Archive for October, 2013

All is Lost: But a Find for the Audience—Movie

October 29, 2013

At 77 Robert Redford is no longer the Adonis he once was. His face is lined and weathered. His hands are spotted and his blonde hair is now mixed with tufts of white. But what he does have is grit and determination, which come through loud (albeit silently) and clear in “All is Lost.”All is Lost

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost” is a 106 minutes character study of a man at the end of his rope…literally. Known only as Our Man in the credits, Redford portrays someone stranded at sea with just himself for company (no “Wilson” for him). We have no information about his back story. We just know that he was sleeping on his boat when it crashes into a shipping container on the Indian Ocean. His situation goes from bad to worse as his boat first takes on water, and then, as horrific storms come and go, his boat disintegrates, leaving him with his just his lifeboat. Our Man keeps busy…mentally and physically…charting his course, devising mechanisms for fresh water, fishing…doing anything to give himself the chance of survival and rescue. At least we assume this is the case, because Our Man never speaks. Only in one scene does he finally say, “F**k.” I find it very strange (or perhaps I’m the strange one), that he never talks to himself. Since he utters barely a peep, we’re not entirely sure what he’s thinking. One thing you come to realize is that Redford doesn’t have the most expressive face, and even less so in “All is Lost.” So when an idea comes to him, or when he finally gives in to disgust or desperation, his limited expressions take on more resonance.

The cinematography by Frank G. Demark and Peter Zuccarini, both underwater and above, is simply astounding. Shots of the small lifeboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean will take your breath away.  Alex Ebert’s score is terrific. For much of the film there is no music, just the thrashing of the water. Gradually sounds come into play—never overbearing or intrusive—the music is just right. And the music at the end is perfect. It begins with almost a militaristic melancholia tone, and then, ever so slightly, is mixed with a bit of…hope?

“All is Lost” is a very different cinematic experience and gives us a Robert Redford we’ve never before seen in a performance that is most definitely his best. Who knew so much could be said without saying a word?

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

12 Years a Slave: Painfully Memorable—Movie

October 27, 2013

Imagine that you are living a life of complete freedom. You come and go as you please, partake in the arts, read books, do whatever your heart desires. Then imagine that in an instant, without warning, all that is taken from you. Control over your life is over. No family, no books…no freedom. You might not be in a physical cage or jail cell, but the result is still the same. Your life as you knew it no longer exists. Such is the story of Solomon Northrup. If it wasn’t true, “12 Years a Slave” would be too horrific to be believed. Directed by Steve McQueen, with screenplay by John Ridley based on Solomon Northup’s book, “Twelve Years a Slave” is the shocking, authentic tale of Solomon Northrup.12 Years a Slave

An educated, free black man in 1841 Saratoga, NY, Solomon lives an upper middle-class life as a musician with a wife and two children. In his wildest dreams he never envisions that when he says good-bye to his family who are leaving on a trip, 12 years would pass before he would see them again. While his family is away, Solomon accepts an opportunity to go on the road with two performers and earn some extra money. If you have a bad feeling about this endeavor, you won’t be wrong. What follows are Solomon’s 12 harrowing years in slavery that defy adequate description.

As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an astounding performance. His face is so expressive and his portrayal so grounded in reality, that Ejiofor commands the screen whenever he is on it. Watching him come to grips with his changed circumstance is painful to watch, he’s that good. His scenes with his final master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), are extremely tough as are the scenes with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o),  the slave who has the misfortune to catch the eye of Epps.

Nyong’o has some of the film’s roughest moments. Patsey is despised by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and suffers mightily because she is “favored.”  With Master Epps she is either slapped, whipped or raped on a daily basis. You almost hate seeing her on the screen, because you know something terrible is about to happen to her.

Although Epps’ character seems stereotypical, Michael Fassbender gives it everything he has.  He provides a memorable performance in what can only be described as a mentally unstable, vicious slave owner.

