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