Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

      Director Martin Scorsese channels his inner Brian DePalma and creates his own "Scarface" minus the guns. This new parable of greed and excess is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who made millions off other people's money. 

        Mr. Scorsese piles on the drugs, sex, depravity, greed and white collar criminal behavior until you think you've seen enough and then piles on more. The film runs for three hours and never lets up for a second. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort and he is electric. He's in almost every scene and fuels the film from start to finish.

         The film co-stars Jonah Hill as Mr. Belfort's eventually partner, Donnie Azoff and Margot Robbie as his trophy wife, Naomi. Both are very good. The only other developed character is FBI Agent Denham, played by Kyle Chandler. Everyone else is the film is basically a cartoon. There is a cameo by Matthew McConaughey that is brilliant and it's unfortunate that his character disappears soon after.

          There are flourishes of Scorsese greatness throughout the film and the first hour is fantastic. As the money and drugs start to flow, things keep spiraling out of control and as an audience, we get it but the excess just keeps coming which is obviously Mr. Scorsese's and screenwriter Terrance Winter's intent. There is a great two hour movie wrapped inside this three hour circus but unfortunately we are bombarded with every aspect of Mr. Belfort's life.

           The morale of the story is greed is good and so is the movie. But sadly it could have been great.

August: Osage County

     Director John Wells adapts Tracy Letts' Pulitzer prize winning play for the big screen with an all star cast and a screenplay by Mr. Letts. Live on Broadway, this tale of the very dysfunctional Westin family was an emotional powerhouse but on screen it loses some of that punch. If you've seen the play, you won't feel as involved with the characters on film but you may feel differently if this is your first time.

       Meryl Streep stars as Violet Westin, the pill popping matriarch of the family and she delivers the emotional fireworks in a typically amazing Streep performance. When circumstances bring the immediate family together, every secret and dysfunction in this family's closet comes pouring out, especially during the centerpiece of the film, the dinner scene.

         Violet's three daughters are played by Julia Roberts as Barbara, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, and Juliette Lewis as Karen. Ms. Roberts carries most of the burden as the eldest daughter who spars with her mother throughout the film. The men in the film are played by Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch. All are very good in their respective roles but as written, they are support players to the women. The film also stars Abigail Breslin as Barbara's daughter, Misty Upham as Violet's caretaker Johnna and the ubiquitous Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae, Violet's sister. 

           The majority of the story takes place in the Westin home with the camera opening up a bit to the Oklahoma landscapes. The film is a dark comedy. There are many great lines and funny moments but at it's core, it can be difficult to watch. It's not exactly the feel-good movie of the year but it does have a lot to offer, especially the performances of Ms. Streep and Ms. Roberts.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

     Ben Stiller directs and stars in this re-imagined version of James Thurber's short story. It's the perfect film for the holidays and one the whole family can appreciate. It's upbeat, fun and a genuine "feel good" movie.

     Mr. Stiller does a fine job of directing himself and a versatile cast. Kristen Wiig is his love interest and it's her most natural part to date. She even does a decent version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity". The villain (so to speak) is played by Adam Scott and Walter's mother is played by the still remarkable, Shirley MacLaine. Kathryn Hahn plays Walter's sister. Patton Oswalt plays Todd, a voice on the phone for much of the film. And while Sean Penn's role is integral to the story, his screen time is little more than a cameo. 

      The CGI is kept to a minimum in the fantasy sequences and never distracts the audience from the heart of the story. The photography is beautiful, especially in the Iceland and Himalayan scenes. Mr. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad take the original story and build on it, adding a layer of realism that drives home a very positive message.

        Mr. Stiller has come full circle now as a director. In this film, Reality doesn't bite (except maybe in one scene). 

Friday, December 27, 2013

47 Ronin

        Another attempt at Hollywood to remake a Japanese classic that ultimately disappoints. First time director, Carl Rinsch fails to give this dour film any real life or punch. The story is a true classic that deserves a big budget action filled adventure but the budget here must have gone to Keanu Reeves's salary.

          Mr. Reeves is the "name" draw for American audiences but the real star of the film is Japanese actor, Hiroyuki Sanada who plays Oishi, the disgraced Samurai out for revenge against the man who murdered his lord. Mr. Reeves gets most of the high profile fighting scenes but it is Mr. Sanada who is the heart and soul of the film (and he gets his share of fights as well).

            The CGI effects are effective but underwhelming as are the action sequences themselves. A poster for the film depicts a port city in flames, when in actuality, one dock burns. Another character who looks promising on the same poster has about five seconds of actual screen time. The battles scenes are fun but not the spectacle you would expect. It's possible a better film ended up on the cutting room floor but this end result would honor the audience best by committing Seppuku.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Past

    Writer/director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) returns with his second film about marital discord. This time the film is set in a city outside Paris where an estranged couple is about to finalize their divorce, but like his previous film, the story grows more complicated as it goes on.

      The wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), meets Ahmad ( Ali Mosaffa) who has just arrived to sign their divorce papers so she can marry Samir (Tarhar Rahim). Marie has two daughters from an even earlier marriage and also cares for Samir's young son. Early on, Mr. Farhadi build tension as secrets are revealed and plot complications begin to pile up. You wonder just where the story is going but I was ultimately disappointed by where it ends up.

         There is a lot of dialogue that captures your interest at first but halfway through the film, everything slows to a crawl and any interest at this point deflates and leaves the story to go out on a quiet note with unresolved issues. 

          There is quite a buzz around this domestic drama and while "A Separation" left you with one question at the end, this film leaves you asking many questions. As one character says "Why did you drag me into this mess?" That's the biggest question of all.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


        Writer/director Spike Jonze asks the question "what is love" in this unusual new film. It's a love story for the modern age that also wants to know "how" we love as well. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, an introverted man who falls in love with his computer's operating system. Yes, it's a strange premise that you either accept or not but something wonderful happens as you keep watching...it does work and you are drawn into this odd relationship thanks to the clever script and heartfelt acting.

