Posts published under “Review”
THE GREAT GATSBY (2013/IN THEATERS) Ever since Strictly Ballroom, I have been madly in love with Baz Luhrmann. So I admit that I have been completely excited about his version of The Great Gatsby since it first made headlines in 2011. And as the announcements came–Gatsby to be filmed in 3D! Leo as Gatsby! Carey Mulligan as Daisy!—I just got more excited. So all those negative reviews by “leading critics” did not deter me a bit. I was in line for the first available 3D showing last Friday and have already returned to see the movie again (BTW: it plays even better the second time around). Of course it goes without saying that the production is over the top (remember Moulin Rouge?) and the camera movement can be initially very distracting, but once the storyline kicks in–when DiCaprio as Gatsby makes his big appearance– the movie takes off and sucks you in right to the end. Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce (his frequent collaborator), endeavors to bring us the “essence” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of self invention and hopeless longing in a period of amazing excess—the roaring 20s. Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin has done an incredible job with the sets and costumes—they are dazzling. I hope she is rewarded with an Oscar nod. And the mix of hip-hop music along with classical favorites (Rhapsody in Blue, for example) really worked for me. As for the acting, DiCaprio truly holds the film in his gorgeous blue eyes, while Tobey Maguire is just fine as insider/outsider narrator Nick Carraway. Carey Mulligan, showcasing non-stop gorgeous costumes and headpieces, shows Daisy Buchanan for what she is—intrigued, but more than willing to take the easy way out. Other cast members are good as well, particularly newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. While some have complained that the glitz overwhelms the characters, I didn’t feel this at all. But perhaps that’s just my ongoing love affair with Mr. Luhrmann. I say…see it and reach your own conclusion.
BTW: Luhrmann talked more about his ten year effort to make this film at Cannes just today. Catch the press conference here.
MUD (2012/In Theaters)
Mud is the third movie written and directed by Jeff Nichols. As with his last feature, the criminally overlooked Take Shelter, I am reluctant to say too much about the details of Mud’s plot here. Nichols makes movies that are authentic and surprising, best enjoyed with no expectations. This one takes place in a small town in Arkansas, where lives are divided between the parking lots and seedy motels of Town and the simplicity and freedom of the River. Two boys, portrayed with incredible depth and nuance by Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland (the latter looking like he walked right out of Stand By Me and into this film, Fugazi t-shirt notwithstanding), discover a mysterious stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and decide to help him in his quest. The adventures that unfold are a window into their families, friendships, homes, youth, and waning innocence.
Again Nichols’ film is gorgeous, favoring dawn and twilight, nature and water. As in Take Shelter, he somehow uses simple, quiet lives to convey more suspense and emotion than any blockbuster thriller or mile-a-minute action flick I’ve seen; in part because his characters are so real and the performances so strong. In addition to the two outstanding young leads, Nichols regulars Ray McKinnon and Michael Shannon (whose broad range continues to astound), and Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, and Reese Witherspoon are all excellent. And I won’t ever associate McConaughey with tepid romantic comedies again after this (and Magic Mike, of course). Mud, both the man and the film, is a study in balance: simultaneously ominous and endearing, simple and complex, small and grand. See it.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012/IN THEATERS) Derek Cianfrance, the writer/director of this film as well as 2010’s Blue Valentine, teams up a second time with Ryan Gosling to bring us a three-part tale of fathers and sons set in Schenectady, New York (of note, the title of the movie is based on the Mohawk translation of Schenectady—who knew?). The film opens with a lengthy tracking shot featuring Gosling as main character Luke Glanton, shot from behind, blond haired and covered in tattoos, heading to his “event” at a traveling carnival where he performs daring motorcycle tricks as part of a trio of other young riders. Luke is clearly good at this—he’s the star– and life seems pretty good. He even receives a short visit from Romina (Eva Mendes), an attractive woman he had known on his last time though town. She doesn’t tell him at first, but he soon learns that he has a young son named Jason, thanks to their hook-up a year earlier. Stunned by this news and by the sight of the baby, Luke quits his job and declares to Romina that he will be part of her life and will do his duty as a father, despite the fact that she already has another relationship with a solid, good man. Looking for work, Luke teams up with a mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, fabulous in the role) who loans him a trailer and talks up the idea of robbing banks together. The two decide to go for it and soon Luke is using his motorcycle riding skills to outrun the cops, saving up the stolen money to give to Jason. But ultimately it can’t last and as the film crosses to its second storyline, we meet Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a new cop whose path crosses with Luke’s during a desperate and ultimately failed escape from the final robbery. Avery is an educated young man, with a law degree and a father who is a prominent judge. He has chosen to be a cop, despite the concern of his young and pretty wife (Rose Byrne) who worries about his safety. Ironically, he also has a young son the same age as Jason. The second part of the movie focuses almost exclusively on Avery as he reaches a decision to either be part of the police corruption he encounters (embodied by Ray Liotta as a bad cop named Deluca) or to rise above it. Avery is no dummy and he seizes the opportunities presented to him. We then move 15 years forward to find that Avery, now divorced, is running for District Attorney. He still lives in Schenectady; his son, AJ, is moving in with him because he’s too much to handle for his poor mother. In a chance encounter at the local high school, AJ meets Jason and the third leg of the story begins. AJ (Emory Cohen) is a troubled kid with a real NYC-style swagger. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is a quiet loner who rides his BMX bike, gets into trouble frequently, and longs to know more about his real father. By the end of the film, he’ll know plenty and so will we.
