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Tôkyô kazoku (2013)
Ozu's Timeliness Not Fully Captured by This Dutiful Update
Updating a classic as revered as Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" is no small feat, and it is left to former Ozu protégé Yôji Yamaha along with co-screenwriter Emiko Hiramatsu to contemporize a film that managed the magical feat of being timeless and of its time (post-WWII Japan). Yamaha was 82 when he directed this overlong 2013 drama, and there is a sense of gravitas to his approach which could be seen as a respectful tribute to his mentor. However, what's missing is the deep sense of melancholy of the original, the delicate emotionalism which was well matched by empathetic performances from Ozu's regular players, chief among them the legendary Setsuko Hara's beautifully modulated turn as Noriko. This character has been relegated to a smaller role here, and this is just the beginning of the problems with the new film made exactly sixty years after the original.
The plot follows the same basic framework. Retired teacher Shukichi Hirayama his wife, Tomiko live on a small island near Hiroshima. They come visit their grown children in Tokyo for a few days. There were five children in the original film, the youngest a schoolteacher who lived with them. This time there are three, probably a more accurate demographic for current-day Japan, but like the first story, the elderly couple is shuttled around rather mercilessly by their children who are leading their own hectic lives. They first visit with elder son Koiichi, a local doctor, his wife and two kids. Then there is the snippy daughter Shigeko who has a buffoonish husband and runs a hair salon. Last is youngest son Shoji, a freelance set designer who barely scrapes by but doesn't seem to mind. Noriko is no longer a widow central to the story on her own but rather Shoji's hidden girlfriend, the one who eventually provides the bridge to his largely estranged parents.
As anyone familiar with "Tokyo Story" will know, tragedy strikes, and the surviving family comes to terms with what remains of their elusive bonds with one another. Zeroing in on three children would lead one to believe deeper characterizations would follow, but Yamaha and Hiramatsu seem so intent in evoking the original story, the opportunities are lost. Even passing mentions of the Fukushima earthquake and the country's pallid economic state do little to make the story feel more vibrant and relevant. The cast is proficient but variable when it comes to lasting impact. As Shukichi, Isao Hashizume plays the role in a more standard curmudgeonly fashion than Ozu regular Chishū Ryū, but Kazuko Yoshiyuki hits the right notes as Tomoko. Masahiko Nishimura plays Koichi even more stoically than Sô Yamamura did as the role remains elliptical at best.
In the comparatively showy role of Shigeko, Tomoko Nakajima stands clearly in the shadow of the memorable Haruko Sugimura who could show respect, pettiness and conniving in a realistically mercurial fashion. However, former teen heartthrob Satoshi Tsumabuki manages to convey a palpable figure out of the puppyish Shoji who loves his mother but remains shaped by his father's disappointment. Yu Aoi has the unenviable task of stepping into Hara's shoes, though her sympathetic likability gets her through her key final scene with Shukichi with surprising poignancy. It would have been unimaginable to conceive of an update that could approach the resonance of the original, and somehow Yamaha proves that point with his overly deliberate pacing. Still, certain scenes like the heartfelt bedside chat between Tomoko and Shoji, well played by Yoshiyuki and Tsumabuki, make this worthwhile for a once-through.
Impossible Light (2014)
25,000 LED Lights and the Dream and Herculean Effort It Took to Turn Them On
Based on blind faith, first-time documentary filmmaker Jeremy Ambers followed the uncertain path from conception to execution of the Bay Lights. At a height of 500 feet and a length of 1.8 miles, it represents the world's largest LED light sculpture installed on the much-maligned western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. He really had no idea if the project would reach a successful conclusion, and that ambivalence is captured in the compelling narrative he follows for just 71 minutes. Ambers wisely focuses on three key figures, the first being Ben Davis, the founder of the Illuminate the Arts program and the guiding light, if you will, of the entire project. It was his dream to have a public art display that would allow some of the spotlight normally reserved for the more photogenic Golden Gate Bridge. This dream evolves into a vision created by the film's second pivotal figure, expressionist artist Leo Villareal, whose renown comes from elaborate lighting displays.
Many of his exhibits are shown here with the most famous being the stunning concourse walkway between the West and East buildings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The third figure is Amy Critchett, a no-nonsense creative producer instrumental in the budgeting and fundraising efforts to bring the project to life. While a number of engineers were obviously critical to the effort and are included in brief snippets, it is the combined effort of this charismatic trio who manages to elicit support from a wide-ranging and often hesitant group of stakeholders from government agencies to private anonymous donors . Interspersed between the interviews is some remarkable footage of the installation including setbacks caused by either the elements or the experimental nature of the whole venture. Ambers shows a true gift for editing as the momentum never flags, and the evocative score by Kevin T. Doyle lends a nicely surreal touch to the story. I look forward to Ambers' next feature film.
The Heat (2013)
Bullock and Especially McCarthy Deliver the Goods in Feig's Action-Packed "Bridesmaids" Follow-Up
When I saw the trailer for this rambunctious 2013 action comedy, I was none too excited to see this film despite the expert hands involved, specifically co-stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig in his sophomore feature after the surprise smash of 2011's "Bridesmaids" which featured McCarthy in her breakout role. Interestingly, it is not her unapologetically rapacious turn as Megan that serves as the inspiration for McCarthy's role as pugnacious Boston detective Shannon Mullins. I think it's the hilariously crazy rant she unspooled as the mad-as-hell mother in the outtake shown during the end credits of Judd Apatow's "This Is 40". This sharp comic actress is a master of timing, and her character's nasty-edged tirades produce pure comedy gold. She and Bullock generate real chemistry as a mismatched pair of social misfits who are thrown together to take down a Boston drug lord. As written by Kate Dippold, the film is little different in premise from any other cop-buddy actioner made since "48 Hours" and "Lethal Weapon". The novelty is that they're women. In that respect, it does resemble a distaff version of the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy, "The Other Guys".
Bullock plays straight-arrow FBI agent Sarah Ashburn who is gunning for a promotion based on her enviable track record of captures, but the problem is nobody in her department can stand working with her due to her arrogance. Her boss sends her to Boston to work on the drug case and also her people skills. Mullins is Ashburn's polar opposite, a fear- based cop who knows the neighborhoods that Ashburn desperately needs to search. Just as Ashburn wears no-nonsense pantsuits, Mullins looks like a streetwise biker with her worn Paw Sox T-shirt and fingerless leather gloves. The movie consists mostly of their personal embattlements as each can't stand the other, but hints of mutual respect lurk as Mullins sets up a diversion at a drug supplier's apartment while Ashburn picks up an incriminating cigarette butt. There's also a funny nightclub scene where Mullins cuts up Ashburn's outfit in the restroom to make her look sexy enough to distract a dealer while installing a tracking device into his smartphone. A hilariously executed drunken binge provides just the bonding moment they need to join forces to nab their prey. At the same time, Dippold's screenplay is not without its share of predictable elements.
For example, Mullins has a fractious, mouthy family right out of "The Fighter" and a brother who could be a linchpin in the case (shades of "Conviction"). This gives her character a tether to humanity that appears a bit forced amid all the action. Moreover, after Mullins and Ashburn reach the turning point in their relationship, the plot doesn't seem to matter as much, and the pacing feels uneven. There are a surprising number of grisly moments including ones involving an oyster shucking knife and an unexpected tracheotomy, but these moments appear true to the genre. The 1970's-style credits are a plus as well as the rap-heavy soundtrack coordinated by Mike Andrews. Bullock is really playing another variation of "Miss Congeniality" only much more uptight, and while she does it very well, McCarthy steals almost every scene. Feig has surrounded them with an eclectic supporting cast including Demian Birchir ("A Better Life") as Ashburn's patient boss, Tom Wilson as the prematurely aging precinct captain, Marlon Wayans as a fellow FBI agent who has a crush on Ashburn, Jane Curtin in a too-brief role as Mullins' judgmental mother; and MADtv's Michael McDonald and SNL's Taran Killam in unexpected roles. Solid entertainment.
Before Midnight (2013)
Linklater, Hawke and Delpy Reunite for an Enriching Third Time
If a youthful sense of hope informs "Before Sunrise" and a wistful sense of regret does the same in "Before Sunset", then a begrudging sense of resignation must be the overriding theme of this 2013 romantic drama as director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater picks up the story of Jesse and Celine 18 years after they first met on a train to Vienna. This time, they are an established couple though tellingly, still not married. Jesse indeed left his loveless marriage after the end of "Before Sunset", and the lovers are now in their early forties raising twin girls. For the second time, Linklater wrote the script with co- stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and together they achieve a level of familiarity with their characters' relationship that makes the incidental story resonate in ways quite unexpected. Unlike the first two films, there is no ticking clock manufactured to provide a need for resolution by the end. Instead, the fate of the couple's relationship is entirely in their hands, and now that we have an emotional investment in the characters, that's what makes this entry more compelling.
