Tag Archives: Biography films

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Director-Mel Gibson

Starring-Andrew Garfield

Reviewed June 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Hacksaw Ridge is considered somewhat of a comeback film for troubled director Mel Gibson, having not directed a film in over ten years. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Andrew Garfield). While the film has a few minor flaws, and despite being yet another exhausting war film, Hacksaw Ridge is quite powerful, mostly because of the warmth and convictions that Garfield breathes into the central character, and real life hero, Desmond Doss. The film also leans anti-war and pacifistic, needed components in these troubled times.

During World War II, Desmond is a young man living in Virginia. With a brother around the same age, they deal with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive mother. Desmond realizes he has a talent for medical care and, after falling in love with a small town nurse, he decides to enlist in the Army as a non combat medic. After refusing to use weapons and train on Saturdays, he is met with contempt by his commanding officers and fellow recruits. When, inevitably, Doss and his troops are deployed to the Pacific theater during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss becomes a hero when he saves numerous lives on the frightening  “Hacksaw Ridge” in courageous form.

For the first half or so of the film (save for a peculiar opening battle sequence that comes into play during the second half of the film), the action largely either takes place in Desmond’s hometown  of Virginia or at a basic training facility.  We get to know a bit about Desmond’s childhood experiences, his love life, and his love of country and duty. His father, a retired military man himself is damaged- he drinks, beats on his wife, and hits the boys, though Gibson tones down the abuse by not showing much of it. He saves the real gore for later in the film.

The film during the earlier portions has a very mainstream, safe feel to it and I found more than a couple of aspects to nitpick. Desmond’s fellow training recruits are laced with too often used stereotypical, stock characters- the brooding one, the cocky one nicknamed “Hollywood” for his good looks and tendency to walk around naked, the funny one, the strange one, the list goes on and on. Predictably, drill Sergeant Howell (played by Vince Vaughn, now parlaying from comedy roles to drama) is tough as nails. This is a character we have seen in dozens of war films before it and it feels stale as do all of the characters. Some of the jokes used are cheap one-liners like, “we are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” to describe new surroundings- Duh, really?. Additionally, there is glaring machismo in the first half that is a negative to the film and it makes the film feel like nothing more than standard fare.

However, the second half of Hacksaw Ridge really drew me in- much more than the first half did. Now in Okinawa, the film grips a much darker tone with the inclusion of battle scenes, some very gruesome with the loss of limbs and life. Technically speaking, the cinematography and camera work are shaky and move very quickly, causing an effective shift from the sun and peace of the United States to the dark and fog of unfamiliar territory.  A sweet scene between Desmond and brooding former rival, Smitty Ryker, inside a foxhole, is wonderful as we get to know each character much better within that one scene. Both men discuss their pasts and grow a new affection for one another. It is humanistic and character driven and thereby makes the film much more powerful.

Andrew Garfield is a marvel in the film and deserves the attention received for the role. Coming into his own as an actor after suffering hiccups with Spider Man, he has thankfully returned to character driven and empathetic roles. The role of Desmond is a truly heroic role for him and he is wonderfully cast.

A war film with a distinct anti-war message, Hacksaw Ridge  is overall a “guy’s film” with the female characters taking a backseat to the men, and suffers from some tried and true aspects, and some of the hairstyles seem awfully 2016, but in the end the film depicts a wonderful human being and tells his heroic story, so that makes the film a good watch.

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Director-Arthur Penn

Starring-Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway

Reviewed March 25, 2017

Grade: A

Bonnie and Clyde is an excellent 1967 crime drama that is not only a great film, but successfully, and surprisingly wound up influencing an entire generation, becoming somewhat of a rallying cry for the youth generation of the time. Released in a tumultuous period in history (the Vietnam war, the Sexual Revolution, and Civil Rights), the film fits the times and also was groundbreaking in its use of violence, blood, and sex. The film holds up tremendously well to this day and is beloved by intelligent film lovers everywhere.

The film begins with snapshots of the real Bonnie and Clyde- a duo of bank robbers who rampaged the southwest during the Great Depression.  Set in steamy Texas, circa 1930’s, the film tells their story. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) when he tries to steal her mother’s car one hot day. Instantly infatuated with each other, the steamy duo team up and become partners in crime. Over time they enlist the help of others and become more successful bank robbers with the stakes rising with each heist. Rounding out the crew of criminals are gas-station attendant, C.W. Moss, and Clyde’s older brother Buck, played by Gene Hackman, along with his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), an innocent-minded, and sometimes hysterical, preacher’s wife.

Bonnie and Clyde is a unique film in many different ways- the quick-cut editing style influenced Sam Peckinpah in his films to come, and the film uses a fast paced rat-a- tat-tat style that symbolizes gunfire-a major element of the film. Blood spurts from victims bodies in a style never before seen on the big screen and led to many film makers comfort with using increased violence. You could say that Bonnie and Clyde took away the innocence of Hollywood films and shook all of the traditional elements inside out.

The conclusion of the film is one of the greatest in cinematic history. Far from an idyllic, happy ending, traditional with films in those days, the law finally catches up with Bonnie and Clyde with grim results for the pair, and their demise is gruesome, but true to form. We have fallen in love with the characters so their hasty exit from this world is tough to stomach and as they writhe and twitch with each gunshot wound, the bullets pummeling the bodies, the scene is a difficult one to watch.

The love story between Bonnie and Clyde is intense, yet sweet, and the casting of Beatty and Dunaway is spot on. Smoldering with sexuality- as Bonnie fondles Clyde’s gun who does not see this as a phallic symbol- their personal relationship is fraught with stamina and emotional energy. The two actors feed off of each other and fill the scenes with gusto. Their chemistry is part of what makes the film so great.

One of the best scenes is the shoot ’em up showdown at a ranch where the group of robbers is hiding out- the scene laden with intensity and violence. As Buck is mortally wounded, Blanche is blinded and captured, soon to make a grave mistake in revealing one of the others identities. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. barely escape with their lives and their antics from this point become bloodier and bloodier. The cat and mouse play during this scene make it the most suspenseful of them all.

Amid all of the violence, a wonderful scene exists when Bonnie and Clyde meet up at a secret location with Bonnie’s mother. A local townswoman and non-actress was cast in the pivotal role of Bonnie’s mother and the scene is an emotional experience. The woman’s kindness and sensibility and the sheer “regular person” she encompasses humanizes Bonnie and Clyde, and in ominous fashion, their downfall is soon to occur.

A heavily influential film, Bonnie and Clyde is a film that is still quite relevant, especially for those who appreciate good film, and rich, intelligently written characters, who are flawed, yet humanistic, layered with complexities. This is what director, Penn, carves out, and the film is an all time Hollywood classic.

Sully-2016

Sully-2016

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart

Reviewed March 10, 2017

Grade: B

I think most film critics would agree that each modern film directed by Clint Eastwood would accurately be described as compelling films yet safe films and the 2016 Eastwood offering, Sully, fits into both of these categories in snug fashion- just as Sully feels like a snug film. Everything seems to fit into a nice package by the time the credits roll and while the film is sympathetic and has leanings of a character study, it is also shrouded in a wholesomeness that is incredibly safe and “Hollywood”. This is not a knock or a demerit towards the film as it is very good and well made with a high budget, but edgy is not its thing in the least and it might have gone for a bit more grit.

The quite recent perilous United Airways flight 1549 that now famous Captain Sully successfully landed into New York’s frigid  Hudson river one January morning, is recounted in the film. Tom Hanks plays the role of the subdued and unassuming hero to perfection as his calm demeanor and grounded persona makes him quite a likable chap to say nothing of the fact of saving 155 lives aboard the would be doomed flight that day.

