Archive for December, 2013

Her: One Ups Lars’ Real Girl—Movie

December 30, 2013

Her1Thought-provoking, imaginative and entertaining… all describe Spike Jonze’s latest film, “Her.” Written and directed by Jonze, “Her” is a quiet, gentle look at love and relationships in the near future.

Set in an ultra-modern Los Angeles, “Her” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a custom letter writer. In the process of divorcing his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore lives a fairly solitary life. He is a lonely guy who’s not really happy in his loneliness. Since his separation, Theodore’s primary friends seem to be Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, Charles (Matt Letscher). Into this mix enters his newly acquired Operating System, who gives herself the name Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). In this advanced society it is commonplace to have an OS which acts as a companion…customized to meet your needs, be it friend or something more. Samantha is so lively, upbeat and eager to learn that it would be hard not to fall for her in some manner. Theodore is no exception and with her help, he begins to come out of his shell and solitude. But then what?

The future that Jonze presents is a tad depressing. The outdoor scenes feature many people looking at their phones or talking into their phones. It almost makes you think that these shots were choreographed so that none of the extras bumped into one another. The fact that Theodore has such animated conversations with his OS and no one looks at him twice gives me some pause, but our society is pretty much headed in that direction and in Theodore’s LA, it is obviously the norm. Even Theodore’s job—writing letters and e-mails for other people—says  something about the depersonalization of the world in which he’s living.

In many ways, “Her” is very reminiscent of “Lars and the Real Girl.” Both male leads have problems socializing and chose to be with inanimate objects over flesh and blood women (what that says about my gender is not necessarily complimentary). A primary difference is that with “Her” the OS is able to talk and carry on a conversation rather than the conversation being one-sided.

The production design, art direction and set decoration by K.K. Barrett, Austin Gorg and Gene Serdena respectively, are amazing. They perfectly convey what a futuristic LA could look like. And the scenes featuring the Alien Child are especially inventive.

However, it is the excellent acting which really makes “Her” special. Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as Theodore. Phoenix is such an interesting actor. He is so wonderful at conveying joy, depression, anger and bewilderment. “Her” requires all of those emotions from him…mostly while talking to a machine…and we believe all of those feelings coming from him. And when he smiles, it just lights up the entire movie.

Is Amy Adams ever bad? As Theodore’s friend, she’s terrific. Even with fairly little makeup and a slightly dowdy wardrobe, she grabs your attention when on-screen and her scenes with Phoenix are a pleasure to watch.

Outstanding in a supporting role is Chris Pratt, as Theodore’s boss and friend, Paul. Pratt has become a very good, reliable supporting comedic character actor and this film is no exception. Rooney Mara is first-rate as Theodore’s soon-to-be-ex. The contrast of her angry, present day scenes with the flashbacks to happier times are really very good. And Olivia Wilde turns in a great, fun performance as one of Theodore’s blind dates.

And what of Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha? Simply put, she is perfect. She gets to use all of her vocal acting chops and she amazes, she is that remarkable. With a voice like that, how could one not fall in love with her? Actress Samantha Morton was originally cast as Samantha’s voice and was replaced after the film’s completion by Johansson. Morton is a fine actress, but it’s truly hard to picture that anyone could be better than Johansson in this role.

“Her,” this quietly imaginative movie, will certainly get you thinking about your own social interactions. You might even wonder what you would do if such a device was available to you. Me, I prefer human beings, but that’s just me. It certainly is interesting to contemplate.

3 nuggets out of 4

Inside Llewyn Davis: Pain for the Artist but Joy for the Audience—Movie

December 28, 2013

Joel and Ethan Coen always make you think even while entertaining. That is what makes them and their movies so unique and special. So it is with their new movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in NYC’s 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, and follows one tumultuous week in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).Inside Llewyn Davis

Once part of a duo, Llewyn is struggling to make it as a solo act, and to say it’s not easy is putting it mildly. Llewyn is basically homeless, sleeping on couches and floors of friends and acquaintances. His agent, elderly, out-of the-loop, Mel, seems to be doing little on Llewyn’s behalf. On a wing and a prayer, Llewyn heads out to Chicago, catching a ride with poet, Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund), and musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), hoping to get an audition with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Grossman is a well-known Chicago club owner and manager, and if he takes a shine to Llewyn, his career could take off.