The movie flows leisurely picking up the particular rhythms of conversations that show how words can become weapons. The story begins at the end of an idyllic Greek vacation where the couple has been staying with friends of various generations. As Jesse puts his now- adolescent son Henry on a plane headed back to Chicago, it becomes clear that his ex-wife didn't take the divorce well and now has full custody of Henry. Jesse shares with Celine his struggle in being so far away from Henry, and they banter about the challenges of parenthood and her indecision around accepting a government job. You would think that the stage they are in their lives would not yield much in the way of romantic sparks, but when they meet their friends for a farewell meal, they return to their familiar selves as they discuss the challenges in making human, much less romantic, connections in the digital age. Their friends decide to treat them to a romantic night at a nearby hotel, and the dialogue comes back to just the two of them. The chemistry between them percolates in a subtle manner as they walk to the hotel stopping to ponder the sunset.
Once at the hotel, the friction begins mildly when the front desk clerk, an effusive fan of Jesse's books, insists Celine autograph her copies. Although she obviously served as his inspiration, she had nothing to do with the writing and bristles at the request. Then a phone call from Chicago sets off tensions that had been simmering between the two about the possibility of moving away from Paris to Chicago. Their verbal combat scene has the brutal honesty and up-and-down rhythms that feel more realistic than most such fights depicted on screen, and that's what makes the scene more powerful since things said in the most matter-of- fact way sting with inevitable consequences. Looking understandably worn, Hawke and Delpy know their characters and each other's so well they don't need to sketch out a backstory. We've already seen it, and together with Linklater, they've written it and perhaps will continue to shape their future. The director and actors continue to evolve as much as the characters do. So where will Jesse and Celine as 50-year-olds be? Chicago perhaps "Before Tomorrow" maybe?
Gun Crazy (1950)
B-Movie Couple-on-the-Lam Classic Still Resonates with Emotional Conviction
The emotional complexity of the lead characters in this 1950 film noir is what continues to surprise about this low-budget B-movie that has understandably become a cult classic among cineastes. As cannily directed by Joseph H. Lewis, there is a feral, white-heat energy that fuels this film from start to finish. Lewis manages to make the film jump back and forth from documentary-like to highly stylized with quicksilver cuts, the sum of which somehow melds together into a crazy- great melodrama that clearly serves as the precursor for later couple- on-the lam movie classics such as Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Terrence Malick's "Badlands". Written by Dalton Trumbo (under a pseudonym as he was blacklisted at the time), the story is pretty basic. Bart Tare is an orphan whose obsession with handguns starts pretty early in his life. Motivated by what he sees as his own self-worth, he becomes an expert sharpshooter as he moves from reform school to a stint in the Army and then to an uncertain existence as Bart isn't sure what he's supposed to do with his life.
Enter Annie Laurie Starr, a dead-shot trick-shooter who comes to town as part of a traveling carnival, and the fireworks ignite immediately when she shoots at him with a prop gun and then competes in a marksmanship contest where each shoots matchsticks on a crown placed on the other's head. This audacious bit of foreplay is only the beginning when he impulsively decides he wants to marry her, and in turn, she convinces him to go on a cross-country crime spree to live the life of Riley. He willingly goes along with the plan, but self-doubt strikes him at every adverse turn. Annie, on the other hand, is a classic "bad" girl who shoots people dead out of an addictive fear of getting trapped, but she genuinely falls in love with Bart when she recognizes how much he is willing to sacrifice of himself to be with her. Their torturous relationship is offset by some fascinating set pieces like an unedited bank robbery scene near the film's midpoint where the camera is planted in the backseat of a car the couple has just stolen. The actors feel like they're improvising their dialogue during a single take of several minutes' duration.
The robbery occurs off-camera, and after she pistol-whips a local cop, the two get away as shots are fired at them. Their clean escape is captured perfectly in Annie's face as she smiles in an almost post- coital fashion that summarizes the dark nature of her character perfectly. The actors give blazing performances that make indelible impressions. John Dall is an interesting footnote in mid-century American cinema as he only made a handful of films, the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" where he played one of a pair of gay murderers. As Bart, he conveys his character's constant self-doubt and false bravado with precision, even if he does seem over-the-top in a few key scenes. A petite Welsh-born beauty, Peggy Cummins was supposed to be a big star three years earlier when she was cast in "Forever Amber". But she was fired and never gained a footing in American films until this one where she dazzles with a Bette Davis-like intensity but with a deceptively demure manner that makes her portrayal surprisingly sympathetic. This is a gem well worth seeking out.
The Family (2013)
Disparate Elements Refuse to Gel in Besson's Absurdist Mob Comedy
Known for bringing a hip edge to populist genre pictures that focus mainly on high-octane action with a heavy dose of U.S.-influenced pop culture, Luc Besson is a French filmmaker who directed some terrifically audacious films in the nineties (1994's "Léon: The Professional", 1997's "The Fifth Element") but has largely focused on producing and writing since the millennium. He comes back to the director's chair with this 2013 mob comedy which bears his signature mark of extreme, almost fanatical violence within the context of a story that already feels unsettled as neither a crime melodrama nor a family situation comedy. With a screenplay co-written with Michael Caleo, Besson has made a tonally unbalanced film whose primary saving grace is an adroit cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. Neither is a stranger to this milieu as they appear to play extensions of characters they've already played in "Goodfellas" (which is given a cheeky nod in the plot) and "Married to the Mob". That's fine by me since both bring a world- weary finesse to their portrayals that elevate the cartoonish movie into something close to human if not quite humane.
The fancifully graphic story focuses on Giovanni Manzoni, his wife Maggie, their daughter Belle and their son Warren. He is a second- generation mobster who decides to turn state's evidence against Don Luchese, a Brooklyn crime kingpin. After a failed attempt to rub out Manzoni at a family barbecue, Luchese is sent to prison, and in turn, the Manzoni tribe enters the Witness Protection Program where they end up being renamed the Blakes and relocating from the south of France to a village in Normandy. Each family member has trouble fitting in because they all share the same volatile temper and the same immoral sensibility to solve any problem with brutalizing violence. Manzoni is Fred Blake who pretends to be a history author writing about the Normandy landings and beats up a plumber who tries to rip him off. In my favorite scene of the movie, Maggie blows up a local grocery store when the proprietor makes fun of American vulgarity in French. Belle pummels a would-be lothario with a tennis racket after he tricks her into joining him and his buddies for a not-so-innocent picnic. Warren seeks revenge against the local school bullies by creating a confederacy of outcasts with sought-after skills and connections.
All their proclivities come to a head when Luchese discovers their whereabouts through the most contrived of circumstances. De Niro can play this type of role in his sleep, but credit him for not making this another Fockers sleepfest as he brings genuine warmth to a character that finds a cathartic release in his newfound purpose in writing his memoirs. Even in her bleached blond flashbacks, Pfeiffer displays her shopworn beauty with little vanity and manages to create an empathetic character out of what could have been a shrewish caricature. Tommy Lee Jones plays exactly to type as the stoic agent who leads the protection detail for Manzoni. "Glee" alumnus Dianna Agron brings a refreshing calmness to the role of a bad girl who is at heart a soulful teen falling in love for the first time while never forgetting her obligation to the family. John D'Leo fits well into the deadpan demeanor of a been- there, done-that kid brother as Warren. But Besson just doesn't know how to mesh the considerable comic chops of his core cast with the violence he wants to showcase, especially in the final gun battle sequence, which would have been fine in a straight-ahead actioner but just refuses to bring this truly absurdist movie together. It's a marginal disappointment considering all who is involved in this production including executive producer Martin Scorsese.
Cuarón's Dazzling Space Odyssey Turns into a Cathartic Journey of the Human Spirit
The irony of the film's title is that there isn't any, gravity that is, but that's not to say it lacks gravitas. It does in ways both unexpected and transcendent. It's been seven long years since Alfonso Cuarón's last film, 2006's emotionally propulsive thriller, "Children of Men", which was a masterful work of suspense in the midst of one seriously dystopian vision of the apocalypse. Somehow, the less-than-prolific filmmaker manages to surpass that impressive work with this terrifying yet genuinely profound 2013 science-fiction thriller that buzzes by in a fleet 91 minutes. Although Ang Lee effectively used 3-D CGI effects to enhance the magical realism of "Life of Pi", I have never seen a film use them as purposefully and powerfully as Cuarón does here within the dramatic structure of the story. Co-written with his son Jonás, the screenplay, by contrast, is life-size in its intimacy and even with all the technical jargon, at times poetic. This combination gives the film an almost mythic reach and at the same time, brings insight into the way the human spirit works against the overwhelming emptiness of space. The story takes place about 372 miles above Earth, and the alternately ethereal and scarifying setting is captured in brilliant detail by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and special effects master Tim Webber.
Pay particularly close attention to the uninterrupted seventeen-minute sequence that opens the film. It's a bravura piece of cinema by anyone's standards. In brief, bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone is on her first space mission studiously installing a device to fix the Hubble Space Telescope on the U.S Space Shuttle Explorer. Mission commander Matt Kowalski is a veteran astronaut who devilishly spacewalks around her in a jet pack. Mission Control reports that the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites which transforms into a massive attack of hurling debris that arrives in a matter of seconds and will continue to make an orbital return causing massive destruction every ninety minutes. There is no time for the crew to return to the shuttle much less Earth, and the damage to the craft and nearby International Space Station is extensive. It's enough to say that Stone sets off on a journey not only of physical survival but spiritual awakening as her character has been in a listless state since a senseless personal tragedy occurred back home. If you don't count the voiceovers at the beginning, there are only two actors who make up the entire cast, and they are grade-A stars who bring their personal charisma to the fore.
