Sunday, January 31, 2016


      The latest film from director/writer Charlie Kaufman (co-directed by Duke Johnson) is a stop motion animation amazement.  Mr. Kaufman's films are always a surprise and never follow a traditional route. This new film is no different. 

       At it's core, it is the story of Michael Stone, a motivational speaker, who arrives in Cincinnati to give a  presentation the next day. But over the course of  24 hours, we explore loneliness, sense of self, how we connect with others, individuality and love all through Michael's experience.

       David Thewlis is the voice of Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh provides the voice of Lisa, and Tom Noonan provides all the other voices.  The vocal work is excellent as each actor gives voice in a very deliberate way.

       The animation is remarkable and the attention to detail is stunning. Even you are not engaged by the plot, there is so much to enjoy in the visuals and so many little touches. Make no mistake though, this is adult animation. There is full frontal male nudity and sex as well as adult language.

        The film has been given a well deserved nomination for an Oscar this year but I don't think it's a film for everyone. I believe it's very polarizing and you will either love it or hate it. I found it fascinating and enjoyed every moment. 

The Finest Hours

        Disney presents the true story of the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history. When a pair of oil tankers split in two during a blizzard off the coast of Massachusetts in 1952, the Coast Guard send ships to rescue the men of the first tanker, not realizing there is a second tanker in trouble. When the second tanker is discovered, it is up to a small boat of four men to attempt the rescue.

          That's the premise and the scenes at sea are exhilarating, the special effects, cinematography, and acting all combine to put you in the action. The central part of the film is when it's at it's best. Switching the action from the men trapped on the sinking ship to the men in the rescue boat fighting monster waves and horrible conditions, you can't imagine how a rescue can be attempted. It's the sappy set up and ending however, that is what's really waterlogged. 

          Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, the skipper of the rescue boat and the film starts with a building romance between Bernie and Miriam, played by Holliday Grainger. The script emphasizes the relationship to help create additional tension once Miriam is safely back on shore worried about her man at sea. Mr. Pine is a fine stoic leader. Having already played Captain Kirk in multiple Star Trek films, he is at home behind the wheel leading his men on their perilous mission. It's his scenes with Ms. Grainger that are awkward and dull. Ms. Grainger plays the the worried girlfriend admirably taking many of her scenes over the top.

           Ben Foster costars as Bernie's second in command but his fine talents are wasted in an empty role. Kyle Gallner and John Magaro are the other two members of Bernie's crew, who spend most of their time tossed about by the storm whipped sea. Eric Bana is also wasted as the Coast Guard commander with no scenes of real depth. On board the sinking ship, Casey Affleck plays  Ray Sybert, the chief engineer of the tanker, who rallies the crew to stave off the the storm waters that will soon drown them all. Mr. Affleck is painfully dull and maybe that what the role called for but he is out of his dramatic element in this part.

             The film never steers of course. The rescue itself, while exciting, is straight forward storytelling. I applaud Disney for making the film as it honors the real men involved in this little known story but the script is too sanitized to truly recreate the heightened emotions and actions of everyone involved in this daring rescue.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

13 Hours

           Based on the true story of an attack of Americans in Benghazi in 2012, this is a harrowing modern day Alamo (as one character accurately describes it). Six privately contracted security men (all ex- armed forces) are hired to protect a covert CIA operation in Benghazi. When terrorists attack the temporary headquarters of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and then turn their sights on the CIA compound, it is up to the band of ex-military brothers in arms to protect the civilians.

            Directed by the action king himself, Michael Bay, the film build slowly giving just enough background of the main characters so that when the attack happens, we are fully invested in the lives of these men. The attack, which comes in waves, makes up much of the second half of the film and Mr. Bay is not frugal with chaotic firefights or numbing explosions. Those unfamiliar with the outcome will succumb to the suspense of wondering who lives and dies.

             The film stars James Dale Badge as Tyrone "Rone" Woods and John Krasinski as Jack Silva, the two most recognizable members of the cast. Mr. Badge starred on the short lived AMC TV show, "Rubicon" and Mr. Krasinski is best know as Jim on the TV show, "The Office". Both pull off an incredible transformation into lean, mean, men of war.  The film also stars Pablo Schreiber as Chris "Tonto" Peronto (the script gives him the best one-liners), Dominic Fumusa as John "Tig" Tiegen, Toby Stephens as Glen "Bub" Doherty and David Denman as Dave "Boon" Benton . Each actor admirably honors the actual man they portray. 

              The bureaucratic errors that left them to fend for themselves are still under investigation in Washington today. Politics aside, the film is a testament to the bravery and devotion these men had to protect the civilians against an overwhelming enemy they couldn't even clearly define. It is a story that will leave you both angry and proud to be an American.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Son of Saul

            A harrowing, visceral vision of the Holocaust from Hungarian writer/director Lazlo Nemes. There have been many films about the Holocaust over the years  that have left an emotional mark on the viewer but never quite like this.

             Saul  Auslander is a SonderKommando, a Jewish prisoner of war in a unnamed concentration camp forced to work for the Nazis. He leads other prisoners to the gas chambers, hauls out their dead bodies, shovels their ashes and other brutal chores, just to stay alive.  

             The film opens with Saul out of focus walking into the frame.  Making the creative and brilliant choice to put the camera inches away from Saul for the entire film, we are no longer watching but instead, we are immersed in the film itself. There is little dialog, no soundtrack and with this first person point of view, we experience the horrors around Saul for ourselves. This is not an easy film to watch but that's the point.

              The story takes place roughly over 24 hours. The plot is simple. Saul finds a dead boy that he perceives to be his son, and he tries to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial. Geza Rohrig plays Saul in a powerful performance where his every thought and emotion is conveyed by the sadness in his eyes.

               Recently nominated for Best Foreign film, "Son of Saul" may be too much to bear for some but brace yourself, it's worth it. It is an experience that will haunt you for a long time. Mr. Nemes has found a new and ingenious way to make sure we never forget. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Danish Girl

The new drama from director Tom Hooper is a fictionalized version, based on the true story, of Lilly Elbe, one of the first documented transgender cases in the early 1920's.

    Ms. Elbe was born Einar Wegener, who in adulthood, became a successful Danish artist.  The film opens with a closeup of Einar's wife Gerda, who is a struggling artist in her own right. Einar is played by Eddie Redmanye and Gerda is played by Alicia Vikander. It is clear that they are very much in love but there is a desire in Einar that rises to the surface when Gerda asks him to pose for her in women's clothes.

     Mr. Redmayne, already awarded for his transformation into Stephen Hawking, is remarkable as Einar/Lilly. His performance is flawless and while appreciated, actually works against him.  His acting never waivers and he ends up a one note character, overshadowed by a commanding performance by Ms. Vikander as Gerda.  

      The film is stolen by Ms. Vikander with a raw, emotional performance that Mr. Redmayne can't match. She carries him just as Gerda supports Einar's decision to become the woman he already feels inside him.

      Mr. Hooper directs with a skilled eye, delicately balancing the sensitive material. The cinematography is outstanding and at it's core, the film is a beautiful period love story.