Movie Day: “The Imitation Game”

October 25th, 2014 by

Imitation Game poster

Our Cinema Society screening today was the much-heralded film that’s not only getting Best Actor buzz for Benedict Cumberbatch but Best Picture buzz. Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s the type of movie Oscar voters love – a veddy veddy British period piece based on a true story with terrific acting, a beautiful score and a stirring screenplay.

Cumberbatch is brilliant as Alan Turing, the obsessive, socially inept (with Asperger’s, most likely) mathematician who cracked the German Enigma Code that helped the Allies win WWII. Moving back and forth in time, the movie begins as Turing is being interrogated by a policeman after his home is burgled, creating a suspenseful opening to the story. We see Turing as a young prodigy at boarding school who’s bullied by the other boys because he’s such an outsider/nerd. We see him talking his way into a top-secret job with the Government Code and Cipher School where he doesn’t get along with his superiors or co-workers but does manage to impress an MI6 agent played by the always compelling Mark Strong. We see him invent a machine that ultimately breaks the code used by the Nazis to encode all military radio transmissions. And we see him recruit a female mathematician (Keira Knightley) with whom he forges a friendship but not a romance. Turing is a closeted gay man and homosexuality is illegal in Britain, and his story does not have a happy ending. In the closing credits we learn that Turing, who committed suicide two years after being arrested for indecency, was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth in 2009 and is now considered the hero he was.

There are some great lines of dialogue that stem from Turing’s outsider-ness, but there’s too much “speechifying” for me. Characters often talk in sayings of the type that appear on bumper stickers and the cast should have been allowed to act out those moments rather than tell us what we’re supposed to be thinking. But the use of historical footage (Hitler, Churchill, wartime Britain) is very effective and the overall feel of the film is Big Oscar Picture in the same way that “King’s Speech” was. And Cumberbatch and Knightley deserve all the acclaim they’re getting; they’re wonderful to watch. Which is to say I liked “The Imitation Game” a lot, I really did. It just didn’t get to me in that way that generates the sentiment: “This is the best movie I’ve seen this year.”

 

 

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Movie Day: “Fury”

October 11th, 2014 by

Fury movie poster

Cinema Society showed a screening this morning of the new WWII movie starring Brad Pitt, and I actually skipped it.

I know, right? A Brad Pitt movie that I didn’t care much about seeing? It was hard for me to believe too, but there it is. I’m not a huge fan of war movies, not because of the violence but because they can be too straight-forward and simplistic, in the same way that cop movies can, and the reviews I read for “Fury” only confirmed my thinking.

Michael went though and reported the following: “Good call on your part. You didn’t miss much.”

Yes, Brad was excellent, he said, but there was nothing special about the story, which I’ll let the studio describe:

April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

I feel a little guilty about missing the screening because the writer-director, David Ayer, had come for the Q&A session afterward, but hey. I got a lot of writing done during those two hours. I’m learning that I don’t have to sit through every movie or read every book, and the notion is liberating. That said, our Cinema Society has some fabulous films coming up and I can’t wait to go to those screenings. We’re getting such festival darlings as “Birdman,” “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game” and “Mr. Turner.” And that’s just between now and Thanksgiving. December is a big month for Oscar contenders too.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer for “Fury.” Good cast. Reasonable premise. But if I’m seeing a WWII movie, I’ll take “Inglourious Basterds” and its dark humor any day.

 

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Movie Day: “Gone Girl”

October 5th, 2014 by

Gone Girl

I saw the movie the other day, but I wanted to let it sit and marinate in my head before writing a post about it. I wanted to be fair. I wanted to figure out if it could have been my too-high expectations that made me disappointed in the movie. I wanted to decide if my opinion about it was skewed because I’d enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel so much.

But here’s the thing: I just didn’t love the movie. Did. Not. Love. It. At. All.

The book is a twisty page turner with a he said/she said narrative that leaves you breathless to get to the end to find out what the hell happened to Amy. There’s no question that having the answer leaves the moviegoer at a disadvantage, plot wise; we all know how the story ends (despite rumors that director David Fincher and Flynn, who adapted her novel for the screen, had changed it). So there’s that.

But the book had nuance. The characters were interesting. They weren’t likable but so what; they were layered enough that you kept reading, kept wondering about their fates, kept appreciating Flynn’s skill at depicting a marriage that began with such promise and deteriorated badly.

If only the movie had been structured with the same sense of nuance. Instead – and I know I’m in the minority here; the reviews have been glowing with the exception of the NYT, Washington Post, New Yorker and a few others – I found the film plodding, too long, one note. For me it was the story of a lunkhead and a psycho, period. Ben Affleck, as Nick, who is portrayed in the book as being a charming deadbeat, isn’t particularly charming. He walks like a robot and coasts along looking bewildered. And Rosamond Pike, as Nick’s missing wife Amy, while a British beauty who masters the American accent, is, as written, a cartoon; by the end of the movie when she’s soaked with blood she’s more like Carrie at the high school prom than a whip-smart nutcase.

