Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Ten Films of 2013

Happy New Year! Farewell to The Year in Film 2013, and here's hoping that 2014 brings a cinematic gem or two. I went to the movies 84 times in 2013 to see 74 new releases.

I also saw the French-Canadian film Upside Down, released in 2012. If it had been a 2013 release, it would definitely make the list below.

So here are my top ten films of 2013. At the end of the year, each of these films still stands out in my mind - for an outstanding performance, a touching or gripping scene, the excellence of its cinematography, or the artistry of its visuals. Each film has a high watchability rating (I have seen most of them twice, one of them four times in the theater, and one of them at least five more times on DVD). In addition, each film touches heart or mind, or both, in a lasting way. Feel free to follow the link to my comments on each film posted shortly after its release.

10. Mama

9. 12 Years a Slave

8. World War Z

7. Spring Breakers

6. Oblivion

5. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

4. Fruitvale Station

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

2. Gravity

1. All Is Lost

Also worthy of mention:

Before Midnight
The Bling Ring
Blue is the Warmest Color
The Book Thief
Captain Phillips
Frances Ha
Out of the Furnace
Warm Bodies
The Wolf of Wall Street

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Do I dare?" The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starts out as a quiet, somewhat melancholy portrait of an inert, solitary J. Alfred Prufrock for our time who is unable to connect very well with other human beings even by means of social media. As the "Negative Assets" manager for Life Magazine - which has been doomed by the Internet to its last issue - Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been entrusted with "Negative 25" for the magazine's final cover photograph taken by the magazine's elusive star photographer Sean O'Connell, but Walter can't seem to find the negative.

Ben Stiller is excellent as the nearly autistic Walter who tries connecting with a female co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), on a dating website before he dares to speak to her in person at the office. Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty is an emotionally paralyzed daydreamer who only finds freedom in elaborate self-aggrandizing fantasies that disconnect him even further from the real world. Sometimes the film's digressions into a daydream are jarring. At other times, they are humorous and say a lot about Walter. In a pivotal moment, Cheryl sings along with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to spur him to risk leaping into a helicopter with a drunk pilot - the only way to get him from a nowhere town in Greenland to his next step toward locating Sean O'Connell.

I like how the film turns into an epic outdoor adventure when Walter resolves to embark on a quest to find Negative 25, even if it means traveling halfway around the world. Walter's triumph is that he finally dares to dare. Encouraged by Cheryl and beckoned by the enigmatic Sean O'Connell, Walter embarks on a whimsical journey of self-discovery that takes him from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan. Little by little, Walter grows. He gains confidence and a rugged appearance. We follow him through quirky moments in a Greenland karaoke bar, aboard a rusty old fishing vessel crewed by Chileans, in a Papa John's in Iceland, and in LAX discussing life over a Cinnabon with the manager of a social media site. Realistically, Walter doesn't suddenly become a the rugged hero of one of his daydreams. He still retains some of physical and social awkwardness even after he scales a mountain alone to find O'Connell. In the film's best moment, Sean Penn as O'Connell draws Walter Mitty's attention to a snow leopard and O'Connell exhorts Walter to savor the moment. "It's right there. It's right here."

The film has its flaws - especially when one of Walter's fantasies becomes a CGI superhero sequence, which afforded delight only because I had seen part of it filmed in New York City - but, for the most part, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty kept me engaged and thinking with its notable cinematography of rugged locations and its touching exploration of the importance of seeing the world, seizing the day, and cherishing each moment of one's life.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"No prisoners!" Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013)

When my students ask me what my favorite movie is, I have trouble picking just one. I usually name my top three - and Lawrence of Arabia is one of the three.

Recently, a student asked me to list the best actors in film history - and I started by saying that easily, in my opinion, the single best performance by a male lead in any film is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Easily!

Beyond Lawrence, O'Toole's career was a spotty thing - some glowing moments here and there, but not another role like Lawrence.

Lord Jim (1965) as well as O'Toole's performance in that film are much criticized, but I love the thing. I love Conrad, Lord Jim is my favorite novel of all time, the film captures the look and atmosphere of Conrad's world, and O'Toole's performance captures Jim's torment and obsession with redemption - with wonderful echoes of his performance as the tormented, obsessive Lawrence.

Farewell, old chap.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace into Hell

Masterfully and vividly, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace renders two sordid worlds: a depressed Pennsylvania steel mill town and the seedy hillbilly locales of the New Jersey Appalachians. Shots of Braddock, the mill town, will remind you of the memorable depiction of the steel mill town in The Deer Hunter; the plot will remind you of Cimino's film as well. A roadside hangout and a rotting crack house are memorably portrayed in the New Jersey scenes. Thus, the film is visually gripping from beginning to end – scene after scene.

In addition, the film provides a feast of talented, naturalistic acting by Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shephard. The acting is tremendous. Bale portrays Russell's development throughout the story very well, and I am always riveted by Casey Affleck's acting. Love the scene in which Russell meets the New Jersey boss (Harrelson) and they stand, faces inches apart, Harrelson sucking on a lollipop. "I'm supposed to think he's a badass because he sucks on a lollipop?" I love Casey's understated delivery and his uneasy smirks or half-laughs.

Within a running length of 116 minutes, the film is epic – following Russell Baze in his attempts to save his brother, Rodney, (Affleck), traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, from compulsive gambling that leads him into the dangerous world of bare-knuckles boxing – a competition ruled here by a mean son of a bitch from New Jersey (Harrelson), whose conscienceless brutality is established in the film’s outrageously shocking opening scene. The story takes Russell to prison and back to Braddock where he devotes himself to saving his brother, which leads him into the hellish den of New Jersey degenerates that spell Rodney’s downfall.

