Sunday, December 28, 2014

Boyhood - Review

 Boyhood – Review

“Boyhood”, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, is a story revolving around the Evan’s family as they go through their own life‘s journey as a typical young modern American family leap frogging through the filter of joys and pitfalls that all Mothers and Fathers - children and teenagers will discover and probably have to endure. Those being a troubled marriage, issues of sex, career changes, teenage long hair, breaking curfew, bad music, arguing, cell phones, Facebook, alcohol - drugs and peer pressured relationships. What makes this film unique beyond its conventional description into one of the most monumental, audacious and visionary efforts in film making I have seen, is that all of the core actors listed above committed themselves to making this 2:45 minute film in 2001 by showing up one week a year for 12 straight years to film this one entire movie. What are we left with is something far more than watching Ethan Hawke as the “Dad” or Ellar Coltrane as “Mason” aka “Boyhood” age and mature before our very eyes. No, this movie buries down quietly, softly and without typical Hollywood artificial or contrived fanfare into our very viewing DNA without a single moment of tragedy, death or overly shocking suspense filled surprises. Yes, absent these typical gimmicks the movie gradually and gently offers up the extraordinary reconfirmation of the importance of having a loving and supportive family in our lives.

With national new stories as out bench marks to gives us a historical time line to the film’s story itself, we start through the 12 year life cycle journey where we see initially a fresh and angelic face “Mason” as a 6 year old, his 2 years older nagging sister Samantha and his “Mom” and “Dad”. And it’s from that beginning the film moves forward without any forced moments or need to rush the story along, where we get to see very gradually a family not unlike many families; probably like our very own, scenes play out with some reflective familiarity where we get to experience episodes bathed in real like drama, real unexpected comedy, real heartwarming charm, real odd quirkiness, real unexpected sadness and real much appreciated joy. Director Linklater uses his lens very minimally and with limited invasiveness or intrusiveness as we get to be symbiotic observers of the Evan’s family with very little regard for the actors aging and growing bodies and their obvious changes in voice and maturity. We more importantly get to feel a part of them at every step; to vicariously live and experience their lives all the way to where we see as a referencing backdrop to the story at the end a slightly bearded 18 year “Mason” (same actor) with a masculine voice.

I guarantee you have never seen a film like “Boyhood”. You will find yourself feeling like a smiling fly sitting on the proverbial wall as you see and hear both the subtle and yet noticeable changes in the actors as they stay brilliantly committed to this cinematic vision and the emotional nature of the characters they are inhabiting. And while the story revolves largely around the younger son named “Mason Evans Jr” and his adolescences to adulthood tale, the film manages very well to capture all of the central character’s evolution into maturity as well.

Not a documentary or a regular film with a pleasant voice-over narration, I loved “Boyhood” for its brilliant simplicity. This movie is not about people who have some extraordinary or genuinely unique qualities about them. No, it’s just the opposite, they are totally ordinary people with their real life on display with authentic long and meaningful conversations in tow as the only real tool available for parents with small children hopefully guiding their small lives into burgeoning young adults and eventually into full blown adults.

There are probably a thousand things that could have gone wrong over the 12 years in the making of this film, ranging from the actors simply dying at some point, the kids’ lives turning in some dramatic way that prevented them from acting in this role at some point, to the film simply not being finished at all. But it did get made and it was an abundant delight to have experienced it.

This film flourishes with raw simplicity from beginning to end and for that it may not meet everyone’s need for a “cup of pyro technic action filled tea”, but it will be in my top ten films for 2014 and will certainly be talked about seriously as an Academy Award Best Picture nominee, as a Best Director nominee and Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette and richly deserving for all should that happen.

Today this film is in limited release but goes nationwide in a theater near you July 25, 2014. If you are open to seeing something truly original, “Boyhood” is the best at that this year.

4 Stars Plus

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Selma - Review

Selma – Review

Director by Ava DuVernays, “Selma” tells the story of the American Civil rights movement at its pinnacle. Specifically, it focuses on the tumultuous three-month period in 1965 when the Reverend Martin Luther King’s led a non-violent campaign to secure voting rights in Selma, Alabama against a tide of systematic violent opposition, bombings, sanctioned murder and the infamous “Bloody Sunday” confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. These events went on to eventually help be the catalyst of a much greater protest march to the state capitol of Montgomery, Alabama where it singularly help contributed to President Lyndon Johnson political ability to push through Congress, pass and eventually sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the most significant piece of legislation and moral victory for the civil rights movement.

