We braved the rain the other night (yes, it actually rained in Santa Barbara – for two days, in fact – and hopefully the percip helped the drought conditions) and went to the Arlington Theater to see “Selma.” The night before on his MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell had gone into such a state of rhapsody over the movie that, in addition to many other glowing reviews as well as the timeliness of the subject and my own interest in the civil rights movement, I was eager to see “Selma” – particularly on the eve of the Golden Globes awards.
The good news: David Oyelowo, yet another Brit playing an American icon (lots of them these days), gets Martin Luther King Jr.’s vocal cadences amazingly well. The bad news: I wish there’d been more fiery speeches to show off his talent. “Selma” is a more ruminative movie than one that gets you up on your feet shouting “Amen.” It shows King in quiet, contemplative moments – too many of them for me. We see him strategizing with his close group of advisers. We see him trying to make his point with LBJ (Tim Wilkinson, another Brit playing a legendary American). We see him navigating strained marital waters with his wife Coretta. And all of these contemplative moments move at a very slow pace, many in darkly lit spaces.
It’s when “Selma” opened up and showed us the people of Selma and the consequences of their fight for their right to vote that the movie came alive for me. Their courage, their persistence even in the face of formidable opposition, even in the face of unyielding Alabama Governor George Wallace (another Brit, Tim Roth), was inspirational and riveting. But as for King himself? Let’s put it this way. As I was coming out of the ladies’ room after the movie, I heard several women echo my own thought, which was: “How can a story about such a magnetic man make him seem so un-magnetic?” The film was emotionally flat in places where it needed to soar. I was disappointed.
Well, that was an interesting – or should I say “groovy” – screening at Cinema Society today. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movies (“There Will Be Blood, “The Master”) and, while I’ve never been equally enthusiastic about the novels of Thomas Pynchon, I loved the idea of an LA noir tale with an A+ cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Eric Roberts). What could be bad?
The length of “Inherent Vice,” for one thing. Must I keep ranting about films that take over two-and-a-half hours to tell a story? Apparently so. Scenes could have been tightened up and they weren’t. On the other hand, the top critics who’ve put the movie on their Best of 2014 list praised Anderson’s ability to condense Pynchon’s novel, so what do I know?
Set in 1970, the movie begins as private eye Doc Sportello, a stoner in Santa Monica who hasn’t fully grasped that the sixties have come to an end post-Manson family, gets a visit from his ex-girlfriend who’s worried about her current boyfriend who’s gone missing. The boyfriend is a billionaire real estate developer whose wife and her stud have plotted to commit him to a looney bin and steal his money. Doc is intrigued and investigates. One trail of clues leads to another and another, and along the way we meet a recovering heroin addict-sax player (Wilson), a drug-dealing, sex-crazed dentist (Short), an LAPD detective with TV aspirations (Brolin) and many more. It’s a wild, psychedelic ride and I alternated between liking the movie and being bored by it. It didn’t help that Santa Barbara’s historic Riviera Theatre has terrible acoustics and much of the dialogue was hard to decipher.
Phoenix is wonderful as always, but Brolin stole the movie for me. He’s hilarious, truly. The movie looks great too; if Anderson doesn’t know how to shoot a film set in LA, no one does. Michael loved “Inherent Vice” and said if it hadn’t been so long it would have been his Best Film of the year. He certainly laughed a lot. Maybe he was stoned?
What good timing by our Cinema Society! Jennifer Aniston snagged both SAG and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress this week and today was our screening with Aniston in attendance for the Q&A afterwards. Now that I’ve seen the film and her performance, I can say unequivocally that her recognition is well deserved. She’s superb and will likely get an Oscar nom as well.
She plays Claire, a woman in LA who’s visibly scarred and in both physical and emotional pain. (She was in a terrible car accident.) She pops Percocet and Oxycontin like candy, gets kicked out of her support group for her bitchy behavior, has pushed away her husband and alienates just about everybody except her caregiver, Silvana, an immigrant from Mexico. She thinks about killing herself constantly and even gives suicide a couple of tries. Needless to say, this isn’t an easy movie to watch and it’s a huge departure for the normally comic Aniston.
