If you are a fan of Alexander Payne—the writer/director of Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants– you’re in for a big treat. Shot in B&W and filmed of course on location by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne’s latest movie begins with Bruce Dern (as Woody Grant), walking down the highway in Billings, Montana on his way to Nebraska to collect the “million dollars” that has been promised to him by Publishers Clearinghouse. His son, David (Will Forte of SNL and MacGruber fame) collects him at the police station and tries to talk sense into his father. The other son Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad), is convinced his father is senile and ready for the home. But David sees an opportunity to reconnect and decides to drive his Dad to Nebraska. Thus starts a classic road trip movie which will take Woody back to his childhood small town and also give David the chance he’s looking for to understand his father. We’ll also get the treat of seeing Woody’s entire extended family in action—or better said, in their lounge chairs watching TV. Payne, in an interview this week with NPR’s Terry Gross, says he always thinks of his films as comedies. While he didn’t write this one (the script is a first-time effort by Bob Nelson), there is plenty of humor for every viewer, though it takes a while to get to it. A warning: the pacing of the film is slow and understated, but hang in because it builds to a conclusion that is more than worth the wait. A don’t miss in my book, not least of all to see Bruce Dern deliver his career high award-winning performance—he has already won best actor at Cannes and is up for the Independent Spirit Award as well. Will Forte is equally good as are the cast of real local farmers and others that Payne and his team found. Stacy Keach is wonderful as Woody’s hometown nemesis Ed Pegram, and of course everyone will enjoy June Squibb as Woody’s long suffering wife Kate. Squibb, you may remember, was similarly cast as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt, but her character died early in the film. Not this time! Awards may be heading her way as well—and they’ll be well deserved.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013/IN THEATERS) The true story of an aggressively heterosexual Dallas man diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, this film has a compelling premise and cast. Matthew McConaughey famously lost 47 pounds to play Ron Woodroof, the homophobic, drug abusing, womanizing electrician and bull rider who finds himself diagnosed with what was then thought of as a gay disease. Jared Leto is Rayon, a transsexual AIDS patient who becomes Woodroof’s unlikely business partner, selling FDA-unapproved AIDS remedies smuggled in from Mexico and other global locations. Jennifer Garner is a sympathetic doctor trying to fight against the AIDS epidemic. McConaughey has been on a nice roll in recent years, taking on challenging and surprising roles and turning in subtle and moving performances, and this looks like his Oscar bait. For me, all of this promise didn’t translate into any emotional connection at all. I wasn’t moved by any of the characters or their actions. Leto’s character is by far the most interesting, and his performance lives up to the buzz, but his sexuality is too often played for laughs and the supposed chemistry and friendship between Rayon and Woodroof felt too unlikely. Their relationship, however, did at least have some spark, unlike the supposed flirtation and affection between Woodroof and Garner’s doctor character–an unnecessary and boring plot point that brought nothing to the story. The most notable positive detail of the film (aside from Leto’s performance) is the portrayal of AIDS patients as flawed and, in the case of McConaughey’s character, unattractive. Extremely unattractive, I cannot stress this enough. It’s a refreshing perspective, when terminal illness on television and in movies so often is synonymous with sainthood. That laudable detail, however, wasn’t enough to make this a movie that lives up to its promise. I say skip it and rent Mud instead.
ALL IS LOST (2013/IN THEATERS) There is only one character in this film and he is credited simply as “Our Man.” It’s a brilliant performance by Robert Redford, who at 77 carries the entire movie with a precious few lines of dialogue (most at the very beginning) but no shortage of expression and even pathos. The plot is one of survival–an “action” film of sorts–in which what appears to have been an idyllic solo sailing exercise across the Indian Ocean is turned into a series of greater and greater man vs. nature challenges. This is the second film from writer/director J.C. Chandor whose previous “Margin Call” garnered plenty of praise. It’s been said that the screenplay is only 30 pages long — and I can definitely believe that. The movie opens as “Our Man” is basically saying good-bye—to the world, to his loved ones, and to his life—before we’re taken back 8 days in time to a random event that sets the stage. He’s rudely awakened by a “clunk” and the sound of water gushing into the hull of his 39 foot sailboat. What has happened? A shipping container (full of children’s tennis shoes) floating in the open water has somehow managed to crash into his boat in the middle of the sea, gashing the fiber glass and creating a hole. Random and bad. The water destroys the boat’s electrical systems and most critically its communications and navigations devices. Our Man is left to his own ingenuity and he’s doing pretty well until he encounters a serious storm. I won’t say more about how things develop—go see the movie—but will say that we watch closely as he tries his best to solve one problem after another. Individuals who know more about sailing and boating than I do say that there is much in this movie that is not true to fact—as in, the absence of basic small radio devices which would be normal on vessels of this level and size. But it doesn’t matter. The story is a simple one and it will suck you in and hold you until the end. And more than anything, it is Redford’s steady performance that will stay with you long after the film has ended. Here’s hoping he gets the recognition he deserves for this effort.