Starring actor David Oyelowo (recently in “The Butler” and “Interstellar”)  as Martin King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King we see early in the film the countless people and volunteers who essentially sacrificed everything to prompt change that would forever alter American history in regards to equality and voting. What is the great real revelation in this film are their intimate stories that transcend the grainy archival black and white video footage we normally associate with that time. Director Ava DuVernays in two hours manages to take this dramatic period in recent American history and turn it into a respectfully honest, agonizingly sober, horrifically inspiring and extraordinarily memorable film. One that takes us not on a journey to make saints out of those who led and fought for equality and justice in this country nor does it overly dramatize, embellishes or alter any facts simply to enhance greater hatred for those who were centrally bigoted and racist to the cause. No, “Selma” is an honest and accurate accounting of real events that seem to capture real contemporary freshness to its story with full vitality and a masterful mix of genuine historical authenticity and vivid photographic richness. Ultimately, “Selma” is one of the most emotionally honest films I have ever seen.

In too many scenes for me to ever count “Selma” gives up a humane and tender look into the private intimate lives of all those involved with great meticulous care.  We see through the Director’s cinematic vision the most inner grounded and bare bone thoughts of King and others as they struggle mightily to lead people with nothing more than their profound words and physical out ward courage. It also shows them in their most solitary moments filled with self-doubt, fear, humor, humility, shame, anguish and politically savviness all with the grand culminating hope that in the end what they were doing was morally right.  
I have to admit, there are a couple scenes that are simply beyond moving. One involving King making a late night call to someone for encouragement, another with King and Coretta alone in their kitchen dealing with a crisis, another with King and his longtime friend Ralph Abernathy in a Selma jail cell and many scenes involving discussions with King and President Johnson in the Oval Office.

Take it to the bank, “Selma” will be nominated for Best Picture and Director Ava DuVernays will be nominated for Best Director; her film here should be shown in class rooms as required viewing. Also British Actor David Oyelowo is certain to get a nomination for Best Actor; he in particular was nothing short of spectacular and memorable here. Also remember the name Paul Webb as a possible nominee for Best Original Screenplay, his writing in this film is some of the best work I have heard in recent memory. Finally the entire cast of supporting characters give equally stellar efforts to this magnificent film

I could go on, but I will sum “Selma" up in this way. In my estimation, it is one of the most sophisticated, eloquent and best American films I have seen this year. It is beyond reproach, it has no political agenda, is beyond any recrimination and has no intentions to redesign or exalt Dr. King into some deity status as doing something selfishly great for America. Instead “Selma” in fact is about how many men and women chose to act in the way Edmund Burke reminded us so eloquently to respond, that being “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Selma is about the many who chose to collectively doing something great for America.

This is an absolutely must see film. You will be glad you did.

4 Stars Plus

Friday, December 26, 2014

Unbroken - Review

Unbroken – Review

In 2010 Laura Hillenbrand's authored a bestselling book that detailed the personal accounts of Italian-American Louis Zamperini. The book entitled "Unbroken" ultimately introduced millions to Zamperini and his life whole story ranging from his adolescent knack of getting into perpetual trouble, to him becoming a high school track star, his competing in the 5,000 meter race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, his time as bombardier Officer in the United States Army Air Force and his eventual life experiences back in the United States after Word War 2.

The book and now a movie entitled the same "Unbroken" is largely the story about his early life lessons learned as they played a central role in shaping - forging his iron will determination “if I can take it then I can make it”, survival instincts as a captive in a sadistic Japanese prisoner of war camp in the South Pacific.

Directed by actress Angelina Jolie “Unbroken” spends the bulk of its 2 hour running time focusing on Zamperini as an officer. With an opening scene where we see him on a bombing run that will sit you on your heals, “Unbroken” makes a first strong impression out of the gate reminding the viewer again that truly “war is hell”. We also see during this harrowing bombing run how “Louis,” the eternal optimistic center of strength to the other men on the plane came about such fortitude through a series of dart like flashbacks scenes involving his early childhood relationships and personal events. They are clearly the cornerstones of his adult character that helped him not only to handle extraordinary stressful moments but to literally will himself and body to survive.

Jolie, who’s directing style seemed eerily similar to Clint Eastwood, who directed her in the wonderful film “Changeling”, allows the camera and story to patiently move at an even pace giving us the time of getting to know the intimate particulars that shaped the young scrappy Louis as he grew from Torrance California town nuisance to years later a World War 2 hero.

