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X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and Its Bold Mission
11 June 2014
These are remarkable times for Marvel comic fans as film effects have enabled story and imagination to produce a visually stunning, realistic experience. With X Men: Days of Future Past, a strong team of writers and director Bryan Singer have created a highly entertaining quasi-sequel/prequel which reinvents the X Men world from all the previous versions. A logistical challenge from the get go, this film has accomplished the near impossible and approaches the excellence of The Avengers.

In a bleak vision of the future, mutants are being hunted down along with any human sympathizers by enhanced, robotic Sentinel hunters. With the last vestiges of hope at a remote location, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto (Ian McKellen) join forces in a last ditch effort to alter the timeline using Kitty Pryde's (Ellen Page) transferring powers to send Logan AKA Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to his body in the 1970s. His desperate mission is to convince the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) to stop Raven AKA Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), from carrying out a vendetta against humans including a scientist named Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), who holds the key to the Sentinel army. However, tracking Raven is problematic while the younger Charles has lost his purpose having withdrawn into seclusion, and a young, embittered Erik is locked away for a significant crime. How Wolverine can 'put the band back together' is just the beginning of a convoluted storyline that not only involves time travel but exposing old, emotional wounds and the fleeting hope of salvation from a doomed future.

From the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare with its highlighted 'X', you know Singer has got his mojo back (after the misfire of Superman Returns). Having started the current Marvel era of filmmaking with X Men (2000), he knows these characters better than anyone, and the screenplay has a strong narrative with some genuinely funny lines. Like X Men: First Class, this film crisscrosses the globe from Vietnam to Paris to Washington D.C., and much of the early period parallels actual historic events and figures as in Watchmen.

Fate and destiny: can history be altered and can people change? The film has such a complex plot you wonder if it will shortchange the emotional content. It doesn't. In fact, you could almost have made this a two part film and expanded the possibilities. By trying to link the old with the new into one cohesive plot was challenge enough, but by sprinkling in bits of references to the Marvel canon and providing a great ending, comic fans should be giddy and thrilled. You don't have to have seen every X Men film, but it helps to enrich the experience for fans of Marvel lore by connecting a lot of dots.

Once again, the interplay between the younger Charles and Erik forms the core of a paradoxical love/hate relationship. First, Charles must find his way back from his self-imposed exile amid personal loss, and then it becomes a fascinating triangle of wills; Raven may be the target, but Erik and Charles struggle for her soul. Stewart lends authority (as the older Charles) as he narrates in grim tones the opening sequence which has parallels (as in the first X Men) to the Holocaust and human intolerance.

The large cast shines especially McAvoy and Lawrence, who gets to speak in Vietnamese much as Fassbender espoused German in First Class. You wish there were more of Stewart and McKellen, who are so good together, and despite relegating some cast members (including Halle Berry as Storm) to brief cameos or short scenes, plenty of familiar faces reappear from previous films to lend an air of continuity, and you feel the casts of both past and present are adequately represented.

New characters are introduced with cool powers particularly Evan Peters as Quicksilver, whose rapid speed proves instrumental in the film's standout sequence that ranks up there with X 2's opening White House assault by Nightcrawler. The special effects are that good. Just watching the final showdown where the mutants utilize all their unique powers to do battle with the Sentinels is a treat. Mystique's special morphing powers are on full display along with her acrobatic fighting style, and Magneto's powers are dead on as he literally raises RFK Stadium when the action shifts to DC and The White House.

Ambitious and well executed, X Men: Days of Future Past reaches the heights of X 2 and successfully merges two different universes both past and present, resets the timelines and events in a massive reboot, and results in a cohesive, entertaining story with an expanded, marquee cast. By applying equal parts reverence and boldness with the X Men mythology, Singer and company have accomplished a nearly impossible juggling act. With visionary directors like Joss Whedon (whose The Avengers is the gold standard) and Singer, the Marvel brand is likely to be an exemplary force of film entertainment for many years to come.

(Yes, stay until the end of the credits for a brief, elaborate setup for the next film!)
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Captain America : The Winter Soldier and the Paranoia of Fear
17 April 2014
Directed with the sure hands of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (TV's Community) from an excellent screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best of the stand alone Marvel films and a thrilling action film full of big surprises and twists with far reaching consequences. A superior sequel like X Men 2 and The Dark Knight, it raises the stakes of good story telling and intricate plotting of comic book adaptations in the guise of a political thriller.

Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his adjustment to 21st century life after his thaw from the deep freeze (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and befriends a fellow veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On a typical mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a team of agents to rescue a pirated ship which turns up an interesting bit of information. Meanwhile, as S.H.I.E.L.D. readies the major launch of a defense system in Washington, D.C., there are growing concerns expressed by boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As suspicions multiply, all hell breaks loose when there is an assassination attempt on one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s own. The conspiracy leads Captain America to a confrontation with a mysterious, formidable figure, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are extraordinary. With only a small circle of comrades, everything Cap has come to value comes crashing down. Loyalties are tested and just who will survive a major shift in the world order is just the beginning of an insidious plot.

For fans of Cap, these are grand times as the filmmakers have chosen a major story arc (The Winter Soldier) from his comic annals and incorporated Silver Age characters, e.g. The Falcon (Mackie) and Batroc. Recently, super hero films have chosen to bend the rules and take chances with tradition. This film goes much further than any previous Marvel adaptation. It features a good mystery, topical subject matter on individual privacy, and significant plot twists so much so that it is essential for the viewer to watch them unfold without any spoilers. The smart script contains witty lines amid a pervasive feeling of mistrust and paranoia. When Cap responds to Fury's state of the art weaponry to combat threats and says, "This isn't freedom. This is fear," it sums up the theme of the story. Think of this as homage to 1970s conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. The film also employs moments that references Mission Impossible, The X Files, RoboCop, and 24.

Acting is uniformly strong as some old, familiar faces return, and a few new ones get introduced. By now Evans has become the embodiment of the iconic hero, retaining his sense of justice, duty, and morals, virtues which are downright refreshing in a post 9/11 world. Rogers is a Rip Van Winkle out of his time and still learning to assimilate the world changes and cultural references with amusing results. Evans' chemistry with Johansson is believable yet ironic since their two characters have vastly different backgrounds. In a costarring role, Johansson's Black Widow is resourceful, smart, and deadly as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whose history is only beginning to be scratched. Perhaps Black Widow should have her own film! Jackson's Fury has an expanded role and reveals more facets of his mysterious background. Robert Redford (All the President's Men) has a significant, atypical role as a high level official, and he is outstanding. His presence alone adds legitimacy and authority to the film. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is an ideal buddy in arms to Evans. Emily VanCamp makes a good first impression as a young agent, and Cobie Smulders (returning as Agent Maria Hill) provides solid backup.

The many impressive action sequences are noteworthy for their ferocity and meticulous detail, but the standouts are a mad, opening car chase through the streets of D.C., and a remarkable fight in a glass elevator that surpasses the gem in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. There are moments of intense hand to hand combat that recall the best moments of the Bourne films on steroids. You've also got to love that shield; the film wisely displays all the creative ways Cap's shield is employed in combat. The violence here is realistically depicted and not cartoonish which pushes its PG-13 rating. Extensive use of hand-held cameras and more live action special effects than CGI lend a stronger sense of realism. D.C. locations make a splendid backdrop for much of the film.

Taking super hero filmmaking to new heights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully interconnects what we know from previous films and effectively challenges you to reevaluate everything in the Marvel Universe. It certainly helps to have seen the previous films, but there is sufficient background and context that a casual outsider would still enjoy it. (Fans of TV's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have a field day as the events tie directly with the show.) Though the film ends with open ended story threads that beg for another sequel, consider this as The Empire Strikes Back of Captain America. That's not such a bad place to be.

(As usual, don't forget two post credit scenes which are significant.)
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Philomena (2013)
A Mother's Redemption in PHILOMENA
1 March 2014
A bittersweet tale of a mother's search for a loved one from her past forms the core of Philomena, a real life semibiography of atonement and forgiveness amid ignorance and the passage of time. As directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette) from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", it features impressive acting and an affecting story.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an unemployed news writer in Britain who is searching for direction in his life. At the same time, an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), prays in church and commemorates an anniversary of the pain and loss of her illegitimate son. She recalls the distant memories of working at an abbey in Ireland and being forced to give her young boy for adoption. Her plight makes its way to Sixsmith who at first is not interested in human interest stories, but Philomena's anguish kindles a curiosity within Sixsmith and eventually grows into a crusade that has the support of a publisher. Stymied by false leads and lost records, Philomena's desperate search for her adult son leads to a revelation and the truth despite the dogmatic doctrines of a holy institution.

Simultaneously a love story of a mother for her child and an investigative mystery, this is essentially a two person play, in which Philomena and Martin are contrasts in personality and background-she has a naïvety about her while he is a born cynic. That she must experience a full spectrum of emotions during her journey from shame to anticipation to despondency contrasts with Martin's determination, anger, and frustration.

As expected, Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) excels in the sensitive role of an older woman anxious to reconnect with her son. She even gets the nuances and behavior of a woman who has had a sheltered, broken life and lacks the sophistication and social graces of normalcy. This detail is nice texture to her character. Like the sole photograph she has of her son, she clings to memories and hopes of redemption. Coogan is quite convincing as the determined reporter, quite a contrast to his comedic roots in British television and film.

There is liberal use of flashbacks to show Philomena's life as a teenage girl. Sometimes dredging old memories can cause great pain not only for Philomena, but for other people who hold clues to her son's whereabouts. What become of him? What kind of relationships and profession did he have in life? And perhaps, most importantly, did he ever wonder about his birth mother? The film shows how life can be a series of events punctuated by remarkable links and coincidences particularly in one revelatory moment that serves as a remarkable thread that binds the principals together. Some antiquated themes recall the stigma of being an unmarried mother and the practice of adopting illegitimate children through the church. In some ways this film is the flip side to The Cider House Rules.