Who knows what will happen to Llewyn, but in watching Oscar Isaac, one knows that with the right material, one is witnessing a star being born.  Isaac is perfect as the struggling singer, hit by misfortune upon misfortune. His scenes with his professorial friends, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), are funny, frightening and touching. Llewyn can be a real douche at times, but something about Isaac’s acting makes us continue to root for him. And boy, can he ever sing as well as play the guitar. Isaac more than holds his own with the movie’s real musicians and singers…and that includes Justin Timberlake.

Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Llewyn’s friends and singing colleagues, Jean and Jim. It’s their apartment where Llewyn crashes the most. Jean has a history with Llewyn and Mulligan is great at portraying Jean’s mixed emotions where he is concerned—frustration and concern for his present and future. Timberlake has less acting to do, but presents a whole different side to his singing and he is just wonderful.

With T-Bone Burnett as the film’s executive music producer and Marcus Mumford as the associate music producer, the music becomes another character in the film. All of the songs are fabulous and will stay with you for a long time.

Joel and Ethan Coen have done an amazing job in re-creating the early 60s. And have they ever provided a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about a career in the performing arts, no matter what the timeframe. Granted, in the 60’s there was no American Idol or YouTube in which to kick-start a career. But for every Kelly Clarkson—talented, but lucky, too—there are hundreds upon hundreds of other struggling artists who don’t get that one lucky break. The Coens show that it takes a lot of fortitude to stick it out as well as a circle of friends on whom to rely along the way. In lesser hands “Inside Llewyn Davis” could be very dark, but the Coens know when to cheer things up…enter the continuing saga of Llewyn and the cat throughout the film. John Goodman also adds just the right light touch in his small scene.

To paraphrase Tina Turner, the Coen Brothers “do everything the hard way.” They enjoy challenging their audience. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is no different. After the final credits roll, it helps to stay in your seat and think about what you’ve just seen…the light bulb will go off…and it will all make sense. And should you or a friend ever think about a life in show business, watch this film again just to be sure.

For more information about the music of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” check out


3 nuggets out of 4

Saving Mr. Banks: More than a Spoonful of Terrificness—Movie

December 26, 2013

“Terrificness.” With apologies to Pamela Travers, much like the Sherman Brothers, I have to make up a word to describe  “Saving Mr. Banks” and the word is “terrificness.”  “Terrificness” occurs when a wonderful story, amazing acting, fantastic music and outstanding direction combine to form one fabulous movie.

Saving Mr. Banks“Saving Mr. Banks,” directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is the story of how P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” was finally brought to the screen. As we learn from Mr. Disney, it was a 20-year pursuit to acquire the rights to her beloved novel, based on a promise he’d made to his daughters to bring “Mary” to life. Finally forced by her literary agent to consider the offer to help overcome the the dire straits of her financial situation, Mrs. Travers consents to an in-person discussion with Disney before making a decision about the rights one way or the other. She travels from her London home to Los Angeles to meet with him and the film’s writers…Don DaGradi and Robert and Richard Sherman. Once there, an irritable and irritating Mrs. Travers pretty much disagrees with everything the writers are doing…the music, the casting of Dick Van Dyke, and most especially, the use of any animation. Although she obviously comes around, interestingly enough, the animated penguins are almost the deal-breaker (and in real life are something for which she never forgave Disney or herself for allowing).

Emma Thompson, as P.L. Travers, is wonderful at capturing not only Travers’ prickliness, but also her heart. Thompson is second to none when it comes to exchanging quips, sarcasm or put-downs. But she is in a class by herself in the silent moments, in knowing just how to move her hands or compose her face.  It’s the stillness that one remembers. The scenes when she is alone in her room, entering the hotel bar, or just looking out the window…all are extremely powerful…and she’s acting with no one but the camera. It’s astounding.

