Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street - Review

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review

Famed Director Martin Scorsese tells the story of the 1980’s Wall Street Broker Jordon Belford who went from virtual obscurity to living the American dream filled with decadent wealth, unbridled greed, corporate corruption and unrepentant debauchery.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Belford and Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belford’s   confidant and partner in crime, the two young men manage to take the concept of meaningless penny stocks to new unparallel heights of financial success by securing vast sums of money from fraudulent commissions. But like any illegal venture, someone eventually is going to get wind of fraud and in Belford’s case the wind blew squarely in the direction of a failed Wall Street Broker but now turned ambitious FBI agent named Patrick Denham.

What “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not is an overly complicated movie; it is a pretty straight forward plot. Basically Jordon Belford has figured, or more like stumbled into, a sales pitch “gift of gab” scheme to literally rob the ultra wealthy out of their money without really offering them anything in return from their supposedly sound long term investments. What “Wolf” is are scenes after scenes after scenes of a nearly 3 hours running time of one man’s astonishing tale of a crazed roller coaster ride of perpetual lies, deceptions, yelling, screaming, crude behavior, cocaine, alcohol, Quaaludes, sex, mad house parties, bundles of cash, body fluids, orgies, public sex, prostitutes, alcohol, excesses of every kind, infidelity and bribery. Oh did I say yelling? There are more scenes of people yelling and screaming at each other than any other film I have ever seen.

“Wolf” is basically fun to watch and I had more than a few great laughs watching it with a few specific scenes (i.e. FBI interview on Belford’s’ Boat) that were typically and quintessential well crafted Scorsese directing at his best.

There were also 2 other scenes that can be only described as being too crazy to be believed that this in fact could have actually happen in real life. One involving Belford and Azoff trying a new Quaalude called “Lemons” that was funny as hell and the other with Belford racing in his yacht in the Mediterranean to get to Switzerland in a stormy Atlantic sea that seemed more like something you would see on Saturday Night Live than a Scorsese film.
The reason I will not give this film a better score is while it was never boring, the film is essentially a flawed singularly focused one note story of Belford’s unhinged depravity and dishonesty, and while I was very impressed with Scorsese’s ability to keep showing new examples of Belford’s human tolerance for new abuses and moral corruption, in the end “The Wolf of Wall Street” is essentially a modern tale of Sodom and Gomorrah without anyone worrying about the fire and brimstone around them, near them or anything burning for that matter.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Saving Mr. Banks - Review

Saving Mr. Banks – Review

Starring two time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson and also two times Oscar winner Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks” is the true story of the making of the Disney classic “Mary Poppins”.

With the film taking place in 1964 we find the entertainment mogul Walt Disney attempting to finalizing the contract deal to the rights to the highly successful and popular book by Author P.LTravers “Mary Poppins “. For Walt, as he liked to be called, this would be a culmination of a solemn promise he made to his daughters over 20 years ago that one day he would make their favorite book into a feature film. However, little did Walt Disney know was that Mrs. Travers, as she insisted on being called, would be an over demanding, meticulously controlling crotchety and utterly incalcitrant client to work with as illustrated in early scenes showcasing the “creative making process” of brining her book to the big screen.

Time and time again Mrs. Travers’s would go back and forward between Walt and his creative team with a lady like abrasiveness always insisting upon control of  every word, song and color in the film’s development including approval of the final script as part of her requirement to eventually signing the rights over to Walt Disney to produce the film.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a light drama that is full of wit, Disney fantasy appeal and charm as the story centrally revolves around the trials of Mrs. Travers childhood that was the principle catalyst of her “Poppins” story. Specifically, it explains the source of her doggedness to maintain control of her book, timely reflected with flashbacks scenes to her adolescent youth where it was made clear she was influenced by the events of her love for her flawed father. These scenes help enlighten us to the source of her adult skepticism of Mr. Disney’s ever being ability to satisfactorily bring her story to its’ proper light that she feels it richly deserves.

The film also helps reveal that Walt and Travers are like most successful people in that they have far more in common than initial meets the eye. They are both proud people born from childhood difficulties that help light that creative sparks to their unique visions of story telling, and with a screenplay that seemed seamless in its execution we the viewing audience are sentimentally drawn in to their respective stories with the right amount of emotional “spoonfuls of sugar” to make the story’s sweetness go down.

Emma Thompson is assured of an Oscar Nomination as Best Actress, as well as a possible Nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Tom Hanks in his spot on avuncular portrayal of the ever affable and amiable Walt Disney. Equally effective performances were given by Paul Giamatti as the charming limousine driver and Colin Ferrell as the father Robert Travers.

Ultimately, “Saving Mr. Banks” while not a Christmas story has the feel of one as in the end it is a very good family holiday feel goodChim Chim Cher-ee" tale.

3 – 3/4 Stars

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

For starters, there is no bigger fan of the Coen Brothers legacy of films then me (i.e., Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo & No Country for Old Men), so it’s with a bit of regret that while the majority of established film critics seem to anoint their latest effort “Inside Llewyn Davis” as one of the top 10 films for 2013 (including Rotten Tomatoes collective score of 95), I found the film to be at its best mildly entertaining with some occasionally funny moments, but short on real lasting appeal. To me “Inside Llewyn Davis” was less of a story of man’s musical struggles in a historical period and more of a meandering tale more simply aligned to someone’s far more personal journey of emotional bewilderment

Texturally, the movie while it looks like it was shot in black and white, it was not. I would presume it was a subtle technical attempt to capture the early 1960s atmosphere of smoky tightly packed no named basement clubs where artist of that generation struggled mightily for their success, similarly to those who really  went on to set new standards in music for that generation and our times (i.e. Bob Dylan). The Coen’s attempt to recreate this by singularly focusing their lens on a fictional young man in New York who as you would expect a struggling folk singer.