It calls into question how much an institution like the Catholic Church may or may not have been complicit in the knowledge or whereabouts of her son. It seems too obvious to place responsibility and condemn the Catholic Church, the very foundation of faith, and its nuns as villains. In fact you wish you could learn much more about the motives and thinking of the older nuns and countless other nameless victims that passed through the abbey; Philomena is but one story. What about Philomena's life beyond the abbey? We see that she also has a grown daughter, and yet we don't have those details.

After all that has transpired, the detective work, and globetrotting from Europe to the United States, there is only the love between a mother and her son. In the end, a mother's hope and a reporter's quest become a heartfelt search for the truth, a truth born of love that transcends time.
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The Art of Survival in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
1 March 2014
The fact it supposedly took nearly twenty years to bring the true story of Ron Woodroof to the screen is a somber fact which has not muted its impact over time. This heart wrenching chronicle of one man's desperate attempts against all odds features marvelous performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

It is 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and rodeo rider, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), has an accident and ends up in the hospital where he learns he has the HIV virus which causes AIDs, a death sentence which, according to his doctor, gives him thirty days to live and put his affairs in order. Stunned by the news, which heretofore was a sexually transmitted disease among homosexuals, Ron learns the grim truth about AIDs, a growing global epidemic. What's worse is the lack of any effective treatment even as trials for the experimental drug AZT begin via the Food and Drug Administration. Frustrated by ineffective drugs and running out of time, Ron takes matters in his own hands and begins to research the disease and travels to Mexico and other exotic locations for possible answers. He tries drug and vitamin combinations, a kind of AIDs cocktail, and begins to sell these to others. He even finds a way to circumvent the law forbidding his selling drugs by offering memberships. Helped by a fellow AIDs patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), his 'clinic' sees an explosion in membership as his cocktail gains in popularity. As the FDA and the IRS attempt to shut down his operation, he wages a one man fight against the forces that would close his enterprise and a hope for AIDs patients.

It is interesting that the world has come a long way in the treatment and survivability of AIDs, but back then there were severely limited resources. Also the stigma and intolerance of being gay was more pronounced. Ron's homophobic reactions evolve over time in a very convincing, realistic way, and he is affected and transformed to the point where he even takes on Rayon as an unlikely business partner and even friend. That relationship, that unlikely pairing, is what makes the story fascinating and at times poignant.

That it took a deadly malady to give his a life purpose and definition is the supreme irony. By no means a saint, he has casual sex partners when he isn't snorting cocaine or boozing it up, and when he isn't scamming a buck, utters a plethora of profanities when it suits him. He is a survivor and hustler who proves his resourcefulness in obtaining his drugs and vitamins even resorting to disguises, schmoozing, and legal maneuvering.

McConaughey (Contact, The Lincoln Lawyer) lost as much as 47 pounds for this role to depict the AIDs ravaged survivor; it's the role of a lifetime. Leto (Requiem for a Dream) equally excels as the transvestite and drug addict who befriends Ron and provides a window into the world of gays and more potential clients. Jennifer Garner registers a strong performance as a sympathetic doctor caught between treatment controversies.

You almost wish that the filmmakers (director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) had expanded upon the machinations of the FDA and pharmaceutical drug companies which held sway over life and death particularly in a standout scene near the end as Ron confronts the FDA in front of an audience. But this is primarily an intimate portrayal of a rebel, one whose self discovery leads to remarkable action and a profound effect on many others.

You do wish some of the plot lines had been more developed. For instance, Ron's police friend, Tucker, has a scene with his elderly father involving a drug; it would have been nice to develop that subplot which figures later when Ron needs help in a sticky situation.

The film is a low budget production, but that enhances its realism. A bittersweet story full of the charm and vigor that McConaughey brings to Ron Woodroof, Dallas Buyers Club lingers long after its closing credits as a testament of an imperfect person in an impossible situation who left a memorable mark.
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Nebraska (2013)
Family Strains in NEBRASKA
1 March 2014
Director Alexander Payne has had wild success in writing and directing stories (The Descendents, Sideways) about fragile individuals who are looking for a purpose and meaning amid love and heartbreak. In Nebraska, he takes a gem of a screenplay by Bob Nelson about a fateful road trip and elicits strong performances from a terrific cast.

An elderly man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is determined to travel cross country from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a million dollar prize despite the objections of his wife Kate (June Squibb) and skeptical son, David (Will Forte). He has a habit of wandering off much to the frustration of his family including David's older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). An alcoholic with a painful past, Woody takes the long road trip accompanied by David. Along the way, they stop by the town of Hawthorne for an impromptu family reunion where news of Woody's windfall spreads, and with it come greedy family and friends particularly in the person of an old buddy, Ed (Stacy Keach). As Woody and David approach their destination, old memories are revived and a father and son bond.

Payne creates a reality that successfully conveys a feeling of family and its dysfunction, which makes the story believable and authentic. While David realizes that he has nothing in common with his extended relatives (and you might not want them in your family either), you sure as heck won't forget them! The film is divided into a series of vignettes, some with amusing payoffs. Woody rarely filters his thoughts as evidenced in his explanation to David about how Woody and Kate started a family. It is a gem. There is an outrageous moment near the end when the brothers David and Ross attempt to right a wrong with hilarious results.

The journey is the point of the story. There are similarities in theme and characterizations to The Straight Story. David uses the trip as a way to get closer to his dad. In fact he learns some surprising things about Woody via the local newspaper and a certain female with a shared past.

Veteran actor Bruce Dern (Coming Home) makes the most of the role of a lifetime as a father looking for redemption. In the last chapter of his life, Woody does not have many prospects or things to look forward to, but he does have a prize that motivates him and is a sense of pride. It gives his empty life meaning. Grumpy and blunt, he can be confused and oblivious at times, but when he isn't drinking at a local bar, he has moments or clarity and recall that can be jarring.

The revelation here is the natural acting abilities of former Saturday Night Live player, Will Forte, who is completely convincing as the dutiful son, David. June Squibb is quite good as the mom who speaks her mind and proves a nice counterpoint to Woody. Her scene at the family cemetery is a riot.

The town of Hawthorne is not unlike the Midwest town featured in The Last Picture Show. Gorgeously Photographed in black and white amid a Midwest landscape, the film uses its setting to great effect as the towns and farmland become characters too like the old, derelict family house which serves as a touchstone replete with memories and demons. A grassroots country musical score complements the visuals.

In a way this is not only a father's quest á la Don Quixote but a son's search for his family's roots. The film makes a point of Woody's reasons for getting his pot of gold, and it comes down to family legacy. What are the things that matter and what do we leave for future generations? You root for him and want his prize to be genuine, but there are riches to be mined along the way. It's also about setting things straight as exemplified by David's final act. It's ultimately a family's unusual journey but particularly a son's love for his father.
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The Temptations of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
1 March 2014
Director Martin Scorsese's ongoing collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio has yielded highly entertaining, prestigious films (The Departed, The Aviator). Their latest venture is the true, astonishing tale of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort whose appetites for money, sex and drugs are a detailed observation on greed and temptation.

An eager, young executive, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), experiences the Wall Street disaster of 1987 which wipes out investors and costs him a job. Anxious to bounce back, he discovers the art of selling unregulated penny stocks and starts his own brokerage. Soon he is making a lot of money often at the expense of low income earners but also wealthy clients, and with the help of some cronies including new follower, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), begins to expand exponentially into a major force in the financial world. The emotional stress and pressure heighten his need for women, sex, drugs and then drugs upon drugs. As his excessive lifestyle spirals out of control, the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission begin investigating his company's illegal activities that signals the beginning of the end.

DiCaprio (Inception) gives his all as the out-of-control executive whose wealth is surpassed only by his defiance and greed. It is interesting to contrast his younger, innocent broker with his later, drug addicted shark. With maniacal fervor, he inspires and rallies a company's corporate culture. You are mesmerized by his bold, flamboyant salesman and yet, you look for any semblance of redeeming qualities. In a sense, Jordan is a metaphor for our corporate society's love of money and its ultimate corruption.

Hill (Moneyball) really shows a good range as Belfort's second in command. Can this be the same Jonah Hill who had a supporting role in Knocked Up? Matthew McConaughey has a memorable supporting role as a mentor to Belfort, and their scene together at a rooftop restaurant where McConaughey shows a ritual of self motivation is a hoot.

Margot Robbie is well cast as the beautiful woman who captures Jordan's heart and more. Rob Reiner has an amusing supporting role as Jordan's dad who sees the company as a sinking ship. In fact two other directors, Jon Favreau and Spike Jonze, have bit parts or cameos. Playing an FBI agent, Kyle Chandler, who has become the go-to actor for government types, is a good foil in his scenes with Jordan aboard a yacht.

There are some memorable vignettes such as the outrageous attempts to smuggle millions in cash to Europe, the crazy office parties, and an especially hilariously pathetic attempt by Jordan to drive home at the same moment he has a very bad drug reaction. When the justice system corners him, Jordan faces a decision not unlike the protagonist in Prince of the City. You know how this is going to go down, and when it does, it is an astonishing reversal of fortune.

At three hours, it is constantly engaging and well paced from start to finish courtesy of veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The sweeping camera shots and rapid cuts show Scorsese at the top of his craft. He tells much of the film through DiCaprio as narrator and voice-over. In fact much of this film will remind you of the style and structure of his Good Fellas and Casino, and the ending recalls another Scorsese classic, The King of Comedy.

