The Movies I Did Like: Enough Said, Philomena & American Hustle


Let it not be said that I only have critical and ambivalent in my repertoire.  There were 3 movies I liked so far (Dallas Buyers Club falls into my just okay category, though Jared Leto was FAB).  Here’s what I have to say about them:

Enough Said:  The star of Enough Said is writer/director Nicole Holofcener.  I don’t mean that the actors weren’t good.  But Nicole Holofcener is that rare voice in contemporary film-making: female-centered, blindingly intelligent, razing open the field of perception with attention to the details of ordinary lives and relationships.

The history of women-centered work contains within it these factors–the women are foregrounded instead of left in the background of men’s lives, domestic life is more the focus than the grand sweep of war, espionage, finance, etc., and sharp observation of relationships takes the place of more traditional plot builds with big dramatic events.  Think Pride and Prejudice vs. War and Peace.  Jane Austen, confined by her sex to the experience and observation of the lives around her, found within the details of those lives all the moral and spiritual questions that human beings face.  And she told her stories with wit.

The highest praise I can give Nicole Holofcener is to say that she is the Jane Austen of contemporary film-making.  Her work focuses very much on daily life, on relationships and intimacy–and make no mistake, her work contains real violence, though her violence reveals itself through words and decisions instead of guns and bombs.  What I love is that you can hear the audience moan and cringe as characters betray themselves and each other–she makes it that poignant and painful.

Enough Said is the story of Eva, a massage therapist and divorcee, who meets a man she actually likes.  Almost anything I say beyond that is a spoiler, so suffice it to say that the revelation and connection, the wit, the betrayals, the insight into criticism as violence and fear as the sabotager of love forces all of us to look at ourselves.  Julia Louise Dreyfus surprises with the best work I’ve ever seen her do, Catherine Keener is…well, Catherine Keener (she’s in every single one of Holofcener’s films), and James Gandolfini is charming and sweet–he’s my type (personally and romantically) and a Meisner actor so I was in love with him already and am sad that he can’t show us ourselves any longer.

The writing and directing are excellent from start to finish, and while none of the performances are perfect, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.  This is the smartest movie out this season–like Jane Austen, a combination of insight, wit, and heartbreak.  A+++.

Philomena:  Here, I will start with acting.  Judi Dench is my favorite actress.  Period.  I fantasize about writing a script for her and casting myself so I can sit across from her for one minute.  I’m jealous that Steve Coogan actually got to do that.

Dame Judi Dench’s acting in Philomena stands out as fully human.  Now, I didn’t think her Irish accent was impeccable, especially in the beginning of the film.  And, looking back, I spent some time confused about her origins in general.  (Mind you, I saw the film with a friend of mine from Ireland, and he said, “As a native speaker, I have to say that the accent mistakes were few, and the work she did to be physically smaller, with the gestures of an Irish woman of that generation, were perfect.”  He also said he’d be willing to, “Watch that woman fold her underwear,” so I think he might love Judi Dench even more than I do if that’s possible.  I was more critical.)

Anyhow, I think character work, as defined as taking on the accent, physicality and gestures of someone of a certain ethnicity or social background, is tougher than people think.  As the film went on, I believed more and more in Judi Dench’s choices, and in her Irishness.  What I love is that she knows how to inhabit a character in a way that is calibrated–she doesn’t expect the mannerisms and accent to do the work for her, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about them (as, this season, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep did).  She does just enough, and her ability to be fully human never falters.  I was silently screaming for the bad to not happen because I was so on her side in Philomena, my heart broke with her, and I could feel, from the screen, her suffering…and I joined it, because I couldn’t not.  I can’t tell you how rare I find this to be, and how, finding it, how little I’m willing to settle for anything else.

Of course, the movie itself, the writing especially, fell short of Nicole Holofcener’s kind of insight.  I have to question whether this is intrinsic to the creation of the bio-pic.  I just never accepted Philomena’s forgiveness or practice of the religion that had harmed her–I never accepted the world view of the movie.  I find this to be true in bio-pics, especially if the subject is 1) still alive or 2) beloved and famous.  I occasionally fell out of the movie saying, “Come on!  People just aren’t like that!”  And whether it’s the fault of the genre or the writing itself, which could, I would argue, have convinced me if it was better done, the fact remains that I fell out of the movie.  Can’t blame Judi Dench–it was the words, not her delivery, that made me fall out.

