Archive for September, 2013

Rush: Worth a Speeding Ticket—Movie

September 30, 2013

Ron Howard’s “Rush” is just that…one gigantic, incredible rush to your system. You need not know anything about racing to appreciate the terrific storytelling, phenomenal racing scenes and great acting that is this film.rush-movie-poster-8

Directed by Howard with screenplay by Peter Morgan, “Rush” is the true story of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The two men have very different personalities and the film is told from both perspectives. What brings them together is the will to win races. And what races they are! Howard captures perfectly the feel of the race track, the sights, the sounds…you can almost smell the gas.

As “Rush” shows us, both men were born into similar upper-class backgrounds—Hunt in England and Lauda in Austria. Neither family was supportive of their racing careers. It’s likely that the lack of support was a huge motivating factor for both of them. “Rush” does a fantastic job in demonstrating Hunt’s and Lauda’s differing approaches to racing. Not only was Lauda a great driver, he truly understood the mechanics of the car and was a perfectionist about his driving and the performance of his car. Lauda is someone you’d want not only in the driver’s seat, but under the hood as well. His single-mindedness made for perhaps a lonely life, but for those who “got” him, it seems to have been worth the effort. One such person was his wife, Marlene, beautifully portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara. Hunt,on the other hand, was no less competitive, but believed in living life to its fullest. He was exciting and fun to be around, yet beneath all that flamboyant joviality, was not that easy to really know. Olivia Wilde as his first wife, Suzy, is terrific in showing what kind of fortitude it took to be with him (interestingly enough, she left him for Richard Burton).

Much of the movie deals with Lauda’s horrific 1976 crash during the German Grand Prix. His body was badly burned and his lungs were damaged, but miraculously he was back on the circuit 48 days later. Never attractive to begin with, Lauda’s face was horribly scarred and never the same again, but he remained remarkably comfortable in his own skin, no matter what form it took.

Hemsworth and Brühl are utterly astonishing in their roles and as the movie’s conclusion shows, bear uncanny resemblances to their respective characters (in fact, as shockingly attractive as Hemsworth is, the real Hunt might be even better looking). Hemsworth is terrific as the joie de vivre Hunt. He captures his spirit beautifully, but also shows the insecurity that lies buried well beneath the surface. Hemsworth demonstrates that when given good material, he is much more than a pretty face and can rise to the occasion. Brühl’s portrayal of Lauda is nothing short of phenomenal.  In a completely vanity-free performance, Brühl manages to illustrate all facets of Lauda’s personality…most especially his grit and determination.

A shout-out must be given to Anthony Dod Mantle’s terrific cinematography, spot-on 70s-style clothing and makeup, a fabulous 70s score and great original music by Hans Zimmer. They make a great movie even better.

Ron Howard and Peter Morgan have combined to make one compelling, story-telling at its best, film. With “Rush” the fall season of fantastic movies begins in earnest.

4 nuggets out of 4

Prisoners: Flawed But Gripping—Movie

September 30, 2013

What would you do to save a loved one from harm? What is your moral compass?  How strong are your core values as a human being when tested?  “Prisoners” poses these questions and more in its sometimes successful thriller/kidnapping story.Prisoners

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski, “Prisoners” is about the Thanksgiving Day disappearance of two little girls in a suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood and how far one parent will go to find them. The parents, Keller and  Grace Dover ( Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), provide the police with a lead, which after a long search, produces a suspect–mentally-challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano). But is he the kidnapper? Keller Dover believes Jones is and goes to great, horrific depths to ensure that Jones is charged, while never giving up on finding the girls. The police, however, are not as certain as is Dover, and hence the conflict.

Hugh Jackman is very convincing as the emotional, volatile parent, not afraid to take matters into his own hands. Terrence Howard shines as the other father whose outward appearance is very difference from Dover’s. He’s the parent who keeps his emotions in-check, but you can see he’s seething inside. Jake Gyllenhaal does a good job as the tightly wound detective assigned to the case and his scenes with his fellow officers and the families are very compelling. More about his performance later. Also exceptional are are Paul Dano as Jones and Melissa Leo as his protective aunt. Maria Bello and Viola Davis are terrific actresses but have little to do other than portray the yings to their husbands’ yangs.

