A Most Violent Year- sp Rather then being about a violent year, this movie is about how one man tries to be keep his moral compass in an environment where it is seems almost impossible to do so. The setting is 1981 and we meet Albert Morales (Oscar Issac), the owner of New York City Oil Delivery Company that is trying to compete with a bunch of other companies most of which are run by gangsters, He knows that even his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) family has roots in crime but he believes that honest hard work will triumph in the end. He tries to instill this in the drivers and other workers. Screenplay Writer and Director J.C, Chandler (known for Margin Call and All is Lost with Robert Redford) creates an atmosphere where the viewer feels the tension and the looming danger. This is facilitated by a good supporting cast, which includes David Oyelow (who stars in Selma this year) and veteran actor Albert Brooks. All of us moviegoers who have seen gangster films know all about the mob and what our hero is up against. As the movie progresses and we identify more closely with the main character, it begins to feel like Shakespearian drama bordering on an impending tragedy. In the end we have a complicated ethical analysis to decide how we feel about the story we have been told. We have always said if the film gets you thinking and talking, the filmmaker will have achieved a worthy goal. (2014)
Selma- 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)
Reach For Me nf- If you are into Hospices and death and dying, this might be a good movie for you to see. It looks at a few people who have come to a residential hospice to die. Elderly Alvin (Seymour Cassel) has been a tough, probably a fairly self centered guy most of his life. His wife suicided on their 12th anniversary. He has a roommate who is a much younger man (Johnny Whitworth) who has a lovely girl friend (Lacey Chabert) who visits him and is very warm and tender to him. There is an understanding nurse played by Alfie Woodard and and a male nurse who provides some comic relief played LeVar Burton who directs and is the force behind this film. Alvin is seen to be much more complicated then his outward grumpy, unpleasant persona. He constantly reflects on his relationship with his departed wife at the same time that he strikes up a friendship with a dying woman at the hospice (Adrienne Barbeau) who admits that she always chooses the bad guys. The storyline and the script by Michael Adams makes the point that it is never too late to establish relationships and memories for oneself and others even at the end of life. This is conveyed in a manner that will touch your heart as we see a memorial service for the young man who has passed on. Yes, this can be a depressing movie as the viewer is forced to identify with and consider how people deal with end of life. It is simplified somewhat by the fact that in the end our main characters have all found someone to share their experience and the staff are warm and understanding. Hopefully something like this happens to dying people all the time. The acting was excellent and in a special section on the Netflix DVD you can see how each of them has thought out his or her character quite well. This Independent picture is worthy of your consideration (2008).
Foxcatcher rm- Steve Carell establishes himself as a serious actor as he plays John Dupont, one of the wealthy children of the Dupont family. He seems filled with his own narcissism but yet insecure and desperate to prove to his mother and the world that he is a wonderful, worthwhile person. He is going to try to do this by investing in his great passion and that is wrestling. He envisions himself as a wrestling coach and father figure to what he hopes will be the US championship team of the 1988 Olympics. This film is based on a true story with a screenplay by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye and is directed by Bennett Miller. It is mainly about three characters, Dupont, Mark Schultz ( Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) The latter two are brothers who have already won Olympic Gold Medals in wrestling. Mark comes across as quite introverted, islolated pliable and almost too wooden as he quickly agrees to move to the the Dupont estate and train for the next Olympics. It is hard to say if his rather blunted personality is what was intended by the story or perhaps it is some underacting by Tatum. David, the older brother and already a family man with a wife and two kids is also in a coaching mode, exudes warmth and relatedness, all of which is projected quite well by Ruffalo. He ultimately decides to bring his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids to join the US wrestling team on the Dupont estate under the irrational auspicious of John Dupont. The ambivalent relationship and tension between the two brothers is subtle and interesting to ponder. Vanessa Redgrave has a brief role as the Dupont mother who loves valuable horses and doesn’t think very highly of wrestling much to the despair of her son John. If you were into high school or college wrestling you may appreciate all the wrestling moves in the various scenes on the mats. The plot is also interesting to grapple with in this sad but very interesting story. (2014)