As Walt Disney, Tom Hanks has tricky waters to navigate. Much of the viewing audience grew up with the real Walt Disney…as the host of his Sunday television series or even introducing some of his movies. We think we know him. Although Hanks gives Disney some kind of Midwestern twang, which doesn’t quite ring true, he most definitely captures Disney’s essence…his joy at film-making and the real pride he feels for his work. Watching him stride through his kingdom, Disneyland, and make no mistake, he is king, one feels like they are watching the authentic Walt at work. Hanks’ scenes with Thompson are especially good…the scenes in his office…and most especially the scenes with Travers in her home, where he talks about his own humble beginnings. It’s a truly touching moment when he finally figures out why Travers is so protective of “Mary Poppins,” something of which Travers might not even be aware. Disney was very good at making us believe that despite his wealth, he was an “everyman.” In Hanks, he has the perfect receptacle for that spirit. “Saving Mr. Banks” makes me want to learn more about Mr. Disney, and, in part, that’s due to Tom Hanks’ portrayal.

The supporting cast of Bradley Whitford as Don DaGradi, B.J. Novak as Robert Sherman and Jason Schwartzman as Richard Sherman is very strong. Novak is especially good as the more exasperated of the threesome, but all three convey the joy and hard work of writing and surprisingly all three of them can actually sing. Paul Giamatti has a small part as Travers’ LA limo driver. In less capable hands this role could have been overly treacley, but somehow Giamatti manages to make him human without going over the top.

For all the wonderment of Disneyland, Disney and “Mary Poppins,” the real heart and soul of the movie lie in the scenes of Travers’ past…growing up in Australia. As Travers reflects on her life, be prepared to have a tissue handy, because these scenes are heart-breaking. In fact, I wondered if the reason for Travers’ initial dislike of California was its resemblance in climate to Australia which made her think of home…a  home that was filled with so much childhood pain. Travers grows up with two loving parents. Her mother, Margaret (Ruth Wilson), loves her, but because of her ne’er do well husband is forced to be the family disciplinarian, finally reaching her breaking point in an emotionally charged scene. Travers, called Ginty by her father, has an extremely close relationship with him. Her father is a wonderful storyteller and seems to be the impetus for Travers’ imagination. Unfortunately he is an alcoholic. His drinking costs him his prestigious banking job; he is demoted and the family is forced to leave their spacious house for a home in the Australian farm country, where he is the manager for a bank. As her father, Colin Farrell is nothing short of amazing. His work with Annie Rose Buckley (Ginty) astonishes. Farrell infuses his character with so much love, it feels like a real relationship. His character’s pain at the failure he’s become and the harm he has caused is palpable, and without knowing it, is probably the reason for the adult P.L. Travers’ damaged psyche. Once again, one has to ask, where do these young actors come from? Buckley is simply great. And Colin Farrell? “Saving Mr. Banks” would be the poorer without him.  He hasn’t given a performance like this in years, if ever, and one hopes he will be recognized come awards’ time.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is one of the year’s best movies. Everything about it works. It doesn’t try to rip at your emotions…it just happens. In short, it’s full of “terrificness.”

4 nuggets out of 4

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Please Let it Die—Movie

December 19, 2013

Every now and then a movie is so horrifically horrible that you want to scream it from the rooftops so other people won’t squander their hard-earned money. This is my scream. Terrible doesn’t begin to describe “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”

I love comedies. I like to laugh…honestly, I do. I laughed my head off at “This is the End,” “Bad Grandpa“…even “The Millers.” I do find Adam McKay’s and Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die website just that…funny. I didn’t go into “Anchorman 2” expecting Oscar-winning writing. I expected low-brow “stay classy” laughs. What I didn’t expect is material below sea-level.

Anchorman 2Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is the return of that loveable San Diego news team from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” In this sequel, again written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and directed by McKay, the now disbanded group reunites to take on the challenge of televising news 24 hours a day, with them initially working the grave yard shift. Hilarity ensues…NOT.