As noted earlier, Melissa Leo is very good as Alex’s aunt, but I have to question why as to why she was cast. She’s made up like an old woman wearing 1980s-style glasses. If they wanted to show an older woman, why not go out and get an older actress. There are plenty of seasoned actresses who would have been great and happy for the work…Jacki Weaver and Ellen Burstyn are just to who come immediately to mind.

Now let’s talk about the most disturbing aspect of the entire film–Jake Gyllenhaal’s twitch/tic. Was this a choice he made as an actor or that of the director or does he really have an eye twitching problem? If this was supposed to be part of his character, it should have been explained. After the first few minutes of this, it became extremely distracting and detracted from, not added to, Gyllenhaal’s overall performance.

“Prisoners” is beautifully shot and it will hold your attention from beginning to end.  However, I found parts of the film a little difficult to follow and some clues are glossed over so quickly you might not notice them. But if you’re in the mood for a crime story without the mind-numbing special effects, “Prisoners” will fit the bill.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

The Family: Funny Takes a Wrong Turn—Movie

September 15, 2013

Going to see “The Family” is like getting two movies for the price of one…that is not necessarily a good thing.  “The Family’s” first hour and a half is a comedy and it is funny and clever. In the last 30 minutes or so, “The Family” becomes a cop/mob/thriller and it’s nowhere near as successful as the comedy. Yes, the scenes are extremely well-done and the acting is still top-notch. But there is something very wrong and distasteful about watching innocent citizens being slaughtered (slaughter is most definitely the correct term) for no other reason…than what? I’m at a loss.The Family

So let me begin at the beginning, which has a very unexpected opening scene. Directed by Luc Besson with screenplay by Besson and Michael Caleo, based on the book by Tonino Benacquista (with Martin Scorsese as one of the executive producers), ”The Family” is about a New York Mafia family on the run.  Fred Blake/Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) has ratted out against his Mafia connections and is now in the witness protection program in Normandy with wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), son Warren (John D’Leo)  and the family dog…all under the watchful eye and protection of the FBI headed by Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).

Even though this is yet another fish out of water story, it is very funny in the hands of this brilliant cast. The kids really take it on the chin…literally…in school, just for being American. But the two are not mobster’s children for nothing, and soon are giving as good as they are receiving. John D’Leo as the 14-year-old is absolutely brilliant as the youngest wise-guy ever. It’s almost like we’re at the birth of a young Robert De Niro. Dianna Agron is exceptionally good at showing toughness and real vulnerability, especially when it comes to the scenes with her high-school teacher crush and in discussing that crush with her mother. Michelle Pfeiffer is extraordinary as the mobster mom. Watching her try to blend in is hysterical…she tries for about 30 seconds and then all bets are off. Pfeiffer is so good she almost steals the whole movie. And boy, does she look amazing. Most of Tommy Lee Jones’ scenes are with De Niro and he really excels without saying very much. This brings us to De Niro. His character decides that his new profession will be that of writer.  Although he tells others he is writing a story about WWII, in reality Giovanni is writing his autobiography. This gives him an opportunity to wax rhapsodic about his mobster career and it’s almost like a retrospective of De Niro’s work.  His scenes with each character are fantastic, even those with Malavita, the dog. And speaking of the dog…where do they get these animals? This dog’s face is so expressive and his scenes with De Niro are fabulous. There should be a new category for best animal in a movie at the Academy Awards. But I digress.

The film begins to turn dark when an innocent slip by Warren puts his family in danger. When Giovanni is asked to lecture about the movie, “Some Came Running,” for the local film club, Stansfield thinks this is a bad idea and will bring unwanted attention to Giovanni and his family, but Giovanni insists and Stansfield unhappily escorts him to the event. However, a last-minute switch of movies really puts Stansfield on edge as Giovanni begins to put too much of his own firsthand knowledge into his review of the switched film.  It’s at this moment that “The Family” goes off the rails and never really recovers. I’m not sure how I wanted the film to end, but I found the conclusion unsettling and very unsatisfying.

