Reach For Me nf- If you are into Hospices and death and dying, this might be a good movie for you to see. It looks at a few people who have come to a residential hospice to die. Elderly Alvin (Seymour Cassel) has been a tough, probably a fairly self centered guy most of his life. His wife suicided on their 12th anniversary. He has a roommate who is a much younger man (Johnny Whitworth) who has a lovely girl friend (Lacey Chabert) who visits him and is very warm and tender to him. There is an understanding nurse played by Alfie Woodard and and a male nurse who provides some comic relief played LeVar Burton who directs and is the force behind this film. Alvin is seen to be much more complicated then his outward grumpy, unpleasant persona. He constantly reflects on his relationship with his departed wife at the same time that he strikes up a friendship with a dying woman at the hospice (Adrienne Barbeau) who admits that she always chooses the bad guys. The storyline and the script by Michael Adams makes the point that it is never too late to establish relationships and memories for oneself and others even at the end of life. This is conveyed in a manner that will touch your heart as we see a memorial service for the young man who has passed on. Yes, this can be a depressing movie as the viewer is forced to identify with and consider how people deal with end of life. It is simplified somewhat by the fact that in the end our main characters have all found someone to share their experience and the staff are warm and understanding. Hopefully something like this happens to dying people all the time. The acting was excellent and in a special section on the Netflix DVD you can see how each of them has thought out his or her character quite well. This Independent picture is worthy of your consideration(2008).
Foxcatcher rm- Steve Carell establishes himself as a serious actor as he plays John Dupont, one of the wealthy children of the Dupont family. He seems filled with his own narcissism but yet insecure and desperate to prove to his mother and the world that he is a wonderful, worthwhile person. He is going to try to do this by investing in his great passion and that is wrestling. He envisions himself as a wrestling coach and father figure to what he hopes will be the US championship team of the 1988 Olympics. This film is based on a true story with a screenplay by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye and is directed by Bennett Miller. It is mainly about three characters, Dupont, Mark Schultz ( Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) The latter two are brothers who have already won Olympic Gold Medals in wrestling. Mark comes across as quite introverted, islolated pliable and almost too wooden as he quickly agrees to move to the the Dupont estate and train for the next Olympics. It is hard to say if his rather blunted personality is what was intended by the story or perhaps it is some underacting by Tatum. David, the older brother and already a family man with a wife and two kids is also in a coaching mode, exudes warmth and relatedness, all of which is projected quite well by Ruffalo. He ultimately decides to bring his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids to join the US wrestling team on the Dupont estate under the irrational auspicious of John Dupont. The ambivalent relationship and tension between the two brothers is subtle and interesting to ponder. Vanessa Redgrave has a brief role as the Dupont mother who loves valuable horses and doesn’t think very highly of wrestling much to the despair of her son John. If you were into high school or college wrestling you may appreciate all the wrestling moves in the various scenes on the mats. The plot is also interesting to grapple with in this sad but very interesting story. (2014)
Rosewater-rm Before we discuss this movie, we should try to answer the question of why would Jon Stewart, the host of the Daily Show, on the Comedy Central Network, want to make his debut as a feature film director in a movie about the 2009 Presidential election in Iran. That was the election where incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Houssein Mousavi. This election sparked mass demonstrations in the street, which were harshly put down by the government. The defeated candidate was put on house arrest which we believe is still current and he was among many people imprisoned including a a journalist working for Newsweek magazine by the name of Maziar Behari. Behari had appeared in a clearly satirical piece for the Stewart show where it was jokingly mentioned that he could have been been a spy. Thus the connection that must have sparked Stewarts interest which ultimately led him to be a first time director of this movie for which he also wrote the screenplay. It is all about Maziar Behari who was ripped away from his mother’s house with whom he was staying while covering the election, while his pregnant wife was in London. Gael Garcia Bernal, an accomplished Mexican actor, does a great job playing Behari. The film provides an insight into the valiant but futile protests that were made of this election after the hopes of the opposition were dashed. Behari appeared to become a symbol of the masses who try to rise up when they feel they are treated unfairly especially when