Posts Tagged ‘entertainment’

The Conjuring: Creepy Can Be Classy—Movie

July 21, 2013

The Conjuring” is one gigantic creep fest and I mean this the most positive way.The Conjuring

Directed by James Wan and written by Chris and Chad Hayes (brothers), “The Conjuring” is based on the real life story of the Perron family.  In 1971 the Perrons purchased an old, seemingly beautifully house in Rhode Island for their family of five girls and their dog, Sadie.  As the family moves into their new home, strange things begin to happen almost immediately. For starters, Sadie refuses to come inside the house, and it’s all downhill from there.

Desperate for answers, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) goes to a lecture by noted experts on the subject of spirits and demonology, Ed and Lorraine Warren.  At the end of the presentation she asks the Warrens for their help. Without giving the rest of the movie away, the Warrens agree to assist and the remainder of the film deals with how they help, what procedures are put in place and the terrifying events that follow.

Part of what makes “The Conjuring” so compelling is that it is based on fact. This alone sets the audience on edge…these events actually happened. Director Wan respects the material and never goes over the top—although plenty of other odd things occur.

In addition to the terrific, understated direction, a real positive for the film is the top-notch acting. Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren is fabulous (frankly, after doing a season of “Bates Motel” and now this movie, I am not sure how she sleeps at night), as is Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren. They both do a great job at keeping it genuine, even when some truly bizarre statements come out of their mouths. Ron Livingston as Roger Perron and the aforementioned Taylor also shine, particularly Taylor who has the meatier role. The actresses who play the Perron children are also very good. Two who especially excel are Joey King (who seems to be popping up everywhere these days) as Christine, and Kyla Deaver, as the youngest daughter, April.

Everything about “The Conjuring” is handled with taste and “realness,” never dipping in to clichéd cheesiness. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and as “The Conjuring” proves, it can also be creepier.

4 nuggets out of 4


The East: Quietly Mesmerizing—Movie

July 16, 2013

The East,” directed by Zal Batmanglij with screenplay by Batmanglij and Brit Marling, is a gripping drama that seems especially relevant in today’s climate.The East movie

“The East” follows Jane/Sarah (Marling) as a young, novice intelligence operative working for a private security firm. Her first assignment calls for her to infiltrate a group of environmental anarchists who call themselves The East, which is headed by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The East is known for using terrorist tactics to wreak havoc on major corporations it believes are polluting the environment and maiming or killing humans. Jane’s assignment is to gain the group’s trust and learn if or what they are planning for one of her firm’s clients. As she gets to know the group members and the rationale behind their individual involvement in the East’s cause, her emotions become conflicted.  She actually comes to have compassion for what they are doing.

In some ways, “The East” is very reminiscent of the first season of the late 1980s television series, “Wise Guy.” In that series, the FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the Mafia becomes very sympathetic and attracted to members of the family he’s deceiving. In “The East,” just as in that case,  the empathetic transformation is subtle. How Jane handles all of inner struggles makes for a very riveting story.

The multi-talented Marling is terrific as Jane/Sarah and is abetted by a fantastic supporting cast. As Benji, Skarsgård shows less skin, but more acting chops than called upon for his “True Blood” role. Without going over the top he makes his leadership known and reveals a sly, intimidating side. Ellen Page is exceptional as the earnest, all-in Izzie, with secrets of her own. Patricia Clarkson is wonderful as Sarah’s eerily cool boss. As one of the CEOs under fire, Jamey Sheridan shines in a conflicted role. Finally, Jason Ritter turns in a very good, understated performance as Jane’s in-the-dark boyfriend.

“The East” never lectures. The film lets the actors do the speaking for it…and admirably so.

3 nuggets out of 4

The Way, Way Back: Step to the Front—Movie

July 8, 2013

Sometimes low-key fun is just what the doctor ordered. Such is the case with “The Way, Way Back.”Way Way Back

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “The Way, Way Back” is the coming of age story of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and, to some extent, his mother, Pam, played by Toni Collette.