Make no mistake, despite excellent performances and a strong narrative, this film has scenes that are bordering on NC17; some scenes are so over the top in suggestiveness and explicitness that it would be hard to believe if it wasn't true. The film's depictions may lead some to question the filmmakers' intent, but Scorsese, without passing judgment, wanted to honestly show greed and power at its worst in the boardroom and the bedroom. Consider The Wolf of Wall Street as a supremely effective, cautionary tale of abuse of wealth at a time when such behavior flourished unchecked. You might not like the passengers on this flight, but it is a fascinating ride.
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Her (2013)
Lonely Souls in HER
1 March 2014
Ah, to find true love; movies overflow with this theme. Writer/Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) has really excelled in a mainstream film with a unique plot line. In Her, he paints the affecting tale of finding love in a most unusual place, and the result is a remarkable love story with two knockout performances.

In the not too distant future, operating systems (OS) have the ability to mimic human thought and interaction, perhaps even feelings. One lonely individual, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), decides to try the service after the painful breakup of his marriage (as seen through a series of flashbacks). His OS is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and 'she' learns quickly and develops into what sounds like a fully intuitive, intelligent, and perhaps self aware program capable of sensitivity and emotion. At first bringing structure and order to his life, Samantha proves to be more than artificial intelligence, but rather a sentient one. Think of a female version of HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After a series of sex chat lines and a disastrous blind date, Theo, who desperately wants a female companion, realizes that Samantha is too good to be true. He shares his world with her through his smart phone, and she 'accompanies' him on his travels whether it be to a fair or for a walk. The two of them experience a relationship that transcends the lack of physical contact. How this unlikely pair will end up is the mystery of love.

Ostensibly a love story, this is really a science fiction film amid a deeply personal setting. This well written screenplay (by Jonze) works as a touching drama and explores the nature of human interaction and the meaning of love. It also touches on how deeply our society is plugged into the cyber world of reality. It would be interesting to see how Terry Gilliam (Brazil) would have developed this theme.

Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master) really embodies his loneliness convincingly. When his wife leaves him, he has to learn about letting go of someone and being open to new opportunities. You feel for him and his longings. Ironically his job involves ghost writing letters for other people, and some of the prose is romantic or emotional.

Johansson (The Avengers, Match Point) voices Samantha as a fully, living being with just the right mix of nuance and inflection. It is a bravura performance. Her Samantha is a bright pupil who becomes hungry for knowledge and experiencing human emotions; she has her needs and wants. When Theo and Samantha go out for a picnic with a coworker and his girlfriend, it becomes an unusual quartet unlike any double date ever. Even more, Samantha's desire to integrate with humans sets up a fascinating encounter via a surrogate. She in a sense is a reflection of the best and potentially the worst of human response and behavior. Is she capable of being jealous or disloyal? Could she even evolve into something else? These are some fascinating questions that come to mind. In a sense she becomes a metaphor for human existence.

Amy Adams (American Hustle) lends strong support as Theo's friend who also becomes involved with her own OS companion. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is effective in her brief scenes as Theo's wife, Catherine.

Stark cinematography and a moody musical score combined with good use of modern architecture (partly filmed in Shanghai) lend to a detached environment. The feeling of isolation and solitude permeate the sterile settings.

It would have been nice to learn more about Theo's world and if he had any other family. What was his background growing up and what are the implications of the program on society in general? What we get is a spare sketch of one man's world.

The story is ultimately about experiencing a special, human feeling and the search for one's soul mate. It's also about the joys and happiness in life that are but fleeting moments in time.
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12 YEARS A SLAVE for the Ages
1 March 2014
Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor) has made a name for his personal, bold themes (Shame) and has come of age with his latest, most affecting film, 12 Years a Slave, adapted by John Ridley from the novel by Solomon Northrop. Perhaps no major studio film has portrayed slavery in America so honestly and directly.

Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man in New York in 1841 with a wife and two children. He is educated and blessed with a talent for playing the violin. A tempting offer of work leads him to Washington D.C. where two white men trick him into being mistaken for a slave. Helpless and unable to communicate with his family or anyone who can help him, Solomon is pulled into the world of torture and servitude as a slave to be auctioned as a commodity in the South. Northrop is witness to inhumanity by white slave owners as families are torn apart. He is sold from one plantation to another and finds one owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, a standout), who is not only strong willed but cruel and immoral. Time goes by, and he always maintains a sense of dignity and hope while exhibiting compassion for his brethren. Northrop's desperate attempts to escape or get a letter to his family need the sympathetic ear of a good Samaritan for his salvation.

Imagine being held against your will and performing menial, backbreaking work at the behest of cruel masters who strike out with deadly violence at the drop of a hat. Now imagine that as an educated slave, he dares not reveal his intelligence lest he be executed. Silence means survival. Rebellion is met with severe punishment and death. All this goes on year after year with little or no hope.

That it took this long in cinema history to depict this stain of human intolerance is sobering especially in the post-Roots generation. McQueen depicts the horrors of oppression and outright sadism while getting the details such as the frightened reactions of slaves to mere sounds. He also has a firm sense of time and place with striking visuals. Cinematography is excellent, and the period recreation is authentically convincing with historic set design and costumes as well as the flavor of music. The film is similar to the lean narrative of Clint Eastwood's recent films without the emotional pathos of Steven Spielberg.

Ejiofor (Salt) has the best role of his career, and aside from the always impressive Fassbender (Prometheus), the surprise performance has to be Lupita Nyong'o as perhaps the most tragic of slaves. Benedict Cumberbatch (perhaps the busiest actor currently) has an effective role of a sympathetic slave owner. In an interesting bit role, Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam shows a brief glimpse of dramatic potential. There are several name actors who take supporting or bit roles including Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Alfre Woodard. Brad Pitt has a brief but significant moment that is a turning point in the story. He had a significant role as producer in bringing the book to the screen, and it shows just how shrewd he was to take a chance on a story that needed to be told.

It's a very sobering journey in American history that is harrowing and painful, and by the time the powerful ending arrives, you may find yourself not only thoroughly drained, but more appreciative of the life of one person (whose postscript is also noteworthy). It's a difficult subject matter handled by McQueen with compassion and unflinching realism. A moving chronicle of a family torn apart amid historical injustice, 12 Years a Slave is about the indomitable human spirit and its ultimate triumph amid intolerable adversity.
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Gravity (2013)
1 March 2014
Some films (Castaway, 127 Hours) have a simple premise, a basic tale of survival, devoid of large casts and complicated plot lines. Co-written with his son Jonás Cuarón, director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) has combined state of the art technology and remarkable acting by Sandra Bullock in a spectacular, tension-filled adventure, Gravity.

American astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), work on repairs to the Hubble space telescope as news of a nearby Russian satellite explosion is reported. The quiet serenity is suddenly displaced by hurtling debris that decimates the repair mission and causes great damage to the telescope and more. Caught up in a life threatening disaster and stranded in space without any hope of rescue, the two must improvise and utilize survival skills to survive under impossible circumstances. As hope fades and oxygen running low, the astronauts must make difficult choices to make it home alive.

Caurón successfully conveys the emptiness and vastness of space and how isolated it can be. What is remarkable is that this film could not have been made so convincingly until now because of recent technological developments. Even director James Cameron (Avatar), who was consulted early on, championed the film's ambitions for space realism that was years in the making. A ground breaking achievement in visual effects, not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Apollo 13 has a film so realistically depicted space travel. Even the realistic use of sound or lack of it enhances the authenticity. Great care and research obviously went into the production.

The film boldly starts with a continuous panning shot for thirteen minutes with nary a cut. When was the last time a major Hollywood film did that? There are some remarkable shots in space like the one instance where Bullock is in a womb-like position which acts as a metaphor of life. Gravity deserves to be seen in 3D (perhaps the best 3D film since Avatar) which opens up the magnitude of the visual effects. When did any 3D film show a person's tears? This one does. The realism and emptiness of space will be hard to match so convincingly in future films.

Cuarón establishes a basic premise and creates a major conflict while continually upping the ante of impending danger. The suspense is palpable as we feel as if we are there with Bullock and must figure a way to first get out of harm's way and then to go home to earth. The one film this reminds you of is Marooned.

This is Bullock's (The Blind Side) show all the way as you feel her fears amid every threat; she is in virtually every shot. We learn to understand her feelings and get a glimpse into her past about her regrets in life. Paradoxically, space becomes a place to escape her past or prove to be her death. One major theme for her character is learning to let go whether it be a painful past memory or letting go of something in the here and now. It's about finding a reason to live and finding a deeply personal redemption under the most trying circumstances.

Clooney lends strong support as her veteran colleague and voice of reason who offers instructions and calm amid tragedy. You will never guess who voices mission control, but here's a hint- see Apollo 13.

Sure, despite convenient coincidences that facilitate some plot points and a couple situations that are a bit hard to believe, Bullock sells it with her conviction and desperation; you buy into the situation regardless even if it may be hallucination or a dream.

What should be noteworthy is the fact that Gravity is rated PG in an era when PG13 and R rated major releases dominate the marketplace. And it runs a lean 90 minutes. How such a simple tale of survival and hope becomes not only totally engaging but such a compelling, landmark work of cinema is the lasting legacy of Gravity.
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American HUSTLE -the Art of Seduction and Survival
1 March 2014
Suggested by actual events of the Abscam sting in the 1970s, the FBI plans to setup and arrest corrupt politicians. How they get the officials and the professional con artists that help the sting operation are the basis of a nostalgic film. As directed and co-written by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), American Hustle is an acting clinic highlighting a convoluted tale of men and women who are looking for a big score.

In 1978, ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), forces con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), to help arrange a con on white collar crime, specifically targeting corrupt politicians. Richie wants to make a name for himself, and he is immediately attracted to Sydney and has designs on her beyond the con. Starting with a local, beloved mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), high level political figures are drawn in, and there is the possible organized crime connection. Further, Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), threatens to derail the sting. As Richie's grand plan comes together, things get more complicated and risky, and Irving and Sydney must rely on their skills to survive.

