Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Movie Day: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

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Oh, how I wanted to love this. I mean DiCaprio, Scorsese, a dark comedy of excesses in the vein of “Good Fellas.” What’s not to love, right? I wasn’t even worried about the three-hour running time and the Q&A to follow the screening with Jonah Hill.

But then I saw the movie and I staggered out of the theater feeling beat up. Not that there aren’t some genuinely funny moments, but just because you’re telling a story about excess doesn’t mean every scene has to be excessively long and repetitive.

To back up, “Wolf” is based on the book of the same name by one-time New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio). He wants to make a lot of money. Badly. So badly he’s willing to do anything to get there, including conning unsuspecting plumbers and teachers and middle class folks out of their savings to buy his penny stocks. His life is one big party, filled with orgies, drugs and a complete lack of remorse. I guess it’s that lack of remorse and total balls-to-the-wall candor that we’re supposed to find funny, but I was ultimately numbed by it all.

I kept thinking, OK, we get it. You don’t need to show us one more scene of Leo climbing on top of a blonde with big tits or Leo yelling at the disciples at his company or Leo snorting coke and popping quaaludes. Maybe if somebody had forced Scorsese to edit the movie it wouldn’t feel so bloated, but I did look at my watch numerous times and wonder when Belfort woul finally get handcuffed and thrown in jail, which he ultimately does.

Oh well. Jonah Hill, who plays his devoted second in command, was a delightful guest at the screening. He told us what a thrill it was for him to be cast in the movie and how intimidated he was at first to be in the company of DiCaprio and Scorsese. He was self-effacing yet charming. I only wish the movie had more of those qualities.

 

Movie Night: “Twenty Feet From Stardom”

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

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What a great documentary! I loved it. I’d been wanting to see it forever but missed its short run in our local theater. I had to wait until it was available via VOD, and it was worth the wait.

So many talented backup singers populate this movie, but in a way we never get to see them. The doc doesn’t just give us clips of famous rock and roll stars extolling the virtues of their backups (Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crowe), but focuses on the lives and careers of the backups themselves. Many of them (Merry Clayton and Darlene Love in particular) are very clear about how badly they wanted to be stars in their own right and not linger in the shadows of their more famous counterparts. Others, like the members of the Waters family, have not only done backup work over the years but are happy voicing movie sounds and characters. What’s clear is that they’re all extremely gifted and deserve their due, and thanks to this film they get it. An added plus? We get to listen to some really great music for a couple of hours.

I couldn’t recommend the movie more enthusiastically.

 

Movie Day: “Saving Mr. Banks”

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

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Today’s Cinema Society screening was one of the few this season I wasn’t looking forward to. Judging by the trailer to the film and the subject matter (I’ve never been a “Mary Poppins” fan), I figured it would be hokey, corny, saccharine, just not my thing.

Surprise. I liked it. It charmed me in spite of my initial cynicism, in part because of the performance of the great Emma Thompson, who stars as P.L. Travers, the Poppins author who famously resisted Walt Disney’s entreaties to make a movie – a musical, no less – of her beloved character. Tom Hanks is a wonderful Disney – a crafty businessman who loves to make everybody happy. He promised his daughters he would bring their favorite nanny to the big screen and spent 20 years trying to get Travers to let him option the rights. But when he brings her to L.A. for two weeks hoping to court her and convince her to go along with the deal, he discovers just how difficult she is. And during her stay, we come to understand why she’s so angry through flashbacks to her childhood in Australia with her dreamer, alcoholic father (a very good Colin Farrell).

The film’s director, John Lee Hancock,  who directed Sandra Bullock to Oscar gold in “The Blind Side,” knows how to showcase strong, difficult women with a soft center, and he does it again here. Yes, it’s schmaltzy and yes, the script takes liberties with the real story of Travers and Disney, but it all works somehow and turns out to be holiday fare for the whole family.

 

Movie Night: “Stories We Tell”

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

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I’ve been running to see all the big films vying for Oscar love (“Saving Mr. Banks” is screening this Saturday), but I’ve neglected some of the documentaries that are appearing on critics’ “Best” lists. I remedied that last night when I saw Academy Award-nominated director Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” a festival favorite and a truly wonderful doc in which Polley enlists her brothers and sisters, father and friends, to share their memories of her mother. In the course of her journey, she uncovers hidden truths about her family that allow you to feel as if everything is revealed in the moment and that their secrets are your secrets. Polley, a talent from Canada, directed the beautiful Julie Christie film about Alzheimer’s, “Away from Her,” as well as the film adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel “The Sweet Hereafter,” and she has a gift for storytelling. She shot the story of her family not for exploitation but as a way to observe how memory is in the eye of the beholder – i.e. truth is a very personal and relative thing.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the specifics for fear of giving away the secrets, but it’s not a spoiler to say that Polley herself is much more than a detached observer, although she is an astute one. I highly recommend her film, which is now available for download on Amazon and iTunes.