Duncan and his mother are spending the summer with her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), at Trent’s beachouse in New York. About one minute into the movie, we realize that Trent is the potential stepfather from hell. Full of rules for everyone but himself, it is readily apparent that he’s a brutish phony. Luckily Duncan finds refuge in the company of Owen (Sam Rockwell) and his merry band of co-workers at the Water Wizz water park. Perhaps Owen sees a kindred spirit in the younger Duncan, and in a big brother way, takes Duncan under his wing and teaches him about the kindness of the world and in so doing, provides Duncan with the summer of his life.

“The Way, Way Back” has a top-notch cast. Liam James (most recently seen as Jack Linden in “The Killing”) is absolutely perfect as the shy, unsure Duncan. Toni Collette shows, without saying a word, how terrified she is of being alone. We’re used to seeing Sam Rockwell in dopey, clownish roles, but his portrayal of Owen on the cusp of breaking out of his Peter Pan mentality is something different for him and he is terrific. Finally there is Steve Carell’s Trent. Carell does a fantastic job at making us loathe him for the entire movie.

The supporting cast is fabulous. Allison Janney, as the nosey neighbor from hell, but with a heart of gold, is terrific. In an understated performance, AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna is spot on as the slightly older teen who catches Duncan’s eye. Maya Rudolph as Caitlin, Owen’s boss with benefits, is really good at showing how hard it is to be in love with someone who has not yet quite grown up.  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have written great parts for themselves as Owen’s co-workers and friends.

“The Way, Way Back” proves that you don’t have to have a summer film full of noise and special effects in order to give the audience a fun day at the movies. It’s rare, but most welcome.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Much Ado About Nothing: No, Much Ado About Something—Movie

July 8, 2013

Confession: While I am an admirer of Shakespeare, I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon. I absolutely love what Whedon has done with Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Although filmed on a shoestring in black and white in his own backyard (and what a backyard this is), Whedon’s film feels every bit as rich as Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 extravaganza.Much ado

“Much Ado” may be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. The plot is fairly simple. Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are in love with one another…good thing, because they are too prickly to be good for anyone else. However, both are too proud to admit their attraction until friends and families conspire to bring them to their senses. But there is a roadblock to their happiness—Benedick’s friend, Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Beatrice’s niece, Hero (Jillian Morgese). They are about to be married until Hero’s virginity comes into question. Watching these events unfold, one has to remember that Shakespeare wrote this play in the late 1500s and even though this movie is filmed in the present day, we are in a 1500s mindset. Got it? So one does have to stifle the urge to run up to the screen and slap Claudio. In any event hilarity and romance ensue.

While not a big-name cast, “Much Ado” features actors from Whedon’s television shows, and these actors have come in full Shakespearean mode.  Alex Denisof is terrific as the full-of-himself Benedick, showing true slapstick chops never witnessed in “Buffy” or “Angel.” Amy Acker’s too smart for her own good, Beatrice, is divine, and Acker displays a real flair for comedy. Together, she and Denisof make sparks fly. Although played for laughs, as he should be, Nathan Fillion is terrific as Dogberry, careful not to go over the buffoonery top. In addition to Fran Kranz and Jillian Morgese, Reed Diamond and Clark Gregg turn in great supporting performances.

Filming in black and white really does justice to “Much Ado’s” darker moments, lending a Hitchcockian tone to some of the sinister plotting. An added bonus to the movie is the setting to music of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whedon meshes these beautifully into the film.

Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”  proves that sometimes less is really just right. Even Shakespeare would approve.

4 nuggets out of 4

Cold War: Explosive to the Very End—Movie

July 3, 2013

Corruption, politics, car chases, gunfights and explosions—“Cold War” has it all.

Set in Hong Kong “Cold War” begins with a blast…literally…and never looks back. The blast leads to a terrific car chase and spectacular gunfight and that’s just in the first minute.Cold War