they are offered an election that they came to feel was fraudulent. He also reminds us of generations of young people who develop values that lead them to fight for what they believe even though it appears that they will be defeated. In this case we learn that Behari’s father and sister both were imprisoned at various times by the reigning Iranian governments and both died in jail at different times. Behari is tortured with the goal of making him confess to being a spy for the West so he can be televised making a confession. The interaction between him and his interrogator who was well played by Kim Badnia is one of the higlights of the movie. In this regard Stewart was able to work in a subtle satirical element, which mocked the prison officials who worked on Behari while still taking seriously the oppressive threat of the tyrannical government. One of us felt that the movie dragged at times but in the end we were well informed and its message was quite clear. (2014)
The Imitation Game- sp The Turing Test is a method that is supposed to help determine if artificial intelligence built into a modern computer is indistinguishable from the human mind. There was only an indirect subtle reference to this test in this movie, which however, was all about the complicated yet very human mind of Alan Turing. This is a Bio-Pic with a screenplay by Graham Moore adapted from a biography by Andrew Hughes as well as other books written about this man. It is produced by Graham Moore, Nina Grossman and Teddy Schwarzman who shepherded it through a few incarnations where it was almost made by a major studio but ultimately ended up as an independent production in the hands of the Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum (known for The Headhunters) starring Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Alan Turing. The movie dramatically reminds us of horrendous threat of Nazi Germany to the world during WWII and introduces us to the team led by Turing that is working in Bletchley Park in England trying to break the German Enigma code which could give the allies the edge to win the war. One of the team members is a woman by the name of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) whose great intelligence stands out and gets the attention of the leader who becomes very close to her. Alan Turing is shown to us as a brilliant young man with a personality often shown to be associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. It turns out Turing also is homosexual which he had to keep as a deep secret as during those times because it was a crime itself punished at best with chemicals (hormonal castration). Mixed into the film is a touch of espionage where you least expected it to be. Breaking the Nazi code would mean the saving of millions of lives and the defeat of Germany. Yet it must be a gigantic secret because if it were known, the Germans might change the code. Recounting how all of this done was a great cinematic accomplishment led by a sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance by Cumberbatch who is certain to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. In addition to Knightley there are excellent supporting performances by Mathew Goode (who may be recognized as recently playing The Good Wife’s opposing attorney in that TV series), Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear and Charles Dance. In the end this is the story of a tragic hero who saved many millions of lives and who is probably the father or the grandfather of the modern day computer but yet was never truly appreciated during his life. This movie, which was made by a dedicated team that wanted to rectify this situation, deserves to be credited as one of the outstanding movies of the year (2014)
Force Majeure- rm- This is Swedish film with English subtitles and some English dialogue. Since it is quite clever and subtle, much of the credit should go to the Director and writer Ruben Ostlund. A couple and their two children go for a ski holiday at a French resort. They are suddenly faced with what seems to be a terrifying avalanche and how they act in a split second occupies much of this film. The film stars included Johannes Kchnke, Clara Wettegren and Kristofer Hivju. What emerges from this seven day holiday is an examination of relationships as well as the question of how comfortable are we with our self image especially when it is reflected back to us by someone we care about. The frank portrayal between the husband and the wife, another forty something man and his 20 year old girl friend as well as still another married women at the resort with a boyfriend all are viewed through a lens that is perhaps more Swedish then contemporary USA, if one can generalize. When the characters are in conflict they tell us or show us what they are feeling as well as the horns of their dilemmas. Several of the scenes, especially those with tension, seem to be drawn several beats longer that we thought were necessary. This seemed to lead us to be intellectualizing the action rather than feeling it. In any case we felt we were in the hands of a skilled filmmaker who kept us thinking about the characters and empathizing with their pain. There also was much to talk about after the credits rolled which is always the sign of a stimulating film (2014).