 

 

Movie Day: “Lone Survivor”

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

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OMG, what a movie. The screening was over two hours ago and I haven’t recovered yet. “Lone Survivor” is about war – bloody, no-nonsense combat – and by the end I felt as if I’d been in those battle scenes with the soldiers. I’m thoroughly spent and emotional overwhelmed. It’s that good, though not for the squeamish.

Based on the bestselling first-person memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, it’s told by writer-director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) in almost documentary style. We follow Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three of his fellow SEALS on a covert mission to capture/kill a high-level al-Qaeda operative in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. These men are seriously elite – smart, well-trained, physically fit heroes – whose job becomes even more dangerous when they encounter some goat herders and must decide whether to adhere to the “rules of engagement.” Soon, their moral decision leads to their ambush by a large force of Taliban, and the men fight for their lives.

The action sequences (well, the whole movie is an action sequence) are shot in such a way that you can’t believe what you’re seeing. The SEALS’ will to survive is super-human, no matter how serious their injuries, and I swear I’ll never complain about my aches and pains again. (I’ll try not to anyway.) Talk about brave. These men made me want to jump through the screen and save them.

Without preaching and pontificating, “Lone Survivor” says a lot – about war, about courage, about leadership – and while it’ll be overshadowed by other movies this Oscar year, I hope people won’t skip it.

 

 

Movie Day: “Philomena”

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

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Today’s Cinema Society screening was the Judi Dench movie written and co-starring British comedian Steve Coogan, who was supposed to be with us for a Q&A but couldn’t make it.

Based on a true story that was chronicled in the real Philomena Lee’s book, the movie follows the journey of a retired Irish nurse (Dench) who, pregnant as a teenager, was sent to the convent of Roscrea to be raised as a “fallen woman” and give birth. When her son was a toddler, he was whisked off by the nuns -
“sold” by them – to live with adopted parents in America and Philomena spent the next 50 years searching for him, wondering if he ever thought of her, if he assumed she’d abandoned him. Her daughter meets a disgraced journalist (Coogan) who thinks Philomena’s quest would make a successful human interest story, and together they fly to Washington D.C. where the son was last known to have lived and worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations. An odd couple in every way, Dench and Coogan’s characters spar about religion, food, literature, etc., but form a bond over their shared desire to get to the truth.

There are genuinely affecting moments in this film, and they’re due in many ways to the enormous talent of Dench. She manages to make her character authentic, not the sweet, simple old lady we might otherwise be seeing on screen. Her character’s humanity is compelling and the story, while tragic, is also very funny at times. But overall, this one just wasn’t for me. I felt let down by the end. Well, there are really two endings, and they both left me wanting a bigger payoff. I guess what I’m saying is that I liked “Philomena” but didn’t love it.

 

Movie Day: “American Hustle”

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

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Today was a treat: the first “public” showing of the film, which won’t be released until mid-December. It’s full of the same high-octane energy that fueled director David O Russell’s last two movies, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” and it features many of the same cast members: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. But “American Hustle,” while also about flawed characters you come to care about and root for, is much more ambitious in its canvas. Very loosely based on the ABSCAM investigations of the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s about a bunch of con artists and FBI officers who work together to bring down corrupt politicians and mob casino bosses, among others.

Brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is married to his completely unpredictable wife Rosalind (Jennifer Lawrence) and is a loving father to their son in their Long Island home. At the same time, he’s madly in love with and in cahoots with with the equally cunning – and very sexy – Sydney (Amy Adams). They’re forced to work for a wild and crazy FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia that’s as dangerous as it is alluring. From the opening scene, in which we meet the fat (you should see that gut!), balding (you should see that combover!) Irving, I kept thinking Is that really Christian Bale???? Talk about throwing himself into a role. He’s almost unrecognizable and so, so good. After watching him last weekend in “Out of the Furnace” and thinking back on his other performances, I’m really thinking he’s one of the greatest actors we have right now. He’s a total shape-shifter in this movie.

As I said above, the energy throughout is high and the cons just keep making your head spin, and it’s not always easy to keep up with who’s conning whom and why. But my biggest problem with the film, which I mostly liked, was its nonstop decibel level. And by that I mean that everybody’s always yelling. Like in almost every scene. About half way into the movie, I had sensory overload and the movie exhausted me. I would have loved a few scenes of quiet, of reflection, of toned down acting.