I was gripped by visuals and performances throughout two thirds of this film. Then, when things get inextricably hopeless for Russell, the plot doesn’t really know where to go – or it knows where to go and doesn’t go there expeditiously enough. Too bad. For the majority of its length, this is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. But it takes you on an epic journey into a present-day hell only to leave you hanging in an unsatisfying limbo.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ice Queen: Frozen

At first, watching Disney’s new animated feature Frozen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen, you’ll feel like you’re back watching Disney’s Tangled. Anna (Kristen Bell) is secluded in the castle (just like Rapunzel in her tower) because no one is allowed near her older sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has a bad case of the icy touch that turns everything frozen. Then she sings “For the First Time in Forever,” a rousing, touching piece – but it sounds too much like the hit song, “I See the Light” from Tangled. Like Rapunzel, Anna dreams of escape so she easily falls in love with the handsome and charming but ultimately treacherous Prince Hans (Santino Fontana).

So far it's a case of déjà vu, but then Elsa submits to fear and anger and all frozen wasteland ensues! When Elsa runs away to the mountain, and Demi Lovato sings “Let it Go” as the Snow Queen transforms the top of the mountain into a dazzling palace of ice, the film achieves a spectacular moment of song and stunning images. There are lots of funny moments with Anna and her faithful hunky Norwegian mountain man, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), but Elsa steals the show when she wields that icy touch that threatens to bury her kingdom in a polar icecap.

As for the ubiquitous Disney movie sidekick, I just don't get Olaf, the sharp-angled snowman with the big mouth who keeps losing his head or his butt. The Lion King has a warthog and a meerkat who fit right into the trappings of the African setting. The Little Mermaid has a Jamaican crab. Mulan has a sassy ornamental dragon, albeit voiced by Eddie Murphy. But this goofy snowman just doesn't look like he fits into a film whose art direction captures the color, textures, and images of its Norwegian setting and its fairytale world. Amidst the film's classic fairytale aesthetics, Olaf just looks like he belongs in a cheesy Christmas special with songs by Burl Ives.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Beauty of Death: The Book Thief

The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival, is a beautiful movie about death. But this is not a failing. As narrated by Death (Roger Allam), the film adaptation of the classic young adult novel is a piercingly poignant treatment of growing up during wartime as seen through the eyes of a young Liesel, an illiterate girl who learns to read and learns the power of words over the injustices of Hitler’s Germany and the tragedies that ensue. At the same time, in contrast with the scenes of death, fear, and intolerance, this is a very visually pleasant film, thus providing dramatic visual irony.

As Liesel, Sophie Nélisse is charmingly beautiful in her touching performance of the little orphaned girl who lives in a small German town full of ordinary people who suffer because of a war brought on by the evils of Nazism. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are also memorably touching as the parents who adopt her.

With its images of snow and the shops and houses of a quaint German town – with its central image of a blonde-haired girl with dazzlingly big eyes learning the wonders of reading – even with the juxtaposition of sinister yet colorful Nazi flags – the film takes on the look and feel of a fairy tale, much like the story told by Liesel in an underground shelter to take people’s minds off the bombs. And in this fairy story atmosphere, Liesel is an enchanting fairytale princess, brave and noble, in a story in which not everyone lives happily ever after.

Narrator Death takes pride in that the soldiers charging into battle or not running toward glory; they are running toward Death. And Death exacts his toll with ease, but he admits that he is “haunted by humans.” Indeed, he should rightly be haunted by the strength of young Liesel that shines through her fairy princess beauty. Sophie Nélisse's performance is beautiful. She portrays Liesel’s strength of soul in every scene. She makes the film a very touching experience, while the film's attention of detail, lighting, and color make this a film worth watching.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Cinematic Book Clone: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I have read all three books in The Hunger Games series, and I enjoyed them, although Collins could have easily combined all three books into a fast-paced one-off novel that would have been a much more satisfying reading experience. But, as money-making strategies would have it, trilogies – even stories that don’t warrant a trilogy – are the thing these days in the struggling publishing industry. Unfortunately, the book-movie trilogy, with the final book divided, oh horrors, into two movies is also a thing in the movie industry. Profits and the fans demand the cinematic clones the books they love with a passion, in this case, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Indeed, those fans are passionate, flocking to opening night and chuntering over any omissions from the story. Consequently, what you get is a bland, visually uninteresting, crippled story, performed by stilted or unrestrained performers, that plays like a TV episode.

There is nothing touching, compelling, gripping, or remarkable about Catching Fire. In every scene, Jennifer Lawrence as the girl-empowering character Katniss Everdene looks as puffy, uncomfortable, and gaudily costumed as Elizabeth Taylor in the epic bomb Cleopatra. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the baker boy who really has no talent when it comes to gladiatorial combat, looks like he belongs in a surfer movie or a movie about a preppie college grad trying to make it on Wall Street. In supporting roles, Stanley Tucci as the game show host overacts so much he has trouble keeping his feet, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game-master, looking like he's not even wearing a costume, delivering his lines tonelessly, is nearly invisible. The bland sets look hastily fabricated. One shot of chariots parading around a vast CGI race track, reminiscent of Ben-Hur, is briefly thrilling. The final gladiatorial combat is brief, gimmicky, and unexciting. In a lapse of sanity, the writers include the gimmick of the arena sections rotating like a clock, but then they do nothing dramatic with the infernal gimmick.

