August: Osage County sp- Meryl Streep has done it again as she turns in what has to be a sure thing for another Oscar nomination as best actress and we wouldn’t be surprised if Julia Roberts snags one for her supporting role. These two are part of the most dysfunctional family configurations that you can imagine as they gather in the matriarch’s (Meryl Streep) house after the patriarch(Sam Shepherd) has just killed himself. The setting is bleak but beautiful (if that is possible) Osage County in Oklahoma. The three daughters who come home, are played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson. A husband and boyfriend are played by Ewan McGregor and Dermot Mulroney. Margo Martindale is great as the almost equally mean sister of Steep’s character and her grown son is inhabited by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch. Her husband is wonderfully acted by Chris Cooper. The Director is John Wells who is best known for his television work on ER, West Wing, Shameless, Southland and many other shows. He certainly found the right touch to work with this all star cast as the interaction which develops over the post funeral dinner is spellbinding as are the subplots with the various family members. The screenplay is written by Tracy Letts who originally wrote it as a highly successful Broadway play which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wells, in a post screening discussion, stated that he hoped the audience will find a little of their own families in this depiction which we believe is a stretch as much of the family interrelationships were horrendous although fascinating. Streep’s character is anyone’s worst nightmare as a shrew, cruel insensitive pill popping mother about whom we can only gain insight and understanding when we hear her talk about her own mother. Is it ever possible to get away from such a bad piece of luck as to be born into this family? In one sense the movie is a study of how family members might be able to escape from such a toxic environment. We can only imagine how this witch-like matriarch might feel if she is finally abandoned and left alone with her native American housekeeper (perfectly played by Misty Upham). (2013)
Category: 5 Stars
The Book Thief- sp- This is an extremely moving film which captures still another aspect of the inhumane, cruel and evil impact of Hitler and his Nazi followers on the German people. It does this through the eyes of a young girl Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) who is 12 years old when we meet her as she is separated from her family and comes to live with a German couple in a small town just before the start of World War II. Her new mother Rosa Huberman (Emily Watson) is tough and strict on the outside but we come to see her tenderness and love as the story develops. Her new father Hans (Geoffrey Rush in what could be an Oscar nomination performance) shows his tenderness, love, pain and identification with his new daughter in many complex ways. It is their love of words and books, which they share, which brings them together and helps to convey the story that is being told. Whenever you have a child actress who is carrying the story and the emotion of a film, mainly with few words, the credit for this accomplishment has to be shared with the director, which in this case was Brian Percival. Kudos also for the birth of this film deserves to be given to Fox 2000 a major studio led by Elizabeth Gabler which also brought Life of Pi to the screen. This movie, which is narrated by the voice of death, is a fast moving two hours and five minutes and there is nothing that we would suggest should be cut from it. Although we both very much enjoyed the world wide best selling book upon which it based, one of us (MB) had some reservations about the book and the motivations of the author (see http://www.bookrap.net/?s=Book+thief) We both agreed the screen play by Michael Petroni was true to the book by Markus Zusak and the few changes were inconsequential. The music score, which captures the mood, and emotion, which exists throughout the film, was done by veteran award winning composer John Williams. When you think about it, our understanding of important historical events such as the rise of Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust often comes from the great films on these subjects, which become imprinted in our minds. The Book Thief will be one of the films, which will play this role with the moviegoers of today. (2013)
12 Years A Slave- sp This is one of the most painful and difficult movies to watch that we have seen in a very long time. The screenplay by John Ridley is based a little known book by Solomon Northrup, which was written in the mid 19th century. He is the main character of the film and is magnificently played by Chiwetel Ejiofor who is a very talented British actor who can express tormented feelings with his face and eyes. Northrup an upper class black gentlemen living a happy life with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York happens to be a talented musician who agrees to go on a short tour and play in Washington DC. He was kidnapped and brought to New Orleans where he is sold into slavery. It is through his experience that we come to deeply appreciate in the inhumane, vicious treatment of slaves on the plantations of the south. The debasement of another human being by others because they felt they owned them and could do anything they wanted to them is shown in so many ways. You probably have studied the story of slavery in this country but any tendency to repress that knowledge is challenged as we experience the separation of mother and child, whippings, demanding forced labor, rape and hangings. All of this occurs as everyday events. If this were just a reenactment of the horrors of this sad piece of American history, the movie would have achieved a worthy accomplishment. However, since the character with whom we closely follow and identify was a free man living in the North who gets pulled into anyone’s worst nightmare, it brings an even greater sense of reality and immediacy to his plight which we believe is quite palpable. There are some very good actors who play some very bad people and those include Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti. There was a heart wrenching performance by Luita Nyong’o born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and a recent Yale University School of Drama graduate who plays Patsy, one of the terribly treated young black women. Brad Pitt’s production company originally came up with the idea for this film and was one of the major producers of it. Pitt himself has a small but important role in this film. They brought in Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) as director who clearly connected with the concept and made an unforgettable film, which should not be missed. It is worth the pain that it will cause you. (2013)