With a backdrop of some fabulous music especially the opening song (sung in its entirety), we are realistically drawn to Davis’s ambition in becoming a success at all practical cost. Specifically, we see the inevitable mixture of his energy and high hopes and the inevitable plight of suffering from perpetual rejections, financial instability and functional homelessness. We also get a bit of amusing humor at his ability to pre-strategically calculate new ways each night after a performance in finding both friends and strangers to coax them into letting him sleep on their home living room couch.

But these early compelling strengths of the film slowly give way to a character that becomes less empathetic and less known to us. He becomes more baffling, less realized and less clear to his own story. Under normal circumstances a film is crafted with each passing scene into making it feel we should be rooting for him to succeed but for some reason this never quite takes hold. Ultimately for me, I found Llewyn Davis as much a stranger in the end of the film as he was in the beginning.

The Coen’s seemly wanted to use Llewyn Davis as a way to celebrate and create broad appeal to this unique period in American music. But what didn’t work for me because it was just too much to put on the back of their one note character “Llewyn Davis” into carry this film’s entire plot across the finish line. Structurally the flaw appears to be they never ever introduced – developed the right supporting characters for Davis to draw comparative strength from.

Also, there was some oddness to this film. Without giving anything away there is a 30 minute segment in the middle of the film that involved a round trip road trip to Chicago involving a back seat ranting elderly man (John Goodman) who is chauffeured by a chain smoking driver (more of a biker looking type) who states he’s out of cigarettes but constantly smokes, a domestic house cat with flight issues and finally a series of inexplicable scenes involving 40 minute roadside bathroom breaks.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” does have some appeal and it is occasionally interesting to watch, but for its 1 hour 45 minutes running time it seemed to put way too much of a burden on actor Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis) to being someone we should be eager to love instead of the feeling of someone you just end up liking and even that was a chore.

There’s a good chance “Inside Llewyn Davis” will probably be nominated for Best Picture (a potential 10 nominees each year) and while I enjoyed it for the interesting effort and execution that the Coen Brothers always seemly bring to their films, for me it is not one of my top10 films for 2013 and not something I would suggest you have to rush out to the theater to see..

3 – 1/4 Stars    

Thursday, December 19, 2013

American Hustle - Review

American Hustle – Review

At about near the end of the film “American Hustle” Christian Bale’s character utters the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”. And with that simple line I realized that what I had spent the running time of 2:09 was watching the best film for 2013.

Director David O. Russell whose previous works include “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” has now crafted an amazing story out of virtually thin air and whole cloth a highly polished and sophisticated story with many moving parts of con artists, con jobs, double talk, willful deception, sultry and sexy romance, dysfunctional relationships, political criminals, federal agents, mobsters, witty humor and seventies music. And holding all of this rich mixture of cinematic attributes together was a rich and intricate story so flawless executed with such high energy and cleverness by an incredible assemblage of actors I am somewhat tempted to call Russell’s screenplay a work teetering on being an acting masterpiece.

Purely a fictional tale, “American Hustle” feels real and true to its time period of the late 1970’s, with Christian Bale playing “Irving Rosenfeld, a life long brilliant local con artist who works the local stiffs in his community out of their money through a scam that while not lucrative, gets the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). It’s when the FBI Agent DiMaso busts Irving and his partnering girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams) that the film’s story takes off as Irving and Sydney are offered a way out of their criminal dilemma by using their con talents in helping the federal prosecutor scoring a much bigger fish in the form of a local New Jersey Mayor.

Played by Jeremy Renner “Mayor Polito” is a kind and good hearted family man who the FBI believes with the right amount of prodding is politically ripe for the picking into using some backdoor shady deals with a fictional Arab investor in fulfilling Mayor’s Polito dream of doing something good for his old childhood neighborhood in the form of building casinos and hotels in Atlantic City.

What ensues next is a story that feels like the best parts “Oceans11” and “Goodfellas”. More so, Director Russell clearly has drawn some of the best directing qualities from Director Martin Scorsese, as American Hustle feels uniquely like his brand of work. And while it is completely absent of the noted violence of a Scorsese film, American Hustle, is still able to capture all of the tension his films masterfully have offered in the past.

Once again, Christian Bale proves to me he is one of the finest actors I have ever witness on the big screen to play such a rich assortment of American characters over his career. Also Amy Adams was perfectly casted as the sultry and sexy love interest, Bradley Cooper is splendid as the high energy super aggressive FBI agent and Jennifer Lawrence who plays “Irving’s” ditsy, mouthy, over sexed wife proves her Academy Award last year was no fluke as she is deliciously riveting as the perpetual marital thorn in Irving’s otherwise happy life.

You can count of numerous Academy Award nominations in January 2014 coming out of this film, for most if not all of the principle actors in the film. Expect to hear nominations clearly for Screenplay, Custom Design, Director and of course Best Picture.

This film is rich in detail, execution and plot development. And while it is a highly involved story of cons and deception, American Hustle shines in the end like the way they use to make movies when there were no spy satellites, no high tech phone devices, no lap tops or micro chips. No, this is an ingenuous plot relying only on human ingenuity to move the story along with crispness and intelligence.

If you like originality this is the must see film for 2013

4 Stars Plus                 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Oldboy - Review

Oldboy – Review

Starring Josh Brolin and Directed by Spike Lee, “Oldboy’ is the American remake of the 2003 Korean cult classic of the same name.

With a 2 hour running time the 2013 story of ‘Oldboy” is an unusual provocative thriller that follows the story of a man named Joe Doucette, a man who is inexplicable kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement, for no apparent reason. When he is suddenly released without any explanation, he begins a mission to find out who imprisoned him.

