Category: Movies


florence-foster-jenkins-posterA wealthy and connected socialite deludes herself that she is a talented soprano and aims for staging a concert at Carnegie Hall, topping all of her other dubious musical accomplishments. Her doting husband and compliant accompanist enable her, and no one else speaks out, until a reporter who attends the concert cries “the emperor has no clothes” and bursts her bubble.

Very funny stuff. And the funniest part? It all happened! Yes, truth is truly stranger than fiction.

Streep, left, as Lady Florece, as she liked to be called, and the real Florence at right.

St. Clair Bayfield was Florence’s longtime companion, though it seems they were not actually married.

Director Stephen Frears’ film Florence Foster Jenkins is engaging and fun to watch, and it’s one of those slices of little-known history that makes you want to learn more. I love these kinds of films, when they are executed as well as this one is. Of course there are the instances of Hollywood poetic license to add drama, but the story is just a hoot.

 

Playing the lead is Meryl Streep, whose performance is, as ever, marvelous. She dexterously emulates tone-deafness, and her character is affable as the afflicted yet undauntedly persevering Lady Florence. Hugh Grant falls smoothly into the role of her amiable and facilitating husband, with a mixture of saintly patience and all-too-human appetites.

 

Cosme McMoon was at the height of his piano-playing career with Lady Florence, and he ended up becoming interested in bodybuilding.

The toughest sell for me was the casting of Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) as Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. It’s a personal thing, I concede. Helberg is perfect for the role. He is geeky and puny and a talented piano player, like the real McMoon (which some purport was a pseudonym to protect the real performer’s reputation). But I could not get over seeing Howard Wolowitz on the screen, and I expected him to be living with his mother when Florence goes to see him, and yelling, “All right, Ma!” when she summons from offstage.

The supporting cast adds depth and flavor to the story, perfectly helping depict the grand deception that served Florence’s fantasy.  They used her, and she used them. Ah, the rich.

A

Oh, goodness. It’s been WAY too long since I posted.

I blame it on TV! There are so many terrific shows on these days, that I have become as addicted to the boob-tube as I am to the silver screen. Maybe more about that in a later post …

MV5BODU4MjU4NjIwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDU2MjEyMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_For now, I want to revisit an old favorite which just turned 20 years old. Despite a daunting lineup of TV shows, I still insist on watching films either that I own or that are available on the premium channels. A recent choice was The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

Director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is epic, spanning a 20-year period and encompassing such motifs as stunning patience, preservation of humanity, deserved redemption, and ultimate justice. Stars Tim Robbins (as Andy Dufresne, a convicted murderer who professes innocence) and Morgan Freeman (as old-timer inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding) are perfect in their roles, and the supporting cast is stellar.

There are many touching moments in the film, such as when various characters muse about things like the reasons for their life choices. There are also uncomfortable moments, usually involving major injustices and heartbreaking tragedies. shawshank-redemption-1And then there are the moments we cheer: when someone’s intelligence and patience are rewarded, when human kindness shines through bureaucracy, and when the “good guys” get the upper hand on the “bad guys.” And that’s another interesting twist—in this story, the goods guys are not who you’d expect.

The Shawshank Redemption has become a quiet classic in the 20 years since it was made. If you have not seen, check it out. It’s truly worth watching!

The Academy Awards air this evening, so I’ll try to be brief. Here is a quick look at the final three Oscar hopefuls for Best Picture. Yes, I managed to see them all!

The-Oscars-2014-logo-585x359

index12 Years a Slave

Sorry to be a dissenting voice in an otherwise admiring crowd. I was so ready to like this film, based on the true-account book written by kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup. It should have been riveting, but it turned out to be rather a snooze-fest.

images4Despite some excellent performances, some of the casting is actually a bit distracting. Examples include two likable and over-exposed Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender) as southern plantation owners (really?), walk-ons with a few lines for Brad Pitt and Garret Dillahunt, and a waste of talent in a small role for Paul Giamatti. A stirringly brutal portrayal of an overseer is turned in by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), but soon we’re back to sleepwalking through the story. Perhaps the most genuine and heartbreaking performance comes from relative newcomer Lupita Nyong. By contrast, most of the other actors look like they are doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.

images2The main problem is similar to the issues of focus and emphasis that I mentioned with the movie Captain Phillips:  there is no sense of the actual time span of Northup’s captivity, and there is little rendition of the severe disorientation of becoming a slave after living as a respected member of society. These aspects, intricate to the story, would have made this movie far more fascinating. As it is, however, it becomes simply another in a long line of films documenting the tragedies and injustices visited on slaves in America.  Other films have already done that, and more eloquently.

imagesAn additional irritation was the use of oddly placed close-ups and scenes with no action or expression in them. I cannot believe this film is up for an editing award, much less Best Director for Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). These shots—like looking up the nose of a woman who is about to sing, or watching Chiwetel Ejiofor sit and stare for nearly a minute—add nothing and simply interrupt the flow. All in all, this was not one of my favorites.

C+

 

11176448_oriNebraska

I was warned that this film is a downer and boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience I had!

index3A marvelous slice of Americana, this little gem is shot in black and white and viscerally evokes the feel of struggling farms and small towns, their salt-of-the-earth residents, and road trips through the heartland. It’s true that for most of the film, discomfort floats near the top of the emotional brew: discomfort with aging, with unrealized dreams, with the dysfunctionality of families and the large-scale struggles of Middle America. It’s true stuff, this. We sit and watch people be patient, or impatient, with one another, we listen to old men chat as they watch a football game, and most of us can say, “I’ve been here. I’ve heard this conversation.” The discomfort makes the film’s payoff all the sweeter.

images10Veteran actor Bruce Dern is marvelous as Woody Grant, a tired, alcoholic, mildly demented old man who holds on to a delusion because, well, that’s all there is left. Will Forte (of Saturday Night Live comedic fame) lovingly plays the ultimate good son, who learns more about his father in a few days driving from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska than he ever knew before, and then provides the aging man with a perfect gesture of love and respect.

