September 30, 2013 at 11:33 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This film rose well above my expectations for one simple reason: cinematography.  I am a very visual person (that’s why I love movies, after all) but I don’t remember ever feeling that so much of a film’s worth rested on the skills of it’s cinematographer.  Anthony Dod Mantel (“127 hours,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) has a remarkable eye for what this movies needs to come alive. The story of rivals in a hyper-masculine field is hardly a new one in Hollywood and car films are a-dime-a-dozen. Likewise, Chris Hemsworth (“Thor,” “The Avengers”) and Daniel Brühl (“Goodbye Lenin”) do fine jobs in the lead roles but are hardly outstanding; of course, roguish masculinity hardly requires great depths of acting.  The story moves along exactly as we know it must without ever missing a beat.  There are no real surprises here.  In plot, at least.  What did surprise me was how tense those racing scenes were.  They were all so beautifully shot that they were both stunning to watch and really effective at amping up the adrenaline.  I loved every minute those men were in their cars: the close ups, the camera angles at ground level on the edge of the track, the internal shots of the engines, the stunning scenes in the rain… I could go on.  I really really enjoyed this movie and it is entirely because of how it was shot.  Definitely see it on the big screen, if you can.  This was a thrilling and fun adventure and I’m glad I went along for the ride.


Inequality for All

September 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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It is a tricky debate about whether or not a documentary needs to be seen in the theater.  It certainly doesn’t gain anything from the big screen or Dolby Surround Sound.  Perhaps, you might go for the audience interaction; the vibe of the crowd.  This is a tricky proposition, as I learned last night at my screening of “Inequality for All.”  This film centers entirely on Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, who had also served in the Carter and Ford administrations.  Reich is a brilliant, articulate and funny speaker and the film consists entirely of him explaining his particular view of economics and the growing class disparity in this country.  Using very clear graphs, well thought-out arguments and personal stories, he carefully outlines how the middle class has been disappearing in this country since the last 70s, explains why he thinks this is the case and what the costs have been.  It is a cogent and convincing argument.  It’s an argument that I think most American’s know nothing about, explained in a way that almost all of them would understand.  I said understand, not agree.  One of the things Reich points out is that political polarization increases during times of economic disparity.  He remains far more optimistic than I am; I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who really need to see this movie would be swayed out of their partisan stupors long enough to let it sink in.  Unfortunately, this film will be watched (when it’s watched at all) in theaters that are largely as partisan as mine was.  Frankly, I’m not sure what would be a bigger turn off: a theater full of conservatives catcalling and deriding the film or my experience of a theater full of liberals whooping and “amen”ing the screen or hissing every time a Republican appeared.  In either case, there is very little swaying of minds going on.  So, see it.  Really, really.  This film is worth seeing.  Just maybe in your own living room.  Preferably with a group of folks who respect each other but sit on different sides of the ideological divide, so you can discuss and debate it afterwards.  Perhaps that’s where real insight can occur.


September 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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I was a big fan of director Denis Villeneuve’s last film, “Incendies” (you can see my review here).  As dark as that one was, I knew “Prisoners” was not going to be a light romp.  True to form, Villeneuve has created another harrowing tale.  This one involves two missing young girls, an out-of-control father and a possible suspect.  As you might imagine, things don’t go well.  Be warned, this film is disturbingly violent in parts, though most of the physical violence occurs off screen and we only see the aftermath of it.  The psychological violence is another matter; that is on full display throughout.  The film has a fine cast of actors including Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and the brilliant Melissa Leo.  Paul Dano puts in another fine performance as the not-quite-there suspect; he manages to imbue a very passive character with no small amount of creepiness.   However, the film really revolves around Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the father and the investigating officer, respectively.  Jackman does a fine job but anger seems to be his go to emotion on screen (or perhaps I am just influenced by the fact that “Wolverine” is pretty much the only character I have seen him play).  I was more impressed during the moments when fear, worry and something close to regret were present.  I was actually more taken by Gyllenhaal’s performance as the twitchy, driven cop who seemed haunted by a back story we didn’t know but was none-the-less present in his performance.  I also loved the cinematography that was haunting at times, especially during a racing car scene through the snow.  The plot had twists and turns and, while the clues were all there, I never figured any of them out until a few moments before they were revealed (unlike “Incendies”).  I really like to be able to say, “Oh, I should have seen that coming but didn’t” and this film did that for me.  It was not without it’s flaws.  I was mostly disappointed that it did not wade into more morally ambivalent territory.  I had expected that and there was plenty of opportunity here but, in the end, I think the film makes it clear what we are supposed to think about all the characters and their actions.  I don’t imagine too many people debating with their friends about it afterwards.  Too bad; that lost opportunity would have made this a great film instead of just a really good thriller.