How she fights her way back to the land of the living and functioning, how she copes with the losses she’s suffered, how she kicks her addiction are all answered in satisfying storytelling. Actually, the storytelling in itself is a great story. At the Q&A, we learned that the script came from a 49-year-old man who had entered it in a screenwriting contest. The director read it, loved it, and the rest is history.
I have nothing but praise for “Cake” – not a single critique. It was well made on every level and I applaud Aniston for taking a leap and going out of her comfort zone. She was charming at the Q&A too, very chatty with the audience and appreciative that we’d packed the theater on a Sunday morning.
Go see this movie when it comes out. You will be moved.
Canada’s entry into the foreign film category for the Oscars this year, “Mommy” won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May and its 27-year-old director – yes, Xavier Dolan is practically a kid! – won the directorial prize. At today’s Cinema Society I could see why the film has been garnering raves. It’s riveting. Timely too. And beautifully acted by Anne Dorval.
A French language film, it’s the story of Diane, a widowed single mother who’s living day to day cleaning houses, doing odd jobs, desperately trying to make ends meet even as she’s struggling to care for her son, who’s a handful to say the least. He’s been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and becomes violent – scarily so – with seemingly little provocation. We meet mother and son as she’s picking him up from yet another juvenile facility from which he’s been kicked out, this time for setting the cafeteria on fire and injuring another boy.
Diane wants to keep him at home and does she ever try. She gets help from a neighbor with psychological problems of her own, but in the end……Well, I won’t spoil the end. But the movie begins by telling us that Canada has passed a healthcare law stating that a parent can commit a child without his or her consent.
As I said, the acting is truly superb. Dorval is a force of nature as Diane, who drinks and smokes too much, yells and screams and creates drama even without her unstable son. The cinematography is interesting too as director Dolan presents some of the film in square boxes, as when the characters are feeling hemmed in and troubled, and in wide screen when they’re liberated.
The story is a brave one – how many other films would dare to take on this subject? – and made me think of young men like Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza and his mother. What do you do with a son like that? A thorny issue indeed and a very good film.
Wow. What a great film. I’ve been a fan of Bennett Miller’s other directorial efforts (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) as well as of the trio of actors starring in this one. And true crime movies about crazy billionaires intrigue me, so I was eager to see “Foxcatcher.” It didn’t disappoint.
I’d read about Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose over and over, so I went into the theater determined not to let it distract me from his performance. It didn’t. It faded into the character of John DuPont, as did Carell in a giant departure from his comic roles. Here, he’s the socially inept heir to the DuPont fortune, living on the grand Pennsylvania estate with his withholding mother played by Vanessa Redgrave. He fancies himself as a leader of men, a patriot, a warrior and, tragically, a wrestling coach.
The story begins (at a glacial pace – my only complaint) when DuPont plucks Olympic Gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) out of his sad, lonely life in the shadow of his more gregarious older brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic Gold medalist in wrestling, and flies him by helicopter to the estate. He tells Mark he wants to be his mentor, that he’s going to give him financial support and build a championship team around him, that he will live there and train there and make America proud. Mark buys into the whole setup – he’s such a ripe target for DuPont’s abuse – until DuPont double crosses him and brings Dave to the estate and lavishes all his attention on him instead.
Miller gives the audience an intense character study of the three men, but what I found especially fascinating was the look inside the sport of wrestling. And not professional wrestling, where the participants are clowns faking their moves and wearing stupid costumes. This is the Olympic sport of wrestling and it’s beautiful and intimate and graceful. When Mark and Dave wrestle early in the film, it’s like watching two ballet dancers. Miller isn’t afraid to show men in a way that’s authentic – a rarity in this age of Judd Apatow arrested development bromance comedies. I wish there had been more of Redgrave and, as previously noted, the film does take its time getting going, but you can’t have everything. Oscar caliber performances by all in my opinion.
I wasn’t looking forward to two war movies back to back after yesterday’s “Unbroken,” but “American Sniper” is a winner. A serious winner. At 84, Clint Eastwood has directed one of his best films yet and Bradley Cooper, not one of my favorite actors, delivers a performance worthy of an Oscar nom.