Early on after we see Louie’s plane crash lands into the Pacific where he and his wounded pilot survive bad weather, with hardly any food or water, exposure to countless sharks and attacks of Japanese dive-bombers from above for 47 days in two joined rubber life rafts, the movie then proceeds to spend a great deal of time covering Louie’s capture and harsh confrontation with camp sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Known as “the Bird,” Watanabe was an unremitting sadist who recognizes Zamperini’s celebrity and made it his mission to break him.

What I like about “Unbroken” is it cinematically beautiful to look, along with the actor’s commitment physically to detail the effects of starvation. My problem with it is it’s too beautiful to watch, with misplace musical scores, along with a sense of being too theatrically aware of creating nerve racking, hard to imagine scenes at the prison camp.

We see time and time again Louis the target of countless pounding with sticks, punches, filth and torture to the point that was all there was to the story; no context except singled out for hatred. And while it important not to gloss over his sacrifice and clearly we are in awe of his sheer will to be something truly inspiring, it still lacked a bit of real DNA hard hitting emotional drama that felt palatable between the respective characters in the film. It measures up as top shelf to the many specific visual dramatic moments as detailed in the book but I felt that the credit should have gone more to the films wardrobe and make up departments respectfully with their reimagined of these many anguishing traumatic moments rather than from anything Director Jolie executed in the way of foreboding on the big screen.

In addition, once captured, Jolie Louis’s war story and the film itself turned into almost a prisoner war mute’s tale. Louis and other captures in the film have very little to say with the exception of showing the raw anger that burned in his - their eyes and the brutality of the beatings on his – their faces and bodies. It’s almost like someone forgot to include more dialogue beyond the dominating ramblings of the camp commander who came over time to be largely nothing more than the symbolic embodiment of the evils of war than anything else.

Finally, what was a bit of real disappointment was the movie’s story coming to an abrupt end at the point of surrender by Japan in 1945. According to the book, Louis’s life story went on well beyond the surrender, resulting in as much equally compelling stories of his life story left untold. While this aspect of his life would have clearly added another hour to the film, it would have been worth to it to delve into other critical stages of Louis’s post war life when he returned to the states; exploring Louie’s spiritual religious conversion, his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and all of the other messy complex business of trying to be normal after experience all that he had.

Still, for sheer solid well-made entertainment I found the value of “Unbroken” to be unflinching in telling a story of an amazing man and an amazing solider. 

3 – 1/2 Stars

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Imitation Game - Review

The Imitation Game – Review

Webster’s dictionary defines the word “conventional” as “being concerned with what is generally held as something basically acceptable at the expense of individuality and sincerity – a piece of work of art or literature that follows safe traditional forms and genres”. While the film “The Imitation Game” does have a general feel of conventionality to its story telling as Directed by Morten Tyldum, it is still nonetheless a remarkably respectful, honest and well executed film of the true story of a man named Alan Turing. A shy and awkwardly odd British Mathematics Professor who at the ripe young age of 26 in 1939 was thrust into the chronicles of history as one of the centrally key and yet largely unknown historic heroic figures of World War 2, who by all current historian assessment consider his top secret contributions then as hastening the Allies World War 2 victory by two full years including probably saving an estimated 14 million lives as well.

The films also simultaneously delves into rather effectively how this benignly inconspicuous yet incredibly intelligent man who by sheer random circumstances was charged with saving the world by cracking the German’s infamous secret messaging “Enigma Machine” was also living a life in utter personal torment with raw palatable anxiety of living a duplicitous existence as a closeted homosexual. A life defined legally then as a “crime of gross indecency” that if revealed at any point would have surely led him to professional ruin for life and more critically would have had him probably prosecuted and punish for his “crimes” with a lengthy prison sentence. In retrospect and more significantly, with only Turing at that time having the single unorthodox idea of “decoding an insolvable machine with another machine” and with all of civilized humanity standing literally on the precipice of falling under the ruthless oppressive hand of Fascism, had in fact Turing’s personal life been revealed it would have certainly created an intellectual void of never solving the secrets to the German electro-mechanical rotor cipher machine.  A void which would have led to a whole series of military events having entirely different outcomes where the inevitable conclusion would have been with Germany not just winning the war but the world as well.

With the movie largely about math, machines, ideas and probabilities from beginning to its end “The Imitation Game” is likeably, uncomplicated and effortless to watch as it delivers both its story with its main character Turing and its star Actor Benedict Cumberbatch with general ease. The film without any real dynamic action manages to be very stirring about the historical events of that time and the lives that were intertwined. It also manages to move us through to what were the first thoughts on computers; the concepts, science and humanity as they all work together to assist modern thinking for modern problem solving. But the real engrossing strength of the film are the relationships, especially as they shine through the Oscar worthy nomination prism of Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal of Turing. He is undeniably strong and commanding as both the strong and fragile Turing; his standout performance here is starting to suggest that he is an actor who will be giving consistently great performances not based on the material but out of habit of simply being a talented actor. Also noteworthy is Keira Knightley as Touring’s friend, muse and confident Joan Clarke, she undoubtedly with get an Oscar nomination as well as should the film itself.

