contexts of both sex and violence) qualify Catriona Balfe of OUTLANDER to win, in my book.

Who will probably win: I think Viola Davis, who is the most buzzed-about leading lady, will take it for HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: Don Draper forever! John Hamm of MAD MEN, please.

Who will probably win: Since MAD MEN has ended and it's Hamm's last chance to win, I think my wish will come true.

Best Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: An admittedly recent convert, I'm all about TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I feel like I'm not the only one who loves TRANSPARENT.

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

Who I want to win: Jamie Lee Curtis kept SCREAM QUEENS alive on my DVR. She gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in VEEP seems to have quite the winning streak (though I hate that show).

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

Who I want to win: Is it any surprise? I go for Jeffrey Tambor in TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I think the HFP will agree with me and go with Jeffrey Tambor for his role as a trans parent in TRANSPARENT.

Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

What I want to win: My vote would go to the always-interesting AMERICAN CRIME.

What will probably win: The critics can't seem to get enough of FARGO, so I'll bet it beats out the rest.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Lady Gaga has been fantastic in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL, so she gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Though I didn't see it, I hear Queen Latifah was transcendent in BESSIE. My guess is she'll be the one walking away with the win.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Idris Elba has made LUTHER iconic in his own right, so he's my pick.

Who will probably win: I think voters will award Patrick Wilson of FARGO with the Globe.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Maura Tierney was nothing short of brilliant this season on THE AFFAIR. She deserves the honor.

Who will probably win: I have a hunch about the always-wonderful Regina King of AMERICAN CRIME.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Alan Cumming for THE GOOD WIFE. Anything else is a conspiracy.

Who will probably win: I can't see anyone in their right mind disagreeing with me on this one. Alan Cumming, Sir Eli Gold, THE GOOD WIFE.

We'll find out on Sunday if I was right!

-Tassoula




Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Revenant

Tonight I saw The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a fur trapper in the early 1800s (and yes, this character is based on a real person and a real incident, though many of the characters are fictional). He's on an expedition along the Missouri River when he's mauled by a grizzly bear. He survives the violent attack, but can barely move. And winter is coming—so instead of the entire group putting themselves in further danger, they offer cash rewards to those willing to stay behind and either nurse him back to health or give him a proper burial when the day comes. Two men, plus the man's son, volunteer for the duty and the rest leave.

After days of no improvement, one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Hardy) gets anxious and wants to put Glass out of his misery. He's not ready to go and his son attempts to save him. Fitzgerald kills the son and convinces the other man to leave Glass for dead. He even takes his gun.

But Hugh doesn't die. His resolve for revenge against Fitzgerald fuels his will to live and the next 2+ hours are spent battling tribes, nature and his own rotting flesh. Just watching him shiver in the snow is enough to put an extra layer on in the theater. In fact, with the exception of the tender moments Hugh shares with his son, the ghost of his son's mother, the ghost of his son and a friend he makes along the way, there's not much about this film that's pleasant.

It's brilliant, though.

From the stunning cinematography to the horrific, so-real-it-makes-you-squirm bear scene to DiCaprio's almost mute performance that somehow exhibits more emotion than anything we've seen on film this year, it's a triumph.

Visceral, painful, frightening, satisfying, terrifying—all of those things. And if Leo doesn't win the Oscar this year, I will lose all faith in the Academy.

~~~

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Carol

This morning I saw Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

There's a chronic ache one endures when love is unrequited. A pain detected by others only when looking deep into the afflicted's eyes. Carol (Blanchett), the subject of this film, feels this pain. She is on the verge of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and is smitten with a young shop girl she met while searching for her daughter's Christmas gift.

As fate would have it, Carol accidentally left her gloves behind at the department store when purchasing said gift, so the shop girl, Therese (Mara) has them sent back to her. To show her gratitude for the gesture, she treats Therese to a fancy lunch and a new friendship is formed.

Meanwhile, Therese is somewhat confused about where she wants life to take her. She has a solid job at the store, but her passion is photography. She has a devoted boyfriend, but another friend likes her and also wants to be with her. Therese has little interest in either of them.

As Carol progresses with her separation, an ex-girlfriend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), helps her deal. But her association with Abby makes Harge believe she's going back to her—though she's not—so he begins proceedings to keep Carol from seeing their daughter. This drives Carol to quickly seek comfort in Therese's friendship and explore where it will go.

Did I mention it's the early 50s? And it's not okay to be an 'out' lesbian in the early 50s?

The whole film centers around this repression, despite the fact Carol seems very comfortable in who she is and makes no apologies for her feelings. It's one of those films where very little happens, yet everything does change.

If you're looking for a fast-paced love story, this is not the film for you, but if you have the cinema patience for quiet scenes, sexual frustration and longing looks, you may find yourself satisfied by its undercurrent.

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as always, as the cold, yet compassionate Carol. Mara didn't impress me as much with her deer-in-headlights glances and wooden dialog delivery, but Kyle Chandler playing against type as a jackass was fun to see.

I'm glad I checked this one off my list, even if it's not as flashy as competing films in this year's Oscar race.

