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)
Barbara- sp This is the 2012 entry from Germany in the Oscar race for best foreign film. It is a throwback to the 1980s and a view of East Germany a little less than 10 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story revolves around Barbara (Nina Hoss) a doctor who has been sent to the boonies ( a small hospital in the countryside of East Germany.) Her wish and her goal is to escape from this oppressive country and she has a plan to do it. However, she is constantly under the watchful scrutiny of the secret police as well as that of her colleague Andre (Ronald Fehrfeld).
She also has a keen awareness of the hardship and cruelty which the government causes the people around her especially a few of the young patients at her hospital who we have a chance to meet. This is the 5th movie that Nina Hoss has made with Director Christian Pelzold and the most successful one in Germany. Hoss’ intense depiction of the emotions of her character is done with few words. The storyline is slow to develop but the suspense and the drama are very well done. (2012)
The Grand Canyon nf– After recently seeing Director/Writer Larry Kasden’s latest film Darling Companion and liking it very much we decided to view this 1991 film also directed by Kasden and co- written with his wife Meg Kasden. This film was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. It is set and made in Los Angeles about one year before the LA Riots. It is about people from different parts of town whose lives intersect due to some random circumstances. Kevin Kline plays Mac, a successful attorney who goes off the beaten path in more than one way but finds himself seemingly rescued by Simon (Danny Glover), a tow truck driver. Their lives and their life styles reflect their different social, racial and economic settings. The important people in each of their lives are struggling with their own identities and life crisis. Mack’s wife Claire (Mary McDonnell) questions her marriage and tries to deal with her feelings as she is watching her teenage son grow up and have his first romance. She has to decide how to fulfill her own life as well as that of a newborn abandoned child who she discovers while out jogging. Simon’s sister (Afre Woodard), on the other side of town is trying to figure out how to raise her teenage son who can’t see any other choices than being a gang member. Everyone’s lives are intersecting. Not only does the film contrast different life styles in Los Angeles that are only a few minutes car ride away from each other but also puts a mirror to the personal decisions that each person has to make. Kasden uses an ensemble cast of excellent actors and it seems that he has chosen Steve Martin to play the character closest to himself. In a non-comedic role Martin is Davis, a movie producer who wants to make honest films that show the human condition even if they contain realistic violent action that he does best. We come away from this movie reflecting that we are each a tiny spec in this universe that we can’t control but we still have decisions to make that can make a difference. (1991)
Beginners- nf We chose to see this movie after Christopher Plummer was awarded the Oscar as best supporting actor for playing a dying 75 year old man who reveals to Oliver his son (Ewan McGregor) that he is gay and wants to come out. He finds a lover , Andy (Goran Visnjic-we remember him from the “ER” TV series ) and has his brief time as a man in love. During this time Oliver meets a quirky beautiful French actress (Melanie Laurent). They are both drawn to each other and it becomes apparent that they both have trouble with relationships perhaps because of the nature of their parent’s relationships. He, having a hidden gay dad, a mom who thought she could fix him and was depicted as not feeling fulfilled. She, with a father who confesses his despair and suicidal thoughts to her rather than to his wife. Director Mike Mill’s put together this story based on his own relationship with his own father and attempts to fill in the picture with mostly skillful shifts of time sequences. It isn’t the story that gives the movie value but it is the complex portrayal of the characters which is done very well. However, with the exception of Oliver we don’t have much of a back-story of the other characters, so in the end, the movie didn’t meet it’s full potential or our expectations. (2011)
Undefeated- sp Friday night football is a great American tradition throughout many parts of the United States where families watch their high school boys battle it out for the glory of the their schools . For so many of these football warriors, it is the prelude to moving into the real world and starting their careers which for many will include further training in college. Win or lose their high school football memories should be one of the many experiences, which will add to their development as young adults. However members of the Manassas High School football team in Memphis Tennessee who are black, poor, most without fathers almost all have close relatives who have recently been in jail, don’t have too much to look forward. They certainly might not be inclined to get too much out of their football experience. That is until Bill Courtney, owner of a nearby lumber factory decides to volunteer his time and knowledge to be the team football coach. Courtney missed growing up with a father and in addition to raising his own kids, he gives of himself to be a father figure to this team. Within 6 years he has instilled in the players who are drawn to the team, a philosophy of teamwork and recognition that it is how you deal with loss and setback that will make the difference in life. Rich Middlemas, a junior movie executive read in a local newspaper about some of the transformations occurring in the team. He convinces filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T,J Martin to go to Memphis and shoot some film of what is going on there. They are able to get funding to spend a year with with this team and shoot within a 9-month period 500 hours of film which is boiled down to 113 minutes of an intimate documentary of these young men and their quest for a successful football season. It particularly captures the personal stories of three of them and reveals the inspirational nature of Mr. Courtney. The team does something that no other football team from Manassas has ever done and that is make it to the playoffs. And Mr. Middlemas does something that very few documentary filmmakers have ever done and that is to be nominated for an Oscar. (2011)
P.S. The movie won an Oscar !!