To my surprise “The Imitation Game” had a lot more to its story than simply watching people arguing or sitting around with pencil and paper scratching out an array of formulas with squiggly lines or a chalk board with long indiscernible equations on them. Instead I found the film is filled with intrigue, mystery and rather interesting circumstances that I think we should all be thankful that there were some really wise forward thinking people sitting in that room at the time who had the prudence to think long term as oppose to acting impulsively when the crescendo moment of success comes with Turing's implied statement “we now can listen to Himmler talk to Hitler”.

Ultimately the film at its core is about the world’s triumph against evil, but equally important it is a film about the joyous pendulum swing of human triumph and the equally damning pendulum swing in personal tragedy that occurred for then an unlikeable gay genius.

Until now, one of my most famous unsung heroes of World War 2 was Enrico Fermi an Italian physicist who was secretively brought into the United States at the urgent request by Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt after Fermi had repeatedly warned again and again to a disinterested world that the Germans were vigilantly working very hard on designing a nuclear device. Fermi was brought to New York in 1939 to work and complete his work on Chicago Pile 1 – the first known working nuclear reactor under the Manhattan Project.

Now I add one more to that list in the name of Alan Turing in the form of the film ‘The Imitation Game”. A film that honors his legacy with the reward of genuine praise, genuine respect and genuine human decency that unlike another less tolerant historical time did not afford him so similarly, especially in regards to his very own private personal life just because he was born different.

“The Imitation Game” is an excellent smart film about extraordinary trying events and an exemplary and decent man who may have singularly saved all of humanity.

4 Stars 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Top Five - Review

Top Five - Review

In the film “Top Five” which takes place in one 24 hour cycle in New York City, we find comedian Chris Rock  (the writer - director) stepping away from his stand up microphone to deliver to the big screen a very smart, well written, satirically  clever and semi-autobiographical movie on subjects ranging from rap music, promiscuous sex, family dynamics, romantic relationships and the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse and their collective impact through the ups and downs of sudden unexpected fame in the modern entertainment industry.

Director Rock manages not only to make his “Andrea Allen” into someone both interesting to watch and to listen to, he also manages to shares his directing talents on well-rounded, fully realized supporting characters, especially in the form of his co-star Rosario Dawson’s    “Chelsea Brown”; a newspaper reporter assigned to interview his Allen for a COB deadline. Rosario’s “Brown” comes across as both an intellectual and emotional equal to Rocks “Andre” without ever stooping to be some conventional cliché’ vulnerable appendage love interest. She is equally smart, sometimes flawed, sometimes witty, sometimes vulnerable, but above all femininely strong without ever having to lower her standards and personal convictions when they are on the screen together.  

Not intentionally a comedic film but rather a film bathed in heavy social satire that is at its core funny, ‘Top Five” works well the full running time, though it does have a few clumsy moments of raw highly sexualized humor and profanity laced gags that at times seemed to be misplaced and a tad raunchy. But those moments are very, very brief and few apart as Rock manages to overall stay basically on course to his film’s fundamental vision about celebrity culture with insightful observations, authentic moments of genuine humanity, vibrant charm, credible laughter and heartfelt humor.

I like “Top Five” for its construction, its originality and that it made me laugh and smile. But above all it also made me reflect.

3 - 1/2 Stars

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Potential Top Films For 2015