20 Feet From Stardom

September 15, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This is one of those films that is very hard for me to rate because I can see the value in it, even if I did not particularly get much out of it.  As much as I enjoy music, I don’t have an ear for it.  I could not tell you when a person is singing in-tune or out-of-tune; it all sounds the same to me.  Honestly.  So, what do I do?  Do I rate it based on my experience or on what I think other’s might feel?  I’ve decided to split the difference.  What I can tell you is that this documentary had some amazing singing in it.  Director Morgan Neville wants to teach the lay person about all the great work done by African American backup singers over the last 50 years.  We get interviews with some of legends in the field.  When I say legends, I mean that they are well known, respected and adored by the music gods we are all familiar with.  It is interesting to hear that people like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Judith Hill, and The Waters Family (none of whom are known at all outside of music circles) are big names who are highly sought after by artists as big as David Bowie and Ray Charles. Some of those artists (Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow) were also interviewed for the film. Here’s the problem: these women’s stories are never given to us in enough detail to be truly interesting.  They clearly struggled, faced depression, poverty and discrimination but, unlike last year’s brilliant “Searching for Sugarman,” we don’t get any one person’s story enough to feel the impact.  When the film let’s its singers sing, it is at it’s best. This is especially true when the mesmerizing Lisa Fischer is on the screen. However, the rest of the time, it drags a bit. In the end, it lacked narrative and, without that, it was just a series of beautiful songs sung by a series of beautiful and under-appreciated women.

The Grandmaster

September 3, 2013 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

I confess at the front that I am not much of a fan of director Wong Kar-Wai (“My Blueberry Nights,” “2046”).  I tend to find his films to be painfully slow and profoundly beautiful.  That is really the crux of what I have to say about this film.  It purports to tell the story of Ip Man, the Chinese Kung-Fu master of the early 20th Century, who went on to train Bruce Lee.  However, it would appear that there is little in his life that is all that exciting.  So, what we get instead of a cogent, linear and/or interesting story is a series of vignettes, often out of chronological order, involving various key folks in Kung-Fu at the time.  They are rivals and they occasionally fight.  The fighting, when it occurs, is absolutely beautiful.  It is choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen, who is famous for choreographing the “Kill Bill” series and many of the classic Kung-Fu movies of the 1970s.  These scenes are dynamic and graceful and full of amazing cinematography.  Would that that were enough.  But, without the cogent plot like these other films (or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero”) it was hard to really care about the action when it arrived.  In the end, I felt too disconnected to care and the film felt like one long (too long) pretty picture.

Short Term 12

September 3, 2013 at 10:51 am | Posted in 2013 | 2 Comments
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I am not one to get overly emotional during a film but this one touched me really deeply, perhaps because of my years of experience with kids like these.  The story covers what appears to be a few months in the lives of the kids and staff at a group home.  It focuses primarily on two staff members, Grace & Mason, played by Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr and two of the residents, Marcus and Jayden, played by Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever.  Grace & Mason are a young couple, both of whom have been drawn to this work because of their own life experiences. Marcus and Jayden are two deeply troubled kids who can’t figure out how to communicate their pain.   What happens along the story arc is fairly predictable but this isn’t a detective story and doesn’t need to surprise the audience.  Instead, it shows a sort of truth that is often missing in film.  Every one of these characters is so fully realized and believable (with the possible exception of the program manager who is a bit of a one-dimensional stereotype; fortunately, his role is small).  This is a cast of basic unknowns.  The most well-known actor, Larson, has done bit parts in films like “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World” and “21 Jump Street”. Gallagher is known primarily for his role in HBO’s “The Newsroom”.  Dever has also done some small bit work and this is Stanfield’s first feature length film (he was also in the the short film that this movie was based on).  Yet all of these actors do a fantastic job of portraying their characters’ humor, pain, strength and vulnerability.  I loved watching them inhabit these people so fully.  Having worked with emotionally disturbed kids, I can tell you there is real truth in how these kids act on screen.  If I have one complaint, it is that problems resolve a bit too quickly and things wrap up a bit too neatly.  It’s an understandable conceit for a Hollywood movie that is striving for the mainstream but, to my mind, it keeps this really good film from being a great one.

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