Initially the film has a fun feel to it in the form of Harrison Ford’s early appearance. It’s an amusing, well-delivered performance. But then reality begins to creep in, and you start to think, “This is going to be terrible.” What’s unfortunate is that the acting isn’t bad…it’s the material that is surprisingly and shockingly awful. Will Ferrell’s Burgundy is pretty much as he was last go-round and that’s ok. James Marsden, as Burgundy’s rival, Jack Lime, is actually good. Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana; David Koechner as Champ Kind; and Christina Applegate as Veronica Corningstone…all are fine.  Even some of Paul Rudd’s lines are humorous, but two minutes out of 119 minutes isn’t worth the price of admission. And those two minutes are negated entirely by the awfulness that is the pairing of Steve Carrell’s Brick Tamland and Kristen Wiig’s Chani. Did people not watch the dailies while making this film? Did they actually laugh? These are two outstanding comic actors and perhaps this material might bring a smile to one’s face in a three-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” But the two of them together over and over and over again in this film without any relation to the rest of the movie makes absolutely no sense. And worse, it isn’t funny.

As bad as everything is, a special bark-out must be given to Baxter, the dog. He is adorable and seems to have acting chops. He really looks as if he’s listening to what is being said. And watching him drink from a straw is very funny. He deserves his own movie.

“Anchorman 2” manages to bring in some terrific actors and comics in its last ten minutes… even one of my favorite comedic actors on the planet makes a last-minute appearance, but by then it is way too late. The ship for salvation has long since sailed.

It’s never good when you look at your watch and realize there’s another hour left in a movie. I found myself saying, “Oh, Lord, please let this be over.” But I realize that some movies are review-proof and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” might be one of them. You have been warned. Go at your own peril.

½ nugget out of 4


The Returned: They’ll be Back and So Will You—TV

December 18, 2013

If you’re a fan of the creepy…if you enjoyed “Bates Motel” and “Lost”…then “The Returned” (“Les revenants”)  is the show you should now be watching. This French series gets under your skin from the first episode and stays there.The Returned

Set in a small French village in 2012, the series’ main premise is fairly straightforward, but beautifully executed. People who died and were buried during different years and places start coming back to life, making their way back home looking exactly as they did the day they died. They have no idea of what happened to them or how they have arrived in their present state. The reactions to their re-emergence by those who loved and buried them are all over the map. In the series’ first season we spend the most time learning about the recently returned Camille, Simon, Victor and Serge and their respective families and friends.

Camille is introduced first. She is 15, on the school bus for an outing, when her bus stops short to avoid hitting a little boy standing in the middle of the highway, and crashes into the water. We later learn this boy is Victor. Four years have passed since her death from the crash when she returns home. Camille has a twin sister, Léna, who stayed home from school the day of the deadly accident. Since Camille’s death their parents have separated and Léna still feels guilty about missing school that fateful day.

In another episode we learn more about Simon. Simon was a young man making plans to be married to Adèle. The day before his wedding, Adèle tells him that she is pregnant. She’s waiting at the altar when she learns of his death.

While all stories are horrific, little Victor’s is especially heart-breaking and the way it is shown will leave you gasping. Upon his return he is found and taken care of by Julie, a nurse with her own very complicated back-story.

Finally we learn more about Serge. His story is pretty grotesque and hard to watch at times. He was a serial killer—attacking women who were making their way home through a tunnel. His method of attack and the aftermath requires a strong stomach for the viewer. Miraculously, not all of his victims died.

Everything about “The Returned” works—from the opening music to the notes played at episode’s end. In between there is terrific casting and some great acting. The two actresses playing the twins Camille and her now older sister, Léna, (Yara Pilartz and Jenna Thiam), are astonishing in their physical similarities. Both are great in portraying resentment, pain and sibling love. Pierre Perrier as Simon and Guillaume Gouix as Serge have difficult roles to play but do them well—Simon in his perseverance to find love again with Adèle and Serge, trying to change for the better with this new life. But it’s hard not to be astounded by Victor. Where, oh where did they find Swann Nambotin, the actor who plays him? He has very little dialogue, but with those huge brown eyes and enigmatic smile, he doesn’t need to say much.

