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)
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)
Get On Up –rm This is the story of a young boy from rural Georgia who was abandoned by his parents, raised by madam from a brothel, fascinated by the gospel music in the local church and ultimately became the godfather of soul music. It is about a young man who spent time in jail, who essentially only had himself to rely on and yet always had tremendous belief in himself to the point of being self-centered, egotistical or narcissistic if you will. But in this case, he had the goods. He became a music legend he of course is James Brown.
The film is the brain child of Brian Glazer who is a well known movie and television producer who combined his talent with the skills of another music legend Mick Jagger, who has acknowledged being a great fan and being influenced himself by Brown. Jagger brought his music skills to the film as producer and music director. There are at least two more essential ingredients to this biopic and that would be director Tate Taylor (The Help) and Chadwick Boseman who previously starred as Jackie Robinson in 42.and now becomes James Brown. He does this by his speaking voice, mannerisms and learning the distinctive choreography of Brown’s movements during song and everyday life. This includes his swagger as well as his splits and the special way he whipped a microphone around. There also was some very skillful lip-synching accomplished by Boseman and the actors who played his band and backup singers since the great singing in this movie was the original voice of James Brown.
In addition to Boseman there was some great acting that needs to be acknowledged. Lennie James play Brown’s tough and angry father while Viola Davis was the woman inside the mother of Brown who loved him. yet abandoned and rejected him but still tried to come back when he was a success. Octavia Spencer was the madam in the brothel who took him in and more or less had the heart of gold. Dan Aykroyd was Ben Bart the white Jewish agent who became very close to Brown throughout much of his career and was called papa by him. Neisan Ellis was Bobby Byrd one the most loyal members of the original Flames which was Brown’s first groupbefore Brown became a phenomenon by himself. Brown’s complicated relationship with Byrd reflects his self-image of seeing himself as something very special but yet having a lingering need for close friendship that he may never have found.
On one hand the film used flashbacks to effectively show the genesis of Brown’s unique character but yet they seemed to abruptly pull us away from the engrossing music and the story of how Brown was rising to the top, dealing with racial issues including the country’s response to the death of Martin Luther King as well as how Brown faltered in his personal life. There were many backup players moving in an out of Brown entourage as well as various women and children We could not always be sure who they were in his life which might be defect in the film. In addition, we and at least one other person agreed that the conversations of Brown and some others were not always understandable which could be the dialect, or an audio problem but would seem to be a flaw. The running time of the film was 2 hours and 18 minutes and while we can’t say what should have been cut, it probably could have been shorter. However,we have no complaints in re-experiencing the great music and moves of the incomparable James Brown.(2014)
Life Itself-rm- It feels somewhat strange for us amateur reviewers to be writing a review about a documentary film centered on the most esteemed movie critic of our time. But in our opinion it is an excellent film that we would guess would receive high marks from the master himself if he were still around. He died a few months before the film was ready for release. We meet Roger at point where he is battling the cancer that has already taken away his vocal speech and altered his face. His voice via his laptop is heard and is an important part of the film. In life, his voice at this point came from a computer voice synthesizer but in the film there is a voiceover by Steven Stanton who seems to capture the inflections of Ebert’s voice as we heard it at an earlier time. Director Steve James (in 1974 Director of Hoop Dreams which Ebert had named best picture of that year) skillfully weaves video clips and interviews with various people in Ebert’s life with a flashback technique in order reconstruct this remarkable story. It becomes a special treat for the viewer to meet some other great movie critics and directors as they comment on Ebert and his work throughout the film. Such people as A.O Scott from the N.Y. Times, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine and Directors Weiner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. Ebert’s talent became clear in college when he proved his skill as a writer and was quickly elevated to editor at his college newspaper while at the University of Illinois as well as working for the city newspaper. He is depicted as confident, arrogant and brilliant. After college he then worked as general reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and then in 1967, 3 years after graduating from college he became the full time movie critic for the Chicago Times, a position he held for his entire career. In 1975 he teamed up with Gene Siskel, the movie critic of the other major newspaper in Chicago, in order to cohost a weekly film review television show that became immensely popular and ran until Siskel’s death in 1999. Their relationship is shown as a love-hate one where they pulled no punches on or off the air but obviously had great affection for each other. Ebert married at age 50 in 1992 to Chaz, an attorney who he met at an AA meeting. Yes, he apparently was a big drinker at the bars and saloons he hung out at early in his career. We don’t see much in the film about this aspect of his life. He stopped drinking in 1979 but apparently stayed connected with AA. He is shown to be very loving and committed to his wife, step daughter and step grandchildren. Ebert’s accomplishments as a writer and critic were heralded beyond any doubt when in 1975 he became the first movie critic to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work. It would be 29 more years before such recognition was given to another film critic. In addition to this movie being about the life of Roger Ebert, it is also clearly about his dying and death. The Director Steve James started working with Ebert on this film 5 months before he died. The film shows his wife’s support as he battles his progressive disease with repeated hospitalizations. Chaz gives a very moving description of how he kept working on his film blog (obviously also this film) to the day before he died and how he finally decided to let go. In the spirit of writing this review we would have to say that we thought this pain and suffering was drawn out in the film longer than it had to be to make it’s point. But on the other hand we may feel that way because we really came to revere him and it was painful to see the end of the story. (2014)