Potential Top Films For 2015

1.       A Hologram for the King – TBD – T. Hanks – Man Sells Idea to Saudi Prince
2.       A Walk in the Woods – TBD – E. Thompson – 2 Brits Walk Appalachian Trail
3.       Ant-Man - July – Unknown Actor - Super Hero with Super Suit
4.       Black Mass - Sept – Drama on Infamous Boston Mobster Whitey Bulger
5.       Blackhat – Jan – Techno – Chris Hemsworth – Cyber Espionage Drama
6.       Bleed for This – TBD – Katy Segal - True Story of Boxer Vinny Pazienza
7.       Blood Father – TBD – Mel Gibson -  Ex-Con Reunites With 16 Yr. Old Daughter
8.       By the Sea – TBD - Angelina Jolie - Brad Pitt – Romance in France 1970s
9.       By Way of Helena – TBD – C. Hemsworth - W. Harrelson - Murder Mystery in TX
10.   Cell – TBD – S.L. Jackson – Apocalypse Cause Man to Rush To New England
11.   Chappie  - March – Science Fiction from the same people of District 9
12.   Cinderella - March – Live Action of the Classic
13.   Crimson Peak – TBD – C. Hunnam - Jessica Chastain – Husband With Secret
14.   Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend – TBD – M. Yeoh – Sequel
15.   Demolition –TBD – J. Gyllenhaal – Naomi Watts - Wealthy Banker Loses His Wife
16.   Entourage - June – Film Adaptation of HBO Show Program
17.   Everest  - TBD – Jake Gyllenhaal – Drama Disaster At Top Of Mountain
18.   Far From the Maddening Crowd – TBD - Carey mulligan – 3 Way Romantic Tale
19.   Fifty Shades of Grey – Feb – Sultry Romance – Based On Popular Book
20.   Genius -  TBD – Nicole Kidman- Colin Firth – J. Law - Story on UK Literature Author
21.   Get Hard – TBD -  Will Ferrell - Kevin Hart – Comedy - Millionaire Goes To Prison
22.   Girls Night Out – TBD – E. Watson - Princess Margaret Sneaks Out 1945 V.E Day
23.   Hands of Stone – TBD – R. DeNiro – Trainer for Boxing Legend Roberto Duran
24.   Hitman: Agent 47 – TBD  -  Rupert Friend -  Z. Quinto - Assassin Teams Up
25.   I Saw The Light – TBD - Tom Hiddleston – Singer Hank Williams Story
26.   Icon – TBD – Ben Foster - Irish Reporter Suspicious of Lance Armstrong’s Success  
27.   In the Heart of the Sea - March – Remake of Moby Dick – Dir. Ron Howard
28.   Inside Out  - June - Pixar Animation on Human Emotions
29.   James Bond: Spectre - Nov – 007 Noted Sequel
30.   Jane Got a Gun - Feb – Drama – Natalie Portman
31.   Joy  - Dec– Jen Lawrence -Brad Cooper – Poor Woman Becomes Entrepreneur
32.   Jupiter Ascending – Feb - Future Science Fiction – Channing Tatum – Mila Kunis
33.   Jurassic World - June – Dinosaurs  - Noted Sequel
34.   Kidnapping Freddy Heineken –TBD - A. Hopkins – Largest Ransom Ever Paid
35.   Kingsman: The Secret Service – Feb – Colin Firth – Spy Thriller
36.   Knight of Cups – TBD – C. Bale – Nat Portman – Temptations, celebrity & excess.
37.   La La Land – TBD – Emma Watson – Miles Teller – Jazz Music & Romance in LA.
38.   Last Days In the Desert – TBD – E. McGregor  - Jesus 40 Days No Food – Water
39.   Legend TBD – Tom Hardy – Legendary UK Kray Crime Family  1950s
40.   Life – TBD – Robert Pattinson – Man is Assigned to Photo Shoot James Dean
41.   Macbeth  - TBA – Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard - Shakespeare  
42.   Mad Max: Fury Road - May – Sci- Fi Remake - Tom Hardy - Charlize Theron 
43.   Maggie – TBD - Arnold Schwarzenegger – Midwest America Zombie Attack
44.   Magic Mike XXL  - TBD – Mat. McConaughey – Channing Tatum - Noted Sequel
45.   Man Down – TBD -  S. LaBeouf & Kate Mara - War Vet Survives in Wasteland USA
46.   Masterminds – TBD – K. Wiig – O. Wilson - Comedy – Night Guard Stages Robbery
47.   Mission: Impossible V - Dec – Tom Cruise – Intern. Spy Thriller Noted Sequel
48.   Momentum – TBD – M. Freeman - Crime Caper in South Africa
49.   Money Monster -  TBD  – George Clooney – Julia Roberts – Modern Media Thriller
50.   Mortdecai - TBD - Comedy  - J. Depp – Comedy - Art Dealer Engages in Espionage
51.   Nailed – TBD – J. Gyllenhaal – Comedy Woman Gets Nail in Head in Small Town
52.   Paper Towns –TBD – Unknowns Actors - Teenager Looks For Her Missing Friend
53.   Peanuts – Nov – Animation of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Friends
54.   Queen of the Desert –TBD – James Franco - A Chronicle of British Gertrude Bell
55.   Silence  - Nov –Director  Martin Scorsese – Two 17th Century Priests in Japan
56.   Sisters –TBD – T. Fey - A. Poehler – Sisters Have House Party Before It’s Sold
57.   Spare Parts – TBD – M. Tomei - Hispanic HS Students Compete in Science Contest
58.   Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Dec – Galaxy Far, Far Away Noted Sequel
59.   Straight Outta Compton - TBD – Paul Giamatti – The Story of Rap Group NWA
60.   Suffragette – TBD- H.B. Carter – M. Streep – Underground Feminist Movement
61.   Taken 3 – TBD – Liam Neeson - Action Thriller Sequel
62.   Ted 2 - June– Comedy – M. Wahlberg – Comedy - Talking Bear Noted Sequel
63.   Terrence Malick Project – TBD- C. Bale - Nat Portman – Music & Love In Texas
64.   The Avengers: Age of Ultron - May – Noted Marvel Super Hero Sequel
65.    The Godmother – TBD - C.Z. Jones – Story of Notorious Woman Drug Lord
66.   The Hateful Eight - Dec – Western from Quentin Tarantino
67.   The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 - Nov – Jennifer Lawrence – War for Food
68.   The Light Between Oceans – TBD –  M. Fassbender – Lighthouse Keeper Finds Baby
69.   The Little Prince -TBD - Sci Fi – J. Franco Pilot Crashes in Desert Finds Alien Being
70.   The Man From U.N.C.L.E – Aug – 1960’s Spy thriller – Dir. Guy Richie
71.   The Martian – Nov – Matt Damon – Man Crashes On Mars - Ridley Scott
72.   The Revenant  - Dec – True - Tom Hardy – Leo DiCaprio - Western Revenge
73.   The Walk – Oct – Joseph Gordon Levitt – 1972 Man Walks Across Twin Towers
74.   Tomorrowland  - May –  Sci- Fi - George Clooney - Sharing Destinies
75.   Z for Zachariah – TBD – C. Pine -  C. Ejiofor – 1 Woman 2 Men Survive Disaster