If you want to see this story then I recommend you rent the 2003 original as this 2013 film effort is an ineffective, uninteresting, dialogue stilted, cold, truncated, overly gruesome, overly predictable and directorially empty - disappointing clunker.   

1 – 1/2 Stars   

Out of The Furnace - Review

Out of the Furnace – Review

Director Scott Cooper offers up a modern day gritty blue collar working class drama thriller in the backdrop of a small steel mill town where the only thing that matters is family in the film entitled “Out of the Furnace”.

Starring Christian Bale we find his character “Russell Baze” a hard working decent man with a moral goodness about him, who works long hours at a local steel mill to provide for his terminally ill father. We also find Russell’s brother “Rodney Baze” (Casey Affleck) who is a recently returned Iraqi veteran suffering from a bit of post traumatic syndrome that seems to be contributing to his reluctance to seek out steady employment. Rodney is more comfortable in simply wasting his time away daily by borrowing money to gamble on racing horses that always seem to lose.

Eventually Rodney is lovingly confronted by his older brother Russell of the need to paying off his debt by getting a job. So, Rodney secretly decides to work off his debts by approaching an affable but nonetheless sleazy local bookie - promoter named “John Petty” (Willem Dafoe) who is well known for arranging and rigging back ally fights for money.

When Russell gets wind of the fact that Rodney has ran up an even larger debt with Petty, Russell starts to work extra hours at the plant to pay his brother debts in the hopes that eventually he can convince Rodney to taking some control of his life by working with him at the steel plant. But Rodney resists his bother overture because as he explains it he is tormented by war demons and the only thing that he feels he is any good at right now is fighting. So it’s from this point in the film we see Rodney spiraling slowly downward being lured even deeper into more ruthless fights with equally more ruthless people. One such ruthless person is a New Jersey fight promoter named “Harlan DeGroat” (Woody Harrelson) who is nothing short of an absolutely mean SOB who has a trigger haired short fuse at the slightest indiscretion. He is an anti Christ meth head alcoholic hillbilly who would as easily shoot you for looking at him the wrong way than to ignore you by simply walking away.

When Rodney insists that Petty arrange one last fight only this time with Harlan’s ruthless criminal crew, Petty reluctantly agrees. But when Rodney and Petty mysteriously disappear after the fight, Russell takes upon himself to find his brother to bring him back home.

The first hour of the film exhibited some raw dramatic weight and seriousness, largely by the absolutely excellent and stellar performances of Bale and Harrelson who bring working class honesty to their respective characters. And while they have some similarity in their working class personalities and backgrounds in that they were clearly born on the clichéd “same side of the tracks” they carry and live their lives within a completely diametrical opposite set of values and morals.

For a while in “Furnace” I thought I was watching one of the five best films I have seen this year. And while the film basically does stay true to itself with its common everyday working class theme and story setting, it does take a bit of a formulaic turn to a Western style form of frontier justice similar to films more commonly associated with old John Wayne movies. Nonetheless, “Furnace” manages to hold up pretty good through out its running time even if it does fall off its more purposeful dramatic first hour introduction.

I highly recommend that if you don’t see this film in the theater then by all means make sure to rent it. It is a powerful showcase of the quality, the talent and the effectiveness of Bale and Harrelson's ability to largely make this move successfully move with a crispness and earthiness. And while there are numerous extended moments of laconic dialogue and conversations that seem needlessly too nuance and theatrically deliberate, it still remained sincere in those moments with unfettered consequential dramatic intensity, villainy and dread.

On one side note, I came out of this film with the conclusion that Christian Bale is not only a superb actor, he maybe one of the 5 best actors I have seen over the last 20 years. He more than any other actor I can recall, especially one who is not a natural American, seems time after time to brilliantly capture the many subtle and various mosaic mixture of American men personalities. Whether they come from a certain demographic region of the country (Out of the Furnace and The Machinist), from an upper social economic class status (American Psycho and the Dark Knight) or a historical time period (3:10 to Yuma, Public Enemies and Rescue Dawn) Bale seems to understand how to grasp the cornucopia of American men traits without ever relying on noticeable voice gimmicks, quirky accents or mimicry impersonation. He is extraordinarily gifted in being able to inhabit American roles (as a foreign born actor) with authentic credibility when telling uniquely American stories.

3 – 1/2 Stars

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Review

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” begins as Katniss Everdeen has returned home after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games along with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark. Only winning means that they must turn right around to leave their family and close friends again to go on a promotional tour or as they refer to  it a "Victor's Tour" throughout all of the districts to promote the virtues of their way of life at the forceful behest of President Snow.

But President Snow realizes that Katniss is becoming an unsettling threat to the order of things as she grows more and more symbolically a source of national pride and maybe more so a source of national hope for the working class to rise up to rebel. So President Snow decides to have a new game called the 75th Annual Hunger Games - The Quarter Quell, with his diabolically strategy of forcing Katniss to fight again only this time with all of the previous victors with the surreptitious plot of having her eventually killed during the game in order to squash her popularity.

So what is my take on this sequel? Well of course we find our brave heroine Katniss Everdeen leading the thrust into another conundrum of a seemingly no win cat and mouse combat game to the death. Apparently in this installment however they forgot to make food reward an issue. Still I can only presume the survivor’s reward would be in the form of getting to eat Thanksgiving Dinner everyday for the rest of their life, but absolutely no giblet gravy though, they didn’t work that hard.

Now, if you detect already a note of cynicism on my part I apologize, as I did find the sequel pretty much what I expected which was 2 plus hours of by the book decent entertainment. And while it has some interesting plot points and a few interesting chases, I realize midway through this effort unlike its original this one was lacking an ingredient (or two).