These are very well etched characters. Each has something to gain, and each has an angle to exploit, whether it's Richie's dreams of a big bust or Rosalyn's threats to expose the operation. Kindred souls and survivors, Irving and Sydney have mastered the art of deception and manipulation. You feel a degree of sympathy for Irving despite his criminal past and his marital discord. Not only does he love his women, but he tries to save a friend from jail. Irving turns out to be someone to root for. In fact the world is not black and white especially when an FBI agent breaks the rules and gets involved with one of the principals. Carmine is the noble, elected official who truly believes in doing good for his community. Just who are the good guys and bad guys? Just who is conning who? Memorable scenes include a catty confrontation in a women's restroom, the face off between Richie and his beleaguered boss (played to great effect by Louis C. K.), and an incredibly tense meeting with a head mobster (Robert DeNiro in a lethal cameo).

Acting is superior throughout as expected in a Russell ensemble with the principals at the top of their game. Bale transforms his physical appearance as an overweight, balding schlep (a far cry from The Dark Knight's Batman). A sultry Adams (Doubt, Her) has a great time playing a kindred con artist with a British accent. Cooper (Limitless, The Hangover) has a ball as the gung ho agent with a 1970s perm who will step over his boss to get his time in the sun. Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Winter's Bone) excels as the wife who exhibits a bold brashness in public which delights her onlookers but risks blowing the sting.

There is liberal use of 1970's pop songs which blend with the costumes and hair styles seamlessly. The camera work is fluid and is reminiscent of early Martin Scorsese films. There is a very carefree attitude in the film's look and feel which is consistent with this loose, uninhibited decade.

A slice of the seventies with freewheeling hustlers and loose morals, at its core, American Hustle is a love story centering on Irving, an imperfect con artist and the women in his life. The film is essentially a con within a con and keeps you guessing until the end. Although the film's narrative is not as tight as it could have been, Russell has sacrificed a tiny bit of substance for style. Do admire this film for the many scenes that pit flawed characters against each other. Acting does not get much better than this.
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1 March 2014
Based on the real life story and book by Captain Richard Phillips, Captain Phillips is an authentic recreation of the events leading up to the hijacking of an American freighter ship on the high seas by modern day Somali pirates in 2009. Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), the film is a non-stop edge of your seat entertainment that puts you in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation. Tom Hanks and a talented supporting cast bring the participants to life in one of the year's best films.

Phillips is a responsible commander of a freighter with a small crew. As he boards his ship and readies to embark at sea, a group of Somali men prepares to search for nearby ships to board and hold hostage for money. As the freighter nears the Somali waters, the pirates give chase and the race is on as Phillips follows a series of procedures to elude and repel the invaders. When the pirates board and take control of the bridge by force, the dynamic has shifted to a hostage situation. As the Somali, who are smart and cautious, search the ship for other crew members, it becomes a tense game of cat and mouse. Led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirates want money even as US military forces come to the rescue. A tense standoff leads Phillips and his captors to the freighter's life boat and a race against time to save the brave captain.

Phillips and his crew take creative steps to make this hijacking as difficult as possible. They even follow a protocol for securing the ship from boarders by running drills and taking extra precautions. Phillips himself proves resourceful even when alone with his captors by making innocent suggestions that have ulterior motives and meaning.

The scene where the pirates take over the bridge is well shot and has a real time feel. Nobody shoots docudramas better than Greengrass with his rapid edits and hand-held cameras. He conveys a sense of progressively worsening desperation and hopelessness. Henry Jackman's score matches the intensity of the film.

Like the concluding mission in Zero Dark Thirty, the final sequence here is meticulously detailed and ratchets the suspense to an unbearable level even though most people know how these events transpired. The play is the thing, and Greengrass executes the finale like a true, military SEAL operation complete with preparations and tactics. The climax is a brilliantly edited moment of split second timing, patience, and decisive action. It affects the audience on a visceral level where so much is at risk.

Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks, Philadelphia) is completely convincing as Phillips. Abdi is authentic and menacing as Muse, all the more impressive since he was a total amateur when cast in the role. You even feel a bit of sympathy for Muse because he comes from a place of poverty where there are few options in life, and you come to realize that he is a person under extreme pressure from his bosses on the mainland. In fact, utilizing mostly unknowns aside from Hanks, works to the film's realism. The other Somali men are each given a chance to shine and have unique personas which makes what happens to them a shared experience.

You also wonder how Phillips' wife and family are reacting to the crisis but you never see them despite Catherine Keener's brief role as his wife at the beginning. That could have raised the stakes a bit more emotionally.

By the film's stunning resolution, there is an emotional release in Phillips that the audience shares. It is in these last several minutes that Hanks draws you into his heartbreaking trauma. It is here that he excels in an emotional performance in an emotional film, where a brave man said and did the right things under extreme duress.
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Blue Jasmine (2013)
Blue Jasmine's Fall from Grace
6 September 2013
Woody Allen has evolved from writer/director and sometime actor of comedies to dark dramas and various permutations. Besides being one of the most prolific artists in movie-making history, most of his films have been marked by strong story lines populated with colorful characters, sharp dialogue, and often ironic endings. Blue Jasmine is the latest film to showcase Allen's talent (yes at 77 he is very much in command of his medium), and he gets a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett.

Jasmine (Blanchett) is a flamboyant soul who is flying from New York to San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Married to a successful businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), Jasmine has a life of high society and wealth. But Hal is not what he seems, and she experiences the fallout from his womanizing and crooked investments. This sets off a chain reaction of loss for the now penniless wife and mother. Now dependent on the kindness of her sister who lost a life savings courtesy of Hal, she tries to find employment at a dentist office and take classes to find a career. She is desperate and dependent on others, and when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), the man of her dreams, the only thing between herself and nirvana is her hidden past.

How to describe Jasmine? She is self absorbed, selfish, despondent, manic, alcoholic, vain, delusional, traumatized, judgmental, spoiled, and above all, depressed. She is oblivious to the obvious and in denial of her reality. Mentally unhinged and humiliated, she is a walking contradiction who indulges in lies and babbles to herself.

The film employs stream of consciousness flashbacks that may seem abrupt at first, but you quickly see the device as a rapid succession of background information on how Jasmine's life has been filled with status and means only to devolve as Hal's philandering history is revealed.

Allen has a gift for observing and depicting real people in conflict. Both sisters come from different walks of life. Both yearn for happiness, and yet when Jasmine falls on hard times, Ginger is there for her despite a rocky history together. There are obvious class divisions between the rich and poor, and the irony here is that Jasmine is now one of the latter. There are obvious parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire, but Jasmine just might be more disturbed than Blanche DuBois. In fact a case can be made that Jasmine will evolve into a character not unlike Judi Dench's pathetic spinster in Notes on a Scandal (also starring Blanchett).

Kudos go to the usual Allen ensemble of top performers particularly Hawkins as the charitable sibling and Baldwin as a Bernie Madoff /Casanova. Andrew Dice Clay has a supporting role as a man from Ginger's past who figures prominently later, and Louis C. K. is convincing as a romantic suitor who diverts Ginger from her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). But Blanchett inhabits her role in an eerie way; you believe her and all her quirks and mannerisms. She is a mess of a person, and her struggles to find happiness and financial security are fleeting. It's the sort of performance that earns an actress the Oscar.

It is nice to see Allen expand his films' settings from his traditional New York environs to other locales, lately Europe and now San Francisco. The film is beautifully shot in New York and California by Javier Aguirresarobe (Vicki Cristina Barcelona). As usual, Allen employs period songs to accent a mood or scene especially the ironic tune "A Good Man Is Hard to Find".

As with the best Allen dramas like Interiors, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, the lead characters are imperfect people with serious problems, and it causes them to do desperate things that don't always work. Allen does not always have happy endings in his dramas, and you get the impression that this story may not end well. Life can be cruel, and in Blue Jasmine, how we deal with it can be a tortuous journey.
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The Butler (I) (2013)
Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER and Its Timely History Lesson
24 August 2013
Driven by Forest Whitaker's powerhouse performance, Lee Daniels' The Butler (based on an article about real life butler Eugene Allen) is a fascinating recreation of a pivotal era in twentieth century America which literally bridges a culture of slavery and discrimination with the present day. Always interesting and told with a straightforward approach, it is an absorbing history lesson and family love story abetted by a strong screenplay (Danny Strong) and direction (Lee Daniels who did Precious).

An elderly servant, Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), sits and waits in the White House as he reminisces about life from his early childhood in the cotton fields of the South in 1926 where blacks are treated inhumanely and are subjugated and often murdered. Trained to serve his white masters, he flees this harsh life and finds refuge and a life serving and catering to wealthy white clients. Married to his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and father of two sons, he wants to provide for his family in ways that he never had growing up. One fateful day, Cecil is offered a remarkable position as a servant to the President in the White House. Cecil is witness to the Civil Rights changes amid several Presidential administrations. As the century turns and the nation elects a black President, it signifies a turning point for not only the country, but also for Cecil and his family.

Whitaker is a marvel at becoming his character and making the audience believe in his long, tumultuous life and physical transformation. Cecil endures personal and professional hardships by living a dual existence: serving the most powerful leader in the land without any reaction to politics, and yet, as incendiary news headlines and events (e.g. segregation, the race riots, Vietnam, and political assassinations) swirl around him, his devotion to his job comes at the expense of his family. A subplot involving Cecil's requests for equal pay and opportunity has an amusing payoff, and the movie's final line appropriately belongs to him. His character does evolve over time which leads to an emotional moment near the end.