George Clooney has the smaller of the two roles as Kowalski, and he uses his natural insouciance to great effect as his wisecracking gives way to a character who provides the knowledgably becalming tone that Stone needs at the story's most critical points. He makes one particularly risky scene work by the sheer magnitude of his character's life- affirming bravado. He also impressively wrote the scene. Even so, this is Sandra Bullock's film from start to finish, and it amazes me how she wasn't even among the top casting choices for the role (Angelina Jolie turned it down twice). Although Stone may come across as emotionally stunted, Bullock offers her natural likability as a necessary counterbalance. However, that observation short-changes her stellar work here, especially the pure physicality of her performance. Intriguingly, her character is not that far removed from the one she played nearly twenty years earlier in "While You Were Sleeping" in that both deal with personal losses with an emotional alertness that wins us over completely. Only this time she does it with a graceful maturity that deepens the catharsis of the incredible odyssey she experiences, this in spite of a few overtly sentimental moments thrown in for good measure. Regardless, this is Cuarón's towering cinematic achievement, and the movie truly stands on its own.
Emotionally Distant Oedipal Tale Is More Somber Than Titillating
I suppose one should feel grateful that filmmaker Anne Fontaine ("Coco Before Chanel") doesn't stoop to montages of crashing waves on the Australian surf to epitomize the ecstasy that two middle-aged women feel when they fall in love with each other's sons in this solemn 2013 melodrama that treats its taboo subject with surprising matter-of- factness. The core of the story lies in the misguided affections between older women and younger men, but the oedipal nature of the relationships give the film a moral subversion that never really titillates. That's because Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton ("Atonement") appear more interested in the characters' inability to let go of one another in an idyllic setting in a remote cove in New South Wales (beautifully lensed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne). Based on Doris Lessing's 2003 novella, The Grandmothers, the film centers on lifelong best friends Lil and Roz, beautiful women in their mid-forties and true soulmates who live very close to each other. Lil is a widow, while Roz's husband is a theater director who finds a better opportunity in Sydney fully expecting Roz and son Tom to move with him. Meanwhile, Tom and Lil's son Ian have over the years become best friends who like nothing more than to surf and spend their days lying on a floating pier in the sun, a major symbol of escape in the story.
However, late one night, Ian gives Roz a passionate kiss which signals the beginning of their insatiable affair. When Tom finds out about their tryst almost immediately, he seduces Lil in an act of sexual revenge, but it quickly turns into an affair of equal carnality. Because the boys made the first moves, both women do not regret the consummations that occur, and in fact, jointly celebrate the love they have been able to find in their own backyards. They commit to their respective arrangements for quite some time until the inevitable occurs. Younger rivals show up and force Roz and Lil to reassess the long-term feasibility of their relationships. Years elapse, and when they become, in fact, grandmothers to their boys' girls, the unconditional bonding that occurs between the two mothers becomes genuinely intractable, and even when betrayals occur, their loyalty remains uncompromised. Ironically, this is part of the film's pervasive problem. While I wasn't expecting knockdown catfights given the film's reverential tone, I was waiting for scenes of more palpable tension that would have given a sense of jeopardy to their friendship. Fontaine, however, would have none of those melodramatic conventions in her film.
From her perspective, the true love story is between the two women, and the males are simply plot devices to give them something to talk about. Despite some awkward dialogue that would likely draw an unintended guffaw in a crowded theater, the performances of the two leading actresses are exceptional. Not looking as shopworn as she tries to convey, the ever-youthful Naomi Watts ("The Impossible") portrays Lil with a mix of insecurity and confusion that comes across as quite natural. With a flawless Australian lilt and her model-ready beauty not about to fade into the night, Robin Wright ("House of Cards") brings a sexy world-weary élan to Roz that makes it easy to see why Ian would fall in love with her. As Ian, Xavier Samuel ("The Twilight Saga: Eclipse") brings out all the latent angst of his smitten character, while James Frecheville ("Animal Kingdom") plays Tom in a flatter, more elliptical manner since his character is the most sketchily drawn of the four. For a movie that relies so heavily on creating a sense of empathy for the two women, I was constantly surprised how little Fontaine drew on either actress' innate ability to build a higher level of emotional resonance in their characters. Perhaps that was the director's intention, but the limitations of her distant approach become all too clear in the melodrama of the last half-hour.
The Butler (2013)
The Reach of Daniels' Episodic History Lesson Exceeds Its Grasp But Whitaker's Performance Shines
Director Lee Daniels is not one for subtlety in his filmmaking approach. Reminiscent of Douglas Sirk in his prime ("All That Heaven Allows"), he has an old-fashioned Baroque style full of melodramatic flourishes that work surprisingly well for an emotional powerhouse like 2009's "Precious". A lot of that now-recognizable style is on display in this fictionalized 2013 historical drama, but it doesn't work quite as well when he is trying to give a history lesson of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a relatively recessive character like Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who survived seven Presidential administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan. Fortunately, Daniels cast Forest Whitaker as Gaines, and the actor responds with an intensely reflective performance that manages to capture the character's innate nobility and conflicting emotions. Gaines is based on a real-life White House butler, the late Eugene Allen, who actually started with Truman, but screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO's "Game Change") appears more intent in juxtaposing Gaines' insulated existence with the encroaching revolution embodied by the travails of his eldest son Louis.
The film's timeline spans some eighty years starting with an eight-year-old Cecil working the Georgia cotton fields in 1926 when one day, he suddenly sees his mother taken to a cabin where she is raped by a disreputable white farmer and in turn, his father shot point-blank in the head for looking at the farmer in a questioning manner. The farmer's grandmother (a throwaway cameo from Vanessa Redgrave) brings Cecil into the house and has him trained as a servant, an experience that allows him to escape to North Carolina and then to Washington D.C. where he lands a job as a waiter at the exclusive Excelsior Hotel. Noticed by White House staffers, Gaines is hired as a butler in 1957 during the Eisenhower Administration. He proves to be ideal in his role as he silently does what is expected from him given "there is no room for politics in the White House". Gaines becomes a passive spectator to defining moments in the political and social landscape from the late-'50s until his retirement in the mid-80's when he plays a pivotal role in the black staff finally given equal pay and opportunity for advancement.
Meanwhile, through it all, his saucy wife Gloria stands by him fighting alcoholism and the temptations of an amorous neighbor while struggling to connect with a son estranged by his father's subservient profession. In quick succession, Louis becomes a Freedom Rider, an aide to Martin Luther King, a Black Panther, a failed congressional candidate, an anti-apartheid activist and finally a Congressman. Despite a stalwart performance by David Oyelowo, he becomes something of a convenient plot device to personalize actual historical events such as the Greensboro sit-in at Woolworth's (a devastating montage) and King's assassination in Memphis. It brings a "Forrest Gump"-like tone to the story that sometimes feels trivializing. Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, infuses Gloria with so much of her larger-than-life persona that it is often difficult to see anyone but Oprah, yet she manages to retain credibility throughout and handles the movie's dramatic high points with aplomb. Daniels takes a similarly starry-eyed approach to his casting of the White House inhabitants, and the results are often distracting.
Robin Williams is uncharacteristically restrained and consequently wasted as Eisenhower. Looking far more like Bobby than Jack, a too- youthful James Marsden trivializes Kennedy to the level of a prep-school student. Liev Schreiber is a blustery caricature as Johnson, while a prosthetically altered John Cusack manages to etch a thumbnail portrait of paranoia as Nixon. Alan Rickman looks strangely anesthetized as Reagan, but Jane Fonda places her authoritative stamp on Nancy in just one brief scene. The same cannot be said of Mariah Carey's brief and muted appearance early on as Gaines' catatonic mother. The framing device of a meeting with Obama (gratefully seen only in archival footage) brings the plot full circle with the elephantine point being made that Gaines was able to live to see the day when a black man could become President. Nonetheless, despite an emotional catharsis that lands with the impact of a sledgehammer and the multitude of stunt casting, the movie works on a basic emotional level because Daniels and Strong are so determined to use Gaines' life as the singular plot thread that brings all the landmark moments in the civil rights movement into dramatic focus.
The Company You Keep (2012)
Redford's Star-Heavy Paean to a Bygone Era of Political Radicalism Feels Somewhat Amiss
As much as I respect Robert Redford as an actor, director and founder of the Sundance Institute, I just find him too hard to swallow as the father of an 11-year-old girl, especially the one played so precociously here by singing prodigy Jackie Evancho. This is one of several perceptible discrepancies that kept me from becoming fully engrossed in this fitfully suspenseful 2013 political thriller. At 76, he still looks great for his age and has a long legacy of starring in similarly themed movies like "All the President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor", but our suspension of belief is put to the test when we are expected to believe that his character, a small-town lawyer named Jim Grant, turns out to be Nick Sloan, a former 1970's radical who would have been a fearless political agitator in his forties. While I believe it's never too late for anyone to start their lives over, there is an air of vanity in Redford's self-selection since he is also the director. Fortunately in that role, he shows his unerring professionalism and keeps the pacing tight despite the convolutions brought on by Lem Dobbs' screenplay.