         When Theodore turns on his new OS 1 computer and asks for a female voice, he meets Samantha, with vocals by Scarlett Johansson. Ms. Johansson is never seen as she is just an OS but this story, set in the not to distant future, gives her the ability to be self aware and intuitive.  Theodore and Samantha begin a real relationship that seems ridiculous at first but grows into something tender and believable. Credit the remarkable acting by Mr. Phoenix and the terrific vocal display by Ms. Johansson to bring this relationship to life. 

          The film also stars Rooney Mara as Catherine, Theodore's soon to be ex-wife and Amy Adams as his close friend, Amy. Each plays a significant part as Mr. Jonze explores the ruminations of love from multiple perspectives.

           The cinematography and visuals create a futuristic Los Angeles without resorting to science fiction that sets a perfect tone for Theodore's world. While a love story, the film is also a parable for the dangers of technology and the isolationist environment we continue to embrace with every new upgrade.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

       The film is based on the true story of how Walt Disney convinced author P L Travers to give him the film rights for "Mary Poppins". On the surface it doesn't sound that inviting but thanks to a first rate script, beautiful direction and a superb cast, the film will surprise and captivate you.

        Director John Lee Handcock deftly moves between Los Angeles in the early '60's and in flashbacks, the Australian wilderness of the early 1900's. We learn the inspiration for the beloved story from the author's own childhood, and her motivation for initially not wanting it turned into a film by Mr. Disney.

         Emma Thompson is simply glorious as T L Travers. There is not a false note anywhere in a remarkable performance. Tom Hanks is the embodiment of Walt Disney and the two actors have great chemistry between them. Paul Giamatti is Ralph, the limo driver assigned to Mrs. Travers. While a small part, Mr. Giamatti gives subtle performance that becomes important to the story. The film also stars Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson ( both terrific)  as Mrs. Travers parents seen in the flashback sequences. A wonderful child actress, Annie Rose Buckley plays the young Mrs. Travers and she is a delight, wise beyond her years.

         Bradley Whitford is "Mary Poppins" Screenwriter Don DeGradi and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak play the Sherman brothers who wrote the music and lyrics for "Mary Poppins". Ms. Thompson elevates everyone's acting in every scene she's in, particularly in the rehearsal scenes with this trio. It's also good to see Kathy Baker and Rachel Griffiths in supporting roles.

          This is not necessarily a film for children as it deals with adult themes and some serious moments. There is very little of "Mary Poppins" in the film but it's a fascinating background story of how "she" came to life on the screen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Hustle

         Screenwriter/director David O. Russell continues his winning streak with his best film yet. Highly anticipated, "American Hustle" will not disappoint. The story is loosely based (love the disclaimer at the beginning) on the Abscam FBI sting of the late seventies. It's smart, funny and incredibly entertaining. Give Mr. Russell credit for a great script and masterful direction of an amazing cast.

          It all starts with Christian Bale, who once again transforms himself physically and disappears completely into his character, Irving Rosenfeld. He is simply remarkable in every film, good or bad, and never has a false note. Here he is joined by Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner and all of them are terrific. Mr. Cooper improves with each film and continues to develop into a fine actor. Amy Adams shows a darker side from the characters she usually plays but there is still a comic tone to her performance. Jeremy Renner, as the Mayor of Camden New Jersey shines as the only character with a conscience. The biggest surprise is a wonderful Jennifer Lawrence as Mr. Bale's wife, Roselyn. There is a new maturity here with excellent comic timing. She almost steals the film except for the fact everyone is so good.

          In support, there is Louis C.K. as Mr. Cooper's FBI supervisor, Michael Pena as a Mexican Arab (it will make sense), and Jack Huston as a Miami gangster. There is also an unbilled cameo from an actor perfectly cast.

           Mr. Russell reminds me here of Martin Scorsese at his best with rapid fire dialog, great sets, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and a soundtrack of great songs that integrate so well into the story. Enough said...just go see it. It's easily one of the best films of the year. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

   Strictly for the literary set or fans of Daniel Radcliffe, this new Indie drama is based on the life of poet Allen Ginsberg. The film centers on Mr. Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg during his formative years at Columbia University. It is there in 1944 that he meets William Burroughs ( a fantastic Ben Foster), Jack Kerouac ( Jack Huston) and Lucian Carr ( an hypnotic Dane DeHaan). The four become fast friends until tragedy strikes.

        Mr. Radcliffe has completely shed his Harry Potter shadow and emerges here in a complex and daring role. Mr. Foster is a chameleon who successfully disappears into every role and here even bears a resemblance to the real Mr. Burroughs. Mr. Huston is best known for his role on "Boardwalk Empire" and its good to see him in a different light. Lucian Carr is the central character here, the one who draws Mr. Ginsberg into a new world and helps to spark the "Beat Generation" to come. Mr. DeHaan has a magnetic charm that pulls you in and captivates you. If he is portraying Mr. Carr the way he truly was, then it's easy to see how Mr. Ginsberg fell under his spell.

         The film also stars Michael C. Hall in a pivotal role, Elizabeth Olsen as Mr. Kerouac's girlfriend and Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Cross as Mr. Ginsberg's parents. It's quite an impressive cast doing very good work in a film not for everyone. The subject matter does not have the appeal for a wide audience but it's an interesting story none the less.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

   Parts of this review are from my review of the first Hobbit movie as much of it still holds true.

        It's great fun to return to Middle Earth but the awe and magic of "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy is gone. Director Peter Jackson and his team of writers, so anxious to film the prequel and satisfy millions of fans have overstuffed a wonderful tale with unnecessary sound and fury. They have super-sized the enchanting story so much that it was necessary to split it into three films. And now we have part two...