Written and directed by Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk (both are first-time directors), “Cold War” follows an investigation into the hijacking and kidnapping of an EU vehicle with five members of the police department inside. With Hong Kong’s reputation as Asia’s safest city (although judging from the movies shown at the Made in Hong Kong Film Festival this seems hard to believe) at stake, the powers that be want this case solved quickly. Since the police commissioner is out of the country, Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations, M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), is appointed acting commissioner. He leads what is called the “Cold War” rescue operation and favors an aggressive approach to finding and punishing the kidnappers. However, Deputy Commissioner of Police from Management Division, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), wants to take a more pragmatic approach to solving the crime. Both men are in line to become the next police commissioner, so the scenes between these two as they vie for power are very intense and fun to watch. Entering the mix is Billy Cheung (Aarif Rahman), an ICAC investigator. Because the kidnapping happened despite the police department’s advanced surveillance system, he and his superiors believe that the kidnapping is either an inside job or the department has a mole. At the top of their list of suspects–Lee and Lau. Cheung’s scenes with these two are just as entertaining as the explosive beginning of the film. As a matter of fact, most of the film’s dialogue is very clever, and as corruption is discussed before the media, Watergate even comes into the conversation (this received quite a chuckle from my DC viewing audience).

Although some of the film is confusing, and that might be because certain nuances are lost in sub-titles, “Cold War” holds your interest from its very beginning through its riveting conclusion which holds the promise of a sequel.

Shown as part of the 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival (DC) at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, “Cold War” is a film that should be on your viewing list.

3 nuggets out of 4

The Internship: Gets the Job Done—Movie

June 15, 2013

Holy product placement! In its wildest dreams Google couldn’t have imagined that it would look this good or so inviting. But I digress.

Fast-talking Vince Vaughn and laconic Owen Wilson make a formidable comic team in the genial, easy-going comedy that is “The Internship.” Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Vaughn, Jared Stern, “The Internship,” provides the comedic chemistry Vaughn and Wilson shared in “The Wedding Crashers,” but for this outing their chemistry is less frenetic and more low-key.The Internship

As salesmen for expensive watches, Billy McMahon and Nick Campbell (Vaughn and Wilson respectively) are laid off unexpectedly and pretty unsympathetically by their boss (John Goodman), who proclaims them obsolete in the digital world. In searching the Internet for new jobs, Billy comes across the Google internship program. With the bravado of a true salesman, Billy decides that he and Nick should apply. Should they be admitted into the program, they could end up with jobs at Google and be set for life. Taking a huge leap of faith, Google miraculously accepts their applications and the two are soon on their way to San Francisco and the Google campus.

At Google, the competing applicants are asked to self-choose into teams for the competition. Obviously the old, odd ducks out in a sea of young brainiacs, Billy and Nick form an alliance with a group of geeky outcasts. This is when “The Internship” really gets going. While Billy and Nick may not have the computer skill-set of the youngsters, they do have managerial smarts and tons of heart.  Their team could be “The Bad News Bears” or “Damn Yankees” incarnate.

While “The Internship’s” success rests heavily on the shoulders of Vaughn and Wilson, they are abetted by a terrific supporting cast.  Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) is just plain fabulous as the severely no-nonsense, Mr. Chetty, head of the program. Josh Brenner, so annoying in the Samsung commercials, is great as Lyle, the nerdy Google employee who’s the mentor of Billy and Nick’s team. Rose Byrne, the potential love interest for Nick, and Tiya Sirca,, team member, are also quite good as are the rest of the team members. A few cameos also make their way into the movie…not distracting, they just add to the fun.

Like Billy and Nick, if you are over 30, some of the jokes may be over your head (or under, depending upon your perspective), but in a weird way, that just adds to the film’s fun.  “The Internship” is not a thigh slapper, but it has tons of laughs and makes for a great day at the movies.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Star Trek into Darkness: You Won’t Be—Movie

June 13, 2013

Non-trekkies, jump in…the water is fine.

I review this movie as an “average Joan,” with not too much “Star Trek” knowledge. In fact, I’m almost as non-Trekkie as they come. I’ve seen a few episodes of the original series and saw the movies, including the first re-boot, but that’s it. However, I’m living proof that you don’t need to know a lot in order to appreciate the high energy entertainment that is “Star Trek into Darkness.”Star Trek

The opening scenes with the crew are a tad confusing—volcanoes, other planets and beings—frankly, I didn’t know what was happening. But, luckily, none of that matters. Director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof are very smartly are showing us the dynamics of the Enterprise crew. If you are just nominally familiar with  “Star Trek” (or even lesser so), it’s an opportunity to learn more about each character. For those with an encyclopedic mind for all things “Star Trek,” it’s fun to learn more about each character’s back story.

