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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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