Captain Phillips sp- This movie has all the ingredients of a successful award wining, exciting and enjoyable movie experience. It starts with a true story about Captain Richard Phillips, the American commercial sea Captain whose ship is hijacked in international waters by Somali terrorists He ends up being held hostage while the US Navy and the Navy Seals try to rescue him. You add to this that Captain Phillips is played by Tom Hanks who gives one of his best performances especially in the moving closing moments of the film. On top of all this Paul Greengrass (known for The action packed Bourne Ultimatum, Bourne Supremacy and United 93) as director rolls out this exciting drama as if you are seeing a documentary unfold before your eyes. Greengrass knows how to bring out sizzling tension mixed with pulse throbbing suspense. He also knows how to get great performances from first time actors such as the team that plays the hijackers and even from a real life young female navy corpsman who interacts with a distraught Captain Phillips. The Navy Seals appeared very authentic since they also were the real guys. An added touch was the story line which gave some sympathetic insight into the plight of the hijackers. There was very little CGI on this movie most of which took place at sea. It was a big budget film at it’s best. The clincher here is that even though you probably know how this movie ends, you will still be on the edge of your seat throughout the entire film (2013)
The Butler – rm This is much more than the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who served as a butler in the White House for United States Presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan. It is a moving depiction of the civil rights movement in the United States from the maltreatment of blacks in the south in the 1930s through the dramatic integration of schools in Little Rock, to Sit-Ins to integrate diners in the south , to the brave Freedom Bus Riders, the civil rights legislation, the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King and the continued demonstrations which followed in the years to come. The viewers are taken on a very personal journey to experience these events and others, as the Butler’s grown son Louis (David Oyelowo) participates in them while his father views the role of the United States President in shaping and responding to them. The movie is based on a newspaper article by Wil Haygood about a real person who served United States presidents as a White House butler for this large span of years and lived long enough to vote for Barack Obama. Even if screenwriter Danny Strong and Director Lee Daniels may have taken poetic license by having the older son Louis being present at all of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement shown in the film, it allows us to emotionally go through these milestones in a first hand manner. They are brought to life as if they were ripped from the pages of history. The friction between father and son emphasizes the differences in generational thinking not only of this one black family but would also reflect some of the changes in thinking which many of us have seen in this country during our life time. Forest Whitaker is magnificent as the Butler as he captures the soul and dignity of his character. Oprah Winfrey is outstanding as the sensitive wife who struggles with the frequent absence of her husband due to his long hours at the White House and the pain which the lives of her sons brings her. We don’t know if the words attributed to each U.S. President are known quotes but the character of them and the significant events that were shown during their presidencies all ring true. The mannerisms of each them were handled quite well by Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as LBJ and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan along with Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. There were many other very fine supporting roles. In addition, the movie is bookended quite well by a most dramatic and traumatic turn of events from the young Cecil Gaines as a youth working in the cotton fields in the south to him being an aged man walking in to meet the first black President of the United States. The sense of the historic chain of events which this encompassed will send chills up your spine and probably bring tears to your eyes. (2013)
Fruitvale Station-sp This is one of the most realistic, gripping and yet personal depictions of a tragic event that we have seen in a long time. It is well known to residents of the Bay Area and many other people that a few years ago there was a shooting of a 22 year old black man by the name of Oscar Grant by the BART (transit) police. This event was vividly captured by numerous cell phone videos on that day and was shown in the opening of this movie. Ryan Coogler, a black film student of the same age, was very much impacted by this event, as he felt it could have been him. Nina Yang Bongiovi, movie producing partner of the well known actor/director Forest Whitaker, in their quest to support young filmmakers, connected with Coogler and were impressed by his student work and his motivation to make this film. Bongiovi in our post screening discussion related how once Coogler was chosen to direct this film, he wrote the screenplay in 4 weeks and along with the producers convinced Michael B. Jordan to play the role of Oscar Grant. Melanie Diaz then signed on to play the girlfriend and veteran actress Octavia Spencer took on the all-important role of the mother. Both were magnificent in their sensitive emotional roles of these devastated women. Jordan who has acknowledged that he also felt quite related to his character handled the multifaceted parts of him quite well. It is the presentation of the persona of Grant that raises this movie to the five star level we believe it deserves. He is shown to be a caring young man who loves his daughter, girl friend and mother and is quite capable of extending his sensitivity to others in many ways. At the same time he is not totally honest with himself or others. He is troubled, and angry. He has a temper which can lead him to provoke as well as respond to temptations to fight and lash out. It may be argued that he may have become a symbol of the persistent racial tensions in the Bay Area and now to a worldwide movie audience. However the insight shown into him may also be able to allow both sides of the divide to identify with him and his aspirations which raises the possibility that this understanding will help to defuse these racial tensions which are still with us. Once the story begins to develop, it is very fast moving aided by the hand held camera work by Rachel Morrison who brought her reality TV experience to this movie. In the end, the great effort from both sides of the camera gave us a first rate movie that has the potential to make a big difference in how we understand ourselves and others. (2013)