The story begins when a middle-aged woman is suddenly arrested at a suburban gas station. Her real identity is Sharon Solarz, a former anti- Vietnam War radical who has been hiding in Canada under an alias for all these years. She makes one of her allowable calls to Grant, who becomes a person of interest for an intrepid newspaper reporter looking for his big break. Grant knows it's a matter of time before the FBI starts looking for him and goes on the lam, leaving his confused young daughter with his long-estranged brother. As Sloan, he is accused of participating with Solarz in a bank robbery that left a security guard dead. His former paramour Mimi Lurie is the only one who can prove his innocence, but she's in hiding as well and far less repentant about her radical activities. What follows is a series of encounters a bedraggled Sloan has with several former Weather Underground comrades. Each of them greets Sloan with different degrees of emotion depending on how they have carried on with their lives in the interim.
At the same time, Redford and Dobbs want to make a point of showing how history appears to be repeating itself with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pointing to the role of current tabloid-style journalism in fanning the embers in an irresponsible way. The movie ends up simplifying its points by turning the story into a morality play where key characters have to decide when to take a stand and when to concede if there is something even bigger to consider than political convictions. Beyond Redford's craggy presence, there is a starry mix of old and new faces that make the cross-generational casting appear even more pronounced. Julie Christie as Lurie, Susan Sarandon as Solarz, and Richard Jenkins and a vocally challenged Nick Nolte as fellow ex- radicals all make welcome appearances in the story, though their roles feel somewhat truncated. Shia LaBoeuf plays the reporter with his usual veneer of smarminess, but Brit Marling and Anna Kendrick lend surprising sharpness in small roles. Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper and Stanley Tucci fill in other supporting roles with aplomb.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody's Sharply Rendered Update of "Streetcar" Anchored by Blanchett's Brilliant Blanche-Like Turn
If you want to see this year's master class in screen acting, you need to watch Cate Blanchett's mesmerizing performance as Jasmine French, a delusional Park Avenue socialite wife in Woody Allen's 45th directorial effort, a sly, bicoastal update of Tennessee Williams' classic "A Streetcar Named Desire". As the film opens, her impeccably dressed character has hit rock bottom after her financial wizard of a husband is arrested and her assets are liquidated. In the throes of a nervous breakdown, she arrives in San Francisco and moves in with her kind- hearted sister Ginger who lives a modest, blue-collar life in a tiny apartment on the edge of the Mission – on South Van Ness near 14th Street to be exact - with her two hyperactive sons. You can tell Jasmine is not only out of her element but quite judgmental about how her sister's life has turned out. The irony of Jasmine's patronizing attitude is that she is a habitual liar who is so angry about her destitute circumstances that she frequently talks to herself. The story follows the basic outline of "Streetcar" but takes some interesting turns, for instance, when she tries to better herself by taking computer classes while working as a receptionist at a dental office.
Allen has crafted his film into a clever juxtaposition of current and past events that feels jarring at first since it reflects Jasmine's precarious mental state but then melds into a dramatic arc which resonates far more than a straightforward chronology could have allowed. As a writer, he has become more vociferous in his dialogue without losing his wit. He doesn't pull punches when he showcases confrontations between his characters, whether it's between the two sisters, men and women, or people from different classes. Hostility can come in flammable torrents or in thinly veiled remarks. That Allen moves so dexterously in tone is a testament to his sharp ability in drawing out the truth in his actors. Blanchett is a wonder in this regard because there is something intensely fearless in her approach. Unafraid to lose audience sympathy for her character, she finds an innate sadness in Jasmine that makes us want to know what happens to her next. She also mines the sharp, class- based humor in Jasmine's struggles with one highlight a hilariously executed scene in a pizza restaurant where she explains to her confused nephews to "Tip big, boys".
The rest of the cast manage effective turns. Alec Baldwin plays Jasmine's swindler husband with almost effortless aplomb. Sally Hawkins brings a wonderful looseness to Ginger, Stella to Blanchett's Blanche, and finds a level of poignancy in her character's constant victimization at the hands of her sister as well as her brutish, blue-collar boyfriend Chili, played with comic fierceness by Bobby Cannavale in the Stanley Kowalski role. In a conveniently conceived role, Peter Sarsgaard gets uncharacteristically breezy as Dwight, a wealthy, erudite, and matrimonially available State Department diplomat who appears to be the answer to Jasmine's prayers, while Allen casts two unlikely comics in about-face roles – Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's defeated ex-husband Augie and Louis C.K. as Al, an amorous suitor who brings Ginger a few moments of romantic salvation. Allen's European sojourn appears to have freed him up with the movement of characters in scenes and Javier Aguirresarobe's ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") camera-work complies nicely. The San Francisco locations bring a nice geographic change to Allen's storytelling, and he only uses the Golden Gate Bridge in a long shot once from the Marin side. This is Allen's best work in quite a while, and Blanchett is the ideal muse for his tale.
Won't Back Down (2012)
Two Fine Actresses Lend Heart to a Jargon-Heavy Drama About Charter Schools and Parent Trigger Laws
If not for the emotional resiliency of the two lead actresses, this 2012 feel-good drama about the reformation of a failing inner-city Pittsburgh school would come across as no more than a polemic. However, Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Dark Knight") and Viola Davis ("The Help") bring enough intense fervor to their roles of parent and teacher that this becomes a creditable film if not all that memorable. Director and co-screenwriter Daniel Barnz doesn't help matters much by stacking the deck so predictably in the script (co-written with Brin Hill) while tackling a serious exposition problem with a lot of education jargon that feels like it requires the viewer to take some preparation exam to watch it. Watching Davis Guggenheim's 2010 documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman'", is helpful since it covers similar territory by showing how students strive to become accepted into a charter school.
The plot here takes a more contrived route as it focuses on Jamie, a single mom holding down two jobs while becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of attention her eight-year-old, Malia, receives from her teachers in treating her dyslexia and dealing with bullies. Through happenstance, she finds a little-known piece of legislation based on California's "parent trigger" law, which allows parents and teachers, under certain circumstances and after rounds of approvals, to take over schools and run them entirely. This motivates Jamie to partner with Nona, a teacher at Malia's school, who has similar frustrations from an insider's perspective but has been stymied time and again by the system. The movie then takes us on their journey running through all the bureaucratic red tape that you would expect from an inspirationally- minded drama.
I give credit to Barnz and Hill for at least presenting a compelling argument against the cause by showing how the teachers' union would suffer major setbacks along the way. As Jamie, Gyllenhaal does her best work since her compelling turn as the struggling drug addict-mother in 2006's "Sherrybaby". She brings loose-limbed passion to her character's relentless drive toward realizing a charter school for her daughter. At first, Davis appears underserved by the script, but this actress has no problem conveying the gravitas and compassion needed to make Nona's evolution feel realistic. As Evelyn, the president of the teachers' union, Holly Hunter ("Broadcast News") - who would have likely played Jamie a couple of decades ago – brings palpable conviction to her character's increasing moral conflict. It's good to see Rosie Perez ("Fearless") again on screen as Nona's sympathetic fellow teacher. Other supporting turns amount to stereotypes as dictated by the script. The subject of the film is quite worthwhile, but the treatment needed far more texture.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
A Different Kind of a Romcom with Quirkily Effective, Seriocomic Touches
Portraying mental illness on screen usually means you'll see bravura scenes set in an asylum like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", but iconoclastic filmmaker David O. Russell ("The Fighter") deals with the edges of emotional disequilibrium in this compellingly quirky 2012 dramedy. Based on the same-name 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, this film reminds me a bit of Russell's 1999 dysfunctional family comedy, "Flirting with Disaster", as the seriocomically volatile dynamics here are amplified by the central character's precarious psychological state. High school teacher Pat Solitano Jr. is a man with bipolar disorder who has spent eight months in a Baltimore psychiatric hospital for a violent episode caused by seeing his wife Nikki cheating with a fellow teacher. He's released into the care of his parents and determined to win back his estranged wife.
As he strives to improve himself, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell facing her own level of mental instability since becoming widowed, turning to indiscriminate sex with her co-workers, and most recently losing her job. Eventually they strike a deal where she will help him win back his wife if he enters a dance competition with her, both coping with their disorders at the same time. At first, I really didn't buy Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover") as Solitano since his idea of showing manically obsessive behavior is to speak loudly in a monotone without much nuance, but his performance grew on me as Russell's screenplay had him show more layers to a character that has a hard time eliciting sympathy from anyone much less the audience. At 21, Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone") would appear too young to play a sex-addicted cop widow like Tiffany, but she excels with her preternatural ability to convey unforced maturity and conviction without losing touch with the character's deep-seeded vulnerability.