The Imitation Game- sp The Turing Test is a method that is supposed to help determine if artificial intelligence built into a modern computer is indistinguishable from the human mind. There was only an indirect subtle reference to this test in this movie, which however, was all about the complicated yet very human mind of Alan Turing. This is a Bio-Pic with a screenplay by Graham Moore adapted from a biography by Andrew Hughes as well as other books written about this man. It is produced by Graham Moore, Nina Grossman and Teddy Schwarzman who shepherded it through a few incarnations where it was almost made by a major studio but ultimately ended up as an independent production in the hands of the Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum (known for The Headhunters) starring Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Alan Turing. The movie dramatically reminds us of horrendous threat of Nazi Germany to the world during WWII and introduces us to the team led by Turing that is working in Bletchley Park in England trying to break the German Enigma code which could give the allies the edge to win the war. One of the team members is a woman by the name of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) whose great intelligence stands out and gets the attention of the leader who becomes very close to her. Alan Turing is shown to us as a brilliant young man with a personality often shown to be associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. It turns out Turing also is homosexual which he had to keep as a deep secret as during those times because it was a crime itself punished at best with chemicals (hormonal castration). Mixed into the film is a touch of espionage where you least expected it to be. Breaking the Nazi code would mean the saving of millions of lives and the defeat of Germany. Yet it must be a gigantic secret because if it were known, the Germans might change the code. Recounting how all of this done was a great cinematic accomplishment led by a sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance by Cumberbatch who is certain to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. In addition to Knightley there are excellent supporting performances by Mathew Goode (who may be recognized as recently playing The Good Wife’s opposing attorney in that TV series), Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear and Charles Dance. In the end this is the story of a tragic hero who saved many millions of lives and who is probably the father or the grandfather of the modern day computer but yet was never truly appreciated during his life. This movie, which was made by a dedicated team that wanted to rectify this situation, deserves to be credited as one of the outstanding movies of the year (2014)
Force Majeure- rm- This is Swedish film with English subtitles and some English dialogue. Since it is quite clever and subtle, much of the credit should go to the Director and writer Ruben Ostlund. A couple and their two children go for a ski holiday at a French resort. They are suddenly faced with what seems to be a terrifying avalanche and how they act in a split second occupies much of this film. The film stars included Johannes Kchnke, Clara Wettegren and Kristofer Hivju. What emerges from this seven day holiday is an examination of relationships as well as the question of how comfortable are we with our self image especially when it is reflected back to us by someone we care about. The frank portrayal between the husband and the wife, another forty something man and his 20 year old girl friend as well as still another married women at the resort with a boyfriend all are viewed through a lens that is perhaps more Swedish then contemporary USA, if one can generalize. When the characters are in conflict they tell us or show us what they are feeling as well as the horns of their dilemmas. Several of the scenes, especially those with tension, seem to be drawn several beats longer that we thought were necessary. This seemed to lead us to be intellectualizing the action rather than feeling it. In any case we felt we were in the hands of a skilled filmmaker who kept us thinking about the characters and empathizing with their pain. There also was much to talk about after the credits rolled which is always the sign of a stimulating film (2014).
