Archive for December, 2012

Les Misérables: I Dreamed I Liked it More—Movie

December 31, 2012

Les mis posterI so wanted to love “Les Misérables.” Musicals are one of my favorite genres. I adore Russell Crowe. I have really enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s singing and dancing in hosting the Tonys and who can forget the duet that he and Anne Hathaway performed when he hosted the Oscars? She can belt it out with the best of them.

But I didn’t love “Les Mis” and that makes me sad. For me, something was missing in director Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.” It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think the trouble begins with the two male leads.

Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, the prisoner released on parole who later becomes a respected factory owner, is a good actor and he can sing. But not this score. His voice truly disappoints. He struggles to reach many of the notes and it becomes distracting. As Javert, the police inspector obsessed with finding and re-imprisoning Valjean after he breaks parole, Russell Crowe has a melodic voice. He sings on key and doesn’t embarrass himself. But his part demands someone with a strong, Broadway-type voice and Crowe just doesn’t have it. The scenes between the two work because they are good actors, but in a musical, acting is just half of the job.

Another distraction is the way in which Hooper chooses to display Javert’s obsession with Valjean.  Javert keeps popping up in such weird manners that it almost starts to feel Wile E. Coyote-like. My audience actually started to laugh at one point.

Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, the factory worker who is fired and forced to become a prostitute in order to support her daughter, Cosette, is very strong. Hathaway can act and her voice is well-suited to this role. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the adult Cosette, Amanda Seyfried .  So good in Mama Mia, Seyfried seems to be screeching her songs. She simply cannot reach the notes. Like Jackman and Crowe, her acting is fine, but this role calls for more.

The remaining cast is very good. Eddie Redmayne as Marius, the idealistic young  French rebel and Cosette’s suitor has a beautiful voice. He is terrific, as is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, Marius’ colleague in-arms.

Is Helena Bonham Carter, as Madame Thénardier, ever bad? She and Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier), as the innkeepers who “care” for the young Cosette, provide the pitch –perfect comic relief and work well together, in addition to having voices just right for their roles. Samantha Barks as Éponine, their daughter, who’s in love with Marius is wonderful. Her voice is so beautiful that it makes one wish that she had been cast as Cosette.

Finally we have the adorable Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, the young mascot to the rebels. He can sing and act…but why does he have a strong Cockney accent in France? I kept waiting for him to ask, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

Much has been made of the fact that the actors are singing live. While that is admirable and helps in some scenes, especially those with Anne Hathaway, I do wonder if that is part of the problem with the weaker singing.

Kudos to cinematographer, Danny Cohen; “Les Misérables” is beautifully shot. Some of the scenes are positively breathtaking. If movies were based on just photography, this film would be a true winner. Unfortunately we have to use senses other than visual and that is the film’s ultimate downfall.

2 3/4 nuggets out of 4

Django Unchained: The Chains That Bind—Movie

December 27, 2012

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like “Django Unchained.” I thought I’d be alone in the theatre Christmas Day, but no. My screening was sold out as was the one after it. I’m not sure what this says about us as a people. I like to think that it just says the group of Tarantino-lovers is larger than I thought and we don’t care when his movies come out…we will be there. Simply put—Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is brutal, chilling, completely over-the-top and pure Tarantino through and through. I loved it!

Beginning with the opening credits, “Django Unchained” plays tribute to the old spaghetti-westerns—thematically and stylistically. Even the song at the start of the movie sounds like it’s been lifted from a Sergio Leone movie.

The film stars Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a recently purchased slave. He “meets cute” with German-born Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in 1858 Texas. Schultz makes his real living as a bounty hunter and is in search of the Brittle Brothers, notorious slave owners, when he encounters Django. Django knows the Brothers and in exchange for helping Schultz capture them, Schultz promises Django his freedom. And with that we’re off to the races.

The two form a bounty-hunting partnership and head south—the ultimate goal to find and rescue Django’s German-speaking wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), sold and resold in the slave trade business. In their quest to find Broomhilda, Django and Shultz run into a whole host of unsavory characters–beginning with Big Daddy (Don Johnson, bearing a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders) and ending with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprioDjango_Unchained_Poster) and his head of house, Stephen (a barely recognizable Samuel L. Jackson). Candie is the current owner of Broomhilda,

Jamie Foxx is not actually called upon to do much acting, but he does bring just the right touch of intensity to his role. Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda has several harrowing scenes and she is terrific in them. Christoph Waltz, so great in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” is even better in “Django.” He is the one constant in the film and has dialogue with nearly every single actor and is sheer perfection.