“12 Years a Slave” has an outstanding cast in some very ugly roles. Paul Giamatti as the slave trader and Paul Dano as Solomon’s first overseer are both brutally terrific. As Mr. Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch is very credible as Solomon’s benevolent first owner, but  without the backbone or money to do anything to change Solomon’s situation except to make it ultimately worse. Sarah Paulson is appropriately ice-cold as Epps’ betrayed wife. Alfre Woodard as the slave turned mistress and Brad Pitt as the Canadien laborer who befriends Solomon are also excellent in lesser, albeit important roles.

The one downside to the film is the music. It’s not that Hans Zimmer’s score is bad–far from it–but it is used so heavily that it becomes extremely intrusive and distracting. It’s almost as if McQueen is afraid we won’t understand the horror without it being telegraphed. He needn’t worry.

“12 Years a Slave” may be the first film to address slavery in all its ugliness head-on. It’s hard to say that you will be entertained, but you will feel that your time has been well spent and might make you wonder how a country founded upon freedom could so easily deny it for so long to others.

4 nuggets out of 4

Bad Grandpa: Welcome Surprise—Movie

October 27, 2013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” would seem to be a bit of an interloper in the month of October when Hollywood rolls out its prestige movies. But not so fast. Directed by Jeff Tremaine  with story by  Fax Bahr and Adam Small and story and screenplay by Tremaine, Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville, “Bad Grandpa” is funny, witty, well-executed, and yes, raunchy, but some days that’s exactly what is needed. “Bad Grandpa” promises nothing more than solid laughs and humor at America’s expense and it delivers.

BadGrandpaposterStarring Johnny Knoxville as 86-year-old Irving Zisman and Jackson Nicoll as his 8-year-old grandson, Billy, the film is about the road trip the two take from Nebraska to North Carolina following the “death” of Irving’s wife and the “incarceration” of Billy’s mother to deliver Billy to his father. Along the way the two pull some outlandish punks on the unsuspecting citizens of small-town USA. While some stunts are more successful than others, what’s always funny is the reaction of the people who are punked.

Knoxville and his pint-sized partner in crime, Nicoll, have terrific chemistry. Jackson Nicoll is especially fun to watch. He’s so seemingly earnest and genuine, even when making some of the most outrageous comments to total strangers, you almost believe what he’s doing is on the up and up. Other than the bits with Nicoll, Knoxville’s best moments are with women—any age or ethnicity. They may think him strange or even vile, but he gets a pass because of his age and likeability.

As noted not every stunt is a thigh-slapper; some will have you grimacing. However, the “gentlemen’s club,” diner and beauty pageant gags are hysterical  and there are lots of other laughs in between.

I have to go back to Jackson Nicoll. What does the future hold for him? I hope he continues a career in film. Maybe that’s the ultimate punk of “Bad Grandpa.” Without necessarily meaning to, the film has actually gifted us with a real star in the making.

I’m not sure what “Bad Grandpa” says about the American people—we’re gullible and sometimes downright stupid for sure. But the reactions of many in surprising locations show that we do have heart, too. That’s a good October surprise.

3 nuggets out of 4

The Counselor: So Out of Order—Movie

October 25, 2013

“¿Cómo?”  (What? How?) A bartender says this to the Counselor in his last scene in the movie. I think the bartender speaks for all of us who manage to sit through the entire 117 minutes of “The Counselor.”  “¿Cómo?—How did so many A-listers and terrific actors sign up for this mess of a film?The Counselor Poster 2

“The Counselor,” directed by Ridley Scott with screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, is the story of the downward spiral of a lawyer (Michael Fassbender), known only as Counselor. When we first meet the Counselor, he’s in bed with his soon-to-be fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz).  Although he lives large, the Counselor has money problems which lead him to shady dealings with drug lord, Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner lives with girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who has a thing for cheetahs and watches over her own sinister businesses.  Brad Pitt  has a small, but critical role as Westray, the Counselor’s world-weary middleman.  The Counselor is quickly in over his head and his stint in the drug business predictably goes south. Frankly, the rest of the movie is a hodge-podge and makes no sense. There’s a monologue here, a monologue there. Characters come and go. With five minutes left in the film, we are introduced to new characters…Well, hello there Dean Norris and John Leguizamo. And wait, isn’t that Goran Visnjic?