I did like some of the secondary characters: the female cop, the sister, the stalker ex (Neil Patrick Harris was super creepy). But where was the pace? Shouldn’t it have picked up as we moved toward the big Ta Da finale? And what happened to the snarky humor that was so welcome in the book? Gone, girl. That’s where it was. Gone. The whole exercise made me want to go home and watch my DVD of “The War of the Roses,” another dark film about marriage but one that entertained and had brilliant performances by its leads.

Sigh.

 

 

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Movie Night: “Ida”

October 1st, 2014 by

Ida movie poster

I remember reading A.O. Scott’s review of “Ida” in the NYT and thinking….Sounds good but do I really want to see yet another Holocaust movie? And then I re-read the review, read other critics’ reviews, watched the praise being heaped on the film at various festivals and decided it was a must see. I’m very glad I did.

Set in the 1960s in a bleak, snowy, post-war Poland, it’s the spare (only 80 minutes long), exquisitely told story of Ida, a young woman who’s lived at a convent since she was dropped on their doorstep as a child. It begins as she’s on the verge of becoming a nun. When she’s told she must visit the aunt she’s never met before saying her vows, she reluctantly gets on a train and ventures out into the world for the first time. Her aunt Wanda turns out to be a troubled former prosecutor who drinks too much and sleeps around. And Wanda has a surprise for her: Ida is Jewish.

So kicks off what turns out to be both a coming-of-age tale and a suspenseful journey to learn what happened to Ida’s parents.

Along the way, there’s a first love, exposure to jazz music and the realization that there’s life outside of the cloistered walls of the convent. Does Ida go back to say her vows or not? I’ll never tell, except to say the acting is superb, the cinematography is breathtaking and heartbreaking, and “Ida” is a strong contender for Best Foreign Film at Oscar time.

 

 

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Movie Day: “Whiplash”

September 22nd, 2014 by

Whiplash poster

It’s officially Fall and that means it’s officially our Cinema Society’s prime season. Now begins the cavalcade of Oscar-worthy movies fresh from festivals in Venice, Sundance, Telluride and Toronto. And what a crop this year’s entries appear to be. I keep reading about the films and their performances and can’t wait to see them all.

In the meantime, I got an early look yesterday at the Sundance Audience Award winner: “Whiplash.” If you asked me if I was keen to see a movie about a young jazz drummer and his taskmaster teacher, I’d probably pass. Soooo glad I didn’t. This one’s a winner.

From the studio:

Andrew Neyman is an ambitious young jazz drummer, single-minded in his pursuit to rise to the top of his elite east coast music conservatory. Plagued by the failed writing career of his father, Andrew hungers day and night to become one of the greats. Terence Fletcher, an instructor equally known for his teaching talents as for his terrifying methods, leads the top jazz ensemble in the school. Fletcher discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into his band, forever changing the young man’s life. Andrew’s passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher continues to push him to the brink of both his ability-and his sanity.

That’s a simplistic summary of the story and makes it sound like “Black Swan,” substituting jazz music for ballet. It’s not over-the-top-horror like “Black Swan.” It’s a suspenseful, almost thriller-like tale with a performance by J.K. Simmons that astounds. Everybody knows Simmons as the cuddly, laid-back dad in “Juno” or the bland pitchman in the State Farm commercials. Apparently, he was a bad guy on the now-canceled TV show “Oz,” but I never saw that so watching him in “Whiplash” was a revelation. If he doesn’t get into the Supporting Actor race, I’ll be gobsmacked. Miles Teller, who plays the kid, is very good too. According to writer-director Damien Chazelle, who came for a Q&A and reception after the film, said that the young actor did have drumming experience but was coached in certain techniques for the film and ended up being so adept that they only used the stunt double sparingly. The drumming sequences in the film are worth the price of admission, so kudos to Teller.

As for Chazelle, he’s not one of those ultra-arty young filmmakers who has to shoot everything with a hand-held camera, thank God. He’s a student of classic films and it shows. His closeups and angles are terrific. I talked to him at the party and he’s a really humble and down-to-earth too.

Bottom line: I highly recommend this one.

 

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Now Playing on My Kindle: “Big Little Lies”

August 19th, 2014 by

big little lies

I really enjoyed Australian author Liane Moriarty’s last blockbuster, The Husband’s Secret, so I ordered her new one right away and wasn’t disappointed. She has a quirky yet accessible style that makes for good storytelling with lots of plot (I like lots of plot) along with well-drawn characters and a healthy dose of both suspense and humor – the perfect combo.