~~~

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Joy

Last night I saw Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.

Joy Mangano (Lawrence) is an inventor, entrepreneur and multimillionaire—but it took a lot of work for her to get there.

As a single mom in the late 80s, Mangano was always thinking up ways to make life a little easier. One of those ideas led to her invention of the Miracle Mop; at the time, a revolutionary cleaning device that was self-wringing and machine washable. This film tells the story (loosely) of how she was able to sell her idea to the right entity despite a difficult dysfunctional family and no prior business experience.

Jennifer Lawrence (though a bit young to be playing Joy) dazzles as the headstrong woman who seems to solve all of her family's problems. She has a depressed mother living downstairs and a friendly ex-husband in the basement as she raises her two kids, juggles a crazy sister and works full time. But she manages to do it all as she invents what will become her breakthrough product.

De Niro plays her father Rudy just as you'd expect him to; forcefully, lovingly, borderline annoyingly. Of course, he's perfect. But unfortunately, the film isn't.

Each step taken, each word spoken, each concentrated look delivered is far too exaggerated. The camera whizzes around each scene like a drunk cocktail party guest while us audience members spend more time looking at Lawrence's hair than thinking about the developing plot.

Sure, there are brief "miracle" moments, like every time Bradley Cooper shows up as Joy's business contact. And the story itself (especially for women) is inspiring because the real-life woman went on to be an even greater success (and yes, the Miracle Mop is being re-released with a new spin TOMORROW, so she's obviously still entrepreneurial-minded).

But unlike the sincerity of director David O'Russell's other hits like Silver Linings Playbook, the heart was missing from Joy, leaving us bleached of emotion.

~~~

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Big Short

Tonight I saw The Big Short, starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell.

The housing bubble was building for years, but no one saw it coming. No one, that is, except for a few industry outliers who found a way to bet on it.

Michael Burry (Bale) was a hedge fund manager who simply did the math. He was someone who looked for cracks in the system and understood numbers on a primal level. He called it years before it happened and he was right.

Mark Baum (Carell) is a money manager furious with the world. He's just lost his brother to suicide and as he works through that tragedy in therapy, he discovers that his job in the financial industry has a lot to do with who he has become. Baum listens to the right person and also believes the bubble will burst. He invests wisely as a result.

Financial stories are not typically compelling, but told here in talking-to-the-camera fashion (which shouldn't work, but for some reason does) it becomes riveting. It's flashy and fast and full of f-bombs, but I promise if you see it, you won't get bored.

Bale is so faithful to the actual man he's portraying, he actually borrowed his clothes for the film. And Carell, a comic genius with the skill to bring heavy drama at a moment's notice, also does not disappoint.

The Oscars may come calling for these actors—perhaps even the movie itself. I wouldn't be surprised or sad if they did.

~~~

Friday, December 25, 2015

Concussion

Today I saw Concussion, starring Will Smith and Albert Brooks.

The NFL is a huge, successful organization based on America's Favorite sport. The more interested the public becomes about football, the more money the institution makes, so it's in their best interest to deliver high-intensity, exciting games.

Years ago, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a leading neuropathologist in Pittsburgh recognized a brain pattern in former NFL players who had passed. He pursued and personally funded the study of this pattern, as he'd never seen it before, and determined that it was caused by repeated blows to the head. Concussions.

The condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), causes its victims devastating symptoms such as dementia, depression, paranoia and memory loss. Many of those who were labeled with the affliction after death had committed suicide.

