Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Movie Night: “Ida”

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Ida movie poster

I remember reading A.O. Scott’s review of “Ida” in the NYT and thinking….Sounds good but do I really want to see yet another Holocaust movie? And then I re-read the review, read other critics’ reviews, watched the praise being heaped on the film at various festivals and decided it was a must see. I’m very glad I did.

Set in the 1960s in a bleak, snowy, post-war Poland, it’s the spare (only 80 minutes long), exquisitely told story of Ida, a young woman who’s lived at a convent since she was dropped on their doorstep as a child. It begins as she’s on the verge of becoming a nun. When she’s told she must visit the aunt she’s never met before saying her vows, she reluctantly gets on a train and ventures out into the world for the first time. Her aunt Wanda turns out to be a troubled former prosecutor who drinks too much and sleeps around. And Wanda has a surprise for her: Ida is Jewish.

So kicks off what turns out to be both a coming-of-age tale and a suspenseful journey to learn what happened to Ida’s parents.

Along the way, there’s a first love, exposure to jazz music and the realization that there’s life outside of the cloistered walls of the convent. Does Ida go back to say her vows or not? I’ll never tell, except to say the acting is superb, the cinematography is breathtaking and heartbreaking, and “Ida” is a strong contender for Best Foreign Film at Oscar time.



Movie Day: “Whiplash”

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Whiplash poster

It’s officially Fall and that means it’s officially our Cinema Society’s prime season. Now begins the cavalcade of Oscar-worthy movies fresh from festivals in Venice, Sundance, Telluride and Toronto. And what a crop this year’s entries appear to be. I keep reading about the films and their performances and can’t wait to see them all.

In the meantime, I got an early look yesterday at the Sundance Audience Award winner: “Whiplash.” If you asked me if I was keen to see a movie about a young jazz drummer and his taskmaster teacher, I’d probably pass. Soooo glad I didn’t. This one’s a winner.

From the studio:

Andrew Neyman is an ambitious young jazz drummer, single-minded in his pursuit to rise to the top of his elite east coast music conservatory. Plagued by the failed writing career of his father, Andrew hungers day and night to become one of the greats. Terence Fletcher, an instructor equally known for his teaching talents as for his terrifying methods, leads the top jazz ensemble in the school. Fletcher discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into his band, forever changing the young man’s life. Andrew’s passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher continues to push him to the brink of both his ability-and his sanity.

That’s a simplistic summary of the story and makes it sound like “Black Swan,” substituting jazz music for ballet. It’s not over-the-top-horror like “Black Swan.” It’s a suspenseful, almost thriller-like tale with a performance by J.K. Simmons that astounds. Everybody knows Simmons as the cuddly, laid-back dad in “Juno” or the bland pitchman in the State Farm commercials. Apparently, he was a bad guy on the now-canceled TV show “Oz,” but I never saw that so watching him in “Whiplash” was a revelation. If he doesn’t get into the Supporting Actor race, I’ll be gobsmacked. Miles Teller, who plays the kid, is very good too. According to writer-director Damien Chazelle, who came for a Q&A and reception after the film, said that the young actor did have drumming experience but was coached in certain techniques for the film and ended up being so adept that they only used the stunt double sparingly. The drumming sequences in the film are worth the price of admission, so kudos to Teller.

As for Chazelle, he’s not one of those ultra-arty young filmmakers who has to shoot everything with a hand-held camera, thank God. He’s a student of classic films and it shows. His closeups and angles are terrific. I talked to him at the party and he’s a really humble and down-to-earth too.

Bottom line: I highly recommend this one.


Movie Day: “Get On Up”

Sunday, August 10th, 2014


The rave reviews for this movie, along with the pedigree of the filmmakers and my own interest in James Brown’s life and music, propelled me to see this one. All I can say is Chadwick Boseman, who played the controlled, affable Jackie Robinson in “42,” is phenomenal as Brown, another legend who broke boundaries in his own way. He doesn’t just mimic the singer. He inhabits him. He’s got the speaking voice down, the walk, the dance moves, the simmering anger and, most importantly, the soul. What would the Godfather of Soul be without the soul?