The characters in the new novel are parents of young children attending the same school – helicopter parents to the max. (Apparently, they have them in Australia too.) They all have baggage and that baggage gets transferred to their kids, who act out in often surprising ways. We begin the story knowing something terrible has happened but it isn’t until the last couple of chapters that we learn what – and at whose hand. We meet the mother whose ex has a new wife and child, everyone living in seeming harmony despite their simmering resentments. We meet the beautiful, wealthy couple with the perfect life and the perfect twins and find out that their “perfection” is anything but. We meet the single mom who has very little money and struggles to fit in with the other mothers, especially after her son is accused of bullying one of their daughters and is ostracized. We meet the mean girl mothers with big careers who look down at the stay-at-homes. It’s all here and I lapped it up, even though I’m not a parent and don’t have firsthand knowledge of PTA politics. Moriarty spins a good yarn, period, and she had me glued to the story until the final wrap up. The perfect escapist entertainment.

Next up on my Kindle: Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us. I’m a quarter of the way into it and loving it already.

 

 

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Movie Day: “Get On Up”

August 10th, 2014 by

get_on_up_xlg

The rave reviews for this movie, along with the pedigree of the filmmakers and my own interest in James Brown’s life and music, propelled me to see this one. All I can say is Chadwick Boseman, who played the controlled, affable Jackie Robinson in “42,” is phenomenal as Brown, another legend who broke boundaries in his own way. He doesn’t just mimic the singer. He inhabits him. He’s got the speaking voice down, the walk, the dance moves, the simmering anger and, most importantly, the soul. What would the Godfather of Soul be without the soul?

Directed by Tate Taylor, who did the honors on the much-nominated “The Help,” and produced by Brian Grazer as well as Mick Jagger, “Get On Up” was made with the cooperation of Brown’s family, which meant getting permission to use his music – a huge deal. However, it also meant compromising a bit on portraying Brown warts and all. Which is not to say there aren’t warts – from the physical abuse to the gun violence to the paranoid, egotistical way he treated his band members. But the movie treads lightly on those incidents and focuses more on the music and how it came to be so raw and unique. We see Brown’s impoverished childhood in Georgia, his abandonment by his parents (Viola Davis is very moving as his mother), his upbringing in a brothel, his exposure to gospel church music, his time in prison, his experiences with racial prejudice. The film plays with time and moves back and forth between the past and present. Mostly, we see Brown performing at different stages of his life and Boseman gets the act so perfectly you have to blink to make sure you’re not witnessing Brown back from the dead.

My problems with “Get On Up” were that it’s too long – scenes needed cutting badly – and there’s too much repetition. And the ending? The movie could have ended much earlier and been just as satisfying. So yeah, it dragged and, sadly, by the time the lights came on in the theater I was glad to leave. But that performance by Boseman was worth the price of admission. Oscar nomination, please.

 

 

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Movie Night: “Boyhood”

August 8th, 2014 by

Boyhood-poster-I-

I missed our Cinema Society screening of this while I was away in Connecticut, as well as the Q&A and reception with writer-director Richard Linklater and star Patricia Arquette, so I was eager to make time (and it does take a leisurely three hours to see this film) for it when I got home. Last night was that time. The verdict? I agree with the 99% of the critics who loved the movie. (The guy from the LA Times seems to be the lone dissenter, along with Husband Michael, though I’m sure there are others.)

The conceit of the film – or “gimmick” to the dissenters – is that Linklater shot the same core of actors over a 12 year period, so when we see them age we literally see them age. No fat suits. No add-on wrinkles. Just the real thing. And the effect is to make it feel as if you’re watching family members at different stages of their lives – pages of a scrapbook.

The kid, who becomes a college freshman by the end of “Boyhood,” is terrific – as natural an actor as I’ve seen in a long time. When we first meet him as Mason Junior, his mom, Arquette, is trying to get her life together after splitting with her ex, Ethan Hawke, a Linklater regular from the “Midnight” trilogy with Julie Delpy. Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, also slips easily into her demanding role. The kids are forced to roll with Mom’s poor choices in men (next comes the raging alcoholic, then the strict ex-military man) and their own growing pains. Not a lot happens in terms of the plot, but it’s life, full of friendships and breakups and rites of passage like graduations and birthdays, and it all feels so…so…authentic.

For Michael, “Boyhood” was just too long and talky. He didn’t like the “Midnight” films either where Delpy and Hawke rattled on in an improvisational way about the meaning of life and love. There’s some of that here, though only from a teenage boy’s point of view. I guess you either like that stuff or you don’t. I did and I do. I’d recommend “Boyhood” as a truly unique and thoroughly satisfying experience. Loved the soundtrack too.