Instead of going in a purely linear direction, building up the events (gravitating passengers, takeoff) in sequential order, until the inevitable crash, Eastwood wisely decides to begin directly after the crash has already happened.  Captain Sully, clearly jarred by the events, is startled awake by nightmares as he dreams of crashing into midtown Manhattan instead of safely landing the jet. The hero is clearly beginning to suffer from symptoms of PTSD. He is kept in New York City for days on both a press tour, interview after interview, as well as being questioned by The National Transportation Safety Board, who wonder why Captain Sully did not return to a nearby airport for an emergency landing as simulated computer recreations show that he could have. This leads to both Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) put under a microscope and questioned.

I was a bit caught off guard, and getting slightly bored, as the film takes about thirty minutes to even focus on the actual crash or show and airplane scene, rather building up the events by focusing on Sully and Skiles mental health, but in retrospect this is actually a wise decision by Eastwood. The entire film in itself is barely over ninety minutes total so the action does come fast and furious mid-stream.

Still, the film is not quite all that it could have been. Despite the potential horrific consequences faced with an airplane blowing both engines due to the flocks of birds, I never got many extremely perilous moments during the film. In fact, the danger scenes as Sully navigates the plane into the river, while technically well done, lack much in the way of punch. Sure, there are a few quick shots of passengers praying or appearing frightened, but we never get to know any of the passengers very well. A “don’t blink or you might miss it” scene of an elderly mother and her daughter shopping for a snow globe at the airport or three men rushing to catch the plane in order to catch a golf game in Charlotte are not enough for the audience to become to enveloped in their characters. In fact, they almost seem thrown in last minute as a way of personalizing the passengers.

To my mention above, the point of the film certainly surrounds Sully (and arguably it should; nothing wrong with that) and to a lesser degree Skiles, the supporting characters contain no character development and even Skiles’s personal life is not explored well. Scully’s wife is only seen by way of phone conversations (played by Laura Linney) that he is happily married with two daughters. There is brief talk of some money trouble, but the wife is underdeveloped. Additionally, the NTSB agents are portrayed as quite antagonistic towards Sully and Skiles (rumors abound that this was embellished for movie making), which makes sense.

I enjoyed the ending of the film- in tandem with the credits rolling- of seeing not only the real-life Sully, but his wife, and the passengers and crew of the real United Airlines flight 1549, through interviews and photographs. This offering in true life biography films is now a standard feature to look forward to as it brings a humanistic conclusion to the story just watched.

The focus of the film centering on Captain Sully is fine by me- the man is a hero- but as a film, and more than a biography, it might have added depth to have richer supporting characters and a stronger background of the man that is Sully. A few rushed childhood aviator and battle plane scenes seemed rather out of place. Still, as a whole the film is nice and quite watchable, just nothing that will set the world on fire or be remembered as much more than a decent film based on a true story.

The Lady in the Van-2015

The Lady in the Van-2015

Director-Nicholas Hytner

Starring-Maggie Smith

Reviewed January 19, 2017

Grade: B

As far as I am concerned Maggie Smith can do no wrong and I will happily enjoy watching her in anything- anytime. Around in film since the 1950’s this lady deserves starring film role.  Utterly distinctive she is- as legendary actress Bette Davis was- Smith has a style purely her own- her facial expressions and exasperated gasps make her one of the great film stars. The Lady in the Van is specifically made for her, I have no doubt, but besides her talents the movie is a decent offering, but very safe. It lacks the depth that it could have had.

Written by Alan Bennett, the film tells the true story of Mary Sheperd, an elderly woman living in a broken down van, who befriends Bennett, and eventually lives in his driveway for fifteen years before her inevitable death. Set in northern London, a quaint and gorgeous part of the world, Mary harbors a deep secret involving her van, and is revealed to have been a star piano pupil in her day.

Smith has no qualms about playing unflattering characters. Sheperd is grizzled, abrupt, and rude, but Smith puts a lot of heart into her too, so that the audience senses her vulnerability and falls in love with her. With her sad protruding blue eyes, wrinkles for miles, and chirpy voice, Smith is fantastic at giving her all to the role. The rest of the cast, however, adequately play their roles, but are limited and out-shadowed at every turn. Most notable is the wasted talents of Jim Broadbent, appearing in a small and quite meaningless role.

Besides Smith’s brilliant performance, The Lady in the Van lacks any layers. The story is well and good, but we never see many of Mary’s struggles- how does she afford food? how is she not sick? The film skims over the darker elements of being homeless in favor of a lighthearted tale. Fine, but what about her inevitable issues?

Other less important stories are mentioned but not fully explored. Alex speaks to what looks like his twin brother, but is it his alter ego? Young men come and go at night, so the presumption is that Alex is gay, and in the end we do see Alex living with a man, but why is this so vaguely written? Why mention it at all? This story would have been interesting to delve deeper into especially given the fact that the real Alex Bennett wrote the film.

Other side stories are introduced, but remain on the surface. Alex’s mother clearly suffers from Alzheimer’s, but this is not explored much, and Mary’s brother, who institutionalized her at a young age, offers no explanation as to why this was done- obviously she had mental illness- but the brother’s motivations are not clear. I wanted more from the supporting characters than was offered.

Still, the bottom line is that The Lady in the Van is a Maggie Smith film, and any film in which she has the lead role, is pretty damned good for that reason alone.

Jackie-2016

Jackie-2016

Director-Pablo Larrain

Starring-Natalie Portman

Reviewed January 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Natalie Portman clearly carries the 2016 biographical-drama film based on the life on Jackie Kennedy, and the events directly following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The film is not a retread of conspiracy theories nor does it feature more than a few glimpses brief of JFK himself, but rather, it is Jackie’s story and what she faced throughout the ordeal. The film wisely uses flashbacks to show the famous tour of the White House, which Jackie gave shortly before the President’s death. A bravura performance by Portman as Jackie.

Director Pablo Larrain, primarily known for achievements with foreign language films (the Chilean film, No comes to mind), rather than the American History genre, is successful in his work with direction. The film is a gloomy one, both in tone and with the terrific brooding musical score-composed by Mica Levi, with its loud, abrupt  sound effects. The overall feel of the film is foreboding and dark.

The main activity is told through a famous Life interview that Jackie Kennedy gave a week after the assassination- the reporter was Theodore H. White, who was slightly less than sympathetic in demeanor toward the First Lady. Held in Massachusetts, Jackie is away from the limelight in peaceful tranquility, but is still pained.

Portman is very successful at revealing two sides of Jackie Kennedy to the audience. Not simply a smiling debutante that she always portrayed to the world publicly, Jackie was also a complex, feisty woman, who vehemently wanted the world to see how brutal the assassination was, how proud she was of her husband, and how she would not back down from holding a lavish and public funeral procession for her deceased husband. Jackie was met with harsh criticisms and defiance for desiring to do so. A proud woman- she did not wish to run off and hide from the terrible events that occurred.

Jackie is mostly a quiet, introspective film. Much of the film is Jackie being interviewed, or flashbacks of her giving the White House tour. Typically Portman plays Jackie as prim, proper, and demure- she is always filled with class and grace. In one riveting sequence though, we see Jackie walking through the White House, smoking cigarettes, and drinking vodka. She appears alone and vulnerable, having just lost her husband. Portman embraces her pain and the audience grieves with her- she is alone in more ways than one. We see her not only as a First Lady, but as a sad woman,  in her agony. Portman is really fantastic in her mannerisms and tone of voice.

I loved the continuous usage of flashbacks to tell the story, but the film does not delve into an unneeded history lesson- we all know what happened- the point of the film is to answer curiosity about Jackie.

What is most effective is the focus on Jackie’s reactions and how Jackie handled the events. In a grotesque scene, rivaling any horror film, we are right there with Jackie in the car that fateful day as a shot rings out, blowing JFK’s head wide open. Sinking into Jackie’s lap, she later candidly describes to the Life magazine reporter, how she attempted to hold the remains of his head together. We then see her wandering around, her beautiful pink suit smeared with blood.