Directed by Tate Taylor, who did the honors on the much-nominated “The Help,” and produced by Brian Grazer as well as Mick Jagger, “Get On Up” was made with the cooperation of Brown’s family, which meant getting permission to use his music – a huge deal. However, it also meant compromising a bit on portraying Brown warts and all. Which is not to say there aren’t warts – from the physical abuse to the gun violence to the paranoid, egotistical way he treated his band members. But the movie treads lightly on those incidents and focuses more on the music and how it came to be so raw and unique. We see Brown’s impoverished childhood in Georgia, his abandonment by his parents (Viola Davis is very moving as his mother), his upbringing in a brothel, his exposure to gospel church music, his time in prison, his experiences with racial prejudice. The film plays with time and moves back and forth between the past and present. Mostly, we see Brown performing at different stages of his life and Boseman gets the act so perfectly you have to blink to make sure you’re not witnessing Brown back from the dead.

My problems with “Get On Up” were that it’s too long – scenes needed cutting badly – and there’s too much repetition. And the ending? The movie could have ended much earlier and been just as satisfying. So yeah, it dragged and, sadly, by the time the lights came on in the theater I was glad to leave. But that performance by Boseman was worth the price of admission. Oscar nomination, please.



Movie Night: “Boyhood”

Friday, August 8th, 2014


I missed our Cinema Society screening of this while I was away in Connecticut, as well as the Q&A and reception with writer-director Richard Linklater and star Patricia Arquette, so I was eager to make time (and it does take a leisurely three hours to see this film) for it when I got home. Last night was that time. The verdict? I agree with the 99% of the critics who loved the movie. (The guy from the LA Times seems to be the lone dissenter, along with Husband Michael, though I’m sure there are others.)

The conceit of the film – or “gimmick” to the dissenters – is that Linklater shot the same core of actors over a 12 year period, so when we see them age we literally see them age. No fat suits. No add-on wrinkles. Just the real thing. And the effect is to make it feel as if you’re watching family members at different stages of their lives – pages of a scrapbook.

The kid, who becomes a college freshman by the end of “Boyhood,” is terrific – as natural an actor as I’ve seen in a long time. When we first meet him as Mason Junior, his mom, Arquette, is trying to get her life together after splitting with her ex, Ethan Hawke, a Linklater regular from the “Midnight” trilogy with Julie Delpy. Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, also slips easily into her demanding role. The kids are forced to roll with Mom’s poor choices in men (next comes the raging alcoholic, then the strict ex-military man) and their own growing pains. Not a lot happens in terms of the plot, but it’s life, full of friendships and breakups and rites of passage like graduations and birthdays, and it all feels so…so…authentic.

For Michael, “Boyhood” was just too long and talky. He didn’t like the “Midnight” films either where Delpy and Hawke rattled on in an improvisational way about the meaning of life and love. There’s some of that here, though only from a teenage boy’s point of view. I guess you either like that stuff or you don’t. I did and I do. I’d recommend “Boyhood” as a truly unique and thoroughly satisfying experience. Loved the soundtrack too.


Movie Day: “Calvary”

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Calvary poster

Now that I’m back in CA, it’s Cinema Society time again and if today’s screening was any indication we’re off to a very exciting Oscar season. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose first feature was the highly praised “The Guard,”  this one tackles the Roman Catholic Church, sexual abuse, adultery, suicide and alcoholism, among other sins, and yet it’s darkly funny as only Irish humor can be.

The brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good, decent priest and widower who sincerely wants to help the members of his small parish. But from the film’s first scene, we learn that not everyone is happy with him. As the story moves along, we discover that he’s facing obstacles from many sides – obstacles that could result in his murder. Through it all, he continues to comfort his flock as well as his fragile daughter (an excellent Kelly Reilly) even as begins to wonder if he’ll have the courage to face his own personal demons.