Everyone… and I do mean everyone… is a philosopher in “The Counselor.”  I don’t think I’ve heard so much pretentious gobbledygook in one film…ever. How did the actors manage to deliver this dialogue without cracking up?  Either there were multiple takes or they are all even better actors than I imagined.

As bad as this movie is, Michael Fassbender manages to rise above the screenplay. For my money, he’s actually much better in this…showing a range of emotions… than he is in “12 Years a Slave.” Brad Pitt is still the best looking character actor in the business. Penélope Cruz doesn’t have all that much to do except look beautiful and she certainly succeeds on that score. What to make of Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz? Bardem does a laudable job in playing a very likeable drug dealer, but with that kind of laid-back attitude, it’s hard to understand how his character has lasted that long in the drug business. And his hair—really? What is the point? In reality, the way everyone in the film is sweating from the heat, there is no way his hair would be able to stand up like that. Cameron Diaz is a hoot. She’s over the top in every way. Some of it is self-inflicted as this is one of her worse performances. But do they really have to hit us over the head with how much she admires cheetahs? From her cheetah-like hair to her cheetah tattoos to  her print clothing, there’s nothing understated about her. And it is a miracle that she is able to lift her hands and hold her head up with the amount of heavy jewelry she’s wearing.

I’m at a loss. Ridley Scott is not some schlock director nor is Cormac McCarthy a hack writer—quite the opposite. How did they come up with this piece of junk? Save your money. If you want to ponder that question, ponder it when “The Counselor” comes to your television.

1 nugget out of 4

Captain Phillips: Heroism Gets its Due—Movie

October 14, 2013

It takes genius film-making to put the audience on the edge of its seats when they know going in the movie’s outcome.  “Captain Phillips” has this genius in spades. Directed by Paul Greengrass with screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, “Captain Phillips”  is the true story of the 2009 high-jacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. With no special effects or tricks…just outstanding camera work and unbelievable, terrific acting…you will feel that you are right there with the Captain for the film’s 134 minutes running time.Captain Phillips

The movie begins in Vermont as Phillips (Tom Hanks) gets ready to leave home for his next assignment—ironically enough, carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World Food Program in Africa—and then shifts to Somalia. There we watch the Somalis getting ready to choose who will go out in the two boats for their next pirating attempt. One can’t help but be affected by the differing backgrounds of the two settings.

Greengrass and Ray do an excellent job depicting what normal life is like onboard the Alabama as Phillips routinely goes about his duties. The Alabama is surprisingly (at least to me) the size of an office building, which lends credibility to the fact that the crew could stay hidden for as long as it did. Once the Somalis choose the Alabama to attack, the real action of the film begins. The Alabama does everything right, but because it is unarmed as merchant ships are, it is virtually helpless to piracy and this is one instance that its size works against it.

Time spent on board the Alabama is harrowing and much of it is a cat and mouse game between Phillips and the pirates. In addition to arms, what gives the Somalis an initial leg up is that they understand English, but the American crew does not understand Somali. Therefore, Phillips and his crew are never really sure what is going on until guns are put to their heads.

Once the action shifts to the lifeboat, the real heart of the movie takes place. By using extreme close-ups of the Captain and his captors, Greengrass does an absolutely fantastic job in making you feel how confined they all are. Without any special effects, the camera work makes you feel seasick and you can begin to believe the lifeboat’s insides closing in on you.

The acting in the film is absolutely outstanding. The pirates, unknown, first-time actors, are fabulous. Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate, Muse, is astounding. He becomes charming, cunning, and fearsome within a matter of seconds. He portrays perfectly the desperation and feeling of nothing to lose that his character and fellow pirates have come to live by.

What can one say about Tom Hanks? His performance will hit you in the gut. He’s fabulous throughout, but his last five minutes are extremely hard to watch, they are so raw, and will stay with you for a long time. This is without a doubt the best work he has ever done and it’s breathtaking.