The Homesman sp Life was not easy on the Nebraska frontier in the 1850s, especially for women. It took Hilary Swank to show us how difficult it could be with some help from Tommy Lee Jones who co-starred with her, directed the movie and was a co-writer of the screenplay. The story is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout . It presents us with three women who have had nervous breakdowns due to the hardships of frontier life including losing three young children to diphtheria and being sexually abused. These three are all acting in a somewhat stereotyped manner where they never speak, roll their eyes and at least one acts like an animal. Swank’s character Mary Bee Cuddy agrees to take them back east across the bleak frontier land in a rickety horse and wagon since their men won’t do it. Her dedication, determination, frontier skills and compassion make her an unforgettable if not a somewhat tragic figure. She coerces George Brigg (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper who was about to be hanged until she saved him, to accompany her on this mission to return the “out of it” women to a minister in Iowa. Except perhaps for the mental patients everything and everybody seemed quite authentic from “ Indians” encountered along the way, Ms. Swanks weather beaten face and her plowing the field for her crops, the desert, Mr. Jones weather beaten face, the inn that wouldn’t let them stay there for the night and what subsequently happened to it . The two stars were outstanding as were brief character roles by James Spader, John Lithgow and Meryl Streep whose daughter Grace Gummer did a very good job as one of the silent mentally ill women. The message of the film was clear and well done but we are not sure it was worth the two hours. (2014)
The Theory of Everything –sp Most people know Stephen Hawking as a brilliant physicist confined to a wheel chair with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. This is a progressive muscular degeneration which has taken away most of his ability to move his limbs or even breath normally. He is limited to communicate with a speech synthesizer machine, which he controls with the minimal movements that he can make. He wasn’t always this way This film traces his life from his early college days in England where he was recognized as an outstanding student and it also was the time that he fell in love with Jane who became his wife and mother of his 3 children. We see him develop his groundbreaking theories of the universe at the same time that he was developing his devastating disease. This film highlights another remarkable accomplishment and that is the almost unbelievable manner in which Eddie Redmayne has been able to inhabit Hawking as his disease was progressing. The actor gave the appearance of a man with a gradually deteriorating body with strange limb postures, facial distortions and barely understandable speech but yet had a twinkle in his eye and a finely honed sense of humor. It is an extraordinary acting accomplishment that deserves to be recognized at awards time. Felicity Jones is also excellent as his sensitive wife who displays determination, frustrations as well the understandable complicated emotions as they decide to separate after years of marriage. Credit also has to be given to James Marsh who directed this film.
The screenplay by Anthony McCarten must be in part based on a book by Jane Hawking. We are also given at least a partial understanding of Professor Hawking’s evolving theories of the universe. The movie provides some insight into the complicated love relationship of Jane and Stephen as well as the circumstances that led them to separate and form new attachments to two very important people in their lives played by Emily (not Emma) Watson and Charlie Cox.