This film tells the story of how Dr. Omalu discovered CTE, and the resistance he met from the NFL once he went public with his findings. Though he had nothing against the sport, he did hope they would acknowledge the dangers their players are put in each time they take to the field. They refused to—and to say any more would spoil the film.

So, for non-sports folks like myself: Why should you see this?

Smith's performance, for one, is nothing short of impressive. He disappears into the accent and you forget you're watching The Fresh Prince.

The visceral way in which the filmmakers tell the story is (although gory) very powerful, as you truly grasp the science behind what's going on because they show it to you.

And, well, if you are a football fan... you should see this too. And then think about all of the money you're pouring into an institution that would rather profit from the talent they hire than preserve the health and sanity of those very individuals.

~~~






Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Danish Girl

This morning I saw The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Vikander) were a happy couple living a Bohemian life in Denmark in the 1920s. Both gifted painters, they shared a deep bond of not only love, but art.

One day, Gerda was in need of a live, female model for one of her paintings and her husband stood in for the absent woman. This act changed both of their lives significantly.

Einar discovered a special feeling when he put on the woman's stockings, and volunteered to continue acting as a female model whenever his wife was in need. This soon became a game for both of them—him developing an alter ego, Lili, and making appearances at events and parties around town.

Gerda was surprisingly supportive of this ruse and even encouraged it. Her paintings of Lili were very successful in the industry and Einar was happier when he was behaving like a girl.

Of course, over time, Einar decided he could no longer be Einar. He truly felt inside that he was a woman and the only moments where he felt comfortable were those he had acting as Lili. Gerda accepted this eventuality and they moved to Paris, preserving their unconventional marriage throughout his quest to fully transition to female.

A few years later they met a doctor that said he could perform a series of operations to make Lili fully female and Eniar was enthusiastic about having them. Gerda stood by his/her side for the duration.

This film does an incredible job, through the genius of Eddie Redmayne, of exposing how it may feel for transgender persons discovering their true selves. There are many long looks in the mirror; several examinations of one's own human body; countless instances of touching the sensual fabric of women's apparel. Though none of us who aren't transgender could ever truly 'know how it feels' to be trapped in the wrong body, this film gives us at least a compass that directs us toward the feelings of those who do. Redmayne shows total discomfort in his own skin, and the discovery of his new self is frankly ... inspiring.

As the first person to have gender reassignment surgery, Elbe remains a hero to the transgender community to this day. Gerda did eventually divorce Einar and remarry, but stayed by Lili's side to the end.

The pair's story is told beautifully here, with award-bait performances and classy writing, capturing the right notes for today's progressive world.

~~~

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

This morning I saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

I'm a big fan of The Hunger Games book series, and I loved the first two film adaptations, but the Mockingjay installments unfortunately leave a lot to be desired.

In this final curtain call, the boy who stole the heart of Katniss (Lawrence), Peeta (Hutcherson), has been brainwashed by the Big Bad Government and instead of wanting to live out his days with her, he wants to kill her. Of course, she still wants him and realizes that he doesn't have control of his mind.

He eventually comes back to the correct side of the war ... kinda. He has spontaneous, violent outbursts aimed at her from time to time, but for the most part behaves himself. They, along with their team of allies, set out to take back the world (and kill President Snow).

Donald Sutherland, as the hated leader, seems to be having a grand time in this one; less evil and more 'mad scientist' in spirit. It would be hard for anyone to think of him claiming victory when he's so jovial and Katniss is so serious.

So—what's wrong with the film?

#1 The pace. It's painfully slow for the first hour. I actually went and got a cup of coffee and when I came back they were still on the same scene.

#2 Wasted talent. Jennifer Lawrence is a gifted, sparkling superstar. She doesn't have much to do here except look sad. Look mad. Look tired.

#3 Anticlimactic action. Of course we know what's coming, but that's not what ruins it. The battle scenes just don't have the magic of the first two films. They're silly.

So—is there any reason to see it?