A quiet yet compelling and mesmerizing film, Portman is the main draw. She channels emotions of heartbreak, sadness, and composure. A fantastic First Lady, Jackie always was graceful and proper, but Portman shows another side to her, very few people knew of. In addition to this fine acting, Jackie is a dark, brooding film that successfully tells this woman’s story.

The Last Station-2009

The Last Station-2009

Director-Michael Hoffman

Starring-Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren

Reviewed February 17, 2010

Grade: A-

The Last Station is a wonderful film. It contains many worthwhile elements- history, culture, good drama, and great acting. Starring seasoned veterans such as Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, the fantastic acting is as good as it gets.

The film tells the story of the final year in the life of famous Russian author Tolstoy and the relationship he has with his family- specifically his wife, Sofya, and his disciples. The year is 1910 and Tolstoy is ailing. He has had a stormy yet passionate relationship with his wife for decades, which is explored in the film. The film’s main point is of greed and in-fighting for control of a great literary figures legacy and money.

The main strong point of The Last Station is the relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya- both characters are headstrong, opinionated, but also madly in love, which lead to many sessions of battle.

This is a film of substance. Director Michael Hoffman also mixes some humor in with heavy drama. At the conclusion you might need to use some hankies.

The Fighter-2010

The Fighter-2010

Director-David O. Russell

Starring-Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale

Reviewed December 28, 2010

Grade: A-

The Fighter is an excellent film. Being a sports film there are the inevitable cliches, which make the entire sports film genre rather predictable. But this film is a very well done story and based on real-life figures (the Ward brothers). Tremendous acting by Wahlberg, Bale, and Melissa Leo, in the role of Mama Ward- a role of a lifetime.

The telling is a true story of Mickey Ward, a boxer from Massachusetts and his battle to stardom, dealings with family members, and his love life. The characters may be ever slightly overdone in the rugged, rough, Bostonian way, almost appearing New Jersey-Soprano-ish instead of New England, but the message is clear- they are in the boxing world and tough guys (and gals).

This film is much more character driven than many similar sports movies. thank goodness, and the casting is spot on. There is the inevitable final boxing match and the standard reaction shots, but again sports films are riddled with cliches. The real win here is with the characters layered, complexities as they love and hate each other.

Bale and Leo deserved their Oscars for their respective roles, specifically Bale for the shocking weight loss and spot on character imitation.

Loving-2016

Loving-2016

Director-Jeff Nichols

Starring-Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga

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Reviewed November 26, 2016

Grade: A

Loving is a quiet film. Subdued and poignant, it is an important, historic story to tell, and jarring to be transported back to the 1950’s southern style, where interracial marriage was not only illegal, but children of interracial couples were barely considered human beings, to say nothing of the views of their parents, specifically by law enforcement. Sadly, circa 2016, we all should be aware that racism is still alive and well in the United States and this film is a reminder of how much further we need to go. The true story of the landmark1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case is the basis for this film.

The time is 1958 Virginia, and a sweet, working class couple-Richard and Mildred-are very much in love. Richard-white, and Mildred-black, are met with some sideways glances around town, but generally have a strong supportive family and friend structure, although both families are quite poor. They enjoy spending time with friends in bars and racing cars. When Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard purchases a plot of land for them and asks Mildred to marry him. Despite the challenges this will create, they are wed in Washington D.C. Once they return to Virginia, they are arrested for violating anti-miscegenation laws, prohibiting interracial marriage. The couple eventually sue the state of Virginia, leading to a unanimous Supreme Court ruling a decade later.

As a film, Loving is thoughtful and introspective. The audience questions who are we to decide who someone loves? This can apply to same sex couples as easily as interracial couples. The film, led by director Jeff Nichols, creates many quiet scenes of thoughtfulness on the faces of leads Edgerton and Negga. Furthermore, several scenes of peril encompass the film. The Loving’s are in constant threat of being discovered as they secretly return to their forbidden home state to give birth to their son- only wanting Richard’s mother to perform the birth. The tense scene where Mildred is dropped off on a deserted back road is well shot- the camera constantly focusing on the road and the threat of a car coming by at any moment.

Edgerton, a fantastic actor and director, gives a tremendous performance as a quiet, stoic, blue-collar man, madly in love with his wife and seeing nothing wrong with it, simply because it is not the norm. He is poorly educated, but Edgerton gives him underlying intelligence and a basic understanding of cherished love and more than once calmly uttering “but I love my wife.” To him it is that simple. Richard will also use any measures necessary to protect his family, as any man surely would. Edgerton’s squinting blue eyes portray suspicion, warmth, and love.

Negga is equally compelling as calm and loyal Mildred. One might expect Mildred to finally explode with rage as she has to put up with obstacle after obstacle, raising three kids in an environment she does not want, yet she never does. Negga embodies the character with sweetness and wide-eyed passion and longing for a better life. Mildred tries not to get her hopes up with each impending court date, but Negga successfully portrays the character with many different emotions and complexities. My favorite scenes of hers simply involve Mildred gazing at her husband- her eyes filled with love and pride.

Nichols wisely does not spend very much time in the courtroom and this is a positive with the film. Sure, we do get the occasional scene of Richard and Mildred facing the court, but the film does not go a different route than necessary. Despite a landmark decision coming from the Loving’s marriage, the film is really a love story between a good man and a good woman, who just happen to be of different races. What a lesson every viewer can learn from this film.

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Director-F. Gary Gray

Starring-O’Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti

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Reviewed November 12, 2016

Grade: B-

The rap group N.W.A. was a highly influential and controversial unit to emerge from Compton, California in the late 1980’s and featured soon to be solo rap artists Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Another member, Eazy-E, rounds out the trio that is featured in this film along with their manager Jerry, played by Paul Giamatti. Straight Outta Compton tells their story.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced the film along with Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, and Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. portrays Ice Cube. The film is interesting as a way of learning about the rap group and their rise to and fall from stardom, but the film has a very slick and glossy style that detracts from the grittiness of the subject matter- it feels very Hollywood and overly produced. Especially, since the language is atrocious- almost overly so, as if the point was being shoved down the audiences throat. Additionally, the acting, except for Giamatti, is not too impressive. Lastly, the violence portrayed and the gang stuff seemed a bit stereotypical for my tastes.

The film begins in 1986 and we meet the trio of friends. Determined to provide a raw, honest style of poetry to their music, they eventually meet their manager, Jerry, who takes them under his wing and leads them to their success. Predictably, with success comes jealousy and contract disputes. The film delves into this subject matter as the partying and drug use, womanizing, and violence, all lead to the rap groups constant struggles with the police force, especially since one of their top songs is anti-police.

Impressive is the real-life footage used of the 1991 beating of taxi-driver Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department and the subsequent riots that occurred after the officers were found not guilty of any wrong doing. The racial tension that existed in this city at that time was interesting to revisit and palpable to the films subject matter.

The acting was noticeable to me and not in a good way. The young actor who played Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was fine, but the others (Jackson) and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E were average at best. In any of their dramatic scenes where they appear to be angry, it just does not work, and the scenes lack grizzle and intensity. Conversely, any dramatic scene that held any gusto belonged to Giamatti, who was excellent in his part. In some ways he made the others seem better, but in other ways their inexperience was evident as compared to his. In any event he only made the scenes he appeared in more genuine. Early in the film, when Jerry lashes out at police officers, it is a meaty scene and forceful.

The film makers certainly went for a message of violence and swearing in this film, but despite these qualities Straight Outta Compton still seems safe and overly produced. This may have had to do with the bright, slick cameras used. In this way it had a studio, high budget appearance that does not completely work. I wanted it to look grittier and dirtier and see more of the seedy side of the business instead of it merely being explained to me.