Stephen Hawking has been recognized by the British Queen and by the scientific community as one of the great minds of modern times. This movie also makes the case that his character, fortitude, determination and warmth should not be forgotten. (2014)
The Big Lebowski nf – There is nothing like a cross-country plane ride to find an old film that you missed and think you might like. In this case for us it turned out to be The Big Lebowski starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. This movie is often affectionately referenced in various settings and we were curious to watch it. Bridges plays “The Dude” who might be described as a good old boy with a heart of gold who is usually content to mind his own business and hang out with his buddies at the bowling alley. He dresses as if he is walking around in his underwear, with a bathrobe thrown over him. He is, of course, very likeable. The biggest event in his life would seem to be the latest bowling tournament. That is until The Dude gets mistaken for some rich guy called The Big Lebowski and gets drawn into an apparent kidnapping and ransom scheme of The Big Lebowski’s wife. The Dude’s good friend Walter (John Goodman) gets involved. He sees himself as a tough guy who knows how to handle difficult situations but usually he makes things worse. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to help the Dude with some new twist that develops. These guys are the charm of the film. The more the Dude tries to work his way out of trouble, the deeper he gets into it. In fact, he gets punched out several times and there is always a very creative depiction of his journey being unconscious. The movie really doesn’t go any place. The Coen Brother who wrote and directed the film put together a supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore, Steve Bucemia, Ben Gazzara, John Turturro and others. In the end we see that life goes on. The Dude carries on his life. Perhaps we all know this guy in a small way or he is someone we think we know or maybe on some level he is us. (1998)
The Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This movie has the ingredients to be a very well received production. Much of it is a powerful Broadway play within a movie . Specifically it is about an aging movie star Riggan who has made blockbuster movies titled The Birdman who doubts his acclaimed accomplishments and feels he has to prove himself by directing and acting in a serious dramatic play on the Broadway stage. Probably, it is not a coincidence that the star of the movie is 63 year old mega movie star Michael Keaton of Batman and Batman Returns fame among many other hits. His costar is Ed Norton who plays Mike a younger accomplished actor who is totally into the moment with his very dramatic acting in the play. There are excellent supporting roles by Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. The creation of the film comes from screenwriter and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu who is best known for Babel and Biutiful. Thanks to a collaboration between Fox Searchlight Pictures and New Regency he had a 16 ½ million dollar budget. Most of the film takes place inside a Broadway theatre or within the surrounding two or three blocks in the theatre district in New York City. The scenes each last several minutes. These long takes characterize the film and the viewer is given the impression that one camera is following the actors as they move through the winding corridors, dressing rooms, balconies and the stage itself, which would appear to be the well known St James Theatre. Riggan’s inner voice is quite loud and appears external. To further keep things rolling along, the music background score is almost entirely drums. The audience at times is asked to suspend reality but the intense drama keeps us grounded. Despite the high flying antics of Mr. Keaton the most revealing moment in the film would appear to be when the NY Times theatre critic who can make or break any show seems determined to break this one because she doesn’t believe Superhero movies stars have a right to claim the Broadway stage as true actors. While the movie had a dramatic flair and an intensity, which held our attention, we felt we were watching characters tell about their stories and situations rather than identifying with them and fully experiencing their plight. We suspect this will be one of those movies that people will either love or walk away without being moved but it is worth being seen. (2014)
Whiplash –sp As we move into the last quarter of the year, we are more likely to see movies and acting that will be Oscar contenders. This film, especially the performance of J.K.Simmons (You may know him from the Farmers Insurance ads on TV) may fit that category. Simmons plays Fletcher, a fanatical high school jazz bandleader, who is determined to win the prestigious band competitions. He will curse, belittle and do almost anything to his student musicians to seemingly get the best performance out of them. Andrew (Miles Teller) is one of those talented students who responds to his teacher and tries to drive himself to his furthest limit to be a great drummer. Many people in life have been inspired and challenged by a teacher. The movie suggest that there may be a moral question whether you can push a student too far to excel even if that student becomes the next Miles Davis or Charlie Parker. In the process of examining this question the viewer gets lots of jazz and what appears to be fantastic drumming. This film is the brainchild of Damien Chazelle who wrote the screenplay and also directed it. He himself was a musician in high school and was a pretty fair drummer who admits that some of his teachers may have prodded him a little too much and thus inspired this story. He worked closely with Miles Teller who was a rock drummer in his earlier youth but was coached to convert to do jazz drumming for the film. There was a weak romance theme as Andrew briefly befriends Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Andrew also has a very loving and supportive father played by Paul Reiser. These two latter characters added little to the story. Perhaps if they had been strongly interweaved into the main plot, the film itself might have reached a more sophisticated level. Certainly as it is, there is tension, drama and “all that jazz” including a great drum solo. You will come away thinking about this film and the questions raised by it. (2014)