While Hunger 2 never bored me, I did however keep asking myself what is it that makes this effort not as good as the first? Did they not do as good a job of showing how sadistic people can be when they have absolute power? Not as good of a job showing how an oppressed people can stand to be oppressed only just so long? Not showcasing more of Jennifer Lawrence’s kinetic on screen presence. FYI, I was sold on her many movies ago, especially her Oscar winning performance “Silver Linings Playbook”. So what I am to make of what clearly will be a minimum of a 4 film franchise going forward?

Yes, Hunger 2 is a well intentioned piece of movie making, but after watching it for 2 -1/2 hours, which was way too long for this somewhat thin plot, the whole viewing experience seemed like a long soulless blur, largely self inflected with its propensity to appear to be making it up with twists and turns as you go along. Its story’s construction and execution made the film feel less like something that was riveting and suspenseful at each turn and more like an intellectual obstacle course of remembering previous plot and dialogue connections from one scene to the next.

The Director Francis Lawrence awarded with a bigger budget this time out, seemed to not have placed enough emphasis on keeping visceral continuity throughout the film. Instead, I saw too much infatuation with brighter lights, gaudy pageantry, brilliant colors and a tropical setting as the key story variables to holding our attentions. And it is with this glaring proclivity of relying on the visual to push the story made the film feel at times a bit flat. It was like watching someone throwing up plot ideas up on the screen completely out of the blue hoping they work, especially during the back half of the film. At one point during some hectic fight sequences I thought to myself that I would not have been at all surprised next to see Rapper Jay Z come riding out of the woods on a white unicorn horse dressed like Yoda with his light saber out while singing “Ride or Die”.

Still, the film is not boring as it does have entertainment value. What it is not however is a very exciting entertaining film to watch. Its only strong suit as I saw it was an imaginative looking set and costumes design, a rather intriguing vision of a Fascist future and a decent enough story development with good acting to make it all work well just enough.

3 – 1/4 Stars 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philomena - Review

Philomena – Review

Directed by Stephen Frears who is noted for his 2006 effort of “The Queen” starring Helen Mirren’s Oscar winning performance, finds the Director telling another unique UK story only this time at the other end of the economic spectrum  in the film entitled “Philomena”.

Based on a 2009 book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith’s, this film is a true event story of a kindly retired lady named Philomena Lee who in 1955 conceived a boy out of wedlock during a time when her devoutly strong Irish Catholic community shunned with disdain such promiscuity. With her family abandoning her, a young naïve and innocent Philomena was offered some measure of salvation by local Nuns who unbeknownst to Philomena had a strict policy of taking away the children of young girls and selling them for adoption to wealthy Americans.     
Starring Judie Dench as Philomena, who is assured of an Oscar Nomination for her performance in January, the film starts out with a somewhat warm and cozy approach to her tale. What ensues over time is a heart wrenching, profoundly poignant, emotional uplifting, life reaffirming and soul stirring film. Frears has crafted a film that at times seems both light and whimsical in nature to something suddenly complex of people, places and events that are about harsh cruelty and unfathomable deceit and human darkness.

Philomena as a film is clever in it’s subtly but quite effective parallel theme of what constitutes human faith. The kind of faith that religious institutions routinely proselytize a need of humans to stringently adhere to doctrines that require abstaining from certain vices and pleasures and the other kind of faith that seemly comes natural to us all with out any prerequisite controls. Especially the kind of faith that comes to all Mothers who have a special sense of the children that they gave birth to; at the point and to the extent they know who their children are innately and a feeling about their overall well being even when they are physical far, far away.

I love Philomena because it crept up on me in a way that once again reminded me why some of the most enjoyable films I have experienced are the ones rooted in simplicity. Dench’s performance is funny and sad; real and tender; stubborn and amusingly kind. And it’s during the brief 93 minutes running time we are ultimately offered something beautiful to watch. It is very well told without it being too layered in details about human tragedy and human redemption.

Dench and her co star Steve Coogan who plays the reporter Sixsmith have a lot of real on screen chemistry and it’s with their combined performances we are privy to a small tale with a huge effect heart that is modest, eloquent, intelligent and abundantly sweet in nature. While it does have its moments of human emotional terrifying evil to contemplate, at its basic core Philomena was a moving pleasure to have experience.

4 Stars    

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nebraska - Review

Nebraska - Review

Nebraska”, starring Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is the story of an elderly and grumpy man named Woody Grant of Hawthorn Montana who has received a letter that states he has won a million dollars from a Publishing Clearing House type company located in Lincoln Nebraska.

Shot digitally and beautifully in black and white we see at the beginning of the film Woody, who is too old to drive, along the interstate highway with the plan to walking the entire 800 miles distance to getting his prize money. When police arrive to get him of the road for his own safety, they contact one of his two sons David Grant (Will Forte of SNL) that he was taken to a local hospital for evaluation to make sure he is OK.

When Woody’s son arrives at the hospital to take him home, Woody is very clear and punctuated in his determination to convincing his reluctant David that he is still going to “collect his million dollars” with his help or not. Ultimately and fully aware that the letter is nothing more than a standard introduction into getting people to subscribe to magazines, David with heartfelt and loving intentions agrees to humor his father by driving him over the weekend all the way to arriving in Lincoln by Monday to pick up his presume prize money.

What ensues is one of the best movies of 2013 with certain Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor for Bruce Dern and best supporting actor for June Squibb as Woody’s funny, sardonic and sometimes irrepressible wife Kate.

Nebraska” is a family road trip film. Initially we see only father and son together, but that later evolves with more people in tow as Woody and David continue on their trek. And as they journey along the way they make respite stops to visit family and friends some of which they haven’t seen in years. And as the circle of people grows knowing that Woody’s has come into some new good fortune, they systematically entangled themselves by reminding him not so subtly of his forgotten obligation to sharing some of his new found wealth because (as they put it) they lent him a few dollars 30 years ago and so on and so on.