I still haven’t seen my “Best Movie of the Year.” I’ve seen a lot of good ones but not The One. I’m hoping it’s still out there.

Movie Day: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

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I love the Coen brothers’ movies, so I figured I’d be in for an entertaining, if quirky, couple of hours at today’s Cinema Society screening. “Inside Llewyn Davis” was just that – entertaining and quirky – but also superbly acted and interwoven with the sort of ’60s coffee-house, pre-Dylan folk music that’s long vanished from the music scene.

Set in New York City in 1961, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a failed musician who’s sleeping on friends’ couches and wandering the streets and subways looking hapless in between the occasional gig. One friend (Justin Timberlake) is more successful and is married to a woman (Carey Mulligan) whom Llewyn may or may not have knocked up. Another friend is a professor at Columbia whose cat Llewyn mistakenly allows to escape its Upper West Side apartment. Llewyn is lost, emotionally detached from everything and everyone, except when he plays his guitar and sings and then he comes alive. The trouble is no one wants to hear him/pay him.

There’s a sequence involving a road trip with the always hilarious John Goodman, but this isn’t a particularly funny movie. It’s a character study of a man who strives for authenticity in his music and can’t find acceptance. I can’t say it was one of my favorite Coen Brothers films – it’s about a sad sack, after all, and the song lyrics are all gloom and doom – but the performances were uniformly great. In the Q&A after the screening with star Oscar Isaac and music producer T. Bone Burnett, we learned that all the singing was shot live – we’re talking about entire, three-minute songs, not snippets – and that Isaac had to learn real guitar picking for the role. Carey Mulligan, who seems to be able to pull off any sort of role that’s thrown at her, is utterly believable as a New York folkie (who knew she could sing).

Quite a few of my friends didn’t like the movie at all and while it’s true that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, as T. Bone Burnett pointed out, neither do folk songs. They start and end with the first verse, and so does “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Movie Night: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

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Talk about taking control of your acting career and going for parts that veer off from your romantic leading man persona. That’s what Matthew McConaughey has done lately as evidenced by his fine work in “Magic Mike,” “Mud” and now “Dallas Buyers Club.” Not that I didn’t love him in all those rom coms, but now he’s Oscar bait.

He steals the show in his latest – a not-great-movie that’s based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a rodeo-riding, homophobic, drug-and-sex-addicted party boy who’s diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. At first he takes AZT, the only FDA-approved drug for the virus at the time, and it nearly kills him. Then he goes to Mexico for treatment (his doctor there is played by a very good Griffin Dunne) and smuggles back non-approved anti-viral, alternative medications and sells them in partnership with a transvestite played by Jared Leto, whose performance should earn him a Best Supporting Actor nod. Jennifer Garner has the thankless role of a kindly doctor in Dallas who tries to help.

The movie is mostly about Ron’s gradual acceptance of (or at least tolerance for) gays and he does try to make a difference. It’s just hard to tell how much of his supposed altruism is about making money, getting back at the FDA/government or saving lives. Also there’s no real dramatic arc to the story. It sort of goes along in chronological order with each sequence lasting too long and feeling repetitive of the one that went before. We see Ron either having wild, pornographic sex numerous times or traveling to and from various countries in search of the alternative drugs – yet another case of a director who can’t seem to edit or build to any sort of climax.

Still, McConaughey famously lost a ton of weight for the role and his gaunt appearance is not only haunting but makes him disappear entirely into the character. As I watched him for two hours, I completely forgot about the hunk in “The Wedding Planner.” He was Ron Woodroof and made the movie worth seeing.

Movie Night: “Gloria”

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

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What a concept! A funny, poignant, honest movie about a 58-year-old divorcee who isn’t try to look and act like she’s 20! She’s lonely and goes looking for love and finds it, loses it, deals with the ups and downs of her grown children, has a bipolar neighbor whose ugly cat is always finding its way into her apartment, suffers the indignities of having a middle-aged body, enjoys the company of her close friends…..in other words, she lives a real life!

It figures that such a movie would have to come from another country (in this case, Chile), since American studios would never make a film like “Gloria,” but thankfully director Sebastian Lelio wanted to tell a story about his mother and her generation of women. And he handpicked the actress he wanted for the role, as he explained last night at our Cinema Society screening. She was Chile’s popular Paulina Garcia, who won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Festival this year and who is one of the most winning screen presences I’ve seen in a long time.

There are too many needlessly slow sequences, longer-than-necessary shots of Garcia driving in the car, sitting and staring into the void, and the director, like many young directors these days, seems to have fallen in love with his own images (where are the editors on these films?), but “Gloria” is a charming film that was a big crowd favorite last night.