Wild - Review

Wild – Review

Reese Witherspoon gives another Oscar contending performance in the film entitled ‘Wild” that in my opinion is on par with her own winning Best Actress effort as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”.  Here we see Witherspoon provide an up close and intimate true story turn of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book and its big screen redevelopment of Strayed’s story which offers up all of the emotional backstory details as to what led her to making a rash decision to go on an isolated personal journey of redemption and healing.

At the onset of the film we already see the lead character Cheryl coming into view on top of a slightly rocky tree line vista somewhere on the Pacific Coast Trail.  From the grimacing on her face it’s clear she is frustrated by the impact of the amount of pain she has had to endure from the many broken nails, blisters, many bruises, abrasions and cuts she has acquired on this journey. What essentially happens next are a series of flashbacks that fill in the many blanks as to what compels a totally unexperienced twenty something woman to take the solitary daunting challenge of hiking the thousands of miles on the Pacific Coast Trail all alone. In retrospect and more to the point, a woman’s whose recent life history up to that point a compilation of reckless and destructive behaviors ranging from a heavy heroin addiction to many other self-inflicted personal wounds manifested with frequent promiscuous sex with total strangers all the while married to a seemingly decent, loving and loyal husband.

Essentially, these more obvious negative revelations about Cheryl’s life are the easier outward and more visible symptomatic explanations as to why she may be on this impulsive journey. What in fact we do find out later as we peel back the many other layers to her story are the more specific defining events that largely revolve around her life long relationship with her mother played by actress Laura Dern.

Without giving anything away “Wild” is a story of a character who is essentially alone with her inner thoughts, fears and feelings. It is also a cast of supporting characters she connects with along the way who provide us the rounding out of her story as to what compelled her consistently onward without ever quitting, as well as what forged that determined will against odds that were at times funny, maddening and recklessly dangerous. In the end we see a wonderful mix of people, places and things that contributed to a personal effort that both defines her as well as thoroughly heals her.

Witherspoon’s stellar performance is largely always on her face as she at times looked cute and attractive to the specific scenes as the moment required and other times looked equally wrinkled, filthy and haggard in the more stressful and trying scenes as the moments demanded.  Also, Witherspoon manages to make sure the viewing audience knows this is not some personal effort story to bond with nature or to feeling better with a greater sense of inner beauty through simply looking at a beautiful view and camping next to a river, though I must admit the cinematography of the film is great. No, this is not a story of going cold turkey off of drugs through nature. This is in fact a story of a woman whose life is off its track completely and in all ways imaginable. Or as Cheryl states in a scene in the film “too often women have to get out of the drivers seats of their own lives for husbands, babies and family”. This story of Cheryl Strayed is about her getting back behind the wheel both literally and metaphorically on that northward direction track of the Pacific Coast Trail with the desire to righting herself and the whole self behind the wheel of life again.  To bring coherency to what are the right and wrong things of her life again.