Women in this film are not treated very well and the characters who are the girlfriends are written sympathetically, but not given much of substance to sink their teeth into. Contrasting this, Death Row Records CEO “Suge” Knight is portrayed as a maniacal, violent man. Straight Outta Compton is clearly a guys film.

I had difficulty relating to any of the central characters except perhaps Giamatti’s and it becomes unclear if Jerry really had been ripping off the members of the rap group or if that is merely their perception. He really seems to care about the members of the outfit, so that part is undefined.

Perhaps this film might hold more appeal for fans of N.W.A., which I never was, and rap is not my preferred style of music, but I can appreciate the biographical way the film explains the trio’s story, ups and downs, reunions, death, and violence, but this film could have been much better and is flawed by its over stylized filming.

Howl-2010

Howl-2010

Director-Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Starring-James Franco

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Reviewed March 5, 2011

Grade: B+

Howl is a compelling courtroom drama/unique biopic starring James Franco (wonderfully cast). In fact, this role, despite being in a small film with little recognition, cements Franco’s talents as an edgy actor- willing to tackle challenging work- rather than sticking to mainstream, safe fare. Franco has become one of my favorite young actors. He is so diverse and believable in any role he takes on.

The story is about 1950s poet-Allen Ginsberg- and his trial to determine whether his poems were art or rather should be banned for being indecent. Much of the action transpires inside the courtroom and the film wisely mixes animation (in scenes of Ginsberg reading his poetry) in between traditional scenes.

The film allows the viewer to get to know the characteristics of Ginsberg- he was troubled (his sexuality, delusions, stints in a mental hospital), for sure, but also had a true, authentic love of writing and of poetry, which is inspiring in an age of digital technology. Sometimes good old fashioned words are the truest art. Interesting little film.

Jimi: All Is By My Side-2014

Jimi: All Is By My Side-2014

Director-John Ridley

Starring-Andre Benjamin

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Reviewed September 30, 2016

Grade: A-

Jimi: All Is By My Side was not quite the film that I was expecting it to be- it was better! I was not expecting drivel certainly, the film did receive a Best Male Lead Independent Spirit award nomination for Andre Benjamin in the title role, after all. But I expected an overview of the rise and fall of famed rocker Jimi Hendrix. Instead I was treated to a more introspective piece than I imagined. The film is a British production.

Interestingly, the film was denied use of any Jimi Hendrix songs familiar to audiences, but only songs written in 1966 and 1967. This surprisingly turns out to be a positive to the film.

The awesome achievement of this film is its non-conformity and being an independent film, lots of freedoms were undoubtedly given.  This is a good thing. Had this film been targeted for a run at the local multiplex, it may have been a run of the mill affair, focusing on the star and the star only. It is also shot in a less than glossy way, giving it an almost grainy, gritty look that I found added something.

Impressively, the supporting characters, specifically three females that Hendrix has relationships with throughout his initial rise to fame, are prominently featured, and the story shifts at times to their perspectives and feelings, not just on Hendrix’s. The film does not focus on Hendrix’s untimely death.

We meet Hendrix (compellingly played by Benjamin) performing guitar in a sparsely attended bar in New York City. He is discovered by Linda, girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, as she becomes both smitten with Hendrix and also recognize his immense talents. Slowly, he is discovered (mainly in London) and rises to fame. However, the film is not solely focused on his success, but rather his personal life.

Besides Linda, Hendrix becomes involved with volatile groupie and fixture among the 1960’s London music scene, Kathy, and cultured American Ida. Instead of the female characters being written as one-dimensional and dizzy, all three are quite intelligent and layered. While each has feelings for the star, they are forces to be reckoned with in their own right, and we grow to care about their characters as individuals.

A scene involving Jimi violently beating girlfriend Kathy with a telephone during an argument has been refuted by friends as being fictitious- Hendrix was known as a gentle, peaceful man. A controversy has emerged as to the accuracy of this film in general, but I thought it quite introspective and fascinating.

Joy-2015

Joy-2015

Director-David O. Russell

Starring- Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro

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Reviewed September 23, 2016

Grade: B-

Joy is a safe, mainstream, female centered 2015 film, a biopic clearly written for current star Jennifer Lawrence. She was nominated for a Best Actress academy award for her role and she clearly carries the film.  Still, despite her very good performance, the film is really nothing special and is written in a ho-hum manner. It is simply not very compelling and the supporting characters are not utilized as they could have been. Despite being based on a true story, the writing is lazy and the plot far-fetched. I expected more.

The film is another collaboration between director, David O. Russell, and big stars of the time- Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro- all used in previous Russell films.

Lawrence plays Joy- a struggling Long Island mother of two- divorced form her husband (who still lives in the basement of her house), with multiple family members living with her, forming a support unit.  The sense is that Joy is the bread-winner of the family. The story is narrated by Joy’s grandmother, who she calls Mimi (Diane Ladd). Mimi always had a feeling Joy would be a success and we see a few scenes of Joy as a child, surviving her dysfunctional family and her parents disputes. DeNiro plays her womanizing father, divorced from her mother (Virginia Madsen), who lies around in bed all day watching soap operas. Cooper plays opportunist, QVC executive, Neil Walker, who takes a liking to Joy and helps her achieve her dream as a successful business woman after she patents an idea for a new, high powered mop.

Enjoyable to me was the authenticity of the time period- circa 1989- and through the 1990’s- as we see Joy working for Eastern airlines, a company that would fold several years later. Also authentic were the automobiles of the time as well as the dress and hairstyles. These points the film does very well. And how cute was it to see famous daytime television stars such as Susan Lucci, portraying soap opera stars, as Joy’s mother lives her life vicariously through their tangled and bizarre soap lives. Several scenes occur on the television set as we get glimpses of the soap stories.

The film as a whole, though, feels too tidy and neat. Predictably, Joy faces obstacles on her way to success.  Already struggling financially, she takes out a second mortgage on her house. At first she cannot give away mops, let alone sell them. On the brink of giving up, she finagles a meeting with execs who laugh at her product, but Walker is there to give her a break because she has a pretty face. Predictably, things do no go well at first, and there is a rather dull sub-plot about a company in Texas trying to steal Joy’s idea. When she goes and threatens them they immediately back down and obediently give in to her every whim. This is both unrealistic and uninteresting. I much rather would have seen a messy back and forth and/or some court scenes, but the Texas company is portrayed as nothing but the villain.

The writing has either plot holes or contain missed opportunities altogether and many questions abound. Despite many scenes of Joy’s past we end up knowing little. Her entire family lives with her in a suburban Long Island house- why does Joy own the house and not her mother or grandmother? Why does Joy have a rivalry with her half sister, Peggy? Why does Joy’s father own an auto garage and still need to stay with Joy, presumably always broke? Why is Joy’s mother mostly in bed? Madsen as the mother is rather cartoonish and unnecessary to the plot as is Ladd- a dynamic actress given little of substance.  I did not buy DeNiro as a cad nor as in love with his wealthy new girlfriend Trudy (though great seeing Isabella Rossellini in the part), conveniently there to be Joy’s financer.

Despite an enormously talented cast, which is fantastic to see, most of the supporting parts could have been played by any actors, as the roles are not all that challenging, and the film itself is for certain a vehicle to showcase Jennifer Lawrence, David O. Russell’s current “it” girl.

This is not a slight towards Jennifer Lawrence as she is the best part of the film.  She successfully portrays Joy as a sympathetic, strong willed, fair, decent human being, with enormous struggles, and a blue collar sensibility. Great performance, but I wish the writing and the other talents involved in the film were given better material.