Babette’s Feast- nf- Somebody mentioned to us that we should catch this 1987 Oscar winner for the best foreign that year. While there was a great scene of the preparation of a French meal , this was not a great feast for us. Two sisters live in a remote Danish town. They are the daughter of a minister who has captivated the small group of people who live there and follow his religious teachings even after he has passed on. The sisters Phillippa (Hanna Stesgaard) and Marina (Viveke Hastrup) each pass up the opportunity to fall in love with a dashing military officer and opera singer respectively and continue to live in their cloistered community. A persecuted French women comes to live with them as their cook for 14 years until circumstances lead her to prepare them all a wonderful French meal with wine and all the trimmings. The underlying theme is the spirituality or religiosity that allows them to all hold on to their values and believe they ultimately will be rewarded. To us it is ultimately a sad commentary on missed opportunities for relationships, love and realizing your full potential as a person. We didn’t find it moving , although the characters were mildly interesting and the acting and direction under Gabriel Axel was top notch. We obviously have missed something here. As we noted it was chosen best foreign film and we usually find that there are some great films made outside the US. (1987)
The Talk of the Town-nf- How was the country diverting itself from heart wrenching reports from the battle front of early World War II ? Going to the movies was one way and in 1942 that might mean seeing this movie, which was nominated for 6 Academy awards including Best Picture. Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is being accused of burning down the town factory when all he did was speak out against the bad conditions there. Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Coleman), a legal scholar who is destined for the Supreme Court, happens to be in town and is planning to rent Miss Nora Shelley’s (Jean Arthur) house where Dilg is hiding out after he broke out of jail when he realized he wasn’t going to get a fair trial since the owner of the factory (who it turns out arranged the fire) has turned the local town into a blood thirsty mob out for Dilg. At first it looks like it is going to be light comedy with hiding, close calls, police and blood hounds almost catching the fugitive and then it seems to be turning into a law and order theme. When Dilg pretends he is Joseph the gardener, he and Lightcap actually get to know each other and really like each other. In fact, these two men have a strong bonding as did Lightcap and his black man servant (Rex Ingram) who shed a few tears when his boss was going to shave his beard. As touching as this man to man stuff may have been, it is clear that the real romantic feelings are coming from Miss Shelley (attractive loveable wide-eyed Arthur). She is falling in love but it really isn’t clear which of these leading men it might be with. The finale of the movie while somewhat overly dramatic has s a moving speech by Lightcap (as Coleman really gets into it) and he emotionally reminds everyone about the American form of justice (and without saying it is reminding everyone in the audience about one of the reason that we were fighting the war). There was the final touch where we almost don’t know who Miss Shelley is going to end up with (could this be the first time Cary Grant doesn’t win the girl?) and all ends well.(1942)
Inside Job-nf- Filmmaker Charles Ferguson takes a long, hard skillful look at the individuals and their actions which brought about the global economic meltdown of 2008. It is hard to come away from this Oscar nominated documentary without feeling some combination of anger and depression. Anger, because you see self-serving greed and even corruption among the financial leaders of this country. Depression, because you see that many of people in charge of our financial institutions today including many in the highest positions in government are still not inclined to make changes to prevent another financial crisis. If you can take a dispassionate view of this story, it feels as if you are watching a film showing you something about how the rise and fall of the Roman Empire came about in some distant time. In this case however we are dealing with contemporary times. We learn how an economic boom led to a desire among those in the financial and banking industries to make even more money as they transitioned from carefully investing their own money to going public and now risking other peoples’ money for tremendous payouts for themselves. The complicated concepts of derivatives is actually made sickeningly clear as we see how investments were really bets with essentially no clear downside for the bankers but devastating results for the middle class. No place was this more relevant than in the home mortgage market where the financial guys would make their money on the volume of the mortgages sold and not on quality or the ability of people who bought them to pay them off. Matt Damon is the narrator of the film although Ferguson does much of interviews. The film is interspersed with film clips of the leading players of this giant debacle from the officers of the big financial institutions to the well known faces in government including Paulson, Greenspan, Geitner and others with major government responsibility for regulation and policy. We see the story of the