Django Unchained – rm
This is another Quentin Tarantino revenge movie but yet it is like nothing that we have ever seen before. The brilliance of Tarantino ,who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, is that the movie is not what it seems to be. It begins looking like fanciful story that is a “shoot em up western” – maybe the so called spaghetti western (because they were made also by filmmakers of Italian background,) where some guys come to town on some mission and all sorts of things happen. The movie is initially set in Texas two years before the Civil War. A German-American dentist turned bounty hunter (Christopher Waltz) ambushes a transport of a few slaves because there is this one slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who can recognize three criminal brothers who he is trying to track down dead or alive to collect a bounty on their head put there by the federal government. The next thing you know, we are being drawn into the world of plantation slavery and the vicious, cruel, sadistic manner in which white people in the South were treating the blacks (a word by the way was never used since the “n word” prevailed.) Because the viewer can only take so much of this painful inhuman treatment, the film is laced with clear satire and if you can believe it , humor. Then, when the revenge factor kicks in there are endless shootings of mainly white guys with gushes of blood all over the place to the background of what seemed to be haunting western music. The story has it’s twists and turns and didn’t resolve itself for 2 ¾ hours. In the end we are left with an indelible view of the horrors of this period of our history served up to us in satire. In addition this film was a magnificent showcase for outstanding acting performances. Christopher Waltz may very well get himself a second Oscar as the conniving but sensitive dentist bounty hunter. Jamie Foxx evolved from captured slave to an unforgettable John Wayne type hero wearing a pair of shades. Kerry Washington did a great job as Brunhilda the German speaking slave who didn’t say much but her eyes told her story. Samuel L. Jackson was not recognizable at first by us but he nailed his role as a true “Uncle Tom” at the plantation who ultimately identified with his masters. Finally, Leonardo Di Caprio as the mean rich Mississippi plantation slave owner really got into his part and must have done a great job since we hated his character. We didn’t feel that way about the film. In fact, we felt quite the opposite. (2012)
Les Miserables sp
During the first few minutes of this epic film we were somewhat uncomfortable in that there was almost no talking and it was all singing. Of course this is based on the well known musical show by the same name but we just were not used to the constant singing of just about every piece of dialogue. Well, for the next two and half hours, we not only were comfortable with this style, but were completely caught up with the story, characters, drama and especially the emotion which was fueled by the wonderful music. Tom Hooper was chosen to direct this adaptation of this well known theatrical musical classic to the screen shortly after he won an Academy Award for The Kings Speech . He had a team of writers and producers who had worked on the original show in both London and on Broadway. In fact the original actor who played Jean Valjean, the thief who turns his life around, more than 25 years ago, Colin Wilkerson, played a smaller role in this movie as a Bishop ( we are sure as a tribute to the great history of this production.} Hugh Jackman carried this role in the modern film and was in fine voice and in character, as was Russell Crowe as Javert, the inspector who is mostly shown as the villain. Ann Hathway played Fantine a tragic heroine, a role originally played by her mother on the stage many years previously. She poured her heart into her major song which was an acting and singing triumph. Amanda Seyfried was excellent as Cossette as was Eddie Redmayne who played Marius the object of her love and one of the young heros. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provided some comic relief but also demonstrated that they could sing. Interestingly, Hooper did full continuous takes of all the singing and did not have the performers mouthing to their previously perfectly recorded renditions of the songs. This is quite an unusual approach in a musical but it appeared to work quite well allowing many close ups of the actors during these pieces. There were also some great long views of the Paris setting and the barricades which were manned for action. The setting of the story is 1832 in Paris, post French Revolution but at the time of an uprising known as the June Rebellion. This is really a morality play which shows how some people have a deep sense of fairness and justice and how one will not forget what has happened in the past . It is also a great love story. Finally it is a story about death. We are reminded what it means to die for the causes which you believe in and also the sadness when a parent has to die and say goodbye to the next generation. When you deal with such themes with characters you have come to know, add poignant and at times powerful music, you end up with a truly emotional experience and a great movie. (2012)
The problem with any movie that gets a lot of hype because it is about two giants in in their respective spheres of influence, Lincoln and Spielberg, is that you expect to be blown away, enthralled , introduced to new ideas that you never thought about before etc. etc. What we have here is a good movie, a really good movie that provides insight into one of the greatest American Presidents, as well as a lesson in political history that brought about one of the most important pieces of our constitutional history, the 13th Amendment that prohibits slavery. However, in order to appreciate this movie, you have to do more than sit back and enjoy, you really have to concentrate and think about what is going on before you. You are skillfully helped in this task by the screenplay by Tony Kushner based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “ Team of Rivals”, superb acting especially by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln , Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and, of course, the brilliant directing of Steven Spielberg.