Nebraska” has a timeless story feel to it that reminded me a bit of the Coen brothers “Fargo” with its unique colloquial quaintness and talkative charm, only in this case there is no kidnapping or murder subplot to speak of. No this film has not one bit of scandal as a backdrop to its plot. Instead it simply tells a story very effectively with a smart screenplay infused with dry humor and with deftly clever direction the mindset of small town Midwest people, all the while nimbly avoiding any vestiges of ever being insulting towards them or their way of life.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways and The Descendant) showcases his film with both a balanced mixture of real actors and real locals with a prevailing  theme about who people interact with each other who have more than likely lived all of their entire lives in a that or some small town. And while he makes its clear they may not be most worldly or high tech supplicated obsessed sort of people they are at their very core good and honest people who by enlarge share the same common human vein of decency and gut instinct for direct and frank conversations, which is always engaged with (for the most part) respect, some humor (both intentional and unintentional) and a bit of mischief along the way.

The other theme Director Payne reveals, only I believe it is far more subtle, was that while we all have one time or another universally generalize the perception of people in farming and blue collar communities with the prerequisite phrase of “hard working” or “simple needs”, Payne reveals the importance within this road trip story an understanding of what being elderly really means to those who are actually numerically elderly.

“Nebraska” suggests very honestly that while people may have become physically old with hair that is now white and is receding, that their waist lines may be drooping and unshapely and that they may now walk more with steps similar to an infant’s stuttering motion, being elderly doesn’t mean people are spiritually old or near death. They are fully alive and in some ways full of life inside just like children and therefore they will always have some of the same child like sense of joyous wonderment they experienced when they were kids. So while their less than energetic outwardly odd shaped bodies may say otherwise even in the present while reflecting upon their past or their approaching mortality elderly people love being like a little kid every now and then, even if it may make them look a bit goofy for a moment or two..

This movie is funny, charming and ultimately touching with the themes important to us all; those being having the love of family and the respect of friends with a family’s love always coming first, then last and then first again; and when tested above all else first, above all others last and above all else first again.

4 Stars     


The Book Thief - Review

The Book Thief - Review

Starring one of my favorite working actors Geoffrey Rush, along with Sophie Nelisee, Emily Watson and Ben Schnetzer, The Book Thief, is a simply and somewhat moving story about a vivacious strong willed young girl named Liesel who is sent to foster parents in Nazi Germany during World War II to live.

Early in the film a young handsome stranger knocks on their door named Max; a young Jewish man who comes to their home to hide from Nazis who are systematically going door to door rounding up citizens for relocation to concentration camps. With the help of Hans, his wife and Sophie they make the family effort to conceal Max’s presence in their basement away from all friends and officials in their quaint small cottage town.

It doesn’t take long before Max and Liesel become good friends which is where the story transitions with Max helping Liesel to overcome her inability to read. Each day from a book she retrieved from her dead brother’s coat at his funeral Max takes her under his wing passing the time of day together by helping her to learn how to read. But he also encourage her to start thinking about the words she is reading, to think about their meaning and eventually how to write down in a journal Max gave her for Christmas her personal thoughts detailing her exterior adventures from her days outside the home.

As the movie story goes Liesel appreciates with greater maturity, joy and reverence the power of books in her life, as well as her relationship with her basement dwelling friend Max’s who is the embodiment of encouragement in her using her imagination about the world she is reading about. And while her books in the basement with Max do offer some measure of genuine escape from the realities of the ravages of an ever encroaching war, her exterior adventures with her close school friend Rudy perilously reminds her constantly both figuratively and literally of it’s cruelty of that war from the sounds of not too distant bombings, the military raids of neighbors homes and the propaganda infused speeches during the public display of book burnings.

The Book Thief is a very well intentioned film, with a very huge heart on display through its screenplay. It makes every effort to be a very sweet, endearing and precocious while also attempting to create the feeling of real angst with real life and death brutal facts on display from this historical war. It wants to be both a bit romantic with its fairy tale milieu and demeanor and yet try to effectively deal with issues of bigotry and the atrocities of the holocaust as well. And while it is very respectful on this matter with this conflicted dance of emotions there were few instances I was a bit bothered by its occasional “happy face” approach to telling this story.

Still, and generally speaking, with the exception of some structural directorial uneven writing miscues and maybe a little too long of a running time, The Book Thief still offered up a very entertaining two plus hours of how sometimes the most simplistic of things such as the masterfully written word can sometimes be the unsuspected genesis and driving catalyst to forging a nurturing relationship who’s affect becomes something meaningful, so much so that within some it eternally endures.

3 – 1/2 Stars  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Best Man Holiday - Review

The Best Man Holiday – Review

Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Permineau and Terrence Howard collectively reprise their comedy drama roles from the then coming age 1999 film “The Best Man” in the 15 years later effort now called “The Best Man Holiday”.  

Once again, the basic foundation of the film’s plot peels away the individual stories of each character as they now have cultivated highly successful professional lives but are still very much connected and intertwined as a life long circle of close and enduring friendships, love, marriages, jealousy and healing.

Structure wise, the old adage of “if it’s not broken then don’t fix it” is in play here. So if you saw the original film then you will realize early on in this effort that it doesn’t really provide anything new about the characters beyond some subtle nuances. The major plot point now is they are all adults who have all achieved some measure of professional success in the chosen fields of endeavor. And typically what comes along with adulthood and age are the demands for greater responsibility to family and friends, greater concerns and apprehensions in their professional life and in general greater maturity that naturally comes with the ups and downs in life’s journey.

The Best Man Holiday overall is entertaining and appropriately reflective about relationships, and while I could of done without several of the over the top melodramatic moments that are uniquely more suited for day time soap operas, the film itself still remains intact as a decent fluid story. A story at times very uplifting, sometimes very poignant, sometimes very open about religious spirituality and sometimes (unfortunately) a bit misplaced with some needless graphic discussions about sex in the backdrop of the family Christmas holiday season.