A bulked up Cooper (he gained 40 pounds for the role) stars as U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history with over 160 “kills” on his wartime resume during four harrowing tours of duty in Iraq. A Texan who was raised to protect his own, no matter what the odds, Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy as a shooter saves countless lives on the battlefield and, as stories of his courageous exploits spread, he earns the nickname “Legend.” His reputation is a double-edged sword though as he becomes a target of the insurgents. Back at home, his wife Taya (a dark-haired Sienna Miller) notices how reluctant he is to talk about his experiences and is confused by his behavior. “Even when you’re here, you’re not here,” she says. It isn’t until late in the story that Kyle gets his equilibrium back from helping disabled veterans – only to suffer a tragic fate himself (a tragedy that Eastwood wisely chose not to reenact on screen).
Eastwood’s battle scenes are intense and expertly shot, and I got the sense as I did with “The Hurt Locker” that I was really seeing what combat is like for these soldiers. I would like to have had a better sense of his marriage and Miller doesn’t have much to work with in her role as the wife, but I appreciated that this was a story about war, not love. I also appreciated that Eastwood kept politics off the screen; there’s no moralizing for any particular position but rather a quiet portrayal of patriotism as well as the complexities of war. Highly recommended.
I didn’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller about the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII — only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. But I read about the story and was inspired by Zamperini’s bravery and heroism, and I could easily see why Angelina Jolie wanted to direct the film adaptation.
And so it pains me to say that while I admire Jolie tremendously and give her kudos for tackling such a wide canvas in only her second directorial effort, her “Unbroken” left me “Unmoved.”
The cinematography is beautiful, the score perfect, the acting first rate. And the opening scenes are riveting as Zamperini and his crew are in the midst of an air attack. The problem is how closely and literally Jolie approached the material as a whole. A wise editor once told me when I was writing a novel, “Don’t let your research show.” Jolie let her research – or rather Hillenbrand’s research – show. Instead of crafting a dramatic story, she went by the numbers, meticulously detailing every day Zamperini was in that life raft, every day he was in the Japanese prison camp, every blow to his body. The beats are repeated over and over in what turns out to be a bleak, relentless and oddly unemotional two-and-a-half hours. I didn’t feel anything and I expected to. We see nothing of Zamperini’s life after the war is over; we only get a brief postscript explaining that he married his sweetheart (what sweetheart – none ever materialized), found God and forgave his captors.
Clearly, he was a great man. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know him better in this film.
OK, let me say upfront that I was not a fan of the book. I know, I know. It’s been a bestseller forever and Cheryl Strayed is a brave woman for not only baring the not-so-pretty parts of her life but also getting out there and surviving that PCT, but to me it was “Eat Pray Love” without the self-deprecating humor or appreciation for the pleasures of life. The movie, which screened today at Cinema Society and opens in theaters next month, sticks very much to the structure and voice of the book. In other words, there’s a lot of hiking.
Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed, whose life took a dark turn after the death of her beloved mother and the dissolution of her marriage thanks to her own reckless, destructive behavior (numerous infidelities, heroin use, you name it). Having lost hope for her own redemption, she decides to hike more than 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail – by herself and with absolutely no experience. We follow her on the trail – for two hours. Occasionally, she meets up with strangers, some of whom are friendly, some of whom are threatening. She copes with horrible heat and impassable snows and drenching rains. She learns how to operate her camping gear and ration her food and water. Through it all, we become familiar with her back story through many, many flashbacks. There are so many flashbacks, in fact, that it was often easy to lose the thread of her present situation. We meet her mother (an always wonderful Laura Dern), her brother, her husband, her best friend. We see glimpses of her one-night stands and drug use. And we see the determined jawline of Reese Witherspoon, who, though vulnerable, is right at home playing a character who’s determined to make it to the finish line and show her mother she’s the woman Mom raised her to be. By the closing credits, she’s healed. The End.
