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.”
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.
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.
Scott Cooper’s first directorial effort was “Crazy Heart,” which won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. His sophomore project is “Out of the Furnace,” which Cinema Society screened for us today and which opens next month. It could have garnered a nomination for Christian Bale if the Best Actor field weren’t so crowded this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Best Supporting nom for Casey Affleck though.
Set in the depressed (and depressing) steel mill town of Braddock, PA, the story focuses on two brothers. Russell, Bale’s character, works hard at the mill, knowing his days there are numbered since the mill will be closing and the jobs moved to China. Rodney (Affleck) has done numerous tours of duty in Iraq and is floundering. He doesn’t want to work at the mill, doesn’t seem to be able to stay out of trouble either. He gets lured into a truly demonic drugs-and-fighting ring led by Woody Harrelson in one of his crazy-guy roles. Woody’s gang is headquartered over the NJ border in the type of mountain area that’s straight out of “Deliverance” or “Winter’s Bone.” We’re talking about creeps and lowlifes here. The fight scenes are bloody and the violence overall pretty gruesome; some at the screening walked out of the theater. The story is dark and not terribly enlightening and the ending is yet another one of those ambiguous ones that left us scratching our heads, but I loved the acting (Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe round out the cast) and the sense that I was watching a throwback to films from the ’70s like “The Deer Hunter.”
The movie generated some buzz at the festivals earlier in the year, but I just don’t see it vaulting into the top tier of must-see films. Still, I recommend it for Bale and Affleck. Affleck, who came to the screening for a Q&A along with director Scott Cooper, continues to mature as an actor, and Bale is incapable of giving a bad performance; I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Our Cinema Society here in Santa Barbara wasn’t showing either of the above, so Michael and I decided to do a double feature and go to the “regular” theaters to see them. If only I could say I came away from those hours in the dark feeling as if it had been time well spent. I was disappointed in both films.
In director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejofor plays Solomon, a free black man living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children in the 1800s, earning what appears to be a very good living as a talented musician. They dress well, live in a lovely house and are treated as respected citizens by the white members of the community – until Solomon is tricked into performing out of town and ends up being kidnapped by slave traders and sold to two plantation owners in Georgia. It’s at the second of the two plantations where he suffers the worst of the unspeakable episodes of brutality and degradation. Michael Fassbender, chewing the scenery but impossible to look away from, plays more than your basic heartless guy; he’s nuts and justifies his actions through the Bible. He’s also got the hots for one of the slave girls, and his wife, a wonderfully chilling Sarah Paulson, has a jealous streak that leads to more unspeakable cruelty. We wait and hope and wait some more for Solomon to be rescued and returned to his family, which he ultimately is. We know this because the real Solomon lived to write the book on which the movie is based and he became a well known activist.
The problem is that Steve McQueen takes his time getting us to the finish line. There are endless closeups of Solomon’s face that made me want to scream, “We get it! Move on!” Ejofor is very good in the role, no doubt about it, but I didn’t need to spend whole minutes on his every twitch and quiver. I guess that was my overall problem with the film: I felt hit over the head with a hammer. Points that could have easily been made in less time were dragged out. The story is such a horrific one on its own that it would have had more impact if it had been treated more subtly. I expected to be sobbing at the end when Solomon is reunited with his family, but I was oddly dry-eyed. “12 Years a Slave” is a noble effort but it missed being a great film.
After a short break – I went across the street from the theater and bought a pair of jeans – it was back to the dark and “All Is Lost,” where Michael was waiting with great excitement. An avid sailor, he couldn’t wait to see Robert Redford alone at sea on a sailboat for two hours with almost no dialogue. Me? Not so much, but the movie did get rapturous reviews and director J.C. Chandor had a hit with “Margin Call” and Redford has been lauded for the “performance of a lifetime.” So I buckled in.
I quickly wanted to unbuckle. “All Is Lost” is like “Gravity” in the Indian Ocean: a survival story. (Well, for that matter, “12 Years a Slave” is a survival story too. It must be the season.) I detested Redford’s character from the get go. We hear his voiceover in what is presumably a goodbye letter to his family – an acknowledgement that he won’t make it. He apologizes for vague mistakes over the years and says, “I’m sorry. I’ll miss you.” No “I love you.” That pissed me off. Then, once we go back eight days in time, we see that his boat has been struck by a container ship and there’s big trouble for him as his cabin fills with water and his electrical systems fail. He seems more irritated than concerned. He sets about trying to keep the boat and himself afloat. He repairs the hole. He climbs the mast. He tries to fix the radio. He keeps himself fed and hydrated (I laughed when he sat down in the middle of all this chaos and ate a meal of pasta with a knife and fork). He even shaves while the boat is being tossed about.