If you're a completist like me, it's your civic duty to sit through it. Also, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman's last film and just his mere presence—alive and breathing brilliance—is a gift.

~~~

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Spotlight

This morning I saw Spotlight, starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.

When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrived at The Boston Globe, he thought it could do better. He urged his "Spotlight" team of investigative reporters to pursue a story about a priest accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse. They were hesitant because of their relationship with the church and the fact that the majority of their readership was Catholic. He told them to do it anyway.

Reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) enthusiastically accepted the challenge. He visits the lawyer that represents several of the church's victims and quickly realizes that they're only scratching the surface. His boss, Robby (Keaton), is supportive, but cautious.

As the investigation continues, they are met with several roadblocks: the interference of the church; the lack of cooperation from a key lawyer; records that are sealed. They work day in and day out to overcome these obstacles, getting to a place where they're almost ready to reveal their findings and then 9/11 happens. The exposé has to be put on hold.

Of course, those who remember the headlines in early 2002 know that they did in fact get to tell their story, and it did instigate a shake-up in the Catholic church.

Though I remember the articles and knew the ending before going in, I was glued to my seat for the duration of the film, riveted by every scene. Like the legendary All the President's Men, following the footsteps of the reporters in what feels like real time really gets the blood pumping. With each new fact they reveal, you wonder what will come next and who or what will stand in their way from sharing it.

The acting is superb—especially Ruffalo, who is so believable as a quirky East Boston journalist, it's hard to remember he was ever The Hulk.

I'll be stunned if this isn't an Oscar favorite come awards season.

~~~

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Trumbo

Today I saw Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane.

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) was a successful screenwriter until his politics got in the way. A man of integrity, he stood by his beliefs instead of his riches and was ultimately blacklisted for being a communist.

After a brief sentence in prison, Trumbo had to find a way to feed his family so he returned to his only true skill: writing. He wrote screenplays like Roman Holiday under a pen name and countless other less prestigious titles. He never stopped writing and he also helped other blacklisted friends find 'underground' work.

Though it's a simple, well-documented true story, Cranston injects the late writer with such life it's almost as if he's still with us today. Always a pleasure to watch, Diane Lane is also perfect as his loyal wife, Cleo. The supporting cast is unsurprisingly impressive as well; among them: Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K. and John Goodman.

So, why should anyone that's not obsessed with writers or communists go see this? Because at the end of the day it's about the very timely topic of endangered civil liberties. The decisions we're making as Americans today will determine our country's future. Films like this remind us that making the wrong decisions can be of great moral cost.

~~~

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Brooklyn

Tonight I saw Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen.

Ailish (Ronan) is a girl who feels she doesn't have a future in Ireland. With the help of her sister and the church, she gets a Visa to work in America and sets sail on the long, lonely journey.

Once she arrives in Brooklyn, New York, she doesn't immediately fit in—she's too shy at the department store where she works, she's too innocent to be part of the girls' club in her boarding house, and she's too plain to get noticed by any Irish fellows.

After a devastating spell of homesickness, a kind priest enrolls her in night school and she begins to come out of her shell, attending the local dances. It's there she meets Tony (Cohen), an Italian plumber with eyes only for her.

They fall in love easily and enjoy the bliss of mutual infatuation until tragedy strikes back in Ireland and Ailish is forced to choose between her life in the U.S. and home in County Wexford.

As someone obsessed with Irish culture, I perhaps had expectations that were too high for this film. I thought we'd see more of Ireland, get to know Ailish's family a bit better and learn why she was so set on making a new life across the pond. Instead, after the initial scenes, we only catch glimpses of her former life and become quite attached to her new one.

Though the acting is superb all around, I can't say I felt much pain for any of the characters. Though sad and bad things do happen, when we arrive at them we're still just observers; not invested.

I was pleased with the ending, so that's something to applaud, and the story undoubtedly mirrors many true-life situations of that era and those cultures. Go see it if you're in the mood for something simple, wrapped up in a nice bow.

~~~

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Room

Tonight I saw Room, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

Joy (Larson) was a victim of a kidnapping when she was a teenager. She's been kept prisoner by her captor ever since, and produced a son, Jack (Tremblay), with him.

When we meet Joy and Jack, it's Jack's 5th birthday and the pair are celebrating by baking a cake from scratch. Jack is disappointed there are no candles to blow out, but his mother explains that she can only ask for so much.

After a series of "visits" from the captor, Joy decides it's time to try to make a move to escape, and Jack will have to be her ticket out. That's as much as I can tell you without spoiling the film. So, instead, I'll talk about the brilliant performances from Brie Larson, who is a certain bet for an Oscar nod, and Jacob Tremblay, who may just score a nomination of his own.