“Captain Phillips” shows what can be accomplished with a good story, excellent direction and utterly amazing acting. It’s everything film-making should be and a thousand times more.

4 nuggets out of 4

Machete Kills: Off With Their Heads—Movie

October 13, 2013

You know, I like a good decapitation as much as the next person–maybe even more–but it is possible to get too much of something. After the third or fourth beheading, not to mention the chopping off of other body parts, the knife skills of “Machete Kills” begin to wear a little thin.

Machete Kills posterDirected by Robert Rodriguez with screenplay by Kyle Ward  and story by Robert Rodriguez and Marcel Rodriguez, “Machete Kills” is the follow-up to “Machete,” which was a really fun, solid B movie. Ah, the good old days.

“Machete Kills” brings back Danny Trejo in the title role as an ex-federale. This go-round he’s hired personally by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen/Carlos Estevez) to stop, by whatever means, the actions of a mastermind behind the creation of a missile aimed for the U.S. which could take down the whole world. “A master of knives taking down a mastermind criminal?” you ask. In the world of “Machete,” anything is possible.

“Machete Kills” is not meant to be taken seriously. It is one gigantic live-action cartoon and unabashedly so.  There is nothing wrong with that as evidenced by the original “Machete.” The problem with “Machete Kills” is that absolutely nothing makes sense. The film boasts a huge cast of stars, but most of them are in the film for about 2 minutes. For those who have more screen time, they are very good, no matter how ridiculous the material. Danny Trejo brings whatever gravitas there is to the film very convincingly. It’s easy to imagine him handling knives, guns, machetes…whatever. Sofía Vergara’s Desdemona is one tough cookie who puts her best assets forward in some hysterical scenes. Charlie Sheehan’s President is fabulous and extremely funny. It’s hard for me to be objective about Mel Gibson. Let’s just say his villainous Voz doesn’t seem like too big a stretch.  Amber Heard is great as Miss San Antonio and Machete’s contact via the President (would you expect less with Charlie Sheen as President). Finally, there is Demian Bichir as Mendez, the film’s supposed villain. Bichir is a revelation. His character goes through many different personality changes and he is fabulous in all of them.  One can’t overstate how great and how much fun he is to watch.

“Machete Kills” has some stunning visual effects and the switching out of characters is brilliantly done. However, there is a reason that on its opening weekend, there was only one other person in the theatre with me and he left before the conclusion. That reason is…it’s just not very good. Based on the end of the film, there is one more “Machete” film yet to come—“Machete Kills Again…In Outer Space.” Since so few people will have probably seen “Machete Kills” there is a chance to right the ship and give us fun with more than just a smidge of sense. Even the “Roadrunner” has a semblance of a storyline.

1 nugget out of 4

Gravity: Spectacular Film-making on Every Level—Movie

October 10, 2013

You realize you are in for a rare visual experience from “Gravity’s” opening shot. Finally, a movie where 3-D makes sense, not just a device to make more money.  In fact, the 3-D is so terrific (and when seen in an IMAX theater even better), it’s hard to imagine “Gravity” without it.Gravityposter1

“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón and written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, dramatically shows and tells us what it would be like to be literally “lost in space.” “Tell” is important because actors and acting are still important and necessary ingredients in order for a movie to be complete, regardless of the special effects.

As “Gravity” begins, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a routine space mission to make repairs at the space station. This is Ryan’s first flight, while Matt is making his last mission, planning to retire upon return to Earth. They are both outside the space capsule when “stuff” happens.  And what “stuff” it is. The special effects at this juncture in the film are spectacular, but so is the acting which ratchets up a notch here, too.

George Clooney has less to do in the movie, but his presence has a comforting affect…whether intentional or not. His years as “ER’s” Dr. Ross serve him well in “Gravity.” The same comforting bedside manner helps lessen the tension for Ryan and the audience, too. Sandra Bullock is utterly fabulous as the nervous Ryan, who has more mental toughness than she originally thinks. Her scenes,both inside and outside the capsule, are really amazing and intense. While most of us can’t identify with a seasoned astronaut like Matt, we can all recognize some of Ryan in us, should we ever be in similar circumstances.