Still, I spent much more time fully engaged than outside the story thinking about its lack of understanding of human reactions.  And Steve Coogan was smart enough to strongly develop the polarized points-of-view about forgiveness, letting go and injustice, and then bring them together, so that I couldn’t and didn’t want to write off the movie as a whole.  Irish nuns, unwed mothers, a search for family…it’s great stuff for a story, and the movie came so close to making sense of a big human question.  Since I have a personal interest in the nature of forgiveness–which I still regularly seek to understand–I wish it had said more, but it was very, very good.  A-.

American Hustle:  Here’s the scoop on American Hustle–fantastic ensemble, standout performances by Christian Bale (he’s one of the best alive) and Amy Adams, interesting and multi-layered conflicts, a strong female lead in a story about con men, FBI, politicians and the mob–what’s not to like?  This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, and there are points in which you truly have no idea how anything is going to resolve–it could go one of many ways.  Perhaps that’s the rarest experience with American Hustle–that someone like me, who can sit in a movie and state, out loud, where the story is at in the screenplay format (plot point 1, pinch point 2), became so engrossed all I could think was, “Where is this going?”

So perhaps the star here is David O. Russell, who takes the crime genre somewhere new and original, and even includes some of the detailed emotional violence that Nicole Holofcener describes (in a very different world).  The psychological assault implicit in the cons, the lies, the betrayals and the stupidity, makes the story and characters relatable even while the world is over the top.  I love David O. Russell’s vision in general–it’s psychologically dark, and very contemporary–always aware of mental illness and fragility in a modern way, always understanding the power of love to save us, always understanding how we want to take revenge when those we love hurt us.  I like him best when he’s inside the screwed up ways people relate and dislike him most when he ends his dark movies happily and betrays his own stories (I loved Silver Linings Playbook except for the stupid dance contest and how that ends the movie).  In American Hustle the film-making and shots, the style of the acting, go fully frantic (like the sports fanaticism in Silver Linings Playbook), ramping up the pace, the stakes and the excitement to a mad sort of suspense.  The ending this time is mixed–good people suffer and other people go free.  I have referenced this movie over and over in my other blogs because I found it to be artistically impressive and innovative.  I hope David O. Russell stays true to his own vision, because like Nicole Holofcener, he has a strong point-of-view and real insight into human relationships.  A++.

 

 

 

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Review: This Season with Jennifer Lawrence


Last year she completely blew me away with both The Hunger Games and with Silver Linings Playbook.  This year, not so much.

Mind you, Jennifer Lawrence is an actress of commitment and passion.  That hasn’t changed.  She’s vitally alive.  So what was the difference between winter 2012 and winter 2013?  I mean, she did a sequel to the Hunger Games and worked with David O. Russell again on American Hustle.  She’s nominated again.

Only I don’t think she should be.

And here it is.  I’m reminded of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie, which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  Marisa Tomei played that role with the same kind of commitment and passion that Lawrence brings to her work.  The difference is that Marisa Tomei, as Mona Lisa Vito, was right for the role.  She has a New York accent, she had the physicality, she had not one millisecond that wasn’t completely believable. You couldn’t and can’t think of that movie without saying Wow about her.  Wow, wow, wow.  She deserved that Oscar.

Now, in American Hustle (a much better movie than My Cousin Vinnie) Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld with commitment and passion.  I understand that many (if not all) of the scenes were improvised–and she has a kind of wildness that is right for the character and the tone of the movie.  But I was aware she was Jennifer Lawrence the whole time, and I kept thinking about nuances that didn’t seem believable–and that she looked kind of young for the part.  See, when an actor is not thinking, then I’m just believing.  I didn’t believe.  Sorry, Jennifer.  And I also didn’t find the kind of chemistry with the other actors…Jennifer Lawrence started to look more like Meryl Streep, so involved in character work the other actors often became…well people to act at, rather than respond to.

I wish I had better things to say about the Hunger Games.  Now, I didn’t like the movie Mockingjay as well as Catching Fire, and this was true of the books as well.  In Book One, Katniss has something to fight for–her own life as well as her own soul.  There are great dramatic questions–how much will she betray herself to survive and will she survive?  In Book Two, her life is at stake again, but since we’ve already been-there-done-that, and since she’s not willing to participate in any creative or collaborative strategy with Peeta or the other tributes because she has PTSD and is actually fairly debilitated, the dramatic question is simply this–what’s the dramatic question?