Some reviewers of “The Returned” refer to the returnees as zombies, but that would not be entirely correct. Aside from being hungry non-stop for food, they currently display no abnormalities. That is part of what makes this story so unusual and haunting. Because the series is subtitled, you can’t turn away from the screen. This is not a bad thing since you won’t want to miss a single second of what is occurring on that screen.

There is one more episode to go in this first outing of  “The Returned” and from previews, it looks like we’ll be meeting more of the “undead.” The series has been renewed for another season. I, for one, can’t wait.

You can catch up on this year’s airing of “The Returned” with video on demand or by going to for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4

Alan Partridge: So Wrong, Yet So Right—Movie

December 18, 2013

“I’m not going to sell my soul, only rent it.”

Alan PartidgeWith these immortal words, Steve Coogan, fresh off his dramatic turn in “Philomena,” brings back the funny with a vengeance in “Alan Partridge.” Partridge is a fictional character portrayed by Coogan and created by Coogan, Armando Iannucci and other writers for the BBC Radio 4 program, “On the Hour.”  Directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Neal Gibbons, Bob Gibbons, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham, the film expands on the activities of Alan and his colleagues in their Norwich, England radio station.

The station is under new management and has implemented many changes to modernize its format. Jobs are on the line, especially those of Alan and Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney). These two are the station’s elder statesmen (by age, certainly not by behaviour) and their respective programs don’t reach the demographics the new owners are after.  Pat feels particularly vulnerable and asks Alan to plead his case for him before management. The rest, as they say, is history.

What begins as an ordinary work day for Alan changes drastically when he gets to the station and just sees empty offices (for lovers of film, think of Robert Redford’s “Three Days of the Condor” if it was a comedy). By the sound of gunshots he realizes that something is amiss and runs back outside. He learns from the police that his colleagues have been taken hostage by a former co-worker who was recently fired. As the one employee not in captivity, Alan is asked by the police if he is willing to be a negotiator with them. What the police don’t know is that in Alan resides the most egotistical, self-important, self-serving man on the planet, albeit one huge scaredy cat, too. The chance to be part of a big story is something he can’t resist, regardless of the circumstances. And so, into the lion’s den he goes, the worse negotiator in all of movie history.

Coogan is a comedic acting genius. Watching him “dance” in his car as he sings to the music is hysterical and just sheer entertainment. And Alan’s dialogue is done to manic perfection. With my American ear, sometimes Coogan’s accent was an impediment, but it didn’t matter. I more than got the gist.

“Alan Partridge” features a terrific supporting cast, especially Felicity Montagu as Alan’s long-suffering assistant, Lynn, and Tim Key as Alan’s co-presenter, Sidekick Simon. Finally there is Colm Meaney as Pat. In Meaney, Coogan has the perfect comedic foil. Ordinarily Meaney might be the manic actor, but in “Alan Partridge” he’s dialed it back a notch and it works perfectly.

There are so many funny bits too numerous to mention. But my favorite on-going gag is the introduction of the helmet holster, which has to be seen to be believed. Along with the gags are some absolutely hysterical bits of dialogue. What will be especially amusing for American audiences is the writers’ homage to Aaron Sorkin and “The West Wing.” It’s unexpected and quite brilliant.

It must be noted that much of “Alan Partridge” is predicated upon an act of violence. For some that might lessen the enjoyment. The U.S. has experienced some terrible workplace situations along with a spate of school shootings. I happened to see this film the week of the most recent shooting at a high school near Denver. So, in all honesty, I was initially taken aback at what was being played for laughs. But once I got past that, I relaxed and joined in the fun.

With the hoopla surrounding “Anchorman 2,” “Alan Partridge” might get lost in the comedic shuffle. That would be a shame. For all of its zaniness, “Alan Partridge” is a smartly funny movie…one worth seeking out.

3 out of 4 nuggets

Six by Sondheim: More, Please—Documentary

December 15, 2013

Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.Six by Sondheim

This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.

Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how  magic happens.  What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.

In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over

Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday”  from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary  film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?

At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man.  I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.

