Friday, January 31, 2014
Former correspondent and government spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) now works as a freelance journalist but struggles to find a subject that pleases his editor Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley) until Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) story falls into his lap. In 1952 a young and pregnant Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was sent to an Ireland convent. During her stay with the nuns she was worked hard as penance for her sin and to earn upkeep for her and her son. She looked forward each day to the one hour she was allowed to spend with her toddler. But even that was taken from her when a family adopted the boy, whisking him away without ceremony. For decades she never stopped thinking about and looking for him, despite the release she signed and the convent administration’s stonewalling. Now Philomena hopes Sixsmith can help find her lost son, and he, in turn, hopes to tell a powerful human-interest story. They begin at the convent, and the intervening years have not softened its intransigence. But the writer picks up a trail that leads to the United States, and it’s off to the colonies for the mismatched duo. The script by Coogan and Jeff Pope, adapted from Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” mixes disparate styles and tones, from that of the oppressive Catholic convent life to that of a journalist exposing potential scandal to an odd couple road movie to a whimsical fish out of water story. However, the conflicting attitudes toward faith and forgiveness that Philomena and Sixsmith each apply on this quest bind these elements together. Her troubled past could readily turn any mere mortal against God or at the very least the Church, yet she remains a devout Catholic with an endless capacity to forgive. On the other hand he, a professed atheist, remains profoundly cynical about religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Yet through this journey they attain understanding and, perhaps, a reluctant acceptance. Under Stephen Frears’ sensitive, understated direction the film refuses to become sappy or overly sentimental, and Dench and Coogan give pitch perfect performances.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Every year writer/director Woody Allen proffers a new cinematic offering. But which one will we get this time – the romantic fantasy of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the bittersweet romance of VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA or the bitter cynicism of MATCH POINT? The answer lies between the last two, but closer to the latter. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has come untethered. We meet her on a flight from New York to San Francisco in the middle of a monologue with an older female companion. Based on the intimate details revealed we presume this is her mother or other close relation. They part ways, and it becomes clear she has been talking to a stranger. Jasmine is a recovering socialite set adrift from her life of luxury when husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) kills himself in prison after being indicted for securities fraud. For years she feigned ignorance of or turned a blind eye to any wrongdoing while reaping the benefits that came with immense wealth. Now, pleading poverty but with little indication of being sufficiently chastened, Jasmine moves into the cluttered Mission apartment of sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who, along with bitter ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), numbered among Hal’s victims. When she isn’t working as a dentist’s receptionist or taking a class in interior design, Jasmine sulks in her room, drinks, and criticizes Ginger’s crass but well-intentioned fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Feeling down after losing her job, she grudgingly accepts a party invitation. There she meets lonely diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and soon the luxurious life to which she had been accustomed seems possible again. Allen has found his modern day Blanche from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in Jasmine. Her denial has become so ingrained, so vital to herself and her self-image that the truth of her husband’s deception shatters her already fragile mind. Blanchett’s tour de force captures this losing struggle so beautifully that our schadenfreude turns to pity. Allen relies too heavily on coincidence, but his film is an apt reflection of our sadly misguided society that often equates material trappings of wealth and privilege with human worth.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Tracy Letts’ big screen adaptation of his acclaimed 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a family dysfunction comedy-drama set during a sweltering Oklahoma summer, has pedigree coming out its ears. Meryl Streep stars as Violet Weston, the sharp-tongued, pill-popping, booze-swilling matriarch suffering from mouth cancer, with Sam Shepard as her reflective, womanizing husband Beverly. When he disappears one morning, it prompts an unwanted reunion of the extended Weston clan. Julia Roberts plays bitter Barbara, whose marriage to Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor) has its own fidelity issues. Juliette Lewis is unstable daughter Karen, whose low self-esteem pairs her with smarmy fiancé Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney). More reliable daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) keeps an eye on her mother but longs for the day when she can run off with secret boyfriend and first cousin Little Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s considered slow by his brash mother Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and guileless by his gentle father Charles (Chris Cooper). Abigail Breslin, as the Fordham’s daughter Jean, and Misty Upham, as housekeeper Johnna, round out the intimidating cast. Director John Wells tries to open the film up visually but is limited by a talky script that confines its major scenes to the Weston dining table. At least Letts’ dialogue tastes rich and substantial, albeit seasoned with an unsavory mixture of unsuppressed resentment and bile. The actors tear into this verbal red meat with the gusto of a starving horde, leaving little left. Once the carnage ends, the remaining bones offer scant meaning or purpose but for feasting itself. Streep and Roberts get the juiciest lines, while the remaining cast members (with notable exceptions in the excellent Cooper and Martindale) feel like high-profile cameos. Letts’ stage play clocked in at over three hours, while this film runs a slim two. Perhaps in excising so much Letts lost something vital in translation. And Wells seems unclear whether this is Greek tragedy or dark comedy, exacerbating the lack. Thus, despite all the strong ingredients, the final dish remains insubstantial and unsatisfying.