As good as Foxx, Washington and Waltz are, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson steal the movie.

Funny, cruel and unhinged…this is a DiCaprio we’ve never before seen. Words can’t express how great he is. Simply amazing isn’t good enough. I don’t think DiCaprio has ever been bad and for my money is very underrated as an actor, but with this role and under Tarantino’s direction, he takes this performance to a whole new level. I can’t wait to see what he does next and I hope he has another project with Tarantino soon.

As Stephen, Samuel L. Jackson is the whitest black person the world has ever seen. His role is initially a quiet one, but you know that can’t last. This character is also very different for him and he makes the most of it.

“Django’s” cast is enormous (and some of the actors are so old and grizzled they are unrecognizable at first)…and at 165 minutes, so is the running time. But would I want to miss one second of the uncomfortably funny sheet scene with Jonah Hill  (billed as Bag Head #2)? No. Or one less word of the back and forth dialogue between DiCaprio and Waltz? A thousand times no!

As outrageous and crude as “Django Unchained” is, I don’t think it ever forgets the serious, abominable subject at the heart of the story—slavery. The positive about “Django” is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the awfulness and shame that slavery was. And thus, it doesn’t let the audience forget it either. “Django” may be at its best when German-born Schultz expresses his bewilderment and outrage at the practice.

“Django Unchained” is a Quentin Tarantino masterpiece and should not be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4

The Guilt Trip: Not Entirely Guilt-Free—Movie

December 26, 2012

Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as “The Guilt Trip’s” mother and son is inspired casting. Written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Anne Fletcher, “Guilt Trip” explores the mother-son bond of which most of us can identify, be it mother/son/daughter or father/son/daughter.

Rogen is Andy, a smart and talented inventor who’s not as successful as he should be. Streisand is widowed Joyce, the stereotypical, but too often true, Jewish mother. During Andy’s visit home from California to New Jersey, Joyce confesses that he was named after a long-ago first love. In a moment of weakness and with some ulterior motives, Andy invites his mother to go with him on a cross-country business trip.

As the two begin the journey, the movie does get bogged down by the constant bickering between the two (even I was ready to toss Joyce out of the car). But a breakthrough in Texas  serves to lighten the mood and the movie, too. The remaining 45 minutes or so will have you laughing  and leaving the movie fully satisfied, forgetting the dreary beginning.

With “The Guilt Trip”, Rogen demonstrates that he has real acting chops. He has the ability to go for the broad, easy laugh, but can rein it in when called for. He works so well with Streisand that it’s easy to believe they are related. And Streisand? This part seems to come so naturally to her that it makes you wonder how her real son has survived.

Brett Cullen has a nice turn as the cowboy (only an Easterner would consider this urbane Texan guy a cowboy), who takes a shine to Joyce. Other familiar faces pop up throughout—Adam Scott, Yvonne StrahThe Guilt Tripovski (most recently seen in Dexter),  Kathy Najimy, Colin Hanks and Nora Dunn.

But for all the “background noise,” “Guilt Trip” is really a two-person movie—Rogen and Streisand. The film’s success depends upon both of them and they deliver the goods.

2 3/4 nuggets out of 4

This is 40: This Puts the Fun in Funny and Then Some—Movie

December 26, 2012

Laugh out loud funny…relatable…clever…profane…and  did I say laugh out loud funny?  I did, but I can’t say it enough. “This is 40” is all this and more.  Married, single, with children or not…it doesn’t matter. If you have one scintilla of a sense of humor you will love this movie.

Written and directed by Judd Apatow, “This is 40” spends a year in the lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). The film is billed as a “sort of” follow-up to “Knocked Up.” Perhaps, but I know I didn’t laugh as much at that movie and, frankly, it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it or not. Just know that This is 40 posterPete and Debbie are back and have this movie to themselves, along with their two daughters, fathers and friends.

Debbie, who owns a small boutique, has just turned 40 and is not happy about it. Pete, a retro record label producer, is having major financial problems. Not grounds for comedy? Wrong. In Judd Apatow’s world everything is good for a laugh.

I am an unabashed Paul Rudd lover and feared he would never find a comedy worthy of his talents. Thank goodness “This is 40” came his way. It suits him perfectly. Rudd is one of the funniest straight men in movies today and because he can really act, is terrific when the script calls for pathos…emotion. His scenes with everyone are just sheer perfection.