Winfrey is quite good with a toned down performance as a forgotten wife. There is able support by other cast members including Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz (who is coming into his own as an actor) as fellow butlers, and Clarence Williams III as a mentor. As the older son, Louis, David Oyelowo is a standout who excels in a difficult role as naïve student, Freedom Rider, and later as a revolutionary Black Panther. One of his best scenes is a tense dinner with his parents where their respective values clash. It is a bit hard to believe, however, that Louis could be at the center of so many important events including being with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The casting of major actors as the Presidents may on the surface seem like stunt casting, but for the most part, it works well particularly with James Marsden as John F. Kennedy and Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson. Even Jane Fonda makes an effective Nancy Reagan. But who thought John Cusack could portray Richard Nixon convincingly?

Daniels does a very good job of highlighting important moments and giving enough focus to the struggles within the Gaines family, but trying to cover this much material in little more than two hours means short changing scenes and truncating some of the narrative. Some subplots don't really pan out or aren't given sufficient time to develop like a womanizing neighbor, Howard (Terrence Howard). In fact, while the film is well presented on the big screen, it could have worked as a TV miniseries which would have allowed extended character and plot development.

The film is shot and cut in a straight narrative, with no stylish, flamboyant cinematography here, but well produced with a nice flavor of period songs and costumes enhanced by a somber music score by Rodrigo Leão. Makeup work is impressive.

Always interesting and an inspiring story which accomplishes a lot in its running time, Lee Daniels' The Butler (studios fighting over title legalities resulted in the current modified title,) is a breath of fresh air of legitimate, historical and heartfelt drama amid a summer awash in action and fantasy. Despite its long road to secure enough financing from various sources (hence the numerous producers,) as a final pet project by late producer Laura Ziskin, Oscar nominations await, and Whitaker and company should be rewarded quite nicely.
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Tragedy at Fruitvale Station
10 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
An independent film written and directed with stunning effectiveness by newcomer Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is based on a true story, and even though its story of an unarmed black male who is shot on New Year's Day, is pulled from national headlines, the film is a character study of the choices in life and how a cruel twist of fate intervenes. It lingers in the heart and mind long after the end, and as such is one of the best films of the year.

We witness video footage of police rounding up black youths at a transit train station, and while the suspects are on the ground and restrained, a gun goes off striking one of them in full view of witnesses. What follows is a flashback account of the final day of Oscar Grant's life and the events leading up to New Year's Day 2009. Amid the backdrop of the Oakland Bay area, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan in a breakout performance) is a young black man whose background is a mix of prison, drug dealing, and failed jobs amid a serious relationship with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and their little daughter. He loves his family especially his mother (Octavia Spencer is rock solid) and vows to make a better life for them. It is New Year's Eve, and he helps to prepare his mother's birthday celebration. Just as he is on the brink of a new start, fate intervenes at a transit station and a deadly encounter with police.

Oscar is a man who has a conscience and a sense of responsibility. On the one hand he is portrayed as a devoted father, a passionate lover to his girlfriend, and loving son to his mom, and yet he lies to his loved ones and is in constant turmoil. It is affecting to see that he genuinely wants to leave behind his broken life and get a second chance. We root for him too, and that makes what happens at the end that much more compelling.

This is the sort of subject matter, which can be viewed as an indictment of police violence and a statement on racism that might have been ideal for HBO or a filmed documentary like The Thin Blue Line. You also expect to see a post-shooting trial, but the film focuses instead on the events and people around Oscar that lead up to the fateful moment. It is a portrait of a young, flawed life ended before it has a chance to redeem itself. We want to know a bit more about Oscar; what put him in prison, and what was his childhood like? Instead we get a fragment, one day in his life, about a father and his little daughter and the life they had and never will again. The final images of Oscar's real life daughter after the events depicted in the film are touching and sobering.

Coogler shows a good command of a scene and how to make it authentic. Moments of levity such as a group countdown to New Years are counterpointed by tense confrontations from the past. The dialogue is realistic, and you really feel you are watching a slice of real life. The pivotal scene of the police arresting Oscar and his friends is startling and upsetting; you feel like it could happen to you. The frantic reactions and emotions of the victims and witnesses as a shot rings out is heart wrenching.

Liberal use of hand-held cameras lends an immediacy and realism to the events, and there is a great shot of Sophina from behind as she reacts to the tragedy. We don't need to see her face because we know from her body language exactly how she must feel.

One wonders how much of the screenplay is based on truth, but whether this is or isn't a biased view of an event by the filmmaker, it is highly emotionally affective filmmaking. In light of other recent, racially charged headlines, it cannot help but become a hot topic. This vivid, stark reenactment of an event that should never have happened is a relatively simple tale of a complex life, a kind of urban, American tragedy. It is a powerful, filmic statement that raises questions that demand answers.
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Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim Is a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Thrill Ride
21 July 2013
Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) has always had a fascination with fantasy and science fiction stories populated with unusual, colorful characters amid macabre settings. Originally set to direct The Hobbit films, he has, instead, switched gears and created a new film populated with mega monsters and super robotic warriors in an exciting, action spectacle, Pacific Rim. What sets this apart from most apocalyptic battles is its well developed characters and relationships. While its subject matter may not be for all tastes, it should satisfy most action and comic fans to the hilt.

Set in the not too distant future, a growing threat emerges from an ocean breach in the form of enormous monsters (think Godzilla types) called Kaijus which ravage world cities. To combat these powerful creatures, world leaders construct giant war machines dubbed Jaegers which are controlled from within by a set of mind linked co-pilots. But the threat increases, and the creatures, who have remarkable, adaptive powers, duel with an ever dwindling number of outmatched Jaegers. While mentally linked, the copilots share each other's thoughts and memories. Ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has traumatic memories of loss from an earlier battle and must learn to overcome this while the prospect of a new co-pilot in the form of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) brings her own horrible past. As relationships are revealed and challenged, the monstrous Kaijus must be met in a last stand not only on land but at its mysterious source beneath the sea.

While there is undeniable sexual tension between Becket and Mori, the filmmakers do not settle for clichéd romantic scenes, which a nice change of pace. The film deals primarily with facing and conquering one's own demons. Themes of loyalty, duty and sacrifice crop up. There are super mind melds and a nice dash of samurai mentality in the training and battle scenes, and there are elements of other action films like The Matrix and Top Gun especially towards the end.

These Jaegers have some awesome, cool weaponry, and the high tech hardware is detailed and impressive yet well used and realistic. Movies such as The Transformers and the recent super hero films have raised the stakes of massive battle sequences in an urban setting, but Pacific Rim enlarges the playing field even more. And these monsters have tricks up their sleeve that would make even Godzilla envious. Although the scale of the film is breathtaking, del Toro always keeps things grounded in reality and honest emotions. These characters have a camaraderie that evolves throughout the storyline. Just like Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings films, del Toro demonstrates an impressive ability to marshal large set pieces while throwing in minute details or intimate moments. These things add to the texture of the story and its players; you begin to care for them.

Idris Elba is fast becoming the actor of choice (from his start on TV's The Wire through the recent Prometheus). His role as the leader of the Jaegers, is critical to the storyline, and he even gets to have his own Independence Day/Henry V rallying speech. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are a riot as rival scientists who bicker while trying to find solutions to the crises. Long time del Toro repertory stalwart Ron Perlman has an amusing supporting role as a black marketeer.

Production credits are outstanding on all facets. Special effects are through the roof, and the score by Ramin Djawadi is appropriately heroic and pulsating. Do stay for the initial end credits for an amusing bonus scene.

If this is not your cup of tea, it is best avoided. It is true there are perhaps too many climactic battles of these titans (Del Toro even displays a hint of shoe fetish). Yet for those who are game, it is a fun ride and a cut above typical sci-fi fare. For fans and geeks, it is nirvana.

If you're going to make a film about giant war machines fighting larger-than-life evil to save the earth and instill the requisite human element, this is a textbook example of how to do it right. Imagine that: a sci-fi blockbuster that moves you! Boy, they are going to sell a lot of toys with this one!
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Man of Steel (2013)
Man of Steel Sets the Stage for New Adventures
26 June 2013
DC Comics has rivaled and preceded Marvel Comics for many decades with its roster of super heroes and is now attempting to reestablish their greatest character, Superman. Having been previously depicted in movies and television, Man of Steel is the biggest production to date. Is it any good, and is it better than Superman Returns? Yes and yes. Despite a darker tone, (courtesy of the creative tandem of producer Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer from The Dark Knight films and director Zach Snyder of Watchmen), this adventure is an entertaining action piece with a deep psychological subtext.

The planet Krypton is dying, and scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara launch a spacecraft to send their newborn son, Kal-El, to a promising world, Earth. General Zod (Michael Shannon), whose attempted coup is thwarted, is banished into a wormhole. When Krypton is destroyed, Kal-El lands on earth, and through a series of flashback vignettes, we see the school boy named Clark struggling with growing pains and the values instilled by his adoptive human parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) who try to hide his superhuman strength and abilities. As an adult, Clark (Henry Cavill) takes a series of jobs and remains anonymous, off the grid until odd reports begin to circulate of a mysterious man who saves lives with remarkable powers which brings reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) hot on his trail. The setting shifts from the cornfields of Midwest America to Metropolis. As General Zod reappears to claim earth for his race, the stage is set for a grand battle with the fate of the world in the hands of a true blue hero.

There are some fine moments such as the young Clark befriending a former bully and being repaid in kind. There is the tornado scene that brings Clark's non-use of his powers to a turning point. Later, when the military first meet Superman and question his intentions, he responds by rescuing scores of people and is vindicated in a touching moment.

This Superman (with more than a passing parallel with Jesus) is depicted as an emotionally vulnerable soul, and although he possesses great powers and invincibility, he does feel pain especially when meted out by his own kind. The whole film is ultimately a moral struggle and contrast between two fathers and whether their son's powers are meant for good or to be kept hidden no matter what the cost. It's also about his personal journey to find his purpose amid a normal life and search for his origins. Can he embody the best of both worlds, and to what lengths will Superman go to save humanity?