“Gravity” is unlike any movie you’ve seen. It’s powerful, riveting, in-your face film-making at its very best.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Don Jon: Porn Can Be Fun…For Most—Movies

October 9, 2013

Who knew a fight over Swiffer could signal the beginning of the end of a relationship? That’s just one of the insightful tidbits from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s raunchy rom-com, “Don Jon.” This film may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it hard to deny that it’s extremely well-written and acted.Don Jon

Written, directed and starring Gordon-Levitt as the title character, “Don Jon” is the story of one man’s obsession with porn to the detriment of finding happiness and love with a real woman and engaging in a real relationship.

Nicknamed Don Jon by his friends because of his prowess with women, Jon finds what he thinks is the woman of his dreams in gum-smacking, well-built Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Barbara has her own ideas of the ideal man (and that does not include a man who cleans his own apartment) demonstrated by a terrific cameo featuring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Does either measure up to the other’s standards? Is either possible of changing or better still, growing? Enter Esther (Julianne Moore). She’s a student in Jon’s class who strikes up an initially unwanted conversation with him. After many awkward beginnings, a friendship develops. Perhaps she has answers.

“Don Jon’s” entire cast is terrific. Tony Danza as Jon’s over-the-top Italian father is especially outstanding. It just goes to show what a good script and direction can do. Glenne Headly, as Jon’s wannabe-grandparent mother is also very good in an extremely funny part. In her 100th role this year, Brie Larson is particularly terrific as Jon’s  glued-to-her-cell phone sister, never saying much, but whose expressions say it all. In a zany family, she is actually the voice of reason. Julianne Moore’s role is small, but important, and she’s wonderful in walking the fine line between someone you want to slug and hug.  Finally there is Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Barbara is the meatiest role Johansson has had in ages and she devours it. She is pitch-perfect as the materialistic, upwardly mobile Jersey girl. And Levitt-Gordon?  He has written himself a fantastic part and he’s utterly fabulous in it.  He makes Jon so easy to root for and feel sorry for at the same time. You really want him to just get it right.

With “Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt  is a welcome addition to the new, young class of hyphenated actor-director-writers. “Don Jon” is comedically smart, but make no mistake; it is R-rated for a reason. If you’re up for that (sorry), you’ll appreciate all that makes it a fun time at the movies.

3 nuggets out of 4

Blue Caprice: Not a Fun Drive Down Memory Lane—Movie

October 8, 2013

I have called DC home for many years, so I was somewhat curious about the film, “Blue Caprice,” which is about the time leading up to, during and after one of the most frightening periods in the city’s history—the period of the DC Sniper.Blue Caprice

By way of background, for a few months following September 11, 2001, anthrax was the talk of the town. Postal workers were handling and delivering the mail with gloves; people were buying plastic sheeting in bulk to paste to their windows in case of attack…it was intense. Spring and summer came and finally life was getting back to normal. Then, in October, random, deadly shootings started to occur. Shootings are nothing new to the District or surrounding suburbs, but these shootings seem to come out of nowhere and from the same gun. A shooting at a gas station, a school, a parking lot, a bus stop—young, old, any  and every race—there was no rhyme or reason to any of it. We were told to be on the lookout for a white van which might have some relation to the shootings. I remember waiting for my bus in the morning when a white van went down the street. I immediately called 9-1-1. When the shooters were finally apprehended in a blue Caprice at a Maryland highway rest stop, I happened to be on a chartered bus the next day for a work event, on the same highway, and remember the bus driver pointing out the infamous stop.