Perhaps the film's nicest surprise is Robert De Niro's sterling performance as Pat Sr., his best work in years after the silly shenanigans of the Fockers franchise. Exhibiting his character's obsessive-compulsive disorder in powerful, brief scenes, De Niro vividly shows how the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Completely submerging her Australian roots in favor of a convincing Mid-Atlantic accent, Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom") effectively plays the lone voice of sanity as Pat's mother constantly fretting over her son and preparing "crabby snacks and homemades" for home viewing of the family's beloved Philadelphia Eagles. As Pat's best friend Danny, a fellow patient constantly escaping from the hospital, motor-mouthed, high-pitched Chris Tucker ("Rush Hour") is surprisingly good even if his soulful dance moves came across as a convenient plot device. Julia Stiles ("Mona Lisa Smile") shows up in a smallish role as Tiffany's patronizing, status- conscious sister Veronica. The climax induces the right emotions even if it means the uncertainties in the plot get wrapped up all too neatly.
The Sessions (2012)
Hawkes and Hunt Breathe Life Into One Man's Seriocomic Journey Toward Sexual Fulfillment
The remarkably nuanced performance of John Hawkes provides the beating heart of this small 2012 independent film based on the life of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien who contracted polio at age six and spent the rest of his life in an iron lung unable to control his muscles. A chameleonic actor whose familiarity to me comes from memorably villainous turns in "Winter's Bone" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene", Hawkes brings unexpected pathos and humor as well as a painfully realistic physicality to a role that could have easily fallen prey to the more stereotypical, life-affirming treatment you would likely find in a disease-of-the-week TV-movie. It doesn't complete escape the predictable dimensions of the genre, but the film's overriding honest sensibility and lack of cheap sentiment probably have a lot to do with the director and screenwriter Ben Lewin whose own childhood bout with polio has left him to a lifetime on crutches.
Based on the subject's own writing, the story picks up Mark's life in Berkeley as he is taken care of by a series of caretakers, one a comely student named Amanda with whom he falls in love. Despite an obvious fondness for him, she cannot reciprocate his feelings for her, which leads him to seek counsel with his minister, Father Brendan. Their comic interactions eventually lead Mark at age 38 to search for the services of a sex surrogate. Enter Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a content wife and mother who matter-of-factly tells Mark that she will be his sexual guide for six sessions in which she plans to heighten his body awareness, lead him toward intercourse, and prepare him for a sexually fulfilling life. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of Helen Hunt's best early roles was as the married woman learning to cope with her lover's paraplegic state in "The Waterdance". Here the actress returns twenty years later to a similar role as Cheryl, and she turns in a terrifically brave and assured performance. Her nudity is presented in such a nonchalant manner that there isn't a hint of exploitation about it.
It should come as no surprise that the physical and emotional intertwining of their relationship gets complicated but not in a way that is entirely predictable. It's clear that Cheryl is dealing with conflicts of her own, including a conversion to Judaism, that have put her in a more vulnerable state than she may have realized. In fact, none of the characters' feelings are telegraphed in a standard by-the-numbers way, and it is a testament to Lewin's filmmaking skill that he trusts his actors so fully to inhabit the roles. While Father Brendan may come across as an overgrown Berkeley hippie stereotype at times, William H. Macy is funny and endearing in his few scenes. Other smaller turns are solid - Moon Bloodgood as poker-faced attendant Vera, Annika Marks as open-hearted Amanda, and in near-cameos, Adam Arkin as Cheryl's sullen stay-at-home husband and Rhea Perlman as the cheery (pardon the pun) Mikvah lady. While there are formulaic moments that don't quite transcend the story's more inspirational aspects, the film is well worth seeking out.
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Forgotten Gem Gives an Honest Appraisal of One Black Man's Experience in the Deep South
What a genuine find this obscure 1964 film is. In the midst of Sidney Poitier's breakthrough as a mainstream leading man of the big studios, director Michael Roemer made a groundbreaking independent film that fully captured the black experience at the dawn of the civil rights movement without exploiting the controversial subject or introducing a non-threatening component that would have made the story more palatable for white audiences. The latter was especially the case in Poitier's biggest movies at the time like "Lilies of the Field" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" where he played variations on the over-idealized black man, a point made ironic by the fact that the legendary actor turned down the lead role in this film. In a perceptive screenplay co-written by Roemer and Robert M. Young, the protagonist, Duff Anderson, is anything but idealized. He is a laborer who suffers as much from his own self-loathing as he does from the deeply ingrained racism surrounding him.
In early 1960's Birmingham, Alabama, Duff is an itinerant worker, a member of a section team for the railroad company. At a church social one evening, he meets Josie Dawson, a well-educated schoolteacher who happens to be the minister's daughter. In spite of her father's disapproval, the two quietly fall in love and get married. They face one hardship after another as he tries to find stable work while dealing with a troubled past which includes an estranged, embittered father whose life he appears to be emulating against his will. Duff also supports a four-year-old son whom he hasn't seen for two years even though he's not certain he's the father. While racism is presented honestly and produces moments of genuine dramatic tension, it never becomes a manipulative device to move the plot forward. Things begin to unravel between Duff and Josie through the course of the story but not with excessive melodramatic flourishes. In fact, the film is so truthfully matter-of-fact in Roemer's documentary-like approach that when Duff has an explosive moment late in the story it feels shocking but utterly real.
The performances completely surprised me. Best known as the quiet communications specialist Sergeant Kinchloe on the long-running sitcom "Hogan's Heroes", Ivan Dixon brings unerring gravitas to his conflicted character. He doesn't take any short cuts in presenting Duff as a man who makes his own decisions no matter how harsh the consequences. As Josie, jazz great Abbey Lincoln ("For Love of Ivy"), with her infectious smile, is genuinely affecting as a woman who becomes attracted to Duff because she thought the two of them "might have something to say to each other." One wonders in hindsight how powerfully she might have portrayed Billie Holiday if given the chance she was supposed to have before Diana Ross got cast in "Lady Sings the Blues". Julius Harris makes his few scenes count as Duff's belligerent father, while Gloria Foster (later the Oracle in "The Matrix") etches a vivid impression as a beaten-down woman who remains inexplicably faithful to him. In one of his earliest roles, Yaphet Kotto ("Alien") is recognizable as one of Duff's railroad buddies. The well-used Motown soundtrack is a nice surprise as well. This forgotten film is well worth seeking out. Strongly recommended.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
One Child's Conquest of Life's Fiercely Unpredictable Turns
I was naturally curious to see how a nine-year-old could have landed an Oscar nomination as Best Leading Actress, and clearly director Benh Zeitlin found a gifted child in Quvenzhané Wallis, who was actually only five during filming. As Hushpuppy, she provides the precocious voice of this fascinating 2012 film that mixes a stream-of-consciousness narrative with elements of magical realism, the combination of which can be both jarring and moving at the same time. Although the story is steeped in the harsh poverty of the coastal parishes of Louisiana, the movie comes across as a parable because Zeitlin, along with co-writer Lucy Alibar whose one-act play "Juicy and Delicious" is the source of the plot, has effectively captured something celebratory about the struggles of a community who subsists on a bayou island cut off by a levee, the "Bathtub".
In sharp contrast to the unconditionally loving spirit shown by her neighbors, Hushpuppy's father Wink is alternately abusive and protective toward her. As it turns out, he is gravely ill and preparing her for life without him. For a novice filmmaker, Zeitlin does a surprisingly dexterous job of melding the fantastical with the realistic, although I have to admit that the periodically stampeding appearance of the long- extinct Aurochs, a primitive and much larger ancestor of today's cattle, comes across as increasingly contrived. There are similarly anomalous passages throughout the film, but what grounds the fantasy is the volatile relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink. Wallis is a captivating presence that packages a unique blend of innocence and fearlessness into a preternaturally wise child.
Another non-professional, Dwight Henry, a baker by trade, turns in an unexpectedly powerful performance as Wink, bringing out the desperation of a broken man with little time to sort out his anger and fear. Credit should be given to cinematographer Ben Richardson, who brings a unity of vision in an otherwise chaotic whirl of activity, even if taking Hushpuppy's perspective means the hand-held camera brings a wobbly intensity that can get a bit nerve-racking. A versatile talent, Zeitlin also co-wrote the stirring, evocative soundtrack with composer Dan Romer. Despite a handful of flaws, including a nagging similarity to Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life", Zeitlin has made quite a poetic allegory that could have easily missed had he not presented Hushpuppy's world the way she sees it as an adventure marked by a tenuous search for both adventure and purpose.
Evocative Yet Superficial Look at Hitchcock When He Struggled for Relevance with "Psycho"
As fine an actor as he is and despite his acumen in vocal mimicry, Anthony Hopkins somehow misses the mark in impersonating the legendary director in this 2012 biopic. Perhaps it's his overly deliberate line readings or the artificiality of the latex prosthetics or the vivid memory I have of the real filmmaker, but some combination of those factors prevented me from fully accepting Hopkins as Hitchcock. That's a shame since Helen Mirren, who plays Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, which if this story is to be believed, was the master filmmaker's muse and confidant, is quite effective in conveying the stringent manner of her character while revealing Alma's aching vulnerability in having to live in her husband's considerable shadow. Loosely based on Stephen Rebello's meticulously researched 1990 book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,'" the screenplay has been adapted by John J. Laughlin ("Black Swan") to focus more on the relationship between Hitchcock and Alma rather than the production of "Psycho" itself.