Cavill is quite convincing as Superman, certainly an improvement on Brandon Routh's turn in Superman Returns. Adams shows a thoroughly capable yet vulnerable Lane, a strong reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner to boot! Her scenes with Superman work quite well especially in the quieter, intimate moments which one hopes will lead to much more in future installments.

The supporting cast excels. Crowe lends gravitas to a subordinate role, and he registers every time he appears. Diane Lane is good as the compassionate Momma Kent. (Ironically Lane starred in Hollywoodland about TV's Superman, George Reeves). Costner makes a strong impression as the resolute, adoptive dad who is willing to risk his life for a principal. Laurence Fishburne is a more three-dimensional Perry White, and Christopher Meloni is effective as a hardnosed military commander.

Special visual effects have come a long way since 1978's Superman when the slogan was, "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" Some of the effects show incredibly fast motion which makes you wonder how cool it would be to realize such DC Comic characters as The Flash. While Hans Zimmer has the appropriate, heroic musical score in place here, John Williams truly memorable theme song is a hard act to follow.

The action is not the cartoon variety; people do get hurt and some perish. Regarding that final battle in the streets of Metropolis (previously depicted in Superman II), enough already! We've seen The Avengers decimate New York City and The Transformers wreak havoc on a massive scale. These scenes are becoming old hat (even in a post 9/11 world), and are starting to seem repetitive overkill. Don't get me started on the obvious product placement; when it begins to be noticeable, it becomes annoying.

Perhaps the only disappointment here is the lack of much humor or lightheartedness. There are a couple funny moments; the film could have used a few more. One hopes a lighter tone is in store for the next chapter. Maybe we will see Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen who are both missing here. You barely see Clark Kent get his gig at The Daily Planet before the credits roll. Oh, and contrary to the Marvel films, do not bother staying through the credits in hope of a post credit tease. The film's greatest accomplishment is setting a strong foundation for the next Superman adventure and possibly the beginnings of a Justice League of America (emulating Marvel's The Avengers). Wouldn't that be cool?
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World War Z (2013)
World War Z Takes Zombies to a New Level
26 June 2013
Brad Pitt has gone from youthful sex symbol to versatile actor and producer. His biggest project to date is this filmic adaptation of Max (Mel's son) Brooks' novel, World War Z, chronicling a massive, worldwide zombie apocalypse. For a subgenre that has ranged from classic horror, (Night of the Living Dead), to science fiction, (Resident Evil), to modern updates, (Dawn of the Dead remake), and parodies, (Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead), this film represents a rare depiction of the zombie invasion as a global, mass annihilation. Previously, these films focused on a small group of survivors (TV's The Walking Dead) with a news blackout and no idea as to the magnitude of the infection. After publicized problems with the screenplay and director Mark Forster's (Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland) rough cut (particularly a climactic battle scene), a new ending was shot, and the result is a remarkably engaging film.

Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), ready their two daughters for school and get caught in a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia. Suddenly all hell breaks loose and panic sets in amid an invasion of zombies who are bent on mindlessly attacking and converting humans into the undead. As cities fall worldwide, the infection spreads exponentially with startling speed as the family flees to Newark for supplies and a lifeline from Gerry's former UN boss, but while the family finds a brief refuge aboard a US Navy ship, Gerry is called into service to find the source of the infection or risk having his family kicked off the ship as non-essential personnel. Tracking down random clues across the globe in such disparate locales as South Korea, Israel, and Wales, the trail for a cause and potential cure proves challenging as time runs out on humanity.

In many ways, this film, which shares much in common with pandemic tales as Contagion, Outbreak, and The Andromeda Strain, is more a thriller than horror, and that's not a bad thing. Rather than relying on gross out murders and graphic blood spattered effects, this film looks at the bigger picture without sacrificing the more intimate moments of sheer terror, not an easy balance. Don't let that PG13 rating fool you! Some scenes are suspenseful and agonizing as the threat of zombies is ever present.

The film, particularly in the Newark apartment scenes and an unbearable moment of truth at a World Health Organization lab, is like one big funhouse ride where the scares are just around the corner. Other memorable set pieces include the opening pandemonium in Philly, which is well crafted and builds to an alarming level, a walled in city of Jerusalem stunningly challenged by a growing sea of undead, and perhaps the best moment, a horrifying passenger plane flight from hell that starts innocently enough but quickly devolves into an impossible situation.

The film takes the scary notion of fast running zombies from 28 Days Later and adds even more lethal traits as in their ability to not only swarm like insects, but to hurl themselves with great ferocity at their intended victims even through car windshields. Their victims aren't devoured as in other films, but rather a bite turns them into more zombies almost instantaneously. They are also real sensitive to sound as Gerry learns at the worst possible moment.

What distinguishes this film above most others is its smarts. The script, while written by many hands, still shows an intelligent approach to a devastating crisis, and the dialogue never sounds phony. Further, the film is like one big mystery with nature's clues in full view waiting for Gerry to piece together a solution. Some of the plot points are a bit open ended and push the limits of plausibility, but things move so swiftly and convincingly, that most won't mind.

The supporting cast is effective in brief roles with a strong turn by Daniella Kertesz as a soldier. But this is Pitt's show, and he is the right leading man who has the presence and charisma to carry even a zombie film. Being able to improvise and display cool under pressure, he is the ideal savior that the world needs. Perhaps his Gerry is guilty of being too perfect, but he does it so well.

(It is amusing to note that Gerry and his family become guardians of an orphaned boy, and one wonders if Angelina Jolie was smiling at the parallels with her and Pitt's real life, nuclear family.)

With a mega-budgeted production, the CG effects are a standout especially when creating the hoards of zombies, and there are many effective camera shots with some particularly startling, overhead views. There is also great use of sound effects that add to the visceral chills while the brooding, pulsing music score (Marco Beltrami) complements the tension.

A thrill ride from beginning to end, World War Z is a thoroughly entertaining, scary epic that takes the zombie lore and heightens the stakes with an impressive budget and a star turn by an actor/producer at the top of his game.
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IRON MAN 3 Stands Alone
27 May 2013
Following on the heels of one of the greatest superhero films (The Avengers) ever, Iron Man 3 had the daunting task of being the first film to initiate Phase 2 of the next set of Marvel films. Add to that the fact that third acts rarely do well in these individual film series (Spiderman 3, X-Men 3). Directed this time by Shane Black, (former director Jon Favreau still plays bodyguard Happy Hogan), there was every reason to believe that this installment would fall short of expectations. Surprisingly, this film is pretty good and benefits from a strong plot and the usual Robert Downey Jr. performance. By keeping the audience guessing, this action packed film not only kick starts the next set of films in the Marvel plan, but sets new expectations going forward in the series.

Tony Stark (Downey) has been traumatized by his near death experience in The Avengers with a little help from his friends and must contend with trying to find some normalcy in his life, and that includes his relationship with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Stark recalls a past relationship with a female scientist, whose potentially revolutionary, regenerative process called Extremis is found to have explosive side effects. At the same time, a young genius name Aldrich (Guy Pierce) proposes an idea for high tech think tank, Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.), which will later have severe implications. Further, a terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is hijacking the airwaves and threatening catastrophic events. Are these events related? The story takes Stark out of his comfort zone and drops him in a nowhere town in Tennessee, and he is thus forced to improvise, relying upon his skills and wit to battle a formidable opponent while forging an unlikely bond with a local boy. A deadly, convoluted plot begins to take shape which has far reaching consequences to not only Stark's home but the world.

Downey owns this character, and he gets nice support from Paltrow in an expanded role. Pierce makes a worthy antagonist with tricks up his sleeve so to speak, and Kingsley is a hoot playing up his mysterious role as The Mandarin. Paul Bettany again amusingly voices Stark's computer Jarvis.

Shane Black's talent was notable in the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, and it shows in the dialogue especially between Stark and Pepper and his interactions with the boy. He also was astute enough to challenge his main character by stripping him of his closest allies (no sign of S.H.I.E.L.D either) and his armor and stranding him in the middle of nowhere.

What set Marvel characters apart from most other super hero comics was that they experienced real, personal problems, and that, combined with a real threat, formed an emotional response from the audience. It's nice for comic book fans to see the Marvel films incorporate the established comic book lore including A.I.M. and pushing the ante on supporting characters like Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) as The Iron Patriot. At times you feel a bit of James Bond influence and then a bit of The X-Files which is not bad thing.

There are some clever plot twists and unexpected surprises in characters including one revelation that may upset some comic book purists. The standout highlight is a spectacular action sequence in midair as Air Force One is attacked and its passengers are thrown out helplessly. What's a superhero to do? The result is a terrific, beautifully shot maneuver that raises hairs. Then there is that magnificent armor that Start is constantly perfecting to the point that he can remotely get suited up by sections. Special visual effects are top of the line as witnessed in the pyrotechnic climax at a shipyard.

Not content to paint by numbers, Black and Downey have fashioned an entertaining, superior third film that is almost as good as Iron Man 1. There's a certain finality in the way it ends which makes one wonder how will they do another Iron Man film. This is Downey's last contractual Iron Man for now and it would be a shame to deny fans another go at a fascinating character especially with The Avengers 2 in the not too distant horizon. And yes, do stay through the lengthy credits for a brief but amusing scene and cameo.
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27 May 2013
J. J. Abrams (Super 8, Alias, Fringe, Lost) has excelled in television and movies particularly resurrecting Star Trek by reinventing its essence for new audiences while respecting its origins. In Star Trek Into Darkness, he expands on keys characters and continues his mastery of plot and non-stop action. As summer entertainment, it is a class act and sends the science fiction/adventure series on a spectacular trajectory. It is also the best Star Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan.

Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) are pursued by a primitive tribe on an alien planet as Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempts to prevent a catastrophic volcanic explosion from within. Their activities call into the question The Prime Directive where nothing should alter a civilization from without. In fact, Kirk's outrageous, rule-breaking behavior gets him in hot water with mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Starfleet. At the same time, a horrifying explosion in London reveals the presence of a mysterious man (Benedict Cumberbatch) named John Harrison, who exhibits a remarkable intellect and physical prowess. The cryptic Harrison is pursued to Kronos, home planet to the warrior race of Klingons and the threat of all out war. Overseeing the mission directive is Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) whose presence is felt in unexpected ways. It all leads to a revelation that threatens not only the Enterprise, but Starfleet and Earth.

As the original TV series often dealt with contemporary issues, there are strong parallels with current headlines in the form of terrorism. In fact much of the film has a grim, dark tone as the crew must face a superior, ruthless adversary, and a couple scenes of mass destruction have a 9/11 feel. There are a number of references to the old TV series and original Trek films as names, locales, music, and even dialogue are lifted and cleverly interjected. Tribbles, anyone? And you've got to love those retro uniforms especially Saldana's! Pike and Kirk have what amounts to a father-son relationship, and this is tested in a pivotal moment. We witness this relatively new crew as it becomes more cohesive under duress, and that is part of the fun as we watch McCoy's character and the beginnings of his amusing, trademark gripes. There are plenty of heroics from our stars, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) shine in key moments. You only wish to see if the classic trio (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) could mix it up more, but you do see the core beginnings of their dynamic bond. There are strong, recurring themes of loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the majority, or in other words, "the needs of the many…" Cumberbatch, (TVs current Sherlock Holmes) is outstanding as a powerful adversary. Weller is particularly effective as the imposing Admiral with a hidden agenda.

The visual effects are impressively on display when the starship Enterprise explodes into warp speed and when devastating terrorist acts decimate a major city. The pacing is quite good, so don't think too hard on credibility gaps. Where does Harrison come from? Anybody check his blood type? Why is Starfleet headquarters virtually unguarded? And what's the deal on those torpedoes? Abrams is a master showman and he knows how to engineer cliffhangers upon cliffhangers. The film has a memorable climax that will ring déjà vu with a twist, but is nonetheless quite emotional. It solidifies the Kirk-Spock relationship forever and could have served as one of the best endings in Trekdom, but the filmmakers chose to springboard to another exciting moment which leaves the door open for future adventures of the five year kind. To say any more would spoil things. A third film in this installment would be hard pressed to surpass the energy and sheer acumen he demonstrates in this sequel, but Abrams has proved he can followup a directing gig by remaining the producer with another talented director taking the reigns and still achieve spectacular results (see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). For the man who has been chosen to take over Star Wars franchise, the sky's the limit.
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Life of Pi (2012)
The Meaning of Existence in LIFE OF PI
11 March 2013
Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi, had long been considered unfilmable until Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), did the impossible. He (with an adaptation by screenwriter David Magee) has made a visually stunning adventure about ultimate survival and the meaning of existence in the universe. It is a unique film experience and one that requires openness and a certain suspension of disbelief.

Pi is an impressionable young boy whose exposure to religion develops into an embracing of more than one faith much to the consternation of his father. The family owns a zoo in the French part of India and one day are forced to uproot their lives and head to Canada by cargo ship. During a powerful storm, the ship sinks and all hands are lost except Pi, orphaned and stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no help and a lifeboat filled with an unlikely manifest: wild animals including a tiger, oddly named Richard Parker. An unusual dynamic plays out as Pi struggles to stay alive in the elements and contend with the ferocious beast. As the hours turn into days and then weeks, Pi, left with only his instincts and ingenuity, is forced to improvise and utilize all his survival skills amid dwindling supplies. When hope begins to fade for rescue, some unlikely, awe inspiring events occur that mean the difference between life and death.

Lee, no stranger to computer generated effects (Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), has done a major accomplishment here by adapting the challenging logistics of the source material and making it accessible and compelling to an audience. He is no doubt aided by incredible advancements in special visual effects that form a significant portion of the film and recreate unforgettable moments including the fatal storm and the sinking cargo ship, the wondrous, luminescent phenomenon at night, and the depiction of animals in the lifeboat especially the tiger, Richard Parker, who becomes a major character. Some of the imagery is remarkable in 3-D.

Suraj Sharma is quite convincing as the young Pi; it's a one man show for a majority of the film. The story, told in a flashback, is about Pi's ascension to manhood, and he is in essence is a citizen of the world, not having been bound to any one religion. His curiosity and spiritual journey serve to make this an allegorical tale, and it is his relationship with Richard Parker that serves as a foundation to the story. He wonders about his deadly companion and ponders the question, "Do animals have souls?" In essence, Parker is Pi's Wilson (from Castaway) but with a soul. Pi's interaction with the ocean is not unlike the solitary figures in The Old Man and the Sea and 127 Hours, in which mother nature can be lovely and deadly, giving and taking, a sort of protagonist and antagonist.

There are unanswered questions. What really becomes of Richard Parker? And are we to believe this fantastic tale as fact or fiction or a warped truth? Is there a more plausible explanation? Maybe that's just the point of the story: that life is full of questions and wonder, and sometimes truth is stranger than fiction no matter how unlikely it may appear. Audiences who are willing to completely open their hearts and minds, will find a rewarding experience in this tragic yet fascinating exploration into the miracle of life. And the movie does look hauntingly beautiful.
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10 March 2013
Director David O. Russell (Three Kings) has taken Matthew Quick's novel, Silver Linings Playbook, and adapted it for the screen. It is a topic near and dear to him as his own son has bipolar disorder like the lead character. By balancing dramatic situations with comedic overtones, Russell has accomplished a rare feat, an excellent drama with a superior cast that treads the fine line of humor. By making such a delicate subject accessible to the masses, he has made a really entertaining, crowd pleaser.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) suffers from bipolar disorder and, following a breakdown over a failed marriage and confinement to a psychiatric facility in Baltimore, has just been released to his parents' care. Now back in Philadelphia and living with his parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), his doting mother, and Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro), a sports addict, Pat is determined to get his wife back despite a restraining order. He is so obsessed with getting back with his wife that he boils over on occasion with emotional outbursts which threaten to send him back to confinement. When he is not taking his meds or visiting his therapist, he runs in his neighborhood to get into shape in anticipation of repatriating with his wife, or so he thinks. One day he runs into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), another troubled soul who not only has been widowed recently, but now sleeps with anyone. Their uneasy interactions lead to an unusual offer by Tiffany for him to partner with her in a dance contest in exchange for her being an intermediary and backdoor link to his wife. What follows are the revelations of emotional scars and the realities of finding happiness in the most unlikely places.

The cast is excellent, particularly the four lead actors. Lawrence portrays Tiffany as a seemingly naïve, young woman, but she turns out to be a bright, perceptive person who is not afraid to stand toe-to-toe with anyone. DeNiro has not had such a strong role in many years, and he shows just how good he still is. Even Chris Tucker, in an unusual supporting role, registers as Pat's buddy from his psych group.

The film is about how people, who are trapped in their own patterns of behavior, are afraid or unable to reach out and take a chance in life. The depictions of mental illness are portrayed with realism. When Pat undergoes mood swings, it can manifest itself as uncontrollable rage brought on by a simple trigger. He has no filter to his reactions and responses which can be quite awkward and downright offensive. Much as Jack Nicholson's character in As Good as It Gets laments if 'this really is as good as it gets', Cooper's Pat tries to find the 'silver lining' in his life.

It is interesting to note that virtually every major character in the story has emotional issues in varying degrees. At one point Pat actually thinks Tiffany is crazier than he is. Pat's father, a superstitious gambler and bookie, has his own issues with obsessive-compulsive disorder. His belief that having his son nearby to ensure the Eagles football team a victory, leads to an amusing confrontation with Tiffany.

When you have a cast that is this good, you have to look at the director, Russell, who orchestrates like a master conductor. Despite an uneven filmography in his early career, he is rapidly becoming the actors' go-to director. His attention to minor details like the simple act of tying a tie, a quick reaction shot, or hand gesture enriches the texture of a characterization. His recent films (The Fighter) have taken noteworthy, acting ensembles and elicited superior, Oscar worthy performances amid strong story lines. Somewhere, directing legends, George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) and William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives), are smiling broadly.
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Amour (2012)
The Power of Love in AMOUR
10 March 2013
Most filmed love stories depict the beginnings and complications of couples searching for happiness and a future together. In rare exceptions (The Notebook) do we also see the waning days of love, and with Amour, we are witness to the end of a long union of husband and wife, whose longevity is matched by their love for one another. It is a bittersweet study in the challenges and hardships that are grim reminders that although life is finite, love transcends time. As written and directed by Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), the story is a realistic study of love, loyalty, and responsibility in a marriage.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a married, elderly couple who share a love of classical piano music and live in a modest apartment. One day, following a visit to a classical concert, Anne is paralyzed by a stroke, and as her body begins to fail her, she and her husband must adjust to a new way of living and the inevitability of the end. What transpires in the following days and weeks amid concerns of their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), will test an enduring love to its very limits.

Featuring two leading actors who starred in two of the more haunting, romantic films at the beginning of the French New Wave Cinema, (Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Trintignant in A Man and a Woman), it is ironic that we see these veteran performers, as aged spouses. Riva makes us feel for her, and she conveys much feeling with her facial expressions particularly in her eyes or the absence of any reaction as she convincingly depicts the gradual deterioration of a human being physically and spiritually. Trintignant deserves credit for making us feel his plight as husband and caregiver. He gives Riva an equal in acting.