“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4

Oldboy: Not Enough Smarts—Movie

December 11, 2013

Who knew Josh Brolin had such skills with a hammer? That was one of the thoughts I busied myself with in order not to think about the blood, guts and vomit gushing out at me from the movie screen. Spike Lee’s newest movie, “Oldboy” is not his worst movie, but it certainly is not one of his best. In reality, my lack of enthusiasm doesn’t have anything to do with the violence…it’s the lack of intellect that I normally associate with a Spike Lee movie that disappoints me.Oldboy_2013_film_poster

With screenplay by Mark Protosevich, “Oldboy” is based on the 2003 South Korean film, “Oldboy,” directed by Park Chan-wook. That film is actually based on the Japanese manga (comic) of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. Suffice to say, the new film brings with it a cherished history.

Oldboy begins in 1993 in an unnamed city, but one looking very much like a dirtified New York. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an advertising executive on the skids. He disrespects clients, is a neglectful father, is on the warpath with his ex-wife and his alcoholism is completely out of control. Finally, in October, after an especially horrific night of drinking and debauchery, he gets picked up by the wrong person. He wakes up the next morning to discover that he is imprisoned in a hotel-like room where he will remain for the next 20 years. But why has this happened? Doucett has no idea. Daily he’s fed a diet of rice, Chinese dumplings and a bottle of vodka. Alone with just a television and remote control for company, he unsuccessfully  attempts suicide. It’s only when he spots a news report announcing the murder of his wife with him as the prime suspect in her death, that he stops drinking and begins a strenuous workout regimen, waiting for his opportunity to escape, find his daughter and exact his revenge on whoever did this to him.

Josh Brolin is actually very good as Doucett. He makes his early scenes extremely painful to watch and in the confines of his solitude, somehow wins your sympathy. And for a big man, he’s more graceful than one might expect in the fight scenes in which he uses all parts of his body. Samuel L. Jackson provides an entertainingly sadistic turn as one of the men watching Doucett from afar. Elizabeth Olsen gives a quietly powerful performance as someone who befriends Doucett as does Michael Imperioli as Doucett’s longtime friend. Less successful is Sharlto Copley‘s portrayal of the mysteriously sinister man in the shadows.

Because this film takes it lead from the South Korean film, the fight scenes are more balletic in nature, using a variety of weapons to execute bodily harm. What is odd is that gangs—almost “West Side Story” in nature—seem to pop up from out of nowhere and police are nowhere to be found. But the final third of the film is what really hurts “Oldboy.” Somehow the payoff just doesn’t ring true…not for the elaborate imprisonment of someone for 20 years.

I hope the next Spike Lee film feels truer to his heart. What he has done, however, is make me want to see the original film and found out what so intrigued him.

2 nuggets out of 4

Frozen: Disney Thaws the Heart—Movie

December 11, 2013

FrozenIf ever a movie says destined to be a Broadway musical, it is “Frozen.” That is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Snow Queen, “Frozen” is  the latest musical offering from the Walt Disney Animation Studios and is the story of two sisters—Elsa and Anna—who  are princesses in the land of  Arendelle. Elsa, the older princess who will one day be queen, has magical freezing powers. When the girls are young, Elsa accidentally releases her powers,  injuring Anna. To protect Anna from further harm and to keep Elsa’s powers secret, their parents shut the girls away from the rest of the world and from one another. Eventually Elsa’s coronation occurs, and to celebrate Elsa flings open the gates to the palace. The two sisters excitedly reunite and happily greet the rest of their countrymen. Unfortunately, what begins as a beautiful day goes terribly wrong when an emotional Elsa frees her powers, putting her country in a never-ending winter. Horrified at what she has done, Elsa runs away to the mountains, effectively exiling herself from her country and sister. But Anna is not one to give up easily. She decides to search for her sister, hoping to convince her to come back to Arendelle. Along the way Anna meets up with Olaf—the snowman of her youth sprung to life—and mountain man,Kristoff, and his reindeer, Sven, all of whom accompany her on her journey.