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Paul Greengrass is a director of kinetic action. The immediacy of his visual style in the second and third BOURNE installments gave equal momentum and tension to wonks in the situation room and agents fighting in the field. He used this style with devastating effect in the difficult UNITED 93, but it failed him in the clumsy, politically naïve GREEN ZONE. With a nautical setting and trademark handheld camera, Greengrass is on terra firma in his latest white-knuckle thriller. Based on the non-fiction book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, Billy Ray’s taut screenplay recounts the fateful 2009 encounter off the Horn of Africa between a small band of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks), captain of the Maersk Alabama. Though the filmmakers waste no time getting to the attempted hijacking and kidnapping, they offer insight into the day-to-day workings of the cargo freighter and also a glimpse into the desperation which drives the Somalis as they strive to appease violent, demanding warlords. The film’s first half establishes Phillips leadership abilities. He repels an initial attack but cannot withstand a second. Once the Somalis breach the ship, we watch with anxious admiration as our resourceful captain uses every available means to stop the intruders from gaining control of the vessel. Muse’s leadership qualities are those of a typical action hero: courage and tenacity. In the real world, however, these have their limits. The pirates must give up their bounty on the cargo, abandon the freighter via its lifeboat and take Phillips as hostage instead. The film’s second half chronicles the tense, close-quarter negotiations between Phillips, Muse and the U.S. Navy as the noose tightens inexorably on the pirates. Hanks’ performance is his best in years, and the remarkable Abdi matches him. Greengrass and Ray dare to provide a reason (not an excuse) for the Somalis’ actions. In doing so, they challenge us to understand and feel compassion for the pirates, which elevate the story’s foregone conclusion to one of human tragedy.
Friday, January 17, 2014
In 1985 little was publically known about HIV/AIDS except that it was primarily a “gay disease.” Few outside the medical profession understood that the virus was transmitted via bodily fluids through shared needles and unprotected sex, regardless of proclivity. Imagine the shock Texas electrician and rodeo rider Ron Woodruff (a gaunt Matthew McConaughey) feels when he’s diagnosed with AIDS. This confirmed drug user, frequenter of prostitutes, and unrepentant homophobe hits grief’s denial stage running until library research confirms the accuracy of Dr. Sevard’s (Denis O’Hare) diagnosis. Meanwhile Big Pharma requests the hospital conduct clinical trials of the experimental drug AZT, and Sevard agrees despite skepticism from underling Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). Woodruff wants to participate in the trial, but there’s no guarantee he will be given the drug. He turns to the black market to obtain AZT, but that supply runs out. In desperation (and near death) he travels to Mexico and comes under the care of Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an expatriate who warns against AZT and gives Woodruff a series of supplements unapproved by the FDA that seem to help. Because there are many more back in the U.S. like him Woodruff makes a deal with Vass to sell the supplements in Dallas and enlists the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender patient of Eva’s, to spread the word and help run a buyers club. The demand is enormous and the results positive, and it begins to affect the AZT trials to the dismay of Big Pharma. Soon the FDA puts up roadblocks and the DEA threatens to shut the club down. McConaughey gives a physically demanding and ferocious performance, and Leto shines in his small but showy role. The familiar, pedantic script written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack hamstrings both, however. And Jean-Marc Vallée does neither the material nor the actors any favors with his heavy handed, obvious direction, letting poor Garner furrow her eyebrows in concern for much of the film. Woodruff’s true story is a worthy one, but it and the cast deserve a better vehicle than the one with which they’ve been saddled.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
From humble origins as a sharecropper’s son, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) becomes a White House butler for numerous U.S. Presidents beginning with Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) around the time he sent troops to enforce the desegregation of public schools. So begins director Lee Daniels’ entertaining and unruly odyssey of civil rights and race relations in America. Danny Strong’s shrewd, episodic script (based on Wil Haygood’s article about the life of Eugene Allen) drops in on major moments in history but shows them primarily from Cecil’s observations in the workplace and his personal clashes at home. As the Kennedy (James Marsden) and Johnson (Liev Schreiber) administrations grapple with racial violence in the South, Cecil and wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) worry about activist son Louis (David Oyelowo) and his involvement with the Freedom Riders. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the Vietnam War’s escalation by the Nixon (John Cusack) administration, the close knit Gaines family begins to fray. Louis flirts with the Black Panthers, and youngest son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) heads overseas to fight for his country. Cecil also struggles for equal pay for the black White House staff, which includes Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz), with a quiet, persistent campaign. The Reagan (Alan Rickman) administration finally agrees to the pay increase, but its refusal to denounce apartheid sows seeds of concern in the butler. The First Lady (Jane Fonda) invites the Gaines to attend a state dinner as guests, but it is readily apparent to them that their presence is more for show than a meaningful gesture. And shortly thereafter Cecil retires. With its unstable mix of domestic drama, history lesson, and self-conscious stunt casting, the film shouldn’t work. Yet it does, due in large part to rich, committed performances by the remarkable Whitaker and the surprising Winfrey. By limiting their story to snapshots of turbulent times viewed both up close and from afar, Daniels and Strong show us where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and the distance that remains.