This leaves an actor at a bit of a loss, especially if commitment and passion are that actor’s strengths.  Jennifer Lawrence seems like a victim, and it’s hard to be on her side–other people are fighting so much harder.  This is in the writing, but it makes Lawrence look bad…and, to contrast with another actor again, think Mary Louise Parker, who can make any moment interesting because you know she’s always trying to figure something out.  Katniss doesn’t have much to do or much forward motion, which is a real problem for an actor.  Jennifer Lawrence didn’t figure it out well.  She didn’t bring Parker’s kind of inner life and struggle to the role…which was the only thing that could have saved it from the writing.

I’m sure she’ll be great again…she’s a major talent.  But this wasn’t her year.

PS–Amy Adams was FAB in American Hustle (as was Christian Bale) and I liked Jemma Malone in Hunger Games better than I’ve liked her anything, ever.

Movie Reviews: Captain Phillips and Nebraska


Tom Hanks again.  Really.

Actually I liked him much better as Captain Phillips than as Walt Disney, which is not to say that I liked him all that much.  I didn’t.  But I didn’t like the writing or the movie much either, so there we go.

Why is this nominated for any awards?  I don’t get it.

Here’s what I have to say:  if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.  It tells pretty much the entire story, because there’s really not much story.  And what the trailer hints at–some kind of interesting Stockholm syndrome (identifying with one’s captors) relationship that reveals twisted and connected humanity under the worst circumstances–the movie fails to deliver.

Enough said, really.  It was a nothing of a movie.  If you want suspense this season, see American Hustle.  There’s story, humanity, originality, wildly spontaneous acting.  In this…well, Hanks has a one good scene at the end, and Barkhad Adbi is great throughout, but it’s just not enough.  At all.

In comparison, Nebraska is excellent.  And, Nebraska is just excellent, period.  It’s very funny, and I love the way it sometimes just lets an image say so much.  For example, there’s a long held moment of the men in the family watching television.  None of them are reacting to the game–they are just all watching.  And you know everything about this family, and how men are taught to be, and how absurd it is, and it’s hilarious.  And brilliant.

This is a movie that’s incredibly human, very funny, original in the corner of the world it reveals, aching in what it says about the meaningless and meaning of human life, and truly touching.  I love that it’s in black and white, I love the slowness of the action and the way it lets you really see the characters and who they are.  See it.  Vote for it.  I mean, okay, there’s no star performance like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, but sometimes an ensemble working so well, and a writer/director having something real to say make a movie just as good.  Or better.  Nebraska is that movie.

Leo Does It in “The Wolf of Wall Street”


Leonardo DiCaprio gave what I have always thought of as the performance of his career in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  Since then he’s always been a little studied–you can see him thinking.  Not this time!  Get this–not only does he absolutely nail the charisma, the magnetism, the shallowness, the lust and debauchery, but he does one of the best physical comedy sequences I’ve ever seen.  I was howling laughing in this movie, and definitely in the delayed reaction qualude scene.  He should win an Oscar.  Christian Bale has more layering and depth in American Hustle, and I absolutely don’t care (since these are the things I care most about, that’s saying something).  There are people who should be movie stars for the sheer force of their performance power, and The Wolf of Wall Street proves that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those people.

Then, there’s Scorcese.  The use of camera angles, voice over, monologue to camera, quick cuts, infomercials–he is a brilliant director and brilliant in how he uses the camera.

BUT.  And there is a but.  This movie shows the greed at the heart of capitalism, the drunk-with-power Wall Street success stories, and it disturbingly made me want part of that story.  No problem so far.  But the sex–all the beautiful and very nude women, the graphic nature of the sex, the overpowering lust, and the abundance of those scenes, made me feel sick.  It was like watching pornography.  And on one hand, that’s kind of the point of the lives these men lead, and how incapable they are of any love, and women are just holes to them, and even sex is a way to bond with and compete with other men, who are the only people that matter.  But on the other hand, the women looked like they were enjoying it, and so did the men.  Contrasted with Oliver Stone’s film, Wall Street, in which the emptiness and betrayal of self, the lack of morality, tells on people and their relationships, Scorcese’s film made it all look kind of fun.  Unless, of course, you’d lived any part of it (my grandfather was rich and my uncles were a bit like these men) and then you might bring a little more information to the party and just want to puke.

