The Great 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 Great 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 More, 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 and 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)
This Is Where I Leave You- rm This movie recreates the novel by Jonathan Tropper who also wrote the screenplay for this film. He is true to the characters he created but the difference is that they are now inhabited by an ensemble of some very talented actors. The story line is that the patriarch of the Altman family has died and the wife (Jane Fonda) calls back her grown children to return to the family home and sit Shiva for a week, which she says was the father’s request. In the course of this expedition we learn about each of them and their relationships and also see how they feel about each other. The main focus and is on Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) who early in the film walks in on his wife having sex with his boss (Dax Shepard who is well know to Parenthood fans as Crosby Braverman). In a sensitive performance Judd not only must reevaluate his relationship with his wife (Abigail Spencer) who has a little surprise up her uhh “ sleeve” but also deal with his reawakened feelings for his old hometown girl friend Penny (Rose Byrne) who is even more appealing than he remembered her as she spins around the old ice skating rink. The youngest brother in the Altman family, Phillip, is played by Adam Driver (known as one of the guys on Girls). He is more or less the unsuccessful playboy type. He comes home in a Ferrari bought by his latest older but beautiful and successful girl friend, Tracy (Connie Britton) who accompanies him. Driver’s performance provides the gathering of the clan with energy and humor. The opposite is shown by Paul Altman (Corey Stoll) the older brother who had stayed with his late dad to run the family store. He is in a thus far unfruitful marriage with Alice (Kathryn Hahn) who injects some humor as the very desperate but devoted wife who would even try to get Judd who has enough troubles on his own, to help her make a baby. There is not much humor coming from the sister Wendy Altman (played by usually hilarious Tina Fey). Wendy has two small kids and a husband who is preoccupied with his phone and business. She tries to buck up other family members while reflecting on the past on seeing her old neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant) who had been her boyfriend until he had suffered a head injury in car accident while she was with him. So these are the four siblings who return home for the Shiva which by the way is more or less supervised by the local rabbi (Ben Schwartz) who happens to be a childhood friend of the sibs and they keep referring to him by his youthful nickname “boner“ so labeled because he always had one. We should mention that Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda), the widow and matriarch of the family is played as a tough but caring woman who is a therapist and had written a well received book now having a 25th anniversary edition, which used the family members childhood and adolescent secrets as examples in her text. Needless to say they haven’t been very happy about this, nor do they appreciate her frank talk about sex and the causal and open way she will display her breasts. (This must somehow be related in some way to Ms. Fonda’s well-known bout with breast cancer and plastic surgery. “Credit” here must be given to director Terry Stacey. In the end we are left with a movie that introduces us to a bunch of family members all of whom are having problems. They do seem to mostly care about each other but don’t really know where they are going, nor do we. As one of us said when we reviewed the book: In the future when the author comes up with an intriguing story line and adds his uncanny ability to capture inner feelings and thoughts, I believe he will bring his writing to a new award winning level. Any future film based on such a book will stand a chance to rise to the to the top. Not this one.
Draft Day- rm You have to give credit to a movie that comes up with an original theme about which millions of Americans will feel great passion. The subject is football and one of the most important, if not crucial days of the football season, which is the NFL Draft Day. In this fictional story, leading up to this day, Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, trades away his team’s number one draft pick, for three years of future number one picks. Which player he chooses with that pick, who he doesn’t choose and the drama behind all the deals and horse trading that does go down, is the essence of this movie. Costner is supported by Jennifer Garner who plays his girl friend. She is a football executive with the Browns in charge of keeping track of the “cap” (football fans will know what this means). Dennis Leary plays the coach of the Browns with the Super Bowl ring and a million dollar salary, who is supposed to lead next year’s team to that very Super Bowl. Only he is not so sure that he likes Weaver’s intended draft picks. Speaking of million dollar salaries, Roger Godell the real Commissioner of the NFL, who is known to have a multi-million dollar salary, plays himself in the movie (obviously not for the money). By coincidence, the day that we saw this film on a cross-country air flight, the NFL is in the headlines as Roy Rice, an NFL star, has been suspended for punching out his fianceé, which was caught in an elevator video. There is a somewhat related theme in this movie, as the question is raised of how should the character of the potential draftee influence whether he is chosen as a high draft choice as compared to being chosen solely on the basis of his athletic accomplishments. You can guess which one wins out. The film is directed and co-produced by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbuster I and II and other mainly comedies). This movie won’t be at the top of our ‘picks” and we rate it a notch below Moneyball, which dealt with a related theme in professional baseball. However, we know that football fans will eat it up and there are lots of them out there. (2014)
Last Days in Vietnam-sp- Even if you were around in 1975 during the U.S pullout from South Vietnam, the true story of how it went down is probably not the way you remember it. Even that iconic photograph of people climbing up a ladder into a helicopter from what you thought was the U.S Embassy was not the U.S. Embassy. Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy is a documentary filmmaker who realized that there was an interesting story here to be told. Together with her co-producer Keven McAlester and their team she researched the subject, dug out archive documents and film footage, followed leads, set up interviews with former CIA agents, American soldiers, as well as Vietnamese who got out and some that didn’t. She also was able to interview one of the key surviving players who surrounded and advised President Ford during those final days. That was none other than Henry Kissinger who had been Secretary of State for both Ford and President Nixon. Nixon actually looks quite good in the view of the historical circumstances, which are presented here. It was under his watch that the peace accord of !973 was signed which was followed by the withdrawal of US Troops. We are then shown in 1975 shortly after Nixon resigned from office that the North Vietnam troops began the march towards Saigon. The implication was clearly stated that they would have been afraid to do so if Nixon were in office. We then see how President Ford was not able to get Congress to raise money to support any effort to stop this new aggression.