Director Sacha Gervasi takes the same granular approach that Simon Curtis did with "My Week with Marilyn" and Steven Spielberg did with "Lincoln", i.e., focus on a specific time period in the subject's life and let those events speak to what motivated the character throughout his or her life. However, unlike those films, Gervasi doesn't adequately reveal what made the rule-breaking filmmaker a genius in his field. The challenging production of "Psycho" is handled superficially, even the shower scene is given a cursory glance with lackadaisical intercutting of other characters to show how anger manifested itself within Hitchcock. There are also imaginary interludes that show him receiving advice from convicted serial killer Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates, on how to stage the more gruesome scenes. What does receive a lot of attention is his relationship with Alma and how instrumental her sharp editing skills were in distilling the more memorable moments of the film.
Her sense of self-worth is shaken enough by Hitchcock's self-absorption that she is easily seduced by the unbridled attention of smarmy screenwriter Whitfield Cook who wants to collaborate with her on his next big-screen project. Meanwhile, casting Janet Leigh in the film unexpectedly brings out the director's tender side as castmate Vera Miles reflects a barely concealed bitterness for having been a Grace Kelly-like Hitchcock protégé now reduced to a supporting role to complete her contract. Neither Gervasi nor Laughlin can seem to make all these intertwining story lines resonate beyond a reasonable evocation of the period. Beyond Hopkins and Mirren, there are good albeit underdeveloped performances from Scarlett Johansson as Leigh and Jessica Biel as Miles, neither of whom bears much resemblance to their real-life counterparts. James D'Arcy, however, manages to capture Anthony Perkins' callow nervousness in just a few brief minutes of screen time. All in all, it's an interesting piece of film trivia that falls short of its goal of being something more.
The Guilt Trip (2012)
Streisand and Rogen Bring Considerable Comedy Chops to a Lightweight Road Trip Movie
Aside from her near-cameo appearances in two ensemble comedies, Barbra Streisand has not starred in a movie in sixteen long years, not since 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces" which she also directed. Her output as an actress has been meager since around 1980 when she started directing films, building houses and returning to the concert stage periodically, so it was with both great anticipation and some trepidation that I saw this light- hearted 2012 comedy. What a relief to find she hasn't missed a beat in her sharp comedy timing. I think she's terrific as Joyce Brewster, the energetically overbearing mother of Andy, an organic chemical engineer who long ago moved to California and has recently invented a cleaning solution he is pitching to various store chains headquartered across the country. He plans a weekend visit with Joyce in New Jersey, but upon an intriguing discovery about her past, he invites her on an eight-day cross-country road trip with him.
As directed by Anne Fletcher ("The Proposal") and written by Dan Fogelman (the underrated "Crazy Stupid Love") who based his script on his own late mother, the film is about how their two mismatched personalities unsurprisingly clash at every stop as their relationship twists and turns with each new humiliation for Andy and each new revelation for the both of them, a few of them quite poignant. The film is at its comedic best when she and co-star Seth Rogen as Andy volley back and forth with her well-meaning thoughts and antics at odds with his spiky annoyance at anything she says or does. Rogen plays against type as the coiled-up Andy since his stoner-dude personality has been the basis of much of his previous comedy. Here he needs to show some dramatic gravity (as he did earlier this year in "Take This Waltz") and again does surprisingly well when necessary. There is a confrontation scene between the two characters that I wish could have gone on a bit longer and deeper than it did, but he manages to bring a real edge to the film in ways I didn't quite expect from him.
Of course there are predictable comedy pieces that also work like a steak-eating contest in Texas where Joyce has to down a fifty-ounce piece of beef in an hour to avoid a $100 tab. There's also quite a supporting cast here, but like Streisand movies of yore, the familiar actors contribute moments that amount to nearly bit parts. Kathy Najimy and Miriam Margolyes are among Joyce's Weight Watchers friends in a quick dinner scene early in the story, while Adam Scott and Ari Graynor show up at the very end of the road trip in San Francisco. In between are appearances by Brett Cullen as a cowboy who becomes smitten with Joyce during the eating contest and Nora Dunn as an officious HSN TV hostess. But that's fine since Rogen really lets Streisand dominate the movie all the way from pushing off potential suitors at a mature singles mixer to getting into the wrong car at a mini-mart pit-stop to getting drunk in a motel bar to sharing her innocently ignorant perceptions of stereotypes. This is only her 19th film since her extraordinary debut in "Funny Girl" 44 years ago, reason enough to enjoy the warm, accomplished performance she gives here.
Life of Pi (2012)
Sumptuous, CGI-Generated Images Bring Martel's Book Vividly to Life
Everybody has their own version of the truth, and the way we frame our own stories may have a great deal to do with a higher level of consciousness for which we all strive. Such is the gist of Yann Martel's 2001 bestseller which is the basis of this visually stunning 2012 adventure drama helmed by Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain"). I read the book several years ago and remember thinking it would make a great animated film by someone as creative as Hayao Miyazaki ("Howl's Moving Castle"). CGI, however, has evolved so dramatically in the past decade that the story can be now inhabited by real actors and awash in gorgeous abstraction that melds the fantastical with the intimate quite seamlessly. Shot mostly in a giant tank in Taiwan as well as on location in India, this movie is a unique example of how technology's endless possibilities can well serve an allegorical story focused on human survival and our own individual coping mechanisms.
Adapted by David Magee ("Finding Neverland"), the story is framed by an interview in Montreal between a Canadian writer, a fictionalized version of Martel, and an unassuming middle-aged man named Pi. The first part of the film is a flashback set in a family-run zoo in Pondicherry, a bucolic former French colony in southern India. The central protagonist is Pi as a child whose sternly sensible father runs the zoo. We learn the origins of Pi's unusual name as it relates to an impossibly pristine pool in which his uncle swam in Paris. At once, you get a sense of the importance of both water and mathematics in Pi's early life as well as his unfiltered concept of religion. In Pi's fertile mind, which religion is a moot point as he adopts Hinduism, Christianity and Islam concurrently and despite his family's resistance. A life-endangering confrontation with a Bengal tiger under their care proves to be a turning point for Pi as he is warned by his supportive family to stay away from it. Later economic hardship prompts his father to decide to move to Canada where he plans to sell the animals.
The stormy journey by freighter turns tragic around the Mariana Trench where the now-teenaged Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with an unlikely menagerie in tow. The party eventually dwindles down to two, and this is where Lee imbues the film with a surreal spirit befitting the tale as we watch the seemingly incredulous situation of Pi co-existing on the lifeboat with the same tiger we saw in his childhood encounter. Dubbed Richard Parker due to a previous mix-up in paperwork, the tiger is integral to a series of eye-catching episodes that involves flying fish pelting them with force, a plethora of glowing jellyfish at night, a breaching whale nearly capsizing the boat, a disastrous storm that carries them to the brink, and a bizarrely florid island overrun with carnivorous plants and curious meerkats. None of these episodes will surprise readers of the book, but the execution is enthralling thanks to the masterful work of Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and the visual effects generated by the Rhythm & Hues Studios.
Similarities to Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" are probably not without intention on Lee's part, but this movie manages to hold its own. My one complaint about the film comes toward the end when things are spelled out a bit too deliberately considering how symbolic the story has been expressed up to that point. Pi is played by four actors depicting the character at different ages. Suraj Sharma effectively portrays Pi during the challenging lifeboat sequence and obviously makes the strongest impression, but Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon are also affecting in conveying Pi's evolving psyche during his tender childhood years. Irrfan Khan ("The Namesake") plays Pi in the present with his becalming demeanor seemingly at odds with the incredulous story he tells Martel. Khan's movie wife from "The Namesake", Tabu, shows up as Pi's understanding mother, and Gérard Depardieu appears inexplicably in a cameo as the freighter ship's nasty cook. Rafe Spall ("One Day") plays Martel in a rather nondescript manner. It's not a perfect film, but many of the sumptuous images will likely stick with you for a long while afterward.
Houston's Swan Song Overshadowed by Ejogo's Star-Making Turn
There's an indisputable star of this synthetically watchable 2012 melodrama, and it's neither the late Whitney Houston in her last role nor Season 6 "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks. It's relatively unknown British actress Carmen Ejogo (Maya Rudolph's sister in "Away We Go") who explodes off the screen in the meaty, scene-stealing role of Sister, the hell-raising eldest of a trio of daughters to Emma Anderson, an uptight, church-going woman who raised them on her own. Emma is Houston's supporting role, and while she proves she had the makings of a solid character actress, there is an unfortunate shroud of irony in her presence given her own tragic, tabloid-saturated life was itself a cautionary tale about the lure of drugs in show business. This time in the part Lonette McKee played superbly in the 1976 original, Ejogo inhabits the character living out the nightmare of drug addiction and spousal abuse.