The movie is ambitious in its story telling and it’s long—2 hours and 20 minutes—but I found it good, on the whole. As other reviewers have noted, the third piece of the trilogy is easily the weakest—in part because the character of AJ is so darned unattractive and the young actor playing him is just not that good (maybe you remember Emory Cohen as Debra Messing’s son in the first season of Smash?). But his counterpart, Dane DeHaan is very good and incidentally, so are the others, including Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes. Cianfrance clearly has a way with actors. For me, it’s Gosling who sets the bar so high—he carries the entire first act brilliantly, blending his Drive character (strong and silent) with his Blue Valentine personae (confused, well-meaning, naïve). As Jason examines a photo of his father late in the film, we are reminded of just how charismatic Luke was and is. Another great performance from Gosling and one that makes this film almost work.
ON THE ROAD (2012/IN THEATERS) I have been waiting for this film for well over a year—and let me say, it was worth the wait. Based on the landmark 1957 “beat generation” novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, about his days on the road with crazy Neal Cassady, it is said that Kerouac himself wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to make a film of the novel with the two of them as the leads and a camera strapped on the engine of a car. While that idea never panned out, in 1979 Francis Ford Coppola did buy the rights to the book. He worked over the years to bring it to life and among several attempts, tried to cast Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt as Kerouac and Cassady. Ultimately Coppola approached Brazilian director Walter Salles after seeing his fabulous work in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which was also based on a road novel by the young Che Guevara. Salles brought in his screenwriter Jose Rivera and the rest of his team from the earlier work and finally filming began in August 2010 in Montreal, Quebec. Before they were done, Salles and company had filmed in dozens of locations, ranging from San Francisco to Arizona to Louisiana and even to Argentina (when it became too dangerous to shoot in Mexico) bringing the book to gorgeous cinematic life. A strong ensemble cast completes the work, with Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (the Kerouac role) and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) carrying the film and doing a bang-up job of it. Also featured are Kristen Stewart as Marylou, Dean’s 16 year old bride and wild child who is frequently with the two leads (and naked, as the tabloids have already noted); Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg in real life), giving a poignant portrayal of being gay and sensitive in the late 40s and early 50s; Kirsten Dunst as Camille, who plays the long-suffering second wife of Dean (Carolyn Cassady in real life); Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), eccentric but brilliant in his short time on screen; and Amy Adams as Old Bull’s wild woman Jane, shaking the lizards out of a tree in their Louisiana abode. Also appearing are Elisabeth Moss as Galatea Dunkel, left with Old Bull and Jane, and as she says “married for gas money,” as well as brief but wonderful appearances by Terence Howard and Steve Buscemi. Like “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the cinematography of the film is brilliant and allows you to share in that feeling of being on the road. Rhythms of jazz underline the film and there’s plenty of booze, drugs, and sex, in keeping with the book. Also plenty of writing and thinking and talking about the true meaning of life–which is what intrigues young Sal in the first place. I think if you’re a fan of the book, you will not be disappointed by this film. And if you have yet to read it, just hang on for the ride!