          The CGI work and the New Zealand landscapes are remarkable. At times, it's hard to tell the real actors from the computer images...and that's still not a good thing. Only Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Thorin, the dwarf King have any personality. Some of the other characters are better defined as we move through part two but for now, it's all a noisy set up for what's to come. It's basically run, fight, repeat but with more imagination.

          Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Wizard and he hasn't missed a beat. He wears his wizard hat proudly. Thorin is played by Richard Armitage and he smolders beautifully. Our reluctant Hobbit hero, Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman and he is perfectly cast in the role (although he is basically playing the same part he played in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" albeit with bigger feet). A fun aside is that the voice of Smaug the dragon is done by Benedict Cumberbatch, Mr. Freeman's Watson to his Sherlock Holmes (on BBC). It's that dragon thats really impressive in this episode with fantastic CGI work. Of course you would expect nothing less from Mr. Jackson for such an important part of the film although in other fight sequences the CGI suffers.
             A familiar face appears in this installment (although he was never in the book) in the elfin form of Legolas, played with heroic abandon by Orlando Bloom (amazing how many Orcs he can kill without getting a scratch on himself). And the fresh face in the cast is the female elf, Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly. This character is completely new but fits in nicely as a fierce woman warrior.

         See it in Imax 3D for the best experience as it looks and sounds great. As for the overall film, you can't really review this as a finished work since we are only two thirds into the story. It is certainly exciting though and does it's job setting up the big finale, next year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Out of The Furnace

     Writer/director Scott Cooper must have been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen while formulating this movie in his head. We have the mill closing down, a disheartened war vet, ties that bind and just "a meanness in this world" in this flat, melodramatic, blue collar disappointment.

      A first rate cast is wasted in this grim tale of poverty and revenge. Christian Bale stars as Russell,  the factory worker just trying to get by in a dying town and Casey Affleck is his younger brother Rodney, the war vet reduced to illegal bare fist fighting to make a buck. Woody Harrelson is the villain, DeGroat a psycho drug dealer who fixes fights on the side. Willem Dafoe is a fight promoter that sets things in motion.  Zoe Saldana co-stars as Mr. Bale's girlfriend and Forest Whitaker is the town cop. All of them stereotyped characters with hardly any development. Only Mr. Bale rises above the material with his usual intensity. Why he decided to star in this mess we'll probably never know.

       About the only thing that works in the film is the bookend of Pearl Jam's "Release" at the start and end of the film. The music sets a tone at the start that has such promise only to end up a disappointment. But as a coda to the story, it is perfect as a reprise.  

        Unfortunately there are no surprises here except for an anti-climatic ending which is so dull and unsatisfying, I felt like asking for my money back. Save your money and wait for "American Hustle", a film that appears to have Mr. Bale atoning for this sin. 

Sunday, December 01, 2013


       An American interpretation of the 2003 Korean classic thriller, "Oldboy" is a twisted tale of revenge in any language. Spike Lee directs this English version. When Mr. Lee directs a film that is a personal project, it's known as "A Spike Lee Joint", when he signs on to a film within the Hollywood machine, it becomes "A Spike Lee Film". The finished work is distinctively different but no less interesting. As he did with "Inside Man" (also a Spike Lee film), he leaves a mark with his signature style but here he doesn't really bring anything new to the story (although he does increase the body count in one memorable scene). 

          The film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, an unappealing drunk who is kidnapped and mysteriously imprisoned for 20 years. When he is finally freed, again for unknown reasons, he emerges a changed man but still out for revenge on the people responsible. The film co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley and Elizabeth Olsen in roles I won't spoil for you. Needless to say, they are crucial to the story which takes crazy twists and turns as answers are revealed. Michael Imperiloli also has a role as an old friend of Joe's who tries to help him put the pieces together.

            The final reveal is a nasty piece of business that may turn a stomach or two and along the way, there are scenes of graphic torture and violence so be certainly warned, this is not a film for everyone. It is, however, well acted (especially by Mr. Brolin) and directed with flair by Mr. Lee. And while the endgame is disturbing, the puzzle of the plot is intriguing enough to keep you engaged. Just watch out for those box-cutters and hammers.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


    The new film from director Alexander Payne takes us back on the road as Woody and his son, David travel from Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska in search of a million dollar prize Woody thinks he has won. It is a family drama laced with quite a bit of low key humor.

     Bruce Dern plays Woody and Will Forte is David. Mr. Dern is excellent as a man who knows his best days are behind him but holds onto one last dream.  Mr. Forte finds his own zone against the veteran actor and the two men play off each other brilliantly. Co-starring is June Squibb as Woody's wife, Kate and she pretty much steals the film. In a smaller role, Woody and Kate's other son is played by Bob Odenkirk (fresh off "Breaking Bad" as the devious lawyer, Saul Goodman).

      Mr. Payne makes a wonderful choice to shoot the film in black and white. The cinematography is outstanding. Devoid of color, the landscapes look bleaker as do the faces of the weather worn cast but there is beauty in almost every shot. When Woody and David make a pit stop in Woody's hometown, we meet a bevy of interesting characters, friends and family members, who all take an interest in Woody's alleged winnings. The stark black and white images in many of these scenes are remarkable. 

       Watching this unlikely pair bond in a subtle but realistic way makes the journey more interesting than the destination. Its a memorable film both for the acting and the resonating beauty of it's visuals.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

         The Marvel movie machine rumbles on with this enjoyable sequel.  It will definitely help if you have previously seen the first Thor film and also "The Avengers" as this new film follows a specific continuity firmly planted in the Marvel universe. But of course movies like this have a built in audience and there is enough exposition by the characters to bring everyone else up to speed.