One aspect of the films direction I especially enjoyed was the use of Terrence Howard’s character Quentin as the perpetual comic relief. Howard is always a superb actor who showed here he has natural timing, style and charisma in these types of roles. On many occasions through out the film his lines left me laughing out loud.

In the end The Best Man Holiday is a good film with good intentions, a good sense of itself and above all a genuine earnestness about what love and friendship are really about and what it is not about.

3 – 1/4 Stars

Monday, November 11, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club - Review

Dallas Buyers Club – Review

Taking place in 1985 the “Dallas Buyers Club” stars Matthew McConaughey. Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner.  The initial story is of a Dallas Texan Ronald Woodruff; a blue collar, perpetual drinking, perpetual smoking, perpetual partying, a perpetual drug abusing, a perpetual sexually promiscuous and a perpetual ‘I don’t give a you know what” modern day Cowboy. To sum up Ron, as his friends call him, he looks at life as if it was his own private working class wheel to be turned whatever way he wants as long as it is turning in his favor on that day, on that moment.

Constantly coughing and terribly gaunt in his appearance one day Ron passes out and is taken to the hospital where he is revived. To his disbelief Ron is informed by Doctors that he has AIDS and is told he has probably less than 30 days left to live. Out raged by the news largely by his own ignorance that his illness was some implication he had to be gay to contract it, Ron storms out to continue to live his life as if it was a mistaken test result. But it isn’t very long after Ron confides in his supposedly very close male friends that he learns he may be actually mistaken about his diagnosis as he losses his job and his friends who quickly turn on him not un-similar to the virus itself. It is from this sudden revelation of bigotry that he takes a dramatic turn into accepting his sickness as being real but also with the idea he will do any and everything to fight it with his very last breath.

Given the backdrop of 1985 where the ignorance of this disease and its treatment was at a zenith in the USA as a Gay illness, the Dallas Buyers Club” as a film takes us on a well told journey that while was well directed seemed at times in parts a history lesson, thus falling a tad short on its ability to enlist strong emotional empathy for the principle characters. But what really makes the film pop, splendid to watch and its core strength was the incredible domineering performance by Matthew McConaughey who for two hours carries the plight of being both a somewhat local celebrity of the ravages of this sickness as well as a national stalwart advocate for new and better treatment.

McConaughey is certain to garner an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. Barely recognizable other than that subtle Texan turn in his voice, the film is 90% about McConaughey’s character Ron in his effort to take proven illegal drugs that seem to help people live while the FDA fights against his efforts at every turn. But what was an even greater revelation of acting prowess for me was how incredible Jared Leto was as the transgender prostitute who befriends Ron in their mutually shared medical condition.

Leto to me at times steals scenes when he as the character named Rayon and Ron are on screen interacting together. If McConaughey is called in late January 2014 as a nominee for his work here than it would be an injustice of the highest order if Leto doesn’t garner a nomination as well as Best Supporting actor.

Dallas Buyers Club is a solid 4 star effort film just not a great one, probably do to what looked and felt like dated material from a time where the medical and social ignorance about AIDS seemed silly and foreign to me by today’s standards. Still, Hollywood loves films like this of the anti hero type and it would not surprise me at all if this film is nominated for the coveted and rare10 Best Pictures for 2013

4 Stars      

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color - Review

Blue Is the Warmest Color – Review

Rated the always provocative NC-17 this French film effort “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the coveted 2013 Palm D” Or as Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival.  A coming of age film revolving mostly around two central characters named Adele and Emma who’s subtle chance encounter as passerby’s at a crosswalk some where in France demonstrably changes both lives in ways that neither could have imagined.

Initially we see Adele, a naturally understated beauty, who is both mature and yet a bit naïve for a pre adult teenager girl. Unlike her school friends that she frequents with, Adele is far more in touch with her plans for her professional working future than being consumed with mindlessly hanging out on street corners and school grounds smoking cigarettes and making out or talking about making out with boys. Also unlike her little cabal of teenage cohorts, she is on the cusp of an awakening of curiosity about mature things; books, culture, her life and her feelings. Specifically, an increasingly new feeling that appears to be ever present within her, almost consuming her every waking thought to a degree. Feelings that are taking shape in inexplicable ways that has her emotionally troubled in not being able to fully interpret their meaning. And while initially she is not certain as to what all this means, she is becoming more aware that maybe, just maybe she might be different sexually.

Emma, is a charismatic blue haired somewhat Tom Boyish twenty something girl, who is mature well beyond her numerical age. She is interested in art, food, wine and culture and is quite versed in talking about her passion as an artist. She  readily engages in worldly conversations with tactile depth with a warm erudite personality and seductive charm which defies her initial introduction on the screen with her deliberately tacky dyed blue hair and her subtle “I am in charge” demeanor. The fact is Emma’s exterior is only a temporary mask for the viewing audience because over time she is revealed to be a woman anyone would find interesting no matter her orientation. Emma comes forward to the screen as a highly perceptible person to the people she meets and knows, to the events and circles she travels in and the relationships she holds dear.

One day Adele and Emma meet walking pass each other, giving each a simultaneous subtly inquisitive and yearning glance. Days later they meet again in a club; a club for women where their conversation takes root and where they also find something more grounded and interesting in the other beyond any desire for a casual  “hook –up”. They begin to take their time to talk to each other; inquiring about each other thoughts, their passions and their needs. Eventually, their moments together lead them away from the simply stages of curious flirtation and more to a heart felt passion for each other and on the path to a fully committed relationship.