“Calvary” is that rare movie that isn’t shy about dealing with big moral issues but treats them with such a delicate touch that it makes for riveting entertainment in the form of a mystery. If Gleeson doesn’t get an Oscar nom (I know, it’s early), I’ll be surprised. Chris O’Dowd is always terrific whether he’s doing comedy or drama and his work here is no exception. Nobody in the theater left before the Q&A and I felt privileged to chat with Gleeson at the reception for him and the director afterwards. He said the role took him a long time to recover from but that now he’s enjoying the glowing reviews. And why not. He earned them.

P.S. I watched “Chef” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” on the plane coming home yesterday and liked them both. Well, let me qualify. I liked “Chef.” It’s a sweet movie about food with a feel-good ending, so what’s not to like? I adored “Grand Budapest.” I was a big fan of Wes Anderson’s last one, “Moonrise Kingdom,” but the new one is even more ambitious and inventive. It’s on my Best list for sure.



Movie Day: “The Signal”

Saturday, June 7th, 2014


Today’s Cinema Society screening was….how can I put this delicately……an exercise in boredom. Admittedly, I was not the audience for it. I’m not into science fiction, nor do I have a huge connection to stories about college kids who grunt instead of talk but are really good with their computers (e.g. techies). And movies in which things explode a lot make my eyeballs bleed. I like narratives, and “The Signal” doesn’t have much of one. What it has is a young director, William Eubank, whose second feature film this is, and the “cool” factor of having premiered at Sundance in February. Herewith from the film’s publicity materials:

Three college students on a road trip across the Southwest experience a detour: the tracking of a computer genius who has already hacked into MIT and exposed security faults. The trio find themselves drawn to an eerily isolated area. Suddenly everything goes dark. When one of the students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites of “The Giver” and “Maleficent”), regains consciousness, he is in a waking nightmare.

Suffice it to say, our hero has a journey involving aliens and weird looking people and mysterious questions posed by Laurence Fishburne as the torturer in chief. I kept wondering if Fishburne has big alimony payments that forced him to take this role or if it’s just tough for actors to find work at his age.

I think the less I say about my lost afternoon in the theater the better, except that I wish I had those two hours back.

Movie Day: “Words and Pictures”

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Words and Pictures poster

Today’s Cinema Society screening was a grownup movie. It’s about art – what a concept – and stars two of my favorite actors, Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, neither of whom are capable of giving a bad performance.

A witty, wordy drama/comedy, “Words and Pictures” is set at a New England prep school where Clive Owen’s Jack Marcus is the honors English teacher and Juliette Binoche’s Dina Delsanto is the new art teacher. He used to be somebody – a published author/poet who once taught on the college level. But a bad “hobby” (his word) of guzzling too much vodka has derailed his career and his relationship with his son, not to mention alienated most of the other teachers and the school’s dean. Binoche’s Dina was a celebrated abstract painter who was brought low by rheumatoid arthritis, which has crippled her ability to move freely and have a normal life. The two characters clash, initially over his insistence that words are more meaningful than images and her assertion that a picture is worth a thousand words. Little by little, their sexual chemistry takes over and life becomes even more complicated for them.

It was a pleasure to see a film that celebrated language, and Owen’s character, a garrulous fellow, quotes some truly beautiful literature. And Binoche, it turns out, painted all the art we see in the movie; she’s been an artist since she was young and has had gallery showings in France.

The film’s writer, Gerald DiPego, does a nice job of bringing his lovers together, although the plot and its conclusion are as predictable as it gets. He came for the Q&A after the screening and I introduced myself because I worked at Dell when we published his first novel back in the ’70s. Having written screenplays for big studio movies over the years, he said he was thrilled to have gone the indie route with this new one. Nobody made me him rewrite – a rarity in Hollywood.

Overall, I recommend “Words and Pictures.” It’s charming, if predictable, as I said, and well worth a couple of hours.