Eventually, he utters the F-word and we can see him becoming a bit untethered. The ending is deliberately obscure – another one of those let’s-leave-it-to-the-audience-to-figure-it-out things. Or maybe Michael just saw it that way. I felt there was no ambiguity at all about what happens to Redford’s character but that’s art for you.
Afterwards, Michael explained to me all the reasons that the movie was preposterous from a sailing point of view, so maybe that colored my opinion of it. As a non-sailor, I had problems of my own with it. I kept wondering what the hell a man in his 70s was doing sailing around the world by himself in a 39-foot sailboat. If he’s so wealthy, why doesn’t he have state-of-the-art electronic equipment on board instead of that cheesy radio? If he’s such an experienced sailor, why does he seem so surprised every time there’s a storm? Blah blah. I didn’t mind the lack of dialogue – it was actually a pleasure to have a quiet movie for a change. What I couldn’t shake off was my inability to care what becomes of our hero. It wasn’t Redford’s fault; he played the character as written. I just didn’t care.
Director Alexander Payne of “Sideways,” “About Schmidt” and “The Descendents” fame, is getting raves for his latest festival darling, “Nebraska,” and particularly for the performance of star Bruce Dern, who’s being talked about as a Best Actor Oscar contender. I’ve always thought Dern was a compelling actor (his role in “Coming Home” still haunts me), so I’m glad he’s getting his due. But after seeing the film at today’s Cinema Society screening, I’m thinking it’s June Squibb, who plays the wife of Dern’s character, who’ll more likely walk off with a statuette for Best Supporting Actress. She’s terrific.
The movie is yet another road trip from Payne, this one about an alcoholic with some level of dementia (Dern) who’s convinced he won a million dollars after getting the standard Publishers Clearing House-type letter in the mail – the sort of letter only meant to make you buy magazines. His younger son, played by former SNL comedian Will Forte in a surprising dramatic role, begrudgingly drives Dad to Lincoln, Nebraska to “claim” his jackpot but really just to humor the guy and possibly have one last chance to bond with him. The film was shot in black and white, and the cinematography of the rural Midwestern landscape is beautiful. Payne used both actors and locals for a combination of some of the great screen faces you’ll ever see – those “lost” people who are living lives of quiet desperation.
There are comical moments along with the more poignant ones and they’re very welcome. I found the pace a bit slow, but I was persuaded by my friends that that’s how things are in the Midwest. Is Dern this year’s Best Actor? Too soon to say since I haven’t seen many of the other big movies yet. He’s very good, if one note, but I did appreciate how easy it would have been for him to overact the part and he didn’t; I was never conscious of his “acting.”
“Nebraska” was definitely worth seeing, and I enjoyed hearing Forte and Squibb discussing their roles during the Q&A. Forte seemed genuinely thrilled and humbled to have found himself in an Alexander Payne movie, and Squibb is just a firecracker. Loved her.
I thought the beginning of Billy Crystal’s memoir was so funny I called Michael and started reading parts of it out loud to him. Crystal’s musings about turning 65 are straight out of his standup comedy routine and were exactly the kind of break I was looking for after finishing the second draft of my novel and spending my down time reading a lot of fiction.
After his opening screed about aging, he settles down and takes us on his journey – his childhood in a loving family, his marriage to Janice, the birth of their two daughters, his breakthroughs on the “Tonight” show and “SNL” and, of course, his hosting gigs at the Oscars, plus his big movie role in “When Harry Met Sally…”
Then there are the relationships with the Yankees, Muhammed Ali, Rob Reiner, Howard Cosell, and just about everybody who’s anybody in show business. He’s an amiable storyteller with kind words for those who’ve been in his corner along the way; this isn’t a score-settling type of book at all. It gets pretty schmaltzy when he talks about being a grandfather, but he’s still with the same wife all these years and lives in the same house and seems to be a genuinely good, unpretentious, well-meaning guy – a rarity in Hollywood. I can see why the book is appealing to a wide readership. It doesn’t offend. It plays it safe. And it makes us laugh.
We’ll be seeing the movie at a special Cinema Society screening in November with writer-director Alfonso Cuarón in attendance for a Q&A, but I didn’t want to wait. Not after reading all the glowing reviews and not after hearing so much about the movie’s 3-D wizardry. So Michael and I went to the theater tonight, strapped ourselves in and put on the glasses.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t dawned on me that a story about two astronauts stranded and suspended in space might just trigger an anxiety attack in someone with an acute fear of heights. In other words, the movie, as good as it is, was pure torture for me. My stomach was in a knot the whole time and the minute it was over I headed for the nearest glass of wine.
That said, it’s quite an achievement in filmmaking and the 3-D experience is spectacular. When George Clooney is practically floating into your lap it’s pretty damn exciting.