           The original cast returns and pick up where they have left off. Chris Hemsworth embodies the Marvel version of Thor very well. Natalie Portman is his mortal girlfriend, Jane Foster. Anthony Hopkins hams it up as Odin and thankfully Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki raising the quality of the film every time he's on screen. Idris Elba also returns as Heimdall and is given more to do this time than just play Asgardian doorman. The villain this time is played by Christopher Ecclston barely recognizable under tons of makeup. 

             The story concerns Malekith, lord of the Dark Elves trying to destroy the nine realms with a dark force called the ether but the rambling plot is just an excuse for Thor to swing his mighty hammer and save the day. For the purist, the characters are drawn from the Marvel comics (with some minor tweaks and exceptions) and there is a deliberate bridge to the next Marvel film waiting for us during the credits. There is also a clever cameo, played for laughs like much of the movie itself.

               The film doesn't have the gravitas of The Batman Franchise. It is, however, a fun romp that passes the time well until the next Marvel superhero saves the day.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

       Based on a true story, this is not an easy film to watch but it chronicles an important time in our history and has two of the best performances on film this year.

      This is the story of Ron Woodruff, a macho electrician and rodeo cowboy who finds out he is HIV positive in 1985.  He is given 30 days to live but once he accepts the truth, he dedicates the time he has left to find drugs that will keep him alive. Matthew McConaughey plays Woodruff and he is devastatingly good. He inhabits the role inside and out (having lost a shocking amount of weight to play the part) and is brilliant in every scene.

      Ron finds out about AZT and does everything he can to get the drug legally from his doctors but soon turns to illegal means to keep himself alive. The early results on AZT were  not great (until lower doses proved more effective) and Ron finds other alternatives from a doctor in Mexico, played by Griffin Dunne. When he starts to respond to the new therapy, he devises a way to get rich and keep himself and others alive at the same time. Thus, The Dallas Buyers Club is born. He gives the drugs away for "free" with a paid membership creating a loophole around the FDA.

       In a strange twist, this "macho", firmly anti-gay Texan ends up befriending an HIV positive transsexual named Rayon who eventually becomes his business partner. Rayon is played by Jared Leto and he is simply remarkable.  Both he and Mr. McConaughey have Oscars in their future. Also co-starring are Jennifer Garner and Dennis O'Hare as a sympathetic doctor and her doctor supervisor who first diagnose Mr. Woodruff. 

      The film is heartbreaking and powerful but probably could have been a bit shorter with the same impact. While certain scenes become repetitive, the performances are riveting and keep you engaged.  While the drugs have gotten better and more people live longer HIV positive, AIDS is still a world wide major concern. Mr. Woodruff's story serves to remind us just how devastating this disease remains today.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

12 Years a Slave

   Oscar buzz has been building lately for this year's best actor prize. Tom Hanks and Robert Redford are sure to be nominated but the biggest surprise will be the nomination (and if there is any justice, the win) for Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Mr. Ejiofor gives a towering, masterful and heartbreaking performance as Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga NY who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War south.

    The story is based on true events and the source material is the book Mr. Northup eventually wrote about the 12 darkest years of his life. Directed with a clear, uncompromising vision by Steve McQueen, this important film is not to be missed. This is a raw visceral look at slavery and it contains scenes of cruelty and violence that may be hard to watch but it is remarkable in it's honesty and emotional impact.  

     The film contains many recognizable names in supporting roles, some not more than a cameo. Besides Mr. Ejiofor, the actors with the most screen time are Michael Fassbender as a heartless slave owner and Sarah Paulson as his equally brutal wife. Benedict Cumberbatch (turning up everywhere these days) is a kinder slave owner who is forced to "sell" Mr. Ejiofor to Mr. Fassbender. Also appearing in minor but important roles are Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Alfie Woodward and in a memorable debut,  Lupita Nyong'o as Patsy, another slave on Mr. Fassbender's plantation.

       As difficult it may be to watch, Mr. Ejiofor's quiet dignity and will to survive will keep you enthralled. This story is a small but important part of our nation's history and credit Mr. McQueen, his creative team and his actors for bringing it to life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Captain Phillips

     The new "based on a true story" thriller from director Paul Greengrass stars Tom Hanks as  the real life Captain Phillips. By now most of the world has repeated seen the trailer for the film and know that in 2009, his freighter was boarded by Somali pirates. What you don't see from the trailer is any hint of the second half of the film when it turns from a very good film to a great film.

        Mr. Hanks is terrific as the stoic Phillips who is wary of a pirate threat from the minute he boards the ship. The true mark of a great actor is when they disappear so deeply into a role that you forget you are watching the actor. That's what happens during the course of this film.

        Without revealing too much, know that Mr. Hanks is simply remarkable in the later half of the film. His vulnerability, humanity and fear are simultaneously etched on his face as he finds himself in claustrophobic close quarters with his panicked captors. Even as his situation grows more desperate, the camera catches him calculating a plan, fearing for his life, and trying to negotiate a peaceful end all with minimal dialog. Mr. Hanks continues to show us his best work with every role. If you have any doubt this is a masterful performance, watch the infirmary scene closely.

          Matching him in intensity is the Somali pirate leader, Muse, played by first time actor, Barkhad Abdi.  Even if you have seen the trailer many times, it's still a chilling moment when he confronts Phillips and says "I'm the Captain now".

            Mr. Greengrass is a master of close up camera direction and always puts his audience in the center of the action, moving things along at a brisk pace. He never wastes a shot although the opening establishing scenes are a bit contrived. His camerawork combined with a great score keep you on the edge as the story plays out between the pirates, the Captain, and the U.S. Navy.