HOUSE OF CARDS (2012/NETFLIX STREAMING) In the mood for some political intrigue? Have a current NetFlix streaming membership? Then you’re in luck, because last Friday, NetFlix released all 13 episodes of Season One of the U.S. version of a crackerjack BBC miniseries entitled “House of Cards.” NetFlix members are free to watch all 13 episodes in a sitting (so called “binge watching”) or to watch any number of episodes, in any order, as much as desired. Developed by Beau Willimon, the screenwriter for “Ides of March” and also for the first two episodes of this series, and with David Fincher as Executive Producer (and Director for Episodes 1 and 2 also), this series is top notch. Start with the casting: Kevin Spacey is spot-on as Francis (Frank) Underwood, long serving member of the House of Representatives from the state of South Carolina and the House Majority Whip. Frank has labored long and hard in the House (for 22 years he tells us) and has been promised the position of Secretary of State as a reward for helping the current Democratic President regain election (does any of this sound familiar?), when suddenly Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), the President’s Chief of Staff, tells him he’s being passed over for the position. What?? Why? Well…the line is, “we need you more in the House to help us pass our important Education Bill.” Needless to say, Frank is mad—mad as hell, actually—and he starts the ball rolling on an elaborate plot to undermine his own Executive Branch. Joining Frank in his Machiavellian quest is his wife Claire (Robin Wright) who is every bit as scheming as Frank himself. Claire runs an NGO in D.C. dedicated to clean water and together these two play the game beautifully. Add to the duo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s super effective and completely amoral Assistant; Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young reporter for the Washington Herald who is eager to rise the ranks and willing to leak anything to the reading public; and Rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a Philly boy with a bad past who’s easy for Frank to manipulate, and you’ve got a really great core to the story. There are loads of extra characters and plenty of plot but the series moves right along and the production values are top notch. While some of the episodes do drag, let me say this…. I had intentions of watching only one or two episodes when I turned the series on this past Saturday and the next thing I knew, I was at Episode 6 and moving forward. Of course, NetFlix makes this easy to do since they automatically boot the next episode as the credits are rolling on the last one. Clever and great viewing for any cold winter’s day, night or weekend. Enjoy and just remember, Season Two starts filming this Spring.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012/IN THEATERS) Up for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Original Screenplay, it is still shocking to think that Kathryn Bigelow was left off the Oscar Best Director nominee list. Of course, the common assumption is that she is being punished by liberal Hollywood for including realistic (and very uncomfortable) scenes of Americans using torture in her picture. Depiction is not endorsement, says Bigelow, most recently in her LA Times Op Ed. Why not focus your disapproval on our government that even now allows some level of “enhanced interrogation” in the continuing war on terrorism. Bigelow stands by her film, scripted by former journalist Mark Boal who also wrote the screenplay for their previous Oscar winning partnership on “The Hurt Locker.” Of note, the two had originally been working on a film about the search for Bin Laden, centering on the December 2001 failed Tora Bora effort and in fact, were about to begin filming when news broke that he had been killed in Pakistan. They quickly redirected their focus and created a film as intense as anything you will see in the theater and completely absorbing. The 157 minute movie basically breaks into three parts, all anchored by the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a tough as nails CIA analyst who just won’t take no for an answer. It’s the opening portion that introduces the audience to torture and to Maya, who looks slim and frail but quickly reveals her steely self.
“Washington says she’s a killer,” says one of her new cohorts in Afghanistan. Working with a seasoned analyst named Dan (Australian Jason Clarke), Maya soon becomes a major force on the Bin Laden team. Joining her at the table is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), another woman who has been working hard to find the needle in the haystack….and that’s what this movie really depicts so well. My favorite part is right in the middle of the film, when a ground crew uses a cell phone signal to track the courier who will eventually lead them to Bin Laden himself. As the CIA ground team drives literally in circles trying to spot someone they have never even seen, the camera pulls back to reveal the chaos of the marketplace. It’s an effective reminder of just how difficult this task was and how impressive the ultimate CIA effort was. The final part of the film is equally effective, re-enacting the raid on the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was located and killed. The Seal Team 6 guys are portrayed as focused but still human and the use of night vision green makes it all seem real. It’s hard to think of any way that this film could be better—I highly recommend it. Kudos to Bigelow and Boal—they are every bit as tough as their heroine Maya.