“Frozen” is a feast for the eyes and ears. The music…the colors…the special effects…all are spectacular. I saw the non-3-D version and  the animation for the country turning frozen is still nothing short of astounding, and the resulting imagery is mind-blowing. Because much of the color is muted due to the whiteness of the snow, when there is color, those colors literally jump off the screen. Anna’s sparkly blue dress, her purple coat and hat are simply breathtaking.

Intentional or not, the Disney team has a star in the making in Olaf. Writers Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and Shane Morris have provided this character with the wittiest of dialogue and as Olaf, Josh Gad’s comedic acting chops positively shine as he says the lines to perfection.

Composed by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, “Frozen’s” songs are terrific and beautifully sung. Idina Menzel as Elsa is a Broadway veteran and she has an amazing voice. Her version of “Let it Go” is fabulous. But the shock of the film is Kristen Bell’s Anna. Who knew Bell could sing like that? She has a powerful, melodic voice. She sings her song with just the right amount of pluckiness and it is absolutely a fantastic performance on every level. When Menzel and Bell together sing, “For the First Time in Forever,”  it’s as if the musical gods are shining down upon the two…and the audience.

As in most Disney films, not everything is light in the land of “Frozen.” But that darkness is limited and does propel the action forward. Thankfully we have Olaf and Anna to break through the ice and clouds, letting in the sunshine.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Out of the Furnace: Actors Bring the Heat—Movie

December 10, 2013

Out of the FurnaceEven though “Out of the Furnace” is one of the bleakest, vicious movies of the year, terrific performances from its nearly all-male cast make it worth your while.

Directed by Scott Cooper and written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, the film deals with brotherly love, friendship and revenge. Set in the steel town of North Braddock, PA, “Out of the Furnace” revolves around the Baze brothers—older brother, Russell (Christian Bale), and younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Russell works in the mill and makes a home with schoolteacher, Lena (Zoe Saldana). Along with his uncle (Sam Shepard), he looks after his sick father. It’s not much of a life, but it’s one in which he seems comfortable. On the other hand, Rodney is a mess. Rather than work in the mill, he joined the military and is a three-tour veteran of Iraq, set for a fourth tour. He seems lost and is full of rage. When he’s home on leave he plays the horses and drinks. One doesn’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say, things go horribly wrong for both brothers. Lives are turned upside down when, in an effort to pay off his debts, Rodney becomes involved in bare-knuckle fighting, first in Pennsylvania and then in the hills of New Jersey (many of us didn’t even know this part of New Jersey existed). The New Jersey fights are run by drug/fight kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who’s violently introduced in the movie’s opening scene.

To some extent, this “taking care of one’s family”is a story that has been told before. What takes “Out of the Furnace” to a whole other realm is its acting. Affleck is outstanding as the vet with a wounded heart. He’s so  good as this type of character that it’s easy to forget that he “can do funny,” as evidenced in his “Ocean’s 11” participation. Woody Harrelson is just amazing as the maniacal DeGroat. On paper, this is not a new role for him, but he always brings something to his performances. And Christian Bale?  He is really the movie’s soul and he doesn’t disappoint. There’s something about his portrayal that has you rooting for him from the get-go. He imbues Russell with such empathy, it’s hard not to want him to succeed, and it really hurts when life seems to go against him.

“Out of the Furnace” is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. Zoe Saldana, practically the lone female in the film, is terrific as Lena, Russell’s no-nonsense girlfriend. Willem Dafoe is great as John Petty, the slightly sympathetic/slightly menacing bar owner/bookie. Tom Bower is very good as Petty’s good-hearted bartender and cohort. Finally, in addition to Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, as the town sheriff, also turns in a low-key, but no less important performance.

There isn’t much, if any, sunshine in “Out of the Furnace.” Filth permeates the air…figuratively and literally. You’ll almost want to shower as soon as you leave the theatre. But that grittiness works and is abetted to a large degree by Dickon Hinchliffe’s banjo-driven score and some featured Pearl Jam songs.

“Out of the Furnace” lags a bit in the beginning, but ends up grabbing your attention and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll.

3 nuggets out of 4

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