The portrayal of Lincoln is distinctive and consistent. We have no way of knowing how on the mark it was, but his thoughtful, intense caring persona yet with a sense of humor makes him appear to be a person we would like to think that he was. He also was shown to be struggling with a parental dilemma with which we can easily identify. Imagine if you had a son that wanted to enlist in the military where young soldiers were dying by the thousands. Would you do everything you could to stop him ( and what if you could, since you were the Commander in Chief?). Or, if you understood how he could never forgive himself if he didn’t enlist would you allow him to choose his destiny (despite the protests of your wife). This was just a small side theme of this movie.
Thaddeus Stevens, one of the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, appears to be a fascinating person, as dedicated as Lincoln to their common cause but quite feisty with a sharp tongue that he wasn’t afraid to use. One of us was moved to read a little bit more about this man who was shown in the film as having a secret that was actually true to life.
The potential pertinence of this film to our modern day political issues was quite apparent. We know that there is a great deal of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and the cynical among us would say that most politicians can bought if you find the right price. But what if in the end, the goal in this case a constitutional amendment, was actually priceless in human terms. What do you bargain away to get it? It left much to think about regarding compromise and it’s many layers, as well as stopping ”perfect from being the enemy of the good.”
Then there is the “Rocky Factor”. Whenever there is a situation where a good guy has an uphill battle, can the movie send a chill up your spine at the right time. This one did. (2012)
Musical Chairs- sp This is a movie from which you will learn something about people and about the heart. It is about music and it is about dance . It is about what can happen when a person suddenly finds him or herself in a wheel chair for the rest of their life. Director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan ) takes a screenplay by Marty Madden and somehow does a perfect casting job starting off with E.J Bonilla, a young actor who plays Armando with a flair for music, dance and the ability to project his intensity and his sincerity when he encounters Mia (Leah Pipes) a beautiful young dancer before and after her tragic accident. The story flows as smoothly as the music and the dance of this film. Most of the rest of the engaging cast is this young man’s New York Puerto Rican second generation family who owns a restaurant and especially his mother (Pricilla Lopez) who has to struggle with her aspirations for her son and her realization of his love for his new girlfriend. The other group of extraordinary colorful players in this film are the people in wheelchairs who find that they can express themselves in dance. In reality only one of the actors, Auti Angel, who plays Nicky is actually confined to a wheel chair. She was a promising professional dancer who has a true story that is not too far from the plot of this movie. Behind the scenes we understand that she assisted and inspired the actors in wheelchairs to take on their personas. We view this movie as fairy tales where things happen and people say and do things not quite the way they may happen in real life. It reminds us of a musical where it can be convenient to suddenly find a place to sing (or in this case a hospital gym at night to dance in a special way). The characters and some of the dialogue are somewhat clichéd. This doesn’t seem to really matter because the emotion and the message of the movie is very real. We think everyone should be able to relate to this film and learn something about the human spirit. We also think that it has the potential to live on by teaching young people in schools and be an inspiration for the thousands of people every year who find themselves in a place they never thought they would be. Part of the storyline of the movie is a dance contest being held in New York labeled “The First International Wheelchair Dance Competition” In reality, while wheelchair dancing is big in Europe it hasn’t quite caught on in the USA. It would not surprise us if after this film is released and gets around we will see this event in some major city. That is part of the great potential of this movie.(2012)