Brie as Joy perfectly exemplifies a tortured soul, though she doesn't let her son see it. She compartmentalizes like anyone who has been traumatized and saves her grief for the future, when she's emotionally allowed to show it.

The young Jacob Tremblay displays an equal mix of innocence and anger about his situation as Jack. The moment Joy tells him that there is indeed a world like the one they see on their television is something sure to be studied by future child actors.

The supporting characters are minimal but impactful—Joan Allen as Grandma and William H. Macy as Grandpa. The guilty parents who couldn't protect their own.

The screenplay is also to credit for such a realistic, awful sequence of events. Anyone who has watched television interviews with real-life survivors of such horrors only gets a glimpse of the layers of emotion they're working through when the bright interview lights are shining upon them. Here the writer peels back those layers and lets us experience each one.

I'm not ashamed to say that I sobbed uncontrollably more than once during this film. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves come awards season.

~~~



Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Martian

This morning I saw The Martian, starring Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

There is a NASA mission to Mars that gets interrupted by a terrible sandstorm. Because of the severity of the weather, the commander of the ship, Melissa (Jessica Chastain), chooses to have the team abort the mission. As the evacuation begins, the botanist on board, Mark (Damon), gets hit with debris and is presumed dead. The other astronauts safely continue their mission, mourning his loss.

But he didn't die. He was injured and knocked out, but very much alive.

And there we begin ... the nerve-wracking 2+ hours of seeing if he can successfully grow food, navigate unpreventable disasters, make contact with NASA and keep his sanity. It's a tough ride, but one we've been on before.

Reminiscent of films like Gravity and Moon, the film centers around the solitude of the main character, but at least here we have a balance of scenes with the folks back home. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a fantastic performance as the Mars head-honcho, though Kristen Wiig, as an essential NASA employee seems displaced. Damon is predictably solid, as is the always-badass Chastain.

Sure, it's interesting to watch the scientific process for how to make food if you're ever stranded on a deserted planet. It's undoubtedly enjoyable to see the kinship amongst astronauts rivaling that of soldiers at war. But what keeps it from being a "great" American film is the crime of formula.

We know what's going to happen every step of the way, even if we're not sure how they're going to get there.

The characters were likeable, the situation of the initial accident very believable, but the outcome was terribly predictable.

Go see it if you want a fun ride, but not if you're seeking something new.

~~~




Steve Jobs

Two weeks ago I saw Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet.

I fully admit that I've always been "a Mac." My first computer was a Strawberry Fields-colored iMac and every computer I've since owned has also been a Mac. I'm a very satisfied customer. I'm also faithful to Apple—owning both iPods and iPhones in my time. Again, having no regrets.

So perhaps I went into this film with a bias in favor of its subject.

That really shouldn't matter because I'll be the first to say it's not a perfect film. The main thing that bugged me was the fact that they really didn't care to stick too close to the truth. The entire film is structured around launches that were important in the tech legend's career, yet most of the situations surrounding them (with the exception of the public-facing moments) never happened. True, Jobs (Fassbender) had a rocky relationship with his daughter Lisa. True, his marketing maven Joanna (Winslet) was one of the few people who could call him on his BS. Not true, business partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) approached him before each launch and argued in public.

There are other sentimental details that were all the work of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but I won't mention them here in case you'd like to immerse yourself in the fake magic.

All of that aside, of course the acting is phenomenal. Fassbender and Winslet should do more films together because their chemistry crackles. The writing style is classic Sorkin, meaning it's never boring and always more fast-paced than most people have time to project. It's fun to watch, regardless of what you thought of the man or the myth.

It will come as no surprise that I regard Jobs as a genius, and greatly respect his legacy. Perhaps I'll have to wait for a documentary to see the perspective I'm craving.

~~~



Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Tonight I saw Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Rylance) was charged with being a Soviet spy in the United States. His reluctant defense lawyer, James B. Donovan (Hanks), grew fond of him as he worked on the case and fought to give him a fair trial.

Unfortunately, Donovan was unsuccessful and Abel went to prison. Three years after Abel was arrested, a U.S. pilot named Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) was captured in the Soviet Union after his U2 spy plane was shot down (yes, I squeed when they mentioned "U2"). Donovan suggested perhaps the two could be exchanged. The story we see in the film here is that of how Abel was used as a pawn ... and Donovan became the U.S.'s default chess player.

It's admirable how close the film stays to the real events (there are only a few instances of fiction or exaggeration), and goes without saying that the cast is phenomenal. Hanks is sincere, Rylance is endearing, and supporting cast members like Amy Ryan and Eve Hewson add a dose of authenticity to the family unit to prevent this from being "just another spy movie."

Though the true events are easy to snuff out online (and spoil the ending), the last third of the movie is no less heart-pounding as a result. The movie has suspense, heart, drama and a bit of humor.

Very warm for a Cold War subject.