 

images11

Many of the portrayals seems stiff at first, bringing to mind home movies and low-budget filmmaking.  But the style really works to create a “realistic” portrait of characters that are rather readable at first glance, until it becomes apparent that there is more to all of them than meets the eye. We hear about their dreams and disappointments, we see them deal with what life hands them, and we finally see them as real and individual rather than mere types. Terrific performances are turned in by June Squibb as Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other son, Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, and many other supporting actors.

Granted, Nebraska may not be a movie for everyone. The plight of aging average-Joe and his family may not be of movie-watching interest to many—heck, it isn’t always my cup of tea either—but the story this movie tells is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in the best of ways.

A-

 

Philomena

index2Philomena is a tale of profound misery—well told, amusing at times, fascinating to watch and learn from—but still misery. In this story based on reality, the superb Dame Judi Dench plays an aging Irish woman who as a girl was relegated to an abbey for unwed mothers to give birth, work to pay both debt and penance, and agonizingly watch her son carted away by adoptive parents, never to be seen again. Now, fifty years later, she is still determined to discover where he ended up. Steve Coogan (typically a comic actor known for the likes of Hamlet 2) co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Martin Sixsmith, the dislodged journalist who helps “Phil”—as he comes to call her—to find out what happened to her son.

images7 Like 12 Years a Slave, this movie tells of a shameful past about which not much can be done now, except to remember and honor those who went through it and vow to never let anything like it happen again. And like Nebraska, it tells of family relationships that might be difficult for some to understand; also like Nebraska, it features a comedic actor-turned-serious (both do a splendid job of it). Unlike either of those films, Philomena is truly tragic.

The story and performances are excellent (including Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena), and the movie is well worth watching. Coogan marvelously plays his character as jaded by years of political journalism and then awoken to indignant rage by what he learns through following Phil in her journey.

images6However, I found the Pollyanna-like acceptance of Phil a bit beneath the acting chops of Dench. Perhaps if someone not as well-known had played Phil, this might not have been an issue; but then again, maybe this movie would not be a Best Picture candidate either. It also was a bit bothersome, on a relational level, that Phil’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is involved and helping her in the search for the brother she never even knew about. It’s not addressed how she felt about this; what was the real daughter’s reaction to hearing that her mother thought about the lost son daily, though her daughter is there in front of her all along?

Still, the balance of views about events (Philomena’s acceptance, at least in the film, and Sixsmith’s disgust and anger) make for thought-provoking cinema.

B+

My Winners and Runners-Up

I can’t call these my predictions—one just never knows, especially with the changing face of the Academy. But here is how I would vote for a few of this year’s awards to be distributed:

 

Best Picture: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Runner-Up:  American Hustle

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey

Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto

Runners-Up: close race between Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Runner-Up: Julia Roberts

Best Cinematography: Nebraska

Dysfunction in Oklahoma

MV5BNzQ5ODE4NTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjkyNDQ0MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Some of us don’t get to attend award-winning Broadway plays as often as we’d like (read: never), and that makes me very glad indeed when a well-made adaptation of one is created for the more accessible big screen. Such a case is August: Osage County, the newly released film based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name and directed by John Wells, best know as a producer and writer and for such efforts as The West Wing and The Company Men.

August-Osage-County-HD-WallpaperI did not know what to expect of this film, having heard little about it and not knowing much about Wells or about Letts’ play. Maybe due to that, this glimpse at a dysfunctional yet self-sufficient family in Oklahoma was a riveting surprise. The ensemble cast is nothing short of amazing, and Wells does what I admire any good director doing: He lets the consummate pros run with the material. It results in an emotional, gritty, sometimes funny, always pointed drama that verges on the raw angst of a Greek tragedy, with moments of wondrous irony.

august-osage-countyMeryl Streep, always impeccable, is superb as Violet, the newly widowed matriarch of the Weston clan, having just lost her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), to apparent suicide. In come her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis), one husband and one fiancee (Ewen McGregor, Dermot Mulroney), one granddaughter (Abigail Breslin), and Mattie’s Fae’s son (Benedict Cumberbatch). Also close by is the recent hire Beverly made, the live-in cook and caretaker Johnna (Misty Upham). Suddenly all thrown together after time apart, the family members experience some typical awkwardness and sporadic hysterics. August-Osage-County-Movie-Still-2-630x393But there are other skeletons in the closet here, and they soon come out to wreak marvelous havoc.

Oklahoma itself is an ever-present character in this story. It comes across as a strong atmosphere, and is expressed in sentiments like the short speech Barbara (Julia Roberts) gives: “The Midwest, ha. This is the Plains … a spiritual affliction, like the blues.”

A

Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.

 

lawless-banner-posterLawless

250px-WettestcountyfrontcoverBased on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.

Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. shia-labeouf-dane-dehaan-lawless-600x421But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.

The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.

120830_MOV_Lawless.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRegardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary  Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).

For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).

A

920-HESHERHesher

In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).

As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), hesher-movie-review-TH48O3P-x-largethough Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.

This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family.  But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.Hesher_13047235035841

In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.

A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).

A-

Seeking-a-FriendSeeking a Friend for the End of the World

Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.

Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.

Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.

SAF-Still2Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.

Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).seeking-a-friend-for-the-end-of-the-world-screenshot

Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not.  I guess I just don’t get it.

The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).

C-

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