The film is so well made, and DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are unbelievably brilliant, but I’m not sure the message is that greed is bad.  At the end, we’re offered a colorless and miserable contrast of normal people compared to the wild animalism of what we’ve seen so far…and it makes the animalism look appealing.  And though the film offers nothing of depth about women, and makes abject objectification titillating, its sexism is countered by its self-aware portrayal of sexism…you see my dilemma and intense ambivalence.  I’m watching pornography that knows it’s pornography and degrading, and wants to say that, but it’s also made to be appealing and funny.  Basically, pukeville for women.

However, if Scorcese is intending to reach us and change us, I can say two things:  1) if that’s what sex was really like, I’d never have sex again (I thank whatever/whoever it doesn’t have to be) and 2) I’m seriously thinking of selling all my stocks and moving into a Buddhist monastery to get as far away from capitalism as possible.  I might not be able to resist the temptation of the get-rich-quick fantasy otherwise.

Disturbing.  But worth seeing.  If you don’t mind wanting to puke at knowing that some women really live these lives.

August Osage County: Review


I don’t get it.

I mean I seriously don’t get it.

I saw this play on Broadway, interested mostly because it came out of Steppenwolf, which meant Meisner actors.  I was disappointed then.  And irritated.  Very irritated.

Nothing much has changed, except that the writing in the movie is much worse.  (I watched because I vote for the SAG awards and it was free.)

I know, the play won a Pulitzer.  But I’m damned if anyone can tell me why.  It’s a Southern melodrama, slightly modernized, but utilizing so many cliches I can’t see the point of even watching.  I find the incest cliche/revelation so boring and insulting.  I mean, Lone Star did it so much better, and in that movie, which I loved, I cared about the characters and what they were going to do.  In this one, I was like, bummer for them.  Yawn.

So, I don’t like the writing.  Meaning that I don’t like the structure, and while I LOVE family as subject, I expect a contemporary writer to give me something new.  Tracy Letts doesn’t.  But at least in the play there was some pathos, something at stake for the characters, some hope of reconciliation, some hope the mother might not be quite as terrible as she seems.  In the movie, there are almost no stakes at all.  Which means, quite literally, snooze.  My partner and I both fell asleep and had to keep waking each other up.  And we were both super curious about Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts working together, and about Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Cooper (we’re in love with both of them).  Still, zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Mind you, these are good and great actors, and no one did a bad job.  Julia Roberts did okay, and I’ve been holding out hope that as she gets older and holds out for more substantive roles (which she seems to be doing), she’ll rediscover her early promise–because she had mad chops as well as charisma in Mystic Pizza.  Of course, the big dinner scene was dominated by Meryl doing her character actor thing, and no one does it better (except perhaps Chris Cooper, who held his own better than anyone else with very few lines).  Of course, Meryl hit every character note, and even made Violet, who is crazy mean, charming at times, which was a nice touch.  I’m still not a huge Meryl fan, because she doesn’t make me care and doesn’t seem to have chemistry with most of her colleagues, but she shone in her dinner monologue with interruptions.  She’s a solo performer in ensemble, so it was a great scene for her.  One could even hope that Julia would take note that it’s okay to be both charming and miserable at the same time.  That’s the problem with the acting as well as the writing in the movie–these people are living at rock bottom, they’ve already lost and they know it, and their fighting seems a feature of their lives rather than an exception.  It’s like, whatever is the worst behavior, they’ll do it.  (There is one wonderful surprise in the movie with a shovel, but I won’t ruin it for you.)

Anyhow, in a season of some very good movies indeed, I’d give this one a pass.  Glad I saw it for free!  (Instead, see American Hustle, arguably David O. Russell’s best…or Philomena, or Enough Said.)

Happy New Year!

Saving Mr. Banks: My Review


The thing about the “good” Hollywood movies is that the world view they offer is so in the common pool, and usually terrifically biased.  This doesn’t mean they don’t feature excellent performances; they often do.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t shot beautifully; they are.  But the lack of subtlety and intellectual sophistication, the uncomplicated world view, undermines much of what Hollywood has to offer.

This is all true about Saving Mr. Banks.  The story of Mrs. Travers, played by the admirable Emma Thompson with subtlety and complication, nevertheless shows her as nothing short of a difficult bitch for almost the entire film.  The story then goes on to explain her difficult bitchiness with moving scenes of her tragic childhood in Australia.  You might say that this offers a level of complication, but the problem is that it gives us an American understanding–we’re difficult because of our difficult childhoods.  Psychologizing ourselves, we rest easy that we understand.