Leslie Mann is a gifted comedic actress. Her real-life husband, Apatow, knows how to take advantage of that little girl voice of hers and has gifted her with a script that fits like a glove.

The rest of the cast is equally awesome. The two Apatow daughters, Maude and Iris, as Sadie and Charlotte respectively, are fabulous as Pete’s and Debbie’s children. Iris, in particular, seems to have a real flair for comedy.  Albert Brooks as Paul Rudd’s father and John Lithgow as Debbie’s father each have memorable scenes…some funny, some not…but very authentic.  Both fathers have new, younger families and Brooks’ scenes with his identical triplet toddlers are hysterical. A real treat in a small, but meaty role is the hardest-working woman in today’s cinema, Melissa McCarthy, as the foulest-mouthed, in-your-face parent ever (stay through the credits for some of her best work). Jason Segel, Megan Fox and Chris O’Dowd help round out some of the supporting players.

In addition to a talented cast is the terrifically witty dialogue. It’s meaty, sometimes, mean, but oh so funny. Will I ever be able to look at a long-term single guy without “Cloonyfied” coming to mind? I think not. And the fear of becoming “Schwimmered” for some men will really hit home. There are digs at John Goodman and “Mad Men,”  just to name two. And the running tribute to “Lost” is genius…pure genius.

Does every scene work? No. One scene toward the end is particularly hard to watch, and given the country’s climate after the movie’s release date, would probably have been left on the cutting room floor if Apatow could have a do-over. Is this movie for children or teens? No! A thousand times no!

If you’re over 18, leave your sensibilities at the door and be prepared to laugh your head off.  “This is 40” is the most fun to come your way at the movies in a long time.

4 nuggets out of 4

Jack Reacher: Not Too Large a Stretch—Movie

December 24, 2012

Given recent events, it’s hard to watch “Jack Reacher’s” opening scenes and not cringe.  You almost feel guilty sitting in the theatre.  That’s a shame, because in spite of the bullets, blood, beatings and car chases (and the car chases are terrific), “Jack Reacher” is really an entertaining, old-fashion whodunit.

Starring Tom Cruise as Reacher and written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay based on Lee Child’s “One Shot” book), the film is about determining the innocence or guilt of former Army sharpshooter  James Barr (Joseph Sikora).

Barr is arrested for shooting and killing five people seemingly at random from a Pittsburgh parking garage. He asks for Reacher, an enigmatic, rootless former Army Military Police officer, who makes an unexpected appearance at the DAJack Reacher’s office, just as the DA and the detective in charge (David Oyelowo) of the investigation are discussing the case. Reacher decides to work with Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike). A big complication to the defense is Helen’s father (Richard Jenkins), who is the District Attorney  and believes he has an open and shut case. Rounding out the story as Reacher tries to solve the case is shooting range owner Cash (Robert Duvall) and menacing villain,The Zec (Werner Herzog).

Since the novel’s Jack Reacher is a muscular 6’5”, its readers have been up in arms about the Tom Cruise casting. For my money, Cruise is terrific. He never “plays short” and is great with the quick quip. His scenes with Duvall are really fun and the two of them have so much chemistry, you’d like to see them make more movies together. And really, can you think of any actor better than Cruise to be behind the wheel of a Camaro as it races through the Pittsburgh streets?

Most of the supporting cast is very good. Richard Jenkins turns in another solid performance…how does he find the time to do so many movies in one year? And Herzog, normally a director in his other life, is convincingly chilling as Zec. Also very compelling in the pivotal role of Sandy is Alexia Fast. Unfortunately, Rosamund Pike is the real weak link in the film. She is terrible. In fact, I can’t think of anyone worse since Kristin Davis in the original “Melrose Place.” Nothing about her performance makes you believe she could ever be a lawyer, let alone one who handles criminal defense cases. Luckily, she is not part of a lot of the action.

So, if you’re looking for solid whodunit entertainment, forget the casting and just go for the story. It will be a good time at the movies.

3 nuggets out of 4

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Promised Land: Most Promises Kept—Movie

December 23, 2012

promisedlandposterMatt Damon star-wattage aside, “Promised Land” is really a quiet little movie. Written by Damon and co-star John Krasinski and directed by Damon’s “Good Will Hunting” director, Gus Van Sant, “Promised Land” pits fracking against farming.