The contrast of their day to day routines is thrown awry by fate, and the hardship of caring for an physically impaired family member is heartbreaking. The details of hiring healthcare workers, helpful neighbors who buy groceries, acquiring a hospital bed or wheelchair, and even the simplest acts of human function are a challenge. When Anne asks to see a family photo album, we know this is a sign that this is the beginning of the end of her quality of life as she is reviewing her past and better times. There are moments you wonder how much can Georges take and to what lengths he will endure to support his wife's well being. There are echoes of Million Dollar Baby in the incapacity of a loved one and how those closest must come to terms with life. It is a tragedy being played out before our eyes.

There is symbolism of a pigeon that repeatedly flies into the apartment; perhaps it represents a precious life that is a metaphor for Anne. Even the sounds of activity in their kitchen speak to their routine at mealtime. Indeed, most of the story takes place in their apartment. The absence of a musical score adds to its realism and immediacy.

Despite a somber tone, Amour is blessed with great performances that cap two legendary careers. Give Haneke credit for an ambiguous, bold ending with its memorable imagery; it reaffirms the power of love. The film says that this may be the end of a life but not the end of love.
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The Triumph of the Commoner in LES MISERABLES
10 March 2013
There are musicals, and then there are musicals. This adaptation of the smash Broadway show, itself sourced from Victor Hugo's classic novel of the post French Revolution and the suffering plight of the populace has been transformed into an impressive film which will appeal to those open to its free flowing style of song and music. Think of this type of musical as operatic narrative with hardly a spoken line of actual dialogue. For the uninitiated and fans of traditional movie musicals, this may take some getting used to. If one can embrace the format, it is a well made, emotionally moving tale of love and hope.

Spanning the years 1815-1832, in Paris, France, the years following the French Revolution have left the country divided with its common citizens in poverty and hard labor. A prisoner, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is paroled under the watchful eye of policeman, Javert (Russell Crowe). Stigmatized by his record, Valjean flees his past and makes a new life for himself as an upstanding citizen until a chance encounter exposes his identity to Javert, and the hunt is on. Meanwhile, in a related incident, a factory worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been unjustly fired and must struggle to survive and care for her young daughter, Cosette. As Fantine must resort to desperate measures and all hope begins to fade, Valjean intercedes, and while Cosette grows into a woman (Amanda Seyfried), their lives intertwine with a movement to rekindle the Revolution as a growing revolt pits commoners against French soldiers even as Javert closes in on his quarry.

Through these characters, we witness a wide range of behavior from treachery and betrayal to loyalty and unrequited love. It's also about the secrets and the choices made especially by Valjean who comes to a series of crossroads in life. Jackman does a great job of conveying shame, guilt, desperation and anger, but those feelings give way to wanting to be a better man. His Valjean is the conscience of the film.

Hathaway owns her role as the doomed Fantine and has the chops to sing the signature song, "I Dreamed a Dream". Her character's descent into hell is not unlike the doomed characters in The House of Mirth or Sister Carrie. Crowe has the unsavory role of the obsessed Javert but proves an effective foil to Jackman. The folks that made TV's The Fugitive must have modeled Inspector Gerard on Javert!

The storyline has numerous supporting characters and subplots including one involving a pair of crooked innkeepers played with villainy by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. (What's with these three name actors anyway?) There is also a nice musical, montage sequence that alternates and merges several different settings and characters; it is directly reminiscent of the pre-rumble sequence in West Side Story.

Production values are outstanding with the set designs realistically recreating 19th century Paris (with parallels to Dickens' London settings) befitted with costume designs of the period. The camera-work relies heavily on hand-held close-ups for realism. Of note, this is one of the few musicals that did not loop the vocals in post-production. Rather, the actors actually sing on camera, and fortunately they all acquit themselves well with these terrific songs. The effect is more akin to witnessing a live, stage production.

The end is memorable as wishes and legacies are fulfilled. When you figure the resources and talented cast directed by Tom Hooper (the King's Speech) that brought this to the screen, it is a remarkable achievement. Because of the theatrical source material, however, just be wary of the way it's all presented, narrative and all. "Vive la France!"
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Lincoln (2012)
LINCOLN Comes Alive
10 March 2013
The subject of many films over the decades, Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed to great effect by such top actors as Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, and on TV by Hal Holbrook. Steven Spielberg has assembled a great cast headed by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, a chronicle of the last weeks of his presidency and his final important accomplishment before he was assassinated. As a slice of history, it is a fascinating insight into the political challenges that went into the 13th Amendment. As a portrayal of a historic figure, it could not be any better.

In January, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (Lewis) has been just re-elected and must contend with major issues particularly the ongoing toll of the Civil War. Amid the inequality of the 'colored' soldiers and a growing personal conviction that was marked by his landmark Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln is passionate about getting the 13th Amendment (which would unequivocally free all slaves) passed in Congress. At odds with his headstrong wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), and surrounded by a doubting cabinet and strange bedfellows, Lincoln's challenge is to secure enough votes in Congress amid powerful opposition. With the potential of a Confederate signal for an end to the war, Lincoln must weigh the political fallout of ending a costly conflict and achieving lasting freedom for all Americans.

Lincoln is not intended as an all encompassing biography but rather a microscope into the President's last great act of his administration, and it illustrates his sheer will and unshakable faith. It demonstrates his disarming sense of humor and philosophy, and he is depicted as an imperfect human whose relationships are depicted as often dysfunctional whether it is with his paranoid wife Mary Todd over the loss of deceased son or his rebellious older son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Unwilling to compromise on his beliefs, Lincoln realizes that his legacy will be tied to this moment forever. It is revealing how the political challenges in Congress are dealt with in bold strokes or subtle, delicate wording. His battles with Congress have direct parallels with the current political climate.

Lincoln had the foresight to look ahead and anticipate his legacy and how the world will look on to this moment in history including the proposed Reconstruction of the South once hostilities ceased. The behind the scenes cajoling and arm twisting make for an interesting insight into the political process. As the momentous day for the important vote arrives, each congressman places his vote in a manner not unlike the founding fathers of 1776.

Daniel Day-Lewis has become the Paul Muni of our generation. By being selective with his roles, he has played larger than life period figures that have transcended their respective films. He inhabits this role perfectly, and the makeup work and vocal inflections are outstanding. When the war winds down and has taken an emotional toll on Lincoln, you see the President's line worn face.

Sally Field is the perfect foil as Mary Todd, his opinionated wife. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout in an impressive cast of well known actors (including Holbrook as an influential citizen). His Thaddeus Stevens, whose support was instrumental in Congress, is an intimidating figure with an imposing demeanor. He gets some of the best lines. James Spader makes a fine, slimy operative for Seward, who is played with stern conviction by David Strathairn. Spielberg consistently gives a slave's point of view to put things in perspective. The war and the amendment are seen through the eyes of former slaves particularly Gloria Reuben's servant to Mrs. Lincoln.

The film is magnificently shot by Janusz Kaminski in a manner that emulates the iconic pictures of the period. You feel at times that you are witness to actual, historic events. We don't actually see much of the Civil War battles but rather the aftermath in the bodies and limbs that are testimonials to the horror of warfare. Indeed, such themes recur in Spielberg films depicting World War I (War Horse) and World War II (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun).

There is a certain reverence and awe when you watch this film because the details are recreated vividly. Tony Kushner's screenplay is the blueprint that enables Spielberg to add to a body of work that contains some of the best documentations of American history (Amistad). There will be future film versions on the life of this remarkable historic figure, but it is difficult to imagine a better impersonation, period.
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10 March 2013
An independent film that burst on the scene, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a harrowing depiction of life in an impoverished, deep southern community. It focuses on how an isolated town responds to a disaster and, in particular, one little girl who sees the world through a prism. A little gem of a film, it boasts superior performances by an amateur cast.

In the Bayou country (and narrated from her point of view), a rebellious, young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), has a very personalized vision of life in her world where there is a natural order of humans and wild, prehistoric beasts who rule the land. Abandoned by her mother, her angry and sometime abusive father, Wink (Dwight Henry), is the only family who is there to care for her. When not drinking to excess, he encourages her to hone her survival skills in the wild. The two share an extremely poor existence living in rundown shacks and sharing camaraderie with other locals. As a prophesied, destructive flood uproots everyone's lives, she must learn to survive and grow up fast. When personal tragedy strikes, she must come to terms with her family and her place in the world.

Shooting on location in the rural south has a colorful flavor and adds to the film's realism. Using amateurs in the key roles makes the film authentic, and Wallis is the revelation here. In a role that would be challenging for a teenager, she shines, and never once do you think that this is a performance by an actor. Henry interacts wonderfully with her as the troubled father, and his was perhaps an overlooked, award worthy role.

It shows how a way of life can be changed forever when disaster strikes and how people respond to the major changes in their lives. The tight knit community has character and a closeness that transcends natural disasters and personal loss. They come together to help one another. Although Wink is stern and an alcoholic, he still teaches Hushpuppy the lessons in life and the art of survival in the wild. His rage and health problems are belied by the love for his daughter. Perhaps that's the only way he can show her his love until the bittersweet end.

There is a surreal sequence where Hushpuppy and her friends make a trek to a distant bar where they meet a gregarious collection of seafarers, barflies and hookers. It is there she is befriended by a woman who cooks her a meal. Could this be her mother? The final scene between Hushpuppy and Wink is a touching moment of truth that distills all that has transpired before and reinforces their relationship. Despite all the hardships and conflict, there is ultimately the love of a father and daughter.

With mythical and allegorical overtones, this is a spiritual film that must be experienced to appreciate its unique take on a slice of the world as seen through the eyes of a girl whose fascination with how the universe works and her desire to leave her mark on the world is only exceeded by her love for her father and 'family'.
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