Whose fault is cloning books as movies? Was it Peter Jackson who kowtowed to Tolkien fans to make three endlessly faithful installments out of Lord of the Rings? Was it that Twilight thing? Or can we blame it all on Harry Potter? Why do we need movies that are essentially clones of the book? I don't understand. Perhaps books like Twilight and The Hunger Games are not substantial enough to be lastingly satisfying in themselves. Reading a book like that, you get the feeling of wanting more because there just isn’t enough there. Not getting enough in the book, fans yearn for more in the book-movie clone, one of the many genre mutations, along with sequels, TV show adaptations, and superhero episodes that seem to make up the majority of movies released during the year.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Close-ups of Life: Blue is the Warmest Color

In his epic examination of an 18-year-old girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who discovers her attraction to other women and immerses herself in a passionate love affair with an older woman named Emma (Léa Seydoux), director Abdellatif Kechiche favors close-ups and realism. Consequently, you get a lot of close-ups of eating, especially shots of people stuffing themselves with huge forkfuls of spaghetti and, of course, you get close-ups of kissing and nearly real-time lovemaking between Adèle and Emma. You might think the film didn’t need so many shots of eating or kissing or sucking, but all of the eating and lengthy lovemaking are part of the film’s effective naturalism that successfully portrays the intensity and emotion of Adèle’s love for Emma.

Adèle Exarchopoulos, easily my choice for Best Actress so far this year, with her soft, dark eyes, her round cheeks, and her full lips, fares well in all the close-ups and delivers a performance so real that you find yourself wishing she’d wipe the snot from her lip when she sobs over her break-up with her lover. As a teenager finishing high school, focusing on French literature, Adèle loves reading, loves eating – which she does a lot – and yearns for companionship. She hangs around with a clique of friends, but they are none too sensitive or helpful when it comes to Adèle’s search for her identity and her yearning for sensuality which, I suppose, is what the eating is all about. In one excellent scene, she finds herself in an explosive argument when her so-called friends accuse her of being a lesbian. It is the most realistically staged heated argument I've seen in a while.

But Adèle doesn’t stay with these friends for very long. She falls in love with Emma, discovers an insatiable desire for sensuality, becomes a teacher, and demonstrates a penchant for teaching little children. In another realistically staged scene involving a lengthy party thrown by Emma for her artsy friends who ramble on about existentialism and orgasms, Adèle starts to realize that Emma's world might not be the right fit for her. Adèle is growing up, learning her place in the world, and making mistakes that lead to a lot of emotional pain for her. Throughout this three-hour odyssey, Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle is always engaging as an actress. She makes it impossible not to care about this young woman learning the hard way who she is and what her place in the world might be.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Human Bondage: 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s powerful film 12 Years a Slave works best in its minimalist single-shot scenes without dialogue.

When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiotor), a freeman kidnapped and sold into bondage, resists the brutality of an overseer (Paul Dano), his owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to leave him hanging by the neck with only the pressure of his toes in the mud preventing him from strangulation. Behind him, slave women go about their chores, too afraid to show sympathy.

In another shot, Solomon simply stares out across the plantation, his eyes looking for hope but seeing none.

Indeed, Ejiotor’s performance as Solomon is excellent. He does a tremendous job of etching Solomon’s growing anguish in his face. Meanwhile, the scenes of cruelty that Solomon and other slaves are subjected to are very difficult to watch - but that's as it should be, and I'm glad they're difficult to watch.

Another consistent strength is the atmosphere established by the film’s authentic settings. Here, everything looks lived in, which is very much unlike many highly acclaimed historical films – especially films that depict slavery. Every scene has a realistic gravity to it and an atmosphere you can feel. As the drone of the cicadas grows louder and louder – a sound effect that suggests this film would do quite well without a musical score – you can feel the humid air and smell the mold and rot. In an early montage, the clash of a stoker's shovel and the rhythmic splashing of a riverboat's stern wheel accompany Solomon's descent into slavery in the South and suggest the throbbing of his petrified heart. As for the music, Hans Zimmer borrows heavily from his score for The Thin Red Line, and although that score’s quiet but brooding strains are appropriate here, this did more to irritate me than settle me into the drama.

In a film that seeds name actors throughout a story played mostly by lesser known actors or unknowns, one hopes the stars, whose faces we associate so much with now, won’t disturb the film’s ability to take us back in time to then. Paul Giamatti, as a slave dealer, is disguised enough and restrained enough in his performance that the power of this disgusting sequence is not diluted. Of all the stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, as a reluctant slaver owner, detracts the least from the film’s gravity and provides touching commentary on what it must have been like for someone morally opposed to a pernicious institution that so many people accepted. His performance is sensitive and subdued. Paul Dano as a sadistic, hickish, degenerate bastard of a racist borders on caricature and jolts you out of the drama’s grasp. Michael Fassbender’s character is a fascinating one: Edwin Epps, a Bible fanatic whose obsession with his power over human slaves has turned into aberrance and perversion. But some of his scenes go on too long, as Fassbender leans toward overacting, and some of Epps’s perversions lean toward the kind of one-sided propaganda typical of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that drove Southerners wild with rage.

Though not a perfect triumph, 12 Years a Slave is still a significant success for Ejiotor’s performance and the film’s uncanny ability to depict a sordid chapter in our history that we’ve seen so memorably in period photographs but have never seen as convincingly in a film.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Old Man and the Sea: All Is Lost

Robert Redford is the right man for the solo role in J. C. Chandor's All Is Lost.

Robert Redford is old. His face is rugged - cragged and weathered. He looks like an elderly sailor seeking solitude and separation from past pain.

He's just right for this essentially silent film about a solitary sailor battling the sea. Other than a brief voiceover, Redford only utters one word throughout the entire story, but he doesn't have to speak to move the story along. You know his mind is always calculating patiently, considering the next task he must perform in order to survive. As in films like The Naked Prey and Castaway, we are attentive to the things that he does in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Redford establishes tension and focus throughout, supported by thrilling action during a storm and beautiful cinematography of the sea. Underwater shots of creatures going about their business oblivious to the man's predicament might remind the viewer of Terrence Malick.