Maybe some of my detachment toward the material comes from projection – i.e. I can’t imagine myself trying to heal from grief by hiking the PCT. And maybe it’s because I found Strayed and, in the movie, Witherspoon, lacking in any sense of irony or wit, nor does she take a moment to step back and gaze at the gorgeous scenery with awe and wonder; she seems so singularly about herself and her problems. On the positive side, I do admire Strayed’s courage and her unwavering survival skills. I’d be such a chicken in her position, so kudos to her for not only getting through it all in one piece but for writing a book about it and serving as a role model for other women who’ve lost their way.
A shoo-in. That’s what this movie is for a Best Picture Oscar nomination if not the actual hardware. And there’s no doubt that Eddie Redmayne, who gets Stephen Hawking’s every facial and body movement precisely right, and Felicity Jones, who charms as Hawking’s former wife and helpmate Jane, will be serious contenders for acting prizes. This biopic of their marriage was designed for Academy members, which is not a knock on it by any means. It’s a glorious film, beautifully shot in grand, tasteful Masterpiece Theater style. It leaves out much of what Hawking is about – namely, the scientific theory that put him on the map – but science is a tricky business for film and I doubt I would have understood it if it had been explained to me.
The story begins at Cambridge, where a young Hawking is a boy genius, well liked by his classmates and professors but awkward around girls….until he sees Jane at a party and knows she’s The One. Just as their courtship is in full bloom, Hawking, who has become “clumsy,” falls headfirst on the pavement and lands in the hospital where he’s diagnosed with ALS at age 21 with a prognosis of two years to live. At first he hunkers down in his dorm room, refuses to see or speak to anyone, but Jane is persistent and pledges to marry him, illness or not. The movie, which is based on Jane’s memoirs, tracks their marriage, the birth of their children, the deterioration of his body but never his mind and eventually their relationships with other partners (Jane falls in love with a choirmaster, Stephen with his nurse).
Redmayne and Jones, who came for our Q&A following the film, were gracious and articulate and very humbled by our standing ovation. They described their preparation for their roles – Redmaybe spent many days with ALS patients and their families, for example – and their reactions to meeting Stephen and Jane. They work as a team in the movie, each playing off the other, and there’s genuine chemistry between them. They seem like the two most likable actors ever, and I could have listened to them for hours.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor scored an Oscar nomination with his first movie and one I enjoyed, “Margin Call,” and won critical praise if not box office love for his second, the Robert Redford sailing film “All Is Lost,” which I couldn’t stand. I found myself somewhere in between the two with today’s Cinema Society screening, “A Most Violent Year,” which will be released at the end of December.
I wanted to love it. It’s set in a gritty New York City during the crime-ridden winter of ’81 and harkens back to Sidney Lumet-type thrillers of the 1970s – the sort of movie Al Pacino would have made his own or, later, a tightly coiled Richard Gere. It’s an interesting story about an immigrant played by “Llewelyn Davis'” Oscar Isaac who’s climbed his way up the chain of the heating oil business. Now he runs his own company, has a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain) and two young kids, drives a Mercedes and wears fabulous suits and a camel coat. But all is not going well. Just as he’s about to acquire valuable land to solidify his empire, the cops are closing in with an investigation into his company, his drivers are being attacked on their routes to delivering the oil and his wife, the daughter of a gangster, is threatening to bring in her family members to make all the problems go away. But Isaac’s character wants to “do the right thing” and he persists in resisting the violence around him.
Everybody at the screening loved the movie and I seemed to be the lone dissenter. There were many things to love about it, the chase scenes among them, and the acting was superb. But I kept waiting for Isaac to show some emotion and he rarely did. At the Q&A, Chandor said that the character’s quiet, steely demeanor was the whole point and that he deliberately avoided putting him in explosive shouting matches. The result for me was an unbelievability – i.e. nobody stays calm in the face of what this guy has to deal. The payoff at the end just wasn’t enough for me either; I wanted to see more of a character arc. And the pace of the movie was slow and deliberate – it really takes its time getting started after a terrific opening scene.
I have a feeling “A Most Violent Year” will get terrific reviews and I’ll feel like an idiot for not joining in the chorus, but it is what it is. I’ll take “Birdman” over this one any day.
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