             This fall, Hollywood seems obsessed with protagonists in survival mode and "Captain Phillips" may lead the pack only because this one really happened.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


 Simply a spectacular achievement and why movies can still surprise us. Director Alphonso Cuaron has created a film that for the first time, not only do I recommend seeing it in IMAX 3D, I insist. It is a technical marvel and the best use of 3D technology since...well ever. This film can only be truly appreciated in a theater and definitely in 3D. 

       The plot is basically a survival story and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play astronauts stranded above the earth when their shuttle is destroyed by debris from a Russian satellite. Space has never looked so real unless you go all the way back to "2001: A Space Odyssey". The visuals are stunning and the 3D is never used as a gimmick but rather to enhance the beauty of what you see before you.

          While you are amazed by the technical marvel of the film, what really keeps you engaged is the realistic and emotional performance of Ms. Bullock. Mr. Clooney holds his own but when the two become separated, the film really belongs to Ms. Bullock. There are edge of your seat moments and surprises. But it is Ms. Bullock's performance that puts the viewer right inside her space suit with its rapidly dwindling oxygen supply. 

           Scientists have already poked holes in some of the technical aspects of the story but let's not forget, this is a movie and not a documentary. It's a breathtaking thrill ride, unlike anything you have seen before.

All Is Lost

      Written and directed by J. C. Chandor, this new drama stars Robert Redford in an extraordinary role. Mr. Redford plays a sailor known only in the credits as "our man" who must fight to survive on the open sea when his sailboat becomes crippled by a collision with a loose shipping container. 

        Mr. Redford is the only actor in the film and there is barely any dialog but he conveys so much through his physical acting that the film is never boring. Unlike "Life of Pi" or "Castaway" (other tales of individual survival), our man is running out of time in a very realistic situation as his sailboat is further damaged by bad storms and his options are dwindling quickly. 

         Mr. Chandor films in tight spaces, above the sea and under it. His camera is everywhere  pulling the viewer into the very real plight of this master seaman.  Mr. Redford, I discovered later, did 98% of his own stunts and spend the majority of the film soaking wet. He is in great shape for a 76 year old ( at the time of shooting) to endure the physical aspects of the film.

           The plot is simple. One man's survival and Mr. Redford's face show every ounce of strength, courage and vulnerability faced with impossible odds.  The ending is quite remarkable and sure to be discussed after the credits roll.

Sunday, October 06, 2013


    The latest film from director Ron Howard keeps his track record intact even as he shifts into a new direction with this terrific story set in the world of Formula One racing. More specifically, the film is based on the true story of the rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda, during the 1976 racing season.

     Mr. Howard revs up the action with precision camerawork and terrific acting from his two leads, Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Nikki Lauda. Mr. Hemsworth has the showier role as the outrageous Mr. Hunt, both on and off the track but Mr. Bruhl is firing on all cylinders as the serious and driven Mr. Lauda.

     Olivia Wilde plays Suzy Hunt but the part is underwritten and she doesn't have much to do besides look very attractive.  Alexandra Maria Lara plays Marlene Lauda and she is fueled by a more emotional connection to her husband.

      The film is much more than just about racing. Credit the script for going deeper into the lives of these men and what drives them in their quest to be the best. Mr. Howard does, however, provide thrills in all the race sequences as cameras shoot from amazing angles, putting the viewer in the center of the action. Composer Hans Zimmer contributes a wonderful score matched by a great seventies soundtrack that adds depth and emotion to an already terrific story.

       This is a film that should be seen in a theater to really appreciate the spectacle of Formula One racing and it easily takes its place in the winner's circle along side such classics as "Grand Prix".

Saturday, October 05, 2013


       The creepiest thriller I've seen since "Seven". What starts out as a case of two missing little girls has twists and turns galore and gets darker and darker as the film goes on. The story takes place in an unnamed Pennsylvania town right after Thanksgiving. It's either raining or snowing most of the time and the daylight fades to night pretty quickly which all feeds the atmosphere of this engrossing new drama. 

        The biggest surprise is Hugh Jackman as the father of one of the missing girls. I doubt Mr. Jackman has ever played a role like this and he is terrific as a man pushed to the limits, doing whatever necessary to find his daughter. Matching him in intensity is Jake Gyllenhaal playing the detective in charge of the case. Mr. Gyllenhaal shows a new level of maturity and grittiness, much of the time with just a facial expression, exposing his anger and determination to close the case.

          Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the parents of the other missing girl and they get their share of emotional scenes as well as Maria Bello as Mr. Jackman's wife. While these characters have their moments, they fade into the background for much of the film as it focuses on it's leads and the prime suspect, played by Paul Dano. Also co-starring is the ever reliable Melissa Leo, almost unrecognizable in a small but important role.

           The film has it's faults. Plot points may seem too convenient or straining credibility but credit the direction, photography and the score (and of course the acting) to keep you engrossed in a story that runs about 30 minutes too long. Yes, the running time is two hours and thirty minutes and the audience may feel like prisoners too by the time it's over but it's powerful and will leave an impression after it ends.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

          The Coen Brother make perfect films. They are not always great films but they are crafted with such precision and attention, that whatever the genre, they are perfect. Sometimes they are perfect in failure but more often in triumph.

           This new film reaches for greatness but falls a bit short. It takes place during the folk scene of New York in 1961.  Rather than explore that period in a wider scope, the Coen's focus on one particular fictional musician, Llewyn Davis. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac and he is a revelation. His character is very complex, a talented artist but a difficult person. He cares more for his art than commercial success yet he chases the success that eludes him anyway.

            The film also features Cary Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as a successful folk duo, John Goodman as a jazz musician Llewyn meets on a road trip, and F. Murray Abraham as a promoter in Chicago. Most of the actors drift in and out of the movie as it revolves around Llewyn. Besides Mr. Isaac, no one else has any sustained screen time. There is a standout scene involving a recording session with Mr. Isaac, Mr. Timberlake and Adam Driver, but the film really belongs heart and soul to Mr. Isaac. The trick the Coen's pull off is that you keep rooting for Llewyn no matter how abrasive and unlikable he becomes.