~~~

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crimson Peak

This morning I saw Crimson Peak, starring Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain.

Edith (Wasikowska) is a girl of privilege, close to her wealthy father, hoping to be a published author someday. She's a feminist before her time (this being the year 1900), who ironically chooses to follow her heart instead of her head when a handsome suitor comes calling, despite the fact she resents having to include a love story in her manuscript because she's female.

That suitor is Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England who's struggling to find investors for his steam drill. He hopes Edith's father will come on board, but instead gets met with more rejection. In fact, Edith's father dislikes him so much, he pays him off—on the condition that he leave Edith alone.

Thomas complies, breaks Edith's heart, and sets back to England with his wicked sister Lucille (Chastain). But tragedy soon strikes and Edith no longer answers to the good judgment of her father. She's free to follow Thomas to England, and that she does, soon marrying him and moving into the creepy castle he and his sister have all to themselves.

Things are not as they seem, though, as Edith soon finds out. Her sister-in-law won't part with the keys to the home, and weird visions occur when she's alone. She also doesn't feel so well in her new surroundings, her body growing weaker each day.

This is where the movie starts revealing its secrets and feels like classic Guillermo del Toro.

The horrific images come wrapped in sadness; their visual components so stunning you can't look away. The characters aren't merely one-note horror devices, they're complex, tragic figures who demand you at least care about how they came to be the way they are. And care we do.

We want to believe in the love Thomas has for Edith. We want to believe all of the bad in the home stems from Lucille. We want to believe the doctor back home hasn't forgotten her.

The thrilling ending has a twist this reviewer didn't see coming, and though parts of it were very gory (especially the sound effects), it has a satisfying close.

Perfect subject matter for the Halloween season, delivered with beautiful art direction and a clever screenplay.

Grab a cup of British tea and have fun with it.

~~~


Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Visit

Tonight I saw The Visit, starring Olivia DeJonge and Deanna Dunagan.

Becca (DeJonge) and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents. Their mother left their house long ago when she fell in love with their father and never went back. Now, years after their father abandoned them, they want to meet their grandkids.

Reluctantly, Mom (Kathryn Hahn) agrees to let them go for a visit while she and her new boyfriend take off on a luxury cruise.

A train ride later, the kids are romping around the house where their mother grew up, asking Nana (Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) about their mother when she was young. It's an understandably sore subject, but is that the only reason they're being cagey?

I can't say more without spoiling (yes, there's a classic Shyamalan twist at the end that I figured out early on), but I will say that this movie was legitimately scary/disturbing. The kids do a great job (though Oxenbould's lisp gets annoying) of not being too exaggerated in their fears, and some clever dialogue helps make it more believable (when you hear "Katy Perry" you'll know what I mean).

Though I'm over the whole, "I'll set up a camera and we'll see what scary footage we get" trick, the elderly grandparents are a pair I'd never want to stay with under any circumstances.

What makes the film more effective is the genuine sentimentality that this broken family displays. Adults were hurt, and in the process kids got hurt, and that's never okay. Their care for one another helps us care about their well-being.

If you need a this-could-really-happen sort of terror this Halloween season, you could do worse than this film.

~~~

Sunday, October 11, 2015

He Named Me Malala

Today I saw the documentary, He Named Me Malala, directed by Davis Guggenheim.

Malala Yousafzai is a normal teenager. Though she occasionally has to remind reporters of this fact, she doesn't seem too annoyed that they tend to forget. Of course aside from being a teenager she's also a global activist, the survivor of a personal Taliban attack and a Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

She hangs out with Bono and Hilary Clinton and Queen Elizabeth from time to time, but she also does hours of homework each night by choice, hard as it is for her youngest (incredibly adorable) brother to process. Her mother is having a tough time adjusting to life in England, and her other "laziest" brother likes to poke fun at her. She's a daddy's girl at heart. Yeah, that's Malala's life.