The Homesman sp Life was not easy on the Nebraska frontier in the 1850s, especially for women. It took Hilary Swank to show us how difficult it could be with some help from Tommy Lee Jones who co-starred with her, directed the movie and was a co-writer of the screenplay. The story is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout . It presents us with three women who have had nervous breakdowns due to the hardships of frontier life including losing three young children to diphtheria and being sexually abused. These three are all acting in a somewhat stereotyped manner where they never speak, roll their eyes and at least one acts like an animal. Swank’s character Mary Bee Cuddy agrees to take them back east across the bleak frontier land in a rickety horse and wagon since their men won’t do it. Her dedication, determination, frontier skills and compassion make her an unforgettable if not a somewhat tragic figure. She coerces George Brigg (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper who was about to be hanged until she saved him, to accompany her on this mission to return the “out of it” women to a minister in Iowa. Except perhaps for the mental patients everything and everybody seemed quite authentic from “ Indians” encountered along the way, Ms. Swanks weather beaten face and her plowing the field for her crops, the desert, Mr. Jones weather beaten face, the inn that wouldn’t let them stay there for the night and what subsequently happened to it . The two stars were outstanding as were brief character roles by James Spader, John Lithgow and Meryl Streep whose daughter Grace Gummer did a very good job as one of the silent mentally ill women. The message of the film was clear and well done but we are not sure it was worth the two hours. (2014)
The Big Lebowski nf – There is nothing like a cross-country plane ride to find an old film that you missed and think you might like. In this case for us it turned out to be The Big Lebowski starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. This movie is often affectionately referenced in various settings and we were curious to watch it. Bridges plays “The Dude” who might be described as a good old boy with a heart of gold who is usually content to mind his own business and hang out with his buddies at the bowling alley. He dresses as if he is walking around in his underwear, with a bathrobe thrown over him. He is, of course, very likeable. The biggest event in his life would seem to be the latest bowling tournament. That is until The Dude gets mistaken for some rich guy called The Big Lebowski and gets drawn into an apparent kidnapping and ransom scheme of The Big Lebowski’s wife. The Dude’s good friend Walter (John Goodman) gets involved. He sees himself as a tough guy who knows how to handle difficult situations but usually he makes things worse. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to help the Dude with some new twist that develops. These guys are the charm of the film. The more the Dude tries to work his way out of trouble, the deeper he gets into it. In fact, he gets punched out several times and there is always a very creative depiction of his journey being unconscious. The movie really doesn’t go any place. The Coen Brother who wrote and directed the film put together a supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore, Steve Bucemia, Ben Gazzara, John Turturro and others. In the end we see that life goes on. The Dude carries on his life. Perhaps we all know this guy in a small way or he is someone we think we know or maybe on some level he is us. (1998)
The Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This movie has the ingredients to be a very well received production. Much of it is a powerful Broadway play within a movie . Specifically it is about an aging movie star Riggan who has made blockbuster movies titled The Birdman who doubts his acclaimed accomplishments and feels he has to prove himself by directing and acting in a serious dramatic play on the Broadway stage. Probably, it is not a coincidence that the star of the movie is 63 year old mega movie star Michael Keaton of Batman and Batman Returns fame among many other hits. His costar is Ed Norton who plays Mike a younger accomplished actor who is totally into the moment with his very dramatic acting in the play. There are excellent supporting roles by Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. The creation of the film comes from screenwriter and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu who is best known for Babel and Biutiful. Thanks to a collaboration between Fox Searchlight Pictures and New Regency he had a 16 ½ million dollar budget. Most of the film takes place inside a Broadway theatre or within the surrounding two or three blocks in the theatre district in New York City. The scenes each last several minutes. These long takes characterize the film and the viewer is given the impression that one camera is following the actors as they move through the winding corridors, dressing rooms, balconies and the stage itself, which would appear to be the well known St James Theatre. Riggan’s inner voice is quite loud and appears external. To further keep things rolling along, the music background score is almost entirely drums. The audience at times is asked to suspend reality but the intense drama keeps us grounded. Despite the high flying antics of Mr. Keaton the most revealing moment in the film would appear to be when the NY Times theatre critic who can make or break any show seems determined to break this one because she doesn’t believe Superhero movies stars have a right to claim the Broadway stage as true actors. While the movie had a dramatic flair and an intensity, which held our attention, we felt we were watching characters tell about their stories and situations rather than identifying with them and fully experiencing their plight. We suspect this will be one of those movies that people will either love or walk away without being moved but it is worth being seen. (2014)