Jersey Boys- rm- If you are of a certain age and when you hear the high pitched voice of Frankie Valli singing “Sherry” in full harmony with the rest of the Four Seasons, you want move around and do some dancing, then this film will be a most enjoyable experience for you. We suspect many other generations will also enjoy the musical re-creation of this 50s group. Director and Producer Clint Eastwood has chosen to take this story and the music to the silver screen after a version of it was a successful Broadway Show. This is certainly more of a musical accomplishment than dramatic achievement. Each member of the group was quite distinctive in their personality and story. Frankie Castellucio alias Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) was shown to evolve from a naïve young man to the star he became. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) was originally the brains behind the group and the one who first recognized Valli’s star potential but didn’t have the know how or the integrity to financially help them thrive and survive as a group. Nick Mass (Michael Lomenda) by dropping out prematurely allowed Valli to complete his career without the intact Four Season. Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) was the last to join the group and was the talented songwriter who probably provided the key ingredient, which allowed Valli and the group to shine so bright. Not only is the music captivating but also there is excellent choreography. There is also some very well done subtle aging of these guys as they grow into mature men. Gangsters and the mob were an important part of the scene in the upbringing of these young men and in their rise to the top. The leading gangster kingpin is well played by Christopher Walken. This is a story about boys growing into men and ultimately loyalty among men is a theme which Director and Producer Eastwood knows well and has brought to the screen many times. The women in their lives are downplayed and almost presented as incidental characters. However there is some attempt to show the meaning of a lost family life. But what will not be lost will be the history of this legendary early rock and roll band and a most enjoyable musical experience.(2014)
*** The Invisible Woman- rm. The poster for this movie tries to summarize the story as follows: Charles Dickens was the most famous writer in the world. His greatest story was the one he could never tell. This is a story of Nelly, an 18 year old actress (Felicity Jones) who is in love with everything Dickens has ever written, produced and acted in and becomes completely smitten with this brilliant and charming man himself. Charles Dickens (played by Ralph Fiennes who also directed the movie), the renowned, author, actor who is married with 10 children and is 2 ½ times the age of the young actress and has a son who is at least her age. He is drawn to the young woman seemingly because she is so into him and his work. The setting is Victorian England so apparently Dickens would never want to besmirch the young woman’s reputation with whom he is now having an affair even after he announces in the newspaper that he has separated from his wife and denies all rumors that Nelly is his love. She is expected to live in the outskirts of the city, alone, content with visits from the great author. The story obviously is based on fact from a book by Claire Tomain and was made into a screenplay by Abi Morgan. It is attractively filmed, showing the magnificent countryside of Margate, England, the period dress of the main characters and the actors and actresses of the time who are shown acting in Dickens’ plays, the expressive face of Fiennes as Dickens with a subtly graying beard with time and the close-ups of the sensitive beautiful face of his young lover. We are being shown a socially minded Mr. Dickens who on one hand was devoted to trying to help the downtrodden social class of his time by raising money for a children’s hospital and we know also how he exposed the inequities and poverty in his writings. But on the other hand we see a narcissistic man who cared mostly about his own writing and seemed to be quite insensitive to the most important women in his life. It has to be a special accomplishment when the star of the movie is also the director, which was the case here. However, that might account for not editing the 111 minutes little tighter, as the lingering facial studies may have lingered longer than necessary for effect. (2014)
Hitchcock- nf As we anticipate this year’s Academy Awards nite, we were in the mood for a movie about making movies. We chose to view this biopic about the great Alfred Hitchcock. We can’t imagine two better choices for the stars than fellow Brits Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirin as his wife, Alma. While Hopkins seems to channel Hitchcock in appearance and mannerism, director Sacha Gervasi added to the impersonation by showing the iconic director’s profile numerous times. This is the story of a crisis in the life of the “Master of Suspense” as he is wondering if he is past his prime and won’t ever be able to match his last success North by Northwest. Perhaps driven by some demons in his own head he decides that he wants to make a movie of a book he has just read titled, Psycho. Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) head of Paramount Studios, where Hitchcock has a contract doesn’t think it will go over with the public and won’t provide the funding. Hitch makes a deal with them to do it if he provides the finances, which he does by mortgaging his own house. The screenplay by John J McLaughlin based on a book by Stephen Rebello shows us a man who realizes that he is at a crucial point in his life and with his marriage. He seems to have the confidence to make a great movie but he has to reach much deeper to try to save his marriage. As a movie fan it is fun to see a depiction of the making of Psycho. In this case it is Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles who we see might have been the “other woman” in the grand master’s life. While there is some attempt to remind us of the magic of a Hitchcock film, in the end it is just a snapshot of a one of film-lovers great heroes. (2012)