Lincoln-2012

Lincoln-2012

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

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Reviewed December 5, 2012

Grade: A

Lincoln is a 2012 film, which received a slew of Academy award nominations. There appear to be differing opinions about the film itself, however Lincoln has audiences divided over whether it’s a brilliant film or a snore-fest. My opinion leans decisively toward the former.

I recognize that (especially the first half) the film is slow moving, but I found it engrossing and well made. Even the subtle aspects (costumes, art direction, lighting) are masterfully done. I found Daniel Day Lewis’s (Abraham Lincoln) lengthy stories intriguing, not dull, and found it to be a wonderful history lesson.

Steven Spielberg does what he does best- he creates a clearly Hollywood film done well. He does do controversial, shocking, or experimental, but mainstream fare is his forte.

Apparently, this film is not for everyone, but if you can find the patience it will be an enlightening experience- if nothing else, a thing or two may be learned.

Trumbo-2015

Trumbo-2015

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane

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Reviewed July 11, 2016

Grade: B+

Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, who is suddenly in everything these days, is a 2015 biography drama about Dalton Trumbo, a  famed, talented Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950’s. Cranston is certainly center stage in the film, and very good. The film itself has a crisp, glossy look and excited me with its ode to old Hollywood and it’s mixture of real-life interspersed newsreels. Great stuff for a classic film buff!

The sets, costumes, and art direction travel back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, but throughout I had a constant feeling of a modern film dressed to resemble an older one and I never felt true authenticity- still, a very good effort and a well above average Hollywood film.  A treat for cinema lovers or even those folks interested in seeing some classic black and white footage- a young Ronald Reagan is seen testifying, presumably against those feared to be communists.

Following World War II there was a panic throughout the United States, including liberal Hollywood, to oust anyone with a thinking deemed “un-American”. If this sounds like a dated way of thinking now, the United States was not always as diverse as it is in 2016. The infamous “Hollywood 10”, included ten screenwriters who were Communists- or at least had communist beliefs and sympathies. The story in Trumbo obviously focuses on Dalton Trumbo, a quirky screenwriter, always with a classy cigarette, and holder, in hand. His story is told and the audience sees his passion for fairness in the United States- he sees nothing wrong with being a communist.

The supporting characters are excellent. John Goodman, in the role of Frank King, B movie director, who gives Trumbo a chance to write under a pseudonym, and Helen Mirren and David James Elliott, as villainous Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, respectively. Personally, I felt Diane Lane could have been given more to do as loyal wife of Trumbo, but sadly, Hollywood is not a woman’s world.

If I were to have any criticism of this film it is that Trumbo is mainstream fare and not high on the edgy factor, which is only a mild complaint. There is nothing wrong with that, but the film screams Hollywood branded.  For instance, throughout Trumbo’s two year prison sentence he faces no real threats, no beatings, no abuse, nothing really. He emerges from prison with a few gray hairs and life goes on. When Trumbo’s friend battles, and finally succumbs to lung cancer, there is no long suffering scenes, making the film on the soft side. Again, more an observation of the type of film Trumbo is more than a complaint.

The scenes of Trumbo with his three children as the film periodically ages the children with older actors, are touching, especially scenes with his oldest daughter, Nikola, are sweet. She grows up to be just like her father. Trumbo earnestly explains to young Nikola, why he is a communist and asks what she would do if someone else was going without- her response is to share- a simplistic and sweet scene. Ah, through the eyes of a child the world is so innocent.

Trumbo goes back to Hollywood of old- clean, glamorous, extravagant, both in the way the film is made, and also the retro use of old footage. It is a non threatening film that simply explains the story of Dalton Trumbo in a safe, yet thorough way. I enjoyed the film tremendously.

Behind The Candelabra-2013

Behind the Candelabra-2013

Director-Steven Soderbergh

Starring-Michael Douglas, Matt Damon

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Reviewed July 14, 2013

Grade: A

I thoroughly enjoyed this HBO film based on the life of Liberace, whom I was too young to know much about before viewing this movie. The excesses of his lavish lifestyle are explored completely.

The standouts are Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who are both exceptional in their portrayals of Liberace and his young lover. Both were unrecognizable at times and completely embodied their characters. I can’t attest to the absolute truth to the story, but the HBO film does a nice job of mixing joy, passion, heartbreak, sadness, and competition throughout.

The story undoubtedly bears a likeness to many Hollywood troubled relationships past and present.

The Danish Girl-2015

The Danish Girl-2015

Director-Tom Hooper

Starring-Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

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Reviewed December 29, 2015

Grade: A-

The Danish Girl tells the loosely based story of Danish painters and married couple Lili Ebe and Gerda Wegener and recounts Lili’s struggles as the first known recipient of sex reassignment surgery, unheard of at the time that it was (1930). The film is a showcase in terrific acting (Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander especially) and a journey of one person’s struggle with gender identity. The subject matter is quite important and timely as the recent transgender movement has emerged to the forefront in social issues today.

A happy, young couple living in Copenhagen, and married for six years, Gerda and Einar are inseparable and madly in love. They are best friends and help each other with their art. In a pinch because of a female models tardiness, Gerda convinces Einar to stand in for the model, wearing female clothes. This event triggers a lifelong identification as a female named Lili Elbe. Apparently Lili has emerged sporadically since childhood. Through painful self assessment and encouragement from progressive loved ones, Lili decides to go through with a highly experimental and risky sex change operation.

Gushing with sensitivity and tenderness and groundbreaking in a sense, though I bet even moreso if made ten years ago, one feels for both lead characters as it is important to note that they both go through emotional turmoil. It would be easy to lessen Gerda’s emotions and, perhaps with a lesser actress this might have happened, but Vikander (unknown to me before seeing this film) gives an emotional performance that is raw and exudes empathy. One can imagine how they would feel if their spouse identified as the opposite sex. Confusion, blame, anger, sorrow, would all be common reactions. Gerda is strong, brave, and helpful, all the while crumbling beneath the surface. Vikander brings all of this to the screen flawlessly.

Similarly, Redmayne brings depth and empathy to his role.  Redmayne’s Einar is masculine, but there is something sensitive and slightly feminine to him from the start. Was this purposely done to soften the blow? He also appears to be very slightly built. Clearly, Redmayne lost a bit of weight to portray this role and have a softer appearance. Actors can easily dress up in drag, but the emotional investment needs to be there and Redmayne makes the viewer care about Lili a great deal. One is teary-eyed along with Lili as she sees no other choice, but to undergo the risky operation. We see the desperation in Lili’s eyes and this is thanks to Redmayne’s acting skills.

I loved how supportive the characters are in the film. Granted, Einar/Lili and Gerda travel in liberal and progressive circles, but for 1930, this was wonderful to see. Of course, Copenhagen and Paris are open minded cities, but Lili’s childhood friend Hans, a sophisticated, macho guy, offers nothing but support. Same goes for the Doctor taking on Lili’s surgery. These aspects lend to a delicate, peaceful film of encouragement.

To be clear, Lili is not gay, and this is made crystal clear during the film as she meets a gay man and the distinction between them is made. She does, however, identify and feel that she is a woman. She was simply born with the wrong parts.

The greatest aspect of The Danish Girl is its powerhouse acting and compelling subject matter. One’s gender is a given for most, but watching a riveting drama about someone who is at unrest with their gender is eye-opening and still rather taboo. 2015 was a year of progressive transgender films and The Danish Girl is towards the top in its class and gracefulness in dealing with the subject matter in a calm non judgmental way.

 

Steve Jobs-2015

Steve Jobs-2015

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet

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Reviewed November 25, 2015

Grade: B+

Steve Jobs is a name that almost everyone has heard of. Most associate him with Apple products or at least know that he is some sort of technological genius who has influenced the modern world in some fashion- his name is household. The film Steve Jobs presents a slice of his life, mostly focusing on his professional leap to success, but also on his damaged personal life and his inability to stay close to people within his personal circle.