            While the film has its flaws (even in it's perfection), the music is terrific so credit executive producer T. Bone Burnett for an outstanding folk soundtrack performed by the actors.
And of course, the cinematography and the visuals in general are outstanding.

              "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a perfectly good film that could have been great, ironically much like the title character.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Don Jon

       This new film, written and directed by and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt is a spiritual cousin to "Saturday Night Fever". The big difference here is unlike dancing, Jon's obsession is internet porn. It's romantic and comedic but far from a romantic comedy.

       Jon is a New Jersey native that lives by a code of eight things. They are going to the gym, his spotless apartment, his car, his family, church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. When he thinks he's met the girl of his dreams, Barbara (played wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson), his life and his code are turned upside down.

        The twist here is that another woman, Ester (played by Julianne Moore) has an even greater impact on Jon that he never sees coming. Mr. Gordon Levitt keeps things light and fun but still makes his point about human connections. And while we see plenty of skin in the countless porn videos he watches, the camera work is subtle and the film easily avoids an X rating (although it does deserve it's R ).

         His family is played by Glenne Headley, Tony Danza, and Brie Larson.  It's a stereotypical Italian family in many ways but there is honesty in the script that keeps the characters interesting. The film is very funny and surprisingly touching.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

We're The Millers

  Hoping to recapture the magic of the hysterically funny "Horrible Bosses", this time out, Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis fall short. "The Millers" is funny in a few spots but mostly just crude and rude, predicable and dare I say it...boring.

    Ms. Aniston plays a stripper with a heart posing as a soccer mom along side Mr. Sudeikis, a drug dealer posing as a nerd dad. It's Mr,. Sudeikis's idea to get a fake family in order to smuggle tons of marijuana  across the border from Mexico, stashed in an RV. He also enlists Emma Roberts as a runaway street kid and Will Poulter as the nerd teen next door to pose as "the kids".

      Much of the humor is at the expense of Kenny, Mr. Poulter's punching bag of a character. Ms. Aniston tries to recapture her bad girl image from "Horrible Bosses" (which she did very well and was very funny) but lightning doesn't strike twice and her inevitable strip tease looks more like an ad for a gym than sexy. I will give her credit for being in great shape. Mr. Sudeikis seems trapped in a typically bad "Saturday Night Live" skit that goes on much too long. Even Ed Helms looks embarrassed to play a natty criminal who sends Mr. Sudeikis down to Mexico.

       Considering the price of movie tickets these days, catch it on cable when there's nothing else on.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Short Term 12

     This new Indie drama is a star turn for Brie Larson. It's a powerful story about a young counselor in a temporary housing facility for troubled teens. Ms. Larson is probably best known for playing Toni Collette's daughter on Showtime's "The United States of Tara" but she takes center stage here and is remarkable in a multi-layered performance.

       Ms. Larson's character Grace is very good at her job. She connects easily with her troubled charges, having come from a troubled past herself. When a new girl (Kaitlin Dever) arrives with a similar history, Grace's own demons come back to haunt her, further complicating a new situation.

        Ms. Larson radiates raw honesty and emotion in a complex character. It is an award winning performance. Ms. Dever shows skills beyond her years as she bonds with Ms. Larson. Co-starring is John Gallagher Jr. as Manson, another counselor and Grace's boyfriend. Mr. Gallagher Jr.'s performance is not a far stretch from his character on the HBO series "The Newsroom" but he is adapt at "likable boy next door" roles and he brings much warmth to his role. Rami Malek adds some comic relief as a new counselor learning how to understand the kids. The other actors portraying the residents of "Short Term 12" are all very good but as they are written, the standout performances go to Kevin Hernandez and Keith Stanfield.

          This is a small but powerful drama that deserves an audience. it should garner many nominations for "Independent Spirit" awards.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The World's End

       Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are back to save the world. Working together with writer/director Edgar Wright (Mr. Frost also co-wrote the script), the same team that brought us "Shaun of The Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" return with a new comedy that's two films in one.

        "The World's End" starts out as a buddy comedy, when five childhood friends reunite to finish a pub crawl that they had started years ago as teens. They have all gone in different directions but Mr. Pegg's character, Gary King rounds them all up for one night of camaraderie and lots of drinking. 

           The friends are played by Mr. Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsdan, and Paddy Considine. Roseamund Pike co-stars as Mr. Freeman's sister, Samantha. It's a top notch ensemble cast in what begins as a comedy with heart but dramatically shifts gears in the second half of the film into an all out science fiction romp.

            There are many terrific one-liners and funny moments but when the film shifts, it loses focus and falls apart. It's as if Mr. Wright and Mr. Frost ran out of story and decided that alien pod people and total chaos would provide a good cover masking the fact they didn't know how to finish what they started. If you have a few pints yourself before seeing the film, that won't make much difference and it will probably all seem hysterically funny right to the credits.


      This is the new film from writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who's first film, "District 9"  was a breath of fresh air in in the science fiction genre. "Elysium" doesn't have the same impact but is still an an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.

       The film is set in the not to distant future where the Earth has been reduced to polluted rubble for millions and the elite class live off world in a giant orbiting space station known as "Elysium". It's a man-made paradise where disease has been eradicated by special machines.

        Matt Damon stars as "Max", a former criminal now trying to build a meager life on Earth until an accident at work gives him a reason to find a quick way to "Elysium". Jodie Foster also stars as the cold blooded head of security on the space station. The film features Diego Luna as Max's best friend, and Sharlto Copley as a ruthless mercenary working for Ms. Foster.  The acting is about what you would expect. Mr. Damon is a strong lead, Ms. Foster doesn't really work too hard and Mr. Copley makes a fine villain (a change from his starring role in "District 9").

