American Sniper –rm After being shut out at the box office last week because it was sold out we finally got in to see this film. It has already grossed over 217 million dollars (so they really didn’t need our money) on a budget of 59 million dollars to make it. The film has been nominated for an Oscar as best picture and Bradley Cooper as best actor as well as receiving nominations for sound, sound editing and best adapted screenplay by Jason Hall. (It was adapted from the book by the sniper himself Chris Kyle) It is directed by Clint Eastwood. We tend to side with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who decided that this film didn’t make the grade for any Golden Globe Awards. In our opinion we just didn’t make any emotional connection with the character as depicted in the movie. Yes, we were genuinely touched at the end of the film when there were actual movie clips of the funeral tributes to this war hero who died as a civilian in 2013. (Sorry about the spoiler but you probably knew this already and it won’t take away from the movie). He had an unusual skill with a long range rifle and he cared about his buddies. Chris Kyle had more than 160 “kills” which is the most by far in the history of the United States military. He volunteered for extra tours of duty (actually having 4 tours and he had over 1000 days in a combat zone) despite the pleading of his wife (played by Sienna Miller) that she and their children needed him. He could have spent more time at home training other soldiers. Perhaps the writers and filmmakers try too hard to stick to the exact story presented to them and don’t use the poetic license that a good fictional drama can explore when they develop a character. It was interesting to us that we felt the same way about the movie Unbroken (see our review) which was another recent movie about a real life war hero which stayed close to the facts without very much depth.. It also didn’t move us although our admiration for the man especially as shown in the book was tremendous. Compare this to what we think is one of the greatest war films to come out in a long time, The Hurt Locker (see our review). This was fictional drama perhaps based on real events, but the main character is a composite. In our opinion this allowed the writers and director to explore subtle themes and find ways of bringing about an emotional attachment with the audience. In the the American Sniper, as in most war movies today, the combat scenes were very realistic. The sound was fantastic (does deserve the potential Oscar acclaim ) and the music with a lot of drums and included one composition credited to “the man of all seasons,” the director Clint Eastwood, was quite effective. There were the requisite expensive special effects, which likely made it just like it would really be if we were there. Sometimes all the smoke made it hard to see who was shooting who and we couldn’t tell the bad guys from the good guys but maybe that is the way it is in some combat situations. But without a strong connection to the main character we can’t put this film near the top of our list. (2015)
Unbroken- sp This movie is about the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian –American who grew up in a poor family in Torrance, California and became a champion track star and member of the US 1936 Olympic team in Berlin. He subsequently signed up with the US Air Force and became a bombardier during World war II. He and another crewmember survived a crash at sea and drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 2000 miles in 47 days dealing with starvation, dehydration, shark attacks and strafing from Japanese planes. He was then captured and spent most of the war as POW where he was brutally treated in part because he was recognized as a US Olympic runner. Most of the movie is spent recounting this experience. It is based a book by Laura Hillenbrand, a screen play by the Coen brothers and a few others. Angelina Jolie directed this film. Jack O’Connell, a 24 year old British actor plays Zamperini and he certainly does a adequate job although a more riveting actor such as a young Sean Penn might have helped to give this film some depth and that something special that seemed to be missing in our opinion. It didn’t help that we were struck by how the main characters mustache and goatee was fairly well groomed throughout the 47 days at sea and that he was pretty well clean shaven during prison time and also how most of the prisoners had clean military caps or hats. (It may have been that they were issued razors during imprisonment instead of decent nourishment, which they were surely not given.) We got the message that his brother gave him early on in his life that he should not give up but there was not much more in depth understanding of this important heroic person- other then he could stare his captors in the eye and was able to take a beating. Having read the book by Hildenbrand, (click here to see book review) one of us was disappointed that Zamperini’s bout with PTSD and alcoholism after he was freed was not shown nor was the story of his recovery with the help of the evangelist Billy Graham depicted. Some of the drifting and beatings could have traded for some more story with better insight into his psychological make up.. Another character that had great potential for a supporting role was Zamperini’s main nemesis among his captors and that was the Prison Commander known as “the Bird.” He is played in a somewhat bland manner by Miyavi (who is actually known best as a Japanese singer, writer, guitarist). He is supposed to be quite a mean cruel prison commandant but there is no attempt to show something about his character, which was developed in more depth in the book. Nevertheless the movie certainly stands as a tribute to Louis Zamperini, American hero who died at age 98 a few weeks before the release of the film, although he apparently saw the final version before he died. We don’t recommend that you do so. (2014)