“Blue” the film takes flight after the two women enter into their relationship, but not as you imagine. What ensues is a cyclone of emotions and passion that to me was raw, real, honest and precise as any film I have seen about human relationships. They lived their relationship with vibrancy, earnestness and extraordinary emotional precision that at times felt over powering to me. Not in any critical way, but rather viewing their love on the screen and all of its intensity one could almost literally feel their strands of DNA become interconnect and interwoven with each other.

Ultimately, “Blue” has a trajectory that is uplifting, exhausting, heath breaking and reaffirming. As in the case with most relationships maturity is always that indiscernible variable that can make or break even the best of relationships.

“Blue” makes the case that love for anyone can hurt a soul immeasurable; whether when it is going good and especially when it goes bad. But what this film does is examine love with a toughness and veracity through the highly astonishing performances of the two French actresses Adele Exarchopolous (Adele) and Lea Seydoux (Emma). They create a genuine sincerity and truth through their relationship in the film that is always pure truth.

There is nothing cliché or conventional about “Blue” as it is an up front reality of the human heart well beyond its vital function as a biological organ. Instead it makes the case that love, true love emanates always from the heart first and not the mind and when it feels right and it is really right it can be singularly the most powerful feeling in the world.

4 Stars  

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Is Lost - Review

All Is Lost – Review

There are two quotes I like about nature and intelligence. One is from H.G Wells who once said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative” and the other is from Physicist Stephen Hawkings who simply states, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

Both quotes could be either the preamble or foreword to Robert Redford’s triumphant performance in the film “All Is Lost”. A fascinating, gripping and absolutely tension filled voyage of a solitary man’s ordeal to simply survive alone at sea.

From the onset, we are immediately enveloped and drawn into this nameless character appearance on the screen. And it is from those first few minutes we also realize that there is no premise forthcoming to provide clues as to who he is. No back story to define what expertise he may have to be at sea. No sentimental subplot of family members waiting back home, living in desperate despair longing for any news about their loves one’s well being. No information as to why he is selling alone so far away from home. No manipulative suggestion of a potential subplot where high tech capabilities will come into play to facilitate a tidy Hollywood style rescue. No this is a bare bones simple story about one man, one boat, one ocean and one voice.

For the most part the film is 90% without any dialogue, but it still overflows with Redford’s canny ability to project his thoughts through his movements, his expressions and his execution of wits and intelligence to remain composed as he finds practical and understandable ways of making lemonade out of lemons to avoid catastrophe at sea.

This films execution is flawlessly economic and yet emotionally and viscerally elegant to look at and feel. The camera, and rightly so, never leaves Redford’s face as he manages to remain focused on how to navigate around a multitude of perilous circumstances that seem to this layman's point of view unrelentingly real.

Redford performance here clearly puts him in very serious contention for an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. There is not one false move on his part to keeping the viewer revived to their seat in this oxymoronic fabulously exhausting film to watch.

This is one of the best films this year.

4 Stars

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor - Review

The Counselor – Review

The Counselor directed by one of my all time favorites Ridley Scott, at its core is an unusual morality cautionary tale that when you freely choose to engage in an activity that you know has risk that are especially high, you better be prepared to suffer imaginable consequences when things go awry. 

It’s also about the dark noir sides of greed and how humanity has evolved, or devolved if you, where human beings who operate in these shady slivers of life; devoid of any conscious, will do some of the most unspeakable things to other humans for that greed.

Starring Michael Fassbender who is only referred to by his legal title as “Counselor” is a nice and decent man with a lovely and innocent girl friend named Laura played by Penelope Cruz. Early on we see that they are a loving and nurturing couple to each other while planning their eventual white picket fence life together. But what Laura, who is a bit naïve, doesn’t not know is that her fiancé is looking to score some quick and easy cash, millions to be specific, to pay off his debts and at the same help finance his other dream of being a co-owner of a high end club for the super wealthy with his friend named “Reiner” played by Javier Bardem. “Reiner” who comes off both a bit of a flake but also street smart as well, has expensive taste and it is obviously manifested by his high maintenance no nonsense live in girl friend named “Malkina” who is a sultry sexy blonde who walks in her Manola Blahnik like she is the antichrist in heels always making her presents known where and when ever she is in the room. 

Reiner is a well connected player to some powerful people, among them is a facilitating drug cartel conduit named “Westray” played by Brad Pitt. “Westray” a cowboy city slicker hybrid is a polished, worldly and erudite personality who has done these types of deals many time before but also warns everyone he has dealt with in the past that the margin for error when dealing with these cartel types is next to zero and that he should not do the deal..
And so the stage is set and therefore you ask does things go well for “The Counselor” in his quick cash deal? Well, of course not and what ensues is a spiraling tale of what happens metaphorically when someone knowingly goes into a dark closet with bad people.

I was utterly mystified and dumfounded by the incredibly low score for this film on Rotten Tomatoes. I found “The Counselor” an exceptionally well made film but in fairness to some this not a subtle film. It has huge characters that jump off the screen in bold dimensions, attitude and execution.  Specifically this is not the type of film for the viewer who wonders out loud to friends every few months when the sequel “Dumb and Dumber 2” is coming out. This is an extremely highbrow screenplay written with certain panache, certain flair, certain confidence and certain style. At times I felt I was watching characters that all had Ivy League degrees or at a minimum had membership to the IQ society of Mensa International. And while I found this level of screenplay conversation utterly refreshing and mentally stimulating, even when it was between seedy looking characters in dark places, I must admit I was a bit amused once by a bartender in Juarez Mexican who even offered up scholarly erudite lines that made me feel I entered into college course on the differences between Socrates and Aristotle.

Still, I think “The Counselor” is one of the better made films this year. And while it does not have any redeeming characters to root for, a few graphic scenes that sent chills up my back and Cameron Diaz’s performance who was spectacular in her role as “Malkina “, who I may add  had an erotic scene with a yellow Ferrari that is permanently etched in my mind forever.