If Redford wins an end-of-career Oscar for this film, it won't just be a parting gift. It will be a well-deserved reward for a memorable performance in an exquisite film.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Help! Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor

I'll start by saying that I really enjoyed Fassbender's performance as a high-class lawyer faced with a decision that leads him down the road to a hellish punishment.

Good job, Cormac McCarthy! You know how to do dark themes. As for writing screenplays, I'm not so sure.

I love the NOVELS of Cormac McCarthy. I love his visceral themes, his simple dialogue that's pregnant with suggestions, his grim outlook on humanity. He's a great novelist, but here he has written a screenplay that is more novel than screenplay, and it dominates the story so much that it's impossible for this to be Ridley Scott's MOVIE. It's Cormac McCarthy's heavy-handed screenplay all the way through.

I won't list the film's many drawbacks, but I will say that McCarthy's penchant for dialogue overwhelms the story very quickly. We get numerous long, slow, often incidental dialogues before anything really happens. When things happen, there is a gripping tension in the film, but that doesn't last long enough to be very satisfying.

Actually, my main reason for writing this post is to send out a cry for help. Don't you love the Internet! Anytime I see a movie (and I usually see it opening night on Friday) and I come away somewhat confused by the ending, I dash home to my iPad and go to Wikipedia and, damn, if there isn't a big long detailed summary of the entire film already online! Jeez, how do they do that so fast? Geeks! Sorry.

The cry for help: Man, I guess Cormac thinks it's cool and cerebral to be vague about the plot. I'm okay with films like that as long as they deliver clarification at the end - an example being a film like Syriana that strings together seemingly unrelated scenes that all become related at the end.

I guess Cormac's commentary is that the details of the drug deal and who flim-flams whom are not important. But, damn, I want to know! It's important. So my cry goes out to anyone who can provide a summary of the film tying in the motorcyclist, the drug deal (and I guess the Counselor and Reiner (a Javier Bardem performance that makes me want to cringe when I see him in a preview) are going to make 20 million because they're buying and then selling for more?), the wire dude who takes over the deal, the fake cops who take over the takeover, Westray's (an enjoyable Brad Pitt) role in it all, and at what point Malkina (a very creepy Cameron Diaz) takes control of everything.

Or, maybe, Wikipedia's updated with a full summary.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

I Wish I Had the Power of Telekinesis Like Carrie!

I’ve always wished I had the power of telekinesis. I could lie in bed and raise my hand and my book would float across the room into my hands.

I could also take mean people and throw them over a house or something. That’s how I feel in Massachusetts from time to time where the people, in my experience, are an abrasive lot that go out of their way to be unkind.

One time on a rainy day in December, the only parking space I could find at the Hyannis Mall was in the middle of a huge puddle. I parked there and had to step through the puddle on the heels of my sneakers. Some guy took the trouble to drive by and say, “You fucking stupid son of a bitch.” Wow! What did I do to him? If I had telekinesis, I could lift his car and flip it over. In the nearby pond!

That’s like the time I was walking down a street in Cambridge one sunny day. Yeah, it was sunny, but it was still winter in the shade, so I was wearing my parka. Someone drove by and yelled, “Take off your coat, you idiot. It’s springtime.” If I had had telekinesis, I could have tossed him and his car in the Charles River that was probably still icy cold.

And just last night as I was walking across the parking lot after seeing Carrie, someone drove by and made a rude comment about the shoulder bag I use to carry my iPad. If I had telekinesis, I could hang his car from a tree.

That said, there is absolutely nothing subtle about Kimberley Peirce’s remake of Carrie. Every scene is exaggerated overkill. It starts with the bloody birth of Carrie by her Jesus-freakish mother (Julianne Moore, who plays the psycho to chilling effect). Carrie’s mother believes her baby is a cancer delivered by God to punish her for having sex.

Immediately following that scene, the shy teenaged Carrie has her period in the gym showers. She freaks out and ALL the girls in the locker room laugh at her, bombard her with a pile of tampons and sanitary napkins, and jeer, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” Peirce’s depiction of the cruelty suffered by someone who is different echoes her depiction of the cruelty toward the transsexual Brendan Teena (Hilary Swank) in Boys Don’t Cry, but here the cruelty is stretched beyond the believable into lurid hyperbole.

Without any sort of eerie, mysterious development, Carrie discovers she has telekinesis, and no time is wasted getting to the shattered mirrors and levitated furniture. But as this needless remake continues, the excellent performance of Chloë Grace Moretz shines through the comic book tone. She provides the only subtle, touching moments, as she makes her own prom dress and begins to see her muted beauty emerge after a cruel upbringing.

The strength of the film is that it works dramatically on our expectations. We know what unbelievable cruelty the bad girls are planning. We know how Carrie’s magical prom night will turn out. As she puts on her dress and her makeup, Moretz as Carrie made me cry. I shed a tear for Carrie, the innocent victim of horrible meanness, and I found myself on the edge of my seat, cringing, knowing what is going to happen.

That’s how this film finally works. When Carrie, streaked with blood, glares demonically and her sinuous arms start the real ball rolling, man, you want to stand up and cheer! I like how Carrie spares the few good people and punishes the mean ones horribly. This is a scene of glorious retribution exacted upon inhuman humans. God, how I wish I had telekinesis!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Mess with the Navy Seals: Captain Phillips


United 93 on a ship but with shakier camerawork.


While not as gripping as United 93, director Paul Greengrass has created another depiction of a real-life crisis that has the tone and immediacy of documentary-style realism. Greengrass establishes the tension from the beginning and maintains it for nearly the whole length of the film - with a lapse in its pacing when the story floats a little aimlessly in the scenes in the bobbing lifeboat containing Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the pirates. All in all, this is a very good story of one man's endurance in the face of modern-day piracy on the high seas.