Michael Fassbender plays the title role.   He looks nothing like the real Steve Jobs, but this fact did not bother me. Quite soon it is revealed that Steve Jobs is a competitive, cut-throat, and sometimes unkind man. He is driven, ambitious, and willing to do what it takes to succeed at business. He is also complex and as the film rolls along we witness the complexities of this man, arguably deemed a “genius”.  But where he has flaws is in his personal life as the film makes abundantly clear.

Kate Winslet is excellent in the supporting role she plays. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’s loyal Marketing Executive, she stays in his corner through the years, enduring  ups and downs, and yet their relationship never goes beyond the platonic.  They are colleagues and both are absorbed in their creations. Her character is a bit under-explored as we never are exposed to much of her personal life. Winslet, in a rare “dowdy” role, makes the most of Joanna as she is the type of woman who throws herself into her work at the expense of a private life.

The film is primarily set during the three important software launches. and, predictably, all are filled with issues and stress. The bulk of the first act occurs in 1984, when Jobs and Hoffman struggle and fret during an Apple Macintosh launch in front of an auditorium filled with industry types eager to see the new technology. The entire scene is filled with tension as the new computer will not say “hello” as advertised and Jobs demands lead engineer, Andy Hertzfeld, fix it.  The scene escalates in its intensity. We immediately bear witness to the fact that Steve Jobs is a shark. He is demanding and unlikable and the film is not afraid to stress that fact as the action continues.

We are next introduced to Jobs personal life. A beautiful young woman arrives at his office with a young girl. They are both on the brink of being destitute and thrown out of their home, yet Jobs refuses to help them and coldly calculates the probability that the young girl (Lisa) is biologically not his.

As the film chugs along Steve Jobs has a turbulent relationship with Lisa as the film spans the period of time from 1984-1998. The film is a character study of sorts and we learn the complexities of Jobs. Fassbender gives a nuanced performance and allows the audience to absorb these character traits and ultimately feel emotional sympathy for him.

I admired this character study that is Steve Jobs and feel that I know him quite a bit more, on a human level, than I once did. Perhaps the supporting characters might have been fleshed out a bit more, but in large part, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of a real-life person makes this film a success.

Black Mass-2015

Black Mass-2015

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring-Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton

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Reviewed September 28, 2015

Grade: B+

A dark tale of crime, corruption, and Irish mob ties encompass Black Mass, a crime drama based on the life and times of infamous Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger. Set primarily in Boston, with a segue to sunny Miami during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the film primarily focuses on the intricate dealings between Bulger and childhood friend John Connelly, now FBI, as he uses Bulger as an “informant” to secretly bring down an Italian mafia figure, but slowly becomes more involved in Bulger’s sinister world.

Beginning in 1975, the film is authentic in its use of the styles, cars, and look of the times in Boston during that period. Plausibility is apparent along with powerful acting from top to bottom. The stellar cast of Black Mass, and it is a hefty cast, features an array of well-known and capable actors, which adds a level of realism to the film. Led by Johnny Depp as Whitey himself, Depp gives an eerie, hypnotic performance as his bright blue eyes sparkle in a devious way. Whitey is ruthless and will do whatever is needed to keep power and control. Joel Edgerton, as Connelly, is arguably the lead character in the film, though Depp gets top billing. Edgerton, in real life quite handsome, appears frumpy, and as a regular Joe type. Supporting turns by Benedict Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s powerful Senator brother, is crafty and sleek, but corruption shrouds him. Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Julianne Nicholson portray smaller yet pivotal roles and all do a fine job.

The screenplay is intelligently written. The story itself is quite dark and there is nary a laugh or a light moment throughout. In fact, there are numerous deaths, the victims shot at point blank range, but also two deaths in particular, where the victims suffering is prolonged and the scenes are cringe-worthy. Needless to say the film is very violent and given the subject matter, is riddled with foul language.

One impressive aspect of Black Mass is it is a character driven tale and the fact that it is based on a real-life person obviously adds to this. But not only was Bulger fleshed out, but John Connelly was written very well. Gradually becoming immersed in the crime world as opposed to the world of law, we see Connelly sink deeper and deeper into Bulger’s world, and not so unwillingly either. He loses his wife Marianne (Nicholson) along the way as she tires of the danger and corruption surrounding her. A chilling scene occurs when Bulger confronts Marianne in her bedroom, after observing negative vibes from her, and warns her in a flirtatious way, never to cross him. As he caresses her face and slowly firms his grip, it is a rather frightening scene.

The dialogue is crisp. When Bulger is invited to a steak dinner at Connelly’s house, there is awkward tension at the dinner table. Jovial small talk over the preparation of the delicious marinated steak everyone is eating comes to the forefront as Bulger asks Connelly’s partner to reveal his family secret recipe for the steak that is favorite he has ever eaten. When the partner eagerly confesses the recipe, he is subsequently berated and coldly quizzed as to whether he would give up Bulger’s secrets as easily. This is one of the best scenes in the film.

Comparisons to Goodfellas are evident, but without the fun. I thought of The Departed throughout the viewing as well. I think director Scott Cooper goes for, and successfully achieves, good straight-forward, dark story-telling. Take the number of killings. The organized crime world is a dirty, intense, unkind world and Black Mass portrays this well.

Black Mass is a success on many levels. The superior acting coupled with smart, detailed writing, and a truthfulness creates a very good film. Just be sure to remember it is a heavy one.

Unbroken-2014

Unbroken-2014

Director-Angelina Jolie

Starring-Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

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Reviewed August 1, 2015

Grade: B

Unbroken tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a runner during the World War II period, who was also serving in the military during this tumultuous time in history. His story is one of bravery, courage, and endurance, as he survives a hellish experience in Japanese prisoner of war camps after having crashed in the Pacific Ocean, stranded for 47 days, as if that were not enough to break a man.

Mainstream Hollywood fare to the hilt, this film is surprisingly directed by Angelina Jolie (a woman) and written by the Coen brothers, the latter usually emitting less traditional and more quirky fare than this film. Jolie directs what is arguably a “guys movie” that contains very few women in the cast, and the ones who do appear are either a loving mother or giggling schoolgirl types, so the big names associated with Unbroken surprise me. I would have taken this work as a Clint Eastwood film. Unbroken, which was expected to receive several Oscar nominations, was shut out of the major categories.

Visually, Unbroken is slick, glossy, and shot very well- it looks perfect. The cinematography, sound effects, and costumes look great. The cast of good-looking young men look handsome even while battered and bruised and half starved. While in a way this is a compliment, it is also not one. Unbroken lacks any grittiness and plays it quite safe. Even the scenes of abuse and beatings lack an edge to them.

This is not to say that the film is not good. It is good. I found myself inspired by the lead character of Louis, played by Jack O’Connell, for his resilence during his ordeals. O’Connell gives a very good performance as his motto, “If I can take it, I can make it” is repeated throughout and who will not cheer at his accomplishments? Zamperini, who has traditional Italian parents having relocated to the United States, are strict but fair. Louis’s older brother, Peter, is his best friend and is the person who has the most faith in him. At first Louis is on the verge of becoming a punk, in trouble with the law, if not for the interference of his brother, who gets him interested in the sport of running.

As the years go by and war erupts, Louis embarks on a tour of duty in the military and his plane crashes in the water providing yet another test of courage and stamina. Louis is strong and in many ways always the leader of the group he is intertwined with. The scenes of the three survivors stranded on the raft for days become slightly tedious, but perhaps this is the films intention, as they eat raw fish and raw bird to survive. Much of the remaining action is set in two Japanese war camps as Louis (and others) struggle to survive until the massive war has ended- they do not know if they will live or die.