         The sets on earth look leftover from "District 9" but the robots and spacecraft effects are well done. The story is familiar, class struggle, but Mr. Damon's motives begin selfishly and he becomes a reluctant hero for the masses.

          The film is being shown in IMAX 3-D which is totally unnecessary in order to enjoy it. Save your extra money and see the regular version. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Only God Forgives

      And I thought "Drive" was bad. This new film from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn makes his last film look like an Academy Award winner. What was star Ryan Gosling thinking? For that matter what was co-star Kristin Scott Thomas thinking? Right now, this has to be the top candidate for worst movie of the year.

      Odd artsy lighting, little dialog, long slow scenes where nothing happens and then random acts of gory violence...about sums up the film. What passes for a plot involves Mr. Gosling's character, Julian who is involved in the criminal underbelly of Bangkok. When his brother is murdered, his foul mouthed mother ( Ms. Scott Thomas) shows up looking for revenge. There is also a sword wielding cop who likes to sing in a nightclub. He haunts Julian in his dreams and then there is an actual confrontation.

       You can't say Mr. Gosling acts in this film. He barely moves or strings two sentences together. Ms. Scott Thomas is so far against type, she comes off absolutely ridiculous in an unbelievable role. I can't think of anything in this film worthy of a positive comment.

       The title is appropriate as only God would probably forgive Mr. Winding Refn for this waste of 90 minutes.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Blue Jasmine

      Woody Allen continues a hot streak with this drama based in San Francisco.  As usual, the film is written and directed by Mr. Allen and he has created still another in a long line of strong roles for women.  

       "Blue Jasmine" is bound to get star Cate Blanchett an Oscar nomination. She stars as Jasmine, a rich society wife who becomes penniless and is forced to move cross country and live with her sister in very unfamiliar surroundings. The film grows from an idea based loosely on the Bernie Madoff scandal and borrows heavily from "A Streetcar Named Desire" but it's still has the Woody Allen pedigree.

         All the roles in the film have been cast perfectly. Besides a wonderful performance from Ms. Blanchett, Alec Baldwin is terrific as her husband Hal, and Sally Hawkins does great work as her sister, Ginger. The film also features Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C. K., Michael Stulhbarg and a surprisingly good Andrew Dice Clay. Mr. Allen always seems to bring out the best in his actors and this ensemble is no different. The film, however, belongs to Ms. Blanchett, who moves through so many emotional twists and turns, it's hard to keep up. She is just brilliant.

           As usual, the cinematography is excellent as is the soundtrack. Filming outside of New York for his last few films seems to have rejuvenated Mr. Allen. Familiar yet fresh, the film is dramatic with some light moments. You may prefer a different ending but that will always be debatable. Go for the acting. It's perfection and should get Mr. Allen an Oscar nod as well for direction.

The Heat

 After a promising '70s style credit sequence, this new film from Director Paul Feig quickly falls into a stereotypical, mismatched buddy comedy with a standard formula. The lazy plot and direction are only saved by the great chemistry of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.

     Ms. Bullock plays the buttoned-up, smug, FBI agent, Sarah Ashburn and Ms. McCarthy plays the sloppy, foul mouthed but street smart detective, Shannon Mullins. Its standard buddy comedy 101 where each character ends up a better person for working together.

      The film takes place in Boston and there is ample opportunity to make fun of Detective Mullins's stereotyped Irish family. Most of the laughs come from Ms. McCarthy foul mouth and the film doesn't hide from plenty of gutter humor. But I must admit, there is plenty of very funny dialogue in the film.

        Ms. Bullock is a fine actress, playing comedy as well as drama and she always seems to elevate the material but here she doesn't even try and instead lets go and just has fun playing off Ms. McCarthy.

          This one has sequel written all over it, which, with a stronger plot will probably make an even better film. I can see it now..."The Heat 2: Even Hotter"

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Attack

Written and directed by Zaid Doueiri,  this controversial new drama asks difficult questions with no easy answers.

Ali Suliman plays Dr. Amin Jaafari, a successful, Israeli Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv. He has a good job, a loving wife but his world is turned upside down when it is revealed that his wife, Siham, has detonated a suicide bomb in a crowded restaurant killing herself and many others.

Coming as a complete shock, Dr. Jaafari at first, refuses to believe his wife could be capable of such an act but when facts reveal themselves, he sets out to discover how and why this could happen. He leaves Tel Aviv and sets out for the Palestinian territories in an attempt to discover the truth.

This is a thoughtful moving drama that puts the viewer inside Dr. Jaafari's world, feeling his grief and confusion about a person he only thought he knew. Mr Suliman acts with great conviction and it is easy to sympathize with him. There is no tidy Hollywood ending here but Mr. Doueiri tells a powerful story.

Fruitvale Station

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, "Fruitvale Station" retraces the last day in the life of Oscar Grant before he was detained and killed by police in the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland California. The film is based on real events that were captured on video by other passengers on the train. 

The film opens with one of those videos and then in flashback, we learn how Mr. Grant spent his last day, New Years Eve 2009. Some of the events of the day are obviously accurate, preparing for his mothers birthday dinner, going out with his friends to celebrate New Year's Eve but scenes of Mr. Grant alone can only be assumed by Mr. Coogler.

We see, that while he had a minimal criminal past, he was trying to turn his life around for himself, his girlfriend and small daughter. He is not portrayed as a saint but an average guy trying to get by in a difficult life. As imagined by Mr. Coogler, the day presents some challenges but is fairly uneventful until the tragic circumstances at Fruitvale.

Mr. Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan and he is excellent in the part. He has a very natural way about him and is very engaging. His girlfriend is played by Melonie Diaz and their scenes together have an authentic tenderness about them. Octavia Spencer plays his mother, Wanda and she at her most powerful in scenes just after the shooting.