Selma sp- It is hard to believe that this is the first docudrama about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. who is played by David Oyelowo. The screenplay by Paul Webb and superb directing by Ava DuVernay chose to examine one specific event in the historic 13 year career of this civil rights icon and that is the March from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, which took place in 1965. The first steps towards desegregation had occurred 10 years earlier when Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in front of a bus which led to the Montgomery bus boycott, coordinated by Martin Luther King Jr. Blacks had the right to vote but were blocked by the local registrars using tactics dramatically shown when Annie Lee Cooper, magnificently played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts to register to vote. As is clearly explained in this film, this denial based on racial discrimination was not only illegal in and of itself but it was further compounded by allowing juries to be all white since proof of voter registration was required to serve on juries in the South. It also kept the biased white politicians in their leadership positions. This state of affairs led to a first futile attempt to peacefully march to the courthouse steps by King and his followers, which is brutally disbanded by the local police. There were very revealing depictions of the behind the scenes discussions of King and his associates who included Rev. Abernathy, John Lewis and many others. The film showed those favoring a more violent confrontation such as the leaders of SNCC as well as interactions between King and Malcolm X. There are also several scenes between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) where Johnson expects King to delay his demonstration for a year or two so the President, elected by a landslide a year earlier, could pursue other agendas including programs within his “war on poverty.” As shown in this movie, it is not one of Johnson’s finest moments. King does not take no for an answer and we see the results as thousands of people including many whites, especially clergy in all denominations descend on Selma. The reliving the historic march from Selma to Montgomery sent chills up our spines as we were captivated by the visual effects including black and white clips of the actual event which took place almost 50 years ago. So often Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed by new generations as an almost mythical person. He has a national holiday named after him, streets have his name and it is is said in the same breath as other great Americans such as George Washington and Abe Lincoln. In this film he is shown to be a real person who at times seems anxious and scared and even has his human foibles as we see in a dramatic confrontational interaction with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Other very fine actors in this movie include Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth and Martin Sheen. King comes alive with a tremendous performance by David Oyelowo who is a Shakespearean actor by training and an experienced film actor. Producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner who we met at our screening related how Oyelowo was drawn to his part with an almost mystical destiny. He gained 30 pounds to resemble King and his oration of King’s words knocked it out of the ball park and could not have been better. This movie took us back in time and allowed us to experience one of the great moments in American history with all the fear, pain and tragedy, yet ultimate triumph of that march from Selma to Montgomery. (2014)
Private Parts- nf– Howard Stern who refers to himself as “ King of All Media,” in addition to this 1997 film and another one a few years later, has a best selling 1993 autobiography also called Private Parts, a ground breaking radio career which was topped off by a 2004 $500 million dollar contract with Sirius Radio on which he currently appears on several of their channels, has had various TV shows and is now a regular judge on the popular TV show America’s Got Talent. This movie is produced by Ivan Reitman and directed by Mary Thomas. It features Stern playing himself (except some of the brief scenes of him as a child) and it follows his life and career through college and his early radio jobs in Westchester, Hartford, Detroit, Washington and then WNBC in New York. It shows how after a few false starts, he eventually found his voice and modus operandi which was talking about himself and his private parts, his sexual fantasies and just about anything else that entered his mind. This was cutting edge at the time to the consternation of radio executives and the FCC. One of those executives was a program director at NBC, who Stern nicknamed Pig Vomit and is magnificently depicted by Paul Giamatti in this film. Today the forbidden language and the various bits that were deemed outrageous at the time would be old hat on satellite radio. The freshness of his frank language in the film seems quite dated and at times quite juvenile (it probably always was the latter) but in the story that is being told which includes some actual video clips, it is quite clear how he captured the imagination and enthusiasm of a very large numbers of listeners who became his fans and have given him ratings off the charts. This movie is a also a tender love story about Stern and his first wife Allison, played by Mary McCormack to whom he was married for 23 years with 3 children. They were separated two years after this film was made and Stern married Beth Ostrosky in 2008. Also played by themselves in the movie are Robin Quivers, Fred Norris and Jackie Martling who have been part of his radio team for many years. The now 60-year-old Stern has clearly not finished his run. This movie, which was made at a time that he was exploring how he could project his persona into still another media, now stands as a historical recounting of the beginning of a most remarkable career. It is well worth seeing as a poignant tale of a a “slightly misfit” creative and courageous man “ahead of his time.”(1997)
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)