The central antagonist- a vicious Japanese sergeant named “Bird”, perplexed me. Blatantly targeting Louis and administering cruel beatings and heaping tests of strength upon Louis, presumably out of jealousy because Louis was an Olympic athlete, why did Bird not simply kill him? His motivations were also odd- In one scene, Bird tearfully tells Louis that he knew they would be friends from the beginning and seems to admire him. Bird’s father, going by a photo, seems a hard, mean man. Is this why Bird is so vicious? Bird’s character is not well thought out. Also, every single Japanese character is portrayed in a very negative light, which sadly is common in war movies. Surely, despite being a war, there had to have been a few Japanese people who were not cruel. Character development and depth is not a strong suit of this film.

At the end of the day, Unbroken is a good, solid, war drama with an inspiring message of triumph, faith, and determination. Indeed, a positive message to viewers of all ages. The abuse/torture scenes are tough to watch, but the end result is a feel-good story. The snippets of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of the film are wonderful to watch.

Love and Mercy-2015

Love and Mercy-2015

Director-Bill Pohlad

Starring-John Cusack, Paul Dano

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Reviewed July 17, 2015

Grade: B+

The life and times of the Beach Boys famous and troubled lead singer, Brian Wilson, is finally played out on the big screen (apparently many attempts were made to make a film) as Love and Mercy chronicles his difficult upbringing, unrivaled success, and his interesting life in later years, as he suffered from schizophrenia, traveled down a paranoid, nervous path, and was manipulated by a family friend who served as his doctor and main caregiver. Thankfully, he weathered the storm in large part to his future wife, and remarkably, still performs and entertains in 2015. His musical career began in the 1960’s.

The biopic features many of the well-known Beach Boys tunes to hum along to and to be entertained by, but is not a happy film, nor is it quite a downer either. It is somewhere in the middle of the two. It is a telling of the life story of a rock star. There is risk in this- If the film is too sentimental it will fail. Love and Mercy does it correctly. To be clear, the film is not a schmaltzy, sing along, trip down memory lane type of film for lighthearted film fans. Rather, it is dark, murky, troubling at times (the psychedelic scene when a young Brian is imagining different voices and noises in his head is rather frightening).

Wilson is played by two different actors, first in the 1960’s and later the 1980’s. Paul Dano stars as a young Wilson in the early stages of his career, filled with passion for life, art, and music, talented beyond belief, but clearly in the onset stages of paranoia, thanks in large part to his critical father, a demanding, angry man, quite possibly envious of Brian’s talents as a songwriter, who always wanted more from Brian. In fact, Wilson’s father managed Brian and his brothers to success, but at a huge cost and was ready to bail when the “next big thing” came along. Miraculously, through conflict with his father and other members of the band, Wilson was able to complete the Beach Boys masterpiece, Pet Sounds, a groundbreaking album from the late 1960’s. The film shows the struggles faced to achieve this success.

In later years John Cusack takes over the role of Brian. By this point in his life he is damaged and he is a full blown neurotic, insecure, and dependent on his psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti. Landy has control of Wilson’s assets and will destroy anyone who interferes in this. The scenes in which he screams at and berates a drugged out Brian Wilson to create music are tough to stomach. When Wilson romances future wife Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, she ultimately saves his life as she is determined to rescue Brian from the wicked abuse and adjust the toxic levels of medications he was kept on.

I left the movie theater unsure of the factual accuracy of the film and pondering the following questions. Did, in fact, Brian’s wife swoop into his life and “save” him as neatly as the film explains? How instrumental was the maid in this process? Was the Wilson brothers’ father as much as a monster as the movie portrayed him? Was Giamatti’s vicious psychotherapist role true to life or were the aforementioned aspects of Love and Mercy embellished ever so slightly for moviemaking magic? One wonders, but from a film perspective, Love and Mercy really works well as a work that takes risks, does not go for softness or niceness, and gives a character study that is quite admirable.

Wild-2014

Wild-2014

Director-Jean-Marc Vallee

Starring-Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

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Reviewed June 21, 2015

Grade: B+

Wild is a personal story of a young woman’s 1995 challenge to hike the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest trail as a form of therapy from her divorce and her recovery from drug addiction. The film stars Reese Witherspoon in a thoughtful biography of real-life figure, Cheryl Strayed, and is adapted from a novel entitled Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail. The film depicts Cheryl’s struggles to survive in the remote area of northern California throughout various weather patterns, and her interesting encounters with strangers along the way.

The film is clearly a showcase for Witherspoon as she takes center stage, appearing in almost every frame of the film. In fact, her producing the project undoubtedly has something to do with this. Regardless, it is a winning turn for Witherspoon as she is excellent. She portrays the role with vigor, emotional rawness, and vulnerability, that clearly comes across on-screen. She certainly deserved her Oscar nomination for this part. What sets her apart from other actresses who may have gotten this part is that Witherspoon is a small woman, which make her physical struggles to commandeer trails and wilderness while hauling a large backpack containing her necessities, believable.

Shot using many flashbacks of Cheryl’s life before the enormous hike, we are introduced to the character of Cheryl and her challenging life before. We know that she is a recovering addict, but we do not know what led to these events. Living in Minneapolis, she is very close to her mother Bobbi, played by Laura Dern, who tragically dies. This leads to a path of destructive behavior for Cheryl and ultimately to her divorce from her husband Paul, who is a decent man and periodically sends Cheryl care packages along her journey. The bond that Cheryl shares with her mother, a struggling woman herself, is deep. Bobbi has difficulties raising a family and striving to improve her education and her life and this is explored during the flashback scenes featuring Cheryl as a teenager.

I love the encounters that Cheryl faces along the trail and feel it adds depth to the film. Few and far between are these gems of interchange since she is mostly alone with nature, the characters are interesting. Alone in the dark and desperate for a meal, she flags down a farmer named Frank. At first it appears Frank may be dangerous and wielding a gun so Cheryl is wary as she goes home with him for dinner. Happily, Frank is married to a kindhearted woman named Annette, and the three of them enjoy a lovely, jovial feast. Later, she encounters a young boy whose mother has died. They bond as the boy sings a song to her that his mother used to sing to him, and when the boy leaves, Cheryl sobs in emotion for her own mother. These small snippets of real life conversations and togetherness make the film feel happy and we root for Cheryl to accomplish her enormous feat.

Thanks to a bravura performance by Witherspoon, Wild is much more than a woman surviving on her own in the wilderness. It is encased in quiet emotion, and understated supporting performances that give layers to a very human story.

Big Eyes-2014

Big Eyes-2014

Director-Tim Burton

Starring-Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz

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Reviewed January 18, 2015

Grade: B

Big Eyes tells the true story of Margaret Keane, a talented artist, famous for the “big eyes” waif collection, whose husband manipulated her and took credit for her works during the 1950’s and 1960’s. A con artist, he passed himself off as a talented artist, but in truth he scammed other artists and had no artistic talent of his own. He was also mentally unstable. Due to his charisma and ability to wine and dine influential people, combined with his marketing talents, he was able to make millions in profits from his wife’s art. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz portray Margaret and Walter Keane. Tim Burton directs the film.

Clearly Adams and Waltz are the main appeal in this film. They share a tremendous chemistry, both when they are courting one another and subsequently when they despise each other and fight a bitter divorce battle in court over the rights to Margaret’s paintings. I just love Christoph Waltz in whatever he appears in as his charisma and acting ability astound me. Adams is quite effective and believable as the passive, loyal, and talented Margaret Keane.