With this terrifically talented cast, “The Family” had the opportunity to be something special. Unfortunately that opportunity is disappointingly squandered.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

The Velocity of Autumn: Terrific in Any Season—Theatre

September 12, 2013

“You know you’re getting old when you start making sound effects for your body.”

Chris (Stephen Spinella)

Accepting the fact that you are getting older and dealing with that fact is the theme for the amazing dark comedy, “The Velocity of Autumn.” Written by Eric Coble and directed by Molly Smith, “The Velocity of Autumn” is Arena Stage’s new play and it is a winner.IMG00256-20130912-2024

The play stars Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella as mother and son, Alexandra and Chris. When the curtain opens, we find Alexandra barricaded in her Brooklyn apartment.  She’s threatening to blow up her Park Slope home, and, in truth, her home is an explosion waiting to happen. She knows her other son and daughter (only referred to but never seen) want her to move into some kind of elder care facility, fearing she’s too old to care for herself…and as she later confesses, she has experienced periods of confusion. Making an unexpected, hilarious entrance into her apartment is Chris. He’s come at the behest of his siblings to talk their mother safely out of her apartment.

And what a talk it is. Chris left Brooklyn 20 years ago, never to return. As he tells Alexandra, he didn’t feel free in New York. The more the two talk, the more Chris…and the audience…realize that son and mother have so much in common. Chris is an artist like his mom and has her sensibilities. Like her, he is afraid of growing old.

The two actors are astounding; they actually seem like mother and son. You can see Parson’s face visibly light up when she talks about her character’s love for art and her son. And as Spinella talks about suicide, his life out west, art and how he felt growing up, it feels very real…the audience is so quiet, you can literally hear a pin drop.

Eric Coble’s writing is phenomenal. The characters are completely drawn and the dialogue is chock full of witticisms that mean something.  When Alexandra says, “I don’t know how to be old,” you find yourself nodding in agreement. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a line about aging resonate more than when she exclaims, “I’m not me anymore, whoever me was…soon there will be less and less me.”

There are expectations that “The Velocity of Autumn” will make it to Broadway. If that happens, it is Broadway’s gain. But right now “The Velocity of Autumn” is in DC and you should take every opportunity to see it.

Runs through October 20, 2013

Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC  20024

4 nuggets out of 4

The Grandmaster: A Martial Arts Vision—Movie

September 11, 2013

Operatic and balletic, “The Grandmaster” is a sight for the senses, but not always easy to follow.

“The Grandmaster” is directed by Kar Wai Wong with screenplay by Wong, Jingzhi Zou and Haofeng Xu and martial arts choreography by acclaimed Yuen Woo-pingis. The film is the story of legendary Ip Man, martial artist extraordinaire, who, among his many accomplishments, is known for training Bruce Lee.The Grandmaster

The film’s opening scene is one long, spectacular fight sequence. Shot in the dark, you’ll see smoke and blurred images, but the fighters stand out front and center. And the sounds! You’ll actually hear bones crunching. It’s amazing. We learn that one of the men is Ip Man wearing his traditional fedora as he fights. Then narration takes over as we begin to learn the back story of martial arts and Ip Man.

Ip Man led a fascinating life. To understand how some of that life came to be is almost like watching a lesson in Japanese-Chinese history. His journey to greatness begins in 1936 China. There are two styles of martial arts—one style in the north and one in the south. Ip Man fought in the style of the south. To practice one form is almost like being a member of a highly trained gang. There is a lot of violence as to who makes it to the top of the practice. When Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from the north retires, he decrees that the south should also have a master. After a series of fights, Ip Man emerges triumphant. He is then challenged by Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er…a fight that she wins. However, as a woman she is not allowed to become a Master. The two remain friends. Ip Man returns to the south where he marries and raises a family. It would give too much away to go into details, but a large portion of Ip Man’s life is horrific. Unspeakable things happen to him and to his family in the brutal war with Japan. Eventually Ip Man moves to Hong Kong, where after many years of proving himself, he earns a reputation as a great teacher. It is in Hong Kong where Ip Man meets the young Bruce Lee and becomes his teacher.