Damon, a corporate salesman for a global corporation, and his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand),  are looking to increase corporate profits by offering to buy out local farms in exchange for drilling rights for the natural gas underneath the land …fracking.  Normally an easy sell for Damon’s character in other communities (off-screen), the sale becomes far more complicated when a school-teacher (Hal Holbrook) and environmentalist (John Krasinski) raise concerns about the fracking process and the resulting impact upon on the land.

What prevents “Promised Land” from becoming dogmatic one way or the other is that it raises some interesting questions about corporate and personal greed, especially when dying towns are involved.  Just how far will one go in the name of professional success? “Promised Land” is also blessed with some terrific acting. Damon is always a pleasurable, believable screen presence. McDormand and Holbrook are their usual great selves. They both have places to shine and shine they do. McDormand is especially good in her work with Damon and with Titus Welliver, a local shopkeeper and potential suitor. Rosemary DeWitt, as a local teacher, brings just the right touch of levity in her scenes with Damon and Krasinski.

“Promised Land” won’t knock your socks off, but it does get you thinking.  Film aside, it’s also fun to contemplate some of the “new” talent starting to take their place in Hollywood in terms of writing, producing and directing. George Clooney and Ben Affleck have already shown us what they can do. Brad Pitt has been the producer for many of his most recent movies. With “Promised Land,” Damon has gone back to his writing roots and Krasinski is solid in his first effort. To some extent they are all “8 Degrees of George Clooney,” which means they could all be working together in some form or another for years to come. And that is promising, indeed.

3 nuggets out of 4

Deadfall: The Makeup is the Clear Winner—Movie

December 16, 2012

Deadfall“Deadfall” opens with a bang—literally. The next 10 to 15 minutes is one shock to the system after another, but then “Deadfall” seems to do just that…fall dead. Oh, it revives itself in fits and starts, but what began so promisingly ultimately peters out.

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky with screenplay by Zach Dean, “Deadfall” begins with brother and sister Addison (Eric Bana ) and Liza (Olivia Wilde), forced to part somewhere in the wintry Michigan woods following a casino heist. During their separation they each encounter life-altering experiences before reconnecting rather violently.

A brutal story, “Deadfall” is really about Daddy issues. Nearly every single character has them—Liza and Addison; Jay (Charlie Hunnam), the recently paroled boxer who takes up with Liza, and his father (Kris Kristofferson); Hannah (Kate Mara), the Deputy, and her Sheriff father (Treat Williams); and the little girl Addison meets while off on his own. All Daddy issues converge during a climatic homey Thanksgiving dinner at Jay’s parents (Sissy Spacek is his mother, June).

No one in this movie is truly awful. Yes, Olivia Wilde’s southern accent comes and goes and if Kris Kristofferson gets much more growly, he will be impossible to understand. But they don’t sink the movie. The problem is nothing or no one really shines except …Olivia Wilde’s makeup. I WANT IT! This woman is in a blizzard for hours…literally. When Jay first picks her up she’s been out on the highway in a snowstorm. She gets into his truck, falls asleep and when she awakes there is not a single mascara or lipstick smudge to be had. How is this possible? Wilde is a spokesmodel for Revlon’s ColorStay line and, frankly, I’ve never seen a better commercial for if.  If this was “Deadfall’s” ultimate goal, then it has succeeded. In the meantime, you can wait for it to come to television.

2 nuggets out of 4

Hyde Park on Hudson: Oh, For What It Could Have Been–Movie

December 12, 2012

Hyde Park on HudsonHyde Park on Hudson,” starring Bill Murray as FDR and Laura Linney as his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley, has some very good performances and what could be an interesting story to tell, but  ultimately falls short.

The film’s main flaws are two-fold—its story-telling technique and an extremely uninteresting main character. The unraveling of events through Daisy’s eyes as well as her voice-over put the audience off at a distance and thus one never really feels engaged or invested.

Directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Nelson, “Hyde Park on Hudson” deals with two stories—the developing relationship between Daisy and FDR and the first visit to America by British royalty, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in 1939.

Even if you never heard of Daisy, but know of FDR’s predilections, you know where this story is going and it’s boring. Sorry.  Daisy is boring and as portrayed by the usually wonderful Laura Linney, she is even more boring than thought possible.  In real life Eleanor Roosevelt was no beauty, but she was smart and it’s easy to imagine Franklin and Eleanor having a lively conversation. Olivia Williams as Eleanor is striking, and given the spirit she shows in the film I had a hard time understanding the FDR/Daisy attraction.