As compelling a performance as Adams gives, one issue I have with the film is that I personally do not feel as sympathetic towards Margaret Keane as the film probably intended. Certainly I like the character very much and was rooting for her in the courthouse scenes to be awarded rights to her own paintings and cheered when she escaped to Hawaii with her daughter to begin a new life. But, she willingly went along with her husbands plot, as they both decided a female artist would not sell like a man could (it was the 1950’s), and they were able to make millions from her art. They lived in a gorgeous house, had wonderful dinners, and were able to maintain an extravagant lifestyle- not so bad. It was not as if Walter stole all of her money and left her homeless. She enjoyed a nice lifestyle. So, my sympathy for her was effected.

A positive of Big Eyes is how Margaret continues to uncover Walter’s deceptions one by one. She first learns he has taken credit for her work- she then finds out that he is not even an artist and has conned another painter into giving Walter credit for their work. The buildup to these reveals is excellent.

The film is a change of pace for Tim Burton. Big Eyes is not a dark film and actually is quite bright and colorful. Some of the interesting sets and art direction are similar to some of his other works- Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice.

Big Eyes is an enjoyable film largely made successful by the talents and appeal of its two stars.

The Imitation Game-2014

The Imitation Game-2014

Director-Morten Tyldum

Starring-Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

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Reviewed January 15, 2015

Grade: A

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, a confident and brilliant British mathematician who was responsible for cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, which led to the Allied forces winning World War II. The film also delves into Turing’s complex and sad personal life and the audience grows to know his upbringing largely told via flashbacks as a small boy at boarding school. The film is tragic yet wonderfully made and is a powerful viewing experience in human storytelling.

The film really has two aspects going on. The first is the hiring of Turing by the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park to crack the code and the numerous struggles faced in accomplishing this feat. Turing is not an easy-going man- he is arrogant, quick witted, and even smug. However, through his friendship with Joan (Keira Knightley), an intelligent woman on the team of scholars, we see a human side to him as they forge a lifelong bond.

The other is of his personal life which is a bit more mysterious and comes more into play during the second half of the film. Keeping a secret about his personal life- he is homosexual, which in the time period the film is set (1940’s England), is illegal. Alan and Joan agree to marry, in large part to appease her parents, but circumstances change these plans.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays Turning, deserves heaps of praise for his impressive portrayal. He successfully gives depth and a wide range of emotions to the character. He begins as a self-centered man, but becomes layered, guarded, and protective due to his private life of which he is forced to hide a great deal of.

Keira Knightley’s character gives support to his Cumberbatch’s character of Alan as she becomes engaged to him and later in life becomes his biggest champion. Her character, besides being quite intelligent, is also kind and giving.

The ending of the film will give the viewer many tears and cause to think of the enormity of World War II in terms of the vast amount of casualties. The facts listed just before the credits roll are awe-inspiring and gut wrenching.

The Imitation Game is not a war movie per se as it does not deal with battle scenes. It is more of a drama dealing with the effects of war and many figures are presented and some of the characters are effected in a second hand way. For instance, in one scene, the group (led by Turing) must make a heartbreaking decision not to stop an impending attack, which will cause many deaths- including a characters brother- instead choosing to keep mum in order to save thousands more. It is a powerful scene.

The film successfully and heartbreakingly tells a story of a heroic figure who received no accolades while he was living, instead being ostracized and not until posthumously, did he receive his due. Sadly, this was too little too late.

The Theory of Everything-2014

The Theory of Everything-2014

Director-James Marsh

Starring-Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

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Reviewed December 2, 2014

Grade: A-

The Theory of Everything tells the uplifting true story of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) and his lifelong battle with a debilitating illness- motor neuron disease, which he was diagnosed with in college. He and his future wife, literature student Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones), meet in 1963 at the prestigious Cambridge University in England, and fall madly in love. From this point, the film focuses both on their life-long love affair and Stephen’s subsequent health battles.

Redmayne is wonderful in the lead role. Portraying a character with both speech and mobility deterioration is not an easy task, especially as the problems become worse and worse over time forcing the actor to portray varying levels of disability. Redmayne rises to the occasion with both believability and conviction making his portrayal as real as possible. The performance fondly reminded me of another great physical performance- that of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot from 1989. Redmayne is certainly a rising star in Hollywood. Felicity Jones is also very good- though I personally feel many actresses could have handled the role and there is certainly not as much meat in her part as Redmayne’s. The remainder of the cast is comprised of very British actors making the film authentic feeling. Emily Watson, who plays Jane’s mother, shamefully receives only one scene- was this talented actress’s role cut? One wonders.

I get the sense that the filmmakers had Oscar on the mind as the film certainly is geared towards mainstream audiences with a wholesome slant to it. The film skims past the complex theories and mathematical aspects-sure to confuse most- and focuses more on the inspirational tale of a person overcoming an immense challenge. Furthermore, the subsequent quadrangle between Hawking, Jane, Jane’s choir leader (Jonathan), and Hawking’s nurse (Elaine) is very toned down and safe from what apparently transpired- Hawking’s family accused his nurse of abusing him which is never mentioned in the film. In fact, the film presents their relationship as wonderful, so clearly some facts have been softened or omitted altogether- another example of how the film goes for a moral feel. Apparently, the situation involving the four real-life characters was messy, but the film makes it seem sweet- presumably this is because all the characters are still alive. This is an interesting aspect of the film and is not necessarily a criticism as much as a perception- certainly many films embellish reality for entertainment value.

A few thoughts I was left pondering- the pairing of Jane and Jonathan seemed inevitable to me from the moment they laid eyes on each other- they had much in common (religion), whereas Stephen and Jane were complete opposites- she catholic, he atheist. The sexual chemistry between Stephen and Elaine was evident from the moment they laid eyes on each other. Elaine’s energetic sexiness perfectly contrasted with Jane’s-at that point in the film- haggardness and weariness.

The film is not designed to be a downer as it very well could have been- the focus might have been more downtrodden than it was. Rather, it is sentimental and empowering. The Theory of Everything is a heartwarming, conventional, human story about a man rising above adversity and at the center of the film is one dynamic performance by Eddie Redmayne.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom-2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom-2013

Director-Justin Chadwick

Starring-Idris Elba, Naomie Harris

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Reviewed September 13, 2014

Grade: B

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom recounts the true story of the life and times of South African leader Nelson Mandela chronicling 50 plus years of his life from 1942 to 1994, his passion for freedom and dedication to anti-apartheid, his battles with the government, and his struggles to survive in prison. The film is shot beautifully, the cinematography gorgeous, and the South African landscape is breathtaking.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who play Nelson Mandela and his second wife Winnie respectively and Elba, in particular, is very well cast. He is charismatic, handsome, and calm, and perfectly encompasses the famous leader’s mannerisms. It was interesting to be exposed to a biopic that spanned such a lengthy period of time and, in a way, is a history lesson for the viewer, especially viewer’s young enough not to completely remember all the details of Mandela’s life. I was too young to know of all of Mandela’s trials and tribulations. For example, I knew he was imprisoned and released, but had no idea of how long he had actually spent in prison and away from his wife and family. I got the sense that factually, some details were either embellished or skipped over entirely. I’ve heard this criticism from some moviegoers regarding Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

A few drawbacks- this film is VERY Hollywood. It has a glossy feel to it. I would have preferred a bit more grit to it. Was there any sexual abuse while Mandela was imprisoned? Was Winnie abused while she was in prison? Why was the lack of sexuality in Mandela’s and Winnie’s marriage in later years alluded to, but never explored? This seemed to be a negative to the film. Being that the film is rated PG-13, aspects are toned down and it has a very safe feel. Also, for such a perfectly shot and designed film, the aging makeup was absolutely dreadful! It was apparent that Idris Elba was wearing a glued on, unflattering grey wig. Furthermore, the woman playing Mandela’s mother was surely the same age if not younger than Elba, with dyed grey hair. This aspect seemed poorly produced.

Overall, Mandela: A Long Walk Freedom is a good film, largely due to its acting and the look of the film, but it is not a great one.