march of deregulation from the Reagan, through the Bush years even including some during the Clinton White House. There is also the apparent failure of the Obama administration , despite their bailout successes , to have regulated and overseen what should be regulated and overseen. The lack of prosecution of some of the glaring criminal activities is highlighted and the obscene executive compensations, sometimes more than a hundred million dollars, for people who participated in very questionable actions is spelled out. . (See an article MB wrote in the Huffington Post about this issue over a year ago). It is also quite disturbing to see the failure of he academic community to acknowledge the payments they receive from interested parties for their speeches and writings which supported the unstable financial situations that occurred. (These days the medical community is usually obligated to make disclosures of potential conflicts of interest when speaking or writing ) Granted, the filmmaker is trying to make a point about the inside job, which was pulled off on the American people. There may be some other points of view, which he didn’t show but interviews made with top people, and the facts presented make it pretty easy to vote for conviction if we were the jury (even without cross examination from another viewpoint). Ferguson did have a great deal of access to top people some of whom asked him to turn off the camera once they were shown their inconsistencies. The movie is well edited to one hour and 48 minutes. Most of the film is sharp and well framed. When archival footage is used and it makes a point, you don’t mind if it isn’t top-drawer quality. Although a year old, it is still right on the mark for today. If you have a stake in this economy and the future of our country, you better understand what this film is saying. (2010)
Biutiful- rm – You will be taken to underside of the streets of Barcelona and get inside people who are scraping by trying to survive and put food on the table for their children. You will meet a man who engages in illegal doings but seems fair and sensitive to his troubled wife, his innocent children and to the immigrants whom he encounters functioning in the worst possible conditions. You will see him face his own mortality and get a glimpse at what perhaps is Director/Writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s view of where death will take us. Make no mistake about it, this is a powerful and depressing movie. Inarritu uses the technique of weaving together various jarring scenes as he did in his 2006 Oscar nominated film Babel. He very effectively uses dim lighting in many scenes with dark blue colors reflecting the mood of the people and times. Ultimately it is the journey of Uxbal ( Javier Bardem) which will captivate and haunt you. His empathic nature, love of his children, desperate attempt to survive when the odds are against him which make him a tragic but “biutiful” figure. It may also bring Bardem his second Oscar (he won for Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men in 2008) . There are a lot of things going on in this movie which may not be immediately clear in your consciousness since they are subtle and most of us are relying on the subtitles. All the more reason why the emotional impact that you cannot help but feel as the story runs it’s final course confirms that you have seen an outstanding movie. (2010)
Blue Valentine rm- An in depth study of two people in a marriage that breaks apart. Cindy (Michelle Williams) a confident, somewhat ambitious young woman who didn’t see much love between her parents but finds herself very attracted to and does seem to fall in love with Dean (Ryan Gosling), a very appealing young man who never made it through high school, who is content to work for a moving company and would be equally content to ultimately accept a job assisting to paint houses and hanging around with his kid. Director Derek Cianfrance through a series of alternating views of his two main characters in the present time and at an earlier time during their courting period shows how their relationship developed and is now falling apart. Their marriage follows on the heels of an accidental pregnancy that almost ends in an abortion but Cindy backs out at the last minute for what reason we are never sure. It appeared that if she had better abortion counseling the marriage might never have happened. Dean drifts into what seems to be alcoholism but we are never shown whether this because his marriage isn’t working out or if the marriage isn’t working out because of the drinking. In fact, despite good literal and figurative close-ups of these two main characters, there are some loose ends in the plot. We certainly don’t get to know Dean and what makes him tick as well as we understand Cindy, which is a short coming of the movie. All we see is a guy who has some stunted emotional growth despite his apparent sensitivity to his young 6 year old and an older man that he moves into a nursing home. The film under the direction of Cianfrance provided a wonderful showplace for the talents of Williams and Gosling who may deserve Oscar considerations for this movie but the script in our opinion didn’t provide enough internal consistency for this movie to deliver a knockout punch. Special kudos do belong to the make up and styling people for creating a realistic difference in the appearance of the characters during the 10 or 15 year time span in which they are shown. (2010)