The film's big drawback is the shaky camera style which seems ridiculously shaky at times. When the film introduces the pirates on a beach in Somalia, the camera shifts and shakes so much it's all a blur. Later, during the hijacking sequence, the camera dances around so much you have a hard time distinguishing between the four Somali pirates. Sometimes, too, the shaky camera style diminishes the tension because it's hard to register characters' expressions.


Tom Hanks is quite good as Captain Phillips, the ordinary merchant marine captain who is thrust into an extraordinary situation. Also good is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the four-man Somali pirate crew that uses a small motor-powered boat to raid a huge cargo ship.



When there seems to be no hope for Captain Richard Phillips because he is being held hostage by armed pirates in an enclosed lifeboat heading for the Somali coast, the Navy Seals appear on the scene and we know from films like Zero Dark Thirty that the pirates don't have a chance.

The film balances nicely between showing the pirates as ruthless cutthroats while at the same time showing them as victims of a country that has been torn by famine and civil war and is at the mercy of warlords. There is no hope in Muse's life, and we get the sense that he is forced against his will to hijack freighters, but the film doesn't go far enough to show what his other motivations might include.

Then, as I said, the Navy Seals step in, and I found my focus straying from the sympathetic Muse, straying too from the kidnapped Captain Phillips, as I became fascinated by how Navy Seals sharpshooters set their sights on the heads of three pirates and prepare to fire each A SINGLE SHOT THROUGH THE WINDOWS OF AN ENCLOSED LIFEBOAT ROCKING BACK AND FORTH IN THE SEA! AND THEY DO IT! For me, this is the film's most memorable moment. Greengrass doesn't seem to glorify the Navy Seals, but their feat of arms certainly overshadows many of the tense moments involving the titular Captain Phillips.


This is a good movie, but the shakiness of the camerawork keeps me from running out to see it again.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Gravity


Apollo 13 meets WALL-E. Throw in Clooney as Buzz Lightyear.


Director Alfonso Cuarón has created a dazzling visual experience that depicts the gripping ordeal of astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kuwalski (George Clooney) who are cast adrift in space after a high-velocity debris storm destroys their space shuttle. Cuarón maintains the tension throughout the film and uses his camera well to establish a sense of hopeless isolation as he frames Dr. Stone floating amidst a sea of stars or hovering over Earth’s continents far, far below.

Despite an irritating performance by Clooney as the ever-cheerful seasoned spaceman, playing country music and cracking jokes to the very end, this film is completely transporting for most of its 90-minute length.

The film is a simple story of survival against all odds, so there is not much story. There is an eerie moment as Stone and Kuwalski are floating toward the International Space Station when I thought the film might go off into a surrealistic, mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey vortex. I would have enjoyed that, but the film is what it is - a basic story of perseverance and triumph.

The film’s greatest misfortune, however, is its overbearing music. After a wonderful opening scene as the camera moves through the vastness of space and slowly closes in on the astronauts floating silently through their repair work on Hubble, the first onslaught of the debris is accompanied by blasting music. Instead of continuing with the wonderful silence of the opening, Cuarón feels he has to compensate for the absence of explosive noises by filling this majestic void with overly dramatic music that distracts the viewer from the thrilling images.

(SPOILERS) Another misstep is the scene in which Stone (Bullock) propels herself from the Soyuz space capsule by means of a fire extinguisher – just like WALL-E! They should have steered clear of something already done by a comic character in a Disney/Pixar animated film.

I would have left out the return of George Clooney’s Kuwalski in a dream which comes off as silly when a spookier appearance would have better suited the situation. (END SPOILERS)


There's nothing outstanding here, but Bullock’s performance grew on me. I feel it takes the first half of the film for Bullock to find her character and establish some engaging presence. She really starts to come through Academy Award-winning artifice in the touching moment when she realizes her predicament is hopeless and she shuts down the oxygen flow to end her life.

Other than voiceovers (including one by Ed Apollo 13 Harris), Bullock and Clooney constitute the entire cast, so it’s a little unfortunate that Clooney is miscast. He plays to caricature, much like a one-note Ronald Colman jesting in the shadow of guillotine.

Meanwhile, Bullock is slow to take the lead and hit her touching notes, and since she’s the only girl in town, this weakens the film’s emotional impact, an impact that cannot be fabricated by hitting Stone’s victorious touchdown on Earth with a blasting triumphal fanfare that's almost embarrassing.


All of them are visual:

The film holds your attention with dizzying shots of destruction in space, and during the slow bits, you can have fun identifying the features of Earth's continents far below. I love geography, so I found this very exciting. The space views of Earth are based on actual photographs. Especially arresting are the shots of Cairo, Suez, and the Nile, as well as the lower extent of Italy's boot. Some of the outstanding images include the sunrise, the moonrise, and the aurora borealis.

I am not a fan of 3D, but this is the best example of 3D I have ever seen. Starting with the first shot, there is a depth to everything that makes you share Stone's fear of heights. Later, the floating tear reflecting the hopeless Stone is spectacular.

(SPOILER) Although the gosh-darn preview gives away the calamity at the opening of the film, that scene is trumped by an amazingly intricate moment of destruction when the debris strikes the International Space Station. This is my favorite scene. (END SPOILER)


I have seen it twice in 3D, and I could easily see it again. I'd like to try it in 2D to see if it retains its visual depth. A third time through, if I find my attention straying from Bullock's performance, I can still feast my eyes on the features of Earth below.

NOTE: I saw it a second time in 3D, then a third time in 2D, and I must say I was just as immersed in the visuals in 2D as 3D because 2D has the advantage of deeper color saturation. As a matter of fact, I noticed details I hadn't noticed in 3D because they stood out more. Dr. Stone's tear may not float out of the screen, but it stands out brightly and reflects Bullock longer as the focus sharpens on it.