To talk much about the plot would spoil the story.  “Star Trek” fanatics will puzzle over some choices and might ask themselves if cryogenics causes one’s accent to change. Up until that point, the story makes a lot of sense and raises some interesting questions…as did the original series. What makes one become malevolent? Is there a point where a person can still resist the pull to the dark side? Is someone completely evil? How far will you go to help a friend…a colleague?

“Star Trek’s” cast is more than solid. Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock have terrific chemistry with one another and they are still believable as the young adult duo. Simon Pegg provides just the right touch of levity to Scotty as does Anton Yelchin as Chekov. Veteran actors Bruce Greenwood (Pike) and Peter Weller (Marcus) lend an extra source of gravitas to the film. Zoe Saldana gives Uhura a shot of sass as Spock’s girlfriend.  Finally, behold Benedict Cumberbatch as the film’s chief villain. He lives up to every bit of hype he has received.

It’s fun to imagine what some of our most favorite characters might have been like in their earlier years. That’s what makes prequels so entertaining. However, prequels come with self-imposed obstacles. We, the audience, know how certain plot points should/will end. That’s not to say the storytelling can’t be done well.  It’s just that from an overall perspective, the story on the screen can’t be perfect. Such is the case with “Star Trek into Darkness.” It’s enjoyable, but not perfect.

3 nuggets out of 4

Rectify: Haven’t Watched; You Should Fix That Mistake—Television

May 31, 2013

If you love character-driven stories and haven’t watched “Rectify,” you should start NOW.  Although “Rectify” just wound up its first season, you can still watch it via On Demand and several websites, including Sundance, and be ready when the second season begins (date yet to be determined). Rectify poster

What makes “Rectify” so special and unique? Story,writing and acting are the easy, but true answers. However, “Rectify” takes each one of these attributes to the enth degree and then some.

Set in a small town in Georgia,“Rectify” is about Daniel Holden, who as teenager went to prison, convicted for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. He sat on death row in solitary confinement for 19 years. We meet Daniel just as he is being released on a technicality, although not completely exonerated for the crime.

Aden Young as Daniel is a revelation. It would never have occurred to me to portray Daniel as he does, but his performance makes absolute sense and is sheer perfection. We’re told Daniel was a “little different” as a teenager, but not told what made that so. Whatever it was, nearly 20 years in solitary has only served to accentuate that “differentness.” The Daniel we and his family meet is a wide-eyed innocent who speaks slowly and softly. It’s simple to say that he’s a modern Rip Van Winkle come to life, but to some extent that is true. The world in general is completely changed…as well as his intimate, smaller world. His father is dead…his mother has remarried…he now has a step-brother and a much younger half-brother. Finally, his beloved younger sister has become a woman and his chief defender and protector. How would you—how would any of us cope with these developments?

Through some remarkable flashbacks to Daniel’s prison life, we learn his imprisonment was no walk in the park. Horrific doesn’t begin to describe what he went through. Thankfully, not all of those scenes are violent…some of the scenes with a fellow prisoner are heartbreakingly deep and poignant

Perhaps it’s the ying and yang of emotions, for us and for Daniel, that make “Rectify” so special. Is he guilty of the crime? We’re not really sure. Some of his town residents are welcoming, others are fearful or fear-inducing.  Daniel’s step-father believes Daniel is innocent while his step-brother does not.  We love how his sister stands up for him, but worry that her love will get them both in trouble.

Actor Ray McKinnon is “Rectify’s” brilliant creator. He has assembled a fantastic cast headed by Young, but every other character has just the right actor playing him or her. Especially terrific are J. Smith-Cameron as his mother, Abigail Spencer as Daniel’s sister Amantha, Clayne Crawford as Daniel’s step-brother, Ted Jr. and Adelaide Clemens as Ted Jr.’s wife, Tawney.

“Rectify,” with very little buzz or fanfare, is one of the best shows on television this year, or any year for that matter.  Get yourself to a television or computer screen and be prepared to be blown away.