Tony Leung as Ip Man inhabits his character seamlessly. He seems to have nailed the martial arts portion of the film. It’s been reported that he spent three years studying martial arts and if true, the time was well spent. Leung captures the intricacies of the form as well as the confidence of knowing what he is doing. But as good as he is in the physicality of his role, he is equally good in the scenes with his wife and children and most especially with Gong Er.

Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er is simply amazing. So small and yet so strong, her fight scenes will leave you breathless. But she also excels in the intimate scenes with her father and with Ip Man.  And does she ever have command of her facial expressions during those sequences.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is astounding. Particularly beautiful are the shots of Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er twirling in the white snow. Dressed in all black with a black Cossack hat, Ziyi Zhang  and the scene in general are simply gorgeous.

Director Kar Wai Wong goes back and forth in time in his film and some of this can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the actors.  But Ip Man led an extremely compelling, complicated life and “The Grandmaster” certainly does him justice.

3 nuggets out of 4

Short Term 12: A Film for the Soul—Movie

September 8, 2013

Short Term 12” is the most unlikely of feel good films. In lesser hands, this movie could have been maudlin and preachy. But thanks to a terrific script and expert direction by Destin Cretton and a phenomenal ensemble cast, “Short Term 12” works beautifully.Short Term 12

“Short Term 12” tell the story of a “home” for foster children in California where children can live until they turn 18. When the film begins, Marcus (Keith Stanfield)  is on the cusp of leaving; Sammy (Alex Calloway), a child with many demons has just led the counselors on a merry chase around the facility; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled teen will make her appearance known shortly; Louis (Kevin Hernandez), a wise-cracking tween is making his usual jokes; and finally, Nate (Rami Malek), a new counselor,  is getting the welcoming speech from seasoned counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).

Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervising counselor whose world-weary eyes suggest she’s pretty much seen everything. She runs a tight ship, but runs it with love and affection. We eventually discover that she has her own problems with which to deal, and, frankly, isn’t doing a great job of handling them. Although she is in love with Mason, she isn’t able to open up to him about her past. It isn’t until Jayden arrives, in whom she sees a lot of herself, that she is finally able to come to terms with that past, and look forward to tomorrow.

Larson is utterly fabulous as Grace. She had a smaller, albeit important role in the recently released, “The Spectacular Now,” and was very good in it, but her performance in “Short Term 12” is so nuanced that it’s a joy to watch. Gallagher, familiar to many from “The Newsroom,” is given much more to do in this film and he runs with it. His performance is deceptively breezy, and some of the film’s best surprises come from him. Stanfield and Dever are fantastic as the veteran and new residents respectively. They take what could easily be stereotypical roles and give them that extra something to make their portrayals special.

What’s so interesting and unique about “Short Term 12” is that it simply, but masterfully shows us the ups and downs of life. Some days are awful and then there are other days in which everything just seems to click and fall into place. It’s how one deals with the highs, lows and norms that makes us the people we are.

“Short Term 12” is an exceptional film full of new, young actors. One can’t wait to see what each does next.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Drinking Buddies: You’ll Want to Join In—Movie

September 8, 2013

Not necessarily intended, but “Drinking Buddies” goes a long way in answering the question from “When Harry Met Sally…”, “Can men and women ever just be friends?”