Movie Day: “Belle”

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014


Today’s Cinema Society screening was a film that’s been getting great buzz after playing at various festivals and opening in limited release on Friday. It’s a beautifully shot period piece about a little known piece of British history involving the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an aristocratic admiral and her relationship with the high-born family that raises her – all against the backdrop of changing attitudes toward slavery.

From the distributor, Fox Searchlight:

BELLE is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.

I was amazed during the Q&A with the film’s director, Amma Asante, that she made the film for a mere $10 million. It has the look and feel of a big-budget Merchant-Ivory production with gorgeous castles and costumes and settings. And what a cast of actors, including newcomer Mbatha-Raw as the title character. And, of course, the story is fascinating – how aristocratic society accepted Belle because of her lineage and, after her father dies, her inheritance, but bars her from even such basic opportunities as attending dinner parties with the rest of her family. My only criticism was that there tended to be a bit of over-writing with too much information in too much detail, not to mention a lot of speechifying. But it’s definitely worth a viewing.


Movie Day: “Joe”

Sunday, April 6th, 2014


Our Cinema Society screenings are back in full swing following the break for the Santa Barbara Film Festival in January-February, and “Joe,” an indie that was shown at other festivals, was yesterday’s offering. I didn’t go since I had work to do, but Michael went and reported that I didn’t miss a thing. It was that bad. Actually, it was so bad that several people walked out about a third of the way in.

Here’s the copy the Cinema Society sent us prior to the screening:

A gripping mix of friendship, violence and redemption erupts in the contemporary South in this adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel, celebrated at once for its grit and its deeply moving core. Directed by David Gordon Green, JOE film brings Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage back to his indie roots in the title role as the hard-living, hot-tempered, ex-con Joe Ransom, who is just trying to dodge his instincts for trouble – until he meets a hard-luck kid, (MUD’s Tye Sheridan) who awakens in him a fierce and tender-hearted protector.

Michael said the kid was good, just as he was in “Mud,” and there was a moody, haunting quality to the setting, but moody only gets you so far. This was a story about a bad guy getting even with another bad guy. Lots of bad guys, in other words, with nobody to root for except the kid, along with a lot of gratuitous violence. I’m not a Nic Cage fan, so I had another incentive for sitting this one out.

I guess what I’m saying is see this one only if you have nothing better to do.

Now Playing on My Kindle: “This Is Where I Leave You”

Friday, March 14th, 2014


Somehow, Jonathan Tropper’s NYT bestselling novel, This Is Where I Leave You, had escaped my notice, or at least until recently. I started reading about the movie version, which Tropper adapted and which opens in September, and I figured I’d better get on this. The movie stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, among many others.

But back to the novel. Tropper has managed to craft a story that’s a true comedy-drama. It’s so funny at times, particularly the dialogue, and so painfully poignant. Not easy to pull off for any author, but I’m now a huge fan of Tropper’s. I loved this book. Loved. It.

It’s the story of the Foxman family, a crew of non-observant Jews who find themselves sitting shiva after the family patriarch dies. The narrator is Judd, one of the Foxman sons, whose wife Jen has been having an affair with his boss, a shock jock in the Howard Stern tradition. His world rocked by both Jen’s infidelity and his father’s death, Judd trudges off to spend a week with his mother and siblings with whom he doesn’t exactly get along. His older brother Paul holds a lifelong grudge against him. His younger brother Phillip is a charming liar who can never be trusted. And his sister Wendy slings one-liners at him like nobody’s business. And then there’s their mother, a sexy author of parenting books who has a secret love life that stuns everybody.

Along the way there are old friends and girlfriends who resurface and neighbors who show up to pay condolences and Jen, Judd’s perfidious wife, who announces she’s pregnant with his kid.

Oh, the complications.

There are so many twists and turns in this story and Judd takes us through all of them with his uniquely sardonic voice that’s both screamingly hilarious and heartbreakingly sad.

Publishers Weekly said of Tropper in its review, “he has the ability to create touchingly human characters and a deliciously page-turning story.” Yup, he does and he did. I’m already on to his latest, One Last Thing Before I Go.