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.