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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Far From Hardy, but Entertaining...
If you like period dramas and scenes of rural England, this is not a bad choice for two hours of entertainment. The camera work and musical score are good, as are some of the main and supporting actors, and the story moves along at a rapid pace, so long, boring scenes not the issue that they can be in period dramas. At the same time, I found this current dramatization of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel set in Dorset wild environs to be too plot-centric, jumping from sub-plot to sub-plot without explanation, just to get Hardy's story told. In doing so, they sacrificed the depth of acting, characterization and storytelling that John Schlesinger's 1967 film adaptation was able to achieve. I wish they hadn't. I loved reading Hardy's book in high school, with all its' melodramatic twists and turns. His lengthy descriptions of the beautiful, but brutal, environment provided so much atmosphere as background to the emotional journey of his central character, Bathsheba Everdene, and her suitors. Bathsheba was definitely a departure from Jane Austen's "needy" women. This movie is not entirely lacking in those elements, but not nearly enough to capture the essence of Hardy's story...the unpredictability of human nature against nature itself. Schlesinger's film did a better job of portraying Hardy's theme, and besides his direction, I give credit to the stellar cast in his film, especially Julie Christie as Bathsheba and Alan Bates who played Gabriel Oak, her first suitor and eventual steadfast farm-hand and supporter. In the 2015 film, Bathsheba played by Carey Mulligan is dimply-cute and feistier than Christie's dramatization, but not as convincing in terms of the beauty and wantoness to get 3 guys on their knees! However, Mattias Schoenaerts comes across very well as the brooding guy who loves Bathsheba most, Gabriel Oak..he's a scruffier version of Ryan Gosling, and turns in a memorable performance.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Nice Clouds, Poop Movie
This movie was a huge disappointment in every way except seeing the clouds snake through the mountains in Switzerland. We went to see the film because of Juliette Binoche, lead actress, who we have seen in other films (most notably "Chocolat" and "English Patient") and found her performances to be memorable. The film was promoted with the theme of an aging actress dealing with her demons, but it never delivered on that score. And with an 124-minute run time, they could have explored her character more. We hear a little about.her impending divorce, her failed relationships with men in her industry, disillusionment about aging, and her drinking. All obvious demons, but none of them explored enough to allow her to emote and make me care about her. Instead, the story focuses exclusively on her conflict on performing as the "older woman" in a play she did 20 years before when she was the "younger woman". This theme is developed through her relationship with her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart, who, as a much younger woman, challenges her views in a dispassionate way. In that context, the two drink, smoke, "eff" a lot, and generally look and act more like men than women. But, amazingly, with all the obvious lesbian tension going on between them, this is never explored, and the film just fizzles out without acknowledging what it seemed to be about! I have read that Binoche liked the idea of this film and asked to have it produced, but unfortunately, they didn't take the time or have the gifts to make it a good film. I have to especially "ding" the editing, there were so many scenes where things just "jumped-cut" and were jarring. And Binoche's over-the-top laugh in many scenes were like "why are you laughing, huh?"
Little Boy (2015)
Faith, Hope, Love & Stellar Acting
I really enjoyed this movie! And it was good to see a winning entry from Mexico! The actors were all very good, even the big names like Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson, who downplayed their parts and were real. The young actor who played central character was awesome, and I also loved the actor who played his Dad. And the actor who played the disenfranchised Japanese fellow was central to making the film believable and very moving. The storyline had a fantastical touch, but was thankfully not heavy-handed. Faith, family love and hope were main themes throughout, but never delivered in preachy way. Kudos to the director/writer for creating a strong story, hiring excellent actors, cinematic appeal in terms of locations, and ultimately delivering a movie that was stirring, thought-provoking and entertaining. My husband and I both enjoyed it so much, and we'll take our teen-aged daughter to see it again very soon.