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)
Jobs-sp – Steve Jobs has to be one of the iconic figures of our time. Any attempt of a film to get into his head and show what makes him tick would be of great interest. This movie directed by Joshua Michael Stern, with screenplay by Matt Whiteley and starring Ashton Kutcher as Jobs certainly held our attention but it provided no particular insight into the dynamics of Job nor did it provide a clear understanding of the life of this man who is one of founders of the company that makes the computer, iphone and ipad that so many of us hold in great esteem. We see a young man who is intensely interested in innovation, who over and over again insists upon perfection and appears to have a clear deficit in his ability to have empathy for other people. Had he not met Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), we might still be using typewriters and even Bill Gates wouldn’t have had a model to rip off for the IBM PC. It was Wozniak who designed the workings of the personal computer but it was Jobs who had the vision how it should look and how people would use it . It is Jobs who we see in the movie ruthlessly demanding what is seen as the impossible from his designers and computer geeks. The film follows Job’s through the founding of Apple , development of Apple 2, Lisa and the early Mac. While his expulsion and his return to glory is shown, the several years away from Apple including his time with Pixar pictures is not covered However the journey that is depicted is choppy. The other characters from the original scruffy band of developers , Mike Markkula (Dermott Mulroney), an executive from Intel who joined Jobs early on, to Jon Sculley( Matthew Modine) the honcho from Pepsi, one of several CEO’s who replaced Jobs for awhile, may be difficult to to appreciate exactly who they are and their significance. Unless, of course, you have read the official best selling biography by Walter Issacson which the movie is not based upon but may be the basis of another future movie being worked on by Aaron Sorkin. Job’s personal life is particularly confusing in this film . He is not accepting responsibility of the pregnancy of his girl friend and then later in the film he is briefly seen married to another woman with this first child visiting him as a teenager (named Lisa which is the name of one of the Apple computer models which appeared after the Apple 2). The film is carried by Ashton Kutcher who mastered Job’s mannerisms as well as projecting his narcissistic characteristics. In addition the actor is known to have shared Job’s love of technology and innovation which may have added to his successful portrayal. (2013)
Paul Williams Still Alive- sp Filmmaker Stephen Kessler grew up and came of age in the 1970s and 80s and was a big fan of the music and of the personality of Paul Williams. He had thought that Williams had faded from the scene. Therefore he was quite surprised when a few years ago he found out that his music hero was alive and well. He read that Williams was still writing and performing music. He tracked down 65-year-old Williams at a concert in Winnipeg, Canada where he was playing to an enthusiastic but older crowd. Kessler proposed that he would make a documentary film about the career of Williams. His proposal was politely turned down but Kessler persisted and ultimately made the film with William’s agreement. In an unorthodox documentary style, the film chronicles how Kessler gradually won over Williams to allow him to make this loving tribute. He used flashbacks, mainly in the form of film clips and videotapes of Williams and many others performing his songs. Early music such as the Carpenters singing We have Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays as well as many others such as Cried Like a Baby and Talk It Over In the Morning. He co wrote many songs including the music sung by Jim Hensen as Kermet the Frog. He wrote for TV shows such as Happy Days and wrote and sang the music for the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble that starred John Travolta. Williams was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for writing the best music in a motion picture and won the Oscar for Evergreen in the movie A Star is Born which was co-written and performed by Barbra Streisand. Williams’ status as a pop icon was confirmed by the fact that he was a guest 50 times on the Johnny Carson show. Although 5’2” he was giant in the music industry. Williams himself admits that his fame went to his head and he seemed embarrassed when Kessler showed him some of his old tapes. He came across in them as a self-centered person who was caught up with his own fame and success. Drugs and alcohol became a mainstay of his life. He subsequently had treatment and now has been sober for over 20 years. His wife Marianna is frequently shown at his side in the movie and it is obvious that she and his two children are very meaningful to him. He has evolved to where he clearly cares about people and is deeply passionate about music, not only his own but the music of other composers. He is now President of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, which is a very powerful organization fighting for the rights of all songwriters. Paul Williams has come a long way and as the title states is “still alive” in every sense of the word.(2012)