Saturday, September 28, 2013



A cross between Cinderella Man and Secretariat but with Formula One race cars.


What you get is nothing terribly gripping nor visually arresting. But you do get an interesting examination of two dynamic real-life racers: James Hunt, a sexy playboy who does it for the glory, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) whose skills for car design and driving lead him to overcome all odds to do the thing he loves.

Frustratingly, the film is mostly montage and has a rushed (pun!) feel to it. There's no set-piece racing sequence to get engrossed in until the end, perhaps, and even then the focus pulls away from the drivers' point of view.

Ultimately, the film is a satisfying look at two very different characters who compete against each other so fiercely that they feel at a loss when a horrendous accident takes Lauda out of the action.

Still, the film is about these two drivers and their involvement in a life-threatening sport, but director Ron Howard never puts you in the driver's seat.


Hemsworth is well suited to the role of the long-haired playboy, and Brühl keeps your attention with his portrayal of the awkward, anti-social outsider whose veins are full of motor oil.

Olivia Wilde is quite good as Hunt's trophy wife. Wilde is developing into a solid actress, and she does well in Howard's many extreme close-ups of her face. What's the deal? Does Howard doubt her ability to emote?


It's just not a film full of memorable moments. It moves along smoothly from episode to episode, but there are no gripping or hugely dramatic moments. Even the big accident is too quickly staged to have much effect. Every scene is utilitarian.

The most arresting scene comes when Lauda, in the hospital, gets his scorched lungs vacuumed out.


An enjoyable character study, but nothing that cries out for a second viewing.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eyes Wide Open: Prisoners


Does the end justify the means? Elements of Zero Dark Thirty thrown into a suburban child-kidnapping tale. Add elements of Silence of the Lambs and The Vanishing.


During the first third of this film, the cinematography and the naturalistic performances of a great ensemble cast kept my eyes painfully wide open as I sat on the edge of my seat. I love the shots seen through frosty or rain-streaked windows. I felt I was viewing one of the most sharply lucid and realistic films ever made.

When some bargain-price retirees started to narrate what was happening on screen (Shot: The police release the suspect (Paul Dano) from jail. Retiree: "They're releasing him!") I relocated to the unoccupied front section and embraced the wonderful images framed by Roger Deakins.

When the film wanders into literal basements of perversion and goes stereotypically lurid, I was disappointed but still riveted by the camerawork, the ominous musical score, and the film's dense sense of approaching doom.


Jake Gyllenhaal's affectations tend to irk me, but here his understated, scowling delivery fits right in. He is superb. Jackman is still invested in Valjean. Viola Davis is excellent. The cast is a strong one though I would have loved to see what they could have done with a more grounded, realistic story about families reacting to a kidnapping.


The cinematography makes just about every shot chillingly, exquisitely memorable. The best moments are in the film's first third, before Inspector Loki (Gyllenhaal) makes his first descent into a dark basement.


I need to see this again for the cinematography, also because the plot gets too convoluted for its own good, and I want to clear up some viewing quandaries.

For me, the first third of this film is the most riveting movie experience in years!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Family


Like The Addams Family except with the family of Mafia boss Giovanni Manzoni, posing as the Blake family, hiding out under witness protection in Normandy, and trying to fit in. Like the Addams family of ghouls, this is one bizarre family, but they are loyal and loving like a normal father, mother, daughter, and son.


A very enjoyable film, nicely directed by Luc Besson, funny in a macabre way as it leads to one of the most gripping climaxes of the year.


Granted, playing a Mafia tough guy is in De Niro's blood, but I must say he shines in this movie. He doesn't ham it up or go off the silly deep end as he has done since he started doing comedy. This is a fine performance by De Niro.

Each member of the Blake/Manzoni family is excellent. Michelle Pfeiffer stands out as the long-suffering Mafia wife from Brooklyn who goes into a French grocery store, asks for peanut butter, and then torches the place when she is treated rudely. She doesn't stand for any nonsense, but she expresses the drawbacks of being married to a very dangerous husband whose favorite word is "Fuck!"

John D'Leo as the son, Warren, displays a youthful, promising talent. Hope we see more of him.

My favorite is Belle, the daughter, played by the talented and very attractive Dianna Agron. Her little brother has inherited his father's criminal talents for extortion, bribery, and forgery, but Belle has inherited a tendency to vent her anger in extreme ways, expressing a pent-up rage that suggests her frustrations with this unusual family and her longing to be part of a normal family.


The film builds up nicely to the tense climax when hit men locate the Manzoni family, take out the village policemen, and get ready to massacre the family.

My favorite moment: Belle takes a tennis racquet and vents her prodigious rage on a randy teenager who tries to force her to have sex. Her wrath is gorgeous. Oo, la, la!


I laughed out loud. I really enjoyed seeing the performance of a bygone De Niro. I was suitably gripped by the ending. Belle is awesome. I would see this again.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2


Repeat the same lurid red main title from Insidious without the same effect; use clips from the first chapter as flashbacks; keep Rose Byrne's Renai looking like she's scared shitless throughout the movie..


Not nearly as chilling as Chapter One. Not nearly as chilling as this year’s Mama. Poor editing softens its attempts to be scary. A nice premise is set up with the clairvoyant throwing dice to see what Patrick Wilson's demonic Josh Lambert has behind his back, but the editing is ponderous.


Patrick Wilson does well as the Daddy possessed by a demon that wants the deaths of his family.


There are some chilling moments, and the climax is nicely gripping with some nice editing; but there’s nothing too memorable here.