Django Unchained (2012/In Theaters)
Sarah: Kim! OK so um Django. We saw it. We sure did. I’m not so sure about this one. I am a fan of Tarantino and went in with pretty high expectations. But for me, Tarantino’s usual skillful balance of brutality and levity was off on this one. Too much of both, I think, and not in the right places. Exploitive levels of brutality and then odd outbursts of silliness that pulled me out of the story completely (especially in the third act which I will admit I pretty much hated). And, boy, he doesn’t turn away from that violence at all. Of course, every gunshot creates an outlandish explosion of blood and a loud squish. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows the director’s work. But scenes of violence not involving gunshots (hammers, for instance, or attack dogs) are much, much more painful to watch. Whereas in Inglourious Basterds, he made sure we understood the horrifying acts that were happening just off-screen (or onscreen to Nazis and therefore not as horrifying), or in Pulp Fiction, he had us look right at a fatal gunshot to the head but then used the tension to make us laugh, the violence against slaves depicted in Django is bloody and cruel, and we have to look at it all. It is difficult and will be way too much for a lot of viewers, as will the ridiculously frequent usage of the N-word (again, no surprise). For me, all of that would have felt justified if the movie hadn’t ended up feeling so uneven. That makes it sound like I hated the whole thing, but I really liked a lot of it. In fact, I was on board until that last half-hour. There is a scene involving KKK hoods that I guarantee is the most you will ever chuckle about KKK hoods, for instance. And Christoph Waltz and Samuel Jackson are both so great. Leo is perfect in his against-type performance, truly. I mostly liked Jamie Foxx, too, until the very end. (Have I mentioned yet how much I hated the very end?). I thought the incongruous score was really fun, too. And how about all the cameos?! Hi for literally 4 seconds, Amber Tamblyn! I enjoyed your 7 minutes of screen time, Jonah Hill! Don Johnson! Walton Goggins! That one guy from “Lost”!
So, yeah. I don’t know. B-, I guess?
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012/IN THEATERS) The answer to the question above is a big Yes! Especially if the bipolar disorder victim is Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano Jr. in David O. Russell’s “neurotic screwball comedy” which also stars a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence. The storyline goes like this: after an 8 month stint in a mental institution, Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper), a former teacher, moves back in with his parents (played to perfection by Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver) and strives to regain the life he lost. His method? He’s looking for his “silver linings.” More than anything else, Pat Jr. wants to restore his marriage and he’s definitely got an uphill challenge there, since his wife Nikki has filed a restraining order on him. Pat is nothing if not determined and has adopted as his mantra the word “excelsior!” complete with the exclamation mark. Crazy! Invited to dinner by his friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), Pat meets Veronica’s sister Tiffany (Lawrence), a young woman with her own problems following the accidental death of her young policeman husband. Tiffany offers Pat a way to contact Nikki, but she has her price—he must dance with her in a fancy ballroom competition coming up at the holidays. Pat agrees and this quirky film kicks into gear. All works well, thanks in equal parts to the fabulous cast of supporting characters who inhabit the Solitano world and also to the screenplay by David O. Russell (inspired by the book written by Matthew Quick). And did I mention that Chris Tucker is in this flick? He’s Pat Jr.’s mental buddy Danny and whenever he appears, the laughs are not far behind. The film has already won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—and remember that Slumdog Millionaire won that very award and went on to take the Oscar. The movie is also up for 5 Independent Spirit Awards including Best Director, Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Lead Actor and Actress for Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. While I don’t see a Best Picture Oscar in the cards this year (too much competition), I’m definitely placing my bets on Lawrence for something—she deserves any win coming her way. And I’m also hoping for some well-deserved recognition in the Supporting Actor ranks for Robert DeNiro who gives his best performance in years. Well worth seeing and a great follow up to David O. Russell’s excellent film of two years ago, “The Fighter”—this time with a lighter touch. Enjoy.