A crusader for women's rights (as she was just becoming a woman herself), Malala fought for the right for girls to attend school in her native Pakistan. She lived an idyllic life with her family, a mountain pass separating them from the main city, before the Taliban came along. Once the arrived, she didn't feel she should have to sacrifice her education to honor their beliefs, so she kept going to school. One day when she was riding home from school on the bus with her friends, the Taliban shot her (and a few of her pals). Since the main bullet went into her head, it was thought she wouldn't survive, but she fought, and the world's faithful prayed, and she emerged with an even stronger resolve.

Though the left side of her face doesn't quite work as well as it used to (including hearing out of that ear), and she spent days in a coma as a result of the shooting, she has no anger for her attacker. Her father says it wasn't one person who shot her, it was "ideology."

To say that Malala is an inspiration would be an understatement. Many who endure such trauma simply retreat to quiet lives, never to be seen again. She did the opposite—she got better, and she kept fighting.

Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim captures her spirit beautifully in one-to-one interviews and visits with her entire family. There are also gorgeous, animated versions of some of the stories from her past as well as actual footage of the days following her attack.

Whether she's meeting with Syrian refugees or giving inspirational speeches to heads of state, the compassion and strength of this miracle girl shines through.

I only hope there's a sequel so we can see what she does next.

~~~


Monday, October 05, 2015

Black Mass

On Saturday I saw Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton.

Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) loved his mother deeply. He was kind to old ladies. He was a doting father. He even took care of an abandoned cat in the neighborhood.

All of those things are true, as is the fact he was a malicious killer who terrorized the streets of Boston in the '70s and '80s as an Irish mob boss. This film tells of his decades evading justice as he used a childhood friend in the FBI to cover for him.

Spoiler alert: They're both now ending their days in prison.

Before they were caught, they each had a good run, though. Jimmy, defending his beloved Southie territory using whatever means necessary, and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) climbing the ranks of the FBI by claiming Jimmy was a big-time informant.

Depp is icy cold as the brooding Bulger, always calm and collected even in the most gruesome times of violence. Edgerton is obnoxious and twitchy—apparently incredibly accurate—in his portrayal of Connolly, who in a weird, warped way always idolized Bulger. The attacks are frequent and the blood flows freely, but if you can anticipate when to look away, the other aspects of the movie will keep you glued to the screen.

In addition to the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Nicholson and Dakota Johnson all do a fine job in their supporting roles, but the real stand-out for me was Peter Sarsgaard as cocaine addict Brian Halloran. His brief time on screen was so memorable, he was who we were talking about as we left the theater.

The movie (and its real-life horrors) will stay with you for hours, maybe days after you see it. If you're tough enough to see this, be sure to stay to the very end where they show footage of the real criminals.

It's comforting to know that many of the people involved were in fact brought to justice, but the magnitude of the crimes still haunt.

~~~

Friday, September 18, 2015

Amy

Tonight I saw the documentary Amy, about the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse.

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black 


I always loved the music of Amy Winehouse. Her lyrics stung the way the best lines of prose attack you—her voice a rare seduction in a sea of trendy, chirpy female voices. She epitomized sexy jazz.

Unfortunately, like so many musicians before her, she died at the young age of 27. This film, crafted together like a scrapbook of home movies by director Asif Kapadia, chronicles her life.

We see a young girl emerge rebellious from her parents' separation (she was 9 when they split), an undeniable gift for music cultivated and a dangerous substance addiction present throughout. At the end of the day she was a junkie. An incredibly talented genius, but still a junkie.

The love of her life was her husband Blake, and the film implies he made a great effort to keep her high (he, also a junkie). Couple that with a battle against bulimia and the pressures of intense international fame and you have a recipe for disaster.

The film captures her spirit well: a painfully shy, wounded little girl mixed with a bold, raw, authentic woman. It's sweet to watch her rise to stardom in the early days when she hadn't yet disappeared into addiction; gut-wrenching to see her staggering around the stage near the end, not fully knowing where she was.