This is Mr. Coogler's first feature film and it has created a deserving buzz. He doesn't try to manipulate the audience with cheap sympathies. He presents a portrait of a man, through an objective lens and lets the audience draw their own conclusions from a horribly tragic moment.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Bling Ring

     Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, this new film is based on real events and is Ms. Coppola's most "mainstream" film yet.
       The plot is based on an article in Vanity Fair magazine about a band of California teens that robbed the home of various celebrities. I can't decide what was worse, the stupidity of these kids or the stupidity of the celebrities that left doors open with little security. Yes, Paris Hilton, I'm talking about you. There is little motivation for the break-ins other than boredom and a desire for designer clothes, shoes and jewelry without buying it. Cash and drugs are a bonus.
        Katie Chang is the ringleader, Rebecca and her "gang" consists of Emma Watson as Nikki, Israel Broussard as Marc, and Taissa Farmiga as Sam. Ms. Chang plays Rebecca as a bored sociopath and she is scary good in the part. Ms. Watson's Nikki is an airhead who can't buy a clue and Ms. Watson is terrific against type, shattering her previous image from the Harry Potter films. Mr. Broussard garners sympathy as Marc, the boy looking to fit in and enjoying his new found status even as it leads him down a self destructive path. Ms. Farmiga gets off easy with not much to do except go along for the ride.
         It's straight forward storytelling with flourishes of Ms. Coppola's signature style. There are long tracking shots, scenes with little dialog  that still move the story and one wonderful long shot of a robbery taking place in a glass house lit up against the L.A. night. The cinematography is terrific and the musical choices on the soundtrack work perfectly. 
          The film is a sad commentary on life as a disaffected youth in Los Angeles. You know these kids will eventually be caught  because they are sloppy amateurs. They flaunt their escapades on Facebook and brag to their friends. All the parents in the film are portrayed as either divorced, uncaring, or clueless themselves. It's a story that has to be seen to be believed.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Conjuring

        I've waited many years for a horror film to scare me again the way "Poltergeist" or "The Omen" did back in the pre-digital days. Finally the wait is over. I can happily say that "The Conjuring" produces real goosebumps and plenty of "jump" moments. The film genuinely scares.

        Based on an actual case from the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren (true life ghost hunters), the film is about the Perron Family and the spirits that haunted their home in the early seventies. How much of the film is actually true doesn't really matter. What does however, is that it makes good on its promises to give you the chills on a hot summer night.

        The Warrens are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. They are both excellent and one can easily see a franchise developed of films from their case studies. This film even starts with some scary moments from an earlier case that spills over into the current story in a very creepy way. The Perrons are played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston. Its great to see Ms. Taylor back in film and well cast in a very demanding role. As the mother of five daughters living in a haunted house, she is a major focus of the plot and most of the thrills and chills involve her character. Mr. Livingston does a good job as the caring husband trying to protect his family.

          Besides the strong acting, so much credit must be given to director James Wan. Having directed the original "Saw" and "Insidious", Mr. Wan knows a thing or two about scary movies. Here, he goes "old school" and scares without the "torture porn" or gory bloodletting of so many films today that pass for "horror". His lightning, pacing, music choices, and editing all contribute to the success of the film. 

         "The Conjuring" owes an obvious nod to "Poltergeist" with a little "Exorcist" thrown in for good measure. Mr. Wan has one misstep with "The Birds" scene which was unnecessary and seemed forced. Everything else works however and if you are a fan of scary movies, "The Conjuring" will definitely not disappoint. I also have to give credit to whomever edited the trailer as they don't give away everything and save plenty of shocks for the film.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fill the Void

 A story of quiet beauty that takes place in a community of Orthodox Israeli Hasidim. Written and directed by Rama Burstein, a rookie filmmaker and Orthodox Jewish women herself, "Fill the Void" tells the story of Shira, an 18 year old girl facing a difficult decision when her older sister dies in childbirth.

     It is a fascinating look into a world bound by it's own laws and traditions but involving a situation that could be found in any close community that honors family and tradition.  Difficult choices have to be made. Blessings must be given and life changing decisions are at stake.

     The cinematography draws the viewer in with tight, close shots of the actors. Hadas Yaron plays Shira and she is a natural wonder. Her widowed brother-in-law is played by Yiftach Klein and their scenes together are gentle yet powerful under the surface.

      The editing is a little sloppy at times but can be forgiven by the strength and honesty of the film. Everything feels so real you'll forget you're watching actors speaking scripted words. If you are looking for something different from the usual summer fare, immerse yourself in this universal story of the ties that bind.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Way, Way Back

 This new comedy/drama is a critics darling. It's entertaining and enjoyable but not quite deserving of all the accolades it's received.

  It's a coming of age film filled with stereotypical characters and plot situations you've seen a thousand times. What saves it from failing is the wonderful cast working their hardest to deliver the story and entertain the audience. The film stars Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb.

  Allison Janney is very funny as the boozy sister of Mr. Carrell's character who lives next door to his summer beach house. Mr. Carrell is excellent against type as the bully boyfriend of Ms. Collette. Mr. Corddry and Ms. Peet are Mr. Carrell's close friends and Liam James is the featured character, Duncan, Ms. Collette's brooding teenager who hates her boyfriend.

  The story plays out in a beach town with one attraction, a water park run by Sam Rockwell with help from Maya Rudolph. Mr. Rockwell's character, Owen helps Duncan come into his own over the course of the summer. While Mr. Rockwell is the comic centerpiece of the film, he tries too hard to be quirky and funny. It's his least natural performance.

  Nat Faxon and Jim Rash wrote and directed the film together. They also have secondary comedic roles. The film is a nice effort, sunny and breezy like a day at the beach. But like a summer fling, it's soon forgotten and you're ready to move on.