The rest of the movie is mostly by the numbers. It opens in 1968, a decade later than the original movie's story, with Sister and her little sister Sparkle sneaking out to a nightclub headlined by a period- costumed Cee Lo Green in a cameo appearance. Sister vamps her way through an original song by Sparkle, which attracts the attention of an aspiring record producer named Stix. He encourages them to shoot for the big time, so they convince level-headed sister Dee to make it a trio decked out sequins, wigs and false eyelashes in order to become the next Supremes. What struck me is how eerily the three women look like the original Supremes line-up with Sparks resembling Florence Ballard and Ejogo looking like a sultry cross between Diana Ross and Beyoncé. Of course, their newfound success comes with heartache, as Sister takes up with a smooth albeit vicious stand-up comic named Satin, and Sparkle struggles between family devotion and her burgeoning love for Stix.
Naturally Emma is constantly worried that her girls will repeat the same mistakes she made when she tried to make it as a singer only to be spit out by the music industry. That means Houston spends most of her limited screen time either fretting about her family or being self-righteous about her religious convictions. The dinner table scene between her and Ejogo is the movie's best scene laying bare the deep-seeded resentment Sister has for her mother and providing a flash of grief over a line that reminds you how Houston died. The melodrama is laid on pretty thick, especially during Sister's downward spiral, but director Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom") and his wife, screenwriter Mara Brock Akil, balance it with just enough lighter moments. The songs, of course, are what matters the most, and smartly, Curtis Mayfield's original compositions have been retained with the standouts being "Hooked on Your Love", "Look into Your Heart" and especially "Something He Can Feel" which Ejogo performs with sultry conviction.
The new songs by R. Kelly are not nearly as memorable since they sound too contemporary for the period. Sadly, Houston sings only once in character, the spiritual stand-by, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow", and limited to her lower register, her coarsened voice, while emotionally impactful, is vocally a mere shadow of her once-beautiful pipes. Sparks gets to sing a lot more with a predictably booming voice, and she delivers an unaffected turn in the title role. Mike Epps gives a strong performance as Satin, and his scenes with Ejogo echo similarly volatile scenes in "What's Love Got to Do with It?" As Stix, Derek Luke does much better work than Philip-Michael Thomas in the original. Tika Sumpter provides some memorably defiant moments as Dee, the one sister who could take or leave the music. The movie runs too long at 116 minutes, but between Houston's death and Ejogo's star-making turn, it takes on a greater depth than the musical nostalgic trip it was originally designed to be.
Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012)
An Inventive Romcom about Setting Someone Free
One thing this serious-minded 2012 romantic comedy does is prove that Rashida Jones ("Parks and Recreation", "The Social Network") can carry a film. Like Debra Winger and Holly Hunter before her, she's one of those actresses who comes across as a little too smart for the room but still elicits affection when she allows herself to reveal her vulnerability. This must also be the way she sees herself since she co-wrote the screenplay with featured player Will McCormack (the stoner pal of Andy Samberg's character) and is in almost every scene of this movie. Fortunately it doesn't come across as a self-serving act of megalomania despite the character she plays. She's a type-A career woman, a celebrity trend-spotter who compulsively controls all her impulses, while Samberg plays a slacker graphic artist who's fine with not working for long stretches and repeatedly watches videos of the weightlifting competition from the 2008 Beijing Olympics for inspiration.
Directed with a surprisingly deft hand by Lee Toland Krieger ("The Vicious Kind"), the movie focuses on how these two characters, married but separated, remain an absurdly compatible couple whose failed attempt at marriage initially seems quite dumbfounding. They both contend they can divorce but remain best friends, an assertion that appalls best friends Beth and Tucker who are about to get married and can't understand why they won't move on with their lives. That's the simple premise, and the rest of the story deals with what happens when one starts to get serious about someone else and how neither is prepared for what it will do to their relationship. Their stop-start confusion is palpably played out amid a cool but lived-in LA that feels like an appropriate setting for this familiar story. Jones has Celeste carry most of the emotional burden, and she lends genuine likability to a character that could have otherwise been downright insufferable, which is a constant source of humor in the clever script.
Samberg is good in his first serious role although he sometimes seems too recessive to counterbalance Jones' energetic presence. Emma Roberts (Julia's niece, "Valentine's Day") plays Celeste's petulant Lady Gaga- wannabe pop star client Riley Banks with fervor and brings a nice edge to her scenes with Jones, while Elijah Wood has coiled fun playing Celeste's uptight gay business partner. Ari Graynor ("Conviction") and Eric Christian Olsen effectively play Beth and Tucker to their accustomed stereotypes. Chris Messina shows up yet again in a prominent supporting role, this time as Celeste's acerbic patient suitor in waiting. There are moments, scenes even, where I felt the movie was a little too satisfied with itself, but it usually recovers with amusing twists on conventional romcom situations mostly involving Celeste's inability to accept the inevitable. That, of course, places the pressure on Jones to deliver the goods as both star and screenwriter, both of which she handles quite well here.
Jane Eyre (1943)
Welles' Mesmerizing Turn as Rochester Makes This Version the One to Savor
According to IMDb, there are at least a dozen versions of "Jane Eyre", an obvious testament to the durable appeal of Charlotte Brontë's Gothic novel, but the 1944 version is the one to which I always seem to return again and again. Having played a similar "ugly duckling" role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" four years earlier, Joan Fontaine is in her element in the title role and performs with her impeccable restraint intact. However, it's Orson Welles who generates all the fascination about this particular adaptation. Coming off of his twin masterpieces, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons", he is officially just the leading man here, and he almost overwhelms the film with his outsized performance as Edward Rochester, generating a brooding sensuality with his surly charisma and stentorian baritone voice. Even though he is not credited as the director (that was Robert Stevenson who later made "Mary Poppins"), Welles' distinctive filmmaking style is prevalent everywhere.
From the gloomy ambiance that seems to whisper "Rosebud" to the heavy use of shadow, the distorted camera angles, the moody black-and-white cinematography from George Barnes who lensed "Rebecca", and the evocative score by Bernard Herrmann - this feels like an uncredited Orson Welles production. Adapted by an impressive group of writers - John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster and Stevenson - the story follows Jane from her desolate childhood as an orphan raised by an insensitive aunt, Mrs. Reed, through her lonely years at the Lowood Institution, a charitable school where she was a headstrong pupil whom the school offers to hire as a teacher when she comes of age since she would be a cheap hire. However, she can't wait to escape and leaves to become the governess to an excitable French child named Adele Varens, the ward of Rochester, a tortured, imperious man who lives as a near- recluse at his estate, Thornfield Manor. Jane immediately falls in love with the sullen Rochester, but to the manner born, she cannot admit this to him. He dallies with an avaricious socialite but eventually finds himself reciprocating Jane's feelings for him and proposes to her.
In the middle of their wedding ceremony, it comes to light that Edward is already married to a violently insane woman locked in the tower of his estate. The rest of the Victorian-era story deals with how Jane responds to this most unfortunate situation which of course, means a lot of sturm und drang. During the prime phase of her lengthy career, Fontaine was at her most effective in conveying a coiled passion under a becalming veneer, and that's what makes her an ideal Jane. There are excellent supporting turns from Henry Daniell as Mr. Brocklehurst, the cruel headmaster of Jane's school; Agnes Moorehead, one of Welles' most valued Mercury Players, as Mrs. Reed; Margaret O'Brien sprightly as Adele just before her more memorable turn as Tootie in "Meet Me in St. Louis"; and Peggy Ann Garner genuinely spirited as the younger Jane. It's also hard to miss an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor, striking as ever at ten, as the doomed orphan Jane befriends as a child. The one flaw with the 97-minute film is the truncated ending which resolves everything far too quickly. But watch this classic for Welles' mesmerizing performance. It's a knockout.
The 2007 DVD has a superb restoration and contains some solid extras such as two audio commentary tracks. The first is with Welles biographer Joseph McBride lending insight and O'Brien (she must have been around 70) providing personal recollections of the production. It's more interesting that than the second commentary track which has film historians Nick Redman, Steven Smith, and Julie Kirgo trading trivia about the source novel and the film. Also included are a musical-score- only track; an eighteen-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, "Locked in the Tower: The Men Behind Jane Eyre", which has film historians and others discussing the production from various angles; a 42-minute U.S. War Film Department propaganda piece directed by Stevenson called "Know Your Ally Britain"; an interesting restoration comparison; and galleries of production stills, storyboards, and film posters. It's an excellent package for collectors of classic films.