The whole story is simply sad but at least she left us the legacy of her beautiful voice, and now, though this moving portrait of her years, we can see perhaps why she left us the way she did.

~~~

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Trainwrecked

In July, I saw Trainwrecked, starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Unfortunately, I didn't write a review for it at the time. But I loved it.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Ted 2

Last night I saw Ted 2, starring Mark Wahlberg and the voice of Seth MacFarlane.

When we last saw Ted the talking teddy bear (MacFarlane), he had fallen in love with his colleague Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). When this film opens, they're tying the knot.

But just like any other couple, soon there's trouble in paradise and Ted is desperate to save his marriage. On the advice of a mutual friend, Ted suggests they have a baby and Tami-Lynn couldn't be happier. The only problem? Ted doesn't have the appropriate baby-making body part.

After a few attempts to find a surrogate, they decide a smarter route would be to try to adopt, but when they apply they're told it won't be possible because the state of Massachusetts doesn't recognize Ted as a real person. Hilarity ensues.

Actually, the whole movie is funny. It's ridiculous, filthy, and wildly inappropriate, but yes—it's funny. A running Google joke had me in tears it was so good. The delivery of each actor (and some phenomenal cameos) was brilliant. I'm not remotely ashamed to admit I liked it.

On the negative side (if you don't mind the filth) was the continuation of Hasbro villain Donny (Giovonni Ribisi) trying to reclaim Ted. What was supposed to be creepy induced yawns and what could have been the climax (pun intended) was anything but that.

It's okay though, I laughed enough at every other part of the story to forgive it for this sin.

~~~

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Magic Mike XXL

Tonight I saw Magic Mike XXL, starring Channing Tatum and Joe Manganiello.

You know what? This film is what it is. It is what it's supposed to be and it's supposed to be a movie for straight women and gay men to see with their friends and hoot and holler at the screen.

Mission accomplished.

The plot, if you could call it that, finds Mike (Tatum) re-joining his tribe of "male entertainter" mates as they take a road trip to the annual strippers' convention. Yeah, that's about it.

While that's pretty predictable, I will say that they do a better job this time around of fleshing out the characters (Kevin Nash's Tarzan is a budding artist; Matt Bomer's Ken experiments with energy healing), and it's later revealed just why we're supposed to care.

All of the men are charmers, but Manganiello really steals the show with a convenience store scene that can't be missed. His finale was also my personal favorite, but I've always liked Nine Inch Nails, so maybe that had something to do with it.

Jada Pinkett Smith is a perfect addition to the cast, adding a jolt of feminist strength, and the varied sizes of women they entertain throughout give me new respect for whomever cast the film. 

Put simply it's a really fun romp—lighter fare than last time, and that's a good thing. The only thing missing was Matthew McConaughey

~~~


Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out

Tonight I saw Inside Out, starring the voices of Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith.

Pixar has done it again. They've gone and created a visually stunning, colorful, magical film that not only pleases the aural senses, but pulls your heart out and presents it to you on a platter.

Riley (Katilyn Dias) is a happy-go-lucky 11-year-old girl living a cozy life with her parents in Minnesota until one day everything changes: the family moves to San Francisco for her dad's job.

She keeps a brave face and tries not to get too upset when the house they arrive to is nothing like the one they left, and the moving van with all their stuff is delayed. The emotions inside of her are fighting the good fight to keep her safe and content, but Sadness (Smith) keeps grabbing her memories and forcing them to change shape. In an effort to keep Riley from getting dismal, Joy (Poehler) tries to rescue those memories and in the process gets catapulted out of "headquarters," leaving only Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to rule her feelings.

Soon Riley is miserable at her new school, mad at her parents and ready to run back to the Midwest where she can again find happiness. Joy and Sadness have to do whatever it takes to get back inside headquarters to prevent her from going too far down the dark path.

What an amazing metaphor for an adolescent brain!

Didn't we all feel like a crazy train wreck of emotions during those years? Or was it just me because my parents put me through a move when I was the same age as Riley's character? I'm bargaining that most young people—male and female—feel so much uncertainty as their mind and body matures that they're often overwhelmed.

The voice actors here are well-known, but thankfully it's not distracting, because they're so perfectly suited to their assigned emotion (especially Smith, who everyone will remember from the American version of The Office).

I laughed, I cried, I mused, I remembered, I reflected, I hurt, I healed... I loved this film.

~~~