BTW: Be sure to stay for the credits if you’re interested in learning about where this film was shot and the exact model of sailing ship Our Man was enjoying before things went to hell.
RUSH (2013/IN THEATERS) I had good intentions–maybe you did too—of catching Rush the first weekend it opened. But busy fall schedules make movie-viewing hard, so I finally saw it just yesterday. Thankfully, it’s still running on a few big screens because I think this is a movie that will lose something as it moves to the small one. Obviously I’m not the only one who has put the movie down the “must see” list–it has taken in only a little above $25 million at the U.S. box office. Nonetheless, it’s good and if you enjoy Formula One racing movies (think of “Grand Prix”), you’re in for a treat. The story focuses on a famous true life rivalry in the 1970s between two very different drivers: James Hunt, handsome British playboy (played here by uber handsome Chris Hemsworth), and Niki Lauda, the Austrian blunk speaking racing technician (played by Daniel Brühl). Hunt’s famously beautiful wife (at least briefly) Suzy Miller is portrayed by the equally gorgeous Olivia Wilde, so there’s eye candy for viewers of all sexes here!
The film is directed by Ron Howard from a script by Peter Morgan (who also penned “The Queen”). The story is pretty straight-forward and certainly will get your attention with driving and racing shots that are tense and beautifully filmed, and a pounding soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. And I think the film does present these two characters as equally likeable and definitely unlikeable–showing them as talented but certainly flawed. The closing credits reveal photos of the real life characters (who are strikingly close to their acting counterparts) and fills us in on their later lives—which go in completely predicatable directions. A good, solid movie. But I think worth catching on the big screen, just for those heart-stopping race scenes.
GRAVITY (2013/IN THEATERS) Visually stunning, Gravity currently holds a 98% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a hefty 89% positive from the audience. Here’s a film that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen with your 3D glasses firmly in place. The box office numbers for the movie are already topping $200 million worldwide (vs. $100 million in production costs) and it continues to retain its #1 spot in the U.S., beating out even Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. There’s tons of Oscar buzz for the film, particularly for Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) who also penned the script with his son Jonás Cuarón. Technical awards would appear to be a shoo-in—the cinematography is incredible and the re-creation of weightlessness in space is just plaln brilliant. We experience what it must be like—right up to the terror of being attacked by random debris and ultimately being “cut off” from anything. Horrifying. The film features only two real performances—George Clooney as the experienced mission commander Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced medical techie who ultimately carries the entire story. Personally, I found these two characters to be somewhat irritating—for one thing, they seemed so unprofessional. I really disliked the “boyish” banter between Clooney and Ed Harris’ voice as Mission Control in Houston early in the film. And even as things got quite serious, very quickly, what I really felt that both parties desperately needed to do was to STOP TALKING! As in, how can you be wasting your precious and very limited supply of oxygen while engaging in “small talk,” or in the case of the rookie Stone, just plain sucking down your oxygen by gasping for breath in utter panic. Get a hold of yourself, for God’s sake! Be professional. This is what you want to say to Sandra’s character. And, in truth, eventually she does just that. But you do wonder while watching the short 91-minute film, why NASA would have sent such an inexperienced person as Stone up there in the first place. Apologies if I’m the one negative voice in a sea of praise. I did love and admire the filmmaking. I just wanted a little more silence up there in space.
ENOUGH SAID (2013/IN THEATERS) If you’ve seen the previews for this little movie, you already know pretty much what’s going to happen in its short 93 minutes. But the film is definitely worth watching to see Julie Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini—in his next to last work–delivering such appealing and realistic performances. Following in the pattern of her earlier works, writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money, Please Help) offers us quirky portraits of people we absolutely recognize. The story centers on divorced mom Eva (Dreyfus) who makes a living as a masseuse in what is clearly California, lugging her heavy table from client to client. Her only daughter Ellen (Tracey Faraway) lives with her and the two are close, but she’s getting ready to leave for college and Eva is clearly worried about her upcoming empty nest. At a party she attends with best friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), Eva meets Marianne (Catherine Keaner), a pop-poet, who is looking for massages and friendship. She also meets Albert (James Gandolfini), an overweight, divorced dad who is comfortable in his own skin and whose twinkling eyes make an impression on her. In due course, Albert phones and Eva realizes how much they have in common. A lovely romance begins. Simultaneously, Eva begins spending more time with Marianne who has a litany of negative things to say about her ex-husband. And of course, we soon learn that the ex is Albert. Here the plot thickens, as they say, while we watch Eva try to choose between her heart and her head. Of course, we as the audience are rooting for the heart—and who wouldn’t root for James Gandolfini’s character in this movie? He may be a slob, but he’s a soft, sweet man. Bittersweet to realize we won’t get to see more performances like this from him.