Masterful Filmmaking and a Stellar Cast Capture Lincoln During One Pivotal Month
To say that Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the title role feels like such a total understatement. The iconic role has been the career-peaking touchstone for dozens of esteemed actors since the dawn of cinema including Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey (who earned an Oscar nomination in 1940 for his Lincoln), Gregory Peck, and even cast member Hal Holbrook (who plays Republican leader Francis Preston Blair here), but none have come across with the deceptively casual verisimilitude of Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's masterful 2012 historical drama. The versatile actor is able to bring multiple layers of human dimension to a public figure known to us only through books, marble statues, or perhaps a childhood trip to Disneyland where he remains an animatronic mannequin in "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln". Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") wisely do not attempt an episodic treatment of Lincoln's life but rather focus on January 1865, a critical month at the beginning of the President's second term when he was undergoing the most important event of his life.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's superb treatise, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", the 150-minute film focuses on the conundrum he faced in pushing the 13th amendment, the abolition of slavery, through the House of Representatives toward legislation while facing immense pressure among all factions to end the now-four-year-old Civil War and reclaim the Confederacy into the Union. The movie's deliberately narrow focus allows us to see Lincoln as a relatable human being, someone with a determined sense of mission but also less than ideal with a surprising albeit understandable streak of opportunism that a broader biopic would have glossed over. It also means the story consists of subtle moments rather than milestone events that would signal the next historical battle. Although Spielberg bookends the film with unblinking scenes of carnage true to the period, the film relies primarily on the human drama that comes from the argument of opposing ideas and the minutiae of political strategy used to win favor among influential politicos
It's a story that has obvious relevance to the Washington political scene of today. The movie also examines the additional burden Lincoln was experiencing with his fractious home life. He struggles to keep the peace with his tempestuous wife Mary still grieving over the death of their third son Willie three years earlier, as well as their first-born Robert who becomes desperate to enlist in the Union Army against his parents' wishes. Kushner's superbly understated screenplay lets the plot lines intertwine organically and keeps Spielberg's tendency toward bravura filmmaking in check. Only toward the end when we recognize what is about to happen to Lincoln did I feel Spielberg's use of unspoken prescience a bit too heightened. The performances are stunning examples of what great filmmaking can generate with the right cast. Day-Lewis' Lincoln is for the ages. It amazes me that Liam Neeson was attached to the project for six years before generously abandoning it because Day- Lewis appears born to play the role. With a choked Midwestern tenor, he vividly evokes a man gifted at conflict resolution and oratory splendor but not above manipulating information to achieve the greater good.
Two other performances are nearly as stellar. Tommy Lee Jones hones in on his particular brand of irascibility to bring fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens to life, and Kushner gives him the lion's share of clever vitriol in the script. As Mary, Sally Field is a constant presence but has probably about three showy scenes where she is able to show her considerable talent to the full. Nearly a half-century since Gidget and more than a decade older than Day-Lewis, this diminutive actress gained 25 pounds and defies the odds by immersing herself completely into all the conflicting impulses that made Mary such a complicated, controversial historical figure. There are five Oscars among this accomplished trio, and more could very well be forthcoming. Many other actors in the expansive cast are worthy of mention, including James Spader's surprisingly amusing turn as a Republican lobbyist, Hal Holbrook's avuncular bluster as Blair, Gloria Reuben's quiet fortitude as Mary's confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and David Straitharn providing a jittery voice of reason as Secretary of State William Seward. A few actors like the omnipresent Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert are not given enough time to flesh out their characters. Regardless, it's a masterful film that captures lightning in a bottle.
Liberal Arts (2012)
Radnor Relives His College Days with a Lightweight, Literate Romantic Dramedy
This lightweight 2012 dramedy marks the sophomore effort of screenwriter/director Josh Radnor who is better known as being part of the ensemble of the long-running CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother". Similar to another directorial venture from an actor with TV roots, Zach Braff's "Garden State", it's a charming enough effort, quite literate but ultimately inconsequential. He cast himself as Jesse Fisher, a 35- year-old admissions counselor who leaves New York to visit his bucolic alma mater in Ohio to attend the retirement party for Peter Hoberg, one of his favorite professors. In a decidedly nostalgic mood, Jesse strikes up a platonic relationship with Zibby, a 19-year-old sophomore who appreciates classical music, loves her improv class, and unapologetically enjoys vampire romance novels. Radnor deftly wraps his story in the romance of academia and cultural discernment at the same time showing his character's discontent about growing old without fulfilling the dreams he held in his youth on the same campus.
Radnor must think Jesse's discontent is endemic since he also shows Hoberg grappling with post-retirement life as well as the harsh cynicism of Judith Fairfield, a Romantics professor who reveals herself as a cougar holding no sentiment about former students who worshipped her in the classroom. There's also sad-eyed Dean, a suicidal student whom Jesse sees as a kindred spirit, and a new-age eccentric named Nat who pops up now and then to tell Jesse to go with the flow. Meanwhile, the courtship between Jesse and Zibby is handled with chaste affection until they face the inevitable moment when they face what their relationship is about. Radnor is amiable as the sometimes condescending Jesse, but his puppyish manner doesn't leave an indelible impression. He got lucky with the superb actors he was able to secure. Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") plays Hoberg with fierce pride and vulnerability, expertly handling a scene where the humiliated professor asks for his job back. As Fairfield, Allison Janney ("The Help") lends her sharp-tongued brand of steely intelligence to a character type we have seen from her many times.
Once again, Elizabeth Olsen shows how she is shaping a fine career in small indie films - a standout in "Martha Marcy May Marlene", one of the few redeeming features of "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding" and now this assured turn as an open-minded, precocious coed who begins to see Jesse as the soulmate who could transcend their significant age difference. She brings a smart, zestful quality that helps the film glide over its potentially more unsavory moments. John Magaro plays Dean close to the vest since the part appears ill-defined, while Zac Efron is merely distracting playing strictly against type as Nat. Playing what amounts to a convenient plot device, Elizabeth Reaser ("Sweet Land") has a few brief scenes as an age-appropriate bookstore clerk back in New York. Cinematographer Seamus Tierney filmed Radnor's story on the campus of the actor's actual alma mater, Kenyon College, where Janney also graduated. It's a pretty place that will make you become wistful about your own college days.
A Surprising Bond Girl at the Center of Craig's Most Accomplished Turn as 007
The now half-century-old James Bond franchise is still the epitome of spy-versus-spy action cool having survived the Cold War all the way through the new millennium, and Daniel Craig continues to carry the mythic mantle with steely resolve in his third entry in the series. Directed by top-level filmmaker Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), this 2012 movie manages to be both a cheeky throwback to the character's legacy and a state-of-the-art Bourne-inspired terrorist thriller. It opens in classic style with a breathless chase through the streets of Istanbul and literally on the rooftops of the old city's Grand Bazaar with Bond and MI6 operative Eve hot on the trail of a target carrying a hard drive containing the identities of every British Secret Service agent. A shot is fired, mandated by M back in MI6's London headquarters, and knocks Bond into a river. This leads beautifully to the macabre Saul Bass-inspired title sequence underscored by Adele's sonorous vocals.
Meanwhile, MI6 is under siege and goes underground when Bond finally resurfaces rattled by his near-death experience. Given a Walther PPK and tracking device by a new post-adolescent Q, Bond travels to Shanghai to confront the elusive target again in an exciting mano-a-mano fight. He is led by a sexy enigmatic woman named Severine to Silva, an ex-MI6 agent-turned-cyber-terrorist hell bent on revenge against M for sacrificing him on an espionage mission during the Hong Kong hand-off. As Silva starts killing off the agents identified on the disc, he arrives in London with the intent of publicly executing M, so Bond escapes with her to his childhood manor in the Scottish Highlands which gives the film its name. The story up to this point is genuinely thrilling, but by the time we get to the climax at Skyfall, the movie loses steam and most essentially, creative invention. It becomes an over-the-top conflagration in more ways than one leading to an inevitably fatalistic encounter in a chapel.
What also struck me about this movie was the scarcity of Bond girls - only two, neither of whom figures in the climax - but then it dawned on me that Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have really set up M as the ultimate Bond girl. Judi Dench has far more screen time in this film than in her other appearances, and she allows us a glimpse behind the starchy Machiavellian mother figure she has played so adroitly. As Silva, Javier Bardem sports another bad haircut (and a dye job this time) to play a Bond villain that balances precariously between menacing and campy. His fey manner and come-on scene with Bond are amusing enough, but the disjointed nature of his role comes from the fact that his vengeance is directed far more at M, not Bond. Eurasian French actress Bérénice Marlowe is stunning as Severine but only has one critical scene that allows her to show any dimension, while Naomie Harris ("28 Days Later") lends comely grit to Eve even if mainly on the sidelines.
In an extended cameo that seems to beg for the return of Sean Connery (who would have been too distracting had he been cast), an almost unrecognizable Albert Finney plays Kincade, the resourceful gameskeeper of the Skyfall estate, in avuncular fashion. Ralph Fiennes shows up as an intelligence officer with the authority to determine the future of MI6, but it's clear his character is being set up for the next entry in the series. Joining Connery on the pantheon of 007s, Craig is really making his interpretation of Bond uniquely his own as the super-agent goes through what amounts to a mid-life crisis. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has provided expert lens work to previous Mendes projects like "Revolutionary Road", captures the richness of the exotic locales - Shanghai, Macao, Istanbul, a deserted island in ruins, and even the Scottish highlands - with fluid dexterity. The film runs long at 143 minutes, especially since the last half-hour does not keep up the momentum built up to that point. The more important takeaway, however, is that the film is successful in whetting one's appetite for the 24th installment in the series.