The real story here was the denial by U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin of the threatening attack that was underway, spilling down towards Saigon with the ultimate evacuation of all the Americans and the desperate attempt to get out bythe South Vietnamese who were connected to the Americans. Rather than use an authoritative narrator, the filmmakers chose to use the faces and the voices of the Americans and Vietnamese who lived through those harrowing days who told their own stories. The latter group knew that if they did not get out, they stood a good chance of being killed or severely punished. In fact in the final credits we learn that some of these narrators subsequently spent years in “ reeducation camps” before making their way to the United States. We learn that the final dramatic evacuation was not only by helicopter but also by sea. The helicopters flew out thousands of evacuees to a flotilla of ships led by the USS Kirk.
A good documentary often relies on some fresh views of the historical event. In this case, that was not only provided by American and Vietnamese survivors of this unusual evacuation telling their tales but also by the discovery of a box full of 8mm movie film taken by one of the sailors aboard the USS Kirk almost 40 years ago. These movies provided a vivid picture of the thousands of civilians packed aboard these ships as they attempted to get to Manila. They also showed a never to be forgotten sequence of movie scenes of a gigantic Chinook helicopter that was too large and heavy to land on the US ship. Instead the Vietnamese pilot who was trying to save his family and others had to do a remarkable maneuver where he hovered so his young children could be dropped and caught by the sailors below. He then did what experts feel was an extremely difficult task of climbing out of his pilot gear, ditching his gigantic helicopter into the sea with its spinning blades disintegrating, while he jumped out into the water and swam to safety of the nearby vessel. This amazing accomplishment was narrated by his now grown son who had been seen as one of the young children being dropped out of the Chinook.
There were several moral questions raised by this film. The big question was did the U.S. have a commitment to its ally, South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese broke the Paris Peace Accord and invaded South Vietnam. What was the meaning of the refusal of Congress to provide funds and the failure of the President to send troops back there? Did the U.S have a commitment to the many civilians and their families who had worked for the US and would be targets if they were not evacuated? Were several U.S. officers within the embassy wrong when they disobeyed orders and organized secret “ black opps” plans for evacuating civilians when the Ambassador had not authorized this to be done.? There also was a promise to all those Vietnamese who were allowed to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds for evacuation, that they would definitely be rescued. However once the Ambassador left, after most of the people were evacuated, there were 420 Vietnamese left behind who had been promised evacuation. Finally, is there any lesson here that we can glean that can be applied to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. has left and now the situation is deteriorating?
When a documentary film can prevent a fresh view of history and stir up new questions, which even pertain to our current time, we have to view it as a successful endeavor that should be seen.(2014)
A Five Star Life-rm – Can you picture a woman in her 40s who feels that she pretty much has things going very well in her life? She has a dream job where she travels and gets treated extremely well. Although she broke up with her boyfriend, they are best friends and frequently spend time together. She seemingly has a great relationship with her sister who is married with two kids who she sees quite a lot. She is quite attractive and she appears ready to have another relationship with a man. That is the situation with Irene Lorenzi (Margherita Buy) who has the unique job to travel to the world’s most luxurious hotels as the “mysterious guest” and evaluate and report to the management every aspect of their supposedly immaculate service for their guests. This is an Italian film directed by Maria Sole Tognazzi who also shared in the writing credits. The setting is the most beautiful parts of the world and the comfortable life style that exists for certain travelers. It shows us a view of the top of the line service that is offered in these 5 star hotels. Not only is your suitcase delivered to your room, but the bellboy will unpack it and put things away for you. For some reason you don’t even seem to tip them at least for each individual service. If you are living in such a pampered life style what would it require for you to do a self evaluation. In this case, it is a brief chance meeting with an author Kate Sherman (Leslie Manville) who is making some television appearances to talk about her views about intimacy, shortly before she departs and leaves the hotel. This limited encounter, and the circumstances surrounding it, bring about a self reassessment of the main character. If this film is successful you will question if things are always what they seem to be and even more important, is it possible to change? (2014)
Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America -sp If you were looking for an exciting documentary film to watch one evening, you probably would not come up with this film. You might choose one about whales, some aspect of war, the Holocaust, something related to sports or politics. Maybe you would choose Robert Reich’s Inequality for All but chances are you would not think of a film about the man who designed Central Park in New York City and a lot more. However, this very well done film by Emmy nominated husband and wife team documentary film makers Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey has the potential to give you an unforgettable perspective on the beauty and living spaces of your city as well as many other places throughout American and the world. As former New Yorkers, we have spent time over the years enjoying the beauty and comfortable space of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. We assumed it was simply the original natural beauty that was preserved by our fore fathers. In actuality it was the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted who not only worked on and designed these parks with his colleague Albert Vaux but who fought to convert and build spaces into the magnificent parks with roadways, bridges, water, greenery and a backdrop of one of some of the most magnificent skylines in the world. Similarly Olmsted was also the driving force in setting up a series of parks and wonderfully designed open spaces in Buffalo, New York, which became a model for similar designs throughout the world. The setting, which encompasses Niagara Falls, was converted from a shoddy commercial exploitation to what is rightfully called one of the wonders of the world, thanks again to the work of this man. He became the planner of Boston’s “ Emerald Necklace” of green space and the creator of park systems in many other cities. He helped to make Yosemite the attractive place of beauty that millions of people have visited throughout the years. He played a major role in designing the now beautiful setting that surrounds the U. S. Capitol. He also was the site planner for the “Great White City” of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This unusual story is told with fascinating old photos and breathtaking very well photographed stills and video clips. Being California people now, we especially appreciated the rich autumn colors in many of the locations that were shown. The personal history of this man and his family some of whom carried on his work is another part of the film. Showing this film in schools will not only inform young people about this subject but may also inspire some creative ones to study landscape design and perhaps carry on the tradition which is so well documented in this movie. (2014)
Killer Mermaid-sp – As readers of this blog well know, we have not previously reviewed movies of the monster genre. However, when circumstances provided us with a preview DVD of such a film, we decided to go for it. This is a Serbian movie in English. It is filmed in Montenegro, Serbia with an experienced director, Milari Todorovic (Apocalypse of the Dead) and starring a veteran actor, Franco Nero (Django) and a group of young actors who have already established themselves in this genre: Kristina Klebe (Rob Zombie’s Halloween), Natalie Burn (The Expendables 3) and Dragon Micanovic (Rocknrolla). The setting could not be more intriguing as a beautiful seaside town with a mysterious island off shore with an old stone prison, where during World War II the Nazis were said to have done some nasty business. Two attractive young women come to visit their old college friend who is at this seaside town with his beautiful fiancee. They meet another young man and decide to explore this island named “Marmula.” The story line will grab your attention and keep your anxiety level high. The script is well constructed and qualities of the characters play out in what is soon to be developed. There is vicious murder, blood and guts, suspense, scary music, surprises, twists and turns, hypnotic enchantment and of course a killer mermaid. She is a combination of outstanding natural beauty and is also about as horrific as you will want to see, all due to a combination of CGI, some very skillful make up and state of the art mask construction. It is well done and deserves to join the growing number of well-received horror films. It will stand out because as best we understand, it is one of the first to use the deep sea and fantasies of living mermaids. As the movie concludes we see a clear set up for a sequel. The film and future follow-ups will stand a very good chance of high success since it has the backing of Epic Pictures which has an outstanding track record of frightening people around the world with some great horror flicks. (2014)
May in the Summer- sp Cherien Dabis is an award winning Palestinian American director, producer and screenwriter who does all three roles in this film in addition to taking the starring role which she handles in outstanding authentic manner. May (Dabis) is coming home from the U.S. to see her mother in modern day Jordan to prepare for her upcoming wedding. Her mother (Hiaam Abbass) and her family are Christian and May’s fiancée is Muslim so we are introduced to one of the several themes of this film. May’s two sisters Dalia (Alia Shawkat) and Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) have also come to Jordon for the event and the conflicts and bickering among the sisters is part of the evolving story further highlighted by one sister acknowledging that she lesbian although she doesn’t like that label. The sister’s father (Bill Pullman) had left the girls’ mother and married a much younger woman (Rita Singh Pande). He tries to apologize for the neglect of his children and establish a relationship with them when May and her sisters visit their Dad and his new wife as May’s wedding plans are being made. Through the discussions with May’s mom we also become aware of the limited options for a divorced woman in this society, although she clearly hasn’t given up. On top of everything May has doubts about her decision to get married. Each one of these conflicted issues is evolving as the characters interact in a very believable environment. The film does not attempt to delve into any one of these themes in depth. Each of them could have been a separate story but it is the universality of all of them allows the audience to recognize the people in this human drama and find meaningful identifications with them. That is the strength and the success of this excellent film. (2014)