 

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Movie Day: “Calvary”

August 2nd, 2014 by

Calvary poster

Now that I’m back in CA, it’s Cinema Society time again and if today’s screening was any indication we’re off to a very exciting Oscar season. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose first feature was the highly praised “The Guard,”  this one tackles the Roman Catholic Church, sexual abuse, adultery, suicide and alcoholism, among other sins, and yet it’s darkly funny as only Irish humor can be.

The brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good, decent priest and widower who sincerely wants to help the members of his small parish. But from the film’s first scene, we learn that not everyone is happy with him. As the story moves along, we discover that he’s facing obstacles from many sides – obstacles that could result in his murder. Through it all, he continues to comfort his flock as well as his fragile daughter (an excellent Kelly Reilly) even as begins to wonder if he’ll have the courage to face his own personal demons.

“Calvary” is that rare movie that isn’t shy about dealing with big moral issues but treats them with such a delicate touch that it makes for riveting entertainment in the form of a mystery. If Gleeson doesn’t get an Oscar nom (I know, it’s early), I’ll be surprised. Chris O’Dowd is always terrific whether he’s doing comedy or drama and his work here is no exception. Nobody in the theater left before the Q&A and I felt privileged to chat with Gleeson at the reception for him and the director afterwards. He said the role took him a long time to recover from but that now he’s enjoying the glowing reviews. And why not. He earned them.

P.S. I watched “Chef” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” on the plane coming home yesterday and liked them both. Well, let me qualify. I liked “Chef.” It’s a sweet movie about food with a feel-good ending, so what’s not to like? I adored “Grand Budapest.” I was a big fan of Wes Anderson’s last one, “Moonrise Kingdom,” but the new one is even more ambitious and inventive. It’s on my Best list for sure.

 

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 7

August 2nd, 2014 by
Photo: CT Magazine

Photo: CT Magazine

In Part 2 of my farm-to-table food journey for research, I wrote about Arethusa Dairy Farm in Litchfield County and how ridiculously delicious the milk, cheese and butter that come from Arethusa’s prized cows are. It only made sense for Arethusa’s owners, the brains behind Manolo Blahnik stilettos, to launch a restaurant adjacent to the dairy and to recruit a chef who would best utilize their products. Arethusa al tavolo opened last summer and was an immediate hit – a fine dining eatery that offered the freshest, highest quality ingredients in innovate menu items but without the pretentiousness and stuffiness of “fancy” places. I became a fan from my first bite of the lobster and avocado appetizer.

Photo: Wendy Carlson/ New York Times

Photo: Wendy Carlson/ New York Times

Michael and I went back a few more times last summer, and al tavolo never disappointed. When we were in Connecticut this time around and I was determined to learn about chefs at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement, I had a perfectly good excuse to revisit the restaurant. The only catch was getting Chef Dan Magill, who makes magic in the kitchen, to sit down and talk to me. Luckily, Chef Dan was a prince among men, generous with information and recipes and philosophies of cooking. He was the opposite of the diva type you read about or see on television food competition shows but rather down-to-earth, funny and, most importantly, earnest about his craft. He doesn’t come out front to shake hands and take bows. He works the line with the other cooks, turning out perfection night after night, as does his pastry chef, April Massey. He started in the business at age 14 as a dishwasher and after putting himself through culinary school took jobs that allowed him to observe the best chefs in the food world. (He did a stint with Daniel Boulud, for example). Now, he’s come into his own at al tavolo and, despite the accolades, his head is still on straight.

Having grown up on the North Fork of Long Island and fished as a kid, he’s partial to cooking the freshest seafood around – “sea to table,” he calls what he does in the kitchen. But he’s also known for his duck and Michael raves about his lamb and beef. And he’s all about Arethusa’s dairy products, of course, and there’s not a single appetizer, entree or dessert on the menu that isn’t swoon-worthy because of those products. I mean who wouldn’t want to dive into this? We’re talking ice cream straight from the cows, people.

ice cream

I’m back in Santa Barbara now and not exactly stuck in a culinary wasteland, but the challenge will be to put together all the info I gathered in Connecticut and create an entertaining story for my novel’s characters.

Oh, did I mention that the novel will be a spin-off of Princess Charming?

final.princess charming

Yup, I’m bringing back Elaine, Jackie and Pat for another vacation together. They’re going to be “agri-tourists” in Connecticut, staying at a fictional resort on a fictional farm and getting into all sorts of trouble as they milk cows, take cooking classes, interact with the chefs and other guests and – you guessed it – solve another mystery. Who will be marked for murder in this one? Stay tuned.

 

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