So, against that backdrop, I decided to take in “Blue Caprice.” I went looking for answers. Was there a rationale, delusional as it might be, for these killings? As directed by Alexandre Moors and written by  R.F.I. Porto, “Blue Caprice” doesn’t provide answers and perhaps there are none to be had. What we get is some background on the two men and learn why, perhaps, the two were drawn to one another. The film opens with real footage from the shootings. We then go back in time where we first meet John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) in Antigua. Muhammad is happily playing on the beach with his children as Malvo watches from his house. Soon, thereafter, Malvo’s mother tells her son that she’s departing their home in search of better employment, leaving Malvo to fend for himself. While she’s gone, it appears that Malvo nearly drowns and is rescued by Muhammad. From that point on the two are inseparable. Muhammad takes Malvo under his wing and we see a father/son bond develop. About five months later, Muhammad’s children are gone and he decides to go to Tacoma, Washington, taking Malvo with him. In Tacoma, he and Malvo settle in with a friend and his wife. Muhammad’s personality has changed for the worse. He has formed a real hatred for his ex-wife whom he believes has stolen his children. He teaches Malvo to shoot and Malvo is a natural.  At one point Muhammad proudly says, “I have created a monster.”  When the two go shopping in a grocery store, we see Muhammad put forth some kind of plan…but why and to what end? Eventually Muhammad and Malvo make their way to the DC area and the horrible killings begin.

Isaiah Washington gives a very good, precise performance as Muhammad. Except for the anger towards his ex, precision/discipline seem to be much in keeping with the character. Tequan Richmond’s Malvo is much more subdued, but it works. In Malvo, Muhammad found a very malleable soul, and Richmond portrays that perfectly. While the acting is good, there really isn’t enough story behind the performances and that is “Blue Caprice’s” ultimate downfall.

Unfortunately, for me, the most fascinating part of the movie had nothing to do with the acting. It was learning how Malvo was able to shoot without being seen. And I thought sadly, how “lucky” we were that he was only able to shoot one person at a time, unlike the killings we’ve seen in recent years.

2 nuggets out of 4

Enough Said: One Can’t Say Enough—Movie

October 1, 2013

Nicole Holofcener’s romantic comedy, “Enough Said” is a gem of a movie featuring two twinkling stars in their acting prime.

Written and directed by Holofcener, “Enough Said” is the story of Eva’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert’s (James Gandolfini) road to romance. The two meet at a party and while initially there isn’t a strong attraction between the two, there is enough of one for Albert to ask Eva out.

Eva is a masseuse who makes house calls and Albert is a film librarian. Both are divorced with teenage daughters going off to college in the fall as freshmen far away from their California homes. Albert’s and Eva’s romance is full speed ahead until Eva realizes that her newest client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is Albert’s ex-wife. Marianne has been trash-talking non-stop about her ex without ever mentioning his name, so it’s quite a shock to Eva when she accidentally learns who Marianne’s ex is. She’s not sure what to do with the information and she begins to question her own judgment about Albert. Suddenly and sadly for both, their relationship goes off the rails. The two are so cute together that it really hurts you, as a member of the audience, to watch them go through this hard time.

All of the acting in “Enough Said” is phenomenal. Catherine Keener and Toni Collette ,as ex-wife and friend respectively, are great. Keener has been in several of Holofcener’s films and the two make for a terrific team.Enough Said

James Gandolfini, in one of his last performances, is fantastic. Schlubby, unorganized, but with a huge heart, his Albert displays so many emotions with few words…it’s like watching him give a master class in acting. And his work with Louis-Dreyfus is beyond divine.

But the real star of “Enough Said” is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. There is a reason why this woman has won Emmys for three different TV roles—SHE CAN ACT. Over the years we’ve seen her shine as a comedic actress. But in “Enough Said,” Louis-Dreyfus gets to show her soft, vulnerable side, and she just astounds.

Nicole Holofcener is a terrific writer/ director. She “gets” relationships—families, couples, friends. She’s written about them all. With “Enough Said” she absolutely nails the awkwardness of first dates—especially dating later in life, and she is spot on about the mother-father-daughter bond. This film may be her best work yet.

For tour de force writing and acting, one can’t say enough about “Enough Said.” This is one of the rare films that saddened me when it was over. I wanted to spend more time with these characters.

4 nuggets out of 4


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