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 until 1999. In 1963 the apartheid government charged Mandela and others with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. They confessed to the sabotage and denied the rest but were convicted on all charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. This new film based on Mandela’s autobiography and adapted by William Nicholson avoids many screen biography pitfalls. Least compelling are the early sequences touching on his boyhood, his early years as defense attorney, his first marriage, his philandering, and his growing involvement with the ANC (African National Congress), which led to divorce. Once Mandela (Idris Elba) meets and marries Winnie (Naomie Harris), however, the film becomes more focused and takes on a greater urgency. His influence over the black population increases, but the peaceful demonstrations against segregationist policies yield only violent response. Mandela reluctantly turns to armed resistance by blowing up government buildings, which eventually leads to arrest and imprisonment. As Mandela campaigns for humane treatment during his 18 year stay on Robben Island, Winnie faces constant harassment by the government and is subjected to 18 months of solitary confinement. Upon release she becomes the face of the more militant ANC, and its clashes with the government increase in violence. Worldwide protests against apartheid spread in the mid-1980s, so government officials begin negotiations with Mandela, which lead to his release in 1990. While the film covers a vast swath of history, director Justin Chadwick keeps the pace moving while providing his sterling cast ample moments to shine. Elba gives a commanding performance that puts Mandela’s charismatic force on full display. Harris matches him by showing Winnie’s steel resolve and fiery resilience. Despite their subject’s importance to 20th century history, the filmmakers refuse to turn Mandela into a complete saint or sinner. More importantly they parse, and leave open to question, the ambiguous and treacherous line between armed struggle and terrorism.
Friday, January 10, 2014
While author P.L. Travers may not be a household name, her creation Mary Poppins is. Likewise her book series’ title character has been overshadowed by the Julie Andrews personification in Walt Disney’s beloved 1964 movie. Even less well known (until now at least) was the torturous process by which Disney secured the rights to use the character and thereby create his benchmark live-action film. John Lee Hancock directs from a script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, which toggles primarily between early 1900s Australia and 1961 Burbank. At the film’s opening Travers Goff (Colin Farrell) relocates his family to a remote village for a banking job but spends more time bonding with young daughter Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) and hitting the bottle than attending to work; while Travers (Emma Thompson), some 50 years later, travels to Hollywood from London to finalize the rights deal with Disney (Tom Hanks) and oversee (meaning approve) the final script. Travers periodically drifts into reveries, and we soon surmise that Ginty is the memory of herself as a girl, and Goff her father. Upon arrival the prickly Travers clashes with everyone, from personal chauffeur Ralph (Paul Giamatti) to screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) to song composers Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) to Disney himself. She has adamantly resisted the mogul’s offers for two decades, but money concerns softened her resolve. However, she intends to extract a pound of flesh before signing on the dotted line. The scenes in the story conference room, based on historical recordings, are the film’s highlight. They are filled with thrilling insight into the painful push and pull of the creative process. The flashbacks, on the other hand, are maudlin and posit unconvincingly that Travers clings to Mary Poppins as she does to the memory of her long-dead father. The performances run from strong (Thompson and Hanks) to serviceable (Giamatti and Farrell), but they and the film struggle against the Disney ethos of redemption. As Mr. Banks was saved in the 1964 film, the filmmakers save Travers here. I’m not sure she would approve.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Everyone wants something. And in director David O. Russell’s bracing new comedy everyone will go to great and often unethical lengths to get it. More than money, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) wants dignity and respect, if his careful coiffure speaks true. His lover and partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) presents herself to marks as a British financier and wants to escape who she was or at least reinvent her past. This criminal romance is further complicated by Irving’s marriage of inconvenience to the spitfire Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who wants, against all indication, stability for herself and her young son. Irving and Sydney coast along comfortably until they try to scam FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants promotion and glory. In lieu of prosecution Richie convinces the couple to use their skills to nab bigger fish. His initial target is well-intentioned New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who wants to foster local economic growth for his constituents but is not above bribery to do so. They enlist Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as Sheik Abdullah who plans to invest in a high-class hotel but requires favors from high-level politicians to facilitate this. When the mob takes an interest in the sham venture, Richie presses the con deep into dangerous territory. Bale has never been this touching and funny, while Adams reveals Sydney’s vulnerability beneath her tough veneer. Cooper is all misguided ambition and manic desperation, while Renner projects basic decency and a reluctant pragmatism. Meanwhile a too-young Lawrence and a nicely understated Louis C.K. (as Richie’s put upon supervisor) nearly steal the movie. Eric Warren Singer and Russell based their script very loosely on the Abscam sting circa 1978, but Russell is less concerned with the mechanics of the operation than with the treacherous waters of the human heart. While there are ample crosses and double-crosses, twists and betrayals, Russell is a generous enough filmmaker to love the player (or hustler, if you will) and the game.