Now, there was a great deal of pathos in the revelations of Mrs. Travers/Helen Goff’s childhood, don’t get me wrong.  I cried.  I related.  But I also fumed at Tom Hanks’ super genial nearly perfect Mr. Disney (call him Walt).  The writing led us to see the story as an explanation of a difficult woman, and though our sympathy toward her grew, we were always firmly on Walt Disney’s (and therefore Hollywood’s) side.

This may sound like a truly negative review, but what I mean to say is that this film, like most films coming out of Hollywood, frustrates me.  The film is about artistic collaboration, in the end, or should be.  And there is great truth in the difficulty of bringing an original artist into a collaboration with an unlike aesthetic.  Mrs. Travers came into the collaboration with a dislike of Disney’s cartoons, his lack of subtlety, his artistic stamp….and the only reason she came was for the money, which she desperately needed.  Add to this the deeply personal underpinnings of the story, and you have a recipe for disaster.  I should know, by the way, since I have done this, twice.

What the film is missing is the exploration of the artistic conflict.  If it had questioned Disney’s aesthetic instead of championing it, if it had revealed the final product of Mary Poppins as a strange mixture of Travers’ need for pathos and the cartoon/Hollywood easy answer style of Disney, it would have been a great movie.  But instead, it only personalized the conflict–and while you eventually understand that both Disney and Travers are trying to tell the story of their very different fathers (which is interesting), Tom Hanks’ playing of Disney as relentlessly likable made this admission on his part just…more Hollywood vanilla.  More easy answers.

I left the movie feeling moved, but also wanting to stomp my feet and go write a story about artistic collaboration and the way conflicting aesthetics and a director/producer’s need to tell one story and the writer’s need to tell another create an angst-driven mess.  In the end, it’s always whose world view will win.  Disney won in the making of the movie (Mrs. Travers never did like the film Mary Poppins), and he won in the portrayal here.  Problem is, that isn’t fundamentally interesting.

Ted OR Talking Bears Have Sex Too


There’s something admirable about making a movie so self-indulgent you put in anything funny that occurs to you.  It’s kind of like….well, writing this blog.

It’s also fun to see a movie set in Beantown, with some Boston accents, and with extras you recognize as your colleagues and students.

And, frankly, the bear is great.  If it were me, I’d get rid of the love story and just make it the bear’s one man show (the movie kind of IS Seth McFarlane’s one man show as he’s the writer, director and plays Ted).  Because everything that Seth McFarlane makes that bear do is so unexpected and funny, the bear is the one to watch.

Outside of that, the movie kind of sucks.  I’ve become pretty ambivalent about Marky Mark since The Fighter (in which he was so wooden they really could have picked him up and moved him around).  I retain this ambivalence after seeing Ted, because he looks like he’s only kissing Mila Kunis because the director told him to.  MILA KUNIS?!*!  She is incredibly hot!  What is the matter with him?  He has much better chemistry with the bear, even though I can kind of tell he’s looking at nothing some of the time.  His best moment in the movie is when he does the run through of girls names in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion.  Personally, I think Matt Damon would have killed in this part.  Marky Mark…well, I’m beginning to wonder if he can act.  (Though I liked him in I Heart Huckabees.)

Mila Kunis–well, she just doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie.  Her character is poorly written, she’s playing to a romantic opposite who is completely unconvincing, and while looking at her remains truly enjoyable, and you can tell she can really act, well, like I said.  She doesn’t have much to do.

Here’s the spoiler:  watching a teddy bear hump everything in sight, constantly smoke a bong, have sex in the back of a grocery store with the hot blonde clerk, do coke, swear more than any character maybe ever and speak with a heavy Boston accent…is just kind of great.  The fart jokes, the politically incorrect thread that runs through the movie, and watching Giovanni Ribisi bump and grind (his character is gay) as well as be a psycho teddy bear stalker is also sort of fun.  If relatively stupid once you’re in on the joke.

Truthfully, I wish we’d gone to see another movie.  I love stadium seating and on major holidays my partner and I love to do movie lowbrow, but really, the Kendall called to us and we didn’t listen.  Plus, I have decided that I no longer agree with Roger Ebert about anything, since he gave this movie 4 stars.  I’d give it 2.  Or maybe 1.5.

Next up:  Brave in 3d?  Or a trip to the Kendall to see any of the several indies that just look really good?  If the weekend is a scorcher, you’ll find out.