“Hyde Park on Hudson” comes to life as soon as Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the King and Queen make their entrance. Their scenes together sparkle and are just plain fun to watch. It would be hard for anyone to follow Colin Firth’s footsteps as King George VI in “The King’s Speech,” but Samuel West comes very close. His work with Bill Murray is also wonderful. You can actually feel the relationship developing between the two statesmen, each with challenges of their own to overcome.

And what of Bill Murray as FDR? I didn’t know what to expect. After seeing two other actors take on the FDR role and doing what seemed to be the definitive work–Ralph Bellamy in “Sunrise at Campobello” and Edward Herrmann in “Eleanor and Franklin”—my hopes weren’t very high. But Murray is amazing. He may not have the heft of FDR, but he does capture the spirit about which most of us have read. In short, he is very believable.

Murray and West are so good, I wish “Hyde Park on Hudson” was equal to the task. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

BURN: Call for Action in Detroit—Movie

December 10, 2012

Firefighting in general is not for the weak…physically and mentally.  But in Detroit it takes something more. Maybe it’s a large heart or a Don Quixote spirit. Whatever it is, the riveting documentary, “BURN: One Year on the Front Lines to Save Detroit,” makes very clear that Detroit firefighters have it in spades…and unfortunately not much else.

Filmmakers Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez focus on one year in the life of the Detroit Fire Department, one of the busiest in the country, honing in on Engine 50 for much of the film, embedding with them to tell their story.

“BURN” points out that since the 1950 Detroit’s population has dropped by about half. With that decreased population has come a lot of vacant buildings…ripe for arson and fire by other means. Detroit averages 30 fire structures a week, more than any city in the U.S.

Newly appointed Detroit Fire Commissioner Don Austin is shown to be at his wit’s end in trying to come to grips with the problems he has encountered.  A Detroit native most recently working in Los Angeles, he definitely wants to do right by the firefighters and citizens, but is really limited in how effective he can be.

But the true heroes of the documentary are the firefighters from Engine 50. Self-described “cowboys in a big rodeo,” they never know what to expect from day-to-day. Many of them are earning a paltry $30,000/year for performing life-threatening work, but it’s because they genuinely love what they do.  We also follow the story of one young fireman who suffers the consequences when in an instant things  go horribly wrong.  His story is heart-breaking.

“BURN” pulls no punches.  Are some firefighters adrenalin junkies? Perhaps. But what would we and Detroit in particular do without them? Let’s hope none of us ever have to find out.

“BURN” is in limited release around the country. For more information, go to http://detroitfirefilm.org.

 

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

Killing Them Softly: But Killing Them Nevertheless—Movie

December 10, 2012

Killing Them SoftlyThere is nothing soft about “Killing Them Softly”…not the dialogue or the action. That is not a bad thing.  

“Killing Them Softly” is set in 2008 New Orleans and is the story of what happens when two criminals (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy–sensational in some of the movie’s best scenes) rob a mobster poker game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Following the heist, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in by mob henchman Driver (Richard Jenkins) to find out who was responsible and  to “clean-up” the situation.

 Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, “Killing Them Softly” is based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade.” The film’s crackling dialogue is so terrific it takes on the importance of a significant co-star. In fact, it’s nearly 30 minutes before Pitt appears on screen, but the set-up to his arrival is so well-thought out and spoken, you barely notice.

 That is not to say there is no action. There is and most of it is brutal, with poor Liotta bearing its brunt. In this one film, he gets beaten up more by various sets of fists than most actors do in a host of movies. When he does get to speak, he is great and begs the question, “Why haven’t we seen more of him?”

 All the actors…and this is an all male cast, save for one hooker, are terrific. James Gandolfini as a hapless paid-for-hire killer makes the most of his brief, but important scene with Pitt as does Jenkins.

 And what of Brad Pitt? He is the movie’s linchpin and he is fabulous (actually, someone who can say the Chanel dialogue and make it seem like he knows of what he’s speaking has to be a good actor). He is convincingly believable as a killer who might have read Nietzsche.

 It’s hard to know why some movies do better than others. If you are a fan of great dialogue and terrific actors, coupled with some violence, then “Killing Them Softly” is not to be missed.

 3 out of 4 nuggets

 


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