Although the cast and crew actually celebrated the end of filming last spring in Albuquerque, we thought SML readers would enjoy these photos from the “Wrap” party!
Click the link and scroll down for more and while you’re there, keep reading to learn more about what’s filming right now in the Land of Enchantment!
IN A WORLD (2013/IN THEATERS) Seriously. When you read about this film and it says “…hilarious romantic comedy about a struggling vocal coach who strikes it big in the cutthroat world of movie-trailer voiceovers..,” you think WTF. And when you next learn that the film was written, directed and stars Lake Bell (of “Children’s Hospital”), you utter that phrase again. But, I’m here to tell you, this movie is truly wonderful and funny and not to be missed. Written and directed by Bell, who won the Sundance 2013 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the script, In a World features a terrific cast including Lake as Carol, the struggling voice coach, Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”) as her famous voiceover father Sam, Michaela Watkins (“Enlightened”) as her sister Dani, Rob Corddrey (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) as Dani’s husband Moe, Ken Marino (“Burning Love”) as Gustav, the rising voice talent, and Demetri Martin (“Taking Woodstock”) as Louis, the sound tech who’s madly in love with Carol. There are other characters as well and cameos from stars like Eva Mendes and Geena Davis. And on top of all that, there’s a kick-ass plot and a fabulous leading performance from Lake Bell herself. I laughed out loud in the theater and would gladly see this little movie again. Catch it in theaters or at least put it on your rental list for some night when you just want to have a bit of fun.
If you’re still in the mood for a perfect “end of summer” movie, this is definitely the one. Featuring a solid cast that includes Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph and a superb Sam Rockwell, the story is centered on 14 year old Duncan (played by newcomer Liam James) who is having the worst summer of his life. He’s literally the odd kid out at his mother’s boyfriend’s Cape Cod summer beach house and nothing is working–that is, until he discovers Water Wizz, an old-style New England water park that might look familiar to anyone who has grown up on the east coast. Heading up the crazy crew who run Water Wizz is Owen–Sam Rockwell—who’s got a rapid-fire wit that never fails him. After Owen hires Duncan to do whatever is needed at the park, the summer takes a seriously good turn. The movie offers some bittersweet moments as Duncan and his nice looking young neighbor Susanna (Robb) talk about their absent fathers–both are stuck with moms who have been ditched for younger women, it seems, and the kids miss their dads. No big special effects in this film, just a solid and funny story of growing up. Take a minute to catch it and wish summer a fond farewell.
P.S. Much of this movie was actually shot in Marshfield, MASS which is not technically the Cape but it fits the bill. The script was written by two seriously funny guys–Nat Faxon and Jim Rash– who play workers at the pitch perfect Water Wizz.
Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER (2013/IN THEATERS) An amazing amount of history is stuffed into just over 2 hours in this movie, which offers viewers a “short course” on the civil rights movement. The plot is loosely based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a White House butler between 1952 and 1986, under eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Allen’s story was told in a Washington Post article entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” which appeared in 2008 just as Obama won his first election. The film, directed by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) renames the butler Cecil Gaines and gives his real life a few Hollywood twists—of course. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil and he is as marvelous as ever (I love his sweet smile). Here’s hoping we do see his name up for an Oscar. Equally good is Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria. She shows a lot of range —and I confess I loved all her outfits over the years. Costume designer Ruth Carter told The Hollywood Reporter that she chose Gloria’s looks based on Ebony magazine, which of course is what her character would have been reading. Carter also explains how she captured the White House presidential wives—her Nancy Reagan costumes are dead on IMHO. (Read the full article here) Plot-wise, the movie invents a radical activist son for Cecil and Gloria (played by David Oyelowo) as a way to show the viewer what it was like for the real civil rights protesters. Many of the scenes of abuse are hard to watch, especially if you remember that era, but they go by quickly as does the movie which just keeps on heading forward through time. The cast of the film is peppered with lots of familiar faces: Terence Howard as a flirtatious neighbor, as well as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz as fellow butlers in the White House. Even more amusing are the special cast of actors portraying the Presidents served by “The Butler”: Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower; John Cusack as Richard Nixon; James Marsden as JFK; Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy; Liev Schreiber as LBJ; Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan and a perfect Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave are in there too—keep an eye out! I think this movie accomplishes what it set out to do—reminding a new generation of the sacrifices that led up to last week’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Not as emotional as Precious, but worth catching for sure.