In the end this Ridley Scott effort is a movie to be enjoyed as a pleasant reminder as to why we all went to college and not become drug dealers or any other criminal activity in general. Why? Because in “The Counselor” and in real life criminals always have guns, dogs and very sharp things at their disposal, so when you choose to play in their arena you pretty damn well should at least expect to be cut.

3 – 3/4 Stars

Saturday, October 19, 2013

12 Years A Slave - Review

12 Years A Slave – Review

12 Years A Slave is an incredible mind spinning, unsettling and fabulously raw story about perseverance, strength, fortitude, courage and determined moral conviction as told through the real life story of Solomon Northrup.

Solomon portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is a young and prosperous man living free in Saratoga New York with his devoted loving wife and children as a somewhat Renaissance man of middle class success and standing. He is well read and an accomplished musician artist living the American dream as much a man of African heritage would ever be allow to live as such in the year 1841.

Early on Solomon is harmlessly introduced to two men looking to secure his services as a violinist. On that very same day he is taken to dinner by the men to be enticed even further by the potential financial windfall awaiting him for his unique services. It is at that dinner where he consumes too much alcohol that his life takes a dramatic turn as he awakens hours later chained in a dark and dirty cell. He is immediately brutally beaten and made aware that he no longer a free man but in fact a kidnapped man to be sold into southern slavery as an escaped runaway with a new name.

What transpires next is not simply Solomon’s generalize written re-witnessing of the brutal history and inhumane aspects of American slavery. Instead this is an unflinchingly and unnerving 2 plus hours of how slavery with all of its demeaning, demoralizing and instances of legalized murder, was an example of Solomon Northrup’s life and the many millions more lives like his who suffered through many years under the weight of immense evil with incredible human bravery.

Make no mistake about it, 12 Years A Slave is incredibly painful to watch; devastating to watch; brutally powerful to watch; and harrowing to watch. British Director Steve Mc Queen takes his camera lens and surgically transforms its use into more of a microscope for the audience to zoom in. We too become transformed whereby one is too emotionally moved to even blink for one single moment at both the nightmarish psychologically horrific aspects of slavery as well as it’s more noted examples of human savagery of humans inflicting unbridled pain and punishment towards other humans for no other reason than they are paid for property.   

This movie is no whimsical Gone With The Wind or comedic revenge fantasy like Django Unchained and there is no Hollywood cute make you feel good fairy tale ending here neither. No simply put this film is a remarkable unforgettable drama about unbreakable human courage and in doing so make you the audience by  watching this re-accounting to live it as well in the manner as if someone had surgically removed a single nerve from the most sensitive part of your body and held it up to candled flame. 

Believe the Oscar buzz, this movie is in the running for Oscar gold statues and it was never better illustrated by having the unusually rare 3 great scenes that for all practically purposes left me numb watching them. One is at approximately the 1 hour mark, the other at the 1 hour and half mark and the other at the 2 hour mark. In each instance the film begs you the audience to watch, don’t you dare turn away and in doing so asks you the viewer to contemplate “what would I have done?”

Produced by Brad Pitt and shot in Louisiana, this film is a lock for several nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Fassbender as the crazed plantation owner Master Edwin Epps and possibly a Best Supporting Actress nomination for newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Epps plantation slave mistress “Patsey”.

This is a must see film. 

4 - Stars

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Top Most Controversial Films

My Top Most Controversial Films

I have listed from my viewing experiences the most controversial films that I have seen.

Without any regard to ranking or personal preference I have listed those films that not only had a broad spectrum of reviews, but also made national news due to their subject content and story line.

They are:

1.       Basic Instinct – Legs crotch flash, sex and female serial murderer
2.       Last Tango in Paris – Rated X, Marlon Brando’s use of butter and libidinous appetites
3.       Midnight Cowboy – Male Prostitution  - Only film with an X rating nominated for Best Picture
4.       United 93 – Reenactment of 9/11 flight was eerie and intense
5.       The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Menacing true Story of serial killing of unsuspecting teenagers
6.       Scarface (1983)  – A film about drug dealing - murder becomes glorified as a modern day cult classic  
7.       Henry and June – First film rated NC17 dealing with libidinous adventures
8.       Reservoir Dogs – Song “Stuck In The Middle With You”, a knife and an ear results in very hard to watch.
9.       The Silence of The Lambs - A transsexual, a cannibal and a feminist all in one film
10.   Kids – A story of teenage sex and the spread of AIDS
11.   Dirty Harry – An iconic cop who appears to be fascist and  racist and yet culturally popular
12.   Cruising – A Cop  goes undercover in gay community to find serial killer with stereotypical portrayals
13.   The Exorcist – Devil possession of children.
14.   The Passion of the Christ – Jesus last days draped in blood and brutality – National  concerns of anti-Semitism
15.   The Last Temptation of Christ – A crucified Christ wonders about sex and a life with Mary Magdalene  
16.   A Clockwork Orange – The primordial instincts for rape and violence it set to Beethoven
17.   Deep Throat – If you have to ask, look it up
18.   Psycho – People were afraid to take showers after this film was released
19.   The Deer Hunter – Working class men, the Vietnam war, drugs  and Russian Roulette
20.   Rosemary’s Baby – Some believed a perversion of the Christian faith with devil worship
21.   Irreversible  - A viscous lengthy rape and murder made people walk out of theaters
22.   Hard Candy – A teenage girl gets revenge against a pedophile
23.   The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover - Depravity and decadence mixed with wealthy excesses
24.   Brokeback Mountain – Homosexual love within the backdrop of a western story
25.   Blue Velvet -  Small town gangsters and violence,  with scenes of sexual degradation
26.   Fatal Attraction – Husbands nationwide saw the potential consequences from cheating