I was expecting more of a “2001: A Space Odyssey”-type adventure with musings about whether we’re alone here on Earth and what lies beyond. But “Gravity” doesn’t waste time pondering the cosmos or our place in it. It gets right to the business of telling a heart-stopping survival story. Sandra Bullock is front and center as the astronaut who has to figure out how to stay alive after her mission with Clooney goes horribly awry. She hyperventilates through it all as she dodges asteroid debris, bodies of her dead colleagues, exploding space capsules, etc. She’s inexperienced and still grieving the death of her young daughter, but she must face enormous obstacles along her hero’s journey before finding her will to live.
I missed Clooney after he left the story, but Bullock does an admirable job in what’s essentially a one-character piece. She’s given interviews about how difficult the role was for her and I don’t doubt it. She works hard, or rather her character does. We relate to her. We root for her. We want her to figure out how to get back to solid ground and make a new life for herself. I could have done with less on-the-nose dialogue about why it’s important to “enjoy the ride,” but the movie packs an emotional punch nonetheless. Does she get an Oscar nomination? Absolutely. Is the movie a Best Picture nominee? For sure. It’s not my favorite genre, and I would have loved to have seen what a director like Terrence Malick would have done with the subject, but I quibble. It’s definitely worth the ride, even though it nearly put me into traumatic catatonia.
Wow. What a movie. I’m still breathless after the Cinema Society screening this morning. When people talk about a movie being an “edge-of-your-seat thriller,” they’re talking about “Captain Phillips.” It’s rare when I don’t have at least one nitpicky thing to say about a movie, but not this time. And most amazing of all is that it’s based on a true story as told in the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty.
Just as British director Paul Greengrass did with “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93,” he uses almost a documentary style to tell the story of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates. Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, is a devoted family man from Vermont who captains a container ship bound for treacherous waters near Somalia. En route to his destination, an armed band of young Somali men, working for their “elders” and hungry for what they believe will be millions in ransom, charge onto the ship, ultimately take Phillips hostage in a tiny lifeboat and attempt to stave off the American navy dispatched to rescue the captain. The rescue operation is heart-stopping, but so is the relationship/test of wills between Phillips and Muse, his Somali counterpart, a wild-eyed, emaciated man-boy.
The movie has so many layers, both human and geo-political, and Hanks is absolutely superb. At first I thought he’d be playing yet another Everyman, but his stoicism gives way to such a visceral fear that I couldn’t help reaching for the tissues. There will be a lot of competition in his category this year, but he gets an Oscar nomination for sure.
There was a Q&A with Greengrass after the screening, followed by a reception for him. I spent time with him and he couldn’t have been more accessible. When I asked, for example, if a director who specializes in global thrillers ever watches comedies, he said, “Oh yeah! I love the ones with Will Ferrill. He’s hilarious.”
If I hadn’t read an interview with Christopher Plummer in yesterday’s Daily Beast, I might not have known this HBO original movie was on last night, but I’m glad I did because the movie was utterly fascinating.
Based on a book of the same name and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen” with Helen Mirren and many other great films), it takes place in 1967 when Ali was convicted of draft dodging. He’d changed his named from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam and refused to be inducted into the military because he was opposed to the Vietnam War on religious grounds. I remember it well. I was a big boxing fan in those days and watched all the Ali-Frazer/Ali-Foreman fights and Ali was just about the biggest sports story on the planet in those days.
Stripped of his world heavyweight championship title, he spent four years fighting his conviction, embarking on a college tour to make money. At the time he found a sympathetic audience, since campuses across America were in a state of protest against the war. In 1971, his case finally reached the Supreme Court and it’s in the Court that this movie resides.
What a cast. Frank Langella plays Nixon’s pal Chief Justice Warren Burger. Plummer plays Justice John Harlan. Danny Glover plays Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black man on the bench. Barry Levinson, Fritz Weaver, Ed Begley Jr. play other justices. The real co-star to Plummer is Benjamin Walker, who plays Plummer’s clerk, Kevin Connolly, a liberal who didn’t agree with his boss’s positions, particularly his decision to join the Chief Justice’s opinion that Ali’s case should be upheld, not overturned.
The drama of the legal battle involving these giants of acting, expertly interwoven with archival footage of Ali, boxing, student protests, Nixon, etc. make this a must-see movie. I’m sure HBO will repeat it throughout the month. Plummer, in particular, as a conservative justice who values fairness – and who’s dying of cancer and has a wife with dementia – is superb.
If it’s rolling around in my head, it’ll find its way here – from what I’m writing, reading and watching to what and who makes me laugh. Also look for news of upcoming projects, answers to readers' questions, even recipes from friends!