4 nuggets out of 4


Bates Motel: You Should Check-in Immediately—Television

April 2, 2013

It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock said to the producers of “Bates Motel,” “Make me proud.” He needn’t have worried. Full-fledged entertainment doesn’t get any better than A&E’s “Bates Motel.”   “Bates” is creepily disturbing on every conceivable level–I haven’t gotten this much pleasure from a television series since the first season of “Lost.”

Bates Motel” is a sort-of prequel to “Psycho”…set in today’s times, not yesteryear. That might cause a little confusion at the beginning, but the rest of the story is so compelling and the acting so good, it’s a teeny, tiny hiccup.Bates motel 1

Freddie Highmore as Norman and Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates are absolutely fantastic as son and mother. Highmore, so adorable in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is all grown up and sensational as Freddie. Perfectly cast, there aren’t enough words to describe how good he is. Highmore conveys fragility, innocence and toughness in just the right tones. Episode 3, “What’s Wrong With Norman,” by Jacob Clifton, gives Highmore the opportunity to shine and boy, does he. At one point he keeps asking himself over and over, “What’s wrong with me?” It’s heart-breaking and eerie at the same time.  While his performance is strictly his own, it is easy to picture him turning into Anthony Perkins’ Norman. Farmiga’s Norma is a little more showy, but she never goes over the top with the character. Farmiga is able to keep an air of mystery about her. That mysteriousness turns into chemistry with every male actor with whom she interacts.

Carleton Cruse, one of “Bates’” executive producers as well as one of its writers, was also a writer and executive producer for “Lost,” so he knows all about weirdness and how to keep an audience interested. Of course what also makes “Bates” so compelling is that we know how it all ends, but the characters don’t. That gives “Bates Motel” a tinge of impending doom and sadness. We understand that no matter how hard Norman tries to make friends and be “normal,” it won’t happen for him. It’s no small feat that the writers, directors and most especially, the actors, make us hope in spite of ourselves.

In a television year full of new kinky killers and killings–“Cult,” “The Following” and “Hannibal”–“Bates Motel “stands head and shoulders above them all. It is not to be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4

Quartet: Two is company, four is better—Movie

March 14, 2013

Much ado has been made that with “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut. But it should also be noted that “Quartet” is well-written and has terrific performances from its lead and supporting casts.

Written by Ronald Harwood (based on his play), “Quartet” takes place in a retirement home for musicians in England. The focal point of the opening scenes are with residents Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) and other members of the community as they plan their annual fund-raising gala, a tribute to Verdi, under the “supervision” of Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon). The film takes it time, perhaps a tad too much time, in these opening scenes, and one wouldn’t be faulted for asking, “Where is all this leading?” However, the relaxed pacing does allow for a better understanding of some of the main characters.  We learn that Wilf had a stroke, from which he has recovered physically, although mentally his ability to self-censor has diminished.  And through her actions we realize that Cissy is suffering from the early stages of dementia.   Quartet

The tempo picks up considerably when famous retired opera singer Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) arrives unhappily in their midst. Turns out she was very briefly married to Reginald, who has never gotten over his feelings of love for and betrayal by her. This leads to some terrific scenes between Smith and Courtenay. Jean was also friends with Wilf and Cissy and we learn that many years earlier Cissy, Wilf, Reginald and Jean, together, performed Verdi’s Rigoletto Quartet. Will they perform this one more time for the gala even though Jean has refused to sing in public for many years?

Dustin Hoffman has assembled an outstanding supporting cast, all of whom do their own singing, dancing and playing of musical instruments. Most haven’t performed in public in years, but you would never know it. They are a wonder to behold.

As for the leads, they are remarkable. Billy Connelly’s Wilf seems one note (no pun intended) at first…trying too hard to be a scamp. But then we gets the sense that there is more going on than meets the eye and his performance begins to make sense. Pauline Collins’ Cissy is a hard character to pull off, but she manages in spectacular fashion. Tom Courtenay has an understated role; however, he is perfect in it. We feel the hurt and pain he has suffered over the years. And finally there is Maggie Smith…funny, fearful and outspoken. She’s simply terrific.

Maybe it takes an uncompromising actor in his own right to get the most out of his players as a director. If so, let’s hope Hoffman has a few more pictures up his sleeve.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

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