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, “Drinking Buddies” is an in-depth study of relationships…the friendships you make at work and how those friendships can carry over into your personal life. “Drinking Buddies” focuses on a group of co-workers in a Chicago microbrewery, honing in on Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson).Drinking Buddies

Kate’s employed as the brewery’s event planner. The lone female, she works with a fun group of guys, scruffy, easy-going Luke chief among them. The group has fallen into the habit of going out for drinks and other activities after work. It’s apparent that Kate and Luke have a real connection, but is it more than a strong friendship? Kate is in a long-term relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston), a fairly uptight music producer. Luke is in a committed relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a special ed teacher. A couples’ weekend together makes one wonder if switching partners would make more sense. Changing the composition of the two couples seems a no-brainer–they seem that much more compatible. And that weekend does cause one partner to rethink the commitment. But as “Drinking Buddies” suggests, not every relationship works within the same parameters.

A very down-to-basics, unglamorous Olivia Wilde is a revelation as a guy’s girl who’s searching for love. Jake Johnson is terrific as the best friend co-worker who has a lot more going on underneath the surface than one initially surmises. Ron Livingston is very good in a subdued role of the boyfriend not sure he’s found his soul mate. Anna Kendrick’s hesitant, but stronger than she thinks performance is absolutely fantastic. “Drinking Buddies” supporting cast led by Jason Sudeikis and a great soundtrack make an enjoyable movie even better.

“Drinking Buddies” is a lot deeper than its previews suggest. Much of the dialogue is improvised which makes you feel like you’re watching real conversations with friends. It’s that genuineness that is so appealing and special about “Drinking Buddies.”

3 nuggets out of 4

Hava Nagila (The Movie): Mazel Tov—Movie

September 4, 2013

Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows the music for “Hava Nagila.” For sure you’ve heard it at bar and bat mitzvahs, but it also pops up at ball games and weddings–Jewish and Gentile alike. But who knew there was so much history behind it? Once you watch “Hava Nagila (The Movie)”, you’ll understand the joy and happiness behind the song.Hava-Nagila

Director/producer Roberta Grossman wanted to know how “Hava Nagila” began and what accounted for its universal appeal. She decided to explore the song’s history and what a history it is. The journey for answers takes her to the Ukraine, Israel, the Catskills and New York City. Along the way various theologians, professors and just plain folk weigh in with their thoughts about the song–some serious, some not so much. It’s all quite fascinating and much of it is very funny.

In addition to the history, Grossman provides us with many of the curious musical turns the song has taken—from Glenn Campbell who recorded it for the “B” side of “True Grit” to Chubby Checkers who turned the song into the Twist to Bob Dylan who offers the strangest, worse iteration “Hava Nagila” has  ever known…it is truly awful. Harry Belafonte gives a lengthy interview and notes that “Hava Nagila” and the “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” are his two most requested songs to this day. And the duet he performs with Danny Kaye is absolutely priceless. The film also features the queen of “Hava Nagila,” Connie Francis. Although she’s probably performed more Jewish songs than any Jew or Gentile ever…and for the record she’s Italian Catholic…”Hava Nagila” is one of her most popular songs.

The movie jumps into the current legal dispute regarding the authorship of “Hava Nagila’s”  lyrics. For years it was thought to be written by musicologist A.Z. Idelsohn, but the family of New York cantor Moshe Nathanson recently claimed that it is Nathanson, who was Idelsohn’s student in Jerusalem, who wrote the lyrics as part of a school assignment. The dispute is now in the courts. Oy vey!

“Hava Nagila (The Movie)” also discusses the relationship between the Hora dance and “Hava Nagila” and how the two have become intertwined. The clips of so many different cultures performing the dance and song together makes for great comedy.

Grossman and writer/producer Sophie Sartain do a terrific job in capturing the fun and ubiquitousness that is “Hava Nagila.” The song is so universally known that it’s quite possible many people think it’s the Israeli national anthem.  It’s not (and for the record, neither is Ferrante and Teicher’s theme from “Exodus”).  In fact, Israel is one of the few countries and cultures not to fully embrace “Hava Nagila.” That is just one of the many fascinating facts you’ll learn from “Hava Nagila (The Movie).”

“Hava Nagila” (The Movie)” can be downloaded at: http://watchhavanagilathemovie.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/watch-hava-nagila-the-movie-2013-online/.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4


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