This is far from being a great film when compared to other Oscar nominated or other winning films I have seen in the past. But what I could not stop thinking about was how incredibly satisfying this film was to watch every single moment. Maybe I felt that way because I am and have always been a fan of Reese Witherspoon since seeing her in her first performance from 1991’s “Man in the Moon” as a 14year old and knowing then that she would be a star. Or maybe I found Cheryl Strayed to be that rarely attractive woman who was exciting to watch in spite of the fact she is not perfect or by being needless wrapped by some Director with some tidy pink emotional bow to make her more cinematic sweet and appealing. Or maybe because there are so few good women acting roles in films these days that truly allow women simply to be who they are, warts and all, in that well rounded way. In a less imaginative director’s hands Cheryl’ s story would have been needlessly diminished by trying to fashion her up by having her derive her own well-being through the prism or infusion of some relationship with a man who essentially would become the story’s Pacific Coast Trail sexual surrogate substitute.

No, ultimately what I think is the reason I like this moderate even toned film so, so much is that Cheryl Strayed did something daring. Daring in a way most people would never do much less ever contemplate to do, that in the end allowed her to reach both a physical and emotional destination. A destination totally unencumbered from grief, totally liberated and at peace, so emotionally righted, so seemingly unshackled by life’s venal appetites, obsessions and possessions that at the end of a raining day in the state of Washington she made herself become completely free and for that I am truly envious.

One final note to the folks in Washington, they better ready themselves for the deluge and inundation of people going solo on that trail again. Somehow this film “Wild” made every single cut, bruises, horrible hygiene, wild animals, cold and bad weather and meeting threatening strangers with guns alone in the woods look fun, glamorous and sexy.

3 - 3/4 Stars

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Foxcatcher - Review

Foxcatcher – Review

Academy Award nominee Director Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) delivers to the big screen his latest effort entitled “Foxcatcher”; a true psychological drama starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Sienna Miller. The film tells the story of two 1984 Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestling brothers Mark Schultz (Tatum) and Dave Schultz and their happenchance encounter with multimillionaire philanthropist John Eleuthère du Pont.

In 1987 younger brother Mark Schultz was a down on his luck Gold Medal American hero wrestler who largely spent his days immersed in the boring repetitive practice of wrestling with his older brother and living a very sparse existence in a drab upstairs apartment eating ramen noodles. And while other gold medal winning Olympian athletes who medaled in other events had many more avenues to continue to practice, to regularly compete and to even earn a decent financial living between four year Olympic spans, amateur wrestlers had very few financial avenues to pursue after winning gold other than practice for the next four years with the hope of capturing more national fame again as a winning Olympian. The only other alternative would be to hopefully catch on with some college team as a coach which was the avenue Mark’s older brother Dave Schultz was in the process of securing. He was now happily married with two small kids and really saw no future in going back to the Olympics for himself other than to help his brother get there by working with him to make the USA team again.

Mark feeling frustrated at his poverty stricken existence receives a call out of the blue from a representative of John Du Pont inviting him to come to his palatial estate at Valley Forge PA. There Mark and John have a cordial and friendly meeting about John’s desire to make America strong through wrestling and that he would provide the resources and facilities to house, feed and train this country’s best wrestlers with Mark being in charge of the recruiting, training and working toward his own Olympic gold and with John being its coach and team leader. With what looks like the opportunity of a life time Mark eagerly agrees to the arrangement with the belief that this would give him the chance to gain the respect and redemption of his brother Dave and equally so for John as well from his domineering disapproving mother. But with their seemingly friendly agreement hand shake what in fact does transpires over the course of this two hour film is an expose of the influences of wealth and how it can corrupt good people into situations of emotional fragility, drugs, Freudian fatherhood relationships, mental illness and disillusionment of national grandeur that eventually spirals downward to destructive tragic consequences that no one could have ever possible fathom.  

Structurally, the film itself Foxcatcher is immersed in an eerie disturbing sense of quiet and atmosphere stillness. The conversations between the principles seem both naturally real and direct, with the occasionally appropriately funny moments in tow that all the while proceeds to go from scene to scene with an undercarriage of real chilly darkness and foreboding to occur. It also takes us the viewing audience on a fascinatingly, disturbing and pleasantly weird tale examination of the class system in this country. It both uniquely and unfortunately offers up masterfully the question of how is it that some people who work hard seemingly never achieve the full success they probably deserve and those who are simply born into prosperity seemingly can’t get out of their own way of perpetual implosion and self-destruction. Foxcatcher overall is a real life trip into the emotional abyss when money makes people naively cloud reasonable judgment.