Enjoyable though not that scary. I liked the flashbacks that tie this chapter with the original story. Wish the original had been a one-off entity. Don't need to see this again.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer's Over, Back to School, But the Fall Movie Season Approaches

As the summer movie season fades out with a whimper, I look forward to, hopefully, better releases this fall. With travels up to Maine and out West to the San Francisco Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada, taking in the oft-used film location of the Alabama Hills above, I found less time to blog, and I did not report on the following:

The Conjuring, a clever and suspenseful haunted house tale with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga; Planes, basically Cars with wings, a cheerful romp that provides memorable images as the planes engage in a global aerial race; 2 Guns, a violent dick flick (as opposed to chick flick – credit to my younger brother for this), in which Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg engage in some pretty creative dialogue as they take on a drug cartel backed by the CIA (supplanting Nazis and Arab terrorists, I guess, as the new stock movie villains); and Getaway, an action-paced flop with an incredibly unwieldy plot, a tired Ethan Hawke, and Selena Gomez, looking cute and very un-tough as she attempts to stretch her acting repertoire.

What’s next? There are some movies to look forward to, but just not my favorite genres. Despite the silly preview with Sandra Bullock swinging in space, I’m looking forward to Cuaron’s Gravity. An extended preview of Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks, has increased my interest in this movie. And Ron Howard’s Rush, whose plot seems to be a remake of Grand Prix, looks compelling. Of course, we will check out anything by Scorsese – with DiCaprio as an additional draw (The Wolf of Wall Street). Meanwhile, Jason Bellamy and I will have to check out The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, since we watched them filming on Sixth Avenue in NYC, and the lady managing the extras allowed us to sit in the back of one shot, so there’s a very slight chance, but a chance nonetheless, that we are in the final cut.

Will also see The Monuments Men (bad title) because it may achieve some of the look and tone of The Great Escape; The Invisible Woman because Fiennes and Charles Dickens are big draws for me; American Hustler because of a cast led by Bale; August: Osage County because I’ve taught the play in A.P. English for the past three years – and I’m curious how the casting will work out, since I think most of the performers are miscast – except for Sam Shepard who has all of one scene; Catching Fire because it’s, you know, Jennifer Lawrence and The Hunger Games, and it's a must-see for all teens and high school teachers, though I feel the second book is ponderously gimmicky; and Prisoners because I’ve seen the preview so many times and I’ve got to find out who kidnapped the girls.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Have and Have Not: Elysium

In an interview, South African director Neill Blomkamp, who gave us District 9, said he thought it would be a nifty idea to make a sci-fi film about "the haves and the have-nots," suggesting, as it seems, that had never been done before.

Uh, like, Metropolis (1927).

In Elysium the "haves" live in a wheel-shaped space station. There, everything is green and new and opulent; you have to be rich to live there. I found Elysium visually fascinating, but you never feel IN Elysium. You don't know what it's like to live there. The only citizens you see are running away from the scuzzy illegal aliens running across their lawns. I wanted to be taken INTO Elysium. I wanted to know what it was like to live there, like in WALL-E, we are taken up close to the fat blobby people who float around in hoverchairs and consume fattening shakes.

The film does an excellent job of evoking the dismal slums of L.A., filmed on location in the slums and vast dumps of Mexico City. Poor Mexico City. You really feel the crowding, the squalor, the heat, the despair. This is the best aspect of the film.

Matt Damon as Max drives the story. Matt Damon has a presence and a believability he brings to all his films. I really enjoy watching him, and here he fits right into a story that is less about ideas (the commentary is trite: the haves are like our rich people who live in gated neighborhoods, people who thank God for Republicans and Homeland Security) and more about sci-fi action.

In order to make his way to Elysium so that he can be cured of a lethal dose of radiation, Max gets fitted with an exo-suit which turns him sort of cyborg. But the dramatic possibilities of this suit are not exploited. It is never made clear what he can do with this suit other than throw some bad guy across the room. Anyway, Damon fits right into the role of a bitter "have-not" who has always dreamed of getting to Elysium.

Below is Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, star of District. Here Copley is a mechanically enhanced secret operative whose extreme methods dealing with illegal aliens get him fired, so he plans to use a rebooting code to take over Elysium and rule the world of the "haves." Copley is a suitable bad guy, and his mechanical enhancements make you wonder if he's part District 9 cyborg.

Then there's Jodie Foster as Delacourt, the dictatorial bitch who runs security for Elysium, who thinks the president is too soft, and who would love to run things herself. Unfortunately, Foster is given little to develop her character, explain her bitterness, provide some motives, explain why she constantly acts bitchy and looks sharp and grumpy throughout the whole movie. See below.

A note about accents: When we first see Foster, she is speaking French. (Foster studied French at Yale and then in France. She got pretty good at it so she likes to use it.) But then she speaks English throughout the rest of the film with an accent that isn't quite English, isn't quite American, an accent that is I don't know what. This movie has a thing about accents. Kruger goes with a South African accent that is so extreme it's hard to follow what he's saying all the time. In addition, William Fichtner plays John Carlyle, a business tycoon who wants to help Delacourt take over Elysium. Here, Carlyle speaks in a stilted robotic voice, but when he's shot, he bleeds. I thought he WAS a robot! What's with the weird robotic delivery of his lines?

There's a lot to like about this movie. It is always visually engaging. It is fast-paced. Damon is excellent. But as the action goes standard, I found myself wishing I had gotten to spend more time in Elysium and learn what it's like to live there. This would have provided a starker contrast with the vividly evoked world of the L.A. slums.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Tragedy of Fruitvale Station

As a film about the controversial shooting death of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day, 2009, and as a vivid portrait of a 22-year-old African American ex-con struggling to get a job so that he can marry his girlfriend (wonderfully portrayed by Melanie Diaz) and care for his daughter, Tatiana (touchingly performed by Ariana Neal), Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is piercing in its presentation of a family living amidst the mean streets of Hayward and devastating in its presentation of the tragic event. Central to the film is the relationship between Oscar and his daughter - and the tragedy here is that he wants so much to be her responsible father and makes moves to turn over a new leaf, only to be killed when he's out having fun with his girlfriend and their friends. With excellent performances across the board, and a very earnest performance by Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother, this film is easily one of the best films of the year for its taut direction, its honest writing, and the very memorable performance of Jordan as Oscar, a young man whose good intentions and his joyful love for his daughter are brought to a sudden end by a single accidental bullet.