Monday, January 6, 2014
When last we saw our intrepid hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), he and thirteen stalwart dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), en route to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost home and a treasure hoard stolen by the dragon Smaug, had barely escaped the clutches of a band of Wargs and mercenary Orcs with the help of the resourceful wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a convocation of Eagles. After a brief respite with the shape shifter Beorn the company continues its journey following a treacherous path through Mirkwood Forest sans Gandalf, who departs to determine the doings of the Necromancer. Except for Bilbo, who vanishes using the magic ring he took from Gollum, the company is captured by elf warriors Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and taken to their king Thranduil (Lee Pace) deep in the wood. Bilbo breaks the dwarves out of their cells and sends them down river via wine barrels to Laketown, which lies in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain. With the help of Bard (Luke Evans) the company dodges the corrupt Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and makes its way to the mountain. Thorin sends Bilbo into the dragon’s lair to find the Arkenstone, a precious family heirloom, but the hobbit must first match wits with the dreaded Smaug (the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch). Like the film’s first installment, writers Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro pack the tale with so much extra material it feels as though J.R.R. Tolkien’s modest book plays only a small part in the whole. At least this time around director Jackson’s brisk pacing allows the film to carry its excess girth with a modicum of grace. Nevertheless, despite excellent special effects (Smaug is a jaw-dropping marvel) and an appealing cast, this excess diminishes the heart of the story. Here the filmmakers want the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves to have the same emotional and world-altering heft as Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But Tolkien’s “enchanting prelude” cannot support that much weight, and the film smothers the considerable charm of its source material.
Friday, January 3, 2014
Excess is the subject and style of Martin Scorsese’s new film based on the memoir of and by Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street broker who spent much of the ‘90s bilking investors out of millions before his indictment for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998. We first meet Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in October 1987 as an eager up-and-comer mentored by veteran Mark Hanna (a deliciously unhinged Matthew McConaughey) just before Black Monday hits. This sends the newbie desperately reeling to a penny stock company where he thrives by selling junk to unwary investors. From this success he gains a willing student in nebbishy Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and soon gathers a motley crew of the ethically-challenged with visions of dollar signs dancing in their collective heads, including his accountant father Max (Rob Reiner) and friend Brad (Jon Bernthal), to form Stratton Oakmont. Along the way he acquires beautiful, high maintenance wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and the unwanted attention of Patrick Denham (an underused Kyle Chandler) of the SEC. In between Belfort’s meteoric rise and fall we are treated to a cavalcade of debauchery that would give Bacchus pause, including sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (the soundtrack is stellar), as well as a helicopter crash and a shipwreck. Writer Terence Winter consciously apes the criminal confidential structure of Scorsese’s classic GOODFELLAS, but the source material never feels substantial enough to earn comparison. Nevertheless director Scorsese attacks his subject with vitality but relies too heavily on unpruned improvisation, contributing to a bloated run time. A sequence in which Belfort and Azoff cope with the delayed effect of Quaaludes, however, is a minor masterpiece of physical comedy. DiCaprio gives a fearless, full-throttle performance, and Hill makes an apt foil. Surprisingly the filmmakers refrain from moral judgment and, had this been released before the 2008 crash, it may have felt daring. Instead, in 2013 as we watch Belfort, now a “chastened” motivational speaker, demonstrate his sales technique to a crowd of eager acolytes at film’s end, the restraint feels like a cop-out.