Foxcatcher is one hundred percent to garner a whole range of Oscar nominations across the board, starting with Steve Carell, who immediately disappears into his John du Pont persona that it is totally convincing; he is certain to earn a Best Actor Nomination. Also equal to the film’s success is Mark Ruffalo as the loving protective older brother Dave who is certain to get a Supporting Actor Nomination performance as well. Finally Channing Tatum is quite convincing as the willful and earnest younger brother Mark as he contributes to the story intense and suspenseful film build up to insanity and madness.

In the end Foxcatcher is a real story about ambition, paranoia, greed, ruthless behaviors and ruthless pursuits and as I heard someone else say about this film, “Foxcatcher” is both one of the best movies I have seen this year and the best feel bad movie of the year.

4 Stars

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Theory of Everything - Review

The Theory of Everything – Review

Starring Eddie Redmayne ("Les Misérables") and Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2"), “The Theory of Everything” tells the story of one of the world's greatest living minds astrophysicist Stephen Hawking through a three layered prism of his intellect and ground breaking work, his marriage and personal life and the devastating illness that he was stricken with an early age in the form of ALS or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Based on the memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the films begins in 1963 where we see a young and vibrant Hawking who is driven by the desires for a PH.D at Cambridge and his equally smitten desires for the attention of a beautiful fellow student named Jane Wilde that he met at a reception. But just as it appears young Hawking is to have both a bright and promising future academically as well as personally with his new love Jane he is found one midday unconscious after collapsing face down on the university grounds. It is soon after his doctors’ examination at the age of 21 that he‘s given the horrific diagnosis of his ALS illness with only two years left to live.

Running two hours, we see initially the Hawking marriage as both a parallel downward spiral due to his eroding health as well as an uplifting triumph of the human will through Jane’s determined stalwart support as the emotional driving force to making sure Stephen continues his academic work. She crams as much into Stephen’s remaining two years in the form of having a family as well encouraging him to continuing his life-long professional goal of finding the ultimate mathematical equation that explains where all life comes from and why our universe exist. The film also delves rather directly into the early complexities of his eroding battle with ALS that eventually robbed him of all of his motor skills and its impact on his wife, family and working colleagues. It also showcases ironically his eventual evolution and growth professionally as the world’s most renowned astrophysicist scientist of our time.

What I like first and foremost about “The Theory of Everything” are the performances. Redmayne is assured of getting a nomination for Best Actor as he makes you forget from the onset of the film you are actually watching an actor as he puts himself slowly through the physical contortions that we know the real Hawking is most known for sitting in his wheel chair. And while not letting the contortions becoming a visual distraction or some gimmick, he somehow manages to brilliantly keep the viewer focus on this unique man who has extraordinary layers of humanity in the form of a sharp wit, emotional passion and cutting edge intellect with the use of a sly smile, a discernable frown and impactful tears.  Redmayne also does an incredible job in letting you know what he was feeling, what pain he was experiencing and what he was sometimes thinking without ever saying a perceptible or audible word. His performance overall manages to pull off all of these confluences of acting demands while equally portraying a man literally and physically trapped in a body that you see is slowly from scene to scene, more than the last, betraying him to the eventually point of not functioning for him at all.

Felicity Jones is also up to the task and has a good chance for an Oscar nomination as well as she brings a compatible excellent performance to this film as Hawking’s then-wife Jane as she willfully navigates the direction of their marriage. Jones captures exceptionally well the more moving, tender and distressing periods of their 25 year relationship.

While the beginning of the film started out as something a tad hollow and light hearted, it quickly and eventually grew into something much more poignant in the form of genuine inspiration and admiration for this incredibly smart and courageous man. Besides having an extremely bright mind Stephen Hawking is revealed as a man who is deeply and sincerely honest; fully capable of real intimacy and kindness, especially towards those who were supportive and encouraging to him in his life.

In the end “The Theory of Everything” is not the best film I have seen this year but manages nonetheless to work well as promised allowing the viewer to be witness not to a dormant silent Stephen Hawking in a paralyzed body. Instead the film is a pleasant witnessing and visit into a vital inspirational Stephen Hawking who miraculously is now 75 years old. 

Hawking who lost his physical life almost a half a century ago without the ability to speak on his own or display any noticeable ability to move or convey feelings is no victim to be pitied or consoled here. He in fact is a man who is heroic, smart, brave and full of life as big as the universe itself.

3 – 3/4 Stars