LIFE OF PI (2012/IN THEATERS) Wow! That’s what you’ll be saying as you leave the theater after viewing this fabulous movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to catch it on the big screen and do pony up for 3D. It’s a mind-blowing masterwork from director Ang Lee, whose track record includes such wildly differing films as Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon. Based on the best selling novel by Canadian Yann Martel (which was published in 2001 and won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2002), Life of Pi centers on Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel who lives with his family in India where they run a zoo which is part of the city garden in Pondicherry. True to the book, we are introduced to Pi first as an adult in Canada (played by the always wonderful Irrfan Khan) as he is being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall) who has been told that Pi’s story “will make you believe in God.” We next meet school-age Pi, a curious young man who is fascinated by faith and religion—he believes in all the Hindu gods and is also a practicing Buddhist, Christian and Muslin—even while his father and mother teach him a scientific approach to life. When the family sets out for Canada on a Japanese transport ship with many of their zoo animals below deck, Pi’s faith will indeed find the ultimate test. The ship sinks in a spectacular storm (and believe me, you will feel the horror of it on screen) and Pi is left in a lifeboat as the sole human survivor along with an injured Zebra, an Orangutan named Orange Juice, an aggressive Hyena and—scariest of all— Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger. Here the film really kicks into gear, charting the day-to-day life of Pi as he sustains himself and his ultimate companion Richard Parker against the odds. The young man–Suraj Sharma–who plays Pi in all these scenes is a total newcomer to the screen; in fact, he was not an actor at all and now says he would like to direct. He delivers an extraordinary performance. And the cinematography of these ocean shots is beyond description—beautiful, fantastical and completely absorbing. Since Pi is being interviewed as an adult, we know the story will end well but stay tuned for a fascinating twist that presents itself at the end. The final credits roll for what seems like a good 15 minutes and ultimately say that 14,000 individuals contributed to the work, logging over 600,000 hours. The effort shows—the visuals are amazing and the CG realizations of the various animals as well as the shipwreck will leave you stunned. Here’s hoping this movie gives The Hobbit a run for its money for all the technical awards at this year’s Oscars. And finally, a big thank you to Ang Lee—as someone who read and loved the book, I confess I was nervous about the movie. But it is brilliant in every way and true to Yann Martel’s work.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012/IN THEATERS) Directed by Stephen Chobsky and based on his best-selling 1999 book of the same title, this coming of age film is set in the early 1990s and centers on Charlie (Logan Lerman), a high school freshman who is painfully shy….and as we learn by the end of the film, for good reasons. As the movie opens, Charlie is just out of some kind of residential counseling and has spent his summer mostly holed up with his parents (played lovingly by Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh), writing the occasional letter to an unnamed sympathetic friend. He’s extremely bright, but nervously holds back. High School, then and now, is brutal and even Charlie’s sister won’t sit with him in the cafeteria. Luckily his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) takes an interest in Charlie and loans him classic works to read. Also lucky for him, Charlie is befriended by a flamboyant (i.e. gay) classmate from his shop class named Patrick (a show-stealing Ezra Miller). Patrick is quick to take Charlie under his wing and introduces him to his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, in a “breakout” post-Harry Potter role) who is an insecure but fascinating young woman. Charlie falls for her almost immediately. But, of course, Patrick and Sam are seniors and will soon be heading to college. They welcome Charlie into their circle, introducing him to the “wallflowers” and their active partying scene that includes Alice B Toklas brownies, booze, and even stints on stage as part of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But high school life is complicated, as we all know, and eventually Charlie has a falling out with the group—not his fault really, but painful to watch. As the film progresses, we learn more about Charlie’s past through a series of flashbacks, primarily concerned with his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) and her unfortunate death in a car accident, while the movie builds to a meaningful conclusion. Viewers and critics alike have given this film high ratings: 96% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, 86% from critics. It is already up for two People’s Choice Awards: one for Favorite Dramatic Movie and another for Emma Watson as Favorite Dramatic Movie Actress. (Cast your vote now at PeoplesChoic.com.) I would expect to see Ezra Miller getting some nods during the upcoming awards season along with Logan Lerman—maybe from the Independent Spirits? Golden Globes? Who knows. All of these young actors really deliver and bring their roles alive. As you watch the movie, parts of it will surely remind you of your favorite John Hughes classics—mine is always Sixteen Candles. Perks has some of that same lightness and of course, all high schools do look the same, but I think there’s a more serious tone to this one ultimately—so be prepared.