The Way, Way Back

First of all, what do you call an indie – you know, the thoughtful, supposedly well-written, character-driven film that plays at the Landmark chain, not at your local multi-plex? I want a label for that kind of film, but some film writers object to the term “indie” because it’s not precisely true that all these films are “independent.” So, give me a label!

That said, the recent The Way, Way Back, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is “that kind of film:” modestly budgeted, thoughtfully written, character-driven. In this one, Liam James plays Duncan, a troubled young teen struggling to come out of his shell. All the ingredients are here – his divorced mother, played by Toni Collette, has taken up with a self-centered jerk named Trent (Steve Carell) whose stringent approach is not so good for Duncan’s self-confidence. Stuck at Trent’s beach house somewhere on the Massachusetts coast, Duncan meets neighbor Betty (Alison Janney), a joyful alcoholic, and her teenage daughter, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) with whom Duncan makes monosyllabic attempts to communicate. And where does Duncan learn to come out of his shell? Oddly enough, at the local water park, Water Wizz, where Owen (Sam Rockwell), the wastrel owner who lives in a small apartment on the premises, teaches Duncan about life and humor and standing up for oneself.

Throughout the course of this mostly enjoyable film, we get the expected development, setbacks, and triumphs. Duncan learns a sense of humor, gains courage, and kisses the girl - or tries to, at least. Trent is not the best match for Duncan's mother, and though she is afraid to strike out on her own, she learns the importance of getting to know her son before it's too late. Meanwhile, Betty goes on being a joyful alcoholic. Janney's performance will most likely earn an Oscar nomination; Carell, Collette, and Rockwell have garnered Oscar buzz as well.

The film holds touching moments of realism; other moments fall flat or don't ring true. But the depiction of Water Wizz and its employees is spot on! I know this from experience because I've taken my kids to this water park in Wareham, Massachusetts, which is not far over the Bourne Bridge from Cape Cod, and I can say that he film effectively captures Water Wizz in all its brightness and good times on the surface as well as its sad shabbiness under the surface. Rockwell is perfect as the aimless, good-for-nothing owner who ironically teaches Duncan how to live life, and Maya Rudolph is superb as Caitlin, the overworked gal who really runs the show and would like something more out of life than Water Wizz. Caitlin, Owen: I've met people like this servicing the summer fun on Cape Cod. Trent, Colette, Betty: I've seen them too, renting beach houses in Centerville.

The Way, Way Back pins the locations and the characters right on, but the writing and the development of Duncan's character don't always ring true.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Mako Mori Versus the Kaiju: Pacific Rim

Indeed, Pacific Rim is a very noisy movie in which very noisy super-sized mecha units called “Jaegers” battle very noisy super-sized alien monsters called “Kaiju” that rise up from another dimension through a crack in the Pacific Rim to eradicate humanity! That means humanity must go mano a mano with the big beasts in very noisy combat – not that these 2020-something humans don’t have fighter jets that could fly circles around the lumbering Kaiju and pierce them with multiple ballistic missiles. The whole movie could have been about how they invent different types of missiles to shred and decapitate and blow the monsters to smithereens.

But with the premise as it is, what we get is a very noisy but highly entertaining movie about huge Transformers-like machines driven by pairs of human pilots engaged in colossal, substantially rendered CGI combat reminiscent of the city-stomping battles between Godzilla and Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, and many more. In fact, the variety of Godzilla's foes seems to inspire the variety of Kaiju that adds additional fun to the look of the film.

Pacific Rim is well made from beginning to end. It gets started quickly with newscast history of the advent of the Kaiju and the history of the deployment of the Jaegers in the Kaiju Wars. It is full of dark CGI vistas of beleaguered cities all over the world. Charlie Hunnam is more than serviceable as hot-shot pilot Raleigh Becket. Idris Elba brings solid presence to the screen as Stacker Pentecost, the commander of the Jaeger unit, and Burn Gorman and Charlie Day take their portrayals of mad scientists comically over the top. I could have done without the silly bits involving Ron Perlman (my God, sci-fi groupies love him!) as a marketeer dealing in Kaiju organs and bones.

But the best thing about Pacific Rim is the character of Mako Mori, sensitively portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel). Like a kickass anime character, Mako Mori is cute but formidable. When we first meet Mako, she is the commander's mild-mannered assistant, standing in the rain with an umbrella, waiting for the arrival of the new pilot, Raleigh. Ultimately, she is chosen as Raleigh's partner. During a training session crisis she flashes back to an episode when she is a little girl (played poignantly by Mana Ashida), the sole survivor of a ruined city running from a gargantuan monster, and her remembered fear almost maker her blow up the command center by mistake. Later, Mako becomes a competent pilot and a fierce Kaiju fighter. But the best thing about her character development is the visually stunning flashback episode, the film's most memorable scene, in which the little girl in the red coat and red shoes runs for her life from the Kaiju, and little Mana Ashida is tremendous in the one-scene part, a scene that establishes a touching relationship between Mako and Pentecost.

The film's resolution might seem a little too easy considering how difficult it is for a Jaeger to take down a single monster in the beginning of the film, and it's all kind of predictable, but the world created by this film's memorable art direction, the gripping action, and the character of Mako Mori make this movie a summer eardrum-splitter you won't want to miss.