McFarland, USA (2015)
Good Movie, Good Message to Remember
We really enjoyed Mc Farland, and our 15 year-old daughter absolutely loved it! Comparing it to another recent Kevin Costner film, "Black & White", it's way better because Costner actually stands in the other guys shoes in this one, and the story is more engaging. I will remember the scenes where Coach and the kids are working in the fields! There are scenes that are really moving, bringing a few tears, because the actors are mostly unknown and do a good job of conveying the emotional journey from hopeless to hopeful through their commitment to cross-country running competition. Kevin Costner as Coach does a good job showing his evolution from dictatorial, angry coach with privileged athletes in a middle class culture to inspirational "father figure" coach with immigrant Hispanic kids who have the endurance to help their families as "pickers" in agricultural community while attending school at same time. It's a pretty straight-line plot without much theatricalism, which is refreshing and makes it worth seeing. Coach Costner's daughter Julie has some really good scenes, and she is perfect throughout especially during her 15th birthday "quincenera". A good family movie!
Black or White (2014)
Good Piece with False Notes (Spoiler Alert)
This movie is as simplistic as its title "Black or White", and lacks authenticity in the writing, acting and plot development. In the beginning, there's on-screen mention of being inspired by a true story, but nothing provided at the end to identify whose story it was. The subject matter is timely and important in this race-baiting world we live in, but characters never developed enough to get beyond actors reading their lines, and doing the unlikely stuff they're directed to do. Three examples follow. First, the mixed race little girl, Eloise, who is the subject of the custody dispute, has lost her mother, father and grandmother, never shows in her expression or behavior any of the effects of the terrible tragedies that have befallen her. Second, her white Grandfather, Elliot, never exhibits the qualities that would make her want to stay with him so much. Played by Kevin Costner, he is unconvincing as both a grieving drunk guy and concerned grandparent. Swaying slightly through scenes and calling his long-time law partner's wife "Fudge" instead of "Fay" comes off as playing the role rather than really feeling the devastation of the recent death of his wife (we never find out why), the death of his young daughter in childbirth (again, we don't know why, and we see photo flashbacks of her, and would she ever be stupid enough to get pregnant by a crack-smoking criminal?) Third, the instigator of the custody battle, Rowena, the child's paternal grandmother, as played by Octavia Spencer, is a caricature of a bossy, controlling black Mama, with lots of wide-eyed officious bantering, demanding hugs and slapping her drug-addled son into submission. She's in danger of becoming "Medea" in a Tyler Perry movie rather than a first rate actress. Other scenes lacking credibility are the ones with the extended black family, all happy campers making dinner, watching TV, and playing instruments together one side of the street, while across the street, front porch crack-smoking is going on among Eloise's father and friends. At movie's conclusion, during the custody courtroom scenes, Elliott gets to unload in a moving speech, where Costner finally gets to use his acting chops. And, then turns over to his partner attorney a question to his granddaughter's shaky father on the witness stand, which is "how do you spell Eloise", and he botches it, so judge gives Elliott full custody. And all opposition fades away. Teary-eyed Elliott off to rehab, and Eloise visits cousins for two weeks. I wasn't bored,thank you, but this is a movie made for Lifetime TV, not the big screen. It's a subject that needs to be addressed, but could have been so much more thought-provoking and memorable!
Big Eyes (2014)
Entertaining Dramatic Comedy!
This is a really fun, entertaining movie with an intriguing story, good acting, and a dose of 50's-60's nostalgia. Several well-crafted scenes evoked good memories of real places we used to go in San Francisco and madcap characters who were well-known in SF during its' mid-century heyday. Keane paintings and posters were everywhere, with people loving or hating them, but marketing strategies were breakthrough at the time, and I had no inkling of the duplicity behind the scenes! Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christopher Waltz as Walter Keane perform their starring roles as the most opposite husband and wife imaginable. Adams' character is all about the mystery of what's going on behind the almost-Stepford- wife countenance, while Waltz is fiendishly good displaying a borderline personality at its best (and worst!) I found that contrast fascinating, and it makes me want to dig further to find out more about real-life Margaret & Walter. So obsessed with painting her pictures, Margaret is especially intriguing as a real loner swept away by the super extroverted charm of a "fellow artist". That's what makes this movie so interesting. I'm not sure, but assume the film is billed as a "drama", but it has an exaggerated quality through script and acting that makes it comical at the same time. When I think of all the films I've seen, that duality makes "Big Eyes" unique. Producer Tim Burton did a movie years ago called I think "Big Fish" with Albert Finney, which had that same sense of drama & comedy and I love both of them. In my opinion, Burton is best when he is not trying so hard to be "odd". The result is touching instead.
Into the Woods (2014)
Mis-Produced, Mis-Cast, Mis-Written, Miss It!
This is not a movie, it's a musical! I love musicals when they showcase memorable, well- written songs with strong vocal performances by talented singers. The major problem with "Into the Woods" is it has neither! I would call the Sondheim score more "ditties" than songs, they are long and un-melodic, and they all sound like the same "ditty". Most musicals I've seen have a spoken script that breaks up the singing, but this is non-stop singing from start to finish by actors who are not even average singers...not one would make it through auditions for "The Voice"! My eyes started to close after the first few scenes when I realized what we were in for. Scenes are almost all shot in the same setting - the dark woods - so no matter when I woke up, I was looking at pretty much the same thing. Acting-wise, Chris Pine as the Prince is the only actor who was able to escape from the role constrictions because his was the only truly humorous character. His song "Agony" was cute, but not worth the price of admission. James Corden as the Baker gets to show some heart and as Baker's wife, Emily Blunt is sadly miscast and cannot sing. The two kids who play Little Red Ridinghood and Jack (from the "Beanstalk") need more vocal coaching, and Meryl Streep as the Witch never finds her voice, despite trying many different ones to perform her vocals. On any day, especially Christmas Day, we deserve better, Hollywood!
When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Simply Good Movie...
There was a local HS water polo team in our audience, attending this movie with their coach, and they were all revved up, animated, and having fun talking about it in front of the theater when the film was over. It's really all about Bob Ladocouer's coaching strategy "the brotherhood of the team" at DeLasalle HS, located in an East Bay suburb near Oakland, California. The school and coach are famous, at least in No. California, for their 151-game winning streak and subsequent regional titles. The movie depicts the true story of a racially and economically diverse bunch of young male athletes being able to overcome differences and personal challenges. Many develop their potential, grow in confidence and maturity, and strive for success in their lives after high school because of lessons learned from being part of a team with a coach and staff who, collectively led them to overcome the odds and become better than they thought they could be. There are scenes of real-life tragedy and triumph that are included as more of a backdrop to the story than a central theme, but aptly illustrate how "victims" in any situation can become "victors". There are a lot of long scenes of football bashing & crunching, which some may find "too long"...the actor who plays Coach Bob is low- key intense, rather than dramatic; dialogue is ordinary vs. Hollywood-ish, but in the end, a tribute to exceptional coaching is made, message received.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
Cliché a La Mode with Topping of Schmaltz
This banal film lacks all the ingredients of a good movie. Its' tragic beginning in India quickly descends into fairy tale mode, with one scene after the other featuring cliché dialogue, events and musical background. Instead of developing the underlying culture clash storyline, the producers choose to make commercial soup which never rises above the superficial. Their recipe? A pretty French town with some computer-generated background, mixed with a few long shots of fireworks and the Eiffel Tower, and throw in a gazillion mind-numbing close-ups of food preparation and drizzled dishes, and voila! You have zee movie! I'm not mentioning the actors because it's not about acting, it's about stereotypes of egotistical chefs, snotty French people, and hard-bargaining Daddies from India. And amazingly, this movie is only half-baked after 2+ hours, by which time, the audience is dozing and wondering, "why didn't I just stay home and watch the Food Channel?"
Get on Up (2014)
More than a Ten!
This movie is so fabulous, I'm definitely going to see it again. The acting is brilliant, with a tour- de-force performance by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. The singing, the music, the dance moves are all so right and entertaining. Seeing JB way back when made me realize how other artists were influenced by his genius...Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson to name a few. Besides all the on-stage performance thrills, the movie has real heart and makes you care. Through Chadwick Boseman's eyes, expressions and emotional outbursts, you can easily see the boy inside the man James Brown. There are memorable scenes between JB and his Mama (Viola Davis) his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), his muse Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and his music agent (Dan Ackroyd). Add in great camera work and sharp editing, and you get to feel like you were actually there for JB's evolution from boy to man, his creative journey from gospel to funk, and all the passion, drive for excellence and energy it took to take him soaring to the top and stay there for so many years!