Sunday, November 30, 2014


   The disturbing story of John E. DuPont's relationship with the wrestlers Mark and David Schultz is played out with precision acting by Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.

         With the help of a terrific makeup job, Mr. Carell physically transforms himself into Mr. DuPont, capturing his speech patterns and body language perfectly. It is unlike anything he has done before and he is mesmerizing. Not to be overlooked is Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, the Olympic wrestler who comes to train with Mr. DuPont. While he may seem a simple jock, Mr. Tatum is actually doing the finest acting of his career, capturing all the emotions hidden beneath his musclebound exterior. Initially he sees Mr. DuPont as the father figure he never had but the nature of their relationship takes a drastic turn as the story progresses.

           Mr. Ruffalo, as older brother David Schultz, may not have as much screen time as his co-stars but he makes the most of it. David is crucial to the story and Mr. Ruffalo plays him brilliantly. Sienna Miller has a small supporting role as David's wife as does Vanessa Redgrave as DuPont's elderly mother. The film itself is fascinating in a tabloid sense. It grows darker and more disturbing as goes and since it is based on the true story, you may already know the outcome.

             The music is sparse but there is a haunting theme played repeatedly  and the cinematography is outstanding with beautiful Pennsylvania landscapes. The entertainment value here is not in the plot but rather watching three actors at the top of their game. They are the reason to see this film. There will be nominations all around during awards season.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Force Majeure

            This new foreign drama is an absorbing look a family fractured by one quick decision while on a ski vacation. Tomas and Ebba are staying at a beautiful ski resort high in the Alps with their two small children Vera and Harry. The film is divided into the days of the family vacation and when an unexpected turn of events occurs on the second day, everything changes.

             The acting is excellent as gender and family roles are examined by both Tomas and Ebba as well as their friends who come to visit. The film is very dramatic but their are moments of comic relief that break the growing tension.  

              Impressive cinematography both in the exteriors and inside the resort make for a beautiful backdrop for this very human drama that will easily lend itself to post viewing discussions.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Theory of Everything

            The story of the physicist Stephen Hawking has "Oscar" written all over it. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both wonderful as Professor Hawking and his first love, Jane. The screenplay focuses solely on their relationship and "sells" the film as a remarkable love story.

             When they first meet in college, Hawking shows no signs of the the disease that will end up crippling him for life. He is a brilliant student with a sharp wit and Jane falls rather easily in love. When he is diagnosed with ALS, Jane's love is so strong, she stands by her man, marries him and promises to fight the disease together. 

              While the love story is touching and very emotional, the film itself is very episodic and doesn't go into great detail about Hawking's medical condition or his work. The fact that when he is first diagnosed in his twenties, given two years to live, and yet is still with us in his seventies is remarkable. The film would have you believe it is Jane's love alone that keeps him alive. There is no mention of anything medical except for a hospital stay when he develops pneumonia. 

              Mr. Redmayne physical transformation as Hawking's body continues to fail him is amazing. He captures every nuance in the loss of his limbs and speech and yet still conveys the brilliance and wit of the man trapped in a deteriorating body. It's a performance so good, it hides the deficiencies in the screenplay. After such an emotional story, the turn of events in the last act are a betrayal to the audience as well as to the characters. Unfortunately its a true story so the events are real but we can only speculate on the reasons behind them. A coda at the end softens the blow but for film about "everything", too much was left out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


     Jake Gyllenhaal stars as this year's creepiest character. A cross between Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Rupert  Pupkin (The King of Comedy), he slithers his way through the LA nights as a "photo journalist" looking for the bloodiest accidents and crime scenes he can find to sell to the local TV station. A true "nightcrawler".

         His character, Louis Bloom is introduced to us as a petty thief. Through a series of events, he soon finds himself, video camera by his side, racing through the night with his police scanner announcing his next big payoff. Louis is a sociopath and it's what makes him so good at his new found profession. He hires an "intern" played by Riz Ahmed, promising him a good job review with a promotion and a raise. Mr. Ahmed plays dimwitted beautifully and his character is both tragic and comic relief.

           Rene Russo (so good to see her on screen again) plays the midnight shift news director who buys Lou's videos (if it bleeds, it leads).  In many ways, they are perfect for each other and the chemistry between the actors is terrific. Bill Paxton also co-stars as a rival nightcrawler.

            The story is dark and filled with tension as the stakes are raised with each news worthy story. Lines are crossed when reporting the news blurs into manipulating the news and watching the film is like watching a train wreck. You want to turn away but you can't help yourself. Mr. Gyllenhaal owns the screen and is magnetic, his eyes popping out of his head, focused solely on getting the story at all costs. It's a fantastic performance in a film that made me want to take a shower after it wash off the dirt and slime.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


         It's ironic that "The Theory of Everything" opened on the same day as "interstellar". Only Stephen Hawking could possibly decipher all the quantum physics thrown at us by writer/director Christopher Nolan (and his co-writer, brother). The film is stuffed with grand scientific theories and ideas but to Mr. Nolan's credit, he grounds it in emotional relationships. Unfortunately he also "borrows" quite liberally from the plot of "2010" and a bit from it's prequel, "2001:A Space Odyssey"  

          The strongest bond is between Cooper and his daughter Murphy played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy. Unfortunately, their relationship is so well defined and important to the story that the one between Cooper and his son is almost non-existent. Cooper is a farmer sometime in the future when the earth is dying. Conveniently, he used to be a NASA pilot and given the chance to save the earth, he jumps at the opportunity and leaves his family behind.

           Mr. Nolan has grandiose ideas that look wonderful on screen but he is so caught up in his vision that he makes too many sacrifices along the way. Cheesy dialogue runs throughout and a Dylan Thomas poem that has great impact the first time we hear it, is repeated ad nausem.  The emotional impact of the finale is weakened by the "head scratching" science fiction preceding it. Particular choices by the actors are sometimes very questionable. A unbilled "A list" actor shows up during an important part of the film and only serves to create a distraction.

           Besides Mr. McConaughey (who is so well cast), the film also stars Ann Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Wes Bentley and Michael Caine. It's a reliable cast doing good work but it's those early scenes between Cooper and Murphy that set the tone and really resonant throughout the film.

           The cinematography is spectacular, especially in IMAX and there are thrilling sequences that will have you on the edge of your seat but the film left me regretting failing physics  in college. I probably would have appreciated it much more.

Monday, November 03, 2014


     Credit writer/director David Ayer for taking five stereotyped characters, blending them together in the tight, claustrophobic space of a WW II tank (christened "Fury") and making us care deeply about them for a little over two hours.

      Brad Pitt stars as "Wardaddy", the tough as nails Sergeant keeping his misfit tank crew alive through the waning days of World War Two. His crew consists of Shia LeBeouf (the religious zealot), Michael Pena ( the minority Mexican), Jon Bernthal (the psychopath) and Logan Lerman as the rookie. It doesn't take long before we are caught up in the mud, blood, and carnage they face as they clear the way for the advancing U.S. troops into Germany.

      Mr. Ayer doesn't hold back on the horrors of war, giving the viewer the gory reality of sudden death and dismemberment. There are some terrific battle sequences, in particular, a tank battle shot as a heavy metal dance of death. The camera takes us right into the claustrophobic  belly of "Fury". You can smell the body odors, oil, grease and cigarette smoke. And more importantly, the fear. The men of this tank crew are not superheroes. They have been thrown together in a rolling death trap and asked to do the impossible.

         The acting is first rate and each actor rises above his stereotype. Besides the one strange interlude midway through the film, they spend the majority of their time in and around the tank. Sitting in the dark theater, you can almost feel yourself right there with them and that happens when script, actors, and director mix perfectly to envelope the viewer in the story and the characters.

         My one complaint involves the timeline of a particular sequence but it's a minor one I can forgive when everything else has been almost perfect. "Fury" is not easy entertainment but it does it's job and honors the memory of every tank crew that lived or died defending our freedom.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

St. Vincent

         It's an old cliche'd plot, curmudgeon is softened by a precocious youngster but Bill Murray is the perfect choice to breathe new life into this unoriginal story. Years ago, Walter Matthau would have been the star of this film but in the here and now, Bill Murray works his magic.

         When Maggie (played by Melissa McCarthy) and her 12 year old son, Oliver (played by Jaeden Lieberher) move next door to the cantankerous Vincent,  his routine life becomes upended. Needing money, Vincent agrees to "babysit" Oliver and as he provides unusual life lessons for the boy, Oliver begins to crack the hard shell Vincent has built around himself.

         Ms. McCarthy is the "straight man" for a change and while she is good enough in her role, there is nothing special about it and any fireworks you would expect between her and Mr. Murray are played softy and with subtlety. The young Mr. Lieberher is terrific as Oliver and he has real chemistry with Mr. Murray. The film also co-stars Naomi Watts as  Vincent's "girlfriend", a pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute who is fine in the part but overdoes the accent.

         The film is billed as a comedy but it also has some very serious sub-plots that almost overshadow the lighthearted humor. The story moves along as expected and the title pretty much